Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Imponderable III: The Self

I was a curious kid. I wouldn’t have been more than eight years old when I learned that green things are green because they absorb the light that isn’t green. Not that I’m claiming I understood it fully. For some time I was mystified as to why green cellophane didn’t make things look red when you looked through it, because I thought absorption was basically light going into the object while reflection was basically light bouncing off the object, so that light going through the object was more like absorption than reflection, because it didn’t bounce off, so if green objects absorbed red light then how come...?
In case you are puzzled by this yourself, absorption isn’t about light “going in”, it’s about light going in and stopping (because its energy has been captured and redirected elsewhere, always at least partly into raising the object’s temperature). The primary distinction is between light that stops and light that keeps going; the latter category is secondarily divided into light that passes through and light that bounces off.
However, at least some of my high-school chemistry classmates had evidently missed this information, because when our teacher explained how the red dyes in a plastic ANZAC Day poppy absorbed shorter wavelengths because the electrons in the iron atoms jumped up a couple of valence shells, or something, one of them exclaimed “So it’s not really red? It’s just that it absorbs the other light?”
This isn’t the Imponderable on consciousness, that’s still to come, so I won’t here speculate on why our experience of colour feels so removed from the Newtonian interpretation of light wavelength and frequency. The point here is this idea that photon absorption is somehow cheating – that there must be a “real red” somewhere which isn’t faked up out of all that physics-y stuff. Because people who have got past that, and are perhaps even now chortling at my sixteen-year-old classmate, are still susceptible to the idea that there might be “real” fear, “real” anger, or “real” love floating around in amongst their synapses and neurotransmitters.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

This is how I write when I have a word limit

Earlier this year the Labour History Project held a competition calling for essays on people’s vision for New Zealand. I entered this, but – as you can tell from the fact that I’m blogging it – I didn’t win. My title was “We Can Do Better”, because I’d spent all the time available on the essay itself and had to come up with something vaguely snappy-ish at the last minute. Because it was written for an audience of politically conscious New Zealanders, I mention quite a few things in passing which I would have had to sit down and explain for an international audience. I’ve put in links that hopefully should be helpful there. I wrote this all before the recent revelations about the Auckland rape gang and the beyond-incompetent police response to it, or that would have been the major focus of the essay.
Yes, this is how I write when there’s a word limit. When I worked at a local student magazine my style was described as “brisk”. I guess it makes for quicker reading but I hate not being able to explain all the nuances.

We humans are very good at coming up with solutions to our problems. Unfortunately, the solutions tend to create more problems. Plumbing means cleaner cities but dirtier oceans. Literacy means less ignorance but more squinting. The best we can hope for is that the new problems are smaller than the old ones. Then we can solve those ones, and so on.
So if you want to know what the future looks like, don’t look at the people celebrating existing ideas. Look at the naysayers, the people picking holes in them. Look at the Earth Hour people, not the “Human Achievement Hour” people. They’re where the next wave of improvements will come from.
That’s why I don’t take a Utopian approach to politics – any more than to housework. I’m never going to make the house perfectly clean, and it wouldn’t last long if I did. Instead my philosophy is what’s called meliorist, from the Latin for “better”. You see something that needs fixed, you fix it. You see something that needs cleaned up, you clean it up. You make things better than they were before.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Silver Chair

Lady Luna,
in light canoe,

By friths and shallows
of fretted cloudland

Cruises monthly;
with chrism of dews

And drench of dream,
a drizzling glamour

Enchants us – the cheat!
changing sometime

A mind to madness,
melancholy pale,

Bleached with gazing
on her blank count’nance

Orb’d and ageless.
In earth’s bosom

The shower of her rays,
sharp-feathered light

Reaching downward,
ripens silver,

Forming and fashioning
female brightness,

– Metal maidenlike.
Her moist circle

Is nearest earth.

