The Brain of the Beholder

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BrainOver ten years ago I attended a Vipassana meditation course at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. This was an intensive ten-day course, free of charge (donations are of course welcome), where you could learn the art of meditation, and be introduced to some basic Buddhist teachings.

There were some rules however, most notable among them being that you could not talk to, communicate in any way with—or even meet eyes with—anyone else on the course, a discipline known as ‘noble silence’. Simple vegetarian meals were provided, along with basic accommodation. And you had to rise at 4am and meditate about eleven hours a day.

Needless to say, this was hard. At the end of each day there was a short period where you watched, as a group, a video featuring the main teacher of the technique; and at this times I was sharply aware of how easy it would be to fall into a cult mentality; deprived of the normal stimulations of everyday life, one can get obsessive about a wise word and a kind face. As far as I know however, a Vipassana course is a benign and useful way for those wishing to experience a somewhat extreme, but extremely educational, introduction to the beneficial discipline of meditation.

For most of the ten days, I found this discipline extremely difficult, and often physically painful—sitting still for hour upon hour is not an easy thing to do. The mental discipline required was even more difficult. I won’t go into it in detail, but the technique basically involves an awareness of breathing, and a focussing of your mental awareness on small areas of your body, until finally you achieve an uninterrupted ‘flow’ of awareness up and down your body.

After about eight days, I had what you might call an epiphany. Suddenly, I achieved the ability to focus my concentration from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and back again in a smooth flow; a flow that I can only describe as a ‘golden light’ washing up and down my body. After days of struggle, there were no distractions, no intruding thoughts, only total and utter concentration on this one flow of awareness. It was one of the most extraordinary sensations I’ve experienced in my entire life.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it opened my eyes. Not in a ‘I’ve discovered the key to the universe’ kind of way, but in ‘so this explains it’ kind of way. To many people, I imagine, such an experience would have been a religious or spiritually revelatory one. To me, it demonstrated a fundamental truth, and here it is: the brain is capable of the most incredible things, and it requires an intelligent, informed use of the brain to interpret its input.

I was reminded of this entire experience recently when I watched Derren Brown’s television special, ‘The System’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a 2008 program where Brown, a popular British sceptic and illusionist, presented a ‘system’ for winning on horses that seemed absolutely infallible to what appeared to be a random member of the public. It is only in the later stages of the program that it is revealed that this person is in fact only one of almost 8,000 people that Brown had introduced to his ‘system’, and that by playing the laws of probability, he had focussed on the one person from that entire group who had won five times in a row—and easily convinced her to get horribly in debt because she believed the system was infallible.

As Brown explained, people believe things because they are imprisoned by their own unempirical viewpoint. They don’t think beyond ‘it worked for me’: they accept anecdotal evidence. We all operate within a subjective frame of reference that makes us, as human beings, incredibly susceptible to being conned or avoiding the hard work that is involved in researching the truth. We are all—to paraphrase what P.T. Barnum so memorably said—the suckers that are born every minute.

I’ve often thought about the experience I had on the Vipassana course, and how it could be interpreted. Some would choose to interpret it as a spiritual experience, or even a religious one. Some would choose to dedicate their life to its further exploration. Some would ascribe it to lack of sleep and human contact. Some would recognise similar experiences from drug use. To me, it was a unique insight into the human brain, and what it is capable of—even after just ten days of intensive training. But most would need to assign some kind of meaning to the experience, because that is the thing that humans have always needed to do. We assign meaning to coincidences, despite the bare facts of probability, and we imagine magical forces instead of exploring natural ones. We cling to the easy explanation instead of trying to find the difficult truth. We believe what we want to believe.

We’re a funny old lot. We bet on the horses, fill out lottery coupons, pray at altars, swallow the homepopathy remedies, and all the while we say it works for us. But instead, we should be using the one thing that is the source of all our experience—our brains. They are capable of so much.


Gasping for Air

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Whooping Cough

When I was a baby, I almost died of whooping cough (that’s me on the left with Mum). As the story goes, my father rushed me into the hospital emergency ward, where a nurse heard my desperate gasping for air, ripped me from his arms with a look of horror and ran down the corridor to put me in a humidicrib with no time to spare.

