About Fiona

I'm a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Brains and Computers

A friend of Facebook posted a link to this article on Aeon by Robert Epstein, The Empty Brain.

The sub explains the argument this essay makes well:

‘Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.’

When you think about it this seems obvious. Brain cells are not bytes. We do not ‘store’ memories or symbols or anything else in specific cells. What we learn, how we change, how we recall and then recount information varies from person to person, experience to experience and will never be found ‘stored’ in perfect replication inside a person’s brain. We do not have root drives, we do think accordingly to algorithms. We do not translate the world into ‘0’s’ and ‘1’s. Yet the thinking around the brain being like a computer is so pervasive it’s almost impossible to think about it in any other way.

By looking at metaphors of intelligence through history and comparing them with the current dominant metaphor that the brain operates like a computer, he argues that in time we are likely to see it as just as silly as notions that intelligence and the brain are the work of humors or an internal gears and sprockets.

He also points out the faulty logic in the premise:

‘The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.’

Essentially this essay is a call to move on from an IP model of understanding the brain. What it subconsciously raised, however, is the lack of alterative metaphors available. After all we do translate the world into something, not ‘0’s’ and ‘1’s exactly, but something.

This too is something we are struggling to understand. We are only just starting to map and document how the brain changes through experiences or disease or simply learning, we can see neural synapses change, identify proteins and chemical changes but we don’t yet know why these things happen or how important they are.

Reading it however, I had a number of thoughts of my own.

I hadn’t previously thought much about the IP model of intelligence but as soon as I read this essay the understanding that it is just a concept among many grabbed my imagination. It’s like when looking at an image in positive space you suddenly see another in the negative, of a white image drawn from the outline of a black one, or when we learn to read, once something is pointed out and understood you can’t easily ‘unsee’ it.

Similarly, the words we use to describe and understand arguments like this are deeply loaded in unseen concepts. Words are conceptual grenades after all, they come packed with overlaid values and assumptions.

Epstein suggests that we don’t need the metaphor of a computer to study the brain, pointing to cognitive scientists who are trying to see the brain in a more ‘naturalistic’ way or ‘anti-representational’ view of human functioning. It will take me a lot longer than it has to read and write this to come to understand the ideas of the two psychologists he points to: Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka from Leeds Beckett University in the UK who blog at http://psychsciencenotes.blogspot.com.au/p/about-us.html.

What I am struck by from the outset however, is there the logic behind this notion is just as faulty as in the example he provided earlier. Consider his: Premise 1: Metaphors are used to help us learn, we use them to interpret the world. Premise 2: Outmoded metaphors can hinder our understanding of the world. Conclusion: We don’t need metaphors to understand or learn about the world.

I don’t think that is true. We use metaphors to help us think, often we bundle them into things we call concepts and words. Concepts are intrinsic to how we learn, interpret, share and approach the world. If evidence and new experiences make a concept or a metaphor we have been using redundant it doesn’t mean we don’t need a metaphor; it means we need a new one.

Epstein makes two other conceptual slides of hand in the essay that I felt needed closer scrutinized. By using an example of trying to draw a picture of a $US1 bill from memory as opposed to from observation he says:

From this simple exercise, we can begin to build the framework of a metaphor-free theory of intelligent human behaviour – one in which the brain isn’t completely empty, but is at least empty of the baggage of the IP metaphor.

As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.

Firstly, the three examples given are only of ‘special note’, so we must assume there are others that are unlisted. Then are the three examples given logically that different? They each denote their own assumptions. I think what he’s trying to suggest is a three stage argument: We learn from observations, learned experience and predictive logic, i.e. this is happening, in the past that happened when I experienced something similar, therefore I believe something similar will happen.

What truly, logically, separates these three categories? We are changed by observation? Can this be separated from any of the other processes? Surely an observation is not in and of itself, a change. What we experience of and around and because of what we observe is vital.

