The Battle of the Selfie Sticks: Leave only Footprints, Take only Selfies

Leave only footprints, take only selfies is the new moral maxim of the tourist. At the Trevi Fountain, the battle of the selfie sticks is waged daily.

It is said that when you visit the Trevi Fountain and throw a coin in it, you will one day return. More precisely, you need to stand with your back to the fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder. The spell of this magical act must be quite useful because every visit in the past I have thrown a coin into the fountain, and here I am yet again at this hot-spot of global tourism.

Trevi Fountain Money Suckers - The Battle of the Selfie SticksThe fountain was partially closed for tourists because the maintenance crew were sucking up all the coins. The city of Rome donates the thousands of Euros it retrieves from the fountain to the Caritas charity.

More impressive than the 80,000 cubic metres of water that pass through the fountain every day or the fact that it is made from Travertine are the hundreds of tourists that gather around the monument. Jostling for position to take the perfect picture, waving their selfie sticks like a horde of barbarians wielding their swords.

The Battle of the Selfie Sticks

The moral imperative of the contemporary tourist seems to be to “leave only footprints, take only selfies”. The selfie is the irrefutable evidence that you have been to this magnificent place—it provides the selfie taker with ultimate bragging rights. The selfie is the ultimate narcissistic act. No longer do we need to ask a fellow traveller to take a photo of ourselves. The stick has replaced an act of kindness with an act of self-gratification. On the positive side, it does reduce the risk of somebody sprinting away with your camera.

The battle of the selfie sticks was more amusing to watch than the fountain itself. This time, I didn’t throw a coin in the fountain. Whether I will return, depends on the goodwill of the gods of tourism.

The Airport Zombie Lurch: The joys and suffering of long-haul travel

Transit airports are strange places. They exist outside space and time – places where people gather, but rarely meet. Hordes of travellers engaged in a zombie lurch through the tax-free shops, waiting for their next departure.

The pleasant anticipation of flying to Europe is quickly squashed once you enter the virtual and bizarre world of the transit airport. Entering the airport is a battle in itself—first you need to participate in the security ritual to ward off the evil demons we call terrorists, then deal with the Australian Border Force, which must be the most unfriendly name for an immigration service. When you then finally enter the airport with a sigh of relief, you run the gauntlet of the duty-free shops. And then, the waiting starts …

The inimitable Douglas Adams expressed the special nature of airports beautifully when he asked himself why nobody ever says that something is “as beautiful as an airport”. Airports are functional structures with the sole purpose of moving as many people as possible along as many shops as possible towards their gate.

Airport zombie lurchWe flew from Melbourne to Rome and had a brief stop in the navel of the world, Dubai International Airport. DXB, as it is known to the initiated, is one of the global hubs where people from all seven continent, bar Antartica, gather on their journey to further destinations. Thousands of travellers waggle through the terminal reminiscent of a gigantic zombie lurch. Travellers are like the living dead and exist outside place and time—jet lagged and tired, but full of anticipation about their final destination.

Philosophers have written insightful books about airports. As Roy Christopher put it: “The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. An airport is a place made up of no-places.” Alain de Botton spent a whole week at Heathrow as ‘writer in residence’ and wrote an insightful meditation about  the people that occupy this place. Airports are places where thousands of people gather, but rarely do they meet. De Botton tells the story of these anonymous soles that we see, but never meet.

Finally, after thirty hours of travel limbo, we arrived in Rome. The feeling of being freshly showered, lying on a cool clean sheets after a very long day can only be described in one word, a ‘bedgasm’.

But not for long, time to battle the time difference, overcome our tiredness and explore the eternal city. Ready for the tourism zombie lurch past ancient monuments …

“I could have painted that”—Complex simplicity in abstract art

“I could have painted that” is what people often say when confronted with abstract art. What does that statement say about abstract art?

Abstract art: Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20
Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Abstract art is often ridiculed by the uninitiated observer—”I could have painted that” are words you often hear whispered in galleries.

