The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Online newspaper paywalls - response to replies

This is in response to the comments on this posting. (New window)  It turns out that Blogger refuses to accept something this long as a comment on another posting. OK, so be it.

Monday, 4 March 2013  This posting continues to attract wide interest, or seems to. Already the game has changed quite a lot since I wrote the comments below in October 2011. Murdoch survives, apparently with no difficulty. Paywalls can work. My only question is the nexus between these two. If we accept paywalls, will we get quality while proprietors dictate the content? Paywalls are not the only option. There are other successful models.

The comments themselves are here. (New window)

Dear Red Witchy: I used to feel exactly as you do/did about paying for content. Never, I thought, would I do that. It's online.... it should be FREE! 

Although that's what we've got used to, it's a weak argument. I really do have a big concern about how to support high quality journalism in the same way as I have one about supporting high quality academic research. Are we to get every idea and scrap of information from Wikipedia

The quality items on such sites depend on what's provided by the remaining genuine researchers, and if they are not paid adequately to support their research, we'll end up with mediocrity, at best. Wikipedia is the democratic view of what's 'right', and though an admirable thing and very useful, it's not designed to support opinion that isn't mainstream. There are no Einsteins or Hawkinssss(?) there, and they are the ones who changed the world.

The world-changers are on Wikipedia only as entries, not as contributors.

So we must support original research and journalism or be prepared to put up with recycled mediocrity.  As to the Bolts of the world, the more controversy they generate, the more influential they become, but given enough rope, eventually they hang themselves. 

The wounds inflicted by poor quality, lazy opinion pieces pandering to ignorance and prejudice will fester away, but if we don't have quality opinion paid for and published to counter them, then we leave the field to them.

Don't let me get on to that subject!

Dear Zoe, you always have something delightful to add! The KV excerpt is a treasure. And, of course, he's right. The nail has been struck bang on the head. May all humans who have the freedom to do that go and buy their envelopes, and see what flowers (literally and metaphorically) are blooming on the way.

Sadly, as you will know better than most, some of us have to walk or ride down to the shop via our computers. Now when I really walk, 90% of the time I have my eye fixed on the place I'll put my foot next, or else I'm likely to fall. Not that I don't get the most out of my 10%.

But most of the time, my fingers do the walkin'.

Unfortunately, it's the fingers of just the left hand. If I bought a newspaper and sat in the Mall here to read it over a cup of coffee, I couldn't even hold it, or turn the page. The cup of coffee would soon be over the newspaper. I can't hold a book and read it except with much frustration. 

But the Vonnegut principle still prevails for me, as far as possible. That's why I choose people to follow on Twitter whose views I don't always like, or are quirky, or hit me with a different view of the world. These are the people I'd like to meet out on the street or chat with à la Vonnegut mode.

That's brings me back to the point. Fortuitously, and ironically, the intellectual world is heading right in the direction of catering for people like me, away from the printed page and on to the iPâd or Kîndle screen. (The diacritics in those two brand names are there to try to avoid spãmmers!) 

My much-loved books sit there in the bookshelves. There's a vast revolution, or revolutions, just beginning, and I can only imagine where it will end up. All I know is, if I were to be part of this world in the longer term, I'd be fighting right now to preserve the existence of two very endangered species - the real journalist and the real scholar.

Jim: many thanks for your valuable contribution. The things that really struck me in what you said related to these:

Paywalls. The problem you mentioned is that effective paywalls may be too expensive to administer. That makes sense but I'm not convinced entirely. I know that there's a vast hidden cost in all journalistic enterprises but the day of the media magnate is ended. Ending, then. Murdoch guaranteed the collapse of that model with the events of the past few months. There have to be new models. Old ones with morph into something else or die. The new models are being developed, come what may. It's evolution as much as revolution. Evolution at a great rate....

Advertising. The ballgame has changed and will continue to change faster than any large organisation can catch up with. Strategists, in desperation, are sprinkling ads right through body text, or pop up over text. People are not going to put up with that unless they are desperate to read what's underneath. Many aren't that desperate. I wouldn't bank on people getting used to it.

The Huff Post is an exception because as you said like most news aggregators its news is recycled or free. It did well at the beginning and still does. It was bought up because it was the best of them, but the basic model is on the way out. Anyone can start a media aggregation site. Few, needless to say, have the resources or the vision to keep it going.

I don't think too many have cottoned on yet that the game is changing faster than it can be adapted to by conventional media organisations. The rules are that there are no rules. Study the (apparent) strangulation of Wikileaks and see just a few of the new elements in the game.

It's all about POWER! I'm sorry I won't be around to see it. But if you do understand the power relationships and competitive forces, then expect to be a Cassandra, able to foretell the truth but driven insane because no-one will believe you. Orwell was not as far out in his predictions as many think.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rifty the cat - 2nd of his 9 lives

I have too many unfinished stories. I better complete this one - where our cat, Rifty, yielded at least another of his nine lives. By then he must have been up to six or seven.

  Rifty had failed to come in for his evening feed and to settle down in front of the fire.

