Barry Humphries (1934 – 2023) & Australianess

It is interesting in the commentary on Barry Humphries as a great Australian and a reflection of Australia. I believe this to be true. I also think though that we need to consider his comedic caricatures as reflecting an Australia of the past and that perhaps his legacy is the comedy and artists, performing and otherwise, that have come since. Humphries parodied a predominantly white, conservative Australia based on growing up through the 1940s and 1950s.

The image above was in Barry Humphries – A life in pictures, in the Sydney Morning Herald. Rick Stevens photographers Sir Roden Cutler, Peter Sculthorpe, Margaret Alley, Thomas Keneally and Barry Humphries in front of their Archibald portraits in 1992. The Archibald Prize is a literal exposition of the role Australian artists play in identifying and defining the Australian identity – both who Australians think they are, what is Australian identity and what the rest of the world thinks of Australia and what Australians are like.

Some artists like Sculthorpe and the recently ceased painter John Olsen reflected Australia as its’ landscapes and vistas. Others presented more of the people and culture. Identity was built on history: ex-convict larrikins, bronzed Anzacs and post-war suburbia.

Australia is no longer the place that it was in the 1940s and 1950s. A great diaspora of migrants and refugees have landed on the fatal shores in unstoppable boats and planes. Successively from the homeland Great Britain and Ireland, the Mediterranean, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East, China and now Africa and South America. Australia also no longer suffers the tyranny of distance but is part of the global community and even cosmopolitan – removing a great chip on its’ shoulder.

So what has happened to the Australian identity? Well, look at the new-Australian comics that followed Humphries. We’ve had all of these groups impact Australian performing arts and reflect the new identity of Australians in addition to the skips- the Greek fruiterers, wogs out of work, the fat pizzerias, Vietnamese stand-ups, and so on.

And what is common to their Australian identity? Well maybe they are just taking the piss, right mate?

Reading 2022

  1. The Dawn of Everything: A new History of Humanity. David Graeber and David Wengrow.
  2. The Frontiers of Knowledge: Whaat We Now Know about Science, History and the Mind. A.C. Grayling.
  3. Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World. Elinor Leghorn.
  4. Greek Myths: A New Retelling. Charlotte Higgins.
  5. The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird. Joshua Hammer.
  6. Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths. Charlotte Higgins
  7. The Age of AI: And Our Human Future. Henry Kissinger, Erica Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher.
  8. H is for Hawk. Helen Macdonald.
  9. Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Zena Hitz.
  10. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Becky Chambers.
  11. A Closed and Common Orbit. Becky Chambers.
  12. To be Taught If Fortunate. Becky Chambers.
  13. Record of a Spaceborn Few. Becky Chambers.
  14. The World we Create: From God to Market. Tomas Björkman.
  15. The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Becky Chambers.
  16. Bildung – Keep Growing: Report to the Club of Rome. Lene Rachel Andersen.
  17. The Cat Who Saved Books. Sosuke Natsukawa.
  18. Klara and The Sun. Kazuo Ishiguro.
  19. The Weirdest People in the World: How the West became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Joseph Henrich.
  20. Three Epic Battles That Saved Democracy: Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. Stephen P. Kershaw.
  21. Powers and Thrones: A New History of The Middle Ages. Dan Jones.
  22. Persians: The Age of The Great Kings. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.
  23. Philip & Alexander: Kings and Conquerors. Adrian Goldsworthy.
  24. Nomads: The Wanderers who Shaped our World. Anthony Sattin.
  25. The Bird: The Great Age of Avian Illustration. Phillip Kennedy.*
  26. The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCR – 1492 CE. Simon Schama
  27. Elektra: Jennifer Saint
  28. Ithaca. Claire North.
  29. How Birds Work: An Illustrated Guide to Form and Function – From Bones to Beak. Marianne Taylor.
  30. Bird Anatomy for Artists. Natalia Bali.
  31. Homage to the Bird. Greg Oatley (manipulated hyper realistic digital images.
  32. Stone Blind: Medusa’s Story. Natalie Haynes.
  33. The Botanical Illustrator’s Handbook. Sally Pinhey.
  34. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face: My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating. Alan Alda.
  35. Living Planet: The Web of Life on Earth. David Attenborough
  36. The Art of Botanical & Bird Illustration: An artist’s guide to drawing and illustrating realistic flora, fauna and botanical scenes from nature. Mindy Lighthipe.
  37. Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Minerology, Anatomy and the Arts. Trans. Patrick Syme
  38. Capturing the Essence: Techniques for Bird Artists. William T Cooper.
  39. Color Mixing in Acrylic: Learn to mix fresh, vibrant colors for still life’s, landscapes, portraits and more. David Lloyd Glover.
  40. A Short Philosophy of Birds. Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau.
  41. Extraordinary Birds: Natural Histories: Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. Paul Sweet.
  42. Histoire des Oiseaux. Francois Nicolas Martinet.
  43. Australian Parrots. Joseph M. Forshaw, illustrated by William T. Cooper (for reference and the illustrations).
  44. User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work and play. Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant.
  45. Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton.
  46. Nature’s Palette. Introduced by Patrick Baty.
  47. Nights of Plague. Orhan Pamuk.
  48. A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future. David Attenborough.
  49. Nature and Its Symbols. Lucia Impelluso translated by Stephen Satarelli.
  50. The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Animal Behaviour. David Attenborough.
  51. Medicine – A Graphic History. Jean-Noel Fabiani & Philippe Bercovici.
  52. Feather and Brush: A History of Australian Bird Art, Second Edition. Penny Olsen.