Friday, 11 October 2013

How you know it’s rape culture: this is still an argument

Content note: rape, victim-blaming, misogyny, child abuse
Most of the time, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to go through life without having to think about rape or sexual assault. Lately, several things have happened that have brought it to my attention. I’m not a rape survivor, though I have experienced some very minor indecent assault as I’ll discuss below. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of rape survivors. But I’m disgusted to the point I can no longer not say anything.
In particular, I need to speak up about one of the things that have happened because, a year ago, I wrote a pair of Facebook Notes about patriarchy, which I copied over to this blog here and here; and in the first one, I drew on an article by Michael Shermer (who, if you can’t be bothered Googling, is a well-known writer in the atheist community) for ideas on how to break male domination at the corporate executive level. And the thing that has happened is that Michael Shermer has been credibly accused of rape. I don’t want to take the patriarchy articles down, but I can’t just leave them there like nothing’s happened either, not without condemning the crime Shermer is alleged to have committed. I would love to believe he never did such a thing, but that’s frankly pretty implausible.
Another major thing is that here in New Zealand a man attacked two young women. At trial he was convicted of aggravated robbery but acquitted of indecent assault despite his lawyer agreeing that he had, in fact, indecently assaulted them. The sentencing judge speculated that “the foolishness of [the] two victims, venturing out alone at night in a park in a strange city, dressed as they were” had contributed to the jury’s decision. Put together, the verdict of a jury and the words of a judge make what we call “legal authority” – think about that. Then neoliberal icon Bob Jones wrote a grossly offensive commentary on the incident in the New Zealand Herald, which I’m not going to link you to and give him page hits, but here is a rewrite correcting Jones’ hatefulness, courtesy Marama Davidson at The Daily Blog.
And just so as not to be totally negative, a third thing was that I was in the crowd to hear this inspiring speech at the Dunedin SlutWalk.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

In which I argue with myself about abortion

I’ve written on this subject before, but that was a couple of years ago and I’ve had time to think about it more since then. Especially since a lot of the bloggers I read are passionate about it. Mostly on one side but some, including some of those closest to me, on the other. Though – don’t get me wrong – I have firmly picked one side, I’m more convinced than ever that the two sides are talking past each other.
What I’d really like to see is for people from both sides to sit down and have a civil conversation about it, but that’s not looking likely. The last time I saw a debate on the subject, it ended with someone ragequitting Facebook. Failing that, I decided to write a dialogue between a pro-choice character and a pro-life character. It’s been done before, of course; Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates was one of the formative books of my childhood. And that brings up the next problem, namely writing a dialogue honestly when you disagree with one side. Who gets to stand for the Wrong side and get zinged? How long will it take before they become a blatant strawman?
Well, in my case I have the perfect candidate. This is an issue on which I have changed my mind; therefore, my interlocutors will both be myself, on either side of the change. I’m not claiming that everybody – or anybody but me – on either side holds the opinion I present on their behalf here. I do promise that they both honestly represent my opinion on the subject at different times in my life. I know myself well enough to know that if I were to meet myself I would ignore any topic to hand and try to figure out how the time loop I’d obviously run into worked. Therefore, the dialogue takes place over the internet and neither side is aware that they are the same person.
TheHatMan is approximately me at age 19, but I haven’t pinned him down to an exact point in my life. Also, he’s magically clued-up on things like Google which weren’t around in 1997. However, a content note: he is even less mindful of privilege than I am and at one point makes an inappropriate rape analogy. VeryRarelyStable is obviously me now, except that wherever TheHatMan discusses things in his own life VeryRarelyStable has conveniently forgotten them (and vice versa).

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Horse and His Boy

Next beyond her [Luna]

Mercury marches; –
madcap rover,

Patron of pilf’rers.
Pert quicksilver

His gaze begets,
goblin mineral,

Merry multitude
of meeting selves,

Same but sundered.
From the soul’s darkness,

With wreathèd wand,
words he marshals,

Guides and gathers them –
gay bellwether

Of flocking fancies.
His flint has struck

The spark of speech
from spirit’s tinder,

Lord of language!
He leads forever

The spangle and splendour,
sport that mingles

Sound with senses,
in subtle pattern,

Words in wedlock,
and wedding also

Of thing with thought.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Tao of bullshit

