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.

Books do furnish an MP’s room


Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested a new form of swearing-in of a new Prime Minister of Australia, which included a choice of books on which the newly elected best and brightest could swear the oath instead of the bible – Origin of Species, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 1984, Catch-22.

This week I remembered those suggestions as the revelations of rorting of parliamentary allowances by Liberal MPs belatedly (ie safely after the election) came to light. Among the rorts were thousands of dollars worth of books purchased.
…Read more

Visigoths and Vandals


It is August*, and the citizens are aware of the barbarians at the gates of their civilisation. The Visigoths have a bad reputation, but they have been secretly chatting to the slaves and convinced them they are really good guys, big supporters of the Lower Orders in fact. So one night the slaves open the locked gates and in come the Visigoths who then proceed to rape, pillage and generally wreck the joint, just as their reputation had suggested. The slaves, and this will shock you, ended up worse off.

Forty five years go by. Not very long, really, sufficiently short for old codgers like me to have seen the Visigoths in action and to think, oh shit, not again. But yes, this time it is the Vandals at the gates. No shenanigans with slaves this time, no need, all sorts of silly buggers have been played by the rulers of the civilisation, the politics is a mess, and next thing you know “The Vandals are coming, the Vandals are coming”. Who proceed to try to outdo those wimps the Visigoths and thoroughly trash the joint, so thoroughly that the year 455 is generally considered to mark the end of the once mighty 500 year old Roman Empire.
Yes, Rome, what did you think? Oh, I see, you thought you could see analogies with the citizens of Australia terrified of the arrival of Coalition barbarians on 7 September? Well, I hadn’t thought of that but now you mention it…
…Read more

Field of dreams


Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.

The Old Astronomer*


Look, there’s a lot of different careers I could have had. Hell, had three different ones, three and a half, as it was. But if I ever manage to decide what I want to do with my life (and yes, that is a winged chariot you hear), astronomy is right up there as a possibility.

Oh, not really a possibility, with my lack of physics and mathematics abilities. I suppose my wishful thinking was always based on Herschel, hell Galileo, staring at the mysterious skies through a telescope and seeing, things never seen before, heavenly messengers.

We are of course, long past the time when amateurs could point a telescope from their backyard and make discoveries in the cosmos. Although, that said, it is from a backyard not a million parsecs from mine that a chap does keep making discoveries, most recently of bits of a comet crashing into Jupiter.

But my old eyes are too old anyway, these days, astronomy a young person’s game, these days. Besides, had my academic careers, working in zoology and archaeology. But it’s all the same thing, really, archaeology being part of zoology, and zoology a subsection of astronomy.

What was the question? Oh, you think I need to defend those suggestions? Well, if I must, it’s your blog.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan of course, in a rather wonderful thought. We don’t need to go out to the stars, they have come to us. And not just to humans, but every living being on the planet, and the very structure of the planet we live on.

The other rather wonderful thought is that we, you and I dear reader, are related to every other human being currently on the planet, and all those who came before. And if that isn’t a wonderful enough thought, we, you and I, are also related to every other living being, animal and plant, on the planet. How good is that eh?

And not just related in the literal, direct genetic sense, but in an ecological one. As the first of the apes that would become human walked across the African savannah they began to adapt to different habitats to their nearest relatives, and to make use of different plants and animals in their diet. Their hunting will have subtly altered species compositions among their prey and plant foods. And eventually, as some groups shifted towards agriculture or pastoralism, their interactions with other species actually affected evolution, in a process we call domestication.

We study early humans in exactly the same way we study their relatives, through palaeontology, studying not only their bony remains, but, where possible, diet and behaviour. As we reach the creation of stone and other tools we call this branch of palaeontology “archaeology”, but it’s all one thing. And palaeontology is of course just one aspect of zoology.

Convinced yet?

