an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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More impressions of Budapest, mainly

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Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with 'Saint Stephen', Hungary's first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic

Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with ‘Saint Stephen’, Hungary’s first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic – sort of steampunk sans irony

Once we’d checked in, we didn’t much want to leave the air-conditioned comfort for the cold and damp, so we settled in at the hotel bar for a bit. I’d decided to over-dress to cheer myself up – fancy tie and colourful waistcoat, etc – so this elicited discomforting looks from the definitely not over-dressed bar people, and even smirks and laughter from passers-by when we decided to brave the weather and try out an ATM down the road. When a particularly attractive damosel made some obviously mocking remark about me to her beau I was stung into trying out a charming French greeting, but she ignored me. Our ATM venture was also unsuccesful, it would only spit out Magyar currency, aka forints. Still I was beginning to warm to the city, as I noticed a lot of attractive, interesting-looking young people on the streets, all dressed mostly in black. This was probably because, as I discovered next day, the city’s principal university was very close by.

The next day was slightly warmer and drier, and we went for a walk to the nearby museum, an absolutely massive building which was closed, and only open a few days a week – a bad sign I thought. The university precinct, though, gave me the sense of lively Enlightenment that all such areas do. We took some lunch in a pub across from the hotel, after which I took a stroll down to the nearby Danube, where I discovered a lively cafe hub, just one street back from the river, jammed between the usual tall, tightly-packed examples of Euro-impressive architecture. By which time I’d decided I really liked Budapest, but I’m probably more easily pleased than most.

There were a few touristy/traveller problems though. The flight had affected my normally regular sleep pattern, and two weeks into the holiday I still haven’t regained any sleep normalcy (I’m writing this at 3am in Amsterdam), and my cash-flow concerns weren’t alleviated by another ATM failure. This time I’d pre-located nearby a so-called ‘Euro-ATM’ via GPS on my phone but when I got there I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of its instructions, and I ended up withdrawing a massive number of forints – something like 400,000 of the buggers – thinking I’d receive euros. This is no doubt the closest I’ve come to being a demi-millionaire in my life, but I felt more like a bloody idiot, with a pocket stuffed with a wad of currency that would be practically useless to me within 24 hours. My stress about this caused my first contretemps with my TC, who decided to shop for something warm to wear, in consideration of the somewhat unexpected chilliness, and so left me waiting longtemps outside stanping my feet and sensing the beginnings of a cough and a ‘bubbly dose’, when all I wanted to do was get to a bank that would turn my unearned forints into a maximum of euros. So after an all-too-familiar nasty spit-spat I stamped off to a bank. I’d been warned off having dealings with money exchangers, whose shingles were all over the place, because they apparently charge extortionate commissions, but in the bank I was advised by a friendly young teller in perfect English to use a money-changer down the road who charged no commission and whose rates were much better than the bank’s. This sounded all very helpful and civilised and I followed the young man’s directions precisely and with alacrity until I came to a kind of hole-in-the-wall booth advertising no commission and told my tale to a solemn-looking university type who very carefully counted out my great bundle of forints, typed a formula into a calculator and asked me silently to approve the result, some 800-odd euros, which I could only pretend to know was correct. But I really did feel enormous gratitude that these people seemed to be on my side, if that’s not too self-indulgent a term. Shortly after leaving the hole-in-the-wall with great relief, I stopped as my heart skipped a beat – should I have ‘tipped’ the fellow for his good sevices? I must say I can’t stand the stress and strain that tipping and haggling and such things causes. I’m no good at either, and I’m sure it’s not just a matter of inexperience. It’s just not a fair system – I would rather that people charged plainly and were paid appropriately, so I don’t have to fret about it…

Anyhow, I was happily cashed-up and ready to start the cruise….

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.

 

*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.

TRIP HIGH/LOWLIGHTS

– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.

 

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 1

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Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.

Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?

Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm

remarks subsequent to my preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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the modest vessel we may be travelling on - specially designed to resemble passing buildings

the modest vessel we may be travelling on – specially designed to resemble passing buildings

As might’ve been guessed, I’ll be maxing out on prétention française in this blog series, as soon I’ll be desecrating French soil for the première fois since gaining a degree in French Lang & Litt, aged 32, more than a standard generation ago. Just the other day I reached the end of my French duolingo app. I was horror-shocked, I thought it just lingoed on forever, but no they have no more to teach (BS really) and the only next step is immersion, supposedly.

