A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

Who is that fat bastard? A Sturm's Eye View, Guaranteed Free of Harmful, or Potentially Harmful Chemicals -- but Watch Out for the Ideas! Some of them are Contagious! 

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 19 May 2003

The Git is feeling a little out of sorts. Maybe he didn't have any sorts to start with. When you watch very little television and read even less newspapers, wondering what sorts are, and where they may have gone, is the sort of thing you do. And too much of that sort of thinking tends to make you more than a little crazy in the eyes of many. "How on earth do you know what is going on?" people tend to ask. Well, the little that The Git manages to glean from the mass media tells him that he knows full well what is going on. Take the invasion of Iraq for instance. The US invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein needed to be killed and he had weapons of mass destruction. It's not at all clear that Saddam Hussein is dead and given the complete lack of weapons of mass destruction found (never mind the fact that any worthwhile evil dictator would have used them in the recent war), it's apparent to The Git that the mass media is largely a very thinly disguised tissue of lies.

If The Git wants to read lies (also known as fiction), he would rather read a good novel -- JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert's Dune series, or Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. The other day, he began reading James Branch Cabell's The Silver Stallion, but became sidetracked by the cottage renovation. A major portion of that is deciding what to throw away among the many documents he has collected over the years. This latter is Mrs Git's idea and an excellent one it is almost everyone assures him. "Clear the detritus from your life..." This merely makes The Git wonder why then, that all the women he has ever known have a passion for storing food remnants in the refrigerator until they resemble some sort of small furry animal.

The Git's approach to food remnants is to include them wherever possible into the next meal, or chuck them in the compost bucket so they eventually become fresh food from the garden. The remains of last night's Bolognese sauce will be added to the stewed oxtails we will eat tonight. The following night, we will eat stewed mutton chops. The remains of those, plus the remains of the stewed oxtails, will become a hearty peasant soup, including of course an almost homeopathic trace of Bolognese and the pasta cooked to accompany it.

These are the sorts of things The Git contemplates, rather than speculating which country's antiquities the Americans will despoil next, Syria's or Iran's.

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet. 

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.

AA Milne

Thought for the day:

What luck for the rulers that men do not think.

Adolph Hitler

Current Listening:

Otway and Barrett -- Gone with the Bin

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Tuesday 20 May 2003

The Git has been thinking about doppelgangers. It's probably more rewarding than wondering what on earth was in the mind of the Google user who found this website with the search terms: "Yale Men in JockStraps". Or how this website comes to be fourth in the list of search results.

The Git's doppelganger made himself known when, wearing the identical Marks and Sparks T-shirt and shorts, he refused to respond to my mother calling him from across the field he was playing in. Why should he? He wasn't me, even though my own mother couldn't distinguish us.

The second time was when, a year, or two later, The Gitling was knocked down by a motor car (driven by a woman, naturally), the very same day the doppelganger was knocked down by a Midland Red bus. The Git believes that it was shortly after this time that he began questioning the sanity of those around him. "Of course I can tell the fucking difference between a black motor car and a Midland Red bus, you complete and utter fucking morn!" The Git wishes he had said. Swearing then was a punishable offence rather than the height of academic sophistication. In any case, he was a remarkably shy boy who once went into the Devil's Wood alone and yelled: "Shit, bugger, arsehole and I don't care!" where no-one could hear him.

Even after we moved to the Antipodes, this bastard complicates The Git's life! About twenty five years ago, The Git's mother telephoned from Melbourne to ask what on earth he thought he was doing the day before. It appears that he was photographed robbing a Melbourne bank by the security cameras and the picture was published on the front page of The Sun newspaper. Shades of yesterday's rant about the lies published by the mass media! Fortunately, The Git had been in Hobart the day previous and many more days before that even.

Shortly afterward, The Git took work in Melbourne for a year. Upon his return to Hobart, he was continually accosted for months with the question: "What's it like in jail?" While the frequency of this lunatic question decreased over time, during the ensuing years, at least once a year someone accosts him in the street. "What were you doing at such-and-such a place the other day?" when The Git was nowhere near. Having spent the last two and a half years in virtual seclusion, the incidences of these questions subsided to nothing. Until this week. It started again yesterday when being served at the university's café, Lazenbys.

