Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Friday, September 29, 2006

First Loves: Dante Alighieri

I first read Dante through when I was 15 years old. I read him largely through a lens of Romanticism, having travelled backwards through Tennyson's Ulysseus at 13 and Byron's Manfred and Don Juan at 14 to get to him.

And so, limited by the Romantic preoccupation with fancy, I read Inferno and stopped there, unable to progress further until I had resolved the Romantic quandry of reason versus fancy. Dante suffers no such division: in fact Purgatory is by far the most fanciful of poems until Shelley, proposing a science fictional cosmology and cosmogony of surpassing complexity.

Then in a great rush I read Paradise in one night, and went walking by the creek in the early morning, astonished to still be in a physical body after such an amazing trip, yet feeling like I was returned (with Dante) to the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, after having had a transcendent experience.

But before then it was a hard slog. I had to read Inferno three times in three ways to understand it and to master the complexities of the notes and critical baggage attached to it. My first reading I read the critical matter more than the poem. My second reading I read the notes to the words. My third reading I read the poem itself, rapidly and with understanding, and finally got to enjoy some of the speediness, sweetness and charm that Dante is said to have in the original italian. But the English translations, of any kind at all, are a hard slog.

I chose Dorothy L. Sayers as my Vergil, and quickly found that her voice and style became inextricably intwined with Dante's in my mind... to this day I find it hard to read another translator and tell myself "Yes: it's really Dante." But she knew her stuff, and was an able enough psychopomp.

Oddly enough, as Vergil and Dante became more equals half-way up Mount Purgatory, I became a more active reader. Because this was in the days before the internet I could not look up all the references in his books easily, but I could re-imagine it myself. I began to fancy that as Dante went on a journey into his own psyche, I was also somehow travelling into the soul of European civilisation in myself. It became an experience of descending into longings, instincts and desires with Inferno, then up into the luminosity of Mount Purgatory as Dante assayed some of the philosophical and historical depth of his own period, then finally, with Paradise, Dante provided an epic overview of the enterprise of civilisation as it stood from his time in the thirteenth century.

Dante in the process became more than a guide to the psyche and became a guide to the world. Because for we moderns (meaning the folk a few hundred years each side of the present moment), Dante stands at the cusp between the Midiaeval and the Rennaissance. From the 13th century, ancient Rome and Greece are startlingly closer and clearer to the eye than here. A balkanized Italy and France still struggles with the formidable institution of the papacy, and the Crusades are as close to Dante as Vietnam and the Second World war is to us. None of the horrific viccissitudes of secularism, colonialism, and the enlightenment can be imagined from this time, although in Dante they can be foreseen and even foreshadowed in his poem.

In Paradise, Dante envisages the kingdom of God as a Roman eagle made from the souls of the blessed acting in perfect unity. This image glows in an age long before the shadow of communism was cast by similar idealisms. The rose of heaven, the premium mobile, the luminous platonic imagery used to connote divinity - all the features of the poem express the proximity of the ancients and the absolute predominance of a primitive Christian culture in Dante's time.

If you read Dante, you are forced to recontextualize what it means to be alive today. It forces a reassessment of the measure of a human being to accord with the broadness of Dante's historical, moral, and aesthetic vision.

But there is more to Dante still, because la Commedia is above all a spiritual biography of one man and a love story. Reading Dante potentiates the awareness that the complexities of history, civilisation and religion can be reduced to the love one feels for another and the desire to be absolutely and selflessly united with the object of love. Dante transcends reason and emotion to attain a state of inner union with his beloved, a direct knowing of the independence of lovingness from the arbitrary object-subject dictotomy. For me Dante is a guide to the world as well as a great mystic.

First Loves: Andre Gide

I had a hard time emotionally as a teenager. I would take my emotions and my bicycle and ride all over the countryside, self-absorbed and gloomy, until the ride finished or something emotionally shifted.

I felt as if I didn't fit in, and I felt frightened by my desires and orientation. When I compared myself to others, I knew I was different from them in so many profound ways. Growing up in a country town I felt everyone lacked substance and vigor, and that everyone was hypocritically Protestant - they had lost the ability to protest! - and didn't respect the body and emotions wisely. I felt as if I was a lone and guttering spark of vitality, searching for a fellow lamp to re-ignite my enthusiasms.

I embodied the typical European symbolism of the scorpio archetype - one senses the fragility and uniqueness of one's life, and so strives to bolster, harness, and protect the libido, the life-urge, by any means possible. It is the opposite archetype from the lush and fertile pastoralism of my home town, with an all-provident superabundance of earthly things to numb the mind and steal the heart away of an evening.

