The (former) space program

I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago about why I believe that manned spaceflight in general, and the moon landings in particular, are the greatest achievement of human civilisation to date. Rather than comment on everyone’s comments, I thought I’d write something down here instead. Importantly, my ideas about this may not be the same as yours, and that’s ok.

First things first – as Bed commented, we need to define our terms.  What is human civilisation? More importantly, what does greatest mean? We could argue for hours about this, so I’ll keep it simple. I consider human civilisation to be everything that has happened since the the mastery of fire, so that might take it back 200,000 years or more. No other animals use fire in remotely the same way that we do, so we’re alone in that club.

Speaking of terminology, some people objected to my use of “manned” as a potentially sexist term. I agree that it’s not perfect, but I’m not aware of any term in the English language that captures the same meaning and not hopelessly awkward. So I’ve stuck with manned, while fully acknowledging that numerous shuttle and Mir missions have included female members.

The gnarlier question is: what does “greatest” mean? Clearly there are as many ways of defining this as there are people, which is why I asked for comment. None of these are right or wrong necessarily, although they may display different focusses.

A couple of people mentioned various technological developments such as clean drinking water, vaccines and antibiotics. I think these are all excellent things, and from a public health point of view there is no question that they have been the biggest factors in increasing the human population and life expectancy over the whole of our history. Our very ability to achieve space missions probably relies on these medical innovations and the society that they have allowed to flourish. But I consider these to be foundational achievements which enable greater ones, not pinnacles in themselves. I think the development of written language is similar – a massive technological innovation which enabled many other subsequent ones. So when I talk about the “greatest” achievement, I probably think of it more as a summit of a mountain than a foundation of a building.

The main reason that I think that manned spaceflight is the greatest achievement of human civilisation is that it represents the ultimate expression of the human ability to shape our environment. Space and the moon are so completely hostile to life, especially human life, that we wouldn’t be able to last more than thirty seconds without our technology. The human species has spent the last half a million years shaping the world to meet our needs – escaping the earth entirely in order to live outside of it is a transcendent success. From the point of view of evolutionary fitness, our success as a species has been so profound as to allow us to step outside of the terrestrial environment entirely. For the teleologically inclined, being able to go from the development of agriculture to departure from the earth in about 350 generations is very impressive.

As Kyle pointed out, it’s a pity that the space program seems to have effectively ground to a halt. We went from the first satellites to humans on the moon in less than ten years… but that was forty years ago. We seem unable or unwilling to take the next step. That makes me sad because I hope we didn’t peak as a civilisation in the early 1970s. Part of the beauty of the space program was that it shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. That degree of focus and concentration may only be temporary, but to me it’s something to be celebrated.



Clive James

It’ll be a tragedy when Clive James finally dies. Although it seems like his illness has been prolonged, as indeed it often is when one receives excellent care, I know that I will wake up one day soon to hear that he is to be mourned.  He has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest intellectual talents that Australia has thrown up, even though we were too stupid as a country to recognise it in the 1960s.

I never liked him at first. I saw a number of his TV shows and specials in the 1980s as a child, where he delivered smarmy one-liners about television or visited exotic locales to make smarmy one-liners about the locals. My parents loved him and I never understood why. It took me decades to realise that what I took as a talent for cheap shots was actually a great sardonic wit. However I haven’t rewatched any of his TV because 80s production values cause me intense psychic pain.

To me, his TV work, and even his writing about it for the newspapers was a sideshow. His real genius lay in his essays, to which I was first exposed in the form of a thoughtful gift. His perception for wide-ranging and insightful comment is impressive; even more impressive is the fact that his comments are usually hugely entertaining and terribly witty. Again, any perception that he is out for a cheap shot is shattered by the clear love that he has for literature and his deep learning in virtually all fields of culture and history. His knowledge shines through and his judgements are wise.