Do we learn or are we changed by ‘pairing’? What does that mean? When we hear a police car and then moments later see it, we will learn to associate the two. Okay, perhaps this is a form of learning. But when you think about it we teach toddlers to recognize pictures of police cars by reading them books and we make the sound of a siren as we read. The two experiences, seeing and hearing, are tied closely together from the outset to form a conceptual whole that allows us to understand the word and its concept, like ducks going quack or cows going moo. Many children will have learnt these associations long before they ever see a police car or a duck or a cow in real life. We explicit teach children to think in this way; to think in words and in concepts, to associate words with images and sounds as a first step toward learning more complex concepts and linking them to words. Would a child outside of this social norm think that way? I don’t know. Can we ever really know?

Then most problematically to me, is this notion that we learn or are changed through punishment or reward. This idea is in itself underpinned by a pervasive assumption, based on a particular theory of human behavior, that we will change our behavior based on our experiences. It has at its core another very powerful concept, that we are utility maximizing rational individuals, the same notion tied up so explicitly in neo-classical economic philosophy. It assumes we will act in our best interests; that we will innately act to maximize our own utility, and therefore ‘learn’ to behave in ways that do so. Simple, but not true. Not always. It’s a model that explains only some of our behavior, like various other metaphors we use. The idea that we will learn based on punishment and reward is as much of an intellectual crutch or metaphor as the idea that we will learn and behave like computers. By not examining what underpins each concept at every stage, we potentially evade effective understanding.

Finally, I was concerned by Epstein’s use of the word, ‘orderly’ .

‘Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience….’ For any given experience, orderly change could involve a thousand neurons, a million neurons or even the entire brain, with the pattern of change different in every brain.’

On what basis is he using the word orderly? Again, it feels loaded. And mechanical. Read that again, ‘all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences.’ This has a lot of nested logic. Can we function in the world without our brains changing in ‘orderly’ ways? Can we function in the world and have brains that changing in unorderly ways? Will our experiences always lead to our brains changing in orderly ways? What happens when they don’t? Nor, does it follow that being able to recall a piece of music or a song sequentially suggests the brain learnt it in an orderly way. Is that the suggestion? I’m not sure.

We teach things logically because we value logical thinking. Teaching things logically encourages logical thinking and is rewarded. Does it follow that logic is the only way to learn? Yet valuing logic is why we liked the analogy of the human brain being like a computer in the first place. Computers are logical. Computers can be understood. We want to think of ourselves and our brains as logical, we’d like to think our brains can be understood. But our thoughts and actions are not always logical. Our brains are not like computers. Emotion and genetics and experiences all create permutations that are not understood. The ‘logic’ of how our brains work may exist but is not yet understood. The outcomes of ‘logical’ brain activity may not be logical.

Since my daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s and I was identified as likely also being on the spectrum I’ve thought a lot about how brains work, what we call normal and what we think of as intelligence.

As we were trying to come to grips with what Asperger’s is and what impact it might have on our daughter’s life we were offered a variety of reading suggestions. One of which was Making Sense of Asperger’s: A story for children by Debra Ende, which specifically uses the analogy of an Asperger’s brain being like a different ‘operating system’ to normative brains, like comparing PCs and Macs. The idea that human thinking is like that of a computer, that our brains are programmed from birth, is as deeply imbedded in thinking about Asperger’s as it is in a variety of other academic forms of thinking about intelligence and human behavior.

From the outset however, I’ve struggled with all of these ideas to explain what I see in my daughter and how I perceive my own thinking. When you are told you don’t think like ‘normal’ people it’s quite startling. To then try and reverse engineer that to work out how ‘normal’ people think is extremely difficult as you start from an untranslatable position.

I find I often don’t agree with how ‘normal’ people try to explain how someone with Asperger’s thinks; something that’s even further complicated by the diversity of symptoms and expressions of Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorder between individuals. It becomes circular: the concept of what it’s like to have ASD you describe doesn’t seem to relate to me but it may still apply to some people. I can’t tell because I don’t know all people. So therefore maybe it does relate to some people but just because they are supposedly like me, doesn’t mean you are describing what it’s like to have ASD. If there are so many ways of experiencing ASD maybe we haven’t defined ASD very well. But as only ‘normal’ people can diagnose us as not being ‘normal’, how can you win?