So in this context and at this time of life I discovered Andre Gide. Gide guided me, as his name promises, back to a clarity and a sense of vitality and confidence in myself. I had recently read Walt Whitman but he seemed adolescent and inadequate to the need I had for clarity. Papa Walt didn't give a shit if things were clear or muddy, and was equally happy with both, it seemed. Andre Gide was an entirely different kind of beast.

To my astonishment, the front cover read:

"The Andre Gide Reader; the complete texts of The Immoralist and the Pastoral Symphony, with chronologically arranged selections from most of Gide's other words including the Counterfeiters/If It Die.../the Journal/Lafcadio's Adventures/Strait is the Gate/Travels in the Congo/Return from the USSR/ and Imaginary Interviews; editing with an introduction, sectional preludes, and notes, by David Littlejohn."

Talk about confidence! They didn't even need to put a picture on the front cover! And when I turned to the back of the enormous tome, I saw Gide's photograph.

Sitting on the stairs in his home in the north of france (I was about to say Combray and then remembered that was Proust), Gide sits on the steps of his library, wearing wool and linen, reading and smoking, looking like a monk with his skull cap and delicate long feminine face.

There was a powerful sense of recognition, appropriateness, and fulfillment whilst holding that book. I remember it clearly as a kind of instant identification: "I am that" my heart said happily.

So I opened and read...

Looking back, now, 16 years to the young man who read Gide, I feel sad about him. Did Gide mislead? Did he decieve? Was he self-indulgent or intoxicated too often, and did he corrupt the youth who read him? I cannot answer these questions, but to say that at the time it was as intoxicating a love affair as I have ever experienced.

At first I loved Gide for his vitality and sinuous and tenacious words; he wrote like a lover, lean and hungry to discover the truth. He wrote from the belly, yes, but from the sensual surface of the belly, inducing ripples of pleasure in the curves of the stomach muscles but no gut-wrenching truths.

Later I came to love him for his exquisite taste in words, and for introducing me to the French literature of his time, and for his travels, and for his invitations to dance with various other writers. I came to love him for the peripatetic voice of the Journals, which I read complete one sweltering summer fortnight, having borrowed the two chest-sized ancient volumes of the Jouranls via interlibrary loan from a Melbourne university. I came to love him for being more Protestant than anyone I ever met in my Protestant home town - damn, he was still protesting, hundreds of years after the event!

It was bewildering to me to see my own traditional western European roots still with some vigor in them, and I suppose in the end he came to represent in abstract the promise of a larger world outside the broad confines of my home town, and thereby drove me out into the world.

First Loves: Kung Fu Tzu

Kung Fu Tzu is better known in the west by his Jesuit name, Confucius, and here is the story of how I met and fell in love with Kung:

I used to work in an employment agency in a trendy artistic area of Melbourne. Lunchtimes I would go down to the local bookshop and browse the new releases for curios. Tired from work one day, I saw a dark red-brown cover, the color of nutritious clay earth, and felt an instant connection.

It was the Sydney academic Simon Ley's tranlation of Confucius' Analects.

I opened to the first page and immediately got a shock. The voice of Kung spoke directly through my heart to me, unmistakeable and authoritative. Here was a man with a mission so burning and noble, I felt, that it could only be delayed by the demands of common courtesy and the everyday pursuit of happiness and satisfaction. That is to say, the means, goals, ideals and personality of Confucius were so perfectly bound up in the business of being human as to be indistinguishable.

I bought the book immediately.

Here is the passage which gave me an aesthetic and moral shock:

"The master said: to learn something and then to put it into practice at the right time, is not this a joy? To have friends coming from afar: is not this a delight? To not be upset when one's merits are ignored: is not this the mark of a gentlemen?"

And Karl Marx shall have no dominion, for here Kung Tsu out-patriarchs all modern patriarchs. Mao Tse Tung becomes an impudent child and Chang Kai-Shek an idealistic youth in the shadow of a man who puts the the happiness of learning and and the dropping by of beloved mates before anything else.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why Herodotus and Thucydides Matter To Us Now

Paul Brians says:

"Whereas many Middle Eastern peopleswelcomed the advent of the Persian Empire, the Greeks viewed their own victories over the the Persians as making possible the very continuance of their civilization. The army of Darius was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and that of Xerxes I at Salamis in 486 BCE. The Greeks considered their poleis many of them democracies as infinitely superior to the absolute monarchy of Persia. Europeans have traditionally maintained that if these battles had not been won, history would have been utterly changed, with Europe falling under the sway of Eastern despotism. Whether or not this theory is true can never be known; but the theory itself helped to shape centuries of European hostility to and contempt for the nations of the Middle East."