What I Listened To, Watched and Read During Year Two of the Pandemic

The teenaged members of the household are all about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – so discussion of Ragnarok and Thor occasionally comes up. This got me thinking more about the origin stories for Thor, Loki and Odin. And down a rabbit hole I went. Firstly I binged 15 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle via Youtube. The Ring Cycle led to watching the rest of the Wagner operas and reading Wagner commentaries from Alex Ross and Roger Scruton. Wanting to know more about Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, Sleipnir the 8-legged horse of Odin (Wotan) and Odin’s ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) I went back to the Eddas, Sagas and the Nibelunglied. Along the way I took in Tolkien’s version of the the story of Sigurd and Gudrun. Noting some of the other sources for Wagner I then pivoted to Grail Lore and the Arthurian Romances, Parsifal. Along the way I also came across Arab tourist guides of the Rus lands – encounters with Vikings.

Some themes in these ancient and not so ancient texts:

  • beware rings that bestow absolute power
  • enchanted swords should also be handled carefully
  • also keep an invisibility cloak or identity transforming helmet available on your adventures
  • it is surprisingly easy to masquerade as a woman’s lover under the cover of darkness
  • identity theft and identity non-disclosure ends badly
  • the hero dies
  • the heroine dies
  • family: can’t live with them and can’t live without them
  • avoid garrisoning yourself in a flammable building
  • don’t make deals with tricksters and wise men

Of course there was more than this including more serious themes about power, lover and desire but the list propels the action.

I attempted to listen to a Piano Sonata everyday of the year and did so until August when Primephonic was taken over by Apple with promises of a new Apple classical music offering coming soon – in 2022. Primephonic was a fantastic classical streaming music service. It was so good because of its’ search function. You could search for a specific composer and composition and see literally every recording and how many recordings existed of a particular piece. The use of information/metadata about a classical piece on Apple Music and Spotify is incredibly poor. They also had great customer service – making timely corrections to the recording information when I notified them. Hopefully the new service will be up and running soon. Until the service shut I posted the daily sonata to Facebook and Twitter.

I came across a number of Jordan Peterson YouTube discussions with various psychologists and researchers including Brian C. Muraresku, Scott Barry Kaufman, and John Vervaeke. Muraresku and Kaufman discussed their work on transcendent experience but from quite different perspectives. Muraresku has written (see below) on the role of psychedelics in Ancient Greek ritual at Eleusis and how they were initially incorporated into the early Christian experiences. I love the ancient saying “If you don’t die before you die, you die when you die”. Kaufman approaches transcendence more from the the perspective of an update and further development of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I went on to read about recent research in psychadelics and transcendent, life-changing experience. The endgame hear literally is death and the failure to accept mortality – something I routinely come across in my occupation as a cancer specialist.

The John Vervaeke discovery was the real find of the year. I have finished all 50 episodes of John Vervaeke’s YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – whilst I used the rowing machine. This series concerns the rediscovery of the ability to make meaning in life (not the meaning of life) and living in the being mode not the having mode. It traverses historical themes, philosophy, some theology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, theories of wisdom, developmental psychology and principally cognitive science. There is a great supplementary video on the theory of zombies. I highly recommend this series which is a mini-course in mostly Western Civilisation but also strong reference to non-theistic religions of the East and their relevance to meaning making. A number of the books I read in the second half of the year are recommended through the series. The videos are on Youtube and the transcripts are here [].
A reading list is here [].

In the end Vervaeke doesn’t seem explicit about how to overcome the meaning crisis. I think this is in part because he hasn’t definitively solved the problem or at least he doesn’t wan’t to claim to have: he is very modest and self-deprecating but also as a philosopher he is loath to claim to know the truth, especially when a lot of what he discusses is the work of others. He also has the issue of distinguishing between the meaning crisis at the level of the individual and the level of society. With respect to the former he seems to advocate for the creation of flow states as per the work of Csiksentmihalyi and to create autopoetic states – to recreate the being mode. I extrapolate synergies with Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus – To Be – and also the need to accept (the) absurdity (meaninglessness) by being . At a societal level his problem is that he has provided a detailed explanation of how religion has failed to provide the meaning it once did and that it cannot revive itself and yet a community of people must embrace a religion-like ‘thing’ to overcome the meaning crisis. He hints at a non-theistic path. He has much more to watch and read beyond the series so I expect conclusions will be better articulated over time.