For some reason a lot of the traffic to this ’ere blog lately seems to be coming from a video advertising The Tao of Badass, a book by someone called Josh Pellicer. He starts out doing the RSA Animate thing of hand-drawing cartoons to illustrate what he’s talking about, but halfway through he seems to have got bored with that and switched to (badly-punctuated) text in the middle of a blank white window. This is far from the only way that Pellicer’s video is a waste of space, so I’m not linking it here. You can Google it if you must. How exactly Pellicer is sending pageviews my way I don’t know, because there’s no link to Very Rarely Stable on the video page. Either it’s on a message board which you have to sign up, presumably having bought the book, to see, or it’s some kind of spambot. Spamming people’s blog traffic stats doesn’t strike me as a terribly effective way to sell a product, but hey.
Josh Pellicer is a man on a mission. A mission to (make money by pretending he’ll) help guys get laid. You can tell it’s dodgy right from the get-go, because there are no controls on the video. You can’t stop it, pause it, or even change the volume. You can only watch. That tells you straight away, same as a telemarketer’s pitch, that this person can’t afford to let you stop and think before you commit to what he’s selling. At the beginning the voice-over tells you the video will be taken down after 24 hours. I’ve now seen it three times, weeks apart – no, I only sat right through it once, but I’d say that’s a pretty good gauge of the quality of what Pellicer has to hand out.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The right kind of equality

Nine years ago almost to the day as I write this, the Māori Party was formally established in this country. Many people, most prominently its co-founder Tariana Turia, were dissatisfied with the then-governing Labour Party’s stance on various issues affecting Māori; the final straw was the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The point is that recently, a bunch of dopey munters have set up a Facebook page and called themselves “the Pakeha Party”, because isn’t it racist to have a Māori Party and no Pākehā Party? Er, since people in other countries do occasionally seem to visit this blog, though judging by my comments filter you’re all spambots, I need to explain that “Pākehā” is the Māori word for the European-descended majority culture of New Zealand.
The other thing that happened recently has been dubbed “the Man-Ban” by the New Zealand media, because the New Zealand media is apparently a fourteen-year-old kid. The Labour Party was considering implementing a quota to ensure equal numbers of male and female MPs, and allowing some electorate offices to seek only female Parliamentary candidates. Read that again: they were considering the idea, and (had they not backed down in the face of the media) some electorates would have been allowed to seek only female candidates. Nothing had been decided for sure, and it wouldn’t have been mandatory. But that was enough to spark a nationwide whinge-storm from people who would never have dreamed of running for Parliament for Labour.
You see the common thread here, right? In both cases the complaints are about what has been called “affirmative action” and “reverse discrimination”. If it’s sexist to keep women out of office, isn’t it sexist to keep men out of office? If it’s racist to give white people special treatment just because they’re white, isn’t it racist to give Māori people special treatment just because they’re Māori?

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”

Far beyond her [Venus]

The heaven’s highway
hums and trembles,

Drums and dindles,
to the driv’n thunder

Of Sol’s chariot,
whose sword of light

Hurts and humbles;
beheld only

Of eagle’s eye.
When his arrow glances

Through mortal mind,
mists are parted

And mild as morning
the mellow wisdom

Breathes o’er the breast,
broadening eastward

Clear and cloudless.
In a clos’d garden

(Unbound her burden)
his beams foster

Soul in secret,
where the soil puts forth

Paradisal palm,
and pure fountains

Turn and re-temper,
touching coolly

The uncomely common
to cordial gold;

Whose ore also,
in earth’s matrix,

Is print and pressure
of his proud signet

On the wax of the world.
He is the worshipp’d male,

The earth’s husband,

Arch-chemic eye.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

My brother is wrong

Just in case this is the post where I pick up a reader outside of my circle of family and close friends: My brother’s name is Patrick, he’s five years younger than me, he used to have a LiveJournal but I presume he isn’t using it any more because he posted this as a Note on Facebook instead. It’s set to “public”, so you can read it here as long as you have a Facebook login, but you needn’t worry if you haven’t because I’m going to quote the whole thing in sequence through this response. (Although, as you’ll see, he does take after me to a certain extent in the general area of philosophical wibbling, he doesn’t write to quite the kind of length that I do.)
Patrick’s Note is uninformatively titled “A few ideas” and begins as follows:
In the beginning, the universe was created.
There are two things that together convince me of this:
  1. The physical law of entropy; and
  2. The philosophical ‘First Cause’ argument.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