"Do you live in Pedder Street?"

"No!"

"Oh, I thought you did when I saw you there yesterday."

The Git hasn't been in Pedder Street for more than twenty years! He wonders what will happen should he ever meet this ghost! Will there be a sudden rift in space-time where we both cease to exist as material beings, much as happens when matter and antimatter find themselves in the same location?

Thought for the day:

The world is full of wonders and miracles but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing.

Israel Baal Shem

Current Listening:

Premiata Forneria Marconi -- Photos of Ghosts

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Wednesday 21 May 2003

Tasmania's Marjorie Alfreda Willis Bligh is one of the world's truly great women. Her Homely Hints on Everything is not just one of the most useful books you are ever likely to read, it's also one of the most amusing. Consider Children (to do with):

Baby (paint on)

A baby I knew accidentally tipped a tin of paint over his head. The mother wiped off as much as possible, then smeared baby oil over his head and face. Left it awhile and then washed it off with warm water and soap. Worked perfectly.

Children's Frocks Lengthened Easily

Let them down with some gauze roller bandage, if you have to make a false hem.

Children's Knees and Hands

Children's knees and hands that are dirty are easily cleaned by rubbing them with a cloth dipped in brass cleaner.

But Marjorie Alfreda Willis Bligh does not confine herself to children:

Shawl (baby's) No Further Use

Double it over to form a triangle and wear it at your next party, dinner or dance, over your evening frock.

Insect in ear

If someone around smokes, a puff in the ear will make the insect crawl out.

Handicapped Person

If you are unfortunate enough to have lost the use of one hand, a dish mop is a very handy object to wash under both arms with the use of the good hand.

Brassiere Renewed

A Mrs Dorothy Redburn of Burnie who was 74 in 1986, sent me a sketch of a pair of bras she renovated, and asked me to pass the idea on. She said she cut away all the perished elastic at the back, and sewed on in its place, some heavy duty elastic bandage that she once used for a sprained muscle in her leg. She now just slips the brassiere over her head like you would your frock.

As Terry Aulich, one-time Senator for Tasmania wrote in the foreword: "This 2nd edition of Marjorie Bligh's Homely Hints On Everything is something every homemaker has been waiting for."

To order your personally autographed copy, you will need to write to thrice-married Marjorie Bligh (assuming she is still living at age 84 or 5) at 163 Madden Street, Devonport, Tasmania 7310 Australia. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, this extraordinary book is unavailable from any of the bookshops The Git frequents.

Marjorie Bligh

Thought for the day:

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Ezra Pound

Current Listening:

Family -- Only a Movie

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Thursday 22 May 2003

Today Tony and Tanya came to inspect the cottage for the third time with a view to purchasing it. Warts and all, they like it a lot and that bodes well for selling it to them. On their first visit, the fuse for the lights blew when I turned the power on. This time, there was a power cut to the whole of Franklin, Castle Forbes Bay and Port Huon. The electricity supplier, Aurora, had a recorded message to this effect and that the cause was unknown. Supply would be reinstated at 1pm. The Git would love to know how the fuck they could know the time it would be repaired if they didn't know the cause!

-oOo-

Over the three years that I have been using my Sony G400 monitor, it has gradually increased in brightness. Right from the beginning, it needed to have its brightness setting at minimum, but the black part of the screen is now distinctly grey and shows diagonal retrace lines. Initially, The Git suspected the Matrox Millennium G400 video card, but swapping that with a Matrox Millennium II made no difference to the display problem. Presumably there's a pot for changing the black level, but the question that arises in my mind is whether that's the problem, or whether it's wise to fiddle with the insides of the monitor. The prospect of waiting several weeks using an antique 15" monitor while waiting for the Sony to be serviced is far from entrancing.

Thought for the day:

I'm not sure which irritates me more; that people are so unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions, or that they are so eager to regulate everyone else's.

