August 29, 2005

Lysenko's New Endrun

Soyfer's Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, again: is Intelligent Design (ID) the new Lysenkoism? This is hardly a new idea, and while ID hasn't caused (and isn't likely to cause) the thousands -- perhaps millions -- of deaths that Lysenkoism caused, directly or indirectly, it's difficult to miss the parallels, especially the relentless populist end-run around the niceties of science as an institution, method, and tradition.

Both movements are faith-based insurgencies that believe in the primacy of revelation and authority over experience and experiment; in both cases it's really not about science, but about power, and the ability to impose your own worldview and rules on others; both are unholy alliances of the deeply-cynical and True Believers; both rely on sleights of hand with language (equivocating on loaded words like "theory", using terms like "secular science" or "bourgeois science" to demonise opponents, etc.). Both movements see themselves as a small band of righteous little people going up against the powerful elites -- never mind that both movements are (or were) fundamentally rooted in Power. And both movements maintain -- in a deeply dishonest and hypocritical way -- to be doing "real" science, even to be saving science by putting it back on its true path again with the help of Marx or a God-behind-the-curtain.

Until very recently, with the ID kerfuffle the science side seems to have been particularly naive, believing that truth will out, and missing the points that a) this isn't about science -- it's a political argument that won't be won without matching the immense PR and marketing resources available to the ID movement; and, b) even if the truth is recovered again in a decade or two, the damage done in the meantime (as with Lysenkoism) can be immense. And the trouble with ID is that, if you don't know much about evolution or science in general, ID sounds so emminently reasonable -- as does the idea of "teaching the controversy" (never mind that the controversy is entirely political, ideological, or religious, with no science component at all). Any attempt to denigrate ID without taking this into account just makes things worse -- you seem to be attacking an obviously reasonable and safe proposal.

What to do? I don't know. In my gloomiest moments I think it'd be best to hitch evolutionary science to some sort of religion just to give it the heft and fanatical support ID can get from the same crowd... (no, I'm not serious. Not yet, anyway). In any case, in the US at least, the science side has already all but lost the argument, and I'd guess that ID's going to be an increasingly-integral part of the educational landscape for the next generation or so in American schools. And as America, so often so Australia...

August 28, 2005

California Riffing

"Some day I would like to read Socrates while stuck in traffic on the Hollywood Freeway." -- Ed Ruscha (again) in an old Sunday NYT Magazine interview.

As opposed to reading Socrates while stuck on the phone or while watching reruns on the tele? Jeez, I'd even settle for watching Socrates (the only thing I remember for real about him is that he smoked a pack a day).

August 25, 2005

A History Of The Sky

I can't pretend to be an unbiased observer here -- Tactics was a large part of my life for a few crucial years in Sydney back in the late 1970's and early 1980's. For most of that time Angus and David were good friends of mine; I was even part of Tactics itself for a short troubled time. So treat what follows with the usual skepticism, and remember -- I was definitely an outsider in the world described here....

I think I first saw Tactics through the Particles connection -- I'd known various Particles people for a little while, originally through mutual friends based around a studio that later became a crucial part of the Tactics story. A bunch of us from that group were at my Abercrombie Street house and we all wandered down to the Royal, my local in those days, to see a band they knew who was playing there that afternoon.

From a distance it didn't sound too conventional: not punk, not straightforward rock, not what was then becoming New Wave, just a loud fast thrash with high-pitched singing, heavy drumming, and a generally frantic air about it all. I wasn't too impressed until we walked in and the sound -- and what was happening in general -- became clearer after a song or two. The singer -- wiry, frenetic, casually dressed in a slightly arty sort of way -- was singing about a "buried country" -- black blood on frozen ground -- words that were deeply evocative in the Redfern area of that time, but that didn't hit you over the head or reach for the cliches. The other guitarist (another skinny guy) looked vaguely familiar. Despite the general looseness, the songs seemed to hold together pretty well -- the singer's driven rhythm guitar got everything through despite the mess, and the drumming was sharp as hell. And while the music wasn't particularly complex, it wasn't plain old three-chord stuff either -- it had a lot of the same sort of odd progressions that I heard in my own head while playing, and the way the second guitarist played a lot of simple single- and double-note stuff against the singer's rhythm guitar worked well for me. I thought it was worth staying around for the rest of the show, even if I didn't much like the singer's high-pitched singing.

Then they started a cover of Paint It Black. Christ, I thought, a Stones cover... that does it for me, I'm going. But this version was fast, absolutely driven, with that signature airy rhythmic Tactics thrash that I later always found addictive. Shit, I thought, this is the way to do The Stones... shorn all of that smug ponderous Stones knowingness. And shit, I thought, that's a little brave -- an unironic Stones cover at a time and place (and sub-culture) where the Stones were almost universally despised.