But wait, there’s more. For a long time another branch of zoology (well, biochemistry, but really I’m in an imperial mood) has investigated the origins of life. Plenty of ideas, successful experiments in forming organic molecules in conditions approximating early Earth in terms of water, heat, electrical discharge, low oxygen, clay minerals etc. But all with the deliberately built-in, assumed requirement that organic had to come from an original inorganic chemistry on Earth. [This is, was, a necessary assumption. The nonsense from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe about life forms arriving on Earth from comet tails or whatever was not only mad-brained, but didn't affect the study of the origin of life, merely shifted the location to somewhere else where, obviously, organic must have still been derived from inorganic, and on a surface of some kind].

But the young lads and lasses of modern astronomy have shown in effect (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this phrase) that Fred and Chandra were sort of right. No, no, not in the sense of showers of frogs or beetles or bacteria from outer space, I haven’t lost my wits totally (nor my sarcasm). But what recent years of observation have shown us is that organic molecules of various kinds are common in space. Are produced, as I understand it, from dust clouds and the radiation from evolving and exploding stars. That it isn’t necessary to start from scratch to form life on this planet (and quite possibly also on Mars and moons like Titan and Enceladus), but that various organic molecules will provide a kind of kick start for electrical discharges, water, heat, clay substrates to go to work and develop the kind of self-reproducing complex organic molecules we call “life”. [This also, incidentally, makes it absolutely certain that many other millions of the planets the young astronomers are now also able to observe will also have life].

So, not just star stuff to build bones etc, but the very materials that can, in the right conditions, form life, come from out there. There is no gap between us and all the other life forms on this planet, and none between our organics and those spread throughout this awfully big universe. Another rather wonderful thought.

Oh, and of course no longer any need to distinguish between astronomy, zoology, and archaeology. And no need for me to plan (thank goodness) another end of life career – I always was an astronomer really, it turns out, just one studying the bits of the universe that happened to sit on this planet.

Not now, sadly though, a young astronomer but an old astronomer. Almost as old as the universe, I can feel it in my bones.

*see poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams about a third of the way through my “Values” section, click tag above or

What did you do in the war, Daddy?


I first met, very briefly, my father when I was aged 29, and then again, for a little longer, when I was 30. A few years later I heard that he had died.

Only remember two significant remarks from our two meetings, among much inconsequential and necessarily somewhat strained chat about red wine, archaeology, his war-time experiences. The first was that he didn’t believe “blood relations” were of any more significance than those not involving shared DNA (I paraphrase). The second was that all of my questions to him, and I probably had millions of others, none asked, ended historically at the end of the War. Or, though he didn’t put it this way, ended when he left home, moved on.

That had been a quite unconscious, though presumably not an un-subconscious, pattern on my part, though as soon as he said it, its truth was evident. In my mind history, as it had finally appeared in that room, had branched at that long-ago moment we had ceased to have a common roof over our heads. Had branched, followed totally different paths with no points of connection, may as well have occurred in the kind of parallel universes connected only by that road less travelled, the Black Hole. So that branching point, coinciding, in effect, with the end of his War Service, was the end point of my interest and inquiry.

And as for “Blood Relations”? Well, I felt a little hurt, I vaguely remember, but I couldn’t disagree. He was an old man (though, I realise with a shock, a little younger than I am now) at that time, already with the Emphysema that would kill him, the result no doubt, long-term unforeseen consequences, of his wartime smoking. I can’t say our shared DNA had resonated, called to each other, though we did, so his second wife said, resemble each other in looks. But had we passed in the street, well, both of us would have kept walking without a backward puzzled glance at something half-remembered.

All of this came to mind with the recent long overdue apology to Australian women whose babies were taken away from them, for forced adoptions, by state or church, in the past. Their emotions were still, of course, raw. The events of years ago, seemingly, still as fresh in their minds as if they had occurred yesterday. Recognition from the state had finally come, and we can only hope it has some positive healing power.

But what about the removed children, I wondered? My understanding is that until recent times adoptions (forced or otherwise) were done in such a way as to cut off any chance of contact between child and biological parents, for all sorts of no doubt well-meaning considerations.

It means there must be tens, hundreds of thousands of children curious about their biological origins. Or maybe, in many cases, not.

