Thursday, August 28, 2008

semester 2

I’m well into my second semester now—done with Week 5. Not as interesting subject matter as last semester, but I’m so busy that I’m just as happy to not have a strong desire to explore the topics more. My three subjects for the semester are Philosophy of Language and Mind, Political Philosophy, and Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism.

Philosophy of Language and Mind is about words, how do words mean anything, are words descriptions or shorthand to refer to something or do they have separate meaning, how do we mutually understand one another, is it all just in our minds, etc. Kindof like linguistics crossed with psychology, a morose hermit, and a bad sci-fi novel. Interesting class discussions, but ultimately it all feels rather pointless.

Political Philosophy this semester is being taught on the philosophy of the market, i.e. economics. I sincerely disagree with most of the assertions that are taken as the neutral starting ground for the discussion, (i.e. that market transactions are necessary for human survival, that capitalism is structurally just, etc.) so feel rather disconnected from the topic. Interesting, though, since I’m learning even more about how I am, as Utah Phillips put it, fundamentally alienated from the institutional structures of my society. Fascinating.

Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism is difficult—finally, a real challenge! It’s in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) department, not the philosophy department, and it’s reminding me how so much of my interest and background in philosophy is really in HPS. The ethics of HPS. Which don’t usually go together... more on that later. Anyways, Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism is about the debate between people who think that science tells us things that are essentially true (realists), and those who think that we have good reason to think that science at best can reasonably predict observable results, but that predictive success doesn’t necessarily give any indication that what they’re talking about is TRUE. It’s actually a lot more interesting and complex than it seems at first glance. My jury’s still out as to whether or not this distinction actually matters at all.

Just to make sure I don’t get bored or starve, I’ve also taken on a tutoring job. Tutoring here is not quite what we call tutoring in the US. A professor (Helen Verran, who taught the Ecology and Environmentalism class I so enjoyed last semester) sets the readings and gives weekly lectures. Then I lead two 1-hour classes a week, discussing what was introduced in the lecture and readings, making sure the students have a good grasp of the essential concepts. The subject is the Philosophy of Biology, always of great interest to me (Anatomy! Naturalists! Genomes! Oh my!). I’m learning a ton, not just from the subject matter, but from the experience of teaching. It’s exhausting, and a really strange power dynamic, but a lot of fun to see them learn. And fun to prepare the lesson plans and handouts and web tools. I could get used to being paid to do this! :)

Oh, yeah, and I’m writing my thesis, too. Due at the end of the semester (2+ months). First draft’s due (ack!) next week. It’s coming along fine. On Monday I gave a presentation to all the other honors philosophy students and it was well received. But I’m really bored with the topic at this point: that’s what happens when you fully immerse yourself in the minutia of something narrow for an entire year, whose focus has been shifted away from the neat stuff that got you interested in the first place to simpler, defendable ideas that will fit within the stringent word limit. I’m really looking forward to finishing, so I can move on to figuring out what I want to do next.

That’s what else I’m spending my time on these days. Figuring out what to do next year. Do I continue on here to complete a Masters? a PhD? in straight-up Philosophy, or Ethics, or the History and Philosophy of Science, or can I combine them? Can I get funding? What would my research topic be? Do I even want to be an academic after all?

Yeah. A lot on my plate. So my apologies for not updating this page more often. I’ll get to it whenever I can. Love to you all.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Australia National University is courting me for their PhD program, and though I am 99% sure I want to continue on here at the University of Melbourne, I was willing to give the ANU a second glance. First, they have more applied ethicists on staff than any other university I’ve heard of. Second (and not coincidentally related to the first), they are the home of the internationally-renowned Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE). Third and most convincingly, they offered me an all-expenses-paid long weekend in Canberra to see if I liked their faculty and campus. I’m a sucker for free vacations, so off I flew to Melbourne’s nearest neighbor to the north.

