Monday, August 19, 2013

I Refute it THUS, or Vote 1: Reality

I adore John Lennon's LSD flavoured view of the world in Strawberry Fields Forever, but please don't try to tell me that "nothing it real" when you're not tripping. When the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson heard a similar claim from some Bishop called Berkely, Johnson kicked a rock and said "I refute it thus". Decartes' famous maxim was extended to the other end of the body: "my toe hurts, therefore I am.," By extension, the rock also is, and the rest of the universe is too.

I find myself becoming more committed to physicalism. This idea is more commonly referred to a materialism, but I shy away from that term because in the past dopey theists have conflated it with economic materialism.  I want to scream to my religion teacher back in 1978, no I don't believe that owning lots of stuff makes you happy, I believe the universe can be explained by the application of science, and that apparent supernatural concepts like spirituality, the soul and gods are actually manifestations of physical phenomena, usually the workings of the human brain.

"In the beginning was the Word", goes the gospel of John, and it's explicitly stated in disciplines like semiotics that the only thing worth caring about it the word, and not the object that it refers to. Or if you're a deconstructionist, you'll worry about the text, but not about the real world it describes. To me, there's something fundamentally flawed in that approach. It might seem like I'm stating the obvious, but the modern world is full of examples where the story of something takes over from the actual thing it tells you about. The election of Ronald Reagan - an actor - as President of the United States seemed like a major capitulation to this trend. The invasion of Iraq on the basis of non-existent weapons of mass destruction was another good example. There was even an anecdote about a member of the Bush administration being dismissive of what he called the "reality-based community".

So what seem like nebulous concepts of philosophy are being played out in ways that affect us severely. My suspicions were confirmed when Tony Blair said he used prayer to help him decide whether going to war in Iraq was the right thing.

The internet is another distraction from the real world, it's one great lump of  "the Word", and there's a huge temptation to ignore the real world that gives this word meaning. I like to compare the virtual world of the Internet with the strange world of quantum physics, where a particle can be mathematically said to both exist and not exist. It's a world at odds with the atomic world we observe. The conundrum was expressed by the concept of Shrodinger's cat, where he imagined a device which would kill a cat depending on the status of the quantum particle. The cat would have to be considered both alive and dead until the status of the particle was determined.

The thought experiment was not meant to propose the cat could be in both states. It was more to expose an problem arising from our incomplete knowledge of the quantum world. It's a problem that needs to be solved by gaining more information about quantum mechanics. We already know the cat isn't alive and dead at the same time. In this regard I agree with Einstien's famous quote about playing dice with the universe.

My little comparison is only a metaphorical one, meant to say that the physical world and the virtual world also seem to run by different rules. As a materialist I say the real world wins. When I got a letter from Google, it felt like a had a version of the Schrodinger's cat experiment in my hands, and it was a victory for physical reality. Henceforth all internet text and imagery will be put in its place. Going outside and looking at the blue of the sky will always be a superior experience to the hex code #aefbfb.

I welcome any corrections if I have misrepresented any facts, history or science in this blog post.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Olympia - The Eternal Milk Bar

The Olympia Milk Bar on Parramatta Road, Stanmore, in the city of Sydney is an anachronistic establishment. It has continued to operate, largely unchanged, since the 1950s. When evolving tastes and a downturn in the economic environment reduced the Milk Bar's trade, the owner appears to have downscaled his operations. Damage has gone unrepaired, and the range of products sold has been reduced to a handful of items. Milkshakes, sandwiches (ham, cheese, tomato only) and tea are now all the menu offers. Usually only a single fluorescent tube lights the premises, saving on electricity costs, but leaving a potentially gaily-decorated space in eternal gloom. But the essential appearance and operation of the Milk Bar have remained unscathed.

As the years have gone by, the Olympia Milk Bar has developed a profile in urban folklore. A text and media mirror of the Olympia has been taking shape in cyberspace. The process has been accelerated by social media. It's becoming one of the most photographed shops in Sydney. Somehow, the low-tech, offline Olympia seems defenceless against the onslaught of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google.

But the physical reality of the Olympia reminds us that the virtual world is by definition, insubstantial. Bricks and mortar will never be eroded by bits and pixels. The vast majority (probably close to 100%) of the Olympia's internet fans are drawn to the online celebration of the place because they have seen it in the flesh. They  share information about it, cajole and encourage each other to overcome their trepidation and go inside and spend some money. They meet together at the Olympia, bringing the place to life with customer numbers probably not seen there for decades.

The media mirror of the Olympia, created by people who appreciate it,  is very different from the image made by marketing giants to promote the likes of McDonalds, KFC and Subway. For them, it's the unreal, exploitative hypnotism of advertising and marketing. For the Olympia, it's personal accounts of attending the Milk Bar, the history of the community and those who grew up in it, stories about the life of its enigmatic owner and encounters with him through the decades.

It takes a lot of imagination to perceive the Olympia as a slice of life from the 50s, 60s or 70s. In those days, Milk Bars weren't covered in mildew, smashed windows were repaired, and lights were turned on. Plenty of cafes and pubs try to make reference to yesteryear by restoring an old building, or purchasing and  displaying relics of the past. The relics are polished and laminated, or protected behind glass.

The Olympia isn't like that. Its old stuff isn't there just because it's old. It's there because it's always been there, part of a functioning business. The dogged determination of its owner to continue opening can have few equals. He has been doing this for well over 50 years. The business establishments around him have been evolving at an ever increasing pace, making the persistence of the Olympia even more remarkable. The Milk Bar continued when the adjacent Theatre (its sister building) was demolished in the 1970's. The cinema that replaced the old theatre was demolished in 2004. One hopes the bland apartment building that stands there now will also be outlived by the Olympia.

So when you buy a Milkshake from Mr Fotiou, there's no pretence. It's not dreaming of the past, or copying the past. It IS the past. It won't last much longer. Despite the rumours, Mr Fotiou is not immortal. Each day his milk bar continues to operate it becomes more precious. Every time I go past it on my daily commute, I glance through its lovely concertina doors, reassured that they are open and the Olympia is still there. One day I'll go past and the doors will be closed. It will be a day of bereavement.