Where I come from

A couple of months back, I sent off some of my DNA to test my genetic origins. I got the results today.

It was no surprise to find that my strongest regional connection was with Europe. What was surprising that within Europe the top result – and therefore the top result of all – was Belarus, followed by Central and Eastern European countries such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Bosnia, and so on, until we hit Ireland coming in at seven – Ireland I know I have definite ancestry. After that came Spain, Portugal, as well as the top result from the second strongest region, Morocco, from the Middle East/North Africa.

It’s fascinating to think about all the previous versions of H inhabiting a reasonably concentrated geographical area, meeting, mingling, inter-mingling. These results, I should note, are based on statistical probabilities. My DNA, for example, most closely matches those of people living in present-day Belarus, and so on.

It took me a while to process and unpack this, and then I began to hypothesise. I’ve often been mistaken for German/Scandinavian, but those countries were 16/17/18 on the list. I can only imagine Belarussians – what was called White Russians – are of similar physical appearance. In case I speculated that obviously many hundreds of years, one thread of my ancestors inhabited Belarus, before spreading. I know historically that some Vikings came from that area, and I would guess some long-ago ancestor of mine headed off on a raiding party and ended up in Ireland, where the story is taken up. The other countries listed are false positives I would guess, reflective of the spread and influence of Belarussians into the eastern and central parts of Europe. (Interesting to note, incidentally, that England does not rate in the top 25 of possible ancestral connections – which explains my general resistance to English culture).

On the other side of it, I know that my mum’s maiden surname was said to be French or Spanish, and I think we can probably presume that she is represented by those countries on this list, including Portugal and even Morocco, which is just over the straits.

Strangely enough of the remaining regional areas, Honduras is the highest rating in Central/South America – that will be the Spanish/Portuguese of my mother’s side of the family.

In Asia – the fourth-ranked region – Australia itself comes out the top result. That’s no surprise given I live here and my family on both sides, as far as I know, have been here five generations at least. And it represents multicultural polyglot Australia is – a bit of everything. The other Asian countries represented are those who were colonised by the west and therefore had some European DNA bred into them. Surprisingly New Zealand comes in number six in that region. It seems odd that the only real Caucasian country in the region would rank so low until you consider that New Zealand has a strong English/Scots heritage – I have no English in my recorded DNA, and Scotland comes in at about 20.

There’s one family story, possibly apocryphal, which crosses over these different connectors.

My aunt was very dark blue-black hair, Spanish looking hair, or Irish black if you prefer. She was the anomaly in the family, the throwback. The story went that around the time of the Spanish Armada some Spanish sailor washed up on the shores of Ireland after his vessel foundered. He found some sweet Colleen and the rest is history.


Summer in Melbourne

Jeez, there wouldn’t be a lot left over if we couldn’t talk about the weather. The weather has always been a big topic of conversation in Melbourne, probably because the weather has always been so notoriously changeable here. At the very least our weather is quirky, and it’s certainly distinct, and not a little famous.

Unfortunately there are more ominous reasons to discuss weather these days. Global warming, climate change, etc, make it a headline item all over the world. Count me as one of the majority that believe that climate change is a thing, and that man and his excesses are largely responsible for it.

It’s hard to argue with the science, regardless of the luddites, flat-earthers and far right nut-jobs who do anyway. Unfortunately, in Australia at least, some of those nut-jobs have been running the show, which meant that policies to combat climate change were reversed, and then barely existent. That’s as it is today, despite the head nut-job getting kicked out. There’s a liberal leader, constrained by nut job dinosaurs in the party, which equate to high sounding promises and little practical action. Pardon the pun, but a bunch of hot air.

Hot air is very much the thing. I reckon there are hundreds of thousands of Aussies like me. I don’t need science to tell me that the climate has changed, and that the environment we live in is a lot warmer and drier than it used to be.

I’m always startled when I realise this. You’re sort of conditioned by school and science to think in geological time frames, and so you inherently believe that if change is to come it will be gradual. To my way of thinking that means barely discernible over a lifetime. In real life it’s a lot swifter than that.