Brians in his introduction to Herodotus is discussing how the rift between the Greeks and Persians seems to have set the stage for the historical differences that unfolded later on.

Doubtless the political absolutism of the middle east has at times been quite moderate and sophisticated. Likewise, no doubt the urge to liberalism and open society in the west has been compromised and restored, and even fundamentally altered, many times over. So few would see the divide as a simplistic matter.

But the question still stands: Why did the Greeks put up a fight? Why weren't they obedient? What set them culturally apart from their Turkic relations acrosss the Hellepontus?

The easy explanation is geographical. Whereas the plains, deserts, and river valleys of the middle east can easily fall into authoritarian centralization, the relative isolation of the mountain valleys in Hellas to the high cultural diversity of the Greek pennisula may have favored citystate politics.

But that easy explanation is fool's gold, while Herodotus and Thucyidides are the real nuggets that provide the answers to these questions. These questions explain why these two historians are consider fundamental to our understanding of the world.

Oh I wish I were involved in biology...

I read tonight from:

"Advances in single-molecule research in the last 15 years have been "revolutionary, not evolutionary," said Stanford biophysicist Steven Block.

""When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, the idea of recording data from a single molecule was a pipe dream," he recalled. "No one would ever believe you could do that. It was beyond possibility. Now it is reality. It is literally possible to study the output of a single enzyme at atomic-level resolution."

"In 1993, Block and his colleagues were the first to observe the movement of an individual molecule of kinesin, a tiny protein that carries chromosomes, neurotransmitters and other vital cargo along minute tracks called microtubules in living cells. Using a sensitive microscope-based instrument known as an optical trap, the Block team observed that kinesin moves along microtubules in discrete steps that are a mere 8 nanometers long. "Kinesin and other motor molecules are really nature's nanotechnology.""

I cannot help but read this and yearn to be involved, to take part in the enterprise of biology. It simply is the most exciting game on earth at this moment in history in my opinion.

Tonight I went onto MITs open course materials and began listening to their introduction to biology lectures. It was really slow stuff - the lecturer went on about how Crick and Watson's findings are revolutionary, enabling us to unite the descriptive biology into a technological science with powerful unified principles - but it was exciting nevertheless. I'll definitely be spending more time there listening to lectures, and perhaps one day I'll consider actually getting my degree in one of the biological technologies... however far in the future that is, I have no idea.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Suggestions For Lifelong Learning

Most suggestions for lifelong learning are based in the content of learning rather than content. The content-based suggestions include these kind of things:

- Read exciting non-fiction books.
- Read to be on the cutting edge of your profession.
- Use audio books.
- Use the web to look up things you're curious about.
- Whenever something piques your curiousity or interest, look it up immediately or make a note to look it up later in a safe portable place.
- Make tiny notes in a journal divided by lines across the page then use it to guide web browsing later.
- Write down (ie - do an inventory of) what you are expert at, then fill the gaps between different expertises.
- Seek gaps, holes, omissions, etc, in a system you are part of.
- Ask people you admire for book suggestions.
- Ask "What does that mean?" and "Why?"
- Give yourself permission to surf for knowledge online. Try the website: for a brilliant opener.
- Set your browser to open new windows onto the Random Article generator at Wikipedia.
- Focus on the part of your job where learning is involved most, and seek out knowledge jobs to drive learning into new areas.
- Listen to podcasts, speeches, and educational talks.
- Access the "New Lifetime Reading Plan" at . This is where Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major discuss world classics that are actually worth reading, why they qualify, and which translations and supplmentary materials you might want to look into.
- Conversely, access to go to new places in the web and the mind.
- You can also access Mortimer Alder's epochal "Great Books of the Western World". All the texts for this are to be found online. List of readings here:
- Mortimer Adler, wonderful popularizer of wisdom as he is, has a short essay "How To Read A Difficult Book", online here at
- Alternatively, his long and wonderful book on the same topic "How To Read A Book" is available here in the 1968 version:
- Learn about The 103 Great Ideas, from the same Adlerian mainspring, at
- - a syntopical approach to the great ideas.
- Another great liberal popularizer who has influenced my life greatly is Harold Bloom
- Here is Harold Bloom's "lifetime reading list"

These are what I would call content-based suggestions for lifelong learning. However, there exists a different order of response to the question, at the level I would call context-based lifelong learning:

