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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Simplifying the world, i.e., racism

Nothing about the world in which we live is simple. Whether we are talking about the physical laws underlying the universe, the biological and evolutionary processes determining life on earth, or the complex psychosocial world of human behaviour... Everything is very messy and very complicated.

Part of the scientific method involves simplifying certain complex processes so that they can be partially understood. For example, in order to model complex processes such as weather patterns or climate, simplifications are made. It is impossible to account for every variable, so some attempt is made to identify the most important factors. In experimental science, hypotheses are tested under controlled conditions, as much as possible. This means that conditions are created in which only one or a few variables can influence the outcome of the experiment. This is an attempt to exclude the many thousands of other factors that can influence events in uncontrolled conditions. Science always arrives at a simplified view of reality. This is a necessary and constructive process, without which we would be floundering in the chaos that is reality.

Human beings take the same approach in the psychosocial realm: we generalise and simplify. We give things names and we group them together. Consider an object with four legs supporting a level platform above the ground. There are a vast number of such objects, and it would be utter chaos if every single one of them had to be assigned its own, unique name. So we generalise, we draw out common features, and all such objects we designate by the term ‘table’. We are even able to accommodate objects with more or fewer legs under the same term. This is a very useful exercise.

Nevertheless, having carried out this procedure, we do not then draw the incorrect conclusion that all tables are the same. Nor do we think that we have completely and comprehensively defined an object by calling it a table. Is it a wooden table or a plastic table or a metal table? Is it round or is it square? How tall or long is it? What colour is it? We are able to accommodate these differences and acknowledge and value these nuances within the framework of ‘table’. When it suits us, we can do that.

We can also choose not to.

Racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ are cases in which we choose not to.

In such cases we choose to ignore or devalue the differences and nuances, and convince ourselves that all ‘tables’ are the same. Once a ‘table’, always a ‘table’. A ‘table’ never changes its... erm... spots. You can never trust a ‘table’. I’m not furniturist, but, you know, it’s not fair that ‘tables’ get get all the tablecloths.

We need structure in the world, and names and categories help provide some of that structure. Unfortunately, we abuse such structures when it suits us, when it becomes convenient to ignore difference and nuance, to score political points. I’m not even the same as me from one day to the next, so it is silly in the extreme to think that all ‘tables’ are the same.

At its best, science recognises that its knowledge of the world is provisional. What we know and understand today is only an approximation of what the world is really like. Furthermore, it is the exceptions, the counter-examples—the things that don’t quite fit in the box—that serve to expand our knowledge of the world. In the myth of the Garden of Eden, God gave to Adam the task of naming all the animals. But naming something is only the beginning, not the end, of fully understanding and appreciating it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Literary fiction has not gone entirely the way of the dodo.

I recently read The Luminaries (Granta), the very long and complex novel by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It’s a very well-written book, although not one that I particularly enjoyed. The reason I mention it here is because it pleases me to think that a book of this type—some 832 pages in length, written in a pseudo-Victorian style, with a very complex formal structure—can find a publisher in this day and age. It can go on to win major literary awards, and also sell quite well. It’s not a best-seller, I guess, in that it probably did not make the NYT best-seller list—if it did, please correct me—and it may not have reached the Amazon top 100—again correct me if I am wrong. But I believe that as of August this year it had sold well in excess of half a million copies. I wouldn’t be whinging if one of my books sold a tenth as many.

I also recently read Burial Rites (Picador) by Hannah Kent, another novel which would hardly be considered mainstream or commercial. Again, it is great that there are still publishers willing to invest in books which have artistic merit, without necessarily having guaranteed market success. Having said that, I think a movie of Burial Rites is at least in the development stage; I believe a mini-series is planned for The Luminaries. So there is probably even money to be made from non-mainstream fiction too, for those who are ready to take the chance on it.

I often complain about the quality of the books that emerge from mainstream publishers. They seem to cater mainly to the current fad, with little regard for literary quality. While I can understand that publishing is first and foremost a business these days, I’m sure there is room within the publishing world to invest some of the profits from the blockbuster best-sellers into projects which may not have best-seller potential, but which nevertheless have artistic, cultural and literary value. There will even be a few of these that, perhaps surprisingly, more than pay their way.

