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What in the World am I doing here?

'Once in a while, I'm standing here, doing something.  And I think, "What in the world am I doing here?" It's a big surprise'
-   Donald Rumsfeld US Secretary of Defence - May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

As far as we know humans are the only species on Earth that asks this question. And we have apparently been asking it for a good part of the last 100,000 years.

The accidents of our birth, and those that led to where we are today, seem so improbable; yet here we are. I'm writing this you're reading it. We exist; not as we might have been but as we are. Not only that the world itself exists not as it might have been but as it is.

In 1637 René Descartes published his Discourse on Method in which he made the apparently tautological statement that if one is thinking one must exist (to think): Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am[1] to determine the limit to what we can know for certain. I know I exist; I think you do.

In 1973 at a Kraków symposium honouring Copernicus's 500th birthday Brandon Carter, a theoretical astrophysicist, first articulated the Anthropic Principle[2]. Simplified, this (also tautologically) states that 'if the universe did not support our existence we would not exist to observe it'. Carter was making an argument to explain why certain physical values (that could be quite different) and timings happen to support human life (when others would not)... were they different we would be not be here to ask, 'why are they so?' 

In both cases the proponents (and others following them) have extrapolated these, necessarily true, statements to other assertions that are largely speculative and/or require experimental testing in the universe we do observe. Descartes wanted to claim that his insight supports a mind body dualism; that mind exists independent of the body it inhabits. Carter wanted to assert that humans occupy some kind of privileged position in the Universe; that this Universe depends on the existence of life (or even more strongly, of humans). 

But Carter's observation does not stop at physical conditions.  We would not be here to ask the question had the dinosaurs not been wiped out by some natural event; probably an asteroid that hit the coast of Mexico 65 million years ago. Very large volcanic events also played a part in rapid environmental change and consequent extinction events.  Humans, as we exist, have been moulded by innumerable natural catastrophes and other events that needed to be just as they were for us to exist. 

In any other circumstance some other animal might be able to question their existence but they would not be human. Just as present life on earth needed to have just the right events and conditions to form at all.

Unless they employed IVF your parents needed to copulate at the exact moment they did, in those exact circumstances, for the winning spermatozoa (from forty million starters in the marathon[3]) to fertilise the precise ova that led to you; and not your unborn sibling. All the contingent events of their lives, and yours, needed to be just as they were for you to exist and for you to successfully arrive to the moment that you are reading this. All the events of their parents lives, at least to the point of their conception, needed to be just as they were; the same goes for your grandparents, great-grandparents and so on; all the way back to the first eukaryotic cells.

Close to an infinity of complex events throughout the past two thousand milion years mediated our evolution from basic life forms to sentient beings, capable of questioning our existence.  And close to an infinity of events occured during human history to arrive at You and Me.  

If any one of the species forming events had been different perhaps none of Earth's creatures or plants would be able to question their existence; or perhaps many would but they would certainly be 'other'; non human. If any of the subtle events of human history had been different you would not be here to question your existence. Someone might but it would not be you.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains about 100,000,000,000 stars, give or take a few billion, of which our sun is one. As telescopes have become more powerful, Astronomers have seen more and more galaxies.  They presently estimate that there are more galaxies than there are stars in our galaxy[4]. 

Over 500 planets have been discovered orbiting nearby stars. New planets around other suns are now being discovered daily and we can assume that many have moons (like those of Saturn and Jupiter) that might support life.

Almost all life lacks the ability to ask 'what am I doing here?' but given the huge numbers of potentially life supporting bodies, in our Galaxy alone, it is estimated that there may be tens of thousands of intelligent species.  And ours is but one of over a hundred billion galaxies in the Universe. 

Next time you are at the beach pick up a handful of sand and start counting the grains.  If each grain was a star the whole beach might be a galaxy; and the number of stars in the known universe is already observed to be more than total number of grains of sand on every beach, on a million Earths like ours[5].

It is very likely, to the point of certainty, that other beings are engaging in exactly the same speculations somewhere in our universe.