  It was late winter and freezing cold, with the weather blowing in from the west, puffy snow clouds passing over. Snow clouds billowing overhead are easy to spot, but it was too cold for snow. If it's going to do that, it suddenly warms up just a little beforehand.

  It wasn't a night for a cat to be out, even one with the long soft fur Rifty had, but there was nothing that could be done about it. He'd have to take his chances. But it was a bitter one, with howling gusts of wind that rattle the flue and make you hope you built it well enough.

  Another day went by, and the wind softened. The temperature rose a fraction and large flakes of snow floated down. Through the night the snow continued, on and off.

  I don't know why it is, but if snow comes to the Tablelands, it often seems to be around full moon. Not always, I know, but on so many nights out there at Pangari, with moon and stars the only light in the blackness, a brilliant moon and a snowfall went together.

  We could look out on our hills covered in trees on snowy nights, the scene lit up by moonlight, woolly clouds chasing each other across the sky, racing eastward to the coast. When the moon appeared between the clouds, and there was snow on the ground to reflect its light, everything stood out with great clarity. The two-dimensional silhouettes of trees on dark nights became 3D with the full moon. It was a picture almost worthy of a chocolate box.

  Poor old Rifty was out there somewhere, alive or dead.

  The next night was still, clear and freezing, promising a heavy frost after the snow. The moon remained in the sky a couple of hours after dawn on the third day of Rifty's disappearance, heavy frost still on the ground at 9 am, when he turned up at the door.

  He was in a bad way. One of his legs had severe wounds, infected, with holes right through skin, muscle and tendons. He was exhausted and stank. Yet the fire was still in him. The leg bones seemed not to be broken. We got him to the vet straight away.

  I had no doubt what had happened, even before the vet confirmed it. Maybe he had been hunting a rabbit on a neighbouring property, but he had sprung a rabbit trap.

  He'd tried to fight his way out of it, then lay in what must have been ghastly pain, trapped for three days and nights by a cruelly wounded leg in the snow and sleet and wind, and finally the frost. I'd say that someone who came round inspecting his traps had discovered him lying there, had managed to release him, and Rifty had hobbled off.

  You'll readily imagine the vet's treatment - clean up the wounds, x-ray the leg, stitches, antibiotics, bandages, and a return visit a day or two later to check progress.

  Amazingly to me, in spite of the enormous damage to tissue and muscles, Rifty returned to a state where you wouldn't have known he had ever been injured. The fur grew back over the scars and it was if it had never happened. He walked normally.

  This left an enduring mark on me. Even the worst of injuries may be fixed, with good treatment, determination and a bit of luck.

  I think of it now, applied to myself, though I don't expect miracles. We fight with the weapons we have.

  As to animal traps that work like rabbit and bear traps, I have always regarded them as abominations. Their cruelty is hideous. OK, I know if I depended on catching animals for my livelihood, and this worked more efficiently than anything else, I might get used to the daily round of finding an animal in terrible fear and pain, releasing it briefly and wringing its neck, but frankly, I don't want to lose the ability to empathise. I don't want to be able to rationalise it.

  I try to imagine my leg clamped by the teeth of a bear trap, with no way of escape. The pain must be indescribable. Oddly enough, other illnesses more likely to kill you may not be near as painful as that of a healthy limb being torn apart by such a device.

  I don't want to get used to that. Humans can and do, and that allows us to stretch the boundaries. It lets us condone torture and violence, and it's apathy like this that allows even the President of the USA to let it be used on other human beings. Those who inflict it may even enjoy it.

  Call me a softie, but let's see how you go with a stint of your leg in a bear trap. If I wanted a rabbit, I'd take the .22 rifle, make sure I had it perfectly in the scope crosshairs, and that would be it.  And yes, I do know that a rabbit trap might be a great investment for some living on the poverty line.

  But humanity shouldn't be sacrificed for convenience when there are alternatives.

  Anyway, on the third day, Rifty rose from the dead. Maybe his middle name should have been Jesus: no disrespect intended. I wonder what He would have thought of traps like these. I can imagine what Gandhi would have said. 

  Or poor old Rifty.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Online newspaper paywalls - a modest proposal

Some newspapers which used to deliver free online content are now charging readers for it. There are writers like Tim Dunlop who believe this model is doomed to failure. (Note: this opens in a new window) 

Are they right?

Here's what I would like to see happen re paywalls - which I imagine will never get off the ground because papers like the Australian now charging for content probably carry too much baggage.

Allow a person to set up a small credit account with, say, the Oz. When the reader is lured on to read what they feel to be a good piece, they press the button to have the stated price deducted from their credit. Want the page ad-free or minimal advertising? Be given the option but be prepared to pay a little more.

The newspaper would very quickly discover who is being read and who their millstone writers are. That would be a bit scary for some of the hacks, but it would show with blinding clarity who's making the profit for the paper.

A graph showing who has been read most and which stories could be shown on the site.

Feedback on all aspects of this would thus be instantaneous.

Who the paying public deem to be 'good' journos would, I daresay, be rewarded appropriately by the paper.

