Thor's Unwise Ideas


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


Note 1: Later entries to Thor's Unwise Ideas is now being duplicated on a blog of the same name at (however it will take quite a while to copy all the entries to that site)

Note 2: Briefer in form, but closely related in tenor to the Unwise Ideas is the collection called Thor's Brief Ideas on this site, and now a separate blog accumulating the latest ones, called Thor's Short Cuts  at . 

Note 3: Thor's Take on Religion can be found as an e-book (about 20,000 words) titled The Agnostic's Survival Manual . A pdf version is also online. A third copy (pdf) may be found at my site.

Note 4: Discussion Topics talked over at Brisbane and Adelaide meetups can be seen here


95. Count your lucky stars [2016]


What part does luck play in the success of individuals, enterprises and countries? Think of examples. From politics to careers to finding the love of your life, there has never been more advice available, yet at the end of the game, some people seem to have been lucky and others not. Why is this so? Can you really do much about it?"


94. Reflections on Turning 75 [2020]


I  want a big, red reset button. The world I met ain’t like what I was told about.. (Yes, you are different. You charmingly met an alternate world and will disagree with everything to follow).


93.  Adelaide seems to be a media-challenged city


There are road accident reporters, but there do not seem to be investigative journalists and insightful commentators who interpret the city to itself. What is to be done?"


92. Emergent Systems - an Overview

Mandarin Chinese translation: 新兴系统 -- 概述

An emergent system is one where a) the final system has properties and effects which exceed the properties and effects of its component parts, and b) whose final properties and effects cannot be predicted from merely examining the component parts. The prediction issue becomes critical in dynamic systems where human judgements have to be made but the true emergent form of the system to come is not known. This paper is just a point list of issues to introduce some ideas about emergent systems for further discussion. 


91. Re-spinning Intellectuals into the Social Order: EDINN


Intellectuals as a sub-species rate somewhat lower than garden spiders in the public estimation (they are not useful, they can sting if you pick them up, and they are economically valueless). Maybe it is necessary to sort this confusion out before we go on to finding them a place in the social fabric.


90. Politics and Politicians : a volatile mix?


Politics is like medicine: sometimes useful, even necessary, in small amounts, but fatal if taken in an overdose. Politicians can be a useful species but are prone to going feral. Democracies often elect either mediocrities or confidence tricksters because large numbers of electors share similar qualities. In practical terms, is there a better way to manage national affairs?


89. The peculiar interest of god(s) in human morality


For the ungodly, even as they dodge being stoned to death for apostasy or atheism, it is a perpetual puzzle why any god, mere mountain spirit or kitchen god, or a thundering master of the universe, would give a damn what humans do. And given the misfortunes of virtuous humans, and the prosperity of countless scoundrels, the ungodly search in vain for actual, non-magical evidence that god, gods, spirits or leprechauns do actually play moral favourites in any credible way with humans. For the godly of course, this kind of evidence has never mattered.


88. Probing the Limits of Tolerance


In those dull places where no demagogue offers permission to hate the neighbours, we might do our best not to draw lines in the sand, not to warn off intruders with a threat. Sooner or later though some threshold, hidden even to our conscious selves, will surely be crossed. We lose our temper, act impulsively, do something we regret in cooler moments, but it is already too late.


87.  The Unexpected Power of Stupidity 


Stupidity turns out to be complicated. Stupidity in its many guises does more damage on a daily basis than generations of clever ideas have ever been able to cope with. Human stupidity ranges all the way from planetary destruction to self mutilation by vengeful individuals cutting off their own nose to spite their face. Given the scale of stupidity’s ravages, it is a matter of wonder that it attracts so little systematic public research under its own name.


86. So You Love Humanity But Can't Stand People?

The explicit idea of a social contract between the collective interests of a political body, such as a nation state, and particular citizens is fairly new in much of the world. It is scarcely considered in those terms by a large part of the world’s population, and treated with frank cynicism by many of those who have seized power and act in the name of the state. However, in spite of ongoing gross violations of both individual and collective interests, there has been a persistent spread of the idea of “human rights”. It is a rare leader nowadays who talks openly about “the divine right of kings”, as an English sovereign could a mere few centuries ago. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an explicit and now widely known expression of the minimal acceptable relationship between individuals with their interests and the superordinate collective claims of nation states.