Following Carter's argument they too have a special place in the universe. Rather than 'Anthropic' we might say 'Sentientic'.  But of course being able to ask the question is not the essence; the existence of a rose or a cane toad is just as circumstantial; even though they are unable to speculate on this.


Providence, Chance and Luck

We don't know how lucky we are mate... we don't know how propitious are our circumstances.
- John Clarke as Fred Dagg

Providence (from the Latinprovidentia - foresight) is being prepared for what is to come.  In Christian and related theologies it came to mean the foreseeing care and guardianship of God, a manifestation of the divine care and direction ('as Allah wills', in Islam).

To Friendly Societies and other insurers it is making provision for the statistical probability of insured events.

I am using it here to represent the future as it will have turned out to be; that is, what the future will look like from an even more distant future. In this sense it denotes future hindsight.

Given present omniscience, the future maybe, or maybe not, predictable. 

  • If the future is predictable given enough information, as suggested by the principles of Newton and Einstein, then chance is an illusion and is no more than an expression of inadequate information.
  • If there remains an unknowable element, for example as suggested by quantum theory and information theory, then chance or randomness can change the choices we make and the future.  

In the first case we are simply responding to our environment according to our nature; the accumulation of the past at each instant in time that forms the present. That I am writing this is an inevitable outcome of that past and this present.

In the second case everyone is constantly changing the future through our individual choices (volition).  But then so are cats and dogs and rabbits; and every animal possessing volition.  This is what we commonly believe to be the case, as in: 'The cat took fright and jumped in front of her as she was running downstairs; now she is is in a wheelchair'.

Some theologins like to have a bet each way.  We have volition, the cat is simply responding to circumstance.

But in either case there will be just one future; and it will be as it will be.

Luck is another matter.  It is the human anticipation and interpretation of, and reaction to, providence.

When I flip a coin it will come down either heads or tails. If the outcome of the flip is advantageous to me (say I'm a cricket captain or betting for money or deciding something else), I'm lucky;  if not I'm unlucky.

In isolation from human affairs the flip of a coin does not involve luck.  It is inevitable that it will fall one way or the other. The actual outcome depends on the circumstances of the flip (the physics of its trajectory and its landing).  

Gamblers use this simple device to create an apparently random[6] result that is too complex to be predicted, calculated or guessed.  We might call this effectively unpredictable yet inevitable outcome: 'destiny' or 'fate'; the work of providence: 'what will be, will be'.

The thing that makes 'destiny' into 'luck' is the benefit of the outcome to someone; combined with the apparent randomness. The randomness is important. A card sharp is not lucky, they are cheating.

If we design a bridge; it is built; and works as expected, we don't say, 'that was lucky'.  But if a tree happens to fall across a gully just before we want to cross it's lucky; if a tree unexpectedly falls on a loved one it's unlucky. Yet almost every tree is going to fall at some time in some direction – no luck involved, just providence.

For an uninvolved observer an ANZAC Day two-up game is an interesting demonstration of providence and human interactions; raw adrenaline; and personality exposed by reactions to wins and losses.  For a participant it is a potentially addictive emotional and financial roller-coaster.

The manager of a casino or a lottery watches providence day-in day-out.  Someone will win, another will lose. Some punters bring the money in and others take it away; minus the profit to the house and taxes to the Government.  To a bookie, casino or lottery it doesn't matter who wins or loses provided the odds were properly calculated; over time their margin will always eventuate. To increase the theatre and drama of the experience and to maximise turnover, the organisers seek to enhance the enthusiasm of the 'punters' by publicising wins over losses; anticipating potential fortune and promoting the idea of luck.

As a consequence we are often encouraged to believe in luck over providence. The degree to which we believe in luck is evidently a cultural value, like holding a particular set of religious beliefs, as some cultures are stronger believers in luck than others.

This belief in luck is often akin to religion.  Adherents often believe that particular rituals or talisman (rabbit's feet etc) have the ability to change or modify random events – to give them luck. In the minds of these people such rituals and talisman have the power to influence events that are deliberately constructed to be random (independent of influence) like those generated by poker machines; roulette; and other games of chance.  In a more general way: walking under a ladder; Friday the 13th; spilling salt; wearing a particular piece of clothing while doing something; being cursed; or being rude to someone; are believed to influence providence.