I’m prudent when I cast my mind back to the old days. The natural inclination is to believe that it’s a lot different now, but you have to factor in the focus of looking back. Your memory is selective when it looks into the past. You remember things, people, moments, but the rest is pretty much a blur. You wonder if you see things differently from this distance, if the soft focus strips the detail and leaves only generalities. The question is: do you remember truly?

I can’t answer that. Short of hopping into a time machine there’s no way I can. Certainly I remember hot days when I was a kid, and many hot nights in a time before air-conditioning (fancy!). It wasn’t a thing though, but maybe that was because I was a kid. These are things I can’t say, yet the anecdotal memory I have suggests that it is much warmer now than it was then. It’s the vibe, but it’s not a vibe that can be dismissed.

I’m sitting here before my Mac and it’s just ticked past 9am. I’m in a pair of shorts and nothing else. It was hot yesterday, it’s going to be hotter today, and it’s already warm. It’s December, the coolest month of our summer always, and already we’ve had 8-10 days over 30 degrees. The average daily maximum this month has surpassed the long term average by a full 2 degrees plus.

Today they reckon 39 degrees. It’s not the hottest NYE I remember – it was about a stinking 43 degrees ten years ago, and I remember it well. Today comes as part of a pattern. A few moderate days, a warmer day, and steadily increasing heat between 35-40 degrees, before a change comes, and the pattern resets. As it stands we’re getting about two days a week above 35 degrees, and the hottest months are still ahead of us.

Hot as it has been here, if you live in Adelaide then you’ve been truly baked. December has been a shocking month for South Australians. The highs have been higher, and they’ve had more of them.

There have been times in the middle of a hot patch recently when I’ve wondered what it would be like if it was like this every day. There’s something about hot weather when you’re in the middle of it and the sky is painted on and the sun blazing and it feels timeless and eternal.

It’s nice to have warm weather, and not unpleasant when it’s hot if you’re near a beach or pool, or have good air-con. Too much of it though begins to suck the juice out of you. You’re never quite rested properly, you never get away from the heat, and you feel a creeping apathy – too fucking hot to do anything. These days when the cool change comes is greeted with universal relief, which is as much psychological as it is physical.

Thing is, are we heading to a time when it will be (something) like this everyday? I can survive this, but in 50 years from now, even if we have managed to restrict the temperature increase to less than the vaunted 2 degrees, it’s going to be bloody uncomfortable. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that something has to be done. We owe it to our children.

Sidenote: of course as I complain about the heat there are record floods in the north of England. There’s always some weird weather shit happening somewhere, and pretty well always a record. That’s definitely different from when I was a kid. Weather events are more extreme, and more regular – and they take on all different forms.


Watching Interstellar the other night reminded  me of when I was a kid. Like many kids back then – less so now I think – I was interested in science, and particularly space. I remember I would quite often buy a magazine called Omni and Omega, to pore over the articles about black holes, space-time, worm holes, space exploration, and so on.

I have to admit looking back I sound like a bit of a nerd. I was about 15 at the time and living in Sydney, having moved from Melbourne with my family. I became interested in these things because I ran with a pretty nerdy crowd who were all into science and experimentation, and so on. I would suggest I was the least nerdish of the lot of them – and certainly the only one who played sport – and quite possibly had some cachet as being the new kid in school.

Geez, I remember it like yesterday. Can it really be so long ago? This was at Turramurra High School, one of the top schools in the state, located on the leafy, well-to-do North Shore. I started one term into Year 10. I recall being squired around the school quadrangles by a kid called Alistair Daish. How do I remember these things?

Being from Melbourne, south of the border, I was inevitably called a Mexican. I was ridiculed for my love of ‘aerial ping-pong’ by the beefy league supporters, though there were some who would seek me out privately to talk about footy.

What do I remember of myself those days? Not much. I remember I suffered as most boys did from adolescent puberty. In my case it was a bad case of acne, and an almost permanent hard-on. Oh how I lusted in those days – surely the glory days of lust, when it was still innocent.

I have only friend remaining from school there, but he is one of my besties. We’re an odd couple. I’ve always been the adventurous, curious, restless one, the tall, fair-haired anglo; he’s always been comfortably stay at home, short, dark and Jewish. Intellect and humour where our meeting points.

