Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Feudalism in the modern world

This is an interview with monologist, Mike Daisey, who is currently in Australia. The topic of his current tour is ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’. In a nutshell, Daisey is pointing out the hidden ‘dark side’ of all the gadgetry that we love and use in the Western world, of which I am a participant. This missive is being typed on one of the latest Apple computers, so how ironic is that?

There is no moral compass in the corporate world unless someone shines a spotlight on it. Davies has visited the so-called factories in China where Apple products are made, and witnessed the appalling OH&S conditions that the employees endure. He gives the example of how workers’ fingers are crippled from having to perform the same repetitive action for 16 hrs a day, month in, month out, when the simple measure of rotating the work would eradicate this avoidable injury.

In an unrelated documentary, filmed sometime in the last year by an Australian journalist, I saw how people were suffering from an appalling, debilitating and crippling illness caused by inhaling the glue used to paste the Apple icon on smart phones. I can’t look at the Apple icon on a phone now without thinking about it. And, no, I don’t own one, but they’re unbelievably popular in this country.

Last week I went and saw an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) of the Viennese Secession that erupted at the turn of the 20th Century. According to a talk given at the exhibition, this came about when Franz Joseph carried out political reform in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s significance to Daisey’s talk is that the feudalistic paradigm was overturned, or, at least, reformed under Joseph, creating the political climate for artisans and artists to flourish.

It made me realise that up until the industrial revolution, everyone (in Europe at least) assumed that the feudal model, that had been followed for centuries, would continue for ever. In today’s world, we assume that the current economic paradigm driven by consumerism and infinite growth will also continue for ever. I expect it won’t continue past this century.

I’ve said before that we still live in a feudalistic society, only now it’s global rather than national. Daisey’s talk confirms that point of view. At the end of the interview he lays the problem at the door of the corporate mindset that dominates politics and economics worldwide.

Addendum (17 March 2012): This story has just emerged that Daisey's contentions are in dispute. However this ABC programme from Oct. 2010 independently supports his allegations.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The perspective from outer space

This is an interview with astronaut, John Grunsfeld, and it juxtaposes humanity’s greatest achievements against our greatest destruction. Grunsfeld points out that, in just over half a century, we went from experimentation with canvas and wire flying contraptions to manned space flight: Wright brothers in 1903 to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Who would have predicted that the two achievements could happen in the same century?

Grunsfeld, according to his own testimony, has witnessed, over many space flights, the deforestation in the Amazon, a symptom of our worst excesses in the 20th Century. He points out the irony of our technological prowess compared to our unparalleled and unstoppable destruction of the planet’s largest ecosystem.

Part of the problem is the disconnect between science and politics, worldwide, which I’ve commented on many times on this blog. Politicians see science and technology as a tool to drive the economy and to push our finite resources to their absolute limit. When scientists try and disseminate messages that are politically unpalatable, they are either ignored, or their warnings are watered-down. We can’t have the public drawing their own conclusions, without the filter of political spin. Politicians can only provide positive messages – any negative message is political suicide – such is the dilemma of living in a democracy.

The best-known current example is climate-change. But a quarter of a century ago it was the ozone hole, and, whilst it took decades to achieve political action in the face of corporate opposition, it’s one of the few scientifically driven political success stories. It will also take decades for action to be realised on climate change, but by 2030 I expect public opinion may overtake political inertia.

And public opinion is what drives these debates. Unfortunately there is a huge public distrust of science that politicians and special-interest groups love to exploit. Almost everything one touches in a Western society is dependent on science yet people can somehow make a disconnect between the past and the future when it comes to trusting science.

The other half of this equation, that Grunsfeld leaves unmentioned, is the economic paradigm that’s driving population growth and the decimation of the planet’s resources. I spoke about this in my last post so I don’t have much to add. We have the technology to save the planet from ourselves but we don’t have the political will or the vision to do it. Without a change to our economic paradigm of infinite growth, neither the political will nor the vision will eventuate.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Biology, economy, humanity

This is a culmination of issues from 4 different sources, including one from last week. The first (from last week) was an interview with Rob Brooks, an evolutionary biologist at the UNSW (University of New South Wales) in Sydney, Australia. He also wrote an article in the last issue of COSMOS about the relationship between rock and roll, and art in general, and human evolution. How rock gods like the Rolling Stones (Mick, Keith and Brian, in particular) had a number of offspring via different partners, hence ensuring the successful propagation of their genes.

