Eating people is wrong


I first entered the hallowed halls of a university a long long time ago. So long that my lecturers were monks in full monkish gear, there were theologians, we ate in a Refectory, wore gowns and mortar boards for graduation, and lived in “colleges” (well, some of us did, the wealthier ones); there were cloisters (sort of!) somewhere, and a tower where bells were rung for the call to prayers (no, made up the bells).

In those far off times a university was basically for training priests (no, I wouldn’t have fitted in well!) but, human nature being what it is, I’m betting an equally significant part of its function was status and networking. Third sons of noblemen, smart young fellows from provincial towns, illegitimate sons of bishops, mixing together (drinking and wenching in taverns as much as talking in tutorials or libraries), making impressions, building up useful contacts, planning careers. Oh sure, some religiously dedicated souls, but they were destined for caves on mountain tops, or small parishes in Cheshire, not the corridors of ecclesiastical and secular power.

And so it remained for hundreds of years. Oh the student body no longer comprised priests, and the courses were widened, a little, from theology to classics and law, but the networking function remained the same. The graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Sydney, Melbourne, with the old university ties to prove it, could be assured of welcomes from those of the same alma mater in Board Rooms and Cabinet Rooms, and the glittering prizes that resulted.

Not a case though of the piece of calf skin or parchment signalling merit, intelligence, ability, knowledge. Not a case of the best and brightest converging on centres of excellence, academic melting pots where the poor boy from the sticks competed on the level playing fields of Oxford with the rich boy from the home counties. Oh, no, the war for success in life had already been won on the very unlevel playing fields of Eton.

Oxford (and the others) was not there to demonstrate merit, but to confirm status. To have gone to university was not a demonstration of intellectual prowess but a demonstration of wealth, breeding, school history, correct pronunciation, correct dress, correct use of knife and fork when eating. The student ranks were drawn from the right kind of families and would become the right kind of people. Would become the next generation of rulers of society, under one title or another. Would eat the little people, from public schools, red brick colleges, alive.

Eventually though one or two people here and there realised that this closed shop education, while undoubtedly efficient, was producing ruling classes as inbred (intellectually and genetically) as the Egyptian Ptolemies. That there needed to be some infusion of new genetics into the courtyard pond, some little fish among the big fish. And, further, that universities should provide advanced education in a whole range of new disciplines more important to society than a little Latin and even less Greek. And, finally, most difficult of all, that, heavens, it is like confessing a murder, female persons might benefit from a higher education.

It also came to be realised that stirring up this rich educational stew with all its new ingredients would not only benefit the likely lads (and, shudder, lasses) from the boondocks, but would also benefit society as a whole. Not just because applying the best minds of a generation, irrespective of their breeding, to all kinds of scientific and other investigations in an intellectual ferment generated inside the ivied walls, would lead to great advances in many fields, but because those minds would question the unquestionable, provide new ways of thinking, looking at the world.

Oh bliss was it in that educational dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!

Couldn’t last of course. For two reasons. The kind of people who were still, recognising the right tie colour (light blue, dark blue, matters not the shade) among the born to rule, running things, had two strong objections to this new style of university (well, three counting its universality). First, if god had meant research to be free and open he wouldn’t have invented copyright. All this nonsense about science for science’s sake, “pure” science. Why, science is applied or it is pointless. And, furthermore, applied by the corporations run by boards of people like us to make money. Big money.

And second, the last thing people running a tight ship in which there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place, stowed away neatly, before the mast, after the mast, and don’t you dare enter the wrong mess, the lower ranks have such unpleasant eating habits, is free-thinking. Goodness gracious, if the monks in the medieval universities had allowed free thinking there would have been atheists in the ranks in no time. Questioning of the order of things. Questioning whether kings were divinely ordained to rule, whether the poor were meant to be always with us, whether the Sun went round the Earth, whether it was really compulsory to vote Tory or die in foreign fields for king and country, whether it was possible to keep burning fossil fuels without destroying the planet, all kinds of dangerous questions. It’s what comes of people getting above themselves, trying to rise above their station in life.