The problem is, l have enough trouble speaking to people in my first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if l’ve spoken to myself (aloud) more than to the whole rest of humanity. The best conversations, selon Chekhov [literary ref 1]. My vocab’s pretty extensive, my reading’s well fluent but I have trouble stringing a speaking sentence together even in my head (l’m referring to French by the way), so l’m looking forward/not looking forward to the challenge of Paris.

But before that lies the riverboat cruise, and I’m prepping for it by rereading David Foster Wallace’s ‘a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ [litt ref 2], which l first read when it came out 20 years ago and found almost inexplicably exciting, comparing it (in conversation with myself, aloud) to Shakespeare himself [litt ref 3] in its lingual liveliness.

‘a supposedly fun thing…’ was a piece of journalism Wallace wrote for Harper’s, reflections on a 7-day Carribean cruise in one of those floating wedding-cake-type vessels passengered almost entirely by obese middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and mainly owned-and-operated by those seafarers of long standing, Greeks and Scandinavians. I thought that rereading it now would happily reinforce my cynicism about such pleasure cruises, and also provide a rich scatter of points of comparison. What I’ve found is a darker side to his observations I hadn’t fully noted on first reading, but which Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has naturally primed my attention to. Here’s the clearest example:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with the crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling  of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

These dark remarks, out of a clear Carribean sky, made for an unexpected turn in the narrative, but they forced my focus onto the saturnine aspects of the whole. Was the staff’s hierarchy really so aggressive? The pampering so relentless? The passengers so grotesque or pathetic? The cruise in general so despair-engendering?

Anyhow, Travel Marvel, the cruise company we’ll be sailing (deliciously al fresco word) with, is Australian-owned, a marvel in itself, so l’ll be expecting a more laid-back perfection. And though l may lack Wallace’s prose luminosity l may also lack his lugubriosity, for better or worse. Encore, on verra.

Silly postscript: While writing this and getting tired, I baulked at having to copy out the longish quote from Wallace (I type horribly), so I tried Siri, the not-so-hot Apple voice-recognition thingy. It did mostly OK with the occasional mangle, to be expected with oddities like ‘banalised’ and ‘gaiety-noise’, but there was one cackle-inducing clanger – ‘with the crushing sense of my own small nose’. Poor D F Wallace, rest in peace with no more crushing burdens large or small.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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follow the thick blue line

follow the thick blue line

I’ve been working desultorily on a number of blog pieces which I’m struggling to finish, partly because they’re hard work but also because the excitement and stress is building for my maiden voyage overseas, not counting my barely-brain-developed boat-trip to Australia from Southampton aged 5 – memories include a camel train on the banks of the Suez, being rescued from drowning in the ship’s pool, and being befriended by an older kid which mainly involved being chased around the decks a lot. So from this day forth I’m devoting this blog to the trip, lots of short sharp and shiny shite, around 500 words daily, though I’m unlikely to keep to that limit, seriously.

So I’m not yet packed and wondering about the Aus$ which they say is rising and that’s good for OS travel. I’ve been described – though only by one person, my travelling companion – as a Scottish mothpurse and my main stressor is definitely $$$$ – sadly I don’t have the symbol for euros on my keyboard. I think the recent rise means cheapie flights but ours was paid-for long ago. The current Aus$ buys .68 in euros and I’ve no idea whether that’s good or bad or better than it was, whenever was was. Anyhow nothing to be done so let’s change the subject to my moustache. I thought it’d be a fine frivolity to grow one for the trip, something Frenchy and chic and daft, but after about four days’ growth it’s looking more Hitler than Charles Boyer, who was too chic to sport a tache anyway, and besides I’ve never liked them. At least my hair’s grown salt’n pepper with age, and seriously short on pepper, so it’ll be prominent as frost on a silver dust bush, and a change is as good as a haircut so I’ll leave it growing for now.

I’m at the frantically seeking advice stage. Got my first-ever passport – had to become an Australian citizen, which made me feel like a fraud come congratulations time – money-belt, international connector thingy. Downloaded Skype for myself and my travelling companion (though I won’t be using it, having no friends and family), had it explained to me that Messenger through Facebook is the cheapest form of communication – would desperately love to have an extra TC, aged about 13, to keep me straight on smartphone technostuff etc. Told to wear stockings on the flight, against DVT, which I may not, and have found hopefully the right advice against aerosynusitis, aka plane brain, which had me folded over my seatbelt on a recent flight to Melbourne. Still have to photocopy my passport, do some house-cleaning and catfood-buying for my house-sitter, and other things I can’t remember. My mind’s blanking out unpredictably so I’m sure to stuff something majorly up, but my TC’s coming over tomorrow to help with the packing and share the stress.