The whole set left a good impression, especially the unforced Australianness of some of the lyrics. Even then there weren't too many people singing seriously about Australian stuff (beyond the usual kitsch or easy icons), and there seemed to be a general seriousness of purpose to the songs and the band as a whole that attracted me a lot. Too much Sydney punk and the then-developing post-punk was becoming too self-conscious, too ironic, sometimes even twee (at least for my tastes), and to see someone play a bunch of songs with serious lyrics that were unselfconsciously about Australia, art, words, the world (as well as love and all the rest) -- that was, sadly, pretty damn novel. And the music was addictively rhythmic and fast. And the entire band looked unpretentious, being dressed, well, like me -- nothing showy, nothing too interesting, nothing designed to grab attention visually. After a lot of the punk posturing of that time, that seemed a relief.

I hung around until the end of the set, and, since the Royal wasn't the largest place on earth, we all ended up talking. I met David Studdert -- the singer -- who was pretty off-hand about it all, and whom I didn't much like to begin with, and Angus, the other guitarist. It took a while, but it slowly dawned -- this was the same Angus Douglas I'd known back in Canberra a few years ago when we were both kids. Shit, small world. And shit -- a Canberra band. I had trouble believing the last part -- especially since they were pretty much all from down there. As was I, in some ways. How the hell had I missed them so far?

And that was it for a month or two. I don't think I really thought about them again until a bunch of us ended up back at Angus and David's place in Darlinghurst after a Particles gig and I unwittingly started a new phase of my life...

(An intermittent series of unreliable memories and fragments, a sub-thread of the broader Punk (and Later) thread):
Nostalgia
The State Opresses
Making My Houdini
Glebe
Second Language
Excelsior
The Sound Of The Sound

August 23, 2005

Justified Terrorism

A few weeks ago the Weekend Australian called Hiroshima "An awful act in a just cause". Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Trouble is, almost any act of terrorism can be called that by someone -- think "Stern Gang", or "Dresden", or "Amritsar", to name some obvious examples. To take a much-derided (but very accurate) slogan, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter (which doesn't mean the freedom fighter wasn't also a terrorist -- that half of the equation tends to get ignored).

The Weekend Australian typically just can't bring itself to call Hiroshima and Nagasaki what they were -- monumental acts of terrorism. The central question isn't whether this was terrorism (it was, by almost any sane definition of "terrorism"), but whether that terrorism was justified (I don't have an easy answer to that one -- it's hard to second guess at this distance). Clearly, in the past we have decided that -- and will decide again in the future that -- some acts of terrorism are indeed justified. Which is unremarkable -- Western governments have used "justified terrorism" for centuries now, and would never give up that option without a fight.

For example, the recent shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police was terrorism -- it had the effect of striking fear into any innocent person who might want to use the Tube. The killing was a deliberate act that reminds all of us who's actually in charge, and it keeps up the level of fear in all of us who have to deal with the Met or other like forces (as it was clearly supposed to do). And, as with such things, the Met and the government are going to call this a regrettable accident. They just won't have the courage to call it what it is -- terrorism. From the government's point of view, justified terrorism. Same as it ever was.

August 22, 2005

Celebrating Tamed Nature

The bookshelf in the hotel room at Gualala has -- amongst the by-the-yard Readers Digest collections -- a bunch of books like a 1985 editon of The Macintosh Bible, Fundamental Accounting Principles, John Dean's Blind Ambition... and on the side table, one of those great old 1960's Time-Life books, this one on The Plains States, an engaging and idiosyncratic look at a time and place I know almost nothing about. The only Black faces are in a group shot of a Kansas City Jazz get-together. Plus there's an intriguing old book in Danish, "Endnu Level Eventyret" ("på rejse med Jens Bjerre"), which surveys the natural and human world through Bjerre's eyes, with a two-page spread on the then-new Snowy Mountains scheme, and (naturally) a page or two on the Opera House. I can't help it -- I spend hours poring through both books looking at the unnatural high-contrast colours of the photos (very Ektachrome and Kodakchrome...), the optimistic text, the almost complete dominance of old-tech, the general invisibility of the environment, the celebration of tamed nature. The Time-Life book has an entire chapter on the Plains Indians, a sad and typical story, with some astonishingly good black and white social realist photos; there's one of a young girl helping her father carry wood on a cart -- I want to know what happened to her...

August 21, 2005

The Sonoma Coast

Summer on the Sonoma coast: parched rocky fog-burnt hills, stunted bent-over pines, a craggy beachless waterline, 500' cliffs shearing into the cold rough Pacific, isolated rocks hundreds of metres off the shoreline, schools of sealions, pelicans, seagulls, outposts of luscious scrubby rainforest in the canyons... my sort of place. Something about the swirl of fog on rolling treeless wind-blown hills here reminds me strongly of bits of Scotland or Devon.

(Part of California).

August 18, 2005

A Nasty Thought...

Keeping the terrorist threat level up (and very visible) works so well and rasies so few grumbles because it really plays to peoples sense of self-importance.