85. How much attention has $529 billion of advertising bought?

Marketing, mostly in the form of advertising, channels the attention and actions of tens of millions of people into common participation. Where that mass participation involves spending money, then industries with successful marketing campaigns are the ones which survive in the marketplace, and in doing so shape the kind of society in which we live. None of this is to say that the industries (or politicians) who prevail in the contest of marketing actually have the best products, or even have socially beneficial products. The opposite may be true. That is, the marketplace is apparently quite amoral. 


84. Are Men More Inventive Than Women?

It seems that the potential for women to be inventors is probably not less than that for men, although the way their inventiveness is directed (taking women overall) might not entirely overlap with that of men. In societies where the roles of men and women are becoming less divergent we might expect the markers of inventiveness between genders to also become more similar.


83. Surfing or Drowning in an Ocean of Change?


“Change”, and especially managing change, is sharply in focus for commercial and professional interests, and for governments, but only of intermittent concern for individuals. For individuals, change applies to particular things at particular times, often as a matter of dumb luck. There is little popular interest in change as a category of continuing experience which needs to be part of life preparation and education, or built into the planning as we anticipate careers, developing communities and countries themselves.


82. Fuzzy Degrees of Freedom – When is the Law a Burden? 

Citizens, you and I, we live with the ever multiplying, ever more obscure barrage of laws and regulations which emerge from the political contest. The simple things, like not killing the bus driver, we try to get right most of the time. Beyond the clarity what Christian types call the Ten Commandments, for better or for worse we exercise our judgement as wise men and women, and hope for the best.


81. Start your own business – a mental experiment


Imagine that you are starting a new business. What would it be? Why did you choose it? Why would you choose a personal enterprise over working for somebody else (or why wouldn’t you)? What rewards would you be looking for? What personal costs would you be prepared to tolerate? Would you attempt it alone, or would you look for partner(s)? What are the ways you could fund such a startup? Would it be local, or seek a wider market?


80. Media Distraction and Social Control


Is the “white noise” of daily media distraction deliberate social control, or just modernity out of control? Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. In many communities worldwide the sheer struggle to survive occupies most waking hours. In some others, any “free thinking time”, especially for the young, is carefully manipulated by state directed activities, propaganda and censorship. A possible third model is that ruling elites and governments may prevent criticism by distracting the main population with sports, entertainment and endless trivial ‘news’.


79. Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems?

Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ? Whatever you think of religions personally, or any particular religion, they seem to have been around forever amongst (most) humans, and seem unlikely to go away entirely amongst the species as a whole. Clearly though, particular cultures in various historical phases have many members who are attracted to religions or substitute ideologies, but tend to drift away from them in other phases. At a different level, women seem to be the most persistent believers by numbers, but religious hierarchies are almost always controlled by (humourless old) men… What is it in human psychology that generates these religious phenomena? Since religion is universal across human groups, yet not universal within groups, does it embody some optional extra mechanism in the complex systems we call mind? Is it species specific?  … the questions are endless, and we can scarcely answer them here, but following a long human tradition, I have written a small allegory to explore some possibilities.


78. So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?

The source of this short document is intensely personal. It is the story of early university misadventure by one individual, myself. At first glance it might seem of little interest to anyone but the protagonist. I am publishing it because in fact pieces of this story fit the lives of so many students who simply disappear from the statistics and into oblivion. Educational administrators may make assumptions about them, perhaps based on personal prejudice and hearsay, while political decisions about which kinds of students to fund tend to be founded in ideology rather than the real life stories of actual individuals and their development.


77. The Problem of Work and the Rise of the Precariat

Work, as a life experience, has evolved greatly over historical time. For most ordinary people, their job is not something that they enjoy much. However, without formal work many lose focus, may become dependent on welfare, and certainly become socially stigmatized. It seems that increasing numbers of people will never be able to have secure employment. They have joined a new social class now called the precariat. What are the consequences of that? How have we reached this point?  What is a practical, long term solution to “the problem of work” for ordinary people?  


76.  Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest


Fake it 'till you make it is a much advertised nostrum. Well, anyone who is not pathologically naive and who has encountered the corporate-speak of today's urban living knows that the fake-it meme is already in the DNA of most institutional critters, large and small. The only news is that this virus might also be deployed by bus drivers and check-out girls. With this in mind, the essay takes the fake-it topic beyond some simple self-trickery sold as positive thinking, and looks at various extended mutations inside and outside of the law.