This statement contains a hidden argument: This painting could have been created by me because it requires little technique. I am not an artist; therefore it cannot be considered art.

Summer Collection by Jan Nelson is a case in point. The straight horizontal lines are indeed something that anyone with a basic ability to hold a paintbrush ostensibly could recreate. But is this a valid argument against the status of this painting as a work of art?

Abstract Art

Traditional concepts of visual art are focused on skill, with the highest level of skill perceived to be the faithful representation of what we perceive to be our external reality. The history of art seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory from the early beginnings in caves to the photo-realistic oil paintings of the seventeenth century. For the casual observer, this evolutionary process is reversed in the early twentieth century when abstract art makes its entry. The strip of images shown below shows this evolution, starting with a naturalistic painting of a tree.

Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan started his career by painting impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen second from the left. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. He experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.


Contemporary art is no longer restricted to a copy reality, but a way to interpret reality through the observation and technique of the artist. Originality and visual impact are now more important than mere skill of faithfully reproducing what is seen.

Next time when you hear somebody say that they could have painted this, simply ask: “Why didn’t you?”.

The Myth of Sustainability: Renewable Energy is a Perpetuum Mobile

The search for renewable energy is like the search for perpetual motion.

Proposed Perpetual Motion Machine
Proposed Perpetual Motion Machine.

The most ubiquitous buzzword of the past decade is sustainability. It has replaced value laden words such as environmental, ecological or green. Sustainability moves the environmental movement from a ideological driven movement to a scientifically driven endeavour.

Achieving full sustainability is, however, not possible. The idea of renewable energy is fundamentally flawed as it would imply the discovery of a perpetuum mobile, which is not possible following the immutable laws of thermodynamics.

It has always dawned on me that if all the world’s energy would be produced by wind power or solar that eventually less energy will be available in the atmosphere, which will lead to unpredictable climate change.

My intuition has recently been confirmed by Miller, Gans and Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute. They convincingly argue that also wind and solar energy are not limitless sources. The sun will keep on burning for several billions of years to come, but the amount of energy available to us at any time is limited.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not environmentally insensitive. I am convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a threat to civilisation as we know it and that there is a urgent need to find alternative source of energy. I have never owned a car in my life and am a happier person because of it. Cars are evil, but that is for another post.

We live in a time of unprecedented wealth which allows a large proportion of the global population to consume. As a lecturer in consumer behaviour I know that there are very powerful psychological forces that drive us to this behaviour. I have no solutions, but will end with quoting Jonny Rotten:

There is no solution to the problems, so enjoy the chaos.

The Pope is a Magician

Mary MacKillop was canonised using a pagan ritual.
Mary MacKillop was canonised using a pagan ritual.

Last Sunday Australia’s first saint was canonised by Pope Benedictus in Rome. Mary MacKillop, now called Saint Mary of the Cross was undoubtedly a very good person who deserves to honoured, that is not what this post is about.

On one of the many news segments covering this event, an Australian devotee was asked to give an impression of the ceremony and called it “magical”. Looking at the ceremony, which was the culmination of decades of lobbying and religious bureaucracy, there was indeed a lot of magic going on.

The process of becoming a saint is a protracted and political process whereby the ‘fan club’ of a certain religious person puts forward the case for canonisation. The candidate gradually moves from the status of Servant of God, to Venerable through to Blessed and when all conditions have been met. a Saint.

One of the most remarkable hurdles to be taken is the declaration of Non Cultus. The declaration of Non Cultus entails that the candidate has not inspired heretical worship in the form of a cult. This is a nice example of a Catholic contradiction. Sainthood is the pinnacle of worship in the form of a cult. In some instances this even includes a exhumation of the body to collect relics, i.e. body parts of the candidate for sainthood. In the case of MacKillop her grave was left in peace.

Interesting aspect of her canonisation was the handing over of a red-gum wooden cross with strands of Mary’s hair, which is the only relic of the brand new saint. Relics are the most interesting aspect of Catholicism as they form a direct link between the current times and the heathen religions of our ancestors.

