Exempt from public haunt


“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything” (As you like it)

Was thinking about blog inspiration the other day, by pure chance, not struggling with writers block, not me, nosireebob. One of my twitterfriends, HD Rebner, was wondering where his new ideas for tweets were going to come from, and for some reason Duke Senior’s words came to mind. Perhaps they in turn arose from Bill Shakespeare having a writer’s block (but heaven knows, any he did have must have been as brief as Charles Dickens’ writer’s blocks!), wondering where the next inspiration would appear.

Don’t know about other bloggers but Duke Senior’s prescription seemed pretty good for Watermelon. If I wanted to be a world famous blogger I would be a single-topic blogger – American politics, cake decorating, atheism, climate change, media – and just keep hammering away at that topic day after day. But that would bore me silly, and bore you, my faithful followers used to a smorgasbord of subjects, a pot pourri of polemic, a passing parade of media topics, an harangue about history, silly as well I think.

So on we go, exempt from public haunt, finding sermons, tongues, books, as I stare out of the windows of Wuthering Heights. But not sure about the “good in everything” – think that would bore us both too.

And blogging fame may just have to wait a little longer.

Forget the unicorn


A classic atheist response to the incredulity of religious believers is -“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours “

A variation of this might also help. All children believe in many imaginary creatures – Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, God, Imaginary Friends, Wizards, Dragons, Fairies at the bottom of the garden, Batman, Bogeyman, Abominable Snowman, Aliens, Unicorns – but as they grow up these fall away one by one as a child understands they are made up, not real.

So, religious believer, we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer imaginary friend than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible imaginary unbeings as you grow up, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Ties that bind


People have always done odd things to their bodies, modifying them like petrol heads modify cars. Seems to be hardly a part of the body that some group at some time hasn’t chopped, or pierced, or removed, or tattooed. Done in the interests of group solidarity or distinction, or individual difference or status. At times done at the imaginary demand of imaginary sky beings, not infrequently involving some way of subjugating women.
…Read more

Uncle Tom Cobbley


Australia and its states are soon going to be ruled by governments incorporating misogynists, monarchists, homophobes, religious fundamentalists, austerity mode neo-conservatives, developers, nuclear power advocates, climate change deniers, anti-public service ideologues, right-wing think tanks, Rupert Murdoch, xenophobes, mining billionaires, shooters, radio shock jocks, irrigators, nationalists, loggers, militarists, commercial fishermen, bankers, red necks, haters, fools.

Have I missed any?

Animal Farm


A small herd of pigs arrived on the farm a week or so ago. Destructive creatures, destroying the world they live in as if they had an alternative in mind. Haven’t seen them before, looks like they have moved out of the forest up in the hills to the East, and down on to the lower plains to pillage. Perhaps they will become adapted to the soft lotus-eating life down here.

On the occasions when those of us on the Left dare to question the rise and rise of libertarianism, neoconservatism, conservatism, drown-government-in-a-bathtub-but-promote-the-combination-of-church-and-state, corporations-are-people nastiness, we generally get told we are wishy-washy idealists who have no idea of human nature which is red in tooth and claw and the devil take the hindmost because there is no-such-thing-as-society.
…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.

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.

People like us


It is often remarked that people in different political parties can seem more alike and be more comfortable with each other, than with members of their own parties. The reason is simple. Political parties are composed of no more than three kinds of people (what follows is based on Australia, but with minor variations could also be used for US and UK) – idealists, ideologues, careerists.

The careerists of both sides have little interest in policy or ideology. Such people join the Liberal Party in a natural progression, just as they might join the Melbourne Club. A brief stint as a lawyer, into politics, on to diplomacy, into lucrative seats on the boards of big companies. It’s just what people like us do, dear chap, what our families and friends do, have always done. One expects, naturally, to be a minister, but the purpose of being so, except for providing mates’ rates on government projects for friends, is of less interest than the tailor who has made one’s suit. Just give them the party platform, whatever it is, and they’ll go along with it and be sure to stick their hands up at the right times. In return the lucrative business opportunities to make serious money will emerge naturally from the contacts made.

Much the same on the Labor side. Some university training, perhaps in Law, activity in a suitable Union involving administration in some way, into politics, into diplomacy perhaps, on to Boards of medium-sized companies and statutory authorities. Friends and family will have often followed similar career trajectories. If you are smart you’ll become a minister, but apart from making decisions that will benefit causes you and your friends hold dear, just give them the party platform, tell them which faction they are in, and the hand will be raised at the right time. In return, after, or even during political life, business opportunities will arise that make poor boys from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of the ocean, rich almost beyond the dreams of avarice.

The ideologues who join the Liberals do so because this is the Party that will, for purely pragmatic reasons, support them. A gaggle of true believers in one or more of Libertarianism, neoconservatism, union-bashing, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s, find a warm and welcoming roof over their heads in the Liberal Party. They come from small community groups and even smaller astro-turf groups. Once they would have found themselves on the very back seat of the very back row of the Back Bench, these days they find themselves as Shadow Ministers and Ministers. And where once ministers might be selected for their expertise in, say, education or health, these days the ideologues will find themselves in charge of that which they hate most – climate change deniers as environment minister for example, xenophobes in immigration, religious fundamentalists in science, union bashers in workplace relations, anti vaccers in health, creationists in education, and so on. In later life they will go back to doing what they were doing before political life, listening to shock jocks and taking part in virulent demonstrations outside abortion clinics or refugee bureaus.

The ideologues who join Labor often do so from Union backgrounds. They do so because of the chance to sing “solidarity forever” out of tune at union meetings, and to be totally supported by fellow colleagues, while having a platform to rant about their particular obsession, which may be total support for union activity regardless of any other consideration, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s. They rarely seek ministerial glory (and would be seen as too loopy to get it), but are much happier in the back rooms deciding who does get the ministries and what policies are followed. They can it seems block environmental action, same-sex marriage, serious climate change moves, compassionate attitudes to refugees, while supporting chaplains in schools. Later life will be the same.

The idealists in the Liberal Party hark back to the golden age of small-l liberalism, back to the time of Menzies, and believe it still forms the core of the Liberal Party. They imagine the Party as a “Broad Church”, one where many voices and points of view are welcomed, indeed encouraged, where one is free to be an individual (unlike of course the regimented group-think of Labor), where merit is recognised. There may be small-l libertarian, small-b business, and small-r religious beliefs involved. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

The idealists in the Labor Party are drawn to it, moths to a flame, by the Light on the Hill, believing that the Party is still that of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam. They come into it not via the unions but via universities and community organisations. They imagine Labor is a Broad Church where a diversity of ideas and opinions are encouraged, individuality welcomed, unlike the Liberal Party with its iron party discipline. They believe in small-s socialism, small-e environmentalism, small-a atheism. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

Clearly, those within each category, irrespective of party, will have a lot in common. Labor and Liberal careerists may combine on a more or less shady business deal; Labor and Liberal ideologues opposing abortion will find themselves at the same rally or prayer meeting; Labor and Liberal idealists will find themselves signing the same petitions, joining the same university departments. Each pair may well find themselves complaining about how bad their careerist and ideologue colleagues, say, are.

What is needed, clearly, is a mechanism for converting the two parties into three.

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…