Showing posts from February, 2009

The Beatles, Eclecticism & the BBC

The Beatles. Strictly before my time, but with recordings you can get some of the vibe. When you place them in the context of what other bands were doing at the same time, it's like looking at the 5-foot tall kid in the Year 2 class photo.
No need to re-hash any slobbering praise for what they did. YouTube loves that sort of thing, some yokel playing the spoons is apparently an incredible genius, but not for Joe Bloggs who rolls up barracking for some other spoon player, and a couple of comments later fuck you and your grandmother. (Mailing lists and forums usually degenerate into pissing contests too.)
They did great music, but this isn't about that. What more than anything makes them sound so different to their contemporaries (at least amongst well known bands - chances are somebody was churning out great stuff in a shed somewhere we never heard about) was the vast eclectic range of what they were doing. It's become a sort of truism that they were eclectic. Just a few ye…

Open Focus & Space (2)

So carrying on from that last post...

Your whole life will change if you start to directly experience space. It's a bit tricky to explain the difference between space as a 'container' or a grid that things (including us) sit 'inside' - the traditional view - and spaces as all of the many lived distances in our lives and bodies. But it all comes down to actually living those distances, to directly experiencing them. So that it's not you looking out at the world, you're an extended being in the world itself - who 'you' are is that body of yours extended out into the world, and is also what you sense of the world, some of which is nowehere near your body. Because sights and sounds and smells and so on all have their own distances too. And when you see or hear something, in reality you're not 'over here' sensing something 'over there' - your presence is with what you're sensing. You don't sit at the cinema the whole time going…

Open Focus & Space (1)

While you're reading this, what are you noticing? Just the words on the screen? How about your legs, and your arms, and what the person next to you is doing? What about the sounds coming from the kitchen, or the road outside? Or the feeling of your feet on the floor?
You might feel that there's no way you can notice all of that at once. You can only pay attention to one thing at a time, after all. But we also all know about something called awareness. Awareness is a bit different, you can be aware of lots of things, all at the same time. For example if you're on the beach soaking up the rays, can't you at the same time be aware of the noise of the people around you, of the gulls, the waves, the feeling of the sand, and the salt smell? 
This is another one of those amazing things sitting right under our noses which many of us never notice. If you think about it, no matter what you're doing at any time of day, there will be an infinite number of simultaneous things hap…

Move On, Nothing To See Here

Remember that nobody likes a sore loser? I remember that. You expect when political allegiances change and the public swings behind the 'other side' that supporters of the previously powerful will have the dignity to crawl off somewhere and lick their wounds, and let the others have a go. Sure they can continue to disagree with what the current lot does, you'd expect them to do that - it's healthy.

But to read and listen to the vast conservative political commentarium who have spent the past decade or so triumphantly stirring up division, claiming to speak for the common man and woman against horrible elites (who, hilariously, weren't the ones actually running the show - how's that for a neat trick, making the the elite the same people being gleefully cut off at the knees), and claiming credit for a boom which they wove out of debt and which is now bankrupting us all, is sickening. It's as if they're still in power, like little Malcom Fraser's pique …

The Morality of a Speed Bump. Latour.

Introducing Bruno Latour. Over the past 20+ years Latour has been carefully and thrillingly re-designing the entire landscape of our lives, and increasingly people are noticing what he's been up to.
It really is no exaggeration to say that the world as Latour sees it is remarkable, and very little of the ways we commonly understand things survives unscathed. Not that he in any way imposes a new order on things, or concocts vast fantastic scifi-type fantasies. And he doesn't have a critical bone in his body, so he's not out there debunking things either - he sees critique as a tired, misguided activity. On the contrary his genius (and this is probably what defines all genius) is to show us what we're already doing but don't even notice. 
Rather than attempt some encyclopaedic biography and bibliography, I'll first list probably his most fundamental changes to the way we think about things, and then use one example to show a bit of the flavour of his work. As backg…

The Whole Truth of Bodywork

I've dabbled a bit in recent years with a few different traditions of what sometimes gets called 'bodywork'. That's not a very descriptive label, because a lot of the things people do in these traditions doesn't have much family resemblance, but in general the work I've looked at is about understanding how our bodies and minds are all one and the same thing.

The fascinating thing for me about a lot of this work, outside its pretty remarkable impact on the human system, is how its development and the key ideas bandied about match almost perfectly the development of a large chunk of Western thought, in miniature. A lot of it explores the idea of wholeness, and how understanding wholeness can change the way you inhabit your mortal frame. Now wholeness has a bit of a sordid recent history (say the last 40 years), having been dragged through innumnerable communes and mystic tea ceremonies and naked tree-hugging one-with-nature trials. But it's also a topic that h…

Cave Art

It's easy to read dark and mysterious things into the ancient world. It's so long ago, and often leaves fragmentary traces, so any budding Dan Brown can weave mystery upon enigma and actually convince people.
(Speaking of Brown, did anybody else except me get right to the end of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"? It was the scholarly forerunner of Brown's Da Vinci Code, and at times you wonder if Eco put about two dozen European history books through a strip shredder and then randomly pasted strips together to write the thing. But it's also leagues more sophisticated than what Brown did.)
Sometimes you can read too much into it all though, which was actually the final message of Eco's book, but he makes you wade through 500-odd pages to realise (maybe it was a literary device - what a clever dick).  
I feel that way a bit when I see cave art. The theories about it are generally pretty grand, with shamans painting great visionary vistas in the darkn…


One of my pet hates is the idea of 'opinion'. Opinion went from being a quite minor, useful idea to something much more sinister, and sinister not least because the bastardisation of the idea all gets carried out under the banner of incredibly noble principles.