His most recent collection of essays, Latest Readings comprise a series of short documents discussing the books that he is reading or re-reading at the end of his life. Reflections on Australian poets are interleaved with reflections on the tedium of treatment for oncology. He is rushing to read as many great works as he can before his death, working on the principle that if one is going to die, one might as well die happy. As one might expect, there is a deep vein of sadness that runs throughout the book.

In our age of disposable or downright manufactured media identities, and the decades-long hysteria surround the death of people such as Steve Irwin who represent the denser aspects of Australian culture, I fear that Clive James’ looming demise will attract little attention. It’s disappointing that one of Australia’s best minds is likely to be forgotten relatively quickly, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of his books.

We’re teaching maths wrong

The other day I read an interesting interview with Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and general ideas man. Despite being highly mathematically competent himself, he comments that maths as we know it shouldn’t really be taught in schools, as it is a specialist skill.

I agree.

That is the kind of statement that gets the hackles up of people who work in, for example, engineering or coding.  They talk about how indispensable maths is in their work and I don’t disagree.  What isn’t being recognised is that these are specialist professions which require specialist skills. School teaching, for at least the first ten years, needs to be generalist in focus as we don’t know what destinies the students are bound for.

I think the question we need to answer is what mathematical skills are required for the general population. What do we need to live in the modern world, independent of the needs of our professional life? These are the skills that should be emphasised, and specialised skills taught in the last few years of school, if at all.

Basic arithmetic.  No-one gets very far without a robust toolkit of basic skills in order to do everyday life activities such as buying and selling. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are the big ones. The emphasis here should be on a multiplicity of approaches – if a student has an idiosyncratic method which nevertheless gets the right answer, that is great.

Basic algebra. Most people get along just fine without calculus, but it’s really useful to be able to wrangle a few simple a + b = x problems.

Basic geometry. At some point in their life, everyone has to measure and build something, and needs to know how physical shapes interact. This might involve some very basic trigonometry, but not much more. If medieval people managed to build cathedrals with basic geometry, most modern adults will be fine.

Lots of probability and statistics. I think that training in probability is one of the most important things to be educated in.  Our modern world relies on being able to determine which of two events is more likely, whether it’s in the casino, in elections, insurance, and all forms of planning for the future. In particular it is nearly impossible to be scientifically literate without being able to understand simple probability and statistics. This may sound like special pleading but for most of the wicked decisions we have to deal with as a civilisation the answers aren’t clear. We need probability and statistics to interpret the evidence.

So why do we continue to teach maths beyond the basics? Generations of kids have whined about how they’re going to use calculus in the future, and I think they’re right. Why do we teach it?

It seems to me that much of it is a hurdle requirement. Each time my local firefighting service hires professional firefighters, there are so many applicants that they have to thin the list some way in order to avoid conducting 3000 interviews. So they set the fitness requirements absurdly high, generally much higher than are required for the job itself. I suspect that late school maths is the same – it is being used as a way of separating out the clever kids from the less clever ones by teaching a skill that is only useful for very specific populations of student.

Apart from overhauling the curriculum, I feel that we need to put a lot more thought into how we separate the wheat from the chaff.  Just as medical schools realised years ago that high marks are a poor proxy for whether someone will make a good doctor, maths-as-performance-art is the wrong fork in the road.

Hitler and earworms

I found myself whistling this morning, one of those annoying earworms that the night’s revolutions dredged up from my slumber.  The tune turned out to be the theme song from Bridge over the River Kwai, which as it turns out is a song called Colonel Bogey’s March, dating from the First World War.

What I thought was interesting was that as I whistled it, my brain returned some alternative lyrics which I learned as a child

Hitler has only got one ball.

That one, is very very small.

Himmler has something similar

And Goebbels has no balls at all.

As it happens, I know exactly where I learned these lyrics – in the school playground in Carlton in the 1980s. That’s pretty strange when you think about it – a primary school aged child learning a dirty song from two generations earlier, regarding a man who lived and died on the other side of the world.

