31 January 2012

A Thoughts from the Antipodes weekly institution

I was recently inspired by my sisters installation of a themed weekly blog post (check out her Tuesdays Treasures over at Picklebug Designs), and decided to instigate my own attempt over here.
At first I wasn’t sure what I could hope to achieve on a weekly basis given that my blog platform isn’t really specialised in any one direction, nor do I consider myself having any form of expertise which might be called upon for weekly retrospection. So whatever I decided to post about, it had to be based on some quotidian thing from my life, and something I wasn’t likely to run out of material for.
In the end the answer was right in front of me, or to be specific, slightly to the right of me; my work calendar.
I have hinted in a couple of previous posts about the daily work calendar on my desk that endows my morning with a new quote, or thought for the day. Sometimes they are interesting, and prompt some (hopefully) entertaining ruminations, others are a bit less inspiring, and make me question whoever is in control of these things. Nevertheless, they help furnish my day with something to think about. The number of dull mornings where I have looked to my calendar for some form of motivation or inspiration, and gingerly lifted the previous day’s page in trepidation of what lies beneath, cannot be counted.
So with a theme decided upon, I then faced the formidable question of what to call my weekly musings.
Notable Quotables?
Wordsworthy Wednesdays?
Thoughtful Thoughts Thursdays?
Friday QuoteDay?
These were the first attempts that I came up with, and I wasn’t really happy with any of them. Rhyming failed me, alliteration offered little improvement, and my last attempt with the clunky ‘Friday Quote Day’ was just plain awful. Clearly I needed help.
I finally settled on the simpler ‘Wednesdays Words’. I was going to add ‘...of Wisdom’, but thought it might be more prudent of me to leave of this little descriptive, lest I don’t live up to the label.
As it is not yet the right day of the week to get the ball rolling on this endeavour, I would like to spend the rest of this post sharing with you some previous quotes that gave me enough pause, for various reasons, to actually write down some thoughts on the matter.
The outcome of these daily quotes are generally pretty foreseeable. It can be uplifting, at other times annoying, and every now and then it is just plain bland. I got a nice surprise the other day though when I noticed what I would like to think is a semi-hidden joke on the part of the calendars designer. I had previously lamented the lack of thought by the person compiling these quotes when they included a quote from a Christian Scientist nutjob; but this next pair of quotes gave me hope.
The first quote was an old classic:
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – Tibetan saying
We have all heard it before, and some of us have pondered the rhetorical question at some philosophical length (even though Bart Simpson clearly answered it years ago). So it wasn’t anything new and after reading it I thought nothing further of it.
And then I found this cute Tibetan Terrier picture
However the following day when I peeled the previous entry away and revealed the current days quote, I was taken aback at what I am pretty sure was a deliberate topical reference.
Here is what I found:
“There is no sound of one hand clapping” – Chinese proverb
Is it what I think it is? Is it a cheeky juxtaposition of a Chinese authoritarian quote after a Tibetan one, in order to show the oppressive nature of these two cultures relationship? I mean I might be mistaken here, but it seems pretty to the point. Though yes, I get the validity of the Chinese saying on its own, and how it is worth noting that cooperation has virtues worth extolling as a national maxim. However, given it was put right after the Tibetan quote dealing with the same exact topic, I would be willing to wager it was an intentional gag.
Perhaps gag wasn't the right word...
The second quote I will bring to your attention is this:
“A hedge between keeps friendships keen.” – German Proverb
You will often find sayings, adages or proverbs scattered throughout such ‘thought of the day’ lists which are attributed not to individuals, but rather larger groups of humanity be it nations, civilisations, religions or ethnicities. When this is the case it always makes me wonder whether the quote is at all reflective of the group identity from which it sprung, or whether it was merely a nifty saying that was happened upon by someone of arbitrary descent, but nevertheless latched onto by the group.
So in the above example, I question if the saying is representative of German people (though from what era it originated, I do not know), or just something that was first propagated in Germany (though its handy rhyming when translated into English makes me wonder...).
Growing up as we do in a society saturated with a multitude of media influences, sometimes one can’t help but link the nation of Germany, or indeed simply the word German, with the Second World War; in particular with the Nazi’s.
The scale of these past crimes mean that such mental connections aren’t surprising, though considering that the nation of Germany has a very diverse history, as well as an impressive contemporary culture, it is still rather unfortunate. Nevertheless due to Germany’s central role in both the major conflicts of the modern era, the Germans exemplify the ‘bad guys’ of the 20th century.
We can see this re-enforced in many facets of our lives, whether it be their lingering presence in war movies, the endless documentaries on the History channel detailing those horrible days, or finding them sitting squarely in the crosshairs of a plethora of video game titles.
So when the quote of the day came up, and it was labelled as a German proverb, I couldn't help it if my conditioned mind finds some kind of ironic link between an ostensibly innocent quote, and the darker hours of the German civilisation (though I admit, it is a stretch).
“A hedge between keeps friendships keen. A panzer division causes a friendship schism.”