Win-win? Nah... obviously I'm totally naive and/or there's something that has to be terribly wrong with this model. I'm no economist. What is it?

For responses and a reply, please see this.

(Note: please copy your response to memory or to a document before attempting to send. It's frustrating to lose it because of some glitch, which can happen with Comments. If you don't have a google account, it's fine to select 'Anonymous' and include at the end of your comment whatever personal details you like to add). 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 7

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7<<you are here

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

There's one final part to this story. Everything I've said about Taoism would be meaningless if I couldn't show how it applied to my own life, especially after it was changed so dramatically on 3 December 2009 - the day out in the garden that I was given the first unmistakeable sign I had a brain tumour. I'll try to be brief but the temptation to try to explain everything is strong, and if this is too long, it will lose its balance in terms of getting my message across.

  Balance. That's it, you see. The great thing that Taoism taught me was that balance is the key. When something goes out of balance, it loses its harmony, and whatever is natural in its order is lost. When that balance is lost, then a system tends towards collapse, or to become something else.

  Before that moment I felt the fiery tingling in the fingers of my right hand that day, my system, as far as I knew, was in a fair state of balance, physical and mental. Yet something in my brain, not much bigger than a grape, overturned that balance, or the illusion of balance, in a flash.

  That balance, or as much of it as possible, had to be restored quickly, before the wreckage inside one motor centre in one lobe on one side of my brain extended to other areas even more critical, and I would die within three months.

  In what I have said about Taoism so far, I mentioned seeking a natural way as far as possible to restore balance to anything, including the human body. Doesn't it seem as a contradiction that I chose a course of treatment that seems to fly in the face of this comfortable theory? When put to the test, didn't I just fold, and go down the traditional western medical pathway - chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and finally, Avastin?

  No. Well, no, in the sense that my condition demanded a radical and immediate restoration of the natural balance of my system as far as that was possible. Wandering around the internet, or the country, or the world looking for some 'natural' treatment while there was a trainwreck going on in my brain, with three months of life left to experiment, defies common sense. If such an effective treatment existed in my case, it's hardly likely that the conventional medical fraternity wouldn't have caught up with it by now.

  So 'yes' as well, in answer to the question. Some Taoist liqueur of immortality or another hasn't yet been discovered, and the putatively 'Taoist' sorcerers and alchemists have had thousands of years to come up with it. It surely doesn't exist in such cases that demand immediate attention, so it didn't take long to choose to have my cranium split open, what could be of the tumour removed, the remainder blasted daily with radiotherapy, and vile chemotherapy tablets swallowed - all aimed at containing the runaway cancer cells creeping along all those neural pathways.

  Yin is fine, but there's also a time for yang. The yin principle, the heart of Taoism, works perfectly, but it needs time. Sometimes, the aggressive warlike approach of the yang can't be denied its part in restoring the balance.

  There are times we have to go to war. Taoism recognises this, in some particularly revealing verses, but I can't go into them now, much as I'd like to.

  We were at war with the forces of imbalance in my brain. There was a Hitler in there - still is, the swine - and there is no gentle approach to the Hitlers of the world. Lord knows, Chamberlain tried. Without the benefit of hindsight, which makes us all so wise after events, I would have done more-or-less what Chamberlain did, and you would have too, staring in the face the destruction of Europe all over again. Yes, you would. You may be smart, but you aren't that clever.

  That brings me to the other vital thing Taoism taught me. Understand the real nature of things as far as you can. Here Tracey and I were the yin and the yang in the battle to extend my life.

  I don't mean I was one and she was the other. We were both, just like the yin-yang symbol - that sort of revolving unity of opposites that allows me to be here now.

  And in understanding the nature of things, there's give and take. There are what were to me in hindsight clear mistakes in approach to my medical condition, most of them mine. And they all came down to not understanding the real nature of the enemy - of misinterpreting the clues. That's what happens when you face something completely new.

  I'll give you an example. In the early stages of treatment, I put my right arm under physical stress on a number of occasions. I had a seizure soon after, or even at the same time. From that, I made an association between exercising that arm, and the seizures that did a lot of damage to motor activity.

  I stopped exercising the arm. I also limited leg exercise on the same premise. I felt I had no choice. For a while, this seemed to work well. But through lack of understanding, the muscles atrophied, first in the right arm, which was doing nothing, and then in the leg, which took longer, because to get around, you do have to exercise it whether you like it or not, even if you just want to get to the bathroom.

  Within months, my right arm was in a sling and useless, and we were using a wheelchair for me to get out anywhere.

  If you have ever had no choice but to be wheelchair-bound, I don't know how you can appreciate the psychological effect of that. Even more mentally crushing is not to be able to shower yourself, or towel off after a shower, or to dress. When the last person to do that was your mother when you were 5 or 6, and suddenly it's your lover, the psychological effect can be devastating. Just think about it.

  I had lost balance between the hemispheres of my body, and between what remained of balance between brain and body. And with that, I lost balance in my perspective on the world.