No doubt the story has been embellished over the years, but I swear I still have a memory of that terrible feeling of trying to draw breath between wracking coughs.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease. We may think of it as just one of those things that babies and kids used to get, but in fact, according to Wikipedia, it affects 48.5 million people yearly resulting in nearly 295,000 deaths. It’s also completely preventable due to a vaccine.

Of course, there are a growing number of complete idiots that think they know better than all the scientists and researchers whose efforts have saved millions of lives, and advocate not immunising your child against whooping cough (and other preventable diseases). Despite the fact that the vaccine, introduced in the 1940s, has dramatically decreased the number of deaths from the disease, unscientific and unsubstantiated anecdotes and rumours swirl about on the internet that vaccination can cause brain damage.

I was thinking about the idiocy of people who would rather trust anecdotal evidence than scientific research, as I’ve recently been suffering from what my doctor suggested may be whooping cough. My last immunisation was at the age of 15 and apparently it can wear off in your forties. Then I read this article which claims that a recent epidemic of the disease may be attributable to the ‘conscientious objectors’ of Byron Bay and the eastern suburbs and northern beaches of Sydney, who are not immunising their children. It’s not too far beyond the realms of possibility that I got my dose of it from just such a child.

Seriously, what is it with these parents? Want to go back to the ‘good old days’ folks? Back when mumps, tuberculosis, meningitis, smallpox and measles, to name a few, caused millions of death worldwide? In the same way smallpox was eradicated, we could actually conquer these diseases, wipe them from the planet, only some people read a few crackpot internet articles or believe their village witchdoctor or priest and decide they know better than the people who devote their lives to this research—and the disease lives on, feeding on ignorance and fear.

Science is not perfect, and there’s been the occasional misstep along the road to enlightenment. But by its very nature, it learns from its mistakes, and it’s the best method we’ve got of saving lives and making the world a better place. We have to eradicate the ignorance that causes people to believe anecdotal evidence and superstition, and to think that science is somehow involved in some vast evil conspiracy of secrecy. Everything I’ve read about the history of this planet tells me that there were never any ‘good old days’; in fact, most people led nasty, brutish and short lives, right up to the most recent of times (and of course, many people in less developed countries still do). What has improved most lives in almost every conceivable way? Science.

The most cursory review of the facts tells us that the human race has never had it so good—let’s not start going backwards now.


What Happened to the Museum?

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Australian Museum

I was one of those kids who loved going to museums. There was one in Sydney called The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences—everything there moved to the new Powerhouse Museum in 1988—that was full of the most fantastic exhibits; strange machines and engines, with buttons you could press to make them work, a machine that played noughts-and-crosses, and of course an Egyptian mummy or two (I was obsessed with archaeology back then).

The other great museum in Sydney was the Australian Museum, a big old building next to Hyde Park full of the most fascinating stuff. There were upstairs galleries, their walls lined with thousands and thousands of specimens of creatures; slightly moth-eaten life-size diaramas (one of early man confronting a sabertooth tiger) in the stairwells, and a skeleton room that featured a skeleton man riding a skeleton horse.

I spent many, many hours wandering these places, and even then, one of the things I loved about them was the feeling of antiquity, not only of the exhibits, but of the buildings themselves. There was an old English stuffiness about the Australian Museum especially. You went there to escape the noise and bustle of the busy streets outside; to go somewhere cool and quiet and wander among the glass cases, perhaps casting a cursory eye over them, or perhaps immersing yourself in one small field of study for a few hours, reading every placard and studying every object in that field.

I hadn’t been to the Australian Museum for a while; perhaps for the occasional disappointing exhibit. Not only have I been around the world a couple of times since those early days, and seen places like the British Museum and the Louvre, but the shows always seemed so low-budget and thrown together on a shoestring. A symptom, perhaps, of the Australian obsession with sport, which wallows in bountiful corporate sponsorship, while our sciences and arts continue to struggle.

So my recent visit came as a shock, because the Australian Museum has completely transformed itself into a children’s creche. It’s a noisy, frantic place full of screaming, running children and bored parents with prams. Most of the exhibits seem to have disappeared—the upper galleries are empty—to be replaced by temporary walls, basic text in big easy-to-read fonts, bright colours and jigsaw puzzles and toys scattered around the floor.