I don’t use my case as an example of anything much really. Everyone is different, every circumstance was different, and I wasn’t, of course, adopted. But I was raised to adulthood in the total absence of one parent, and I surprised myself with how little that mattered, in those giddy days of finally meeting my father.

Oh it wasn’t that I wasn’t curious, of course I was as a child and young adult. Curious as to whether we looked similar, spoke similarly, had similar minds. Curious as to whether he was nice or nasty, good or bad, wise or unwise. But then I more or less settled those questions to my satisfaction and thought, oh, ok, that’s that. This was a man, blood relation or not, who had occupied a parallel universe to me for 30 years. He had his life, which he was totally content with, so did I, ditto. Water was thicker than blood it transpired, another long-term unforeseen consequence of old decisions.

No lessons for anyone else. Just, I suppose, a reminder to myself that everyone is different, have been through different wars, have different war wounds, or none. There will certainly be people who would want to have a significant relationship with a once and future father. Others perhaps who wouldn’t have bothered with even the minor steps I took to find and meet mine. And everything in between.

A lesson, if anything, that government agencies, churches, who presume to know what is best for people, for children, who have a template for how to deal with them as a uniform mass, as if in an army, instead of as individuals, are causing untold damage to real world people.

But we all knew that.

The Write Stuff


“…he lounged up and down the pavement, and gazed vacantly at the ground, the sky, the opposite houses, and the line of railings. Having finished his scrutiny, he proceeded slowly down the path, or rather down the fringe of grass that flanked the path, keeping his eyes riveted on the ground. Twice he stopped, and once I saw him smile, and heard him utter an exclamation of satisfaction. There were many marks of footsteps on the wet clayey soil; but since the police had been coming over it, I was unable to see how my companion could learn anything from it” … “… the murderer was a man. He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. He came here with his victim in a four-wheeled cab, which was drawn by a horse with three old shoes and one new one on his off fore-leg …” Sherlock Holmes ‘A Study in Scarlet’.

When I was young I thought “Oh, if only I could write like Enid Blyton”. A little later it was “Oh if only I could write like WE Johns”. Then followed Charles Dickens, and a little later JD Salinger, and on and on through a life spent reading and writing. These days I will read some beautifully argued and written blog post or newspaper column and think, oh, if only I could write like that, perhaps I should copy their style, see what I can do.

But you can’t, really of course. Your writing style is born with you, grows with you, is the result of nature and nurture, is as individual as a fingerprint.

Or your track through a desert. It is often remarked (though I think much exaggerated and mythologised) that Australian Aborigines, Kalahari Bushmen, North American Indians, can identify not just which species of animal they are tracking but an individual, and the same when tracking humans. And what they were doing – here they paused to rest, here ate some food, there drank, at this point they were running, at that they were sleeping and so on. A track across a landscape becomes a history of an individual.

As does the track across your life of the things you write. We all leave behind not broken twigs, crushed leaves, footprints in soft mud; but letters, wills, academic research papers, letters to editor, books, post cards, theses, speeches, school essays, diaries, newspaper columns, poetry, book chapters, reviews, referee reports, and, more recently, emails, tweets, blogs. We don’t all leave all of those of course, but the combination of written works we do leave will also help to define our lives, define who we are, as much as the style and content of what is written.

Some disciplines impose strong frameworks not just on what is written but on how it is written. Law, Science, Medicine, Engineering, for example, impose style and content requirements that greatly reduce the individual footprint that can be produced in them. On the other hand writing history for example, or of course literature, is very much open to, indeed demands, that the writer develop their own style.

So you could, and people called biographers do, deduce a great deal about a person, their personality, ideas, creativity, influences, life story, from the written works they leave behind. A box, an attic, full of old papers doth a biography make. But for it to be a true, accurate, portrait of a lady, or gentleman, the record must be complete. There are many heartbreaking stories to the biographer or historian, of letters burnt after death on an author’s instructions (Dickens for example), of manuscripts lost in some way, of material discarded when a family moves house, and, these days, of crashed computers or damaged discs. The problem is not just that some detail is absent, some chunk of time not described, but that the missing material may well have totally altered our understanding of a life, a character, an achievement.