75.  Multicultures – communities of familiar strangers


When a stranger asks “what do you do”, as he fishes for the right stereotype to pin on my chest as a mark of admiration or secret contempt, I am at a loss to answer. That is, I am a man of my age, a chameleon creature accustomed to slipping amongst a kaleidoscope of roles. This plurality of role plays does not mean that I am "values free". I don't care if you wear a hijab or burn incense in a Buddhist temple. I do care for a marker such as "above all, do no harm" - not always achievable perhaps, but at least a navigation beacon. It is of central importance to the discussion in this article that my way is not everyone’s way. We all make sense of the world as best we can, then have a habit of projecting our understanding as universal truths. The article attempts is explicit about the writer's own experience, but tries also to establish a context for other, more various ways in which multicultures have been interpreted, especially in Australia.


74.  Property and Life Choices


It is well understood by most governments today, whatever their nominal ideology, that encouraging the private ownership of residential property is one of the most effective ways of ensuring social stability. A simple Australian example would be that after World War II, very large numbers of footloose demobilized soldiers could have been a distinct threat to the established order. It made very good political sense to direct them as soon as possible into stable employment, and into household ownership. Amongst the first acts of states which give up the lunacy of total centrally planned economic control is to move rapidly to create a residential owning middle class. As Russia formally abandoned communism in the early 1990s it did just that, allowing citizens to purchase their accommodation at very low cost. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China moved in exactly the same direction, even while maintaining a façade of communist ideology. The communist state of Vietnam has acted in exactly the same way. When you have a home and a mortgage, you are probably reluctant to start a revolution, and the political elites have a significant hold on your behaviour.


73.  The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?


Any Internet search will reveal a myriad of articles and blogs on this topic. The variety of comment is not surprising since formal education of some kind affects every family and every individual in almost every country. Informal education has probably effected just about everyone since humans evolved. What the online material does show is that while the process is universal, the objectives are diverse and often in conflict. Indeed much of the discussion seems to be at cross purposes. I have been a teacher, mostly to young adults, for 35 years in seven countries with quite different cultures, so I am deeply familiar with the currents of intention and counter-intention which touch everyone in the enterprise of education. My own doctoral dissertation was an analysis of 20 case studies in institutions where the publicly expressed purposes of education were often sabotaged. Although I have seen some of the failures, the institutional reasons for such failures are so embedded and so internationally widespread that I can see little direct hope for major changes. What I do see is that for technological and cultural reasons, the relationships between public mass education and personal self-education are changing drastically. The outcomes of that melding are still unclear, but the process offers hope.


73. Some Uses and Misuses of Reason

When the sun rises each morning we may say the reason is that the earth on its elliptical orbit spins so that one point faces that star. Or we may say that the Sun God has mounted his chariot. Or we may say, after Ptolemy and the Christian elders until a few centuries ago, that the sun is moving around the earth. Take your pick. They have all seemed good reasons from reasonable men in their time. Our acceptance of what passes for reasoned argument has a great deal to do with the company we keep. Perhaps for most people, the word of accepted authority is the ultimate parameter on where those reasoned arguments may venture.


72. Democracy – Comment on a Proposal


The actual management of social, economic and political choices which are of citizen interest is at the heart of the governance problem, whether it is some kind of democratic governance or a more arbitrary alternative. Votes offer an option of yes or no. Life is harder than that. There is an inherent problem with binary choices in a complex society. Most important questions are nuanced. We could take almost any votable question and find within it a host of other questions. Most respondents will not have the imagination to see the impinging issues on the lead query. That is their responses will be shallow, and in any real political campaign easily swayed by partisan argument.


71. Crime without Punishment – the journey from means to ends 

In the real world of events, as opposed to philosophical statements of “should”, decisions about ends and means always come down to who, if anybody, is responsible for consequences. Where consequences are not clear for actors, and especially if consequences are not personal, almost any ends can be argued for, and almost any means might be rationalized.


70. Is learning “grit” the best way to succeed?

Grit, persistence in the face of hardship, is an admirable trait up to a point. It is however a complex trait, and may be extremely sensitive to the nature of particular challenges. The dropout in one scenario might be the dogged hero in another movie. Also, above and beyond particular situations, grit is partly sourced in inherent qualities of personality, partly influenced by maturational environment, and deeply affected by the core values and practices of different cultures and subcultures. There are even intriguing hints that grit can be driven by brain physiology.