Now I understand why the Museum has gone this route—they need money. I suspect it happened around the time they changed the logo from something simple and elegant to something that looks like it belongs in a children’s picture book. I also understand that kids need interactive exhibits these days; that the games and movable wall tiles are just extensions of the buttons I used to push in the old science museum.

But what happened to the museum? What happened to the place you could go to learn something? Where does the kind of kid that I was—the kind of kid that actually likes the fact that they’re in an adult place of learning that’s quiet and serious, and is mentally stimulated and made curious and challenged by that kind of atmosphere—where does that kind of kid go? Because today’s museum is a noisy playground just like every other noisy playground. And I can tell you, that’s exactly how most of the kids there were treating it.

I guess the museum has to make money like any other business these days. And they’re pursuing that agenda pretty ruthlessly it seems, with things like two hour ‘backstage’ tours at $130 per person, or children’s Halloween parties at $75 A kid. Something has to fund the research going on behind the scenes. It just seems a shame that the whole quality of the museum seems to have become so kid-focussed. Perhaps the latest research says you have to entertain the kid before he or she learns anything.

Maybe that’s how kids are educated these days. But if I look back and remember the kinds of child I was, who enjoyed the hushed, rarified atmosphere of learning in those old museum halls, I wouldn’t have learnt anything if the museum was like the playground it is today.

Unfortunately, there’s certainly no reason for me to go there as an adult with no kids.


Starmucks

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Starbucks announced today that they were closing 71 outlets in Australia, in part due to Australia’s “sophisticated coffee culture” (ie, we can actually tell the difference between crap coffee and good coffee).
It’s times like these that put my faith back in Australians. It broke my heart to see the cloying corporate culture of Starbucks start to spring up in Sydney. Now if we can only get rid of the bloody Gloria Jean chain, a Starbucks wanna-be run by the Hillsong evangelical church, we can get back to enjoying good coffee in cafes run by locals.


Land of the Free

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Update: Excuse me while I wipe the egg off my face–I’ve since been informed that this is not in fact an American government conspiracy, but a setting in Microsoft Outlook my father must have hit by accident. I don’t know if I’m more embarrassed that I jumped to a conspiracy theory conclusion (though let’s face it, call it a terrorist surveillance program and you can do whatever you want), or admitting my father uses Outlook!

My father, who is Australian, has lived in the States for more than 20 years, and has gone from being pro-American in most things to disgusted with the way the country has been run into the ground by Bush and his minions. Here’s a little example of how the Land of the Free treats its citizens these days.

He recently sent an email to my brother and I which contained this paragraph:

“… of course we have this stupid election process to elect a president and that has gone on for about 10 months and has still months to go! I can’t believe how any intelligent country can have such process that is so long it gets boring and and costs millions and millions–Hillary Clinton is already 20 million in debt. Everyone I speak to agrees the process in Oz makes so much more common sense.”

He was checking his ‘Sent’ folder to make sure the email had gone through when he noticed a line written in red at the top of his message that he hadn’t put there. It read:

“This message is being watched.”

I kid you not.


Nothing’s changed I suspect

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A friend and I were discussing the rings that creatives have to jump through when quoting to corporate clients, when he came up with this analogy I just had to repeat here:

I’m visualising Pope Julius II saying to Michelangelo:

“We want you to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for us, but we want a fixed-price quote showing your estimate of the level of complexity, scope of work and an allowance for us screwing with your design at any time. Oh, and by the way, if your price doesn’t match our idea of what it’s worth we’ll refuse to pay at all and if you make any trouble we’ll denounce you to the Inquisition and have you burnt at the stake as a heretic. Now go and get your paints, wonderboy.”


Get yer hair cut!

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For the last few years I’ve been regularly getting my hair cut at a tiny barber shop on King Street in Newtown. There’s a lot of things I like about this little place. There are only three chairs, and just enough room to squeeze behind them, and you don’t come here for anything fancy in the haircutting department. Still, it’s best to come on a weekday as there’s usually a queue milling about on the pavement on the weekends.