The canonisation of Mary certainly a magical event, not in the sense that is was beautiful or inspiring, but as wonderfully occult ceremonial magic. Relics, canonisations and many other esoteric aspects of the Catholic church are fascinating. These aspects of Catholicism are the reason that you never see Protestant preachers saving the day in horror movies—you can’t kill a demon with words, only Catholic religion has held on to the pagan vestiges required to manipulate the spiritual world. The Catholic church basically ignores warnings in the Bible against magic and practices beautiful occult rituals. This is great because they thus preserve our primordial heritage into the 21th century.

Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

How can works of Australian aboriginal art be interpreted?

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).
Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.
Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.

The Psychic Octopus is a Fraud

Reflections on the football match predicting octupus.

Many people believe that supernatural forces exist that can be controlled to help them shape their lives and the lives of others. Since time immemorial, shamans have been employed by the members of their community to control or appease these otherworldly forces in order to remove chaos and unpredictability from their lives by predicting the future.

Following Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction, which states that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, magic has all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Technology is so advanced that almost nothing seems magical any more. The world has, in Max Weber’s words, been disenchanted. One area of the ancient mystical arts is, however, still open to ‘real’ magic.

Man’s final frontier is not space, as Gene Roddenberry famously wrote. The final frontier of human intellectual pursuit is the mind. Our minds are practically infinitely complex and science has only started to make some small inroads into a full understanding how we function.

This leaves lots of space for a belief in mentalism, the final frontier of magic. Many people believe that so called mediums such as Uri Geller and John Edward actually have supernatural powers. Some even believe that self-confessed deceivers, such as Derren Brown has magical powers. His material is so strong that they don’t believe he uses magic tricks and think that he just does not want to admit to his powers.

Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called "octopus oracle" predicts Spain's 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain.            REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)
Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called “octopus oracle” predicts Spain’s 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY – Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)

The latest star in mentalism is a psychic Octopus with the unassuming name Paul. He has been used to ‘predict’ the outcome of football games in the recent FIFA World Cup and the European Championships two years ago. Paul has made twelve verifiable predictions, of which only two were incorrect. The odds for that to occur by change are remote.

Logic dictates that the psychic octopus is a fraud. But he is an octopus, how can he be a fraud? I am quite certain that he has not read 13 Steps to Mentalism nor that he has a Swami Gimmick on one of his eight tentacles.

Octopodes are known to be quite intelligent, but making repeated accurate predictions goes beyond intelligence. One aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that we would not have been discussing Paul had he been wrong more often. The most likely method employed here is that his minders are good at predicting the results and somehow coax Paul to prefer one side over the other. Using animals to predict the future is not new, but this traditionally involves their entrails.

The method to achieve this mystery is much less interesting than the fact that the whole world is talking about the seeming supernatural abilities of this cephalopod mollusk. Even though we are rational beings that do not want to believe in supernatural influences, we all want to believe that there might be some order to the unpredictable nature of the world after all.

Chien Andalusia: What do the Lyrics of the Pixies mean?

Review of the March 2010 Pixies concert in Melbourne.

The music of The Pixies was part of the soundtrack of my student years. Experiencing their sound for the first time live in 1989 at the Pinkpop concert opened a whole new planet of sound to me. I vividly remember standing in front of Joey Santiago as  he was playing Vamos. Cool as a cucumber, he produced the most bizarre sounds I had ever heard come from a guitar.

After the festival I immediately bought their Doolittle and Surfer Rosa CDs and immersed myself into the absurdist musical art of The Pixies. Being only 19 years old I attempted to seek meaning in their lyrics, such as Debaser:

Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
Girlie so groovy
I want you to know
Don’t know about you
But I am Un Chien Andalusia

Listening to some of their Doolittle tracks such as Debaser placed a lot of questions into the mind of a 19 year old.  What do these words mean? Does Frank Black possess some profound knowledge he wants to share only with those whoc can decipher his songs?