What was more interesting, and even counter-intuitive, was his revelation that wealthy people statistically have more sons and poor people statistically have more daughters, and that there was a biological explanation for this. He explained that a study in Germany during the industrial revolution revealed that within the landed gentry the sons prospered and daughters didn’t, but amongst the poorer classes the reverse was true: daughters prospered and sons didn’t. He said the reason was cultural as well as biological because sons can’t marry up in the manmade class structure but daughters are more likely to. But the curious point is that, according to Brooks, this is still true today. What’s more, the female selects the sperm with the requisite X or Y chromosome according to her social status, though, of course, not consciously. In other words, nature does it for her.

When asked to give another example in the natural world, he referred to a study of red deer on an island off Scotland (don’t ask me the name of the island; this was a radio interview). Because stags have to compete with others for the does, in a poor season, it makes more sense if a pregnant doe has a female fawn because it would have a better chance of getting pregnant itself. However, in a good season she’s more likely to give birth to a stag because he will have the requisite strength to compete with others. What Brooks is saying is that this biological selection that occurs for animals in the wild also occurs for humans in modern Western civilisation. In the wild it’s climatic conditions that determine the outcome, whereas, for humans, it’s economic conditions. But in both cases the outcome is the same: for the well-off, male offspring are more likely and for the less-well-off, female offspring are more likely.

The other issue that Brooks referred to was what he called the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which he acknowledged was originally coined by Garrett Hardin and has far-reaching consequences in the modern world. The tragedy of the commons is based around the idea that different people, or, more likely, groups of people, share a common resource but no individual or particular group takes responsibility. In fact, it becomes competitive whereby one group will either deny others access or take more than their share yet blame others when this leads to scarcity. We see this in everything from the global depletion of fisheries to the climate change debate to arguments over asylum seekers and refugees.

In Australia, the climate change debate has become irrational with people targeting scientists with death threats and demonstrations demanding that scientists give the ‘other side’ a fair voice. One may well ask who the ‘other side’ is? Popular opinion seems to be the answer. In fact, the argument seems to be that this debate can be resolved by taking a vote the same way political governance is resolved. In other words, ignorance carries the same weight as scientific opinion. It’s a modern equivalent to burning witches to avert a natural calamity. As someone pointed out, getting rid of the scientists isn’t going to get rid of the science, yet that’s what these people seem to think.

The relevance between this debate and Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that no one wants to take the lead in committing to lowering carbon dioxide emissions and countries all over the world point to the ‘other’ as being the chief culprit. So no one will take responsibility because it’s always someone else’s problem. In Australia, the populace at large seem to be in denial, and believe that if we stop the science investigating the problem we will stop the problem.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence (yes, that’s his official title). Davis is a man with a fascinating past, having lived with indigenous cultures all over the world, but particularly in the Amazon. His message, or one of his messages, is that we discount so many indigenous cultures as backward, irrelevant and imminently extinct.

In the Western world we live in a cocoon shielded by technology to the extent that we don’t even know where our food comes from, how our meat is killed or how many heavy metals there may be in the seafood we eat. Ignorance is bliss. We are so dependent on technology that most of us cannot even imagine living without electricity, even for one day.

Then a friend sent me an article from the New York Times about a study being done on our dependence on electronic communications, which is exactly what I’m doing now. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone camping in the bush but I have good memories of it. I grew up in a place where I could go walking in the bush and literally leave my normal life behind. We know that being in nature, quite literally, affects our well-being. What this study shows is that given time, people stop looking at their blackberries and even stop wearing a watch. For the mind, time slows down and we become more meditative.

We live in an artificial environment from the time we are born. We go to school, in part, to develop a routine that continues through our entire adult lives: get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up… We live on a treadmill that drives the economy and if we get off we become unemployed, a burden to society, lose the meaning of our lives and become destitute.

There is a connection between this small-scale daily process that we all lead and the large scale problems facing the planet. Education is necessary because it leads to smaller families, lower birth rates and greater opportunities. This is just as relevant in third world countries as it is in the first world. But economic growth, in both developing and developed countries, insists that cities keep growing which means that populations must keep growing which means that the ‘tragedy of the commons’ becomes more critical globally, affecting water, food and energy resources world wide, which means more wars.