August 16, 2005

Alyson Best's Face

Paul Cox's Man Of Flowers: Alyson Best's face (luminous, radiant, real), Werner Herzog trying to act, the repeated ironic motif of "You're a good man ...", Norman Kaye's willful diffidence, Bob Ellis's therapist, Patrick Cook, the Slug Fuckers East Sydney Tech gig poster in the background of the studio, the way the movie just comes to a halt in that ambiguous final scene -- the swirling seagulls, the stark sillhouettes, the come-together isolated human statues sharing ... something ... more than the view -- that remains in your mind, the whole a jumbled almost plotless series of beautiful vignettes that cohere more as a long impression than a story.

A Melbourne home movie from a certain era, really. But it could as easily have been Sydney...

(Part of Flix).

August 14, 2005

War

It's not so much a war on terrorism as a war on civil rights -- from all sides. Fundamentalists of every stripe dislike human and civil rights (except perhaps for themselves); the people supposedly protecting us from these fundamentalists need to -- or want to -- abbrogate those rights in the name of that protection, or use it as a pretext for their own fundamentalist or whatever purposes.

As with modern wars in general, it's basically the fighters vs. the rest, not one country or armed force vs another.

August 11, 2005

A Tale Of Two Cities

The New York Times remarked recently on the differences between the main newspapers of Los Angeles and San Francisco: one, the Los Angeles Times, has struggled somewhat successfully over the last few years to gain a national readership and distribution; the other, the San Francisco Chronicle, seems content to remain a chatty little local paper with virtually no presence outside the SF Bay Area.

Which rather mirrors the general mentality of each city: LA's a huge, very diverse, outward-looking city learning to flex its muscles nationally and internationally, particularly in the Asian and Latino worlds; San Francisco, on the other hand, is a determinedly self-absorbed provincial little town whose inhabitants typically think it's the centre of the universe, the best place on earth (actually, they don't so much think that as "know" it). LA may have much-superior cultural facilities (think "The Getty" or the Norton Simon, or the LA Symphony, just to name a few... or even the LA Times, for that matter) and a rather more vibrant and interesting culture (admittedly spread across the vastness), but the average San Franciscan seems to have absolutely no doubt that LA is uncultured and not a "real" city (never mind that San Francisco itself is a tiny little town, quite a lot smaller than, say, Adelaide, in terms of population, and about as cosy and inbred).

As a classic example, take the supposed rivalry between SF and LA. If you live in SF, it's a given that LA feels culturally inferior to SF, and that the two cities live in eternal rivalry. But if you live in LA, you're unlikely to even know there is such a rivalry, let alone that you're supposed to be feeling inferior to a town you've barely thought about in the last ten years (I think the average San Franciscan is probably haunted by a growing feeling that LA -- or even San Jose -- is really where the future's being made, where things happen, where the real starving artists and musicians live...).

August 08, 2005

Short Shameful Confession

I've had email continuously since the late 1970's.

August 04, 2005

The First Time

Rereading Soyfer's "Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science", one of the little things that strikes me is the way the Soviets used personal labels for scientific theories: the book is strewn with official Soviet references to "Michurinism", "Michurinist biology", "Virchowism", "Morganism", "Weissmanism", "Mendelism-Morganism", and the most impressive of the lot, "Weissmanism-Mendelism-Morganism" for theories or strands of science that in the West would have been given impersonal names.

I guess the reason's obvious: if you can identify a particular (and probably quite complex) theory with a single person, you can demonise or sanctify the theory accordingly. There's no need to spell out what's right or wrong with the theory itself -- if you can associate it with a person who's been deemed anti-Soviet or anti-proletarian, then ipso facto, you have proof that the associated theory must be evil and wrong as well. A deeply Orwellian shortcut, for sure... (there's a chilling line in one of the short biographies attached to the book that states that two sisters were arrested and sent to the camps after being "sufficiently convicted under Article 7-35 of being daughters of enemies of the people" -- a direct translation of the official record, presumably. They survived).

(This otherwise long dry book, written mostly for an audience who already know who Lysenko was, very occasionally breaks into the almost-lyrical:

"It is difficult for us now to realize that those years [the 1920's and early 1930's] gave the world amazing examples of inspired labor and the sublime poetry and prose of Mandelshtam, Babel, Pasternak, and Bulgakov, even though it also gave rise to Lysenko and Beria and lifted them to the summit of society. Perhaps we can no longer feel what it meant for millions of people to have the good fortune to learn to read and write, to hold a book for the first time, to listen to the radio for the first time, watch a film for the first time, for the first time... for the first time... for the first time.... Liberated people, newly literate, writing -- for the first time in their lives -- fingers shaking with the effort, 'We are not slaves. Slaves we are not.'" (p93).

The rest of it's a tough read if you don't have much Soviet history or general History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) background (I first read it a decade ago, mostly because a large part of my undergraduate studies were in HPS), but it's worth it, if only as a cautionary tale for what can happen when you let Belief and Authority override everything else or you try to institute the sort of Faith-based "science" much of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement seems to want...).

August 01, 2005

Spirituality v. Self-Absorption

Californians so often seem to confuse spirituality with self-absorption that it's hardly surprising so many Californians blithely proclaim California one of the spiritual centres of the world...

(Part of California).


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