Given the distance in time and space, it’s interesting how prominent the Second World War was in people’s thinking back then.  It had finished forty years earlier, but it was always “the war”, as if none of the others that had occurred since then were important. This was even true of my parents, who were of the Vietnam War generation – for them their parents’ war was the key conflict defining the world.

It makes me a little sad to think that the last few people who lived through that time are now dying. When I started working as a paramedic ten years ago it was common to treat old soldiers or their wives.  I’d often ask them about where they served and their wartime experiences and they were generally immensely proud of what they’d done and keen to talk.  But there are few left these days, and those who are still with us are in their 90s.

For my children, I certainly hope that war becomes more of an abstract concept (although I rather doubt it). But in a way it’s sad that the good things about the War, which in many cases have outlasted the bad, are almost gone.  My children will never know the story of that song unless they have an interest in ancient films, although they’ll probably know the tune. That’s the nature of earworms.


Civil Australia

At the time of writing the outcome of yesterday’s Australian federal election was yet to be decided. This lack of clear result has provided huge amounts of material for political speculators, but what struck me yesterday was something quite different – the utter civility of our electoral process.

Granted, some politicians can be less than complimentary than others (although few will reach the heights of Paul Keating), but in general the worst we can say about them is that they were a bit surly in their concession speeches. We complain about the political tone, but really it’s fine.  A little robust, but far better than many other forms of public discourse.

Think about the voting process itself. We stand in line for a while, generally good-naturedly, identify ourselves, then write our choices on some pieces of paper.  Then we all eat a sausage! There is no conflict between voters of rival persuasions, very few conversations even. The most combative things we do are push past the people handing out how-to-vote cards. And it’s all held at the local primary school!  Could it possibly be less dangerous or complicated?

Consider the authority administering the election, the AEC. They’re independent from government, generally very competent, and utterly impartial. An administrative stuff-up is front page news, they’re that good. Voting is compulsory – how else could we achieve fair representation of the electorate.  I have utterly no time or patience for people who complain about compulsory voting. If standing in line for half an hour once every couple of years is such a burden for you, you must have a very difficult life.

Imagine this situation in, well, much of the rest of the world. We are so incredibly lucky to be able to vote at all, and to be able to do so without fear of violence or recrimination, to be lucky enough to whinge about it – well, we are privileged indeed.

Urban Love Affair

I love a good urban environment. I’ve been trying to think about what makes my favourite cities appealing to me and I’m still stuck.  Tokyo makes the grade but Sydney does not. Hong Kong is a definite yes but Kuala Lumpur is a definite no. Bangkok and New York are so-so.
Bangkok.  No.
Density is one of the big drawcards.  I’m a fairly low-stimulus kind of person, so going to a big city that is thronging with people and noise is a pleasant kind of overload for me.  I have to go somewhere quiet after a while though.
Hong Kong apartment towers
Basically a Transformer. Hong Kong
Verticality is mesmerising to me.  One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is that it’s built into the side of a series of mountains, so that one has to think about the space in three dimensions.  Giant bridges join buildings at the fifth or sixth storeys. The third dimension is intoxicating. Compare that to flat, grid-like Melbourne.

A friend suggested that maybe it’s all the straight lines, that somehow they appeal to my brain, but I don’t think that’s it.  If anything a really dense city has so many straight lines that they blur and mesh into a messy whole that resembles a natural environment.
Brutalist nightmare. New York.
Jane Jacobs, the renowned American-Canadian writer on urban studies has stated that vibrant cities need four things: Multi-function districts, small blocks with dense intersections, a diversity of age and form, and sufficient density of people and buildings.  By these criteria the post-war Soviet reconstructions of Eastern Europe are among the worst examples of urban planning ever seen. Canberra isn’t too crash hot either.
I think that Tokyo might be my favourite, and it fits all of the Jacobs criteria. It’s dense, vertical, and busy. But added to that everything has a strangely human feel about it. The streets twist and turn in unpredictable ways and dwellings are mixed in with small shops and small shrines or parks. Few things are deliberately monumental. It feels like a place that people could actually live.