  And this, I remind you, was mainly because of my conviction that exercise was bringing on the seizures. It wasn't the only thing, as the chemotherapy was losing whatever effectiveness it had, even the intravenous chemotherapy I was then on. So was the steroid.

  But not exercising, because I thought it was going to lead to worse, was a wrong conviction.

  It was only after going on to Avastin, feeling much better so quickly and wanting to improve my general physical condition by physiotherapy on the right arm that I discovered all the physio and the exertion at that time were not bringing on seizures.

  I set about restoring the physical balance that I had lost for my arms. I also realised that I couldn't afford to let my legs weaken any more than they had, and added them to the physical exercise regime.

  Taoism reminds me every moment that failure to understand what you are dealing with can have catastrophic results. It also reminds me that the 'Uncarved Block' is the state where for any entity, that's where we need to head mentally. Balance is critical - balance in every way. In Buddhist terms, the Middle Way.

  There are so, so many other Taoist lessons. All I've done is exemplify a few of them. Today, although I can't stop an inevitable process from occurring, whatever that process may be, I can exert more control. My right arm has strength again, though it lacks coordination - yet I use both hands together. I can tie shoelaces. Don't laugh. Gaffa tape your index and middle fingers of your right hand, and try tying your shoelaces.

  Not so easy, hey? I can shower. I can dress. It takes a while but god it's good to be able to walk out of that bedroom fully clothed. I can unscrew lids and pick up blueberries with my right hand and put them in my mouth, if I'm careful. I can walk round the block, as long as I remember with each step to think of the sequence of thigh, knee, ankle, angles. Lift. Bend. Straighten. Repeat. Concentrate! The things a two-year old can do far better than I because they don't need to think about them.

  There's much I can't do, or do poorly. My right arm still feels like it's encased in ten kilos of lead when I try to lift it. But Taoism also taught me to accept what I can't change, and go with it all, as far as I can. It doesn't allow me to give up on things unless I've reached the limit of trying. It reminds me above all to take each experience as one of learning - that there's no such thing as failure. It teaches me not to whinge on my own account even when I get angry at the brutality and ignorance of others, and the sheer pettiness that makes healthy people moan about their lot.

  Above all, it reminds me that many others are vastly worse off, and that I have an enormous amount to be grateful for.

  There's so much more I could say about the Taoist approach and how to get the most out of the Tao te Ching, but we've reached our limit here. The balance is tipping.

  Maybe one more part to write. Let's see.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7<<you are here

Monday, October 24, 2011

Backs, crackers and drugs

home | WHAT'S NEW! | stories from my past

It's 9:42 AM as I start this - later than I intended. I'm about as good as it gets for me, which means I feel no reason to complain on my own behalf. We had a great but all too brief session with the Lakes yesterday - fantastic to see Julie and Bob again after all these years.

  Regrettably the circumstances weren't as we intended. Tracey was still practically immobilised with her painful back. This morning she is no better than she was yesterday. She can take over my Doctor's appointment for this afternoon. 

  'Bad backs' are horrendous, and I'm grateful that I've only had two relatively minor sessions of it in my entire life. All I remember from each is thinking, 'this condition - a bad back - is one of the most painful, frustrating ones in the world,' and having great sympathy for chronic back pain sufferers.

  Tracey isn't a chronic sufferer of the lower back pain that hit her this time, but she does have regular visits to the chiropractor to put particular bones in her back back into place. This seems to work for her.

  The world seems divided into three categories - well, the 'First World' anyway; those who go to physiotherapists, those who visit chiropractors, and the lucky ones who have never needed to go to either. If you're in the third category, you won't know what the fuss is about, because until you have been in a position where you can't put your underpants on because the pain in your back is too intense, you just won't understand!

  It's a bit like a religion - something like the divide between Mac and PC users - unless, like me, you're an agnostic and use both. That's computers I'm talking about. When it comes to the other, I'm not a 'chiropractor' person. I've never been to one, though I'm sure there are times when they can do just what's needed to put something back into place. All those cracking noises, and the reported manipulations seem like black magic to me. I feel safer with physiotherapists. Call me a wimp if you want. They don't crack things and toss you about. Not too much anyway....

  Other than that, it's a beautiful day. A visitor is expected at 10.30. My med appointment this afternoon is mainly to replenish the drug supply, but right now,  Tracey needs some treatment.

(Note: if you read this earlier today, it's changed.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rifty the cat - 1st of his 9 lives

  It was getting late and the cat was lying motionless in front of the fire.

  'Time to go out, Rifty.'

  Rifty was a half-Somali we had out at Pangari, our 25-acre property northeast of Armidale. He had long fine hair and a bushy tail. I have no idea what his other half-breed was - a tabby, maybe - but he was a beautiful cat, there's no doubt, as far as cats go.

  My choice, I have to say, was to have no cats, but we acquired Rifty anyway. On the farm when I was a kid, we had a cat to live in the hayshed and control the mice if there wasn't a carpet snake around to do the job. They worked for their living, like everything else on a farm.

  Rifty was quite happy to sleep all night in front of the fire, as long as we let him out strategically for comfort breaks.