What’s wrong with economics

When you take lecture-notes for students with disabilities, you learn all kinds of interesting things. Well, it depends on the subject, of course. Fourth-year dentistry is of limited application, given I have no intention of ever becoming a dentist. But last year I took a first-year Economics paper – OK, I only took half of the lectures for that one, the other half went to some other note-taker, but it has given me considerable insight into how and why Western society is so screwed-up. (I also took several ecology-themed papers, so now I know both what we’re doing to our food supply and why we’re not going to change course until it’s too late.)
Lots of things have been suggested to explain what’s wrong with economics, so first of all let me say what the problem isn’t. The problem isn’t that economics models complex real-world situations with mathematical abstractions. Plenty of sciences do that; simplifying complexity is how we come to understand it. The problem isn’t that economics puts a money value on everything. Money is basically a measure of how much of a crap people really give about things, as opposed to wishing other people gave a crap about them; consider the saying “put your money where your mouth is”. The problem isn’t that economists don’t recognise the “intrinsic value” of natural systems (in the landscape, the biosphere, or the body). Value is about choices, priorities, and meanings, and those are people things, not world things. The problem isn’t that the models require people to act “selfishly”. People do act selfishly quite often – that’s why moralists everywhere have always had to tell us not to – but, more to the point, the logic of making and saving money applies regardless of whether it’s for you or for someone else. The problem isn’t that economists are all bourgeois intellectuals seeking to maintain the class structure that upholds their power. That might explain why errors have been made and not corrected, but not what the errors are. And the problem isn’t that economics assumes rational actors whereas people are in fact stupid – but that’s getting closer, except for the “stupid” part. People don’t behave the way economics presupposes they should. I’m going to have to go into a bit more detail here.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Prince Caspian

But other country

Dark with discord
dims beyond him [Sol],

With noise of nakers,
neighing of horses,

Hammering of harness.
A haughty god

Mars mercenary,
makes there his camp

And flies his flag;
flaunts laughingly

The graceless beauty,
grey-eyed and keen,

– Blond insolence –
of his blithe visage

Which is hard and happy.
He hews the act,

The indifferent deed
with dint of his mallet

And his chisel of choice;
achievement comes not

Unhelped by him;
– hired gladiator

Of evil and good.
All’s one to Mars,

The wrong righted,
rescued meekness,

Or trouble in trenches,
with trees splintered

And birds banished,
banks fill’d with gold

And the liar made lord.
Like handiwork

He offers to all –
earns his wages

And whistles the while.
White-feathered dread

Mars has mastered.
His metal’s iron

That was hammered through hands
into holy cross,

Cruel carpentry.
He is cold and strong,

Necessity’s son.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Imponderable II: Free Will

I began the first Imponderable by bagging on Jim Flynn’s ideas about free will. I’m terribly sorry to give an unbalanced impression of Flynn, who is a first-rate political theorist, but I’m going to have to do it again. Some day I will do a political blog post which pays proper tribute to Flynn’s immense positive contributions to human understanding. For now, I’m afraid Flynn’s very clarity and force of expression make him the best starting-point for exposing the confusion in the traditional Western concept of free will.
The concept of free choice is perfectly coherent and easily stated. Free choice, to the extent that it is real, would be an uncaused cause. It is the opposite of what we call an epiphenomenon. A good example of the latter is the reflection of a tree in a pond: if you cut down the tree, the reflection disappears; but if you drop a rock on the reflection, the tree is unmoved. An epiphenomenon is all effect and no cause. If free choice exists, the present self has a genuine choice between (at least) two alternatives and creates a future that would not otherwise have existed. If we decide to pick up hitchhikers as an act of charity at a greater risk to our lives, the world will be different: more hitchhikers will get to their destinations quicker and some extra lives will be lost. Free choice breaks the flow of the world from past to future and thus the result is what philosophers call “metaphysical discontinuity”.
Jim Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? p. 265