Unknown

Current Listening:

Sky King -- Secret Sauce

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Friday 23 May  2003

From Anthony Campbell's website:

Living with Uncertainty

There seems to be something within most of us that craves certainty. It may indeed be hard-wired within our brain; some theories of the perception mechanism are based on the idea that it works by resolving ambiguities. You've probably seen those drawings which could be seen as the head of either a young girl or an old woman; you can see one or the other at a time but not both. Other pictures seem to be made up of random splotches, until suddenly you see a semi-concealed figure--perhaps that of a dalmatian dog. What is significant about such images is that, once you've seen the hidden picture, you can't un-see it; your visual system has been changed for ever. Perhaps the belief system works in a similar kind of way, so that once a belief has been adopted, it becomes difficult to dislodge. At any rate, most of us do seem to want to adopt firm views about things, or at least about things that matter to us deeply. We feel uncomfortable when we have to suspend judgement, even when there is insufficient evidence to reach a firm conclusion. And very often we seem to adopt beliefs for reasons that are unknown to us. It may even be the case that they are always unknown to us, and that the reasons we give ourselves for believing, say, in God, or in the extra-terrestrial origins of UFOs, or in Freudian psychoanalysis are always rationalizations.

I am thinking here about some fascinating experiments which were carried out about 15 years ago by a neurosurgeon called Benjamin Libet. He was interested in discovering how the conscious decision to initiate an action was related to electrical changes in the brain. His subjects had electrodes attached to their wrists to pick up movements, and to their scalps to pick up the electrical activity of their brains. They watched a revolving spot on a clock face. Their task was to flex their wrist at some moment of their own choosing, and to note where the spot was on the clock face at that instant. Libet recorded three events: the start of the action (flexing the wrist), the moment of the conscious decision to move, and the start of a particular brain wave pattern called a readiness potential.

What Libet found was that the readiness potential began just over half a second (550 milliseconds) before the action, and the decision to act about a fifth of a second (200 milliseconds) before the action. In other words, the brain change came first and the conscious decision second. This is a difficult result to explain if you believe in dualism (separate mind and brain). There has been a lot of controversy over this work and Libet himself is unwilling to admit what appear to be its full implications (he thinks that the `self' may be able to inhibit an action although it does not initiate it), but there is no doubt that there is something important here to be explained.

It seems likely that something similar happens in the brain in the case of belief. In other words, changes occur in our brains before we adopt a belief and we are then presented with the result, which we try to justify to ourselves as best we can. But the reasons we give ourselves to explain why we believe things may well be wrong. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has written extensively on this view of the mind. Forming a belief could be thought of as a means of resolving a conflict in the mind. When you are undecided about something there is a sensation of discomfort, presumably produced by a mismatch between two different patterns of activity in the brain; when these are reconciled a belief is generated and the discomfort is relieved. But this neurological process is unconscious and can never be accessed by introspection.

If I reflect on changes in fundamental beliefs that have occurred in my own life, I find that I cannot easily account for them, or can do so only in a rather roundabout way by citing factors that may be irrelevant. I started life as a Roman Catholic, and until my early twenties I remained fully convinced of the rightness of our religion. Indeed, the only thing that puzzled me was why, since we were so obviously right, the rest of the country didn't convert to Catholicism straight away. My eventual loss of faith was seemingly quite sudden. When I was about 23 I used to have long conversations with a friend from school who was undergoing doubts about religion. I used to argue with him from what I assumed was my firm basis in Catholicism, but within a short time I found that I didn't believe what I was saying. It didn't take long before I had argued myself, not just out of belief in Catholicism, but out of belief in Christianity as a whole. However, I remained a vague theist for many years and it was a long time before I felt able to look squarely at the thought that I might actually be an atheist. In part this was because I became involved in a different metaphysical system, this time of Eastern provenance, which for a time acted as a kind of substitute belief system for the Catholicism of my youth. Eventually, however, I ceased to believe in that as well, although not with the dramatic suddenness that had characterized my loss of faith in Catholicism.