- Learn how great folk learn.
- Learn the attitudes of great learners.
- Learn study skills - a nice summary is found here: and a more comprehensive guide is here"
- Robert Dilt's books "Strategies of Genius" provided an important starting point for me to understand the cognitive and top-down models of the genius of Aristotle and other such people. His books are probably out of print now, but if you can track them down they are important additions to the field. Much of his work can be found here:
- How To Learn:
- Thinking Like A Genius:
- Can You Get Smarter In A Week? Who knows? Apparently the BBC does:

I have packed a lot of information and links into this piece. I hope you enjoy life long learning.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On Arvo Part

Arvo Part's music always reduces me to a sober silence.

Stillness, luminosity, gracious non-intrusiveness, startling suddenness - this music is light through a prism of sound. Part's music inspired me to write my novel, Murder on Planet Pureland. The simple patterning of conflicts in harmonious streams of mutually reinforcing sonic intensities brings an unusual clarity and emotional poignancy to his music. It is as if an ancient Pythagorean, believer in the divine power of the tone, had been transposed to modern day Estonia-then-Berlin to create music. And, yes, it's also timelessly lovely too.

About Arvo Part:

Part is recorded as saying:

"I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."

Exploring key dynamics of change and transformation

Dissipating into choice...

The key frame around choice and change is that of free will, which I want to quickly encompass with a quote:

"The arguments about free will are usually spurious by virtue of inadequate contextualization and reliance on the hypothetical. They then end up as discursive, circuitous intellectualizations in which the unconscious hope is that free will will be negated as a possible reality, thus avoiding spiritual responsibility or accountability."

TLC, Hawkins, 2006.

Models of Change
Among the models of change in complex systems is Prigogine's idea of a dissipative structure, a chemical analogy for life-like patterns, whereas among economists Hayek's idea of creative destruction offers another view on the same concept.

Perhaps the most dramatic and unannounced creative destruction in the history of ideas has occured in the 80s to early 90s, when Lynn Margulis' SET theory, the theory that life evolved through individuals destroying their individual integrity and collapsing together into new and more complex orders of cellular life, has swept from radical theory to accepted doctrine in a few short years. The theory of symbiosis explains beautifully how complex orders of life appear from less complex, and allows analogies to range from the level of the virus up to the level of the ecosphere and economy with comprehensive relevance and explanatory power.

Dr Hawkins on Change
The clearest exponent of this view is again Hawkins. The problem is that not only are his words different to describe change, but that the meanings of the words are of a different order again. So one can repeat the words he uses without having understood them experientally or subjectively, despite understanding the theory.

So for what it's worth my understanding of Hawkins' explanation is that individual change does not ultimately occur.

In reality, emergence occurs as the result of the overall sum of influences in the entire or whole of reality. The key condition in such emergence is intention, which inheres to the fabric of reality by virtue of being one and the same with it. Death, dissipation, disorder, chaos, collapse, illness, and on are all apparent only, and in fact bring unseen and subtle long term benefits to the whole of reality overall.

There: I've repeated the words and doubtless missed much of the significance. It's my best attempt; enjoy.

Keys to Change: Spaciousness, Non-resistance, Acceptance, and Intention
The significance of these thoughts is that change often occurs in a mysterious fashion. Sure it is possible to attempt to change oneself overall, but the overall orientation of one's life system, or imprints, or tendencies, or however you want to say it, tends to tug one back into the past and the previous. The more subtle way, then, is in the dictum of Shunryu Suzuki: if you want a cow (meaning a tendency or fixed behaviour) to settle down, place it to graze in a spacious, verdant field.

So the most sophisticated model for change I know is simply to give lots and lots of space and awareness to behaviors that one wants to change, letting go of the wantingness and needingness around the wish, and simply allowing things to settle into a new pattern around this. That is the best I've got on change, in all honesty.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On The Business of Joining A Gym

It's been a long time since I had to endure any significant sales communication without any recourse. Oh I've had Indian phone service salesmen come to my door, of course, but I simply say no three times in a row and it's allright. But finding a new gym is another matter entirely.

The first time, months ago, I was invited to enter into the sales dance when the front desk folk point blank refused to tell me how much it is to do weights in their weight room for three months. Oh no, I had to have a needs assessment. So I refused to submit to their protracted sales pitch.

Then this second time, yesterday evening, I was pretty keen and highly motivated to go to the actual gym. The front desk folk were absolutely lovely and I was willing to wait for a coach (salesperson) to become free.

