May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!

 

Counterfeit World?

Haven’t written a post for some time. When I turned 60 in March I came over all introspective and had an unaccountable urge to start writing my auto-biography. This was all going quite well until I got into a funk about how much of my life and times I actually want to share … honestly … and so I ‘pivoted’ (the moniker the start-up community apply to a whopping change of direction) and am now a funk-free zone.

However, today I read an article that actually made me get my blog groove back on. The article was about the fact that for several years, a number of the (credible) scientific community around the world have been testing the possibility that we are part of a simulated world. Oh great, another fear to be factored into the growing list. To be sure, this is not at all a new concept. In the seventies, I can remember reading sci-fi books like Counterfeit World (or Simulacron-3 as it was published, for some unaccountable reason, in some places) written by Daniel F Galouye in 1964.

Counterfeit World featured a total environment simulator created by a scientist to advance market research by reducing the need for opinion polls. The world’s  inhabitants are unaware they are only electronic impulses in a computer. As the story unfolds, the protagonist progressively grasps that his world is likely not “real” and struggles with inchoate madness brought on by this realisation. Well, you would wouldn’t you? Things get pretty nasty before they get better as the ‘gods’ controlling his  ‘world’ try to keep the lid on their unravelling experiment. I wonder if this fab little book provided inspiration for the spine-chilling gold standard for simulated worlds, The Matrix (1999)?

While I don’t actually believe that we are part of a simulated world, the fact remains that computer simulation has become a norm, even if we aren’t yet capable of creating actual populated worlds. As the article points out, since the 90s, computer simulations have been set up to try to get answers to Big Questions.  Questions like “What causes war?”, “How will climate change affect global migration?” and “Which political systems are most stable?” Does anyone else wish someone would answer the biggest question “How do I win Lotto?  … and please, I want more than the standard “Buy a ticket”.

As things stand though, computers aren’t really up to the job of mimicking the extraordinary complexity of our world. Or, at least, not very well. Anyone hear the “yet” hovering at the end of this sentence. I’m open to believing that someday they might be. That it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could achieve a state of sophistication where they could create simulations of people in computer code who are to all intents and purposes just like you and me in the way they think and behave. Scary shit huh? But there are people out there — and not just ANY old people, people with the sort of credentials that give them a seat at the table  — who think this may already have happened, that we actually are living in a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilisations.

As far back as 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that if you can believe that we might one day be running many simulations from an anthropological point of view to better understand our ancestors and the history of our civilisation, it is logical that we are living in one of them right now. And why would that be? According to Bostrom, “If people eventually develop simulation technology — no matter how long that takes — and if they’re interested in creating simulations of their ancestors, then simulated people with experiences just like ours will vastly outnumber un-simulated people.”

This would mean that our current world could then just be one of many because any anthropologist historian wishing to get beyond The Age of Empires as a way of understanding the rise and fall of civilisations will make many simulations involving millions or even billions of people to assess all the possible scenarios. As tainted genius Elon Musk sees it, “the odds that we are NOT simulations are one in billions.”

While this sounds like so much more conspiracy bollocks, since 2012, at least some members of the scientific community have been testing Bostrom’s thinking, including a bunch of physicists at the University of Washington. I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m too lazy to try and decode how they are going about the testing — and why bother? After all, if we are living in a simulation or controlled experiment, ignorance has to be bliss.

The sinister aspect to testing whether we are indeed a simulation and actually proving that we are, is that if we knew for sure we are living in our own counterfeit world, we would become pointless to our controllers and they would likely end the experiment. It’s like when new drugs are tested for efficacy. It’s important that the patients involved don’t actually now whether they’re on the drug or taking a placebo. If they find out, the trial loses its point and will be cancelled. As Green calls it, a ‘simulation shutdown’ would occur and then what would become of us.? I’d say, whatever the truth, let sleeping dogs lie!

Ride on the peace train!

I’ve been crying lately thinking about the world as it is. Why must we go on hating, why can’t we live in bliss?

New Zealand was  rocked to its core by the shootings at two Christchurch mosques two weeks ago leaving  50 Muslim men, women and children dead and many others injured. Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, managed the impossible and found words of comfort, solidarity and strength that have resonated around the world as we collectively examine our consciences and belief structures, and come to terms with some fundamental truths about what we are a nation.