Then there are quotes that make me think, and then think a bit further. Perhaps a bit further than a quote of the day calendar warrants, but those of you who know me know I am wont to exactly that form of overanalyses. Like my previous post about Samuel Johnson's ‘Language is the dress of thought’ quote, I often follow one train of thought, only to quickly turn around and see it from a completely different perspective. And I hope this second perspective is all the more astute because of this.
Take this last quote for instance:
“I can do something else besides stuff a ball through a hoop. My biggest resource is my mind” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
At first glance I thought it a good quote. It is nice to see an athlete praising the gifts of the mind, above those of their athletic prowess. After all one is more likely to be beneficial and attainable to the everyman than the other. By which I mean we can’t all earn a living as athletes no matter how hard we practise, but the fruits of the mind are available to all, and generally bring with them an increase in one’s personal standard of living.
Plus the man fought Bruce Lee!
But then (and perhaps this isn’t really a rethink, as it is a sign of my own innate cynicism) I can’t help but note that it is handy when one of your other resources, like stuffing a ball through a hoop, is able to placate you with millions of dollars while your precious brain can remain roughly underutilised.

But I must end this before I get too carried away. Tomorrow is Wednesday, and I shall hopefully have my first weekly post ready for you to read over.
Until then dear reader, have a good night!

26 January 2012

2012: A good film but a shit doomsday

Yesterday, my wife and I rewatched the 2009 disaster film 2012.
Witty caption pending
Though generally this film was lambasted by critics, I cant help but take the line of US film critic Roger Ebert who at least seems to get these kinds of films, without trying to pretend that they are an exemplary example of what all films should be (which I feel is a problem with many critics out there).
Check out his review here, or just read this quote:
"This is fun. "2012" delivers what it promises, and since no sentient being will buy a ticket expecting anything else, it will be, for its audiences, one of the most satisfactory films of the year. It even has real actors in it. Like all the best disaster movies, it's funniest at its most hysterical. You think you've seen end-of-the-world movies? This one ends the world, stomps on it, grinds it up and spits it out."
Like the man suggests, unless you missed out on Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, you should know what a Rolland Emmerich film has in store for you. Leave your brain at the door, and just enjoy yourself. These films aren't looking for realism, they are just looking to entertain; and at the end of the day there isn't anything wrong with that. Not every film needs to be a masterpiece; not every character needs an arc.
I think of films like this as the equivalent of MacDonalds, or one of those microwavable pizzas; its not a great meal, and you wouldn't want to subsist on this for the rest of your life. But every now and then you just want a quick, easy, and tasty meal.
Sometimes its best to just think of these films as set in an alternate reality, where things are different, people always beat the odds, and so on. That way at least you can let a lot of things slide and just enjoy the ride (hey that rhymes).
That all being said, I still cant help but cringe at a few points in the film.
Like the opening montage of shots set in space, showing the alignment of the planets. Now I can look past the whole 'alignment of the planets causing catastrophic problems for earth' theory, but the fact that the solar systems planets are either shown as being much more massive, or else much close to each other, than they effectively are ruins the moment for me (especially when the films plot relies so little on this fact).
Then, right near the start of the film again, we have an astrophysicist talking about neutrinos, and studyting them in a subeterranean laboratory. This had its promise, because I know this is exactly what they do. But then we hear some nice 'sciency' buzz words, as we are informed that these nuclear particles are behaving strangely, and are interacting with matter in a way that they usually dont. The astrophysicists explanation: they are mutating.
Nuclear particles, mutating.
Why not just say they are degrading into other particles, or transforming, or something like that. Anything but mutating, a term which should sit firmly in biology, and not physics.
As you can see, this evidence clearly shows these neutrinos are going through puberty.
I could go on all day about the scientific inaccuracies in the film, but I don't want to give the impression that all of this bothers me too much. As I said, brains at the door fun. Its just that these little things could easily have been avoided or changed without altering the film pretty much at all. I can let the objections to tsunamis making waves in the middle of the ocean big enough to knock over ships, and the improbability of a limousine being able to drive through a building as it collapses, fly out the window; because this is the entertaining stuff I wanted from this kind of movie, and it wouldnt be the same without it. But the  astrophysicist could have just said something more sensible, and the planets aligning could have been shown to look more like stars, than actual planets in the near distance.
On to the next cringe worthy moment, and this time it was due to technical buzz words, as opposed to scientific ones.
In every scene that he is in, much like his role in Zombieland (also released in 2009); Woody Harrelson steals the show. This was a great year for fans of Woody (that doesnt sound right), one of which I happen to be ever since growing up in the 90's when he taught me that in fact white men can jump.
Two prime examples of how not to wear a cap so as to keep the sun out of your eyes
Anyhow, childhood references aside, Woody Harrelson plays Charlie Frost, a deranged conspiracy theorist who turns out to be pretty much right about everything in the end. The thing that bugs me here is only a minor point, but it irked me on re-watching nevertheless.
When Charlie is trying to inform the protagonist of the worlds impending doom, he tells him to 'download my blog', to which John Cusack clicks a few buttons on a laptop, and ends up watching a nice little flash animation outlining the films basic disaster plot.
'Download my blog'? Is that really how we talk about it? Perhaps I am being picky, perhaps I am wrong, or perhaps this was just meant to be the crazy characters quirky way of talking; yet I cant help but be annoyed that he didnt at least say 'look at my blog', or 'watch this video', or something that makes a bit more sense. It really just seems like someone who isnt savvy with todays technology trying to write some dialogue. [p.s. I know Woddy's character to be computer literate as he made the animations himself].
"Stand back; I'm about to do some internets"
My last gripe with this movie involves the President of the United States character played by Danny Glover.
After he gallantly decides to remain with the American public as their nation comes to an end, rather than flee with the other main notable actors to the ships in China, he delivers his stirring last address, and utters this little line:
"We are a nation of many religions, but I believe these words reflect the spirit of all of our faiths: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall..." [dramatic cut-off]
This is what he was quoting, Psalm 23 from the Bible. Tell me, how does that reflect the spirit of all faiths? Also, what about the 30 million atheists in the United States? Do they not warrant a mention here? I know past American presidents have shown a less than accommodating stance toward us unbelievers ("I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God" - George Bush Snr.), but at least Obama's inaugural speech mentioned them on equal footing with other citizens ("We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers." - Obama).
I mean it isnt really a big deal, but like everything else in this rant; it bugs me all the same. How does such a quote reflect the spirit of Buddhism for instance? They arent really fans of the whole 'Lord is our shepherd' thing. Nor are Hindus, or Sikhs, or to a degree Muslims. And what about the poor Scientologists?
"I'm too old for this comparative religion shit" President Murtaugh
Something I also noticed on the news the other day is this report on the suns solar activity, which is at its highest peak since 2005. Spooky huh? After all, it is 2012, the year the Mayans famously predicted the end of the world.
Except for it isn't. The Mayan long count calendar ends in December 2012, but then again so does the calendar on my desk at work. When that time comes, I wont be cowering with the ones I love, converting into a dodgy Christian and appealing to my shepherd to look after me; I'll just order another calendar.
Note that this is also what happens with the true Mayan calendar. 2012 doesn't signal the end of the world, but rather just the start of a new long count calendar.
So like most end of the world scares, this too is quickly dispersed with a healthy dose of logic. NASA has a great article debunking the whole 2012 over here.