What I have come to think is that how we define intelligence and the consensus around what constitutes ‘normal’ are deeply flawed. The limitations of the IP model are very much ingrained in this problem.

A key component of the diagnosis for instance was the spread of abilities across different sub-areas of intelligence in a standard intelligence test. That is to say, most people when they are given an intelligence test receive similar sub-score results across a range of cognitive areas, when averaged this sub-scores provide the overall ‘IQ’ number. In people who are not neurotypical the IQ number is seen as less effective at describing the person’s intelligence, as there are significant differences across different sub-score results.

The model and tests for intelligence however, seem to draw on assumptions derived from the IP metaphor of the brain; by proposing that there are effectively different measurable sub-routines within the brain, ie. there are ways of perceiving and thinking that are separate from other processes, logical versus creative thinking for instance, or verbal versus visual thinking, recalling stored memories versus processing memories. This is often described as the difference between memorizing a phone number compared to reciting the same phone number backwards. One is ‘recall’ the other is ‘inverting’ or ‘processing’ that knowledge. These are seen as different operations of intelligence. This is often described as analogous to REM and RAM memories in computers.

I don’t think we yet understand why certain areas of the brain appear to work in sync on specific tasks and functions. We think of the brain as one organ, while recognizing that different parts of it have different functions but the way they interconnect still being explored.

As an aside, writing this explains why I usually have many, many tabs open in my browser. Reading one article and thinking about it can lead to writing over 2000 words. Reading can be a very slow process.

Reflections

I wasn’t in a good place when I went down to the train station but being in a crowd seemed to help. I took up a waiting position, leaning on the wall. Next to me, a girl sat on a bench playing with some silly putty. It was the same kind of putty that I had as a kid but remarketed with gimmicky packaging so that when she squeezed it down a small cylinder to oozed out of a freaky face of cut out eyes and a smiling mouth made hideous.

She was about 10, shy, puppy fat and freckles, and when I commented on it she wordlessly showed me what it could do a few times; till the attention attracted her younger brother who had to get his two-bits in and show off his too. Their dad was trying to keep them contained and read his phone at the same time. And the kids were good, really. The dad, a handsome but tough looking man, seemed to be overly cultivating the image. His short sleeve shirt looked calculated to reveal his tribal design tatt and smooth sculpted biceps. The little boy was all soft edges like his sister, younger, about 7, and cheeky. He was in a coarse looking North Melbourne footy jumper and his hair was buzz-cut with criss-crosses around his ears, though it was longer at the top and down to the nape of his neck. Their cheerfulness, gentle warmth and simple ordinariness bolstered me a bit. Maybe it’s odd to feel relief waiting for a train on a stuffy underground platform but compared to the day I’d had, it did.

I’d spent the day at a writer’s conference surrounded by publishers and aspiring authors. Some work of my own had been assessed by an editor who had politely found it wanting. I was numb from a grief born of utter existential angst, confusion and self-doubt. If they were my people, if that was my world, why did I feel so alien and out of step? What sort of writer was I? How did I fit in? My brain spun with all the assertions, stories and advice, the contradictions of what gets published, the reality of what sells, the competitiveness of the market, the steepness of the odds of success.  How was I supposed to get up, brush myself down and keep going? What I really wanted was to just walk away. It was all too hard. Maybe I didn’t have ‘it’, the talent or the grit. Maybe I should give up, become a nurse, or a florist, something actually useful. I wanted to hide, from the anger, and grief, and humiliation, and insecurity. Disappearing in the crowd was as good a place as any.