Okay the itinerary. A 14-day cruise or thereabouts down the Danube-Main-Rhine from Budapest to Amsterdam, after which a two-night stopover and then a train to Paris for a week’s stay on the île Saint-Louis, the walls of our cosy pied-à-terre lapped by the Seine, plus ou moins. Then down the tunnel and two nights in once-swinging London, and then, hurly-burly done, back to the serenity and quiet contemplation of home. On verra.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 7:44 am

Posted in blogging, curiosity, Europe, technology, writing

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Pourquoi science? – inter alia

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hussey274

So as I approach my sixtieth year I’m in a mood to reflect on my largely wasted, dilettantish life (at least seen from a certain perspective… ).

It seems to me that my two older siblings and I were largely the products of benign neglect, if that’s not too unfair to my parents, who seemed largely pre-occupied with their – highly dysfunctional – relationship with each other. Anyway this neglect had its advantages and disadvantages, and it was offset by at least one key decision of my mother (by far the dominant parent). She had us taken to the local library once a fortnight to borrow books, and there were always books aplenty in the house, including at least two sets of encyclopaedias. So from the age of six or seven until I left home, the local libraries became a haven.

From almost the beginning though I felt a difference between learning, which was a thrill, and school, which I suffered in silence. My first strong memory of school comes from grade one, when I was five or six. My teacher asked me to read from our class reader and I had to tell her that I’d forgotten to bring it from home. She blew up at me. ‘You’ve forgotten it again! What’s the matter with you? How many times have I told you,’ etc etc. I was extremely humiliated. I was learning that I was vague, forgetful, disorganised, and it was all too true. Shortly after this, I arrived at school and discovered I’d forgotten my reader again. I was so scared I hid in the bushes until break time, when I rejoined the class unnoticed, apparently (though probably not). I remember the sense of being defiant and tricksterish.

It’s funny that I’m now a teacher who checks students’ homework and has to admonish those who don’t do it, because as a kid in primary school and later in high school, when the issue loomed much larger, I never did any homework. Not once, ever. I even got caned for it in high school. And suffered endless screaming fits from my mother when the matter was reported back to her. I remember many sleepless nights fretting about how to survive the next day’s questioning, but still I was unable or unwilling to comply. I spent a lot of my school days staring out the window, daydreaming of freedom. One day I watched a tiny bird – a hummingbird, I thought, but we have no hummingbirds in Australia – hovering a bit driftily above some bushes, for ages and ages. What an ability, what a perspective it had! And yet it felt constrained to hover there. Maybe only humans could free themselves from these ‘natural’ constraints.

funny-math-answers-2funny-test-answers-smartass-kids-21

 

I concocted an idea for a novel, which I confided to my sister, of schoolkids rising up and throwing out the teachers, establishing an ‘independent state’ school – an idea I probably took from Animal Farm. She was very enthusiastic, probing me on the details, assuring me it would be a best-seller, I would become famous. I became briefly obsessed with contemplating and planning the takeover – the secret meetings, the charismatic leader, the precisely organised tactics, the shock and dismay of our former masters, the nationwide reaction –  but of course I soon stumbled over the outcome. Surely not Animal Farm again?

I learned over time that Elizabeth, our town, was the most working-class electorate in South Australia, with the largest percentage of labor voters in the state, and possibly even the country. Of course, one had to take pride in being the biggest or the most of anything, but what did it mean to be working-class? Was it a good or a bad thing? Was our family more or less working-class than our neighbours? I was discovering that interesting questions led to more questions, rather than to answers. That, as Milan Kundera wrote, the best questions didn’t have answers, or at least not final ones. Of course, the provisional answer seemed to be that it wasn’t good to be working class, or middle class, or upper class, but to move beyond such limitations. But I was learning, through my library reading, which increasingly consisted of Victorian English literature for some reason, that class wasn’t so easy to transcend.