Rant complete.

25 January 2012

My (Attempt At) Musical Development

Throughout my life I have found myself slowly progressing towards easier and easier musical instruments as my lack of talent becomes apparent, and defeats each attempt I make to coax out the musical genius that my fervent singing in the shower confirms must be in me.
It started off years ago with the guitar; borrowing my sister’s electric one after she stepped out of her punk girl phase and somehow stepped into the ‘country girl’ role she was in for a while. This was back in the late nineties, and I was in the punk rock stage of my musical life. The internet was already on its way to taking over our lives back then, and so each day at school I would browse the ‘World Wide Web’ using Altavista, and find myself pages and pages of guitar tabs to print off, and take home with me.
Vintage Internet.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to print off talent, or patience, and so it wasn’t long before the guitar took its place as an ornament in my room, slowly gathering dust.
The next stage I found myself in was one where I had accepted my lack of chordophonical skill, but had yet to give up the part-time dream of being able to rock out in a band. Thus I moved my attention toward the drums.
Having graduated from a high school student punk rock mentality, into a more mature university student classic rock attitude, I was now a diehard fan of Led Zeppelin, with Achilles Last Stand ranking among my favourite songs of all time (it remains at its perch on the top of my list to this day).
For those of you who don’t know the song, it has some absolutely amazing drumming from a Mr John Bonham, whose prowess with the sticks sadly could not stop him from asphyxiating on his own vomit. Naive though it may seem to base your choice of instrument on a song which contains very advanced examples of that instruments application, I nevertheless decided that perhaps drumming, with its simple ‘hit the thing with a stick’ premise, was my key to conquering the musicians title.
For a little while drumming actually seemed like something I could do. I was happy to learn that almost every basic drum beat in AC/DC’s catalogue was comprised of the same pattern, though perhaps different tempo’s (if you were lucky). So while one minute I was on the Highway to Hell, and the next I was accidently strolling off to do some Dirty Deeds; I nevertheless felt I was actually playing something, rather than just emitting various ill-timed noises.
Though I was far from competent, there was at least the tacit assumption that I was capable, if only lacking somewhat in practice. I was no Manny, but hopefully I wasn’t a Fran either.
Damn your talent Bill Bailey!