These beliefs may be tied to the adherent's belief in God (or gods in general). Providence itself is often described in terms of God's plan for the universe. Intersession with a god (or the agent of a god) may thus alter the nature of future random events so that they are instead planned.


Who am I anyway?

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.
- Confucius

I have discussed above (and elsewhere in more detail [7] [8]) the improbable events that have led to me being here to observe this present; remember and see evidence of our past; and anticipate the future.

But what is this 'Me'?

Like anyone with a contemporary education and a non-specialist interest in biology I know the basic facts.

Like all humans; along with all other multicellular organisms (creatures and plants); like the spiders in our garden; I am a colony of cells; in my case shaped like me; my cells having formed bones; internal organs; skin and so on.

This colony began as single fertilised ova, a single cell, that over the next half dozen months the womb differentiated into the several hundred cell types typical of all humans; and each of these types multiplied many thousands or millions of times.  Over the next twenty years the number of cells in my colony grew rapidly but then the growth in numbers slowed; so that today my colony consists of perhaps sixty to seventy thousand-million differentiated cells.  Each of these cells has its own identity and goes about its business according to its particular inherited role.

The architectural plan for my colony was set by the DNA sequence stored in the chromosomes of that first cell from my mother, which had inherited the plan for the genus: homo; and species: homo sapiens sapiens that had in turn evolved from earlier species over millions of years. Thanks to the complexity of the reproductive process; and the inheritance of genes from each of my parents; this architectural plan, while human, is unique in its details such as: facial features; iris patterns; fingerprints; innate abilities; and many more.  

In addition to this basic plan, the architecture has been modified in numerous ways during my lifetime.  I have scars from physical injuries; I have lost organs; and my immune system is uniquely primed to resist a wide range of threats that it has come into contact with over my lifetime.  My colony is host to millions of foreign cells, bacteria and so on; I have been exposed to radiation and have absorbed potentially dangerous dust and trace elements through my skin, lungs and stomach. 

Further, the cells I have today are not those I started with. Some cells outlive most others; and some are very short lived, like those that sacrifice themselves to protect the colony.  But the ones I had as a child or youth are dead long ago due to programmed cell death, or apoptosis.   In general when a cell dies it gets replaced by a similar one.  The colony also responds to additional demands on a cell type so that, for example, additional muscle may form in response to exercise.  But the number of times a cell can divide may also be limited by counters, telomeres, appended to its chromosomes. 

One of the most notable changes to the basic architecture is changes in the central nervous system and my brain tissue in response to experience, sensation and information. 

My colony stores all my thoughts, skills and knowledge by means of intercellular connections between specialist cells in these regions.  Some of these connections are temporary chemical links but all my long term knowledge and skills are stored as physical links.  It is this stored memory that determines my personality, reactions and behaviour.  At the higher, human, level it is this that is 'Me'.

If, as I age, the programmed cell death process fails to correctly replace these links I will lose my skills, my knowledge and my memory.  My personality; beliefs; and capacity for conscious thought will collapse.

If those cells responsible for my cardio-vascular or other critical systems become defective or scarred I will suffer illness; or if cells begin to multiply excessively I will suffer an unwanted growth, and in the extreme case, die of cancer. 

Unless my colony suffers a mortal traumatic incident sooner, one or more of these things will cause its eventual collapse and the 'evaporation' of 'Me'.

Although I know these things to be true, I do not regularly think of myself as a corporation of seventy thousand-million ever-changing cells but rather as 'Me'.  This ongoing 'Me' is the first of many illusions we all suffer.  I discuss these in further detail elsewhere [7].

Your 'Me' is just like mine and together we form part of our families; and our society; and culture that collectively produces art and music; feeds and houses us; provides us with social interactions and productive endeavours; and occasionally puts us at risk. 'They', the rest of humanity, have been thinking; and loving; and singing; and dancing; and hunting; and growing; and building; and creating; and praying; and hating; and fighting; and destroying; for tens of thousands of years; accumulating all that is 'Now'.