I should say that the predominant feeling that accompanied these and other rather similar disappearances of belief in my life was not one of loss but rather of liberation. I've generally experienced belief systems as a burden, though not at the time I held them, but only after shedding them. Doubtless this is an individual quirk of character, but I can't believe I'm unique in that respect. Over the years I've found that I'm generally happier without the metaphysical beliefs of my earlier years; the more I shed them, the more comfortable I feel.

Nowadays I'm content to subscribe to what have been called the tenets of naturalism. I find no problem with the thought that we are the products of Darwinian natural selection, which implies that we have come into existence contingently and not as the result of any Divine Plan. There is no immaterial soul hovering over the body, and there is nothing of us to survive physical death. The only valid knowledge we can have comes to us through the kind of rational inquiry we call science, and not through religion or revelation. I cannot prove this way of thinking to be true, and I recognize that there are other people, quite as rational as I and equally or more intelligent, who think differently. But, for whatever reasons, my particular brain throws up this pattern of thinking and not another. (Ironically enough, this way of looking at the process of belief formation echoes the Catholic doctrine that faith is a gift from God; either He gives it to you or He doesn't, and there's nothing you can do about it.)

Yet although I find I'm more at ease within the rationalist camp than outside it, I do recognize that there is within rationalism an unfortunate tendency to smugness, which often seems to to characterize the pronouncements of certain skeptical organizations such as CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal). No doubt such critics are right to say that we are today in considerable danger of being swamped by a tsunami of irrationality, but often they seem to go further than this and imply that the present scientific consensus about the world is pretty well the last word on the subject; we have arrived at final truth. A little humility seems in order here. The astronomer and cosmologist Fred Hoyle has reminded us that it's not so long since practically all astronomers were convinced that our galaxy was the whole Universe. What blinkers may we still be wearing today without realizing it? It's impossible to know what scientists a hundred years hence will think of the views we hold today, but it's difficult not to imagine that they will be as amused and surprised by our scientific prejudices and errors as are we when we read about some of the opinions of scientists at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As the biologist J.B.S. Haldane famously remarked, the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose. We should not totally discount the possibility that we could be mistaken at a fundamental level. The world could be quite different from how it seems to us. We are contingent beings, with brains that are modified ape brains that evolved to cope with practical problems such as avoiding predators and finding food and mates; it is remarkable that these brains can also do science and speculate about metaphysical questions, but there is no guarantee that there aren't all sorts of things they can't cope with. Perhaps there are things we can't conceive of at all. A cat may look at a king, but it can form no notion of kingship.

The danger in saying things like this is that so many people will take it as a licence to believe whatever they want. After all, they say, if science has been wrong about so many things in the past, why not about astrology, say, or healing crystals, or the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs? The range of crazy ideas that might just be right is almost limitless; no one can look into them all. So how do we distinguish between the really crazy ideas and the only seemingly crazy?

It's notoriously difficult to make such a distinction. Probably the classic example of this is Wegener's theory of continental drift. What could be madder than to suppose that the continents, far from being immutably anchored, are really slipping and sliding around on the surface of the earth and crashing into one another? All right-thinking geologists confidently dismissed this notion as too silly to discuss when Wegener put it forward in the 1920s, yet today it is the cornerstone of geology. If continental drift can become accepted by mainstream science, where are we to draw the line?

And yet we do have to draw lines, if we are not to be submerged in the sea of irrationality. I'm fully persuaded that the principle of systematic doubt, which first appeared in ancient Greece and resurfaced in the West in the Enlightenment, is the only guide we should trust. But we should trust it fully; we should always be ready to question the foundations of our own beliefs. Bertrand Russell tells the story of a lecturer in mathematics who wrote up a proof on the board. A student raised his hand and objected, saying that there was an error in the calculation. The lecturer stopped for a moment and re-read what he had written. "You're right," he said; "I've been doing the proof that way for years, but it was wrong." Russell says that the audience's respect for the lecturer was greatly enhanced by this admission of error. However difficult psychologically it may be to follow this man's example, I am sure it is the duty of true rationalists to do so.

Anthony Campbell's website contains many such thought-provoking essays.

Thought for the day:

Getting rid of a delusion makes us wiser than getting hold of a truth.

Ludwig Borne

Current Listening:

Chick Corea -- No Mystery

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