But as it turns out drumming is a bit of a commitment. You can’t whip out your drums at a party or on a lazy night, and simply strum out some tunes. Drums are not portable, and they are far from subtle. So while they aren’t mobile, drums are nevertheless in your face; you never miss the fact that someone is drumming near you, because they are actively hammering their presence into your auditory canal.
Look. At. Me. I. Am. Drumming.
As such drummers are usually relegated to the more remote corners of residential existence; to garages, sheds, or ‘back rooms’. Living with my parents at the time, it was the outdoor shed for me. So if I ever got the drumming bug, I had to brave the often frigid Ballarat weather, and sequester myself away to the confines of a shed for a few hours.
For a while I kept up practising; after all I had spent around $400 on the kit, which back then I measured as around fifteen slabs of beer (the standard university students measure I believe).
But this too soon fell prey to the combination of lack of talent, and lack of spare time. The drum kit stopped being an instrument, and started being an unwarranted occupier of space in my dads shed.
Since that last attempt I had been pretty busy, what with marriage, fatherhood, and moving out into the workforce; as such my dreams of discovering subterranean musical talent were put on the side burner (or onto the New Years resolution list, which is effectively the same thing).
But now, as I progress further from my mid twenty's and try not to stare at the big 30 sitting over the horizon, I have decided to again give music another go. Thus I now move on to my latest attempt at musical accomplishment: the harmonica.
My Suzuki harmonica, courtesy of Sovereign Hills Waterloo Store
I wasn’t the best at plucking strings; my attempts at banging membranes were likewise unsatisfying, so perhaps blowing air through something will prove to be my forte.
If i am not successful, at the rate I am going by 2015 I shall be playing the kazoo, and from then on I may just have to relegate myself to humming, or the gentle clapping of my hands.
Wish me luck.

21 January 2012

A Curious Trend

I have noticed a spate of language based posts on my blog, like here, or here, and even here. It's odd because I don't really know much about language, and have many other interests I presumed would have taken a higher billing here. I suppose this is just a bit of a side effect of writing a blog, because I am exposed to language in a recreational sense much more than I would have in the past. I am an extremely curious person, so once a rant gets in my head, I soon follow the rabbit hole down as far as it will go, and with the internet at my fingertips, its makes for quite a deep hole.
This is why my previous posts on offensive language managed to grow a bit out of hand, and rather off their original topics.But at the end of the day, I really love expanding my knowledge, and learning as much as I can about the world, so this isn't a bad thing.
Speaking of which, since I had been blogging on offensive language and offensive words so often, I figured it was time to get a bit more educated on the subject, and got myself a Kindle copy of this wonderful book.

I had heard great reviews of it in the past, and thought it time to get better acquainted with that most versatile of word; fuck.
It has proved entertaining so far, with an in depth history of the origin of fuck furnishing the beginning of the book. But so far the stand out thing for me has been the revelation that before we called the smaller members of the falcon family kestrels, they were referred to as windfuckers, or fuckwinds. This was due to their propensity to hover in the air, or 'fuck the wind'.
I love that this page exists.
No doubt as I read further something else will tickle my fancy and soon enough you will find another offensive language based post coming your way.
That's all for now dear reader.