It’s also pleasing to realise that there are plenty of readers out there who are willing to work a little harder, and don’t necessarily want their books to mimic movies and/or video games. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Combing the Supermarket Shelves

In the supermarket today I wanted to buy a comb. Just one, plain, simple, ordinary comb. You would think that wasn’t too much to ask. But no. I couldn’t buy a comb. I had to buy a pack of four different combs, for three of which I had no use whatsoever. So I would have to pay $3 for a comb that should have cost me... let’s say, $1.

The marketing company would probably say that I was saving money by buying the four combs because if I had bought all four combs separately it might have cost me... I don’t know... let’s say, $5. So, by buying the pack of combs I was saving $2!

How many times are we persuaded by advertising to buy something we neither want nor need, because the thing we want plus the thing we don’t want, together cost less than if we bought them separately... but more than if we simply bought the thing we wanted. I can buy four punnets of strawberries for $5, when they cost $1.50 each. So I save a dollar. Except that... I actually only want two punnets of strawberries which would only cost me $3. So, I buy the four punnets—what a bargain!—and either eat more strawberries than I actually want to eat, or the two unwanted punnets rot in the fridge.

And it’s even worse when I don’t even appear to have a choice. I now have the task of searching other supermarkets and stores to find a single comb... one single, ordinary comb. The main competitors will probably sell the same four-pack of combs. A smaller store may have a single comb, but charge two or three times what it is worth. And, in the end, it will cost me extra time and money to find just that comb. How much time and effort am I actually prepared to put in? In the end I will probably cave in and buy the four-pack.

Isn’t the free market a wonderful thing!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fifty-six going on fourteen: the Australian Prime Minister

Hello, world. I know the rest of you out there probably don’t care much about Australia and Australian politics. No, not Austria, Australia. Many of you probably don’t know where Australia is (take a peek down there at the bottom right of most world maps). Most of you probably think Melbourne or Sydney is the capital city. I’m sure many of you think ‘Alf’ from Home and Away is our prime minister. Or Crocodile Dundee. Or Dame Edna Everage. Okay, many of you probably don’t know who any of those people are. Although more of you might have heard of them than of our actual Prime Minster, a certain Tony Abbott. Yes, I get it: when I talk about Australian politics and politicians, most of the world doesn’t even bother stifling its yawn.

But think of us down here. Please think of us and the burden we bear. Tony Abbott is almost fifty-seven years old (in November), a few months younger than me. So, a mature adult with lots of experience, right? Unfortunately we have a national leader who has a vastly inflated sense of his own importance on the world stage and of his place in history. We have a leader who prides himself on reducing very serious national and world issues to two and three word slogans. You can read the delight on his face when he comes up with his latest slogan which he will say once, then again... and yes, again, within the space of a few breaths. He has it! He has his headline grabbing slogan! I can picture him running home to his wife (or perhaps his mummy [mommy for US readers—I’m not referring to dead Egyptians wrapped up in bandages]): ‘Look at me! Look at me! I’m on the front page again!’

This is the man who reduces important issues to the level of the school sports day: We are all called to be part of Team Australia [read: Team Abbott]. He is so happy when he sees us jumping up and down in place: ‘Ooooh, pick me, Tony! Pick me!’ Thanks to our illustrious Prime Minister, we can now be assured that it’s okay to go back into Iraq, for the third time, because ISIL (or whatever it is today) is a ‘death cult’. Never mind hundreds and even thousands of years of history in that region, of conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and centuries of interference from the West. It can all be nicely summed up in a two word label: death cult. It’s all safely and neatly packaged away.

This is the man who threatened to ‘shirt front’ Vladimir Putin when he comes to Australia for the G20 meeting in November. For those of you who have no idea what ‘shirt front’ means, pop over to You Tube where I’m sure you will find plenty of examples—it is a term from Australia’s home grown brand of football. Yep, that’s really mature and constructive, Tony. Tony really knows how to calm down a volatile situation with carefully considered words. In the meantime, Putin swats the mosquito buzzing in his ear.