You'd be an idiot to deny that people have different opinions about things. No problem there. I guess most basically that means they don't agree on things - what music is good, what food is good, etc. If you want to use the word opinion to describe this basic fact, that people don't agree on things, then it's not a big deal.

However things have progressed. Opinion has become a much bigger idea than that. Because added to "that's just my opinion" is now "it's all just a matter of opinion". Whoa there. Opinion is now not just one person's view on something, but something a lot stronger - things that people have opinions about have no value in themselves, except their great g…

Are Sheep Stupid, and What's a Fact?

A renowned primatologist stocks her front field with sheep, and sits and watches them all day. She has 22 sheep, and each day she feeds them, with each sheep having its own bowl. But each day she takes out 23 bowls, not 22. Why?
Thelma Rowell spent many years studying apes in Africa, but now she tends to and watches these sheep. She has an inkling, backed up by what she sees, that sheep don't deserve to be the dopes of the animal world, that maybe we've been looking at them all wrong. That extra bowl is there for one reason - to allow the sheep to act differently. Rowell wants to see what they do when confronted with one extra bowl, surplus to requirements. 
But more broadly she's teasing apart a foundational assumption that many, including scientists, have about science. Namely that science discovers facts, and these  tell us how the world is. And the world is just one way, in each area you might look at it, and depending on how well you do the science you might get nearer …


This is a tensegrity toy. Babies love them, because they make cute noises and spring back into their original shape no matter how often and where you squash them.
Tensegrity may turn out to be one of the most important ideas ever created. Tensegrity is what's called a portmanteau word, comprised of two words and their meaning contracted into one (in this case 'tensional' and 'integrity'). So in other words, a tensegrity structure gets its structural integrity from tension - it's the tensional elements that make the whole thing hold together. 
So if you look at the picture of the toy, you'll see black elastic string. The only other parts to the toy (apart from the sliding beads, which make the nice noises) are the wooden, coloured rods, which stretch the string out in various directions. They're 'compression' elements - they 'push' while the elastic string 'pulls'. There's only the one string, which creates a sort of web of elas…

LM (part 3)

You may have figured out already that what's going on in those LM examples. As I said, the crucial thing is to go about things as the whole of you, rather than use yourself as a collection of bits and pieces. 
Walking is a simple example. It would seem obvious to say that we walk with our legs. But do we? They're definitely involved, but what's the rest of us doing while we're walking? Aren't we breathing, and our arms moving, and our heart beating, and our head looking about at things etc. etc.? Everything we do is actually an activity that all of us is doing. You might say yes, duh, but when we walk our legs do more than all the other bits. But how would you know that? Probably because you're actively doing things with your legs when you walk, like 'taking steps', deliberately using muscular effort to push off with your feet on the ground. And if you wanted to go faster you'd use more of this sort of deliberate effort. 
What if you didn't do tha…

LM (part 2)

To give you a taste of the LearningMethods work, on the 'bodywork' side of things. In other words in its work on human movement and posture and other anatomical and physiological type things.

One of the most beautifully simple of Gorman's demonstrations runs as follows. From standing bend down to the ground to pick something up. Do it a few times and notice how much of you is actually doing the picking up. Chances are it will be about half of you, from your head down to about your waist, as you reach down to the ground. This is the usual way people go about picking something up.

Now try it again, but this time don't cut yourself in half. In other words go into the activity with an assumption that it's all of you that's picking the thing up. Don't try to DO anything different, except have a sense of you as being all one thing, from your head right down to your feet on the floor, rather than that sense you probably had the first time of you being just from your…


Not a typo in the title there, LearningMethods (one word - often shortened to LM) is a trademark term for a body of work developed by David Gorman. His website has the specifics.
I stumbled upon David's work after spending a fair amount of time teaching myself various aspects of what's called the Alexander Technique. (You can look that one up yourself, I'm not going to describe it here.) David was himself formerly one of the world's foremost Alexander Technique teachers and thinkers, before branching off into his LM work. 
In drastically simplified summary form, LM has two main components. One is what's called an "anatomy of wholeness", detailing David's remarkable discoveries about the way our body actually works (and I mean utterly remarkable - it's difficult to convey just how extraordinary this stuff is). The other is what's called the LM work proper, which is a detailed, experiential exploration of peoples' issues.
Underlying all of Davi…

A Sense of Calm

One of the reasons I keep banging on about thermodynamic cycles here, even for issues that don't seem to have anything to do with thermodynamic science, is that because for me it's the dominant framework within which we're currently living. Because people tend to be allowed to pursue one small fragment of the curriculum to the exclusion of others, with the specious assumption that some people just weren't born to do maths, or write essays, etc., increasingly people don't see the continuity not only between all forms of knowledge, but also between all forms of life. They see science and its ideas, and ideas about people and literature, and academic work and digging trenches (and so on) as a collection of pure and separate activities.