Rant On Offensive Words

Earlier in the week I wrote about offensive language in a blog post regarding an Australian man found guilty of offending the wrong people in Saudi Arabia, and was subsequently lashed for his actions. Today I want to look at the somewhat curious example of offensive words, as opposed to offensive language.
There is I think, an important distinction between these concepts worth noting. Offensive language doesn’t necessarily infer the use of offensive words. I could write a wildly offensive sentence aimed at Christians or people of a specific race, without having to employ a single unsavoury word. Instead you would have to listen to what I am saying beyond the use of single words, to understand what the crux of my theoretical diatribe was.
There are however people who balk at the very mention of what they believe to be offensive words, regardless of how they are employed.
South Park dealt with the seemingly magical power some people believe curse words have in this episode. Yet Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly understand the mundane nature of such words, and that as our languages evolve and change, these things inevitable lose their power (unlike those in their show, who retain their cursed nature, to disastrous effect).
Indeed the dulling down of offensive words over time seems to be the norm, with the graveyard of former swears being populated by such innocuous words as leg (they preferred limb in the old days, pants ("Thats pants!" was the exclamation) and even occupy, which had sexual connotations that make the Occupy Movement of last year all the more confusing. Then there are the other swears which have just been blunted, but still retain their core meaning; like crap, damn, bloody and bugger.
But the reason I have brought this up today isn't just so i can start listing curse words (though that would be fun), it is due to this story that popped up in the news a couple of days ago.
Here we have an 18 year old American called McKay Hatch upset over the fact that a toddler in a TV show says what appears to be the word ‘fuck’. The episode is titled Little Bo Bleep, and apparently handles this situation quite delicately, and presents it in a most benign way.
In actuality the young actress says fudge (so Mr Hatch can at least take solace that her mind has not been poisoned by her having to utter this four letter word) and in the show her mouth is pixilated, and the word bleeped out. I always do find it amusing that we bleep out the word, but generally allow the consonants to remain intact.
Nevertheless  Hatch  takes exception to this. As a founding member of the 'No Cussing Club', he believes that 'cussing' not only degrades people lives, but hurts the world around you, and in swearing (using the oath giving meaning of the word here) to give up 'cussing', you can improve the lives of the people around you..
Representatives of the show explained their rationale for this episode, which seems perfectly reasonable:
"We thought it was a very natural story since, as parents, we've all been through this,"
This reminds me of a proud moment as a parent when our son first used a swear word, and did so in perfect context. It was upon pulling up at a petrol station, only to find the bowser out of action (and after explaining this to Harrison), that our son 
disappointingly exclaimed “Not working? Oh shit”. Brilliant!
Not this Bowser obviously.
In a sense I respect those who are offended by the concepts behind statements more than those who are offended by the mere words being used. Though as I mentioned in my previous post, you still need to be able to elucidate in a rational manner why it is you are offended, and why such offence should be taken seriously.
Concepts can be offensive, but it is rare that I would think a word in itself, devoid of any meaning, should be considered offensive. And make no mistake; that is what some people believe.
Fuck is one of the greatest words around, there have been books written about it, studies done into its psychological benefits, and praise levelled on it as being the second greatest gift that the British Empire bestowed upon the world (the first of which, if you are wondering, is the great game of soccer). Such a versatile word is not in of itself offensive, I think its fucking great; and I’m not alone.
However as with most hastily thought of rules, there are exceptions. In this case I think words that may warrant a further analysis regarding their intrinsically offensive nature are those specifically designed for more nefarious means. This would include things like racial epithets, discriminatory language, and other such derogatory terms. An obvious example of this, and perhaps the most powerful in today’s society, is the word nigger.
Nigger can be seen as offensive in almost any circumstance (and I'm going to ignore the whole 'nigga' to take back the word argument for simplicity's sake), because it brings along with it the implicit assumption of a stereotype originally directly linked to the word. A nigger was less than human; a nigger was property. And to say this word to someone these days is generally an attempt to remind them of this.
Yet even in this regard, people can take it too far. While reading an article on the word nigger by the late great Christopher Hitchens the other day, I was interested and rather amused to read this passage relating his introduction to the taboo surrounding it in American society:
“I found this out myself recently, when I went on Hardball With Chris Matthews. It was just after John Kerry had (I thought unintentionally) given the impression that young people joining the armed forces were stupid. Chris asked me where liberals got the idea that conservatives were dumb. I said that it all went back to John Stuart Mill referring to the Tories as "the stupid party." After a while, the Tories themselves began to use this expression to describe themselves. I added that the word Tory was originally an insult—it means something like brigand in Gaelic—and it had also been adopted, by those at whom it was directed, as a badge of pride. In this respect, I went on to say, it anticipated other such appropriations—impressionist, suffragette—by which the target group inverted the taunt thrown at it and, by a kind of verbal jujitsu, turned it back on its originators. In more recent times, I finished with what I thought was a flourish, the words nigger and queer (and I may have added faggot) had undergone some of the same transmutation.
Very suddenly, we went to a break, and the studio filled with unsmiling people who detached my microphone and announced that the segment was extremely over. My protests were futile. Should I have remembered to cover myself and say "the N-word" instead? It would have seemed somehow inauthentic. Did MSNBC think that anything I had uttered was inflected with the smallest tinge of bigotry? Presumably not. So, what we now have is a taboo, which is something quite different from an agreement on etiquette.”
I apologise for the long citation here, but Hitchens is a man whose prose I find it hard to prune.
But even this shunning of the objective use of the word nigger in the United States pales in comparison to stories such as the Washington D.C. official who was forced to resign after using the world 'niggardly' in a conversation with some co-workers about funding. Niggardly meaning 'not generous' or 'stingy', and having no racial overtones; just sounding a bit reminiscent of another word was enough to cause offense.
There are even those who believe that simply changing the word you are saying in these instances, yet keeping the overall tone and gist of your message, is somehow preferable; particularly if you substitute gibberish, or foreign words, for your expletive. Penn and Teller featured an American lady who believed in just such things on their awesomely named show Bullshit!. She advocated using the word ‘santa vaca’ rather than any English swears, even though this is in itself a swear in a foreign language (it means 'Holy Cow' in spanish, though not that much of a swear). She even created a hand gesture called the ‘whole turkey’ to use in the place of the much more efficient middle finger, when one wants to show others just how they feel (as in her view the 'whole turkey' is better than just 'flipping the bird', as Americans like to call it). This to me is a prime example of someone missing the point. It isn’t the gestures or the words themselves that are offensive, but rather the way they are employed, or the meaning they seek to evoke.
Penn put it very succinctly at the end of the episode whilst frightening a dog all too reminiscent of my own:
Now this post has gone on far longer than i had planned, but I can hardly finish a post on offensive language without including some words from the eminent lover of language, Stephen Fry.

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” – Stephen Fry

So that's it for yet another language rant, of which there appear to be a lot popping up on here. I hope it was enjoyable, but I cant be fucked writing any more.