69. Are Diet & Exercise Really Personal Choices?

The title of this paper asserts a dilemma: “Are diet and exercise really personal choices?” At first blush the dilemma might not be obvious to everyone. The implicit question is the extent to which governments or other agents should interfere in the lifestyle choices of individual citizens. There may be a visceral response to this question, but hopefully the following paragraphs will show that the problem is quite nuanced.


68. How do we judge literary value and artistic value?

Art emerges from the hand of the creator, and the mind of the beholder. Art as discussed in this article is taken very broadly. The broad meaning can encompass not merely painting and sculpture, but literature, music, dance, film, syntheses made possible by electronic technology, and so on. It can be a little confusing, at least in English, as to how all of these enterprises might be collected under a single heading. We do have an expression in English though about any activity which requires mysterious but sophisticated human abilities: “It is more art than science”. The suggestion is that some human activities depend upon a dynamic synthesis skills, experience and judgement which is too complex to analyse, yet which yields outcomes of high quality. “More art than science” certainly underlies our understanding of what artistic creators have been able to achieve.

When it comes to particular judgements however, art, whatever its form, has no single criterion of interpretation. Depending upon the time and the place, the circumstance and the human actors involved, the status of art (or its rejection) is resolved through a multitude of prisms. Here are some, but not all, of contexts for considering art and literature: ....


67. Are We Too Wealthy?

Large numbers of educated, reflective people worldwide have become aware over the last generation that the globalization of extreme material wealth in its present form cannot be sustained.  In this awareness people differ from several preceding human generations where the prevailing belief was that economic growth (a.k.a. “progress”) was a good thing. In previous generations the political passions focused on how wealth was to be divided up – hence the broad labels of agrarian landlordism, market capitalism, crony capitalism, socialism, national socialism … and so on. Segments of present populations have decided that most prior ideologies were variations on a global Ponzi  scheme which is approaching its moment of collapse. That collapse might be expressed in the depletion of material resources, in ecological failure, or in the sheer breakdown through over-complexity of systems which failure-prone humans simply cannot manage.  Whatever the looming breakdown point in any given locale or society, the focus of political dispute becomes “what is to be done”? 


67. How Can We Treat Refugees Humanely? - An Australian Perspective

Where the Australian government is involved in immigration detention of some kind, offshore or onshore, there is an intense need for creative and humane solutions. It is no kind of  “solution” to multiply the psychological damage accumulated by refugees by warehousing them under punitive conditions. These people are not criminals, and it would be useful in Australian law to make it illegal to refer to them as criminals.


66. What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?

Ideologies are going to be with us forever. The question is how seriously the herd takes them, and who become the high priests for interpreting them to the unwashed masses. The 20th Century gave us some pretty horrible examples of ideologies used as vehicles for mass extinction while claiming to be vehicles for mass progress. There is no particular reason to expect that the 21st Century will be more enlightened in this regard amongst those people who always form the bulk of ideological foot soldiers. It is true that there are more formally educated people on the planet than ever before, and more available tools for critical thinking, especially in the online world. Yet it is also true that the tools for mass mobilization are more powerful than they have ever been, while their control passes with increasing rapidity to compromised governments, corporations and secretive elites. This secrecy makes a considered response to genuine threats especially difficult.

65. The Precariously Employed - that's you, today or tomorrow - A Search for a New World Order

And then we have the “precariat” – hundreds of millions of people for whom the idea of lifetime employment has become a mirage. If they work at all, it is part-time, or on short term contracts, or in intermittent jobs, and so on. In polite company they often describe themselves as "self-employed"... Now the ruling elites of the 21st Century are terrified of the Precariat. The elites know insecure people are dangerous, they know that precariat numbers are overwhelming. Yet the elites, the academy, and the commentariat have no theory, no language, no model to handle the precariat.

64. Democracy and War

There is no uniform pattern defining what a “democratic society” is. Therefore blanket statements about the relationship between “democratic societies” and war are incoherent...  All wars, without fail and throughout history, have been characterized by the deployment of “weapons of mass deception”. That is, the leadership on both sides invariably claims to have God, Fate, Luck, righteousness, history, economic or political necessity .. and every available virtue on their side. It is hardly ever the case that any of this is the real engine for war, but is usually mobilizes enough public support to enable leaders to prosecute war without immediate revolt (though that may come later).

63. The Freedom Enterprise and Other Yarns

Something has changed substantially, beyond the old narratives. That something is the Internet, with uncontrolled actors disseminating information, while elites scramble desperately to recover control of the spin. Such information is often incomplete, biased, or misinterpreted, but it is also not the official story (no matter how many shills governments and companies pay as online agents provocateurs). This new swirling mass of stories has its own dynamic with complex interacting currents beyond anyone's simple control.