I could pick up the phone now and I know we could speak about the science of Interstellar for an hour. As kids particularly, it’s just fascinating whether you’re a nerd or not. Just try to wrap your head around space-time! Or black holes! Really, fucking, fucking fascinating and fucking mind-blowing.

That’s what I read about when I was a kid. How could this be? I read those magazines because they exposed to me wonders that were literally out of this world. I encourage any kid – any person – to get interested. These are things that engage the mind and your curiosity. They open up vistas, possibilities, encourage in a strange way the desire to be ambitious. It did in me, at least. Still does.

I still don’t get how a couple of minutes at the edge of a black hole is years on earth. Imagine that! I can understand the science, with some effort, but translating that to reality remains something almost beyond comprehension. Don’t overlook the wonders of the universe.

Reality is illusion

I was standing in the street the other day outside the shop, taking a break as I do from the monotony inside and the opportunity to stretch my legs walking a few paces this way and then returning the other. I gaze about me idly, taking in the movement and assessing the passers-by as potential customers. My mind wanders. Then as I turned about on one of my small laps I spotted lumbering my way a tall man dressed haphazardly, both in combination and effect – tracksuit pants with business shirt and a padded jacket, the hem of the shirt trailing on one side. From the first glance it was clear in the slightly awkward gait and the immobile expression on his face that this man wasn’t quite right.

Standing there with nothing to do here was something my mind could latch upon. I watched him come close and then go by. I found questions arising in me as if for the first time. I had no notion of the particular ailment the man suffered from. Possibly he had some kind of medical condition that required supervision, or else had suffered a serious injury at some point; maybe he lacked the conventional intellect to manage his affairs as the rest of us strive to.

I realised I knew little of these things, but very quickly my own mind slipped past that salient point. I felt consumed by curiosity. I had looked into the vacant but troubled countenance of the man as if I could discern something there. It felt as if it was the first time I had ever done that; as if, like most people I expect, I had fallen into the habit of unseeing those on the peripheries of society.

I went back inside and all of that seemed, in that moment, of secondary consideration. Looking into the man’s face I wondered what went on in his mind. Conditioned as I am to look upon the world with my own eyes and to sort and sift through it with my busy mind, this was something I had rarely thought twice about. There is a certain narcissism in being clever.

Now though, I wondered, fascinated that I had never pondered this before and fascinated by the mystery of the answer. Which was it? Was the world so complex to him that it baffled? Or instead so simple as to seem transparent? What troubled his mind? When he looked upon things I do what did he see different to me? And why? Was the world a place of glittering colour and movement, or something drab and monotone? Or something just in between?

I could not imagine. I couldn’t imagine in much the same way you can’t imagine being someone else. This is my reality. To realise that there might be other realities is confounding.

Reality is an illusion in any case. I watched something recently which had a profound effect upon my thinking. It was about vision, how we see things differently from the animals because of the differences in our eyes. We see in different colours it turns out because the family dog can views things in colour spectrums not available to us. I look upon a flower and see something bright and distinctly colourful; Rigby, my dog, looks upon it and sees something of the same shape but presented in different colours.

That’s fascinating in itself, but the real revelation is that seeing, in fact, is not believing. We look upon things that are actually representations of reality – a true thing than can be seen in many different ways according to the prism of our biology. That raises the question as to what reality is, or even truth. Does reality exist in the sense we have defined it? What is the true version? Or is ‘truth’ no more than another perspective?

As you can see, it raises some mind-bending conundrums.

In these pages I have documented loosely my sense of truth and reality. This is the world I see and consider. These are the environs within which I operate and have come to believe constitute a reality I respond to subjectively but which exists in fact. As I’ve always presumed it to be in any case.

I have intelligence and the ability to analyse and assess, but that doesn’t make my reality more true than anyone else’s. My reality, or my world, is made more complex by that ability in all likelihood, and probably enriches it in sundry different ways. Is what I see or experience more true than anyone else’s? No. Just different, just as the man in the street experiences a reality I could never conceive of, but as true to him as it is to me (there’s that slippery word: truth).