A while ago a study by a major accountancy firm was released which concluded that Australian universities had to change their “business model” or most wouldn’t survive much longer. “Business model”? University? Do those words belong together again now as they did before? Oh yes.

Slash funding to Pure Science and the Arts. No more free university education, no more scholarships, huge loans which students must repay. More fee paying students from overseas who, paying big fees, expect a parchment at the end, guaranteed. Bring big business into universities, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and owns the music copyright.

We are back, in fact, to where we began. Training now for the priesthood of big business rather than the church, but still a religion, the religion of capitalism. No questioning that religion today, just as there was no questioning the religion of 600 years ago. And networking back where it belonged – between people wearing the right ties, using the right spoon, born in fact with the right spoon in the mouth. The Vice-Chancellor’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world again.

Big people eating little people is wrong. For one brief shining hour you could learn that in universities. But the simple folk don’t do that any more.

The nobles are back in charge.

Monkey magic


We all know the nature of monkey is irrepressible, right?

And the nature of the lion is to hunt, of the vulture to pick up the leftovers, of the hyena to scavenge the scraps.

Regular readers know that I don’t have “a deep burning hatred” for the neo-conservative scum (oops, sorry) now infesting the Australian corridors of power. No, not at all. Liberal and National Party politicians, and the right-wing think tank vermin (again, “oopsy”) that advise them, simply can’t help being what they are. When they demand the scrapping of the minimum wage, want additional payments to see the doctor, talk nonsense about natural CO2 and demand scrapping of a price on carbon, refuse legal advice to refugees, rewrite school curricula, dump spoil on Barrier Reef, remove limits on hate speech, sell public assets, remove financial and environmental regulations, invade other countries, clear-fell heritage forests, and so on, this just reflects their nature.
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Doctor, doctor, gimme the news


All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
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The contrary assumption


Saw a quote yesterday, and, as is so often the case in my near-dotage, didn’t write it down in case I decided to use it later, which of course I did just 24 hours later. So forgive me a little inexactitude in the interests of a Meloncholic Muse. It was from a right wing politician in Australia (or America, Argentina, Angola, Azerbaijan…) bemoaning the fact that the Left in Australia (Albania, Austria…) liked to sign international treaties.

It was related, I think, to the Tasmanian election, and the determination of the Liberals to turn thousands of hectares of World Heritage forest into wood chips and scorched ground. Or perhaps it was related to the UN Refugee Convention. Or Human Rights. Whatever, it was related to the nerve of any agreement having the temerity to presume to limit the activities of an incoming Liberal government hell-bent on destroying whatever stood in the way of its neoconservative religion as surely as the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas that stood in the way of their religion.
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Worth defending



“In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

was sent to me by my old friend Rob Banks, who knew that I would enjoy it.

It made me think of this, from H.H. Kirst’s “Gunner Asch goes to war” (What, you don’t know Kirst and his great creation Herbert Asch? Shame on you. Rectify at once, if you can find it, and the later works):

‘Sergeant Asch said “I’m not going to die for this sort of Germany”
“But who’s asking you to?” said Kowalski
“There must be another Germany, which is worth dying for”
“Man!” said Kowalski “Perhaps one day there’ll even be a Germany which is worth living for!”‘

Something to bear in mind as we are in the year marking 100 years since the war to end all wars began. And in Australia we are just a year away from the commemoration of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops (as well as British troops) landing at the start of the failed attempt to invade Turkey. An event now commemorated by Anzac Day on 25 April, and said to mark the true beginning of Australia’s nationhood. An event so important to the Right in Australia that the Education Minister (a title impossible to use seriously) appears to want the whole education curriculum built around it.
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Phantom menaces


I’ve been watching, at long last, the three Star Wars prequel movies (yes, yes, I know how truly awful the first two are NOW, but you didn’t warn me, did you?). Something struck me as I watched the endless computer graphics supplying background to the endless special effect fight scenes.