19 January 2012

Battling Demons and Personal Responsibilities

At what point do we get to pass of our character flaws as the much more courageous sounding ‘battling of demons’? I sure would like to know, as it can turn a seemingly embarrassing or shameful thing and turn it into a somewhat admirable struggle; almost a sign of integrity, as if we are truly a virtuous person being assailed by forces beyond our control, but nevertheless susceptible to our attacks.
How can I battle this ‘I'm a slob’ demon all by myself?
I am of course bringing this up because of the recent death of Amy Winehouse*, that talented young woman who died at the curious age of 27, and yet despite the universal acclaim of her talent I can only seem to recall one slightly telling song where she was urged to go to rehab, but she said no, no, no.
I woke that day with my wife telling me Amy Winehouse had died, and I didn’t really stop to think how; it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. She must have died from some sort of drug related cause; as if there were anything she was more famous for than her voice, it was her addiction problems. This instant acceptance of such a death is something worth lamenting enough as it is, because it almost takes away the tragedy of her life and replaces it with an acceptable stereotype. It’s almost as if people don’t care as much about the death of a drugged up star because that’s pretty much what we all expect.
Lamentations aside, what truly bothers me about this affair is the way that she is described in the media, and the all too common way that in today’s society people with problems are often talked up in an attempt to mollycoddle the public, which apparently have some vested interest in those being in the spotlight retaining some form of integrity.
This is why we see drug addict footballers being referred to simply as substance abusers, actors who beat up women are labelled as troubled, racist or abusive sportsmen are actually just controversial, or other such examples. In each and every case the problem with this person is turned around to either be an external force working against them or worse; a problem with how we perceive them, as opposed to how they are. The famous person who does drugs can’t be held accountable for their actions, because they are famous for a reason, and it’s almost as if people are so unwilling to believe that people who are good in one respect (be it sports, or acting, or music)can also be so deficient in another. We want everyone to be role models, even if they only show an outward aptitude at one specific thing.
He is rather good at rugby, so surely it’s not his fault he pretended to have oral sex with a dog....
It seems to me that in the past, role models emerged out of the fray, and were acknowledge simply because they were exceptional examples of what one should strive to become. Before fame was such a simple commodity to trade as it is today, word would only spread of a person’s overall virtue if it were earned in the arena of society. Only then were such examples made clear to the world. But then again I am basing this assertion on no real knowledge, just a glimmer of a point.
I have many personal flaws which I am not proud of having, and I try to work on them as best I can. But the thing is; I don’t talk about myself as if I am some perfect human being, living in an imperfect shell. My personal flaws are my own to work on, something which I hope can be overcome by my personal virtues (whatever they may be). If I were to take the line of thinking that anything which detracts from my character is a demon I have to battle with, well then what’s the harm if I relapse at some point? I mean it can’t all be my fault now can it? Because I was putting up a fight at least, and in this round, well the demons simply won. And I might pick up the fight again, but perhaps after this nights bender is over.....
And don’t get me started on the controversial label! When a famous athlete caused a row in last year for racial slurs (alas I cant remember which one right now), they weren't being controversial in any degree worth mentioning, as there is no controversy here that holds any sway. Their views were just downright wrong in our society. If you hold that this kind of thing is controversial, then it seems to me that there is more validity added to the arguments opposing side, which in this case is a side that asserts some form of race based value judgements. Last time I check, that wasn’t an issue in Australia; it doesn’t divide the nation.
Now if you think that this kind of thing can be considered controversial because it deals with issues of free speech and what is or is not polite to say, then fine: but don’t be afraid to say so. Say the use of racial slurs as part of free speech in this country causes controversy, but don’t for a minute mistake this with the persons comments, or the person themselves, being controversial.

Rant complete....
*This is a post I wrote back in July last year, right after the death of Amy Winehouse. The basis of the rant still seems relevant, so I figured I would chuck it up here.

17 January 2012

Linguistic Attire

Note: There may be a lot of Blackadder references as this blog continues
"Language is the dress of thought" – Samuel Johnson
I came across this interesting quote the other day thanks to my daily work calendar. Initially I agreed with its premise, thought it made for a nice saying, and was prepared to go on with the rest of my day. With language as the dress of thought I imagined that good dress (language) would amount to good thought.
However upon reflecting on this I was a bit dismayed when I realised what the implications of this would be for me. I am not very good with my language (as evidenced I believe by that mash-up of a sentence), though if pressed I would like to be able to maintain that I am somewhat half decent with my thoughts. I can cobble together a cogent argument when the need arises, though perhaps not in as succinct a way as a more experienced rhetorician.
Luckily later in the day as I was reading the quote over again (and started writing the predecessor to this blog post); I began to interpret its meaning in a different light.
You see originally I was working under a false assumption so often enforced in our society; that those in better dress are better people. Or in this case, thought dressed with better language is better thought. However we can look at other examples, bereft of our preconceived prejudices against sloppy dress, or ‘good’ thought, and see an ancillary truth in this statement all the more clearer.
One can dress up an ugly person in appealing attire; much like one can dress up ugly thought in appealing language. The Nazi’s were experts at this, with the horrible atrocities of their regime being glossed over with terms such as ‘final solution’ or ‘special treatment’. Likewise one can see past the unsightly clothing of a person to see their true beauty, or see through ungainly language to hear the true beauty of one’spropositions.
So rather than taking the original quote as trying to make any value judgments about the dress, or the thought, I feel it makes a more simple distinction of the relationships between these concepts. It was only an error in my analysis that made me apply this maxim with any hierarchy in mind. Luckily however, I started to write up my thoughts on the subject, and soon began to see the chinks in my armour.
Language as the dress of thought is something we must be aware of. It can be a tool for making our thoughts more available to the public, or even more palpable to others (after all, a naked thought can be like a naked person; perhaps attractive, but also equally likely to be a bit shocking, if not outright confusing). Conversely we must be careful to look beyond the language and dress presented to us, and try to best judge things on their fundamental merits.