Whenever I see Tony Abbott, whenever I hear him speak, what comes to mind is the school yard, during those first two or three terrifying years in high school. To a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, everything’s pretty straightforward. No need to think, really, testosterone does that for us. The school bully or, even worse, that dreaded high school prefect: that’s our Tony. It’s all about getting to the top of the pile and imposing our will upon those below us. An argument reaches the dizzying heights of:

‘Yes I can!’

‘No you can’t!’

‘Yes I can!’

‘No you...’

So if any of you out there in the world of grownups are thinking of visiting Australia, be very careful. Tony Abbott might just want to shove your head down the toilet bowl and flush.

Raise your glasses. Here’s to our illustrious Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, fifty-six going on fourteen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Lost Innocence: The Accused by Simon Palmer

I am always somewhat reluctant to review the first part of an intended series of books. Just as the story is incomplete, so must the review be incomplete and provisional. It is difficult to comment on the merits of a plot which is unfinished. This is the case here.

Lost Innocence is the first part of an adventure thriller set in Bangkok, Thailand. Michael is a young, budding artist, who travels to Thailand to sketch the working girls of Bangkok, before commencing studies at an art school in London. Before long he finds himself in trouble. He is arrested on trumped up charges for having raped and beaten an underage girl, and thrown into the notorious Bangkok ‘Hilton’. He is given the option to pay a substantial fine and be released, or remain in prison to fight the charges. He decides, on principle, to fight the charges. While in prison he befriends a convicted drug smuggler, John, who shows him the ropes.

Michael’s arrest precipitates a rescue mission, first by his father, Stan, and then by his grandfather, Nigel, a prominent and wealthy lawyer. Finally, a private detective, Harvey Goulding, is hired to help unravel the mess. Along with the intrigue and machinations as the drama unfolds, the author sketches the complex and not entirely harmonious relationships between the three generations of men.

Palmer does an excellent job of taking the reader inside the Thai prison and legal system. He also provides a convincing account of the Bangkok sex industry. The story is interesting, although I was never quite convinced by Michael’s determination to fight the charges rather than pay the fine, given the horrific conditions to which he is subjected. Neither his motivation—a rather vague sense of principle—nor his strength of character seemed to warrant this. The generational interactions are potentially interesting, but we are not given sufficient back story to understand the strained relationships, particularly between the father and grandfather. Neither of these men was particularly likeable. Their wives, left behind in England, play only a minor role and, again, we are not given enough background to understand these relationships. There are moments when the story morphs—perhaps not surprisingly, given the setting—into a kind of soft porn, which is well written if a little predictable.

The author makes the unwise decision to narrate Michael’s part of the narrative in the first person, and the rest from various third person points of view. The choice is strange because, after the early chapters, Michael plays very little part in the story. Locked up in prison, the capacity of this character to move the story along is very limited. It is true that Michael’s personal account of his arrest and his time in prison is very vivid, but I think this could have been achieved just as effectively with an intimate, third person narrative.

The introduction of the private detective into the story provides a lift, but comes rather late in the narrative. His Thai female assistant, Bo, is probably one of the most interesting characters, and certainly the only female character to be given more than a bit role.

There are times when the grammar, and particularly the punctuation, are rather poor here. And there is a moment that made me cringe when we are presented with a dreadful, caricatured German accent.

This is not a bad start to the series. I think it would have been reasonable in this first volume to expect more back story, particularly concerning the father and grandfather, which would have leant more credibility to the conflicts between them. It will be interesting to see where the author takes this in future. I give it three and a half stars, rounding it down to three where necessary.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How Puzzling!

I’m glad to say it’s been a busy week editing, without much time for either reading or writing. On this Sunday afternoon I have time to take a breather and reflect upon... jigsaw puzzles.

This is a love from my childhood and teenage years that has extended into adulthood. There was a hiatus in there of perhaps twenty years during which I kicked the habit, but I have fallen off the wagon in recent months. It all began last year when I visited my daughter in Melbourne and she had a puzzle on the go. This was followed up by a Christmas present or two that were—you guessed it—jigsaw puzzles. Since then they have appeared from time to time as gifts, or I have indulged myself. There was a time when I would embark upon a three-thousand piecer, but these days (partly due to space requirements) I have to be content with one thousand pieces. It’s a nice size in terms of both time and space.

So what is the attraction?