Little did I knew that their inspiration came  directly from the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. This surrealist work of cinematographic art is a disjointed jumble of weird and disturbing images. It is all too human human to seek meaning in everything we perceive. The makers of Un Chien Andalus were, however, quite clear on their that there was absolutely no meaning attached to the images:

No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted … Nothing, in the film, symbolises anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.

Absurdist art shows us that there might not be any meaning and that things are just the way they are. Psychoanalysis is, by the way, the ultimate attempt to seek meaning where there is none. Absurdism highlights the meaninglesness that is in our lives and provides a point of reflection on sobering fact. It has taken me two decades of studying philosophy to understand this! Our minds are information processing machines that try to put everything we perceive into some kind of order. In most cases, however, things are just the way they are. And so is the music of The Pixies.

Their songs are symphonic eruptions that sound like a psychotic version of Abba.  Joey’s snaring guitar and Black Francis’ frantic screams are counterpointed by the tight rhythms  for David Lovering and sweet sounds of Kim Deal’s voice. The music from The Pixies can only be enjoyed head on; not interpreted and analysed, but experienced.

The Pixies in Melbourne, March 2010 (Flickr, dai pontybodkin).Last week I was fortunate to experience a live Pixies concert once again, this time in Festival Hall in Melbourne. Although the music was played somewhat mechanically, it was a great concert. Although I think I am getting too old too immerse myself in the mosh pit—I have been limping for the past three days—the best way to experience any  rock music is through lots of sweat.

At one stage I was standing back, as I was gasping for breath, and was hit in the face by the  sheer beauty of their compositions. Reflecting back on my 1989 Pinkpop experience, it dawned on me that The Pixies propelled me on a musical journey which  showed me how to experience music in a different way. After discovering the The Pixies, I am no longer afraid of music!

The journey took me from the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Karl Heinz Stockhausen to composers such as Phillip Glass, John Adams and Béla Bartók. The Pixes bridged the eighties and the nineties from a Rock & Roll perspective by creating the foundation for what would become known as grunge. Most importantly, their music also bridges a gap between popular music and contemporary art music as their complex compositions are timeless pieces of rock & roll.

Un chien andalouUn Chien nnn

Proud to be a Neanderthal

It has been suggested that I look like a Neanderthal. Some people might see this as an insult. Recent research has, however, shown that Neanderthal was not the brutish ape, but a sophisticated human species. I am thus proud to be Neanderthal!

1992 PortraitHomo Sapiens is currently the dominant human species on earth. This was, however, not always the case. For 200,000 years our closest cousins, the Neanderthal, dominated Europe.

Back in 1993 I backpacked around China and visited the historical city of Xian. I shared a dorm with an Australian who introduced herself as being an archaeologist. We needed to get some passport photographs and when she saw mine exclaimed:


You might think I was insulted, but in fact I am proud to be associated with the earliest Europeans. For most people, when we say Neanderthal we think about brutish creatures, somewhere between apes and humans; dragging their wives by the hair into their cave and beating other males with a club,

Anthropologist John Hawks believes that we should give them a bit more credit. Neanderthal humans were not as primitive as the popular image might suggest. They had the same brain size as us, but smaller bodies. Archaeological evidence points towards a sophisticated culture. Manganese oxide rocks with artificial wear and tear found in caves in Europe point towards art, as this material can be used as a pigment. Also, Neanderthal stone tools were no less advanced then the tools made by the Homo Sapiens. This shows that our evolutionary cousins were not primitive sub-humans, but capable of abstract thought.

Erik Trinkaus argues that early European humans exhibit morphological aspects that are distinctive Neanderthal traits. There are also some indications in genetic material found in the archaeological record. Some scientists have posited a hyberdisation of early Homo Sapiens with Neanderthal. The interbreeding between these two species of man could have accelerated evolution as diversity is the engine of natural selection. Scientists of have even suggested that the ability to use language was passed on from Neanderthal to modern Homo Sapiens. Based on this scientific evidence, I can say that:

I am proud to be a Neanderthal.