When it finally came, the train was pretty full, day trippers and shoppers and fans heading home from the footy. The train was dressed with Collingwood supporters, a wad of whom stood next to me in the doorway of the carriage discussing the prospects of the team. The man closest, short, stocky, convinced of his own authority, muttered incomprehensible stats on goals up and points down amid a continuous torrent of faacks, faackin’ this and farcking that. His mobile chortling the team anthem. The family from the platform swayed next to them too, the buff-armed dad furrowed his brow, uncomfortable with the blue language. Still, his son was oblivious, as he swayed with the carriage and his green silly putty, tumbling ungraciously and playing up the slap-stick potential of every wobble underfoot.

When I finally got off, it was growing dark. The sky was a pale autumn grey. It was one of those times when the sky above seem like a silver cloche, and the air carries the lives of those around us with the clarity of a cathedral. Not a breath of wind. The twilight was the smell of mown grass and cool air.

It’s a rare moment when I am alone and can dissolve into that around me. I pondered the day. Who did I want to be? As I crossed the tracks and walked through the park on the other side toward the street I passed the local gun club. It was a Saturday night and the first time I’ve ever seen the door open. Inside were friends; their camaraderie was palpable. The rear of a skinned head nodded with that of another man of bulk as they consulted papers on a table. An old radiator fitted to a fibro wall glowed at the end of the room. It was filled with second-hand, squishy vinyl lounges and unassorted chairs. A middle aged woman sat on an armrest among the gathered men, smiling over one of their shoulders. People and their clans.

Cars slowly passed me once I reached the street. Distant kids shouted from the park, a man calling encouragement, the familiar thphwump of a footy kick. The train crossing dinged. Another approaching train sighed and squeaked to a stop. Lights came on in houses. A security light blinked to life as I passed picket fences and rear windows, someone cooking a heady garlic and oregano bolognaise, whiffs of wood fire, dampness under the trees. I smelt a woman putting on a leather jacket earlier that day, a rush of wet earth and hay and horses, that deep smell of leather. Apparently you can’t actually recall smells, you can only know them when you smell them.

Clumsily, I dug out paper and pen, compelled to note the memory, writing in the yellow drift of an awakening streetlight. I was thinking about what the hell is a literary voice anyway, my eyes drawn to the dirt where an unseen cicada vibrated within its soft earth hole.

The suspension springs squeaked loudly from a neighbour’s BMW SUV as it turned out of our street; for such an expensive car it always sounds pretty shit. The darkening sky blended with silver corrugated roofs, becoming one slate. Night gathered, drawing up its velvet. Dogs barked distantly, a peewee cawed, a Vdub van stuttered through it’s gears.

Across the street, a woman walking her Jack Russell stopped to check out a red sold banner slapped across the auction board, where I supposed a million-dollar frenzy had occurred a few hours earlier for what was a rental place of damp and decay. I wonder what it went for. Another reminder that I needed to get a real job, everything is far too precarious.  A chorus of Indian minors chirp in the gloomy branches above me, shitting on expensive cars.

Pen in hand, in the dark, I felt oddly at peace. Momentarily free from trying to fit into a predefined category.  Be yourself, they said it over and over. Tell the story you want to tell. Yet all the while what would be successful was defined and dissected. Fit through the eye of the needle, authentically. For so long I’d been trying to fit into an abstraction, like standing in a changing room trying on new identities, considered and criticised from myriad mirrored angles, a reflection of likenesses, bouncing off one another. But they were ephemeral, flickering. I was tired of it all, the second guessing. I can only be me.

I stood outside my house, knowing my children and husband were safely tucked inside. A pandemonium of smells, sounds and intentions awaited, stories saved up, garbled greetings and blurred blinks would look up from glowing screens; sensations that would bombard, overwhelm and deflect me. I paused in the quiet.

It was time to put that mirror away, to quiet those reflections, face them down on the table. I don’t need to speak into a construct. I have my own voice, even if it is only murmuring in the twilight.

I tell myself I can write. I just don’t know the story yet.

Katsu curry

This is one of those blog posts that won’t interest other people. It’s more of an online note to self. Maybe I’ll write about food stuff more often on this blog just for that reason, but this isn’t that.