Reality is personal. We each have a perception of reality we take to be authentic. In fact almost all of our ‘reality’ is perspective. The only true thing is science, the rules that govern our existence. A thing called true reality doesn’t exist.

What would Kant think?

Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of the great philosophers lately, particularly the Germans. It’s interesting and sometimes provocative, though most philosophers seem incapable of communicating in anything but abstractions and dense prose. It’s as if clear exposition is against the key principles of modern philosophy.

I’ve often thought that philosophy is sort of pointless because it seems impractical. Why lock yourself in a room to postulate and pontificate about something you can actually do if you leave the room – it seems the very definition of navel gazing . In my muscular perspective the philosophy of life is expressed through the living of it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a tangible reality after all, but a perspective, and often a description of something that ‘just is’. It’s like a bunch of people looking to describe something – a platypus say – in abstract terms, defining it in arcane terms while the marsupial frolics in its billabong. As Freud might have said, sometimes a platypus is just a platypus.

Yet that is to take a simplistic and wrong-headed sense of the discipline, of which I’ve been guilty. Gravity just is, and no amount of analysis is going to change its essential qualities – and yet understanding it means more than just scientific enlightenment. Once we measure gravity, understand how it works and why, then we can begin to work with it ourselves. Understanding opens many more avenues to us. So too, I think, can philosophy.

Philosophy is not so much an explanation of how we live and interact, but why. It becomes more than a dry abstraction when it moves into how we might live. It’s a search for enlightenment.

For every philosopher there is a different philosophy, though many take from their predecessors and build upon it. Each has their own perspective, in part due to their education, their cultural inheritance, their teachers, their passions, the tenor of the times.

Marx is one of the more contentious, and influential figures in history. He certainly couldn’t be accused of sitting quietly in a room thinking. His was a kind of economic philosophy that led directly into social philosophy, and consequently, the rights of the ‘proletariat’. His was a philosophy that demanded action as outcome, which chickens came home to roost (and have been crowing since) at later times in different places.

There’s much to admire in Marx and Engels.  Smart cookies both and extremely erudite, much of what they struggled for then seems pretty tame these days, such has society advanced (though almost in contradiction to his predictions). Everyone has an opinion, especially when the outcomes have been so spectacularly historical. Marx is a bogeyman, and for much of the last hundred years communism, socialism and Marxism have either been rallying cries for social progress or descriptors for evil. That’s a big discussion with a lot of misinformation both ways. As a died in the wool western capitalist I’d have to suggest that most of it doesn’t really work, even when purely applied (which is to say, practically never). But then I’d also have to admit that there’s nothing inherently evil in communism et al, except that it seems to attract and propagate opportunist dictators or hard line fanatics. In either case the centralised state tends to the totalitarian, and much evil has been done. But I digress.

Getting back to pure philosophy I can agree and disagree with much of what the headline philosophers say – Hegel, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard etc (Nietzsche is in his own box) – but the one philosopher I find myself most sympathetic to is Immanuel Kant. We live in a different time from his, 18th century Germany, there’s been a lot of history since and we’ve progressed far, and so we can come at understanding his concepts much easier now than we might have then. I think it’s valid to consider Freud and Jung and the like as philosophers, and it is their investigations which have helped open the door to philosophical understanding within the context of human psychology. Man may exist within the world, but he also exists within himself. Kant understood that, and Freud, Jung, as well as most philosophers, have expanded upon that since as pretty well the central principle of the discipline.

My reading confirmed one abiding disappointment in modern society. We don’t think about these things anymore. We live and consume. There’s no interest in understanding, the conversation and level of thought has been reduced to the tabloid. Indeed, intellectuality is actively frowned upon as being elitist in great sections of society. How destructive is that? This is one of my great beefs of the time. Man, I can live and do as much as society does, and at times I can do it in spades, yet intellectually, and perhaps philosophically, I feel out of step with all but a few.

It’s perhaps now more than ever that we need public intellectuals and philosophers to step forward to make sense of our world, to bring some order and understanding to how we have come to live. I wonder what some of the great intellectuals of the past would make of the world today with gen Y in the ascendancy?