  This was one of those times.

  He seemed totally uninterested, but you know cats. Five minutes after refusing an offer to go out, they decide they now will assert their authority on the household and make a pest of themselves till you open the door.

  He wasn't going to fool me this time. I picked him up, opened the sliding glass door, and gently put him on the mat outside.

  Strange. As I put him down, he simply crumpled up on the mat as if he were a sack of potatoes. He just lay there in the position I put him down in: a rather ungainly sprawl.

  I gave him a bit of a prod. 'Off you go, lazy slug. Do what a cat's gotta do.'

  He didn't move. I poked him again. 'Scat!'


  I lifted him up for a closer inspection, as this wasn't normal. His eyes were opening, just occasionally. But when they were, they were as big as saucers. Well, almost. The pupils were completely dilated.

  He seemed as high as a kite. Catnip?

  To be honest, I had never seen catnip but I could readily imagine this was its effect. (In fact, now I have the benefit of Google, which didn't exist in Rifty's time, I see the effect is the reverse.)

  Rifty was comatose.

  This was Sunday night, late. Call me an old farmer, which I was as a young kid, but in a place like Armidale, there was no way I was going to go into town with a doped up cat, find a vet willing to get out of bed and deal with Rifty's problem - if he really had one, and I wasn't even sure he had.

  Rifty was going to have to take his chances overnight. Call me hard-hearted, but that's the way it was going to be.

  Next morning, he was in exactly the same spot as I'd left him not too far from the fire, only his whole body was cold. Yet he was breathing, like he was in a state of suspended animation. Amazing really. His breathing rate was about a fifth of normal.

  OK, fair enough, mate. You made it through the night on your own, so you've earned a bit of help at a respectable hour. The vet is next stop.

  'He's been bitten by a snake,' said the vet. His fur is so thick I can't see where, but the thickness of the fur probably saved him from a full strike.'


  'You can see if he recovers without treatment. I doubt if he will. There's only one other. I can inject him with human anti-venene and there's a chance. But, it's only effective against brown snake venom. If he's been bitten by a red-bellied black, then it won't do anything for him.'

  Those are the two most common species of poisonous snakes round here. The brown is the deadliest. You really don't want to get bitten by one of them.

  'And one more thing. It costs $70 for one treatment. That's just the antivenene. What's it to be?'

  In those days $70 would buy what $400 would now. That was a lot, but we'd gone this far, so decided to give it a go.

  The vet injected the dose into the comatose Rifty, and kept him a couple of days in a humidicrib. Amazingly, he recovered. Though a bit sluggish for a while, he ended up completely OK.

  Only a day later, I was able to reconstruct what had happened. I opened the little pump-house for our rainwater tank to do some maintenance.

  The roof is just a hinged piece of galvanised iron. There's a space between the wall of the pump-house and the tank, which provides ventilation. As I opened the roof, a large brown snake flashed out of the pump-house via the gap, and made off.

  The gap was also large enough for Rifty to squeeze through.

  Occasionally, when he felt like a snack, he'd go down the paddock and catch himself a young rabbit, which he'd hide in the pump-house to eat in peace. When a cat eats a rabbit, all that's left afterwards is the fur and the gut in a neat little pile.

  That's what was left in the pump-house. Rifty had eaten his meal, and then encountered the snake. The brown had bitten him, but as the vet said, and probably due also Rifty's agility, had not hit him with a lethal dose. Or at least, not lethal with the help of the antivenene.

  That was how he used up one of his nine lives. I also know how he used up another, and as it's part of family history, I'm going to relate it anyway.

  It's coming.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 6

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6<<you are here | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

Linked with the unity of opposites are two symbols which recur constantly throughout the Tao te Ching:
the image of water as an indication of the way the Tao works, and
the rather perplexing image of the Uncarved Block.

 When we think of the qualities of water - formlessness, pervasiveness, inertness, softness, and its ability to yield, the usefulness of the image is apparent.

      The highest good is like water.
      Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
      It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
      It nourishes the ten thousand things,
      And yet is not their lord.
      It has no aim; it is very small.
      The ten thousand things return to it,
      Yet it is not their lord.
      It is very great.
      It does not show greatness,
      And is therefore truly great.
      Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
      Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
      It has no equal …
      The truth often sounds paradoxical.

 If we model our behaviour on that of water instead of using force, then we can accomplish a task with the smallest amount of resistance.

 The Uncarved Block is a more difficult image to understand, but it is no less vital. The Tao is like the Uncarved Block - it is the most natural of states. It contains the essence of everything and is the totality of all things. 

 It represents the unity of everything, and to take only one aspect of that unity is to deny its relationship to all others. The Tao is infinitely complex yet overwhelmingly simple, guided by the natural law from which humanity has increasingly departed.

 On the surface, Taoist ideas may not appear to have much relevance to people today, because it seems such an antisocial philosophy.

 This is only true if it is accepted that our society is the best place to live in. It can't be denied that modern society is very much out of balance. There are gross inequalities which result in plenty for some and very little for others. Those who have plenty are unhappy; those who do not have enough are also unhappy, because of the social and economic values that we hold. The ecology of the earth is in danger as humans plunder their environment.