Mica, the saleswoman, asked me about my goals. I answered in as general and impersonal a style as I could without sounding evasive or dishonest.

Then she asked me what kind of "package" I was after. Oh dear, I thought, here we go. But I restrained my urge to simply ask her how much the weight room costs for three months and can I please look at it. No, I thought, be polite.

But it was really annoying. Whenever I hedged she would ask for reasons. And several times when I said I didn't want an expensive additional service she pointed out the inconsistency with things I had said before, as if I had said them for any other reason than to get to her telling me the price and showing me the place. I felt annoyed that she pointed out my inconsistent story - it was like being interrogated by Good Cop, and I didn't want to have to tell her a story anyhow.

What annoyed me the most about the gym sales pitch I endured last night was the presumption on the saleswoman's part that our interests actually co-incided. I might simply be looking for something else than her employer offered, and frankly I was more interested in a mutual search for the best place for the best price for the nicest gym nearest my house than my long term goals concening my physical body.

Her fake interest in my goals reflected the fake answers I gave her, I suppose. She wanted to score a sale and I wanted to score a nice gym, but I don't think our interests co-incide unfortunately. The pool at the gym is tiny, and much of the pleasure of a gym lies in the lap swimming as a meditative way of getting in the zone. The gym is gender divided, men hidden upstairs, women down a little ramp near the front desk. They charge extra to use the Nautilus exercise equipment, because they have a "group trainer" there who (annoyingly) rings you up if you don't come for a week.

One note of interest: Mica said that Nautilus equipment was found to be more effective for less effort at building muscle. The resistance is through the entire length of the movement, allowing fewer sets of repetitions to produce the same result. Verrry interesting, but when I googled this factlet it came up with nothing exciting. Pity.

So I am still looking for a gym, with a nice long lap pool, and now preferably with Nautilus equipment as well I suppose!

Oh, and the saleswoman told me to make another date later today when I said I wouldn't decide immediately to join, in several hours. I'm going to ring her and tell her the pool's too small. I wonder if I should test her fake helpfulness out by asking her to recommend other gyms with longer lap pools? We will see.

Monday, September 04, 2006

On Respecting Our Betters

There are lots of things in this life that I'm not good at. And there are a few things that I am good at, even a couple I am great at. And while it is difficult for me to take on board, one of those things I am not so good at really yet is winning and losing.

Consider this: winning is sweet and losing is bitter, but the bitterness is stimulating or depressing, and the sweetness is toxic or memorable, depending on what game you believe you're playing.

Success partly lies in internalizing the reward-punition systems which society and economics provide external symbols for, or at worst lends a carrot and stick to drive the reluctant into action or out of the more destructive forms of inaction. Society tends to legitimize economics, in a way devolving social norms to the economic sphere. Essentially in modern societies the social more is outsourced to the economic sphere, so that work becomes a kind of extended living parable of character and moral and ethical ruminations. One internalizes the world through the economic sphere, through working, shopping, paying and buying, and thereby comes to know oneself.

This is a pretty good way it seems to me, especially when compared to the earlier forms whereby humans internalized this reward-punishment system. (Incidently, Freud refers to this system as "the ego ideal".)

For example, in the primitive forms of society such as that portrayed in the old English epic Beowulf it is not the richest, but the most generous rich person, who is considered the greatest. And even then it is not the generosity or richness alone which is rewarded but that which it implies: a sage and careful consideration of which warriors to fund, and which to starve.

Thus the conflation of material prosperity with ethical excellence is a mythology which it seems humankind wants desperately to believe. Despite almost half a century of "distrust authority" propaganda mainly from the U.S.A, we still want to believe our betters are in fact better kinds of human being.

Which is a funny part of the drive to be good in sports, or the pleasure of being savvy about technology, or for my part simply the delight in winning a game of monopoly or cards against friends: one really wants to be a better person, really wants to be better. I would argue that in people who have not adequately internalised a sense of respect for authority, this drive to be better manifests as a wish to appear to be BETTER THAN another person, and that is when it really becomes a trouble.

Because for me, at this stage of my life, I think I want to be better at being bad at things. I want to be the best person at doing new things badly at first, at second, and even at third try. From the point of view of the world, I suppose I want to look like I'm not very good at what I'm doing. But that's just because I want to be better at winning and losing both. I want to be a better player. In fact, I want to believe the game I'm playing is completely for the highest good.

It's a wonderful paradox that in order to be better, one must be willing and able to be bad at many different things. And that is as good a reason to trust and respect authority as I can think of.

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