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October 29, 2008

The Pages — by Murray Bail


"At dawn — what a word: the beginning of the world all over again — the two women set out from Sydney in a small car, as other people were slowly going about their tasks, or at least beginning to stir, producing a series of overlapping movements and stoppages, awakenings and false dawns, framed by the glass of the car."

Above, the opening paragraph of the Australian novelist's new book, which most certainly predisposed me, at least, to continue with my reading.


    How anyone can believe that Sydney could produce in its own backyard a philosopher of world significance or even minor significance shows how little understanding there is of the conditions required for philosophical thought.

    Sydney of course is one of the nicest places under the sun. The location, location. A young settlement, brightly lit. It has come late to just about everything, and has enjoyed both the advantages and disadvantages of that.... For the first fifty years there was only a handful of books in the entire country. By the time Sydney passed through and built upon its original settlement and began standing on its own two feet, philosophers, if there were any, found hardly any problems left for them to tackle. The important philosophical questions had more or less been settled. The remaining questions were paltry; they could all fit onto a pinhead. People in Sydney still interested in philosophy were reduced to commenting on the work of others....

    At the very word "philosophy" people in Sydney run away in droves, reach for the revolver; they look down at their shoes, they smile indulgently; they go blank.

    It is different in other places; Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna come to mind. There, philosophy is not in the awkward, remote background, but in the foreground of everyday life. These are places where the philosopher has his rightful position, that is, on a pedastal. It is common in those old cities to find a philosopher's image cast in bronze and his most difficult propositions being discussed over breakfast, and certainly every other evening on the radio.

    Meanwhile, Sydney never bothered itself with philosophical questions; as a consequence, philosophers are nowhere to be seen.

    Such an absence would normally leave a hollow center, an entire group of people living without the benefit of long sentences — foundation sentences; yet we can now see how the lack of interest in one field encouraged a rushing across into an adjacent field, the way passengers crowd to one side of a shop when a harbor comes into view.

    Psychology, and its vine-like offshoot, psychoanalysis.

    In Sydney it's hard to bump into anyone who isn't in analysis, or has been, or is about to be.

    From being the most unphilosophical city in the world, Sydney has become the most psychological city in the world.

    Rows of terrace houses in the inner suburbs, and rooms in small office blocks close to medical centers, have been fitted out with the heavy curtains and the chair and the couch in duplication of the cave-like atmosphere first tried and found to yield interesting results in Vienna, on the other side of the world. In the long summer months on the footpaths, when the windows of these rooms are raised like so many open mouths, a murmuring hum can be heard, blending into one, each and every word and sentence circling around the self, nothing else. In early evening, women doing well in big business, earning heaps, hurry away from it all for the regular appointment. And they enjoy it — the endless sentence. Who knows what sacrifices they have endured and confusions vaguely felt — all for their work? Others — perhaps soldered to their father's hip, or baffled by the broken marriage — drop everything at three or four to make it there. An excavation through words. It can be hard work. And these patients are the articulate ones. Emerging after fifty minutes on the dot they can be seen hurrying along the footpath in a return to ordinary life, the everyday in all its complexities, its apparent breadth, its incompletions, some wearing an exalted expression, while fumbling for the keys to the car.

    What is going on here? The skies are blue, forever cloudless — is that it? A great emptiness sending people back to themselves. Now that the city is up and running, no longer a country town, there's been a transference from the landscape and its old hardships to the self? Various repressions are said to be hidden away, "frozen anger" is one of the terms used. They say it is a matter of gradually lifting the layers, to find the original self, where there might be recognition, when then allows a suggestion of hope.

    And who is doing this talk? Not ill, at least not seriously, the self-obsessed personalities have a concentrated, almost technical interest in the self, as if they wer specimens. Interest in others tends to be perfunctory, impatient, showy.

    Years spent murmuring the endless circling sentence, while the analyst remains almost, though not quite, hidden.

    A philosopher would not allow this; but when needed there were none.

    Travelers and strangers to all parts of Australia, especially away from the coast, can expect wonderful hospitality. The country has its faults, as any country does, but lack of hospitality is certainly not one of them. Only when hospitality is little more than an excessive informality, when an entire nation breaks into premature smiling and all-teeth, small-talk mode — which betrays an absence of philosophical foundations — does it appear as nothing more than an awkward type of lightness.

    The more isolated and hostile the terrain, the more authentic the hospitality. In their falsity the travellers are made to feel at home. Desert people are renowned for sharing with strangers their last handful of dates and puddle of used coffee, often without saying a word. There is a courtesy here — without naivety. The world is inhospitable; the cold earth. Assist another person if encountered on its surface. The instinct is a basic one.