Rant complete.

Oh and if you were wondering why at the beginning of this post I went with the Robbie Coltrane version of Samuel Johnson from Blackadder over a historical portrait of the man, this might answer your question:
He has a face for the meticulous cataloging of the English language.....

14 January 2012

"I'm offended by that." Well, so f#@king what?”

Is it in bad taste of me to point out that there has been surprisingly little backlash regarding the lashes Mansor Almaribe’s back was recently doled out by the Saudi government? Perhaps it is, but I can’t help think that in the face of such absurdities, perhaps an initial resort to humour is natural if only to help remind ourselves that we are so (hopefully) removed from this form of conduct as a nation.
Physical punishment sanctioned by the courts is in itself such a contentious (and contemptuous) notion, whether it be in the more grotesque manifestation of executions (capital punishment), or the more ‘mild’ examples of state sanctioned physical abuse (corporal punishment); but it is nevertheless all the more hard to swallow when it is used in conjunction with a charge of blasphemy. A charge which when you look at it rationally, is no more than the utterly harmless act of offending someone.
It brings to mind the image of a toddlers understanding of justice. You hurt my sensibilities, so now I am going to hurt you. There is no distinction between real hurt and perceived hurt.
There is a reason this picture is here, and it may become clearer at the end of this post (or if you are more studious with your link following)
The problems I have with blasphemy laws are not solely based on my atheism, though it does help. It is more centred on the fact that these laws lie upon the foundation of one taking offence against their own personal feelings, and seeking to ban this upon others. This might be seen as a rational thing to do, were it not for the fact that what offends me is not only unlikely to, but rarely ever guaranteed to offend others; even on a majority basis.
Anyone can find anything offensive, that doesn’t in itself mean that anything which can be labelled offensive must be curtailed without contestation. Indeed, I am offended by the fact that such things happen. It offends me that in today’s society a country that murders its citizens because they believe them to be witches can be afforded a rational response when they then decide to physically abuse people for offending others.
It offends me, but that in itself doesn’t warrant any action by others. If you can’t back up your offense with some semblance of a rational argument, then why should it be taken seriously? I personally believe that I could very quickly come up with a rational argument supporting my views listed above, and get a hearty proportion of the public agreeing with me. I would offer the same challenge to those whose personal offense is based more on personal taste and sensibilities, than it is any recognition of universal human rights or attributes.
The Australian government has suggested that the Saudi embassy in Australia should go to more effort to explain etiquette to those undertaking the hajj pilgrimage, so that any future instances of offending the ‘companions of the prophet Mohammed’ could be avoided.
It is an interesting thing to ponder, because offense in regard to religious beliefs can be so easily taken, and is in many cases unavoidable. Indeed it only seems to be avoided either by the sloppy thinking of the ‘offendable’, or the careful holding of the tongue by someone able to offend (note: that is usually anyone holding a viewpoint that fails to exactly match those of the ‘offendable’). For instance, Mr Almaribe is a Shiite Muslim. Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, and by predominantly, I mean legally and enforcedly. It is a theocracy where people of certain religions can’t travel to certain areas of the kingdom, and if you apostatise from Islam, you can legally be put to death. Presumably the Sunni contingent of this incident would be suitable offended simply by Almaribe’s opposing faith, were it properly laid out before them. True they are both Muslim, but then again Catholics and protestants are both flavours of Christianity, and look how well they used to get along. This is what I mean when I say that offense can only be mitigated either by sloppy thinking on the offended’s behalf, as they fail to realise the heretic in their midst, or else by silence on the offenders’s behalf, as they hide the aforementioned heresy.
This sort of offense knows no real bounds, and is limited only by how much one is willing to take their own personal feelings about something, and hold it above others rights to do, say, or otherwise express themselves, and any opposing views they may have.
Our government may very well want the embassy to point out how to behave in their country, and what is offensive to their state religion; but one wonders how they could do that in a rigorous sense, and still hope to present a place worth travelling to for the average Australian.
No doubt I would be offensive in this regard, as by my very nature I would fail to adhere to the religious norms, or observe any religious customs. It would only be a matter of how offended people choose to be, not really how offensive I was being. As given enough motivation, a modicum of offense could be found merely in my lack of faith.
Type 'offense' into Google Images and most of the resultant images are of American football....