The specific and practical job philosophers do is to thread all of these seemingly disparate things back together. Somewhere along the way philosophy was painted as a fatuous activity of contemplating the meaning of things, rightly ridic…

Beat the Heat

Every summer I Google my way through every variety of heat-relief so far invented, searching for the magic bullet i.e. the super-cheap way to have the house cold enough to use as a meat warehouse. There are some clever suggestions out there. For example this year I tried bubble wrap double glazing, which cost next to nothing and has turned the front room, normally a fair approximation to a furnace, into something almost pleasant. You just spray mist a bit of water onto the window, and the bubble wrap sticks right to it, and stays there. And then it just peels off if you want to remove it, and you can re-use it for years. 
But this year while sampling the goodies online, it occurred to me that maybe if you change your point of view, in the literal spatial sense, this problem takes on a completely different look. (I'm leaving out for now the option of self-hypnotising yourself to feel deliciously cool. Quite a simple thing to do actually.) One technique many use is to soak a t-shirt …

Stimulus Packages

A wag interviewed on TV the other day about economic woes expressed delight at being stimulated by the Prime Minister's 'package'. You can't take a breath without seeing some sort of economic stimulus being mentioned, except in those parts of the globe where national banruptcy has already made that last-course action impossible.

Nice to see the schools get a big chunk of the money, after more than a decade of neo-illiberal fantasy belief that if you pumped enough public money into private schools , the 70% of all students in public schools would jump ship into the magically-appearing new shiny privates. They liked using the tax dollar to prop up private businesses like health as well, to the tune of billions a year. Private enterprise is so efficient it can't survive without lashings of hard-earned taxes, just as doctors, firm believers in the free market, suck the public teat so magnificently.

Unfortunately none of the packages will work, I'll put (your) money o…

Galileo part 2

To flesh out that last post a bit more.

Galileo was certainly a genius, and not universally a prat. None of us are, except maybe Piers Akerman. What I was on about with the hagiography that usually surrounds Galileo and his trial (hagiography being that standard "great man" history with noble heroes and evil enemies) is that, if you actually read the detailed accounts of everything that went on, from the letters to the hearing transcripts, it's clear the G man was looking for a fight.

Now I don't belong to any church and subscribe to no religion, so there's no apologism going on in saying this. It's about how groups of people behave, and the relationship between knowledge and groups. In those times the Church provided the dominant 'world view', and this view was woven into the fabric of the Church and society as a group, with delegated authorities, as we have in all ages. So the trial represented one piece of evidence for a shift in the larger human gro…


Brian May, best known as the guitarist from Queen, writes a sort of blog which he calls a "Soapbox".
If you don't know anything about Brian (or about Queen for that matter), you might be forgiven for assuming that a rock star's blog is likely to be a fairly thin gruel. That would be a mistake. Brian is amongst other things a PhD in astronomy, a passionate stereo photographer, a univeristy chancellor, and a generally brilliant, interested-in-everything lovely guy. As for Queen, well they were the smartest, most talented band in our history, whose tongue-in-both-cheeks humour confused the dead mass of critique into thinking they were frivolous. But the simple-minded always find the great frivolous, looking instead for a sign of what they consider to be intellectual cred, like certain key words, and standard positions on particular issues. What they would make of Mozart's lovely piece called "Lick My Arse" would be interesting to see.
Brian's current ent…

Stuff Global, Stuff Local

You can't open a business or IT journal without seeing the word scalability. An inelegant word meaning the ability to readily expand something you're already doing to many more locations and people. To increase its scale, in other words. I guess it can also mean to readily decrease the scale of something as well, but generally business and IT people get paid to make things bigger, not smaller.

It does seem that as a notion scalability is onto something accurate about little things and big things. When you look at how systems are made scalable, practically, it's all about adding little bits, a piece at a time, to existing local networks. There's no sudden elephant in the room. The skill of scalability is making sure that the architecture or nuts and bolts of what it is you're building plug into what's already there, and extend it just a piece at a time.

At the same time certain things need to be able to then move from one location to the next in this ever-growing …

Told You So

This year is looking absolutely horrible, economically (as they like to say). I don't think people, particularly here in Australia, realise the tsunami possibly on its way.

There were people, including me I'll add without much joy, who saw all of this coming years ago. For me house prices were the danger sign, they rose spectacularly quickly and to ridiculous heights, and you didn't need half a brain to know this was rampant speculation and not based at all on the value of properties. I refused to buy, and was often thought to be a fool as a result. I'm not feeling like a fool now, but it's small consolation to have been right when the effects of the mass lunacy will impact upon the lot of us.

In typical fashion people are already starting to blame the current government for the woes. Economies are like supertankers, but much bigger again - they don't swing from boom to cataclysmic bust in the space of a year. The mess we see now is down to what was done over a m…