Material from which to cut the whole cloth of a life need not be actually physically lost, but can be merely lost sight of. A classic example in science is Gregor Mendel. He published the paper which showed how genetic inheritance worked in 1866. It was ignored for the next 34 years (and all his papers burnt after his death in 1884), during which time Darwin’s discovery of natural selection remained without a proper framework of genetic inheritance, until rediscovered in 1900. It was only after that time that modern genetics began to develop, and the genius of Mendel recognised. There have been many similar cases in all scientific disciplines I suspect.

This kind of failing is not just a thing of the past. Today the standard approach to “reviewing the literature” in an academic paper is to look only at the last few years, an event horizon at 5 years apparently prevents any further investigation. A literature review once was, should be, the following of a trail of evidence and argument back to its origins, in order to understand the life story of a theory or set of data. It only takes one or two literature reviews in which some papers are ignored for them to disappear into a black hole and never be referenced again (because future researchers will come to this point in their search and, not finding them, remain unaware of their existence).

Does it matter? Yes it does. If older works disappear from consideration then newer ones will keep reinventing the wheel, keep coming up with suggestions long ago dismissed for good reason (see my earlier post “The Burning Bush” for an example of this). Science is supposed to grow steadily as data and ideas accumulate, not keep slipping down to the bottom of the hill and start again the next day.

And for the individuals concerned (like poor old Mendel), ignoring work is as bad as having the maid burn a manuscript while lighting a fire, or work being done on a computer tape that can no longer be read by modern computers. Their life story, their achievements, their personal style as illustrated in the fingerprints of their writing, will be invisible to history, be incomplete. And we have no Sherlock Holmes now to decipher the biographical footprints scuffed out by policemen.

No one will ever know I smoked Trichinopoly cigars.

Bad Sports


The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” (Duke of Wellington)

After the recent horror in Newtown, Connecticut, all the usual suspects started trotting out their usual gun apologia, in America and here.

Even the good guys though, really don’t get it. Michael Bloomberg, for example “Nobody questions the Second Amendment right to bear arms”. But why not Michael, why not? Everything else in American society can be questioned but not rampant gun ownership? And here, Joe Hockey, also meaning well said he “couldn’t see why any member of the public, apart from farmers and sporting shooters, needed guns”. Quite right, but why should there be “sporting shooters” Joe (farmers are a different question, but I think also shouldn’t be an exception)?

People, like other animals, have always played games. The simpler kinds of athletics like running and jumping, and games involving some kind of ball or similar object, have been played in all human societies. As have frivolous ones like kite-flying, or spinning tops.

But there are other, more complex games, that develop to reflect, and reinforce, particular cultural or social factors in societies, and these come and go throughout history.

Some, many, are used (like the play of lion cubs or foxes) to train the youth of the society in martial pursuits. In Ancient Greece games like Javelin and Discus throwing, and wrestling; in Rome chariot racing, and gladiatorial contests; in Mediaeval England it was jousting and archery (Henry Eighth making this explicit in his law that the young had to practice archery); later, in many societies, it was guns used for target practice, horses doing dressage. Other games relate to people turning their working day occupation into a game or sport – for example wood-chopping, sailing and rowing, hunting, horse riding, motor racing.

Over the last few thousand years societies have grown out of some sports, left others behind as archaic, no longer relevant to warfare, have changed their ethical and moral attitudes to brutality toward other human beings, towards animals.

No longer do we see, nor expect to see, people leaping over bulls, chariot racing, gladiatorial mortal combat, jousting or bear-baiting. Then there are games that do continue, often underground, but that should have (for obvious reasons) gone totally by now – cock fighting, dog fighting, bullfights, hunting (all kinds), fishing and horse racing.

And then there are some new “sports” that should never have started but, having done so, should be stopped – wood chopping, motor racing, boxing, cage fighting, rodeos, and shooting.