I get an ‘extra zero’, which is about as short as you can get without having your head shaved with a razor. (Why extra zero? Wasn’t just zero enough?) I like the fact that I’ve been going for about three years, and none of the guys there have asked me my name, or told me theirs. They’ll always ask “how are you?” when you come in, and give you a friendly goodbye when you leave, when I always say “thanks guys, see you next time”. If you feel like having a chat that’s fine, you can talk about the weather or what you did on the weekend or how busy work is at the moment; but if you feel like sitting there and not saying a word that’s just fine too.

Not only do I get my extra zero cut, but they always use a cut-throat razor to go around the ears and the back of the neck afterwards, and sometimes I even get a bit of a head rub. But it’s always a fast, professional, no-nonsense operation, and my hair is cut and I’m out the door, feeling freshly shorn again, in no time flat.

They’ve never tried to get to know me, or give me a little credit card to join their ‘barber club’ so I can get a dollar off after ten cuts, or sent me an email newsletter, or had a ten percent off day. I just go there, get my haircut properly, and pay them $10. I will therefore continue to go there, get my haircut, and pay them $10 (hell, they can even put it up to $12 eventually, though just giving them a ten buck bill is easier), every few weeks until the proverbial cows come home. Probably literally as I will have moved to the country by then.

Personally I think modern marketing gurus could learn a thing or two from this little barber shop.


Massive Hypocrisy 101

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I just had to share this quote from today’s Sydney Morning Herald from the Cathoic Archbishop and all-round orthodox conservative busybody George Pell, ‘prominent religious sceptic of climate change’, also recently quoted as saying “Jesus had nothing to say on global warming”.
“My task as a Christian leader is to engage with reality, to contribute to debate on important issues, to open people’s minds, and to point out when the emperor is wearing few or no clothes.

“Radical environmentalists are more than up to the task of moralising their own agenda and imposing it on people through fear. They don’t need church leaders to help them with this, although it is a very effective way of further muting Christian witness. Church leaders in particular should be allergic to nonsense.”

Engage with reality. Open people’s minds. Allergic to nonsense. Yep. Uh-huh. Riiiight.


It’s a Hard Life

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Jacks

My girl and I visited the Hyde Park Barracks the other day and took in some excellent exhibitions about the harsh life of convicts aboard prison hulks and the early female immigrants to Australia.

I feel a small personal attachment to the restored Barracks building as I was one of the 250 or so volunteers back in 1980/81 that spent time sifting through the dust and dirt that had been vacuumed up from between the floorboards. I vaguely remember that a friend discovered an old matchbox, but I don’t think I found anything. I did get a chance to scramble up into the pidgeon-infested clocktower though.

Today, the barracks houses exhibitions about the building and its many uses over the years, and early Sydney in general, and its spacious courtyard is also the venue for various Sydney Festival events–bands, temporary clubs, etc. There’s also a great little restaurant where we had lunch in the sun, eating salad and vegetable tempura and listening to the crows in the nearby trees.

As I looked over the scattered ephemera of people’s lives dredged up from the sea where rotting prison hulks lie, or picked out from rat’s nests between the floorboards, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a lucky bastard I am. A couple of centuries ago I probably would have experienced the days of my (short) life in one of two ways–unremitting tedium or relentless drudgery. Considering the history of at least one side of my family, probably the latter (there’s at least one horse thief and one axe murderer in there). Throughout the small span of years that human beings have occupied this planet, most people have had a pretty rough time of it. They certainly have had very little choice, counting themselves extremely lucky indeed to simply be able to earn enough to put food in their mouth, or have a place to sleep at night.

Whether a domestic servant, a convict working off his fourteen years for stealing a hat, a clerk hunched over paperwork in a stuffy office, an immigrant coming to a new country in search of a life–millions have lived a life where only rarely one could snatch just a few moments of happiness here and there.

After viewing the exhibitions I sat outside in the sun, was served a high quality meal, and sipped a cold beer in a chilled glass. I live in my own home that I can’t be thrown out of (as long as I keep paying the mortgage of course) with the woman I love, and get to do something everyday that is creative and remarkably easy in contrast with most jobs throughout history. I am, and so is just about everybody I know, obscenely privileged in contrast with all of those souls that came before.

It really puts things into perspective.

Image: Jacks (detail) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, c1880


Richard Dawkins Talking to US Students

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Intelligent, reasoned, well-expressed responses to mostly befuddled questions.


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