 What has gone wrong? The Taoist answer is clear. Humans are out of harmony with the universe the further from the natural order they depart. We have created technology that seeks to subdue the natural order, not to complement it. Nearly everything people do as social beings in a sophisticated society leads to frustration, tension, greed and violence.

 Why has this occurred? Because people have chosen to live in a society, organised rigorously and with an abundance of rules and regulations. The more complex the society, the more rigorous the rules, and the more unnatural the environment. It is more impersonal, more selfish, more alienating.

 What is the solution? The Tao te Ching has an answer, one few people accept. Reverse the process. Forget the technology where it inspires artificial wants and human greed, return to the dignity and security of village life, and live in peace and harmony with the environment. Learn to be natural again; better still, never learn to the unnatural: 

      A small country has fewer people.
      Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
      The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
      Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
      Though they have armour and weapons, no one displays them.
      Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
      Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
      They are happy in their ways.
      Though they live in sight of their neighbours,
      And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
      Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

 This seems a good and infinitely sensible answer, but may have been much easier to apply to the society of China in the sixth century BCE than to our society of the present day. Most of us feel bound to this society by countless threads - not to mention a gigantic mortgage or two.

 Yet there is much in the Tao te Ching for us. The notion of balance in our lives, for example, is a useful one, whether applied to diet, drinking, exercise or mental activity. In these very basic aspects of existence, we cause ourselves and others much unnecessary pain and frustration.

 Lao Tzu saw that humans had departed from their 'animal nature' by binding themselves to society, and because of this, lost what could be termed their primary consciousness. The more civilised people became, the greater the divergence between this primary consciousness and their brain induced desires, compromising real happiness.

 To give an example, take something as basic as eating. Animals tend to eat 'with their stomach' - not caring about tomorrow - while human beings eat 'with their brain'. Animals know when to stop eating - when their stomachs are full - but people do not, because they are always guarding against potential hunger which might happen later on. The result, more often than not, is over eating, with its attendant dangers.

 Human desire generally tends to be insatiable. Pleasure is demanded, as the greater the pleasure, the more we stimulate the senses. This usually means that the same amount of pleasure requires ever larger doses of stimulant.

 Even if it sickens the body, the brain continues its frantic search. It knows it has a finite existence, and all pleasure has to be crammed into that time.

 Animals do not have this problem, because they are unaware of anything beyond what is immediate. Animals have no psychologically induced hangups in their natural state, but human existence is plagued by them.

 Much of the illness of modern society is induced by worry, tension, repression and greed. We usually pay the price without even thinking about it, but there is certainly a strong appeal in the Taoist notion of making the brain serve the body rather than the reverse.

 The Taoist does not worry too much about the future, and for a very good reason.

 The future is not the present and cannot be experienced until it is. The future cannot be enjoyed physically although we may have pleasant anticipatory thoughts about it. But to try to pursue the future is like trying to find the end of the rainbow.

 That is why present civilisation is rushed - people are not enjoying the present because they are too busy worrying about the future. The body has been made the slave of the brain, and so the natural harmony of mind and body is upset.

 The brain nowadays is being used incorrectly, if we follow the Taoist logic. Thinking is a natural process and cannot be forced. The brain has wonderful powers, but it should not be allowed to make unreasonable demands upon the body. When body and brain are in focus, then the natural harmony is restored once again, and the Tao has been followed.

 The Tao te Ching then, is an abundantly practical guide to life even in its esoteric complexity. The truth, as it says, often seems paradoxical. Its wisdom often eludes us, and it warns us of this:

      The wise student hears of the Tao and practises it diligently.
      The average student hears of the Tao and gives it a thought now and again.
      The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
      If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.

 Put it this way. We should accept what is in front of us without wanting the situation to be other than what it is. The best approach is to study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it. If you are swimming and are carried out in a rip, for example, you do not swim against it or you will drown. Understand the nature of the rip and swim across it, or let it take you out until it loses its strength.

 Trying to change the natural order of things only sets up resistance. If we are really aware, we will see that work proceeds much more easily and quickly if we stop 'trying' - if we stop looking for results and if we stop putting in wasted effort. Truth becomes apparent to the still and open mind. That is what the Way means.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6<<you are here | pt 7

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rain clouds, gardens and cowdung

Rain clouds, gardens and cowdung. Yes, that's right. You think after the Mrs Woog episode, I've really done it this time, don't you? Power cord's pulled out of the outlet. Lift's not getting to the top floor. Phone's off the hook. TV antenna's pointing the wrong way. A few fries short of a Happy Meal. A beer gone from the six-pack.

   Well, it isn't so. It's just that it didn't end up as I intended - as a three line medical update, even though it started that way. And reason for the flower pics from my sisters' gardens will become apparent later, so enjoy them on the way through!

Saturday, 15 October 2011 8:20 AM.

After a night of steady rain it's a mild day, with a little more rain to come. The radar tells me that it is pouring at Jan's and that Lyn will have had rain overnight. The girls in Melbourne look like having a clear day.