Canberra is the Australian equivalent to Washington, D.C. It is the seat of Australian federal government. Like D.C., Canberra is located in a neutral territory not part of any state, and was chosen for its symbolic rather than functional geography. While D.C. is supposed to be at the heart of the original northern and southern American states, Canberra is as close as they could get to halfway between the two major cities Melbourne and Sydney. It would be like putting D.C. between Boston and New York… which would coincidentally make it end up in Hebron, CT, my hometown! Canberra’s location is about as reasonable and interesting as Hebron’s. There are some hills. Some fields. A few ponds, a big man-made lake. Some very small mountains off on the horizon. And in the middle of it all sits… Canberra.

When I mentioned to a few friends that I was going to Canberra for a few days, I invariably received the same response: “Oh god, why would you want to go there?” The overwhelming sentiment was that Canberra was such a dreadfully boring city that it wasn’t even worth visiting, despite the plethora of free museums and the like. “There’s too many bloody trees,” “The whole things’ one big boring park,” “There’s nothing to do”... Honestly, this sounded pretty appealing to me. I like places where most cityfolk think there is nothing to do. I like places with lots of trees. Canberra sounded like my kind of city.

I was wrong. Canberra is awful. [EDIT: my mistake, Hebron. You are much, much more interesting and lovely than Canberra.] It was like the newly-developed sections of Nashville TN without the music culture, or a smaller and less-historical Albany NY without the waterfront, or like the Storrs campus of UConn without the agrarian/pastoral backdrop… Picture the least inspiring modern low-rise urban landscape you can, and make it more boring. It’s like a business park. Add to that the fact that it’s terribly windy, designed entirely for cars (everything is spaced really really far apart with big boring parks in between so it takes forever to walk anywhere), and really actually has very little to do: it isn't rural enough to have outdoors fun, and not urban enough to have city fun. It's described by its inhabitants as a suburb in search of an urb.

And then the creepiest part: I was there during the school term, during both weekdays and weekend-days, and took numerous daytime and nighttime walks, so I assume I was seeing the city at a good cross-section of what should have been its busiest times. And there were no people. Anywhere. It was a ghost town. The streets and sidewalks were empty. The malls were empty. The restaurants were empty. The museums were empty. Where was everyone? They must have gone from being holed up in their homes to being holed up at work, and magically gone from one to the other because there was no rush hour traffic, very little traffic at all actually. I asked around, and learned that this was normal. It was disconcerting, and led to the whole city having the least energy of any populated place I have ever been.

So I followed suit. I holed up in my hostel, then snuck to the university campus for the lectures being presented by the philosophy departments (they have three), and repeated this for the majority of four days. The presentations were admittedly excellent. There were lectures and discussions of everything from the fairness of fair trade to the ethics of selling kidneys to the possible permissibility of political assassination to the representation of ‘the other’ in the WWII firebombing of Japan to the philosophy of statistics. My personal favorite was by a PhD student, Lena Eriksson, who spoke quite convincingly and insightfully on if and how religious reasons can be considered to be reasons on a public debating ground. The philosophy faculty in general seemed like a fun, brilliant group of people who really enjoyed one another and who worked closely together despite holding very different philosophical views. Pretty rare.
What made the endless talks bearable was that ANU had asked one person from each of the major universities in Australia and New Zealand up for the weekend, so I got to meet fellow students from all over. There were about a dozen of us total. I found I had a great deal in common with Roger, the guy up from Melbourne’s other university (Monash), and plan to keep in touch with him: he’s a rare philosopher/ outdoor adventure sports enthusiast/ vegetarian/ goofball like me! I don’t come across one of those every day. Roger and I stuck around in Canberra for an extra few days after the workshops ended, visiting the museums and biking around the lakes and up the hills and walking at night and looking into the cafes and bars and shops, hoping to find some quality that would redeem the city, but to no avail. The longer I spent there, the more I realized that it was a small, soul-less, inefficient, and uninteresting pile of concrete. I have no desire to ever return, even for the excellent PhD program. Sad, really.