There is an almost incomprehensible complexity and richness in these interactions.  Little wonder that you may feel detached from the colony of cells that is the real You; who, according to Confucius, is where you are.



[1] Descartes's original statement in the Discourse on Method was "Je pense donc je suis". This was written in French to reach a local audience, the Latin "Cogito ergo sum" was used in his later, more scholarly, Principles of Philosophy (1644).

[2] The version of the Anthropic Principle that Carter proposed that day, is now referred to as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP): The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on the values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.

Later, Carter also proposed the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP): The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.

[3] Normal average sperm count (World Heath Organisation):  a minimum of 40x106  spermatozoa per ejaculate; each will lead to a different child; only one is successful per fertilisation.

[4] In 1999 Hubble Space Telescope images were used to estimate that there are over 125 billion visible galaxies in the universe

[5] Approximately 7.5 x 1018  http://www.hawaii.edu/suremath/jsand.html

[6] The drawing of a sample from a statistical population in which all members of the population have equal probabilities of being included in the sample.

[7] Richard McKie:  The Meaning of Life

[8] Richard McKie:  The Middle East

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Hong Kong and Shenzhen China






Following our Japan trip in May 2017 we all returned to Hong Kong, after which Craig and Sonia headed home and Wendy and I headed to Shenzhen in China. 

I have mentioned both these locations as a result of previous travels.  They form what is effectively a single conurbation divided by the Hong Kong/Mainland border and this line also divides the population economically and in terms of population density.

These days there is a great deal of two way traffic between the two.  It's very easy if one has the appropriate passes; and just a little less so for foreign tourists like us.  Australians don't need a visa to Hong Kong but do need one to go into China unless flying through and stopping at certain locations for less than 72 hours.  Getting a visa requires a visit to the Chinese consulate at home or sitting around in a reception room on the Hong Kong side of the border, for about an hour in a ticket-queue, waiting for a (less expensive) temporary visa to be issued.

With documents in hand it's no more difficult than walking from one metro platform to the next, a five minute walk, interrupted in this case by queues at the immigration desks.  Both metros are world class and very similar, with the metro on the Chinese side a little more modern. It's also considerably less expensive. From here you can also take a very fast train to Guangzhou (see our recent visit there on this website) and from there to other major cities in China. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

The McKie Family








This is the story of the McKie family down a path through the gardens of the past that led to where I'm standing.  Other paths converged and merged as the McKies met and wed and bred.  Where possible I've glimpsed backwards up those paths as far as records would allow. 

The setting is Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England and my path winds through a time when the gardens there flowered with exotic blooms and their seeds and nectar changed the entire world.  This was the blossoming of the late industrial and early scientific revolution and it flowered most brilliantly in Newcastle.

I've been to trace a couple of lines of ancestry back six generations to around the turn of the 19th century. Six generations ago, around the turn of the century, lived sixty-four individuals who each contributed a little less 1.6% of their genome to me, half of them on my mother's side and half on my father's.  Yet I can't name half a dozen of them.  But I do know one was called McKie.  So, this is about his descendants; and the path they took; and some things a few of them contributed to Newcastle's fortunes; and who they met on the way.

In six generations, unless there is duplication due to copulating cousins, we all have 126 ancestors.  Over half of mine remain obscure to me but I know the majority had one thing in common, they lived in or around Newcastle upon Tyne.  Thus, they contributed to the prosperity, fertility and skill of that blossoming town during the century and a half when the garden there was at its most fecund. So, it's also a tale of one city.

My mother's family is the subject of a separate article on this website. 


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Opinions and Philosophy

The Carbon Tax

  2 July 2012



I’ve been following the debate on the Carbon Tax on this site since it began (try putting 'carbon' into the search box).

Now the tax is in place and soon its impact on our economy will become apparent.

There are two technical aims:

    1. to reduce the energy intensiveness of Australian businesses and households;
    2. to encourage the introduction of technology that is less carbon intensive.
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