Mansplaining” is usually understood as the phenomenon of men earnestly holding forth to women about a topic which they are already aware of, possibly even expert in.  It’s patronising, infantilising, and generally off-putting. It also fails to take into account the fact that the woman in question may be extremely well informed on the topic, but far too polite to interrupt the man and challenge him, which he would probably take with singularly bad grace anyway.  Mansplaining is, by all reasonable standards, not a very nice thing.


That said, it occurred to me the other night that it’s just sort of the way that men communicate, even with other men.  I was having a chat with a male friend and I noticed that we tended to hold forth on a topic, then wait, and the other person would then agree or seek further information.  It was a little like a Socratic dialogue but with far fewer straw men.


That pattern of conversation is pretty common actually.  It seems to me that this monologue-response-monologue pattern is standard for many of my interactions with men.  I can’t explain why this is, but for me I often don’t feel that I understand something unless I’ve spoken about it, so having the clear air to be able to monologue for a few minutes about my pet topic actually helps me understand myself better. I don’t intend any offence by doing it, but it can be difficult for me to fully understand what I think without talking (or writing) about it


So while mansplaining may be taken as patronising by many women, which it clearly is, it is also the default conversation style for many men, even amongst themselves.

The job interview


“So, what’s your biggest weakness?”


“Firstly, that’s a stupid fucking question.

Secondly, my biggest weakness is the weakness that I’m not aware of, and that I can’t compensate for. The weakness that I know about is a weakness that I’m probably already doing something to rectify, even if it’s subconsciously. The second I become aware of a weakness, it stops being such a weakness and becomes something more like a project.  I have plenty of those, but they’re not really weaknesses, perhaps more like future strengths.

Anyway, why are we even talking about this?  Do you think that I am likely to give away the secret that I’m a child molester or a terrorist or something in a job interview? Surely your processes would have weeded me out before then?  Or is that a comment on the inadequacy of your screening that you need to ask me directly whether I’m a criminal, rather than rely on your HR department to do the right thing.  What kind of an organisation is this, anyway?”


“… We’ll call you.”

“Sensible people advise against drinking on an empty stomach, but to my mind it is the best sort of drinking. There is a sublime magic to that first drink of the evening. The cocktail, beer or wine goes straight to the nervous system, unblocked by food. There is really nothing to beat it. It marks the end of the working day, when you put worldly cares to one side and embrace good cheer and company. It is when the soul opens and we are seized by the need to chat. We are liberated. After spending the day either living in the past (regrets, reports) or in the future (anxieties, Powerpoint presentations), the first drink of the day brings us into the present moment: we become Buddhists.”


How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

Hospital – the least fun way to spend a week

I’ve had the misfortune to spend a lot of time in hospital as a patient in my life, and have also had my fair share of visits as a dad of young kids. Everyone thinks that the worst thing about hospital is the pain and suffering, and I suppose that if you’re severely injured or unwell that might be true.  However for most people, for whom a hospital visit is mainly about stabilising a condition, the worst thing about hospital is the boredom.

Sure, it seems like a holiday – time off work or school, no responsibilities, mushy food on a plate.  But it begins to pall surprisingly quickly.

The bed isn’t as comfy as your one at home.  There is constant noise, even at night. Light seeps in around the doorways and under curtains. Other patients are unworthy jerks with unwholesome personal hygiene.

And the boredom! No Netflix. No video games.  No sports or outdoor entertainments.  Books are much less interesting without the option to get up and make a cup of coffee.  One day may be a semi-pleasant disruption to normal life.  A week is torture.

It would (and I know I sound insane here) almost be preferable to be really really sick.  That way you have a project – getting better. If all I’m doing is hanging around, I’d much prefer to do that at home thank you.