This is the dilemma of the human race: we have the technology to do almost anything yet we have a clash between economy and ecology, with species and cultural decimation occurring at an unprecedented rate. Davis pointed out that the disappearance of languages is synonymous with the disappearance of cultures. Yet, arguably, cultural diversity is just as important as genetic diversity.

Can we afford to lose the knowledge that allowed us to live for centuries without technology? I’m not arguing that we give up technology or turn back the clock, quite the contrary. I’m arguing that we look at the future and find a vision that doesn’t end in a train wreck. We need to rid ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels, develop an economy that rewards recycling and longevity over waste and limitless consumerism, and change our perception from king of the evolutionary tree to a recently formed and relatively short-lived branch. Having said all that, I don’t expect it to happen without a lot of pain. Human society has a history of boom and bust. Considering the extent of the boom since mid-last century, one does not want to contemplate the bust.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ayrton Senna, the movie, the life, the man

Notice that I didn’t say the legend because that would be so unfair, not only to Senna, but to the people who made this movie.

I saw this movie at a mid-morning session in mid-week at what is called a ‘babes in arms’ session, where mothers can bring their babies. So I was the only bloke in the cinema who didn’t have a baby, and I was surrounded by mothers with strollers and the odd father as well. Not surprisingly, the cinema was far from capacity to the extent that I expect they made no money for that viewing.

I need to make a confession: I’m a closet petrol-head, which, for most people, means that I’m one of those blokes who never grew up when it came to cars, motorcycles and anything else that goes fast. I didn’t review Eric Bana’s great autobiographic movie, Love The Beast, but this one is different. And you may well ask: how can you write a philosophical post about a racing car driver? Well, watch me.

For a start, Senna was a deeply complex person: very sensitive, which means that he was also passionate and temperamental. In this respect, I could identify with him on a personality level, albeit superficially. Senna was a person who could never hide what he was feeling. His temperament was more akin to an artist’s than a sportsperson’s. He strived for an authenticity that was very existential, despite his deeply and candidly held religious beliefs. In his early successes, he claimed it was because of his belief in God, but in truth, it was his belief in himself.

I’ve said many times that I don’t judge people for their belief in God (or not) and I don’t try to rationalise it either. But, in Senna’s case, his belief was part of what he was. God was as much a part of Senna’s makeup as his passion for racing cars (where ‘racing’ is a verb in this context). I’ve also said before (on this blog) that a belief in God can lead someone to extraordinary hubris or extraordinary humility. From what I read about Senna in the mainstream press during his Formula 1 career, I thought he was egotistical as most driven people are. But the film painted a different picture: more than one person spoke of his humility, including the F1 doctor, who became his friend, and, coincidentally, tried to talk him into retiring on the eve of his last fateful race. I think Senna’s humility was purely a result of his belief in God – it put the entire world into perspective for him – that there were things greater than him, greater than F1 championships, greater than life itself.

One cannot discuss this movie without discussing Senna’s genius and I don’t use that word lightly. If genius is defined by the ability to do what no one else can do then Senna qualifies in spades. On more than one occasion he produced performances that were considered ‘impossible’ under the circumstances. Watching his early races, he could make the car skate through corners, reminiscent of past masters like Nuvolari and Fangio. He demolished the opposition as if they were driving cars with half the power. In the wet he was unbeatable and in the dry he drove the car like he was driving in the wet. He was one of those rare drivers who could actually drive a car beyond its limit – to his limit and not the car’s.

The film is dominated by his career-long rivalry with Alain Prost, which became very personal and bitter. In 2 successive Japanese GPs, they put each other out of the race when the GP championship was hanging in the balance (on the first occasion they were driving for the same team). It goes without saying that Senna was loved in Japan, though not as much as he was loved in Brasil. Senna was loyal to his roots, both national and familial – it was part of who he was. He made it clear that he wanted to set up a fund to give under-privileged children an education. After his death, his sister Viviane fulfilled that dream and Prost is one of the trustees. Prost was also a pall-bearer at his funeral.