Commonplace wonders

I get up pretty well the same time every morning. I open the blinds in the bedroom, feed Rigby, and make myself the first latte of the day. I return to bed with my coffee and settle myself down to read (always the newspaper, or non-fiction in the AM). Rigby, familiar with this routine, will follow me keenly before jumping onto the bed and settling himself down beside me. Rigby likes to lay in the sun. He’ll find that wedge of sunlight and sit himself in the middle of it, looking contentedly out of the window.

This has been the pattern pretty well since Rigby and I have been together, from winter to summer and back again. More than once I’ve sat there looking at him, curious about all manner of aspects, but this morning I articulated in my mind some of the things that intrigued me.

I’m reading a book at present that deals, among other things, in scientific discovery. I dare say I’ve been infected a little by the spirit of the book, and find myself experiencing some of the scientific curiosity that has driven mankind for millenia. It was this curiosity that had me pause and observe today.

I’ve long been aware of the quirks of the early morning sun as it comes in through my window. Rigby shifts himself to move with it, sometimes at the foot of the bed, sometimes near the head of it. I wondered what I would think observing this without the benefit of science. Once explained it’s easy to take different phenomena for granted, forgetting that once they were complete mysteries, or hotly disputed between science and religion. I could imagine in another age watching the dog move with the sun, observing how the sun changes it’s angle without apparent reason, and wondering why. Indeed even today, understanding the general theory without the specifics, I was curious to know the why of it.

In another age the simplest question would be to ask why does it change? Why is the sun sometimes low in the sky, and sometimes high? Why does it rise, and then set? Why does it appear in one quadrant one day, and different one another? Is it the movement of us – the earth? – or is it the sun? Or is it both?

Of course while considering this there are different variables, from the prosaic to the significant. It changes in my world according to how far I pull the blind up. On cloudy days the movement of the sun (funny that’s how we automatically refer to it – though it us that moves) seems negated altogether. More important are the seasonal variations, which pose further questions: why is it hot in one part of the year, and cold in another?

Look, none of this is a mystery anymore, though all of it remains fascinating (to me at least). I guess I’m making a point of it now not because it is unknown, but because once it was, and because to be curious seems perfectly natural and healthy. And finally, because it is good to ask and not simply presume. Our world – our universe – is a universe of great wonders; we are governed by fascinating principles that we can measure and predict, though not completely understand as yet. It’s easy to accept all around us as our due, but much greater fun to recognise the wonder in which we exist.

Standing at the trough

Spiral out..keep goingImage by _Tawcan via Flickr

I went to the gents before and noticed that the elastic on my Calvin Klein's had lost a lot of its ping. They’re oldish jocks so it’s no great surprise. Still as I stood there I contemplated the process by which elastic perishes over time. Is it use or is it simply age? Well, I thought, frequent use will obviously accelerate the process, but largely it is process of time. Over time the elastic will dry and deteriorate all by itself whether the jocks are worn every day or never worn. Like everything else it ages and, short of keeping your jocks in a vacuum, there’s not much you can do about it.

Naturally my thoughts followed onto other materials. Steel won’t perish, but exposed to the elements it will rust. Even concrete is subject to its own particular form of cancer, notwithstanding how it will weather and crumble in any case. It shouldn’t be a surprise, everything declines with time.

Even trees? I wondered at that. There are trees that have been around hundreds, even thousands of years. Is there a natural end to them? Is there a time when they shrivel and die? I thought probably yes, though clearly on a much different time frame to us.

The difference with trees of course is that they are organic. They grow, they blossom and flower, and they regenerate of their own accord. In some way so do we. Our DNA dictates how tall we will grow and what colour our eyes will be; we will inherit traits and potentially diseases. We will grow to a certain point and then stop growing; for a while we will remain in a kind of physical stasis before the inevitable decline begins. One day the decline becomes so much that we fail altogether. And so the process begins again.

Why is this so really? Why should a tree last ten longer than a man? Why does a man outlive a dog or cat or indeed most animals? What is the genetic trigger in our make-up that makes these accepted facts?

It’s odd the things that occur to you standing in a urinal.
Related articles by Zemanta

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]