Aside from the above I threw in some history and political reading around China and climate change. I strongly recommend The Good Ancestor (see the reading list). For ‘lighter’ entertainment I read feminist fiction reinterpretations of the Homeric poems. These were fine and I don’t think fall into the work identified in Cynical Theories (see the reading list). Cynical Theories calls out, but doesn’t quite cancel, the problems of the extreme left views in educational institutions – reflecting the issue that some (not enough) commentators are making that both the extreme right and the extreme left use identity inappropriately and to no good end.

That wasn’t all I heard, watched, read but it’s enough to blog about. Now I need to go make some resolutions….

The 2021 Reading List

  1. Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. Fareed Zakaria.
  2. Venus and Aphrodite: History of a Goddess. Bettany Hughes.
  3. Theogeny. Hesiod translated by Barry Powell.
  4. The Offense of Love: Are Amatoria, Remedia Amoris and Tristia 2. Ovid translated by Julia Dyson Hejduk.
  5. Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Alex Ross.
  6. The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioural Science. Cass Sunstein.
  7. The Story of China. Michael Wood.
  8. The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun. J.R.R Tolkien.
  9. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why this Harms Everybody. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.
  10. The Ring of the Nibelung. Richard Wagner translated by John Deathridge.
  11. Beowolf. Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley.
  12. The Ring of Truth. Roger Scruton.
  13. Circe. Madeleine Miller.
  14. Norse Mythology. Neil Gaiman.
  15. Sagaland: The island of stories at the edge of the world. Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason.
  16. The Prose Edda. Snorri Sturluson translated by Jesse Byock.
  17. The Saga of the Volsungs. Unknown translated by Jesse Byock.
  18. The Nibelungenlied – The Lay of the Nibelungs. Unknown translated by Cyril Edwards.
  19. The Song of Achilles. Madeline Miller.
  20. Ngal’s Saga. Translated by Robert Cook.
  21. The Norse Myths: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold. Dr Tom Birkett.
  22. Sir Gwain and the Green Knight. Translated by Bernard O’Donoghue.
  23. Doom – The Politics of Catastrophe. Niall Ferguson.
  24. The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. Niall Ferguson.
  25. Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Edda and Sagas. Jon Karl Helgason.
  26. Tristan, with the ’Tristram’ of Thomas. Gottfried von Strasburg.
  27. The Hero with the Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell.
  28. Foundation. Isaac Asimov.
  29. Mauve – How one man invented a colour that changed the world. Simon Garfield.
  30. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Neil Price.
  31. Voices of History: Speeches that changed the world. Simon Sebag Montefiore.
  32. Arthurian Romances. Chretien de Troyes translated by William Kibler and Carleton Carroll.
  33. Written in History: Letters that Changed the World. Simon Sebag Montefiore.
  34. Parzival. Wolfram von Eschenbach translated by Arthur Thomas Hatto.
  35. The Pandemic Century: A history of global contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19. Mark Honigsbaum.
  36. Ibn Fadlan and the Land if Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. Ibn Fadlan translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
  37. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychadelics. Michael Pollan.
  38. The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. Brian C. Muraresku.
  39. Abelard & Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings. Translated by William Levitan.
  40. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Jordan Peterson.
  41. Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Scott Barry Kaufman.
  42. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi.
  43. Transformative Experience. L.A. Paul.
  44. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need. Bill Gates.
  45. The Dhammapada. Translated by Valerie J. Roebuck.
  46. The Good Ancestor. How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World. Roman Krznaric.
  47. The Digital Silk Road: China’s Quest to Wite the World and Win the Future. Johnathan E. Hillman.
  48. Utzon and the Sydney Opera House. Daryl Dellora.
  49. The Harbour: A city’s heart, a country’s soul. Scott Bevan.
  50. Mortals. How the fear of death shaped human society. Rachel E. Menzies and Ross G. Menzies
  51. The Myth of Sisyphus. Albert Camus.
  52. The History of Philosophy. A.C. Grayling.

The Australian Way

“I’m very confident we can solve this,” Mr Morrison said, sharpening his re-election pitch to voters ahead of next year’s poll. “I have much more confidence based on the track record of world history that this will be solved by the entrepreneurs and the scientists and the industrialists and the risk-takers and the investors, and supported by smart regulation.” – From Rob Harris in the Sydney Morning Herald November 13, 2021

Let’s dissect this proclamation.