    At first glance you would think that the psychoanalytical person would understand hospitality, and be hospitable, while the philosophical person would remain distant to the point of turning away. The opposite happens to be the case. The psychoanalytical person plumps up the pillows and leaves it at that. To extend hospitality to another person subdivides aspects of their distant, hidden self. And any suggestions of a food offering acting as language is brushed aside: for it could only reduce the amount of language available to describe their attention-requiring state of mind.

    But then it could hardly be said the philosophers have set a cracking pace in generosity to strangers either. Almost to a man they practice in their daily lives a specific remoteness, a behaviour verging on abstraction. Et cetera, et cetera. Oh, yes.

    Out here — more than in the city — she could see how everything already existed without description. As well, she was never comfortable with the way words were attached to a given subject — such as a tree, or the heat, let alone feelings.

    Hot barren countries — alive with natural hazards — discourage the formation of long sentences, and encourage instead the laconic manner. The heat and the distances between objects seem to drain the will to add words to what is already there. What exactly can be added? "Seeds falling on barren ground" — where do you think that well-polished saying came from?

    It is the green smaller countries in the northern parts of the world, cold, dark, complex places, local places, with settled populations, where thoughts and sentences (where the printing press was invented!) have the hidden urge to continue, to make an addition, a correction, to take an active part in the layering. And not only producing fertile ground for philosophical thought; it was of course a hysterical landlocked country, of just that description, where psychoanalysis was born.

    A mismatch of opinion or the way of expressing it triggered in her a sharper observation of a person's defects, which suddenly protruded the way rocks appeared in a paddock.

    The greatest of the great philosophers followed the solitary life, a life of relative simplicity, living alone, in that sense a hard life, just the candle on the table, whereas the founder of psychoanalysis and his disciples and rivals enjoyed married lives, children and gardens which provided the warmth and intimacy of the softer life. The philosopher is interested in silence. The psychoanalyst is drawn to the other person, to words strung out; they're prepared to encourage the horizontal halting sentences, faint noise of traffic outside, someone on the street shouting. Spare a thought for these conduits in comfortable clothing; after listening at regular set intervals to a procession of people one by one thinking aloud about themselves, they return home in the evening to encounter more words, more cries for attention, where they are expected to apply not ordinary everyday understanding, but unusual additional understanding.

    More and more Sydney has come to resemble a word-factory the way it produces extra, spoken words.

    Psychoanalysts have not seen the need to set up rooms away from the city (Sydney). An overlay of voices and other distractions has separated city dwellers from their natural selves, in turn aggravating all manner of obstructions, confusions, the specifically named phobias, which cry out for treatment. It is the philosophers who have shown a penchant for pastoral areas, often up in the mountains. There's been quite a history of it; many distinguished names hiding themselves away. And then what happened? The remoteness of the places the philosophers chose as their "work worlds" drew curiosity and respect from the city dwellers who couldn't help embroidering the distant uncomfortable huts, towers, the forests and lakes, until they became further isolated and frozen in the aura of myth.

    The "comings and goings" of the seasons, the firm statement of geology, above all the absence of voices, can provide a feeling of closeness to the original nature of things, the beginning from where an explanation can begin to be constructed. There — in the mountains especially — philosophy can be seen as a natural force.


£10.49 at Amazon UK.

Or wait till next year when it's published in the U.S.

October 29, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Finger Grip Socket Set — 'Turn your finger into a socket!'


I've heard of putting your finger into a socket but this takes it to a whole new level.

From the website:

    Finger Grip Socket Set

    Nuts and bolts snap into the finger-mounted tool for correct positioning — and don't come out until they're properly threaded.

    Set includes 10 US sizes (3/16" to 9/16") and 10 metric sizes (6mm to 15mm).

    Even works with your glove on in cold weather — perfect for tight spaces.

    Organizer/storage tray included.



October 29, 2008 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'Please, drink responsibly'


Am I the only person on the planet who finds the three words in the headline up top, increasingly often the tag line for beer commercials on TV, somewhat inappropriate — at best?

I mean, here you are trying to get someone to alter their consciousness in a way that cannot but hurt others if things go south, while at the same time expecting them to act is if they had no blood alcohol level at all and are thus fully able to do the right thing.

Disingenuous is a better word.

You can't have it both ways: you want people to drink, then don't expect them to monitor themselves when what they're drinking gradually obliterates their judgement.

The whole point of drinking is to lose the constant background noise that accompanies being responsible.

Responsible drinking is an oxymoron unless you're staying home.

Note: Just in after the post above appeared, this pithy observation from clifyt (who oughta know): "That's bulls**t — you can be irresponsible while you are at home too."