I want to make sure I remember to come back to this website I was on today Japanese Cooking 101 as I’m going to do a chicken katsu curry tonight.  It’s a pretty weird dish but my husband loves it, largely thanks to a  little Japanese cafe on the quiet side of the Artarmon Station that he’d often go to for lunch when we lived in Sydney. We’d go there occasionally on weekends as well.

I prefer Katsudon and have made it a few times without recipes but might use the one of the website for inspiration. It’s a bit more kid friendly so might try making that again soon as the weather cools.

There’s also a Japanese curry recipe on allrecipes.co.uk that’s closer to the one we would get at that cafe, where the curry is more like a sauce than a curry.

 

 

Shouting in the street in the night

There was an angry man in our street last night. He paced. At first it was indistinct, further down the street toward the park that surrounds the train station. It was 1.30 in the morning and his yelling stirred me from what was passing for sleep, though I’d been tossing for hours. My husband stirred thinking at first it was a waking child then as we heard more it was clear it was coming from the street. We lay and listened.  Dragged footsteps clunked, the mumbles moved closer, the deep voice of a large man, the step of a heavy man, almost outside our house; a few doors down, close.

Living in the inner suburbs it’s not that unusual to occasionally wake to those stumbling home, happy celebrants or talking too loud though they think they’re having a private conversation drunken pedestrians. There’s the occasional mêlée or ruction.  But this man’s voice was different. It frightened me.

There was blood in it, a want of it. It was drunk, or drugged, whichever didn’t matter because it was dangerous. It was a voice smeared with malcontent, vengeful and bitter. It was just a string of swear words really, mumbled ‘Fucks’’ distributed between faintly slurred complaints that began with ‘You’ser.all’ and ‘Whattar’yers’. It wasn’t the content, it was the bear inside that voice. Then ringing out clearly, ‘Ya Fuckin’ Dog!’ The word Dog, clear and emphasized, murderous.

Murderous is an easy word to read, almost inconsequential. When you hear it however, it’s visceral. It stiffens your body, holds you’re breath inside you.

I didn’t want that voice to get any closer. I didn’t want my husband to have to go out there. I didn’t want to think that voice was trying to get into a house in our street or that another voice was going to join it. I waited for a crash, or a thump, a scream or a responding string of hysterical expletives.

I lay there, head cocked off the pillow so I could hear more clearly; considered whether we’d be calling police or would others, if the escalation I expected continued. But it didn’t come. The steps came close but then they stopped and went back the other way. The voice shouted a few more times, seemed to respond to another that was beyond our range and it went away.

While I let myself relax, my wakefulness had returned. What, I wondered, would life be like if that voice was coming for me, if that voice was one I knew and feared, if that voice knew who I was and was trying to find me? How can anyone who hasn’t directly experienced domestic violence or the threat of criminal intent truly understand what that is like? If we had called the police and a couple of uniformed young men or women had turned up, what would they have encountered? Was it any different to any other night, just in a different street?

With the danger passed my husband got up to go to the bathroom. In the bedroom alone I went to the window and drew back the curtain to a quiet street of angled parked cars and street light shadows through the angophora in blossom outside; where the most common disturbance is a possum jumping between branches or a taxi slowly rolling past looking for house numbers with a beam. That voice was somewhere else, heading for a train, a pub, someone else’s house, or it’s own. Voices like that are always out there, somewhere.

Update

Funnily enough, a few days later my neighbour asked me if I’d heard the noises the other night. He said his son had gone out and seen a man wandering up the street, he’d kicked at a few cars and shouted. Quite a few neighbours had emerged, pyjama clad, to see what was going on. Just a drunk guy weaving his way home from the pub down the road on the other side of the train station.

Learning this, I felt a heel. In the light of day, the fear I’d felt seemed incongruous, unwarranted. Some bloke, mostly harmless, drunk and aimless. The night, the dark, and the unknown lever open the worst of fears, betray the conscious mind’s reason and empathy and reveal our prejudices. They are not always pleasant to see.