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Busting a (capitalist) myth – with tools you presumably have at home

Back before I had this blog I did a Note about this on my Facebook. It wasn’t all that clearly written, so I didn’t transfer it over to be a blog post. But I referred to that Note in another Note, the one about patriarchy, which I did transfer over, and I find I replaced said reference with a promise to do a blog post on it “soon”. So, um, I hope five months is soon enough to count as “soon”.
I wrote the original when the Occupy movement was enjoying its first wave of enthusiasm. There was a popular photo meme of people holding up placards giving some facts about their financial situation and then “I Am the 99%”. And then, of course, came the reaction; photos of people holding up things saying “I’m not the 99%, I worked to get where I am, get a job you hippie” (I’m paraphrasing, but not unfairly I think).
This narrative goes way beyond a few photos on Facebook. It is written deep into our society’s economic philosophy. Choose to work hard and exercise your talents, and you will be rewarded with wealth. Choose to complain and protest instead of knuckling down and getting things done, and you will be rewarded with poverty, for which you will have no-one to blame but yourself.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Soft breathes the air

Mild, and meadowy,
as we mount further

Where rippled radiance
rolls about us

Moved with music –
measureless the waves’

Joy and jubilee.
It is Jove’s orbit,

Filled and festal,
faster turning

With arc ampler.
From the Isles of Tin

Tyrian traders,
in trouble steering

Came with his cargoes;
the Cornish treasure

That his ray ripens.
Of wrath ended

And woes mended,
of winter passed

And guilt forgiven,
and good fortune

Jove is master;
and of jocund revel,

Laughter of ladies.
The lion-hearted,

The myriad-minded,
men like the gods,

Helps and heroes,
helms of nations

Just and gentle,
are Jove’s children,

Work his wonders.
On his wide forehead

Calm and kingly,
no care darkens

Nor wrath wrinkles:
but righteous power

And leisure and largesse
their loose splendours

Have wrapped around him –
a rich mantle

Of ease and empire.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On running videos backwards

Not so easy, of course, with DVDs. You can search backwards, of course, but it skips back in little still-frames, you don’t see the action run backwards as you could with a video cassette if you rewound it without stopping it first. We didn’t have a TV at our house, let alone a video, but we got to watch a movie on the last day of school one year (I think it might have been Herbie Goes Bananas) and they ran the tape backwards when it was finished and we six-year-olds just laughed and laughed, it was all so funny.
I’ve heard, though without any titles or names that would help me Google it, that someone once actually made an entire movie that way – acted everything backwards, and also filmed everything backwards, so that when it was played things happened forwards but everything was subtly weird. But what makes it weird? What were we all laughing at when I was six?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Explaining the internet to C. S. Lewis

I always loved the Narnia series as a kid. It took a back seat when I read The Lord of the Rings, mind you, but it never fell off the bus altogether. I read the Cosmic Trilogy and the Screwtape Letters in due course. Then, as a teenager, being nerdy and a Christian, I got heavily into C. S. Lewis’s apologetic writings – I think his argument for the supernatural in Miracles (the relevant chapter is reproduced here, and I’ll deal with it in depth in an Imponderable some time) may have delayed my atheism by about five years. Lewis became one of my heroes, and I strove to emulate him. Various people have been kind enough, through the years, to praise my writing for its clarity; they have Lewis to thank.
During that time, I got into the habit of having imaginary conversations with C. S. Lewis. This isn’t so unusual. I tend to have imaginary conversations a lot with Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker or whoever I’ve been reading lately (though mainly only non-fiction; I don’t do this with Terry Pratchett). But I read so much Lewis that it became ingrained. When I became an atheist, the conversations became distinctly more adversarial, but they continued.