Thank you for that.

October 29, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Buttered Toast Wallet


Amaze everyone when you pull this puppy out of your bag or pocket.

From the website:

    Toast Wallet

    Get your recommended daily amount of yummy fun.

    Sandwich your cold hard cash between pieces of golden-brown buttered toast.

    3¾" x 4" one-fold wallet.



October 29, 2008 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Definr.com — 'Incredibly fast dictionary'


I won't argue.

It was created by Christian von Kleist.

How's it work?

I thought you'd never ask.

From the website:

    About Definr

    Definr.com is a fast, free dictionary based on Princeton's open WordNet 2.0.

    The website framework is Ruby on Rails. Looking up words in a dictionary is easy, so we do that with MySQL and cache the top 10,000 definitions in memory.

    Doing word completion (a.k.a. auto-complete, auto-suggest, globbing) is not easy, at least not when you have to search through 200,000 words for every keystroke. So our word completion is done in a C module for Ruby, and the word completion server is separate from the rest of the site.

    With the DefinrBot algorithm, we can do 190,000 word completions per second without caching, and that translates to about 10,000 completions per second once the Ruby layer is factored in.



[via Milena]

October 29, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cube Timer


From the website:

    Cube Timer

    To activate, simply turn the cube so the time you want is facing up.

    It's preset for 5, 15, 30 and 60 minutes.

    Uses 2 AAA batteries (not included).

    No buttons to press, no dials to set.

    Alarm beeps when the time is up.

    Easily readable numbers.

    White plastic.

    2.5" cube.


October 29, 2008 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Is sleep necessary?


Medical dogma since forever has been that sleep is essential for memory consolidation.

As with all medical dogma past, present and future, it's not true — the truth is just not yet evenly distributed (through time).

Now come scientists from the University of Bologna led by Roberto Vetrugno to report that "... two Italians have no problems with their memory even though they never sleep," according to an article in the September 18, 2008 issue of The Economist.

The piece follows.


    A strange case raises the question of what sleep is for

    The function of sleep, according to one school of thought, is to consolidate memory. Yet two Italians have no problems with their memory even though they never sleep. The woman and man, both in their 50s, are in the early stages of a neurodegenerative disease called multiple system atrophy. Their cases raise questions about the purpose of sleep.

    Healthy people rotate between three states of vigilance: wakefulness, rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. But all three are mixed together in the Italian patients. The pair were initially diagnosed by Roberto Vetrugno of the University of Bologna and his colleagues as suffering from REM behavioural disorder, in which the paralysis, or cataplexy, that normally prevents sleeping people from acting out their dreams is lost. This can cause people in REM sleep to twitch and groan, sometimes flailing about and injuring their bedmates. These patients, however, soon progressed from this state to an even odder one, according to a report in Sleep Medicine.

    One of the principal ways to measure sleep is to monitor brainwave activity, which can be done by placing electrodes on the scalp in a technique known as electroencephalography (EEG). Non-REM sleep itself is divided into four stages defined purely by EEG patterns; the first two are collectively described as light sleep and the last two as deep or slow-wave sleep. When the Italian patients appeared to be asleep, their EEGs suggested that their brains were either simultaneously awake, in REM sleep and non-REM sleep, or switching rapidly between the three. Yet when subjected to a battery of neuropsychological tests, they showed no intellectual decline.

    Mark Mahowald of the University of Minnesota Medical School, whose group first described REM behavioural disorder in 1986, thinks memory consolidation is still going on in the brains of the two Italian patients; hence their lack of cognitive impairment or dementia. What needs to be revised in light of their cases, he says, is the definition of sleep.

    Dr Mahowald suspects that sleep can occur in the absence of the markers that currently define it, which means those markers are insufficient. What’s more, the Italian cases lend support to an idea that has been gathering steam in recent years: that wakefulness and sleep are not mutually exclusive. In other words, the human brain can be awake and asleep at the same time.

    That evidence takes the form of a growing list of conditions in which wakefulness, REM and non-REM sleep appear to be mixed. An example is narcolepsy, in which emotionally laden events trigger sudden cataplexy. When the dreaming element of REM intrudes into wakefulness, which can happen with sleep-deprivation, the result is wakeful dreaming or hallucinations. Since such dreams can be highly compelling, Dr Mahowald thinks they might account for some reports of alien abduction.

    But there is another possible explanation of the Italian puzzle: that sleep is not necessary for memory after all. Jerry Siegel of the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied the sleep habits of many animals and thinks that could well be the explanation. All of which gives researchers something new to keep them awake at night.

October 29, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What is it?


Answer here this time tomorrow.

October 29, 2008 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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