The Bush, Don Watson

I’m not that far into The Bush by Don Watson but it’s divine. It sings. Well no, that’s wrong. It hums quietly under its breath.

I bought it under the influence of the Melbourne Writers Festival. I think most people can relate, spending money you don’t really have on books simply because they’re surrounding you and it’s intoxicating.

Inevitably I suppose reading it reminds me of when I interviewed Don Watson back in 2010 for artsHub in the lead up to the Mildura Writers Festival that year.

It was one of my first interviews, as I was only a month or so into the role, and it remains one of my most memorable. Because it was painful. He tore me to shreds in the first few minutes. Had I read his books, which ones? Why not all of them? I was woefully unprepared for the barrage and came up short. He made sure I knew it too. Yet we struggled on. We found common ground and in the end it was delightful.

When I got off the phone I wrote this:

 

Hello? Yes

Hello.

It’s a curious little voice that speaks,

slightly bewildered and ‘Mole’-ish,

a voice emerging like a peek ’round the door.

Lower your point of view to see it,

it’s lower down than expected, tentative,

a curious yet do-not-disturb voice,

a voice that asks who you are but would rather you went away,

a voice that has been busy in its own thoughts

– all that from one word.

Aren’t words strange? so much in a few sounds.

What do you know from that hello?

Philosopher? the other side of 50? academic? male.

Then it says, ‘Yes?’.

A long drawn out yes,

a question,

certain, but suspicious, strong

A yes you don’t hear that much anymore,

It’s not as high pitched as my grandfather, less nasal,

No modern inflections.

a yes of my past, of the past,

a yes that reveals a past, almost forgotten,

Which is odd because this voice is very much alive,

it’s disconcerting, as though this is not a call with the present.  I recognise the Gippslander in it,

which wasn’t something I knew was a thing until now,

but I can hear it, a country-bred Yes,

It’s as if certain words are tuning forks,

they ring a specific note in time and place,

as though the way a word is said,

the way it rolls around in a mind and a mouth,

the way it vertebrates in memory and in meaning takes you somewhere, to a time and a place,

like a smell can,

It’s to a steel frame gate, to a dry paddock,

a dirt track for a driveway

a distant stout farm stead

a new 1950s Holden shining in the sun,

It’s a photo in my mind with white borders, square format.. there’s just something about that voice..

I cringe now when I read the actual article I wrote about it back then, five years ago. My inexperience, insufficient drafting and poor structure are all too evident. I would write it very differently now. Still learning.

The Bush reads like that voice I listened to on the phone. I can hear him as I read the words. And even more oddly, I can see I wrote the impression above in a similar voice. It’s very much my own style but the influence is there.

The Bush is a big book, I think it will take me awhile. It’s probably meant to.

Trying to write again…

A bit of nostalgia here. When I was at school I could write on almost any topic with ease. The teacher put up a discussion topic or theme and away I’d go. The words simply flowed out. I’d write three or four pages on an essay, creative story, reflection, opinion piece, whatever, it didn’t matter. I didn’t think about how I did it or about what I’d write. I’d just put my pen on paper. I didn’t over think it.

I so clearly remember the aghast look of a buddy of mine as he stared wide eyed at a page of my writing in one particular Year 12 class. We were distributed in that familiar three-sided, horseshoe configuration sitting at our rickety single-serve laminate tables on plastic chairs just as askew from constant student rocking. The class was all heads down, writing a practice politics essay, something to do with Australian foreign policy during the Vietnam war period in all likelihood. I’d reached the end of an A4 page in my small round hand and my friend had managed a paragraph. He shook his head smiling and muttering, ‘How do you do that?’ half in disgust and half in admiration.

I’m doing the something now, well retyping it as it happens. I wrote this freehand originally, because I feared I’ve lost that ability. The magic of putting pen and paper and just going for it. I fear I over think everything now.