As with many things, it is initially the challenge. I’m not so keen on the challenge that I would like to reconstitute a polar bear in a blizzard. It’s always more fun when I there are features on the pieces that can help locate its position, in addition to its shape. There is the final satisfaction when the puzzle is complete; and many minor satisfactions (about 1000 of them) when each piece finds its place.

I find the process strangely meditative. My mind can wonder far and wide while a part of it becomes attuned to shapes and colours. It can also become a little obsessive: just one more piece! There were many times in my teens, particularly during the school holidays, when I would be up until three or four in the morning, searching for that ‘one more’ piece.

I do have some system when I do a puzzle. I have to start with the edges. I could spout some ‘philosophy’ at this point about the value of working within a framework. But I won’t. If there are large patches of sky or some other fairly uniform colour, I like to do these early on, to get them out of the way. I like to leave the more interesting features to last. I would find it a little tedious if I had to finish with a boring, uniform feature. I’m sure there is a philosophy here, too, and that some people will find intriguing clues to my personality.

Aside from these systematic elements, my approach to the puzzle tends to be multi-faceted. Sometimes I will look for a piece to fill a space. Sometimes I will look for the space a piece fills. Sometimes colour is the key; other times it is shape. Whatever works best and is most appropriate at the time.

I am not now going to wax lyrical, in a Forrest-Gump-ish fashion, about life bein’ like a jigsaw puzzle... It probably is and it probably isn’t. Personally I think life is much more like an artichoke.

Feel free to philosophise or analyse my personality if you wish. Right now I have some pieces just begging to be put into place.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Not a technophobe, but...

I only bought my first ‘smart’ phone at the beginning of 2013, and even now, almost into the last quarter of 2014, I still often forget to switch it on until well into the day. I rarely use it, even as a phone. I only bought it because of all the great things people told me I would be able to do if I had one. Apparently none of these great things appeal to me... greatly. I sometimes feel obliged to invent some usefulness for this monthly expense. The impulse rarely lasts long. I am still waiting for this gadget to miraculously transform my life.

It is, therefore, with some amusement that I observe the excitement in people’s eyes as they await the release of the xth version of some company or other’s new model. I am thrilled to hear that it now does something—something I have never had any need for—much more quickly than it did before; or that it now does two quite unnecessary tasks simultaneously; or that it now does something entirely new that I have never wanted (and am never likely to want) to do.

I am not a technophobe. I love my computer. I am hardly ever away from it. I love my Kindle, and hardly ever read a physical book. I can see the point of navigator-thingummies, although I can manage perfectly well without one. I am probably a gimmick-o-phobe or gadget-o-phobe. I am also a creating-a-market-for-something-which-is-entirely-unnecessary-o-phobe. (Okay, I admit that didn’t exactly flow off the tongue.) Someone once tried to convince me of the value of their smart phone by explaining that they could write their shopping list on it. Well, folks, I remain convinced that it’s a damn sight easier to jot it down on a piece of paper. Perhaps I will invent the notebook (the kind with paper and spiral binding). Oh wait, that’s been done.

‘But I would lose the piece of paper,’ my friend objected.

‘But I would forget to take my phone,’ I decided not to reply.

This friend would have no framework for understanding this concept. ‘Forgetting my phone’ would have no more meaning for them than ‘forgetting to breathe’.

I love technology, but I hate being made to think I need something that I actually don’t. This goes far beyond technology, of course. I hate being made to think I need twenty-seven types of insurance. I hate being made to think we need ‘tougher security laws’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against wanting things either. I don’t need chocolate, but I surely do want it. Perhaps even worse than being persuaded that I need something is being persuaded that I want something. Well, I don’t want twenty-seven types of insurance or tougher security laws. I don’t really want a smart phone either. To my shame I did let myself be persuaded that I just might need it. I don’t, but I’m stuck with it for a while, maybe forever. I’m not sure I even actually need a mobile phone of any kind. I know I need a computer, and I want it. I know I want my Kindle, and I can see some obvious benefits—no need to carry books around or clutter the house with them; cheaper ebooks. I have no need or desire for a tablet of any kind. So far nothing has persuaded me that I either need or want one of those.

The fact that someone will queue for days to be the first to buy the new model of... something. Well, that’s a little sad, don’t you think?