Taking a break part 2

Who will we be frightened of next?

For all of the tough talk about Australians, the ANZAC spirit and our record as brave warriors we are – as a nation – very easily scared.

A correspondent recently remarked to the blog that Muslims must now be very pleased that the Chinese have replaced them as the most to be feared in Australia. Indeed, Muslims arguably got very short shrift as Public Enemy Number compared with other Australian bogey men.

The French were the first, in the 18th century, to be believed to be threatening to prise away the pathetic little colony from the British. The 19th century might be called the paranoid age with the Russians, the Chinese gold miners and labourers and the assorted Asian nationalities who had successfully come to live beside Indigenous Australians in the Far North among the dastardly threats.

Prime Minister Deakin spent much of his time in the early 20th century in London exhorting the British to keep a naval presence in the Pacific to deter other nations and keep the natives in their place – unless they were useful as kanakas.

The Germans were also a bit of a worry at the time and the Japanese, even though their ships transported Anzacs to their death if Gallipoli, were also worrisome for the usual reasons.

During the 20th century the Japanese were for long the number one threat; then the Russians were top of the threat pile for a while; and about the same time the Chinese, as the DLP told us in their ads, were going to dart towards us in a big red arrow and take us over. This became was part of a generic fear of Commos (at least we didn’t adopt the US Commie designation) and now, after a brief flirtation with Muslim terrorists we are back with the Chinese again.

The Chinese have the honour of terrifying us three times in three different centuries while the Russians scored a measly two in two centuries; the Japanese one; and, the Muslims quickly got pushed aside for the perennial Asiatic hordes. The question is who will be next?

The Catholic Church

Pearls and Irritations recently carried a terrific review by the prolific Garry Wills of a series of books on Roman Catholic Councils and how many of the allegedly doctrines got invented or reinvented over the centuries.

One of the enduring things Catholics and other Christians – although the estimated ‘enduring’ time frame differs on when the various sects sprouted – is that they claim to profess enduring truths.

Thus the Catholic Church fudges the reality of priests once being married and non-paedophile priests today living with their housekeepers. Although one shouldn’t jump to conclusions about whether some priests have done one and still done the other.

When discussing Biblical ‘truth’ it is difficult to reconcile this with the many variations in Scripture let alone various odd interpretations of the variations which have launched hundreds of sects.

But it is the Catholic Church which tries hardest to maintain belief in a universal, all-knowing, infallible character.

There are many wonderful polemical and historically precise refutations of that in Wills’ review. A brief summary does not do it justice so read it here.

Canada’s pot legalisation

One year after Canada legalised pot there are now 400 tonnes of pot in storage as demand has not met supply. This could be because pot retailing was even more constrained than booze is under the ridiculous Canadian liquor laws. But it could be because the illegal product is now cheaper.

CoPP and foreshore lighting communication

The City of Port Phillip has done it again. Earlier this year the Council decided to replace and upgrade the foreshore lighting in Port Melbourne. It was a sensible decision because the old light poles were rusting and the lighting was not as energy efficient as it could be.

However, the Council being the Council it has not gone well and the project is now almost two months behind schedule. But there is no need to worry because the Council simply pasted over the old construction schedule they had publicised on big signs with a new timetable.

One of the posted updates proclaimed that the first section was finished despite the fact that anyone walking along the foreshore could immediately see that it wasn’t, with poles and lights still to be erected in what was still a construction site.

It reminds one a bit of Stalinist propaganda. When someone becomes an unperson you just paste over their image and if the Five Year Plan didn’t quite succeed you just declare it did.

One other thing got neglected in a recent Council notice. The newly-opened South Melbourne Lifesaving club building carries a brass plaque listing the names of all the Councillors in office when it was opened. Missing though is any mention of the fact that it cost 200% more ($4 million) than estimated.

There is always Nietzsche to remind us of something or other

The blog got into trouble visiting Nietzsche’s house museum not by disputing his philosophy but by surreptitiously taking a photo or two for which a strict vigil (vigilante?) admonished it.

But mad, tragically, as he was at times he was always quotable.

The passage below, from one of the philosopher’s Untimely Meditations, was published in 1874 and illustrates the extent to which Nietzsche is, according to a Guardian review of Hiking with Nietzsche by John Kaag, always our exact contemporary.

“The nations are again drawing away from one another and long to tear one another to pieces. The sciences, pursued without any restraint and in a spirit of the blindest laissez faire, are shattering and dissolving all firmly held belief; the educated classes and states are being swept away by a hugely contemptible money economy. The world has never been more worldly, never poorer in love and goodness … Everything, contemporary art and science included, serves the coming barbarism.”

Scientific hype

Paul Halpern, a professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, recently contributed a piece to Physics Today which featured the following: “Schrödinger’s theory; ‘Dublin man outdoes Einstein,’ the Christian Science Monitor announced on 31 January 1947.”

“When a journalist asked Einstein to respond, he issued this revealing statement about press sensationalism: ‘Such communiqués given in sensational terms give the lay public misleading ideas about the character of research. The reader gets the impression that every five minutes there is a revolution in science, somewhat like the coup d’état in some of the smaller unstable republics. In reality one has in theoretical science a process of development to which the best brains of successive generations add by untiring labor, and so slowly leads to a deeper conception of the laws of nature. Honest reporting should do justice to this character of scientific work.”

Which is also a fitting introduction to marking this year’s 250th anniversary of the birth of the great scientist Alexander von Humboldt. If the term polymath has any meaning at all it is as a means of describing him.

Recently one of the Humboldt Foundation Directors, Dr Katrina Amian, was out in Australia to attend a convention of Humboldt scholars and to talk about the Foundation’s programs. It ought to be a template for how Australia can encourage science and by replicating the Foundation’s aim of building trust in the individuals who drive their research through their personal creativity and dedication.

If you don’t know why Humboldt is so important Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature is a great introduction and Daniel Kehlmann’s novel – Measuring the World (made into a terrific film) – which counterpoints Humboldt and his contemporary Friedrich Gauss’ massive contribution to science and mathematics – one by travelling the world and one by staying home.