This has been a very emotional time in this small country of 4.9 million. I’ve cried a lot in the days since the massacre. Cried for monstrous waste of those precious lives and for the inspirational example of forgiveness offered by the families. Cried for a moment in time that has shone a light on the best and worst of us humans. Cried for all the people who experience racism and hate on a daily basis in large and small ways and who continue to turn the other cheek.. Jacinda’s words opened up a wellspring of grief for all the things we’re not. But they also opened up a wellspring of hope that the terrible price these victims of hate have paid will not be in vain. That our collective and visceral horror that this could happen here will open our eyes and hearts to what we can and should be. It’s been humbling to see the outpourings of love and support, not just from New Zealand, but from all around the world.

There was a national memorial on Friday at Christchurch which was streamed around the country. I cried some more when I watched the coverage, particularly when Yusuf Islam — Cat Stevens as was who was such a loved musician during my teens  — took the stage and sang Peace Train. It’s nearly 50 years since this song was released in 1971 at a time when Flower Power was still holding sway as a symbol of non-violent protest. The term was coined by American poet Allen Ginsberg in 1965 as a way of transforming protests against the Vietnam War into peaceful affirmative spectacles where protesters wore clothes embroidered with flowers and vibrant colour, wore flower in their hair and gave flowers to the public and on-duty police officers. The ‘flower children” or hippies and the counterculture that sprang to life around them — drugs, psychedelic music and art and social permissiveness — changed the world for ever. The “love and peace” mantra of the time seems touchingly naïve in our current reality with its social media echo chambers which enable so much awfulness to be spewed out, fuelling extremism of all sorts.

While the Flower Power movement now seems like an icon of a distant and more progressive era, the symbolism of flowers remains as potent as ever. Flowers with messages of love and support were laid in drifts at mosques around this country in the aftermath of the shootings. The universal language of flowers seem to be the best vocabulary we have to express our feelings of sorrow and grief, hope and love, not just in the aftermath of  this home grown atrocity, but also as in the wider context of world events.

The giving or laying of flowers has been one immediate and simple act we have been able to  take as individuals to affirm  Jacinda’s heartfelt “you are us” and make a commitment to ourselves to be better and not give in to bigotry and despair. We can create our own version of Flower Power, ride the peace train and harness all this good will to create a better world.

Now I’ve been smiling lately, Dreaming about the world as one 
And I believe it could be, Someday it’s going to come
‘Cause I’m on the edge of darkness, There ride the Peace Train
 Peace Train take this country, Come take me home again

 

 

 

Wag the (alien) dog?

I just read a wonderful hypothesis outlining a genius way of mitigating the threat of global warming. The hypothesis is that we need to invent a new and super-scary existential threat — like aliens threatening to annihilate the world if we don’t instantly come up with a convincing plan for drastically cutting emissions. Think about it for a moment, it’s a perfect concept!

The central tenet of this inspired piece of thinking is that we need a total “re-imagining” of the world political order. That business as usual just won’t cut it if we are to do enough, quickly enough. While that’s not exactly visionary — I could have come up with that bit — I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined inventing a threat from some green-minded ETs to get us fully focussed on the important stuff.  As far as I am aware, this let’s pretend it’s aliensthat are causing all the problems thing is genuine blue sky thinking by NY Times OpEd writer Farhad Manjoo.

But why on earth (pun intended) would we do that?  Well, according to the marvellously creative Mr. Manjoo, our current reality of fake news, alternative facts and outright, barefaced lying opens the door to bending the truth for the greater good. Let’s face it, playing ‘let’s pretend’ for something of paramount importance would be a refreshing take on the now seemingly acceptable art of the untruth.

In Manjoo’s Wag the Dog scenario (by the way if you haven’t seen this marvellous Hoffman/De Niro black comedy about a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal, you really should — it’s hilarious) the threat of an alien invasion is the lever to get humanity off its collective arse and working together to save it’s collective bacon. Imagine if you will, the world receives a tweet from the alien leader “We will boil your planet alive. Only a carefully designed plan for cutting and capturing emissions will save you now, suckers!” It might be a bit of a stretch that said alien leader has such a good command of the English vernacular. Maybe she was equipped with one of those Babel Fish so useful to travellers in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You know the ones, when played in your ear, these clever fish will live there and translate any form of language for you. Yup, I believe everything I read.

All joking aside, we humans have always been stellar at responding to external threats. We’re not so flash at changing our own behaviours, particularly if it means trading off some of our comforts and taking decisions that will hit our wallets. But seeing off a threat from potentially “murderous aliens” to save the planet might just galvanise us.As Manjoo says, “Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.”