   That's how it started. Yesterday, take note. Already dodgy as a medical report, I just let it have its head.

   Why this fetish with the weather? You can't have grown up on a farm in the days long before the internet and radar and not search the sky every morning to calculate the chances of getting a shower. On the land, it was only rarely that a shower wasn't welcome, however temporarily inconvenient it might be.

   You learned to understand how the various types of cloud above gave a good indication of what was to come; the variety of hues in the clear sky, the direction of the wind. If there was rain coming, you could smell it, in the way that when you go to the coast after living away from it you can smell the salt and feel the humidity in the air.

   'The air here is thick,' Sylvia would say when we got out of the car down at the beach at Valla Beach. 'And it's heavy.' She was born and raised in the thinner Tablelands air here high above the coast.

   ....which has absolutely nothing to do with what comes next.

   Jan and Lyn both have beautiful flower gardens; a love and talent they inherited from our mother. Kay, before she died just three years ago, also had a glorious garden, and together with John created the most successful online gardening site in Australia.

   Kay and our friend Julie came to know each other because they were asked to judge gardening competitions together - interstate ones. Coincidentally, Julie was a student in my Asian cultural history courses and it was only later that we realised she knew us both quite independently and at different ends of the country.  Not coincidentally, she and her husband Bob are coming to visit us later in the month; the first time I'll have seen them in nearly ten years, and first time ever for Tracey.

   See where talking of the weather gets you? Even further... to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I remember one morning at breakfast with my friend Zahir, about twenty years ago, looking out the window at the sky and saying, 'I can't be sure of your weather patterns here, but if we were in Australia I'd say you were going to get a shower this afternoon.'

   He looked at me dubiously.

   'That's unlikely. It hasn't rained for months. And there's barely a cloud in the sky.'

   ...which was obvious enough. Dhaka is very dry and dusty in winter. It certainly was that day.

   'Still,' I said, 'it looks like a bit of rain coming to me.'

   It did rain that afternoon, and Zahir was quite shocked. Thereafter we made a joke of it, involving 'weather prophecy' and a morning weather report daily over breakfast.

   I was more interested in growing vegetables than my sisters with their flowers. Always thinking of my stomach, OK OK, - have your fun.

   It's true enough anyway. Oh wait, what's not true is that Lyn and Terry don't grow vegetables. I forgot that. Here's pictures, come to think of it. And Jan is sure to tell me of her hidden vegetable plot too. I can't get away with anything on this blog.

   The cow manure heap was just over the fence from the cow yard where the cows waited to be milked. It was my job as a child after each milking to get the big square shovel and pick up each fresh pile of dung and hurl it over the fence a couple of metres high on to the heap, also a couple of metres high.

   So you see, my Hindu friends, you thought I was a Brahmin, teaching you your own Indian history at the university, when in reality as a child I was nothing but an Untouchable, an outcaste, shovelling you-know-what!

   Where was I? Oh yes. The manure pile. With the heat of the Queensland days, the pile broke down into beautiful rich crumbly dark soil - the sort townies pay a fortune for at the garden shop.  The sort that our friends from town came out to visit us regularly for, just by chance towing trailers and carrying a shovel.

   Dad and I would shovel this on to the vegetable garden, and borrow a neighbour's rotary hoe so we could plough the perfectly-rotted manure into a piece of ground below the dung-heap the size of a tennis court.

   This soil was already quite rich from its location on the downhill side of the manure heap, the rain washing nutrients deep into it year in and year out, much to the delight of the giant worms below the surface. Half a metre long, some of them were, and they also played their part in producing soil so beautiful you could plate it up and eat it with a knife and fork. (Well, apparently some people do eat soil. Not I. It's passed through all four quadrants of a cow's stomach, metres of intestines and then through a worm. That's not my idea of rural culinary delicacy - paté de cow's gras. But.... it is very friable. Maybe something for the pan? Hah hah.)

   In that garden we grew the most spectacular vegetables - peas and carrots, sweet potatoes and beans. A little row of radishes and some sweet corn. Potatoes and peanuts. Brussels sprouts to die for. Oh shut up, you whining Brussels sprout haters. You're the ones with kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Nyah nyahh. Baby Brussels sprouts are magnificent. 'Food of the Devil', Tracey's sister Keely calls them. She doesn't know what she's talking about, even though she looks like an angel. (She's not.)

   There was nothing that wouldn't grow in that soil.

   I regret not being able to grow vegetables now. At least we have fruit trees. And we have another dear Julie here who often brings us Tablelands flowers from her own beautiful garden. She brings a bunch and no matter what, they always arrange spectacularly in a vase, colours and shapes and perfumes.

   That's all. I've had my ramble in the garden. You can go now.

   Oh wait; one last thing - if any of you have the wanderlust and want to be happy campers, Julie and her husband Bob have just produced a wonderful e-book on camping in Australia. They have more experience between them of camping than just about anyone in the country, so should the urge take you and you want to do it the best way, it's right at your fingertips!