It has long been a commonplace that the representation of “alien races” in science fiction always gets it wrong. In brief, for this is totally irrelevant to the essay, natural selection will work exactly the same way wherever life appears in the universe. And we know that physics and chemistry is uniform. So alien body forms can’t be just random collections of unconnected exotic features, and bodies are limited by physical and chemical laws. So Wookies, possible, Jar Jar Binks, not so much.

Where was I? Oh yes. Aliens are wrong, but so, generally, are the planets they are portrayed as living on. Many Star Wars planets are portrayed as having surfaces totally covered by cities composed of huge skyscrapers and clearly intended to indicate populations of billions of beings. It is an old concept in science fiction. I guess based on the ideas of inevitable massive population growth, endless technological innovation, and cities as the ultimate expression of human evolution and civilisation.
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Would you believe…


See, there are people who believe… I’m sorry, you’ll laugh. There are people who believe that the money that tobacco companies used in advertising, promotion, sponsorship, to make their brand logos well-known, in order to make huge profits (including of course recovering as costs or tax deductions the money spent on promotion), is much more important to society than the vastly bigger amounts of money the public have to spend to deal with the costs of tobacco addiction.
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Tilting at markets


Once upon a time I thought that Steve Jobs was an IT saint, put down on Earth for a little while to enrich the lives of ordinary mortals, and Bill Gates, well, wasn’t. Recent years have tended to almost, though not quite, reverse those judgements, though you would still have to pry my iPad and MacPro from my cold dead hands, and I have never bought a computer that uses Windows.

Still, Bill, and Melinda, Gates, having gained wealth beyond the dreams of anyone except Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and Australian mining magnates, have been heaven bent (unlike Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and Australian mining magnates) on putting their riches to good use. And good for them.

And good for Bill, on the basis of what he has learnt in his post-capitalist life, getting stuck into capitalism, “ripping it a new one”, as I would say if I was one of them trendy bloggers.

He pointed out:
“The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need, but it gets virtually no funding. If you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria.”

While this example relates to a particular interest of Bill Gates, it obviously applies more generally. That is, you can’t rely on “capitalism” to provide any kind of services to a community because it will always focus on the profitable bits and ignore the unprofitable ones. Poor people, and poor regions, will always miss out, an observation that in itself makes nonsense of the libertarian free market neoconservative think tank demands to privatise everything up to the air we breathe.

But Bill’s observations, while absolutely correct and damning, are at the same time just a tad ironic.

One of the demands of conservatives of course is that we get rid of all social services, public support mechanisms, because the super rich, getting ever richer under neoconservative governments, will let a little largesse trickle down from the high table to the poor. Just as, once upon a time, king and nobles might allow the poor to fight over food scraps from their table, or over a handful of pennies scattered on the ground, or allow, graciously, hems of robes to be touched in a free medical service.

The irony is that even a benevolent billionaire like Gates, offering not robe touching but malaria treatments to the poor, is still working to the capitalist model. Not “The Market” but Bill’s own interests and inclinations decide what he will support and fund. Absolutely fair enough, it’s his money that we (well, not me, but you see what I mean) gave him, and he can spend it as he pleases.

But what pleases him is no more serving the whole community in the most effective way than the drug companies who put their mouths where the money is. What we need you see, is a system where the people of a country would elect some of their number to represent their interests. And that number would investigate the needs of the country, its people, and set priorities accordingly. Then there could be a mechanism whereby each citizen, and corporation, according to their ability, contributed a proportion of their wealth to a fund which would be used to pay for those priorities.

If only we were smart enough to invent something we could call, oh, I don’t know, “democracy”. Then we could get things like Malaria funded properly, and not at the whim of capitalists and capitalism, and capitalism could pretend to deal with hair loss.

Ill wind


This month, once again, air pollution in Beijing has been in the news again. The only new part was that some enterprising fellow was selling bottled air to the public! Let’s leave that for a moment to sink in.

Yes, bottled air. I mean, once upon a time bottled water seemed the ultimate in environmental madness, but we as a species have now really excelled ourselves.