Perhaps I have let this rant fly on for too long, and maybe I have unjustly correlated offense with blasphemy (and forgotten what I started my post on…). But in all honesty, I can’t see how blasphemy is anything but offense at the religious level.  And in today’s world, so sensitive as it is to things like insults or offense; I can’t help but remember this quote from Stephen Fry who dealt with the subject a few years back:
“It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I'm offended by that." Well, so fucking what?” - Stephen Fry.
So fucking what indeed.

(p.s. Corporal punishment - Blackadder episode - General Melchett - Stephen Fry. Get it?)

10 January 2012

Dizziness of Freedom

I am somewhat scared of heights. I wouldn’t call myself acrophobic, in the sense that I am not paralysed by the experience of heights, and don’t suffer panic attacks or anything of the like. But I am uncomfortable with heights, and with the feelings I get from them.
There are obvious reasons why a fear of heights would be favoured by evolution; it doesn’t take much to see why an individual who shy’s away from cliffs may be more likely to survive than their friend who likes playing on the precipice. Likewise there can be obvious discomforts associated with heights, most common being a feeling of vertigo or loss of balance as the visual cues our brain uses to correct our motion move further into the distance, and thus afford us less accurate points of reference to work with.
However these examples are too biological to fully satisfy me with regard to my own reaction to heights. It is all well and good to say that these physiological things can compound into a fear of heights, or at least a discomfort with them; but us homo sapiens’ are one of the lucky species able to not only understand out evolutionary origins, but to also (in a sense) overcome them. There are other natural fears, such as a fear of spiders or darkness, which we can use our reason to overcome. Yet I still find myself experiencing a visceral response when I am elevated beyond the norm.
Plus this photo freaks my eyes out....
Though I may know that the handrail is secure, and that I won’t be falling; I still feel the primal pull towards something less than pleasant. I can be in a tall building, staring out a window in the complete knowledge that I am as safe as the thousands of people who use it every day; yet the pit of my stomach beckons. My mind can reason, but it is nevertheless still contained in a brain, and subject to its evolutionary idiosyncrasies.
I did however find another satisfying explanation a few years back when was reading about Kierkegaard. I came across his idea of the ‘dizziness of freedom’, whereby in some cases the fear of heights can be described not as a fear of the simple fact of being at a considerable height, but rather the second hand fear, or subconscious dread, associated with the fact that you could at any point choose to throw yourself off the edge. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom he said; the fact that you have the will within yourself to do these things brings up an unfocused fear inside merely because of this fact.
"I must find a truth that is true for me. And someone who can draw bodies" -  Kierkegaard
This to me was a more satisfactory explanation of my own feelings regarding heights. I am not afraid of height in itself, but rather of the possibility (and dare I say urge) to throw oneself over the edge.
I get the same feeling, that quiver at the base of my stomach, when I am a passenger in a car going at speed along a highway. The knowledge that just outside my door is a similar drop to a closer, but equally fatal, moving highway. Accessible with a simple exercising of my own free will; I could just as easily open the door and plunge to the asphalt, as I could defenestrate myself from a sky-scraper.
I don’t want to do these things, for the obvious fear of the consequences; but it is a possibility, and something seemingly only kept at bay by the very will which could bring about its execution.
Though I guess as with a lot of explanations, this is just pushing the onus back a bit further. After all, then we have to wonder why the tacit acknowledgement of such possible manifestations of the will is something that our subconscious minds can fixate upon. After all I feel the unfocused fear of this action much more than I do any number of other possible, yet undesirable, actions that are in my arsenal. I don’t feel the dizziness of freedom when I am near a fire, though I know I could throw myself in, nor do I feel anxiety when I am in the presence of poisons, though I know I could imbibe them.

Though some poison I do indulge in
It must simply be the undeniable visual cues, the involuntary sense data that enters our minds via the optic nerve, and sets its subconscious processes working against us. After all to recognise that we are up high takes a lot less deliberative effort than it does to understand some of the other threats mentioned.
Also, at the end of the day, it is much easier on ones pride to shy away from heights based on a reasoned philosophical argument, than it is to just admit that you are scared of heights. So perhaps I will just stick to that for now.

Sidenote here: In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre described vertigo as “anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over”, which seems to be similar to what we are talking about here. Except for the fact that vertigo and a fear of heights aren’t exactly the same thing. Vertigo is more a sense of spinning when one is remaining still. It is often associated with a fear of heights (not to mention classic movies (see above), or Arrested Development skits), but can be experienced at any time.
[Oh, and I couldn't find the vertigo clips from Arrested Development, so i settled with the best of Tobias.]

And with that I declare this random post complete.