Senna also had a testy and, dare-I-say-it, openly confrontational relationship with F1’s boss at the time, Jean-Marie Balestre (FIA President). There is one scene in the ‘drivers’ room’, prior to a race, where they have a stand-up and heated argument. Balestre manages to save face but Senna gets his way because the other drivers support him. Many might argue that the film is unfair to Prost and I suspect that another version would give a different perspective on their ‘war’.

This is a sport where death is much closer than other ‘gladiator’ contests we see in the modern world but it would be wrong to assume that racing car drivers, and Formula 1 drivers in particular, have a callous disregard for life. Senna talks honestly and candidly about this aspect of his sport in one interview, after Prost claimed that Senna’s belief in God made him ‘dangerous’ on the circuit.

We see 3 deaths in this film, and everyone is clearly and deeply affected by them, none more so than Senna. There was a death during practice at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy (Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger) and Senna was deeply affected by it. It was after this incident that F1’s Chief Doctor, Sid Watkins, suggested that Senna retire and they go fishing together. In fact, after this incident it was unsure if Senna would even take his place on the grid. There was also an earlier incident in practice when newcomer and fellow Brasilian, Rubens Barrichello, had a nasty accident, and Senna climbed a fence to be by his compatriot’s side. And then there was an incident at the start of the race itself when JJ Lehto’s car stalled on the grid and was rammed by an un-sighted Pedro Lamy. There were more injuries in the crowd, however, (8 fans and a Police Officer) than on the track, caused by this incident.

In 1993, the previous season, the Williams racing team had changed F1 racing by adding electronics to many components of the car, including the suspension. This made them unbeatable, though Senna won the last 2 races in Japan and Australia. I didn’t know this, until I saw the film, but Senna won his last race and his last podium finish in Australia.

After Williams’ technological domination, F1 changed the rules for 1994 but not before Senna had changed teams from Mclaren to Williams. What was obvious straightaway, is that without its electronic ‘magic’, the Williams’ car was rubbish. This was evidenced by the fact that the best driver in the world struggled to keep it on the track. It was obvious from body language more than words that Senna was frustrated and stressed by his inability to get the car ‘balanced’ on the track.

On the morning he died, his sister claims that Senna asked God a question, which I fail to recall (go see the movie). The answer, according to her, was that he opened his Bible and read the passage that ‘God would give his greatest gift, and that was God himself’. Obviously people can read into that what they want.

At the end of the day, Senna died in a freak accident. He came off the track on a corner, that someone claimed no one should come off. People claim that his car ‘broke’ – in particular, it’s speculated that his steering failed. Watching the incident it appears that way: the car just spears off the track as you would expect if the steering suddenly failed at high speed (refer Addendum below). Even then, Senna should have survived except that a suspension arm flew up and hit his helmet. He had no broken bones and no bruises to his body. His friend, Sid Watkins, was with him when he died. He could tell from his injuries that he wouldn’t live and he claims that he’s not a religious man but when Senna sighed and gave up his life he felt like his spirit had left him. I have to admit I’ve had that experience myself, though only once.

I should inform you that much of the film, if not all, is poor quality video, but neither this nor the occasional screaming baby could distract me from being fully and emotionally engaged by this biopic. And I concede that it glossed over some of Senna’s questionable behaviour both on and off the track: for example, when he punched rookie driver, Irishman, Eddie Irvine, for ‘unlapping’ him in the 1993 Japan Grand Prix. Having said that, when he won against Prost in the 1990 Japan Grand Prix after colliding with him, it was obvious that he took little pleasure from the win.

But perhaps the most telling piece of video is not in the main body of the film but in the credits at the end. The filmmakers show bits of video of Senna enjoying himself with his family and clowning with his friends. In the midst of this ‘fun’ they show a clip where Senna has to drive around a car, recently crashed. It’s what happens after that that really shows what Senna’s priorities were, because he stops his car on the side of the track and runs back whilst other cars are still dodging the accident to check on the driver.

After his death, Senna’s friend, Professor Sid Watkins, became head of F1 safety and whether by fate or good management or both, Senna was the last F1 fatality as I write this.

Addendum: Here is an explanation of Senna's crash, the veracity of which I cannot confirm, but it gives the impression that it's based on 'black box' data.