Why? Well because sports don’t merely reflect the values and ethics of their time and place, they help to define them, reinforce them. In the Colosseum, watching thousands of rare animals slaughtered, or deciding on the life or death of a defeated gladiator by the whim of the crowd, were not merely reflections of a brutal attitude to life in Rome, but helped to maintain that attitude. No longer seeing defenceless bears torn to death by dogs on the streets of Elizabethan London must have helped to begin the movement towards a gentler society.

And so it is with our modern bad sports. One or two of them certainly seemed like a good idea at the time – other times, other mores – but that time is no longer with us. Take wood-chopping for example. Began as a way for the 7 foot tall, well-muscled, bronzed axemen of the bush, to see who was the fastest at chopping down 500 year-old-trees. Crowds cheered at agricultural shows, as these representatives of all that was magnificent about the Australia of the past chopped away to see who could cut through their log the fastest. Heroes, home-grown heroes. But these heroes had helped to destroy forests all over Australia, had removed magnificent old growth trees, had driven once abundant species like red cedar effectively to near extinction. In 2013, with forests everywhere lost or degraded, and with climate change coming at us like a timber lorry on a narrow road, the time for seeing wood chopping as a celebration of Australia should be long behind us.

Same with motor racing. One hundred years ago, there was a brave new world of fast cars, and brave drivers pushing boundaries, advancing technology. Hurtling around the track without a care in the world except the next chequered flag. The fastest drivers of our youth (such as Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in my case) heroes in the sense that top footballers and cricketers and tennis players (ah, those were the days) were. But now? Kidding, right? How many cars in the world, a billion? Two billion? All burning petrol, spewing out CO2. We could do without high performance cars driving mindlessly round and round race tracks symbolically and actually wasting fuel for no good reason.

Similarly, with seven billion people on the planet, with wars and rumours of wars, terrorism, ethnic hatreds, violence on the streets of big cities, do we really want to keep glorifying the idea that two men (and even women these days) brutally bashing each other to the cheers and jeers of a crowd until one is so badly injured (even dead sometimes) they cannot go on, is a sport and an entertainment? And, on a planet where species are going extinct at a faster and faster rate, and where climate change and habitat loss are rapidly worsening, why the hell are we hunting and fishing the species that are left? And why are we still encouraging an ethos that animals are there for the mere purpose of entertainment, to be tortured and killed on a whim, in sports such as horse racing, rodeos, and bull fighting? It certainly reduces the level of empathy for the natural world so necessary to get us through the rest of this dangerous century, but, considering only self human interest, leads to less empathy for other humans.

Which brings me to shooting. Put all of the above together and tell me that in the world of 2013 we should be treating and glamourising guns as sporting equipment and not deadly weapons whose use should be reduced to a minimum. There is nothing sporting about shooting. We shouldn’t be treating as normal the idea of possessing and using guns which kill tens of thousands of people every year and millions of animals.

So we need some new games? How about some based on firefighting, tree planting, rescuing sea turtles and seabirds, collecting litter, replanting sand dunes, conservation farming, solar-powered vehicles, public health activities?

Good sports, eh?

Political Gene-ius


I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive 
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)

When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.

My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.

He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.

But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?

What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].

The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours

Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).

Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.

But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?

Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.

Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.

Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.

A, B, C, D… E, F, G…


Anyway, that’s another round of chemotherapy almost completed. Neither I nor my Oncologist sure whether the first round achieved much (but had left my Neutrophils worryingly low for the start of a new cycle, so I have to have a new injection this afternoon to deal with that), but we will review again in three weeks. Some unpleasant, and mysterious, body problems this week reminded me yet again that from the moment of first being diagnosed with cancer your mindset changes. You go from being comfortable in your own skin, to being uncomfortable. And you go from happily assuming that any health problems you have are readily explainable, treatable, and short-lived, to being able to assume nothing. Your body goes from being a Known Known to one full of Unknown Unknowns. Simple views about your personal health universe rapidly give way to complex ones.