And it could work! All you have to do is consider the hysteria that broke out in the US on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisationof The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (confusingly produced and narrated by Orson Welles) was broadcast. Apparently even people who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles used simulated on-the-scene radio reports ostensibly by the military and air force about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story. According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. While this over-reaction has lately been outed as largely urban myth it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in our current reality. I’m thinking about the arsenals of special effects available to film makers that could achieve genuine mass hysteria and harness it for good. Sadly, it’s also totally imaginable that we could harness it for worse, but let’s give humanity the benefit of the doubt here and assume we’d do the right thing.

OK so this is just fantasy, but it’s the most engaging solution I’ve read so far. Let’s face it, if we hit or exceed two degrees further warming, the scale of potential devastation will be catastrophic. This is not something even progressive governments can tackle in isolation, however well-meaning. Mitigating climate change is no longer just one item on a governmental ‘to do’ list. If we don’t act now, it will become the only thing that matters a damn. The build a wall thinking, the isolationist ‘dwarfs are for dwarfs’ ignorance imaged in C S Lewis’s Narnia finale The Last Battleunderpinning MAGA and, slightly differently, BREXIT, will be patent nonsense in the face of what is to come. Go aliens — pretend or otherwise — save us from ourselves.

P.S. Farhad Manjoo’s articleis entertaining and (by my way of thinking) totally on the money if you have a few minutes to spare.

Because you don’t know what it means to me

With mixed feelings, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody a few weeks ago. Mixed feelings because I didn’t want my illusions to be shattered. I wanted to keep my version of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Instead, I was profoundly affected by the movie. I was uplifted and moved in equal measure. I laughed and cried. I went to see it again last weekend and was again profoundly affected. I laughed and cried again.

I laughed with the band as their story unfolded and they created so much of the music that defined my generation. I laughed when they walked out on the record label luminary who thought Bohemian Rhapsody was a load of bollocks. Oh, the irony! There was a lot to laugh about and celebrate. Re-living the chronology of the music, if nothing else, was amazing. Watching it brought to life in performance again … breath-taking.

But to me, the greatness of the film is in the poignancy of the piece. In its visceral crie du coeur which moved me to tears. I cried for the loss of a hero. I cried for the loss of the youthful me and every other me out there out there whose worlds were changed from the moment we first heard Bohemian Rhapsody and saw THAT video. I cried for the band and the gaping hole Freddie’s death must have left in their lives. I cried at the poignancy of the lyrics in the light of Freddie not being at our sides to remind us how he still loves us. I cried for the love of my own life who isn’t by my side as I grow older because I never did realise until too late what it meant to me.

I cried for the impossibility of being gay at the time and the terrible risks involved in ‘coming out’, particularly for a superstar whose every move was stalked by the paparazzi and a voracious media determined to get the scoop to feed an equally voracious public. I cried for the awfulness of AIDS and how many people have died. I cried for the gay men I have loved and who have walked a mile in Freddie’s shoes. I cried for a dear friend that that lived with HIV for years until his immune system finally gave up on him a few years ago. I cried for all the vulnerable people like Freddie Mercury who are preyed on by the amoral and self-serving. Most of all, I cried for the all the music that died with him.

Although the reviews haven’t been universally kind — echoing the reception of the original release of the Bohemian Rhapsody single — I thought it was a truly wonderful film and I can’t get it out of my head. The music was, is, and always will be in my dessert island collection. Like many, many people – millions and millions of people all over the world – I loved Queen. I loved them in a primal way, still do love their unique genius which formed a backdrop to so much of my life — Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 1975 when I was 16. Long-haired, exotic, high cheek-boned, lithe, pantherlike, beguiling Freddie Mercury became indelibly etched on my psyche from the first moment I saw the band on Top of the Pops. And that voice! I believe there was (is) no other rock star that could (can) hold a candle to him.

Even though I understood very early that he was gay, he still seemed to open a window into my soul few other performers of any type have ever found. There was something so viscerally mesmerising about the man. But it’s not just the music that’s haunted me since I saw the film … and it has … I’ve watched everything by Queen on YouTube, re-watched the Freddie documentaries and sung along with it at full volume (them and me) in my car. But I am also haunted by sadness at a life so tragically cut short and the understanding how fragile our hold is on this mortal coil.

I’m deeply grateful to Rami Malek and everyone involved in the production for bringing it all back home to me and to the others in the band for sharing their story and the astonishing music they gave life to, and for enabling the film even if it wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I hope Rami gets an Oscar to go with his Golden Globe and that the film in general sweeps the boards. I’m glad that Freddie did finally find redemption and somebody to love in his last few years. And it’s wonderful that the rest of Queen are there to remind us how we still love them.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.