Still, an ill wind and all that, the right-wing think tanks of the US and Australia will be pleased. You see their major task, and this of course has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the big corporations that fund them, is to get rid of all regulations in their respective countries. “The Market”, they profess to believe, and I am sure, almost sure, this is a genuine belief they would hold even without funding, will take care of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, once freed of the terrible burdens of red, black, green, purple tape.

And here in China (just a touch ironically, but never mind) is the perfect example of their belief in action. Allow business to pour fumes into the air unchecked and, cometh the hour, cometh the libertarian, someone will be ready to sell bottles of less polluted air to twenty million people.

Not saying their beliefs haven’t been proved correct over and over. Here the collapse of a building erected without the burden of building codes provides work for bulldozer drivers in the clean-up; there people burnt in a factory with no fire escapes or sprinklers will provide work for undertakers. Polluted drinking water provides work for medical personnel, as do train and plane crashes, and cigarettes.

In fact scarcely a day goes by but somewhere in the world someone, as well as the owner, is making money as a result of regulations unwritten or unenforced. And, thanks to the think tanks succesful fight against any action on climate change, the whole world is still the oyster for energy companies as well as forestry industries, fisheries, agribusiness.

What’s the old Yorkshire saying – ah yes, “Where there’s muck there’s brass”.

Odds on


In Orwell’s imaginary world of 1984 there was a government department whose role was to rewrite history in order to make it seem that the way things were in the present was the way they had always been. No need for that these days, the media, and therefore the public seem totally incapable of imagining that things have ever been different to the way they are today.

This week a kerfuffle arose over doping and match fixing in Australian sport. Attention quickly turned to gambling on sport (although it could also have looked at the huge sums of money now paid to sportsmen in order to keep them in a winning team and allow the club to reap the huge sums of money associated with sponsorship and merchandising).

Before you could say “Place your bets, madames et messieurs” the betting companies were swinging into action to try to head off any suggestion that gambling in sport might be curtailed in any way. Apparently if you criminalise gambling only criminals will run gambling, or am I getting confused? Perhaps it was – if you try to wrap gambling in plain packaging criminals will sell gift-wrapped gambling? No, I’m obviously confused. But indeed, the same self-serving rubbish was trotted out by gambling companies as we hear from gun dealers and tobacco companies.

The underlying theme in such debates is always the proposition that the way things are is the way they have always been. That the saturation of Australian sport and society generally by gambling has always been the case. That a casino in every capital city, then a second; that hundreds of thousands of poker machines in clubs; that games of football and cricket being interrupted by bookmaker’s ads and details of available odds; are all perfectly normal, and moreover, an essential part of our economy. But old folks like me, keepers of the corporate memory of the country, remember a time when none of that was the case. A time when effectively the only legal betting was on racetracks and “two-up on Anzac Day”. A time when the government-run TABs were introduced and illegal off-course gambling on horses clamped down on. A time, heaven help me, when there were no casinos and poker machines, and certainly no gambling on all aspects of cricket and football publicised during tv broadcasts. And even more amazing, young folks, society and the economy seemed to function perfectly well.

But it crept up on us gradually, here a casino, there a casino, and suddenly you are talking real money. And suddenly this big money talks, loudly. And suddenly this non-productive activity is essential to our economy. And suddenly it is not just non-productive but actually damaging large numbers of people with its carefully calculated addictive lure. Oh, and almost incidentally, damaging sport, once the pleasure of the public.

And new casinos are rushed through with the active help of state premiers, actively over-riding planning considerations. And the mildest attempt to reduce poker machine addiction is met with a massive political campaign from the clubs. And any suggestion that gambling on who wins a game, indeed who scores first, or last, or most, is met with outrage from big bookmakers, concerned that their licence to print money might be revoked.

Horton’s Law – whenever some activity is begun in order to see how it goes, as soon as it becomes profitable it will be found that it is impossible to stop doing it. A bit like taking up smoking which you can “stop any time, not addicted” until you actually try. Corollary – no matter how much an activity is damaging society it will continue while it is profitable.

You can bet on it.