Ok, that’s all really depressing. So let me end with the two highlights of the weekend. First: The new National Museum was fascinating. It presents aspects of Australian culture and history in a very unusual way. Rather than having a chronological layout or a subject-themed layout, the museum was organized by visual and material content. I.E., rather than having pre-colonial, Victorian, industrial, and modern sections, or having sections on industry, Aboriginal life, and sports, the museum had sections like: things made of grass; rabbits (stuffed rabbits, a piece of the fence, a rabbit fur blanket, photos of dead rabbits); heavy things made out of metal (post boxes with old postcards, irons and ironing boards, cars); words (prison-era texts, modern Aussie slang quizzes, audio recordings of Aboriginal songs); complicated visual patterns (industrial textiles, Aboriginal paintings, landscape photographs, textured natural artifacts); stuff relating to the bottom of the ocean (fish traps, scuba gear, trash, shells, photos of people diving); etc. My favorite exhibit was the backlit glass case of things that were 3”x1”, from arrowheads to action figures. The exhibits, and really the entire museum, seemed like they were created by graphic designers with a penchant for flea markets and a drastically irreverent and ahistorical conception of the world. My kind of museum. I was intrigued to note that while most of the adults visiting were confused and disturbed, the kids were all totally engaged and fascinated. Whatever the museum was doing was working for the kids. And for me.

The second highlight of the weekend was making chocolate chip cookies in the hostel kitchen, which had no oven. Roger and I tried various techniques (I love practical problem-solving!), including running the cookies through the conveyor-belt toaster, pan-frying the cookies, and microwaving them. Microwaving was the greatest success by far. They didn’t brown up satisfyingly like the others, but they were more thoroughly cooked and cookie-like. More fun than I’ve had in ages.

(the first photos below are a panorama)

cane toads are racing (port douglas extra)

Any of you who have seen the Cane Toad movie will appreciate knowing that we went to a Cane Toad race in the back room of a rather artificially seedy bar in Port Douglas. It was complete with beer, betting, a sleazy commentator, embarrassing racing technique (the racers spurred on the toads with kid’s birthday party noisemakers), and the chaos of lost toads. I have to say, they are even grosser in real life than in the movie—and this from a kid who LOVES toads. But I had a great time, and consider it to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Daintree Rainforest (last Port Douglas day)

(Sorry for the delay: retro-posting this some weeks later)

I woke early this morning to the sound of pouring rain. I pulled the covers back up for a few more moments of dozing, thinking as I did so that there could be no more perfect sound to hear at the start of a day we planned to spend in one of the worlds oldest and most spectacular rainforests.

The Mossman Gorge lies twenty minutes North of Port Douglas. Most visitors to the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world, build their visit around this gorge. Wide and well-maintained trails wind through the lush, towering, and rather inhospitable trees and vines, following the coursing river. An impressive steel cable suspended bridge that swings over a tumble of rapids provides an excellent vantage point for photographers. Actually taking a picture proved tricky, however, because, being suspended, the bridge is remarkably springy underfoot. Most visitors – regardless of age – took time to enjoy bouncing.

The Gorge and surrounding rainforests are the traditional lands of the Kuku Yalanji people. As they understand and articulate it, their lands are where the rainforests meet the sea. We started our day in Daintree by visiting one of the communities’ organisations, the Dreamtime Centre, which had a gallery and educational materials, and offered a guided walk through some of their more sacred land. Led by a tall dark and handsome Aboriginal man with beautiful ‘locks (I was rather enamoured), we wandered up into the rainforest and learned about traditional housebuilding techniques, the uses of native plants (from trailmarkers to tools and weapons to food), and a bit about the spiritual component of the land. Circumspect as always to keep secret Aboriginal business secret, our guide nevertheless gave us a wonderful glimpse into his people’s history and worldview. The walk concluded with tea and damper (simple bread) at a campfire with our own private and very impressive didgeridoo performance. I loved it all! Erika especially loved learning all the practical stuff. An excellent rainy day.