At least in the first statement the PM is acknowledging it won’t be him fixing the problem, what ever ‘this’ is.

Isn’t “the track record of history” a tautology?

Anyways, I am curious from what date Mr Morrison envisages this history of “entrepreneurs and the scientists and the industrialists and the risk-takers and the investors” started. Maybe the Renaissance? Or perhaps the Scientific Revolution? The spirit of the British and Dutch East India Companies comes to mind. Not to mention those brave industrialists who dug up coal to fuel their empires of train networks and steel mills.

I do not dispute that science leads to great and disruptive innovation. After all, where would Australia be if it weren’t for the need to observe the Transit of Venus.

But let’s not forget that purposeful science to overcome big problems has historically been underwritten by government before the venture capitalists became involved. Think the Manhattan Project and the Moon Landing – both in excess of 20 Billion US in contemporary currency. The Human Genome Project in excess of 3 Billion Dollars. Military applications led to many innovations like the internet – think DARPA. Closer to home CSIRO brought us wifi. Much biomedical research starts in government funded university labs before biotechs and pharmaceutical companies pick up the patents.

Promises of 500M to 1 Billion AUD don’t add-up to much when you compare the ‘moonshot’ projects. Even when you use other comparisons like the percentage of Australian GDP, the cost of running a larger Australian Hospital each year (about 400-500M) or the size of the Australian poultry industry (about 850M) the sums Australia are committing are tiny.

Finally, what is “smart regulation”? Mr Morrison has already said that Australians are sick of mandates – especially those coming from Labor. Smart almost certainly doesn’t mean evidence-based. That would mean following the science…..oh I forgot, the scientists are going to save us. I suspect smart regulation are regulations that don’t increase taxes and ergo reduce votes.

Weasel Words – they’re the Australian Way.

Some Musings on the Metaverse

Last week the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced a rebrand and new direction for social media company. The company named Meta will develop the metaverse….the what-averse you ask? Kevin Roose in the New York Times (Oct 29, 2021) summarises: “Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each others’ virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.”

The metaverse would use virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies already in existence but with the expectation that there will be considerable advances that would allow individuals to be completely immersed in the other worldly experience and potentially all the time.

VR/AR has some great applications outside gaming. These include simulation for healthcare training and therapeutic applications in mental health like treatment of anxiety disorders, particularly those that include phobias or situational distress.

But despite the cool factor of VR/AR we aught to cautious and learn from the past. The meta verse simply amplifies the actual harms of social media.

So run this thought experiment – what is Facebook’s product? If you think it is an app to allow friends to interact with each other your are wrong. Facebook is an algorithm driven network designed to facilitate behaviour change to the benefit of paying advertisers who do not just want you to buy stuff but also vote for Governments. Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is the poster-child for Shoshana Zuboff’s surveillance economy. Machine learning sends you content and you react.

The metaverse is social media on steroids. Much has been written about the way social media, in particular Facebook, produces echo chambers. People are streamed what Facebook thinks they are interested in, so reinforcing belief systems. This can only have a stronger effect in a metaverse because a metaverse does two things simultaneously: it embeds you in an alternate reality that caters to your capacity for self-deception (aka., bullshit) whilst divorcing you from exposure to actual reality.

Actual reality is what people need and crave. COVID-19 lockdowns prove that people want real not virtual experience. In stating this I do not wish to imply there should be no VR/AR…working from home is a game changer, but I don’t think anybody would trade a real experience to a virtual experience unless their real experiences were seriously deficient.

On the latter point, is there any way of justifying a metaverse. I think there is but it hinges on an analogy that is already being explored in medical/scientific circles. What if VR/AR can produce transcendent experiences in the way that psychedelics can? By this I make an assumption that the reader accepts the evidence that psychedelics can produce transcendent experience. If VR/AR can do this then it may be worthwhile but if it is truly able to do it then there is a paradox….the transcendent experience, at least on psychedelics, is not addictive. It might be replicated over time but those that experience transcendence are not addicts after the events. It would be in the interest of Mr Zuckerberg not to achieve this as it would be disadvantageous for his stock price.

The fact that VR/AR can be used for therapeutic purposes in mental health is a canary in a coal mine. It means that these technologies can also be harmful and in a way that makes current social media look primitive.

From a surveillance capitalism perspective we must also recognise that the metaverse is going to rely on more than just your posts to generate the profiles it needs to make money. In the metaverse your biometric data will be in the Facebook/Meta cloud waiting to be exploited.

I have no objection to Facebook rebranding and redirecting as Meta but as a society we need to start exploring how we regulate this now, not once we realise we are in a dystopian version of Ready Player One.

Oh, and by the way, the blockchain and AI needed to power this metaverse is definitely not environmentally friendly.