You are caught, as I said to the Oncologist this week, in the world of the Three S’s. Anything you experience could be a Symptom (of the cancer itself), a Side Effect (of the cancer treatment), or Something Else (totally unrelated to either). Life, they say, wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor, in the case of cancer treatment, is there such a thing as a free lunch, everything comes at a cost.

Anyway, all this reminded me, eating my free lunch of soggy sandwiches in the Oncology chair, machine beeping and dripping (slowly, slowly) on my right, of the debate about education this week in Australia.

The country, in some survey, had apparently ranked way down the list, 25th in this, 26th in that, 27th in the other. Our children were apparently as poorly educated as those of poorly educated countries – couldn’t be misunderestimated, we were misundereducated.

Within moments of the survey appearing on the airwaves and interwebs, as if the barriers had been opened in the Melbourne Cup, those same airwaves and interweb tubes were full of answers from experts and anyone with an opinion (to the extent that they can be considered separate categories). It was the Labor government’s fault, teacher’s fault, a funding problem, lack of attention to the three R’s, not enough rote learning, the result of education not being the same as when the opinionator was educated, school autonomy, phonics, testing programs, private schooling, and so on.

Trouble was, every Opinionperson thought the right answer was THEIR answer. That if there was a problem in education then it was the result of a single cause and had a single solution. Sadly this is the kind of simplemindedness that has resulted in many educational dead ends. When we ask the rarely asked question “is our children learning?”, just like the question “why is my stomach sore?”, we need to be aware that there are no simple answers.

Let’s start at the beginning this time with the actual survey. It was conducted in 2010, a fact that escaped media attention, so that the answer “it’s all the Labor government’s fault” didn’t really ring true. There was no consideration of how the comparisons were made, nor whether they allowed for cultural and socio-economic differences (in just the way you need to with “IQ tests”) between different countries. Nor was any thought given to desirability of high rankings. If a country was doing well because (say) of rote learning of the Three R’s, and rigid discipline in class rooms, is this really the way you want Australia to go?

But even taking the rankings at face value, concentrating on one particular aspect of what goes on in the classroom is begging for a misdiagnosis. As well as the Three R’s we also need to know whether a particular child, or group of children, falling behind in something is the result of a symptom, a side effect, or something else entirely.

Much has changed in Australia since I was a child (to start at a very remote time indeed), all affecting education in some way.

To name just a few relevant factors: The structure of suburbs and travel, play, and social opportunities for children are different; children are exposed to television and radio for hours each day as a primary source of entertainment, knowledge, and values; the values expressed in reality tv and quiz shows, for example, are much changed from my values; children are using computers in various forms for communication, games, learning; diets are much inferior to what they were; right-wing populist politicians and religious leaders have launched an attack on science and education in recent years; and on teachers themselves; and on curricula, with demands for including nonsense like creationism; money has been moved from public schools into private and fundamentalist religious schools; underfunding of preschool and kindergarten and loss of trained staff reduces the early educational possibilities; both parents working reduces the opportunities for learning at home; few homes these days seem to have books or encourage reading; peer pressure tends to put more value on the lowest common denominator of intellectual achievement; teacher are faced with larger class sizes, while at the same time having more bureaucracy to deal with, and demands that they teach more and more topics (driving cars for example, or coping with social media) that someone thinks is important; older teachers are retiring while younger ones have come through much the same social and cultural and educational milieu as their students; “National testing” has put emphasis on “learning for the test”, because schools that don’t do well in it will lose funding and students; some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics” and have some politician impose it on schools …

Enough, you get the idea, and I’m sure you could all add many more. And remember, before you can compare results for different countries, and come up with solutions, you would somehow, have to allow for all those variables being different between the countries.

Look, there is no doubt that Australian education would be a lot better if it followed the model of Finland, always top of these kinds of surveys, rather than America. Put more money into public education (and preschools), value teachers and education, try to get more education support in the home, and so on. But really, to make any improvements in educational performance we also have to seek changes to the way families and society are performing, to look at our media, and our social, cultural, political values, not just the Three R’s.

Easy, eh? Now, if you could just tell me why I have this ache in my shoulder, Doc…