I continued to struggle as my schooling moved towards the pointy end. Classmates were dropping out, working in factories, getting their first cars. I was wagging school a lot, avoiding the house, sleeping rough, drinking. My older brother started an economics degree at university, probably the first person in the history of my parents’ families to do so as the prospect of university education was opened up to the great unwashed, but I was unlikely to be the second. I recall wagging it one afternoon, walking to the end of my street, where the city of Elizabeth came to an abrupt end, and wandering through the fields and among the glasshouses of the Italian marketers, armed with my brother’s hefty economics textbook, and getting quite excited over the mysteries of supply and demand.

And so it went – I left school, worked in a factory here, a factory there, went on the dole, worked in an office for a while, got laid off, another factory, moved to the city, shared houses with art students, philosophy students, mathematics nerds (whom I loved), wrote volumes of journals, tried to write stories, ritually burned my writings, read philosophy, had regular bull sessions about all the really interesting things that young people obsess about and so on and on. And I haven’t even mentioned sex.

I’d always been hopelessly shy with the opposite sex and wrote myself off as eternally poor and inadequate, but I loved girls and fantasised endlessly. I felt guilty about it, not because I thought it immoral – I never had any moral qualms about sex, which made it all the more easy to dismiss religions, which all seemed to be obsessed with regulating or suppressing it. I felt guilty because sexual daydreaming always seemed the lazy option. I was like Proust’s Swann, I would tire easily from thinking too much, especially as those great questions never had any easy or final answers. So  I would give up and indulge my fantasies, and even the occasional unrequited or unrealistic passion for real female acquaintance. I remember hearing of a celebrated mathematician who would wander homeless around the USA I think it was, couchsurfing at the homes of mathematical colleagues male and female, inspiring them to collaborate with him on mathematical papers, so that he held a record for the most papers published in peer-reviewed journals. An attractive female colleague laughed at the idea of an affair with him, because apparently everyone knew he was entirely asexual, had never been heard to even mention sex in his life… Could this be true, I wondered, and if so, how could I create for myself a brain like his? It seemed to me that Aristotle was right, the pleasure derived from certain types of contemplation was greater than sexual pleasure (though dog knows I’d hate to forgo sex). I’d experienced this myself, grappling with something in Wittgenstein, reading a passage over and over until an insight hit me and set me pacing around my bedroom all night long talking to myself. But maybe it was all bullshit.

So now to get to the heart of the matter – pourquoi science? As a youngster I read novels, and sometime works of history – one of my first big adult books was a very good biography of Richard III, which I read at 14, and which came flooding back when Richard’s body was miraculously discovered recently. But I never read science. At school I quickly lost track of physics and mathematics, while always being vaguely aware of how fundamental they were. Through philosophy in my early twenties I started to regain an interest, but generally I’d resigned myself to being on the arts side of the great divide.

One book, or one passage in a book, changed this. The book was Der Zauberberg, or The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, which I read in 1981. This was the story of Hans Castorp, a young man in his mid-twenties, as I was when I read it. As a tubercular patient, he was sent to a sanitarium in the Alps for a period of enforced idleness, where he encountered a number of more or less interesting characters and was encouraged to grapple with some more or less interesting ideas. Wrapped up on his loggia, he was reading some books on fundamental science, and fell into contemplation, and in a passage of some fifteen pages he asked himself two fundamental questions, both of which branched off into a whole series of sub-questions (or so I remember it). They were: What is life? and What is matter? And there was something about the way Mann animated this Castorp character, as ordinary a fellow as myself, and made me identify with his questioning and his profound wonder. It just flipped a switch in me. These were the questions. They could easily fill several lifetimes. No reason ever to be bored again.

93080-M

I immediately went out and bought my first ever science magazine, Scientific American, and throughout the eighties I bought each monthly issue and read it cover to cover, not always understanding it all of course, but gradually building up a general knowledge. Later I switched to New Scientist, and nowadays I read the fine Australian magazine Cosmos, as well as listening to science podcasts and reading the odd blog. I’m far from being a scientist, and I’ll never have more than a passing knowledge – but then, that’s all that even the most brilliant scientist can hope for, as Einstein well knew.

But here’s the thing – and I’ll expand on this in my next post. It’s not science that’s interesting – science is just a collection of tools. What’s interesting is the world. Or the universe, or everything. It’s the curiosity, and the questions, and the astonishing answers that raise so many more questions. For example – what is matter? Our investigations into this question have revealed that we know bugger all abut the stuff. And when we were young, as a species, we thought we knew it all!

Next time, I’ll focus more deeply on science itself, its meaning and its detractors.

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Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.

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Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.

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Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.

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Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.