A little while ago I joined a Flash Fiction Facebook group with the intent of taking up their challenge to write a story a week under 500 words. From week one I failed, couldn’t find the time to finish what I started. By week five I’d just about given up and even now half way through the year whenever I try, I blank out  – got nothing.

As a wizened-middle-aged-over-the-hill-god!-there’s-no-hope-for-you-to-have-a-writing-career-now writer I over think everything to do with my writing. Is it good enough? Who would publish it? What genre I should write? Let’s face it, middle aged women are in no short supply as writers or as readers but no one wants to read stories about middle aged women. As overlooked in literature as in real life, stories about middle aged women are a dime a dozen, an over supply that ensures they are easily kicked aside.

I thought the rules and limitations of Flash Fiction would make it easier but instead they’ve tied me in knots. Does it have to have a twist? It does doesn’t it? And you have to jump into the action? And it must have a limited palate of characters. And the imagery,  it must be evocative but not too flowery; or too dominating; or slow the action; or digress from the story. Nothing becomes more tedious frankly, than a paragraph about lace.

Those tiny knots once crafted by a younger hand, a hand now splayed by arthritis, swollen nodules of tendon and gristle.  Hands that took such pride in that thread, the hours of knotting, to show they too could craft as well as the ladies who so thoughtfully dropped by to see if she was alright, tutting with concern. The intricacies of the pattern are stiff now, curling on themselves, caked in dust. The yarn has yellowed, mottled with age and unknown substances, decades sitting on a glass display case. It was once the pride of the room, that glass-doored display, but it will be tossed aside one day soon, unvalued. The same fate awaits the vanity and mirror in the corner of this darkened room, so unfashionable now, too many of them clog the antique stores; not even the op shop will know what to do with it. It’ll probably be repurposed, turned into a fishtank, or quirky cake display in a retro café. It’s class and pedigree long forgotten, and dismissed, the effort and pride it took to purchase, an amusing footnote – the lace that has sat on it so long tossed in the bin. Yet the hands live on, absent mindedly rubbing together, painful, shaking when they raise a tea cup.

So no, you have to avoid stuff like that – and of course it has to have a conflict, even as it slices out a whisper of life. Then that little story must tie it all together so the ending is in some way ‘satisfying’.

There are so many rules, so many turns of phrase, setting, scenarios and well worn routes to avoid, it’s dizzying and leaves me feeling impotent.

So I don’t know where to begin and I sit here on my couch, my family asleep and I sigh as I am no further forward. I have no story to post. But, rallying slightly, I have put pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard! I have punted a few words out from my mind into the digital paddock to roam, and what began as nothing much to talk about has become a page– so that’s a start of sorts. Isn’t it? Perhaps if I just start something will follow. If I don’t over think it.

 

Finding a new economic paradigm to replace outmoded dogma

I recently started following Prof Steve Keen on twitter and he retweeted this article yesterday (17 November 2014) by called Obsolete dogmas are crippling the world economy.

Given the whoo-ha over the G20 in Brisbane over the weekend and the disappointing showing by Australia on climate change issues in favour of ‘growth’ it’s a very relevant article.

If it could be made any plainer it was sadly shown on the 7.30 Report last night when Leigh Sales interviewed the Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb. In discussing the likelyhood that the new trade deal with China would see demand for milk outstrip supply and prices rise, Minister Robb said:

“…if you introduce innovation and you will see costs come down and you’ll see capacity and production go up and therefore you can supply a bigger market and actually reduce the price of milk. This is the essence of increasing trade massively, increasing investment. You do get – we’ve got to be at the cusp of innovation, and if we are, we will reduce costs – that will increase profits – and we’ll increase production and that’ll also increase profits.”

It suggests a remarkable faith in the miracle of growth. Explaining or even contemplating ‘How?’ is not even considered. Limitations to land use, the physical capacity of cows to produce milk, competing demands for labour and capital and the potential negative environmental impacts hold no sway against the ability to ‘introduce innovation’. This is simply ideology.