  The garden pictures alternate, more-or-less, between Lyn's and Jan's gardens. You might be surprised which ones belong to which, considering one is on the Gold Coast, and the other near Maryborough, Q. Thanks to you both for the pictures! 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 5

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | <<you are here | pt 6 | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

The world then is a place of relativity, where things are hot only because we compare them with something cold, or large because other things are considered small. Reality lies beyond this world of transience and relativity, and can be grasped when we understand that this is the nature of this ever changing world.

 To the Taoist, a better way to look at this universe is as a balance or harmony of opposites, with the opposites intrinsically related to create a unity. The opposites are known as yin and yang, and for everything there is yin and yang. The self is at peace when there is an equality of yin and yang, just as a forest is in balance when it is not interfered with unnaturally.

  Therefore having and not having arise together.
  Difficult and easy complement each other;
  Long and short contrast each other;
  High and low rest on each other.

 Without yin and yang, the universe would have no motion. Taking it to a lesser extreme, if one could imagine an existence devoid of yin and yang, existence would be the colour of beige, there would be no male and female. There would be no existence. This seems so obvious, yet important qualities of yin and yang fail to resonate with humanity, and they are allowed to get out of balance.

 Note the famous yin-yang symbol. Why is it like this? Firstly, it is a unity. All is enclosed within the circle. It is not two hemispheres divided by an equator; greater becomes smaller and enters its opposite. Within the 'head' of one opposite is the 'eye' of its opposite. Even at the very centre of yang there is yin, and vice versa.

 Life is the art of keeping these balanced. The greater the understanding of ourselves and our world, the more this balance is retained. Yet to say this is all within human capability is expecting too much; it is something to be aimed at, and at some time will be lost.

 There is always a time when the top stops spinning, and falls over. That we must expect as well. Until then, harmony and balance are the keys.

 The most striking example of the unity of opposites in the entire Tao te Ching reminds us that space is the opposite of form, and that like all opposites, they complement each other and are inseparable.

  Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
  It is the centre hole that makes it useful.
  Shape clay into a vessel;
  It is the space within that makes it useful.
  Cut doors and windows for a room;
  It is the holes which make it useful.
  Therefore profit comes from what is there;
  Usefulness from what is not there.

 Who says that space is useless?

 Linked with the unity of opposites are two symbols which recur constantly throughout the Tao te Ching; the image of water as an indication of the way the Tao works, and the rather perplexing image of the Uncarved Block.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 <<you are here | pt 6 | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 4

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 <<you are here | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

 The general idea is that ill considered changes made by humans to their total environment will ultimately produce the wrong result, and unhappiness is bound to follow. To the Taoists, what they describe as non-action is the principle by which to guide one's life.

 Tao abides in non action,
 Yet nothing is left undone.
 If kings and lords observed this,
 The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

 Practise non action.
 Work without doing.
 Taste the tasteless.
 Magnify the small, increase the few.
 Reward bitterness with care.

 See simplicity in the complicated.
 Achieve greatness in little things.

 In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy.
 In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds.

 The softest thing in the universe
 Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
 That without substance can enter where there is no room.
 Hence I know the value of non action.

 As may be seen from these verses, 'non action' does not mean 'inaction' or 'doing nothing', but relates to the earlier point about the law of reversed effect. It means doing things in what may best be described as a 'natural' way. It is necessary to understand or be in accord with the natural laws that govern the universe, not those we arbitrarily make for ourselves.

 When applied to the mind, it is a state of what may be described as 'creative quietude', or 'total consciousness', of which our normal sensory intellectual consciousness is just a part.

 The artist does not perform well under too much stress. Our best thoughts often come when we are not consciously thinking about a particular problem. Everyone has experienced the phenomenon of solving a problem unconsciously through the night, or waking at an unearthly hour with the answer to some question the conscious mind has obscured.

 What might be called the subconscious mind (for want of a better term) has grasped the whole problem and not just one conception of it. In this state the whole self is in a state of harmony, receptivity and awareness.

 Natural harmony is essential to Taoist philosophy, yet most people are rarely in harmony with themselves. The universe works in cycles of birth, growth and decay, and to fly in the face of this truth, or to deny it, is to create unhappiness and frustration for oneself.

 So often we see only one side of a problem, but there is always another side. We know one thing only by comparing it with others. We see things only because they are contrasted with the background, and yet we tend to forget that the background is there and think that we see the thing in isolation. There are only wrong things in this world because there are right things.

 This is the critical point. We as social animals have devised a notion of right and wrong, and both are artificial, because what is deemed wrong in one society may not be so in another.

 If we can get away from socially constructed notions of righteousness we can get away from evil as well. This explains the following verse that on the surface seems so enigmatic:

 Therefore when the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
 When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
 When kindness is lost, there is justice.
 When justice is lost, there is ritual.
 Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

 The world then is a place of relativity, where things are hot only because we compare them with something cold, or large because other things are considered small. Reality encloses this world of transience and relativity but is not separate from it, and can be grasped when we understand that this ever changing world is but one aspect of something much greater.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 <<you are here | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)