I’m constantly disappointed by the orthodoxy of Australian economic discussion and the refusal to recognise that policy and the economic ideas being put forward are outmoded. Basic recognition of reality would be useful. Delmaide is right, the world needs to recognise that a new paradigm is needed.

Yet even were there to be a new paradigm there would have to be the strength of will to act on it. Capitalism just like communism is largely theoretical, the reality is a mongrelized version full of contradictions and imperfections. What we get is a capital-ish system. But there can be little doubt now that even if the system were ‘perfect’ it would not deliver the outcomes proponents of capitalism say. Sadly we now have a system that has slowly been corrupted to serve the interests of a capital-accumulating class, the growing dominance of financialism has distorted global economies and facilitated a perversion of democratic processes diminishing the capacity and independence of nation states.

A new economic paradigm is needed. However, it will be incomplete unless it can rebuild economics from the ground up. We must redefine how economic models perceive what it is to be human. We must regard people as more than self-interested utility maximizers and see them as humans with needs for dignity, respect and equality as well as for independence and choice. We must see people not just as free agents but as part of a social system with implications at local, regional and global levels. We must recognise that all people need to be fed and clothed, need housing, health and education, that their lives are finite and that their skills and abilities vary throughout that lifetime, are built over a single lifetime and that that requires investment and nurturing. Until we see people as they truly are we will not be able to define a broader economic system that facilitates humanity.

Such a new concept of humanity must equally recognise that not all people wish to serve each other, that some will be selfless while others are self-centred, that some will be avarice and others generous despite a reduction in their own utility or own wealth, that some will be self sacrificing while others will save only their own skin, some lack courage, some take risks. Some traits are fixed, some habits are consciously developed. No matter where a person stand by nature or morality, all people deserve respect, all people should be able to aspire to find a fulfilling purpose and all are part of the fabric of humanity. Such a concept of humanity will also recognise that the freedom of all demands limitations on the freedom of individuals and that provision of opportunity for all may diminish the opportunities of some.

Such a concept of humanity and society also redefines how we see nature, allowing economics to catch up on a 100 years of biology. We are not part of a competitive, do or die, survival of the fittest world. We are not a species defined by cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others. Yes, there are cruel, vicious and ruthless humans. But we are diverse, adaptive and social, we are able to change, to be flexible. When we can see ourselves more broadly as diverse and different yet deserving of equality and respect then we will be able to define an economic paradigm that will be relevant for the challenges and demands of the 21st century.

 

Lee Serle

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It was great, when for Artery, I recently had the chance to meet Lee Serle and watch him improvising at Lucy Guerin’s studio. He also showed me a few of the sequences he’s been developing.

All too often time and distance mean interviews have to be done over the phone. You do learn a lot listening to the tone, the phrasing, the background noise, the pauses and breaths someone takes as they’re thinking. It focuses your senses. You have to extrapolate every detail you can.

By contrast, when you meet someone in person there is an overwhelming quantity of detail to take in. The atmosphere of the location, the way someone moves through a space and reacts to their environment. When talking to a dancer it seems even more important to meet them in person, to see the way they move and how they express themselves through their body. It’s intrinsic to who they are.

The article has now gone up on the Australia Council’s Artery website today. The link is http://artery.australiacouncil.gov.au/2013/02/fellows-focus-lee-serle/

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Matthew Prest dances

The next in my series of articles for the Australia Council for the Arts profiling the 2012 Creative Australia Fellowship recipients has gone up on the Artery website. I was pretty impressed with how much he has achieved for someone who is only 31, especially so given that he and his partner Clare Britton have kids and have to balance being emerging artists trying to establish their careers with being parents. Not easy.

Image credit: Clare Britton

 

Melbourne grief

It may be Grand Final weekend, it may be that most of us are going about our daily lives as normal, and it is certainly true that the vast majority of us never knew Jillian Meagher, but it feels like Melbourne is in mourning today. There is also a lot of rubbish being said.

With so much being said, regurgitated and examined, I wonder what good it does to write about it myself. Therapy I suppose, so forgive me. Continue reading