62. Economic Complexity and the Engine of Psychology

Context: The essay considers economics as a psychological phenomenon with the characteristics of a complex dynamic system. It is an initial and somewhat playful exploration, not a mathematical paper on systems theory. The original context was a discussion group background paper which evolved away from its origins. The starting proposal adopted (for argument’s sake) was that “the most economically successful societies have always depended upon a high level of government collusion with commerce and industry, if not control. This argument is a way of saying that the “invisible hand” of the market is not enough to maintain an efficient market, at least beyond village level. There has to be an independent umpire, or forced control (dictator, mafia … )”. It became clear that the government-industry collusion issue was really a surface gloss on a much more complicated reality.

61. Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich

Abstract: This little essay is about (my ideas of) the behaviour of the rich. Of course all kinds of people are rich for all kinds of reasons (ditto for the poor). Nevertheless I will argue that rich people demonstrate ethics in ways which are consistent with broad human tendencies. Depending upon the social context of their wealth (e.g. corporate versus inherited) that wealth might influence them to exhibit particular behaviours. Yet those habits will merely be a subset of something much more general. Ethics, at bottom, is sourced in the evolutionary behaviour of the species.

60. The Democracy Problem

Abstract: The material here comprises discussion points and some reference links for a diverse group of people in Brisbane, Australia, who fancy themselves as “gentle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “The Democracy Problem”, is probably of interest to thoughtful individuals in many latitudes, so I am putting it online as a general stimulus for some creative discussion. Any opinions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dissected without mercy.

59. Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine

This little essay is a bit mischievous, and apparently politically incorrect enough to have sparked outrage in the minds of some sensitive souls from the polite dinner party set. Although it has no claims to academic decency, I have preserved it online as a stimulant to fancier research, since I think the metaphor the essay runs on captures some essential truths.

The essay had its genesis in the startled observations of a fresh expatriate teaching in foreign surrounds. In this case, it was the PNG University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1987. I found my untried liberal conscience struggling to comprehend the sheer incompetence of people faced with institutions and technology which didn't seem to work. Many of the locals were bright and friendly enough, but somewhere a spark of insight was missing. Much later, surveying Australia with the naked eyes of a returnee, it was all too clear that the paralysis of imagination was a universal problem. 

58. Déjà Vu and Wicked Stories

This story is just a grumble about living in a world of predictable villainy and occasional charm. As pretty as snowflakes piling up on a bleak field, I've accumulated a passable knowledge of world history and international affairs (especially Asian). Yet snow is snow, while the seven deadly sins don't really change their cloaks regardless of the weather. No matter where I look and no matter at what time in history, the same underlying stories play out. Good ideas/ideals get subverted by the bad guys (in fact, one-time good guys are apt to be bought out and enlisted in the Evil Empire of the age), wealth funnels to the few, classes are entrenched, sex is exploited, trust evaporates ... If you are young enough, you KNOW that this sorry tale was yesterday: NOW the possibilities are different, right? Why else would we tune into the story again each morning?  The grumpy elder speaks: in truth, NOW the possibilities are worse, but only because the number of players (world population) is destructively larger and the tools of oppression chillingly more efficient. The Muse sooths us:  just to keep things ticking over, "Good", whatever that is, always fights back and the whole cycle of heroism and romance starts over.

57.  Anchluss or ANZAC? - A Solution for Taiwan

What would be the consequences, to follow a crazy thought experiment, if the Peoples Republic of China were to formally renounce all claims to sovereignty over Taiwan?  Well, at first there would be a very confused Chinese public in the PRC and a desperate need for some inspired domestic persuasion out of Beijing. However, once that contradiction had been finessed (they've had tougher knots to untie), my guess is that within a short time Taiwan would become China's best friend and ally. They have so much in common. A free Taiwan choosing between America and China? No contest. Of course they would choose China. Taiwan has already shown the world what its enterprise can achieve under conditions of great handicap. Give its people back their hope and spirit, then Taiwan would be the best little brother that China could ever wish for. China would win immense international respect and trust. It truly would be on the fast track in that new Great Game, the contest for competence.

56. Choose When to Live and When to Die

The more your spirit lives in a culture, the more you  get what you pay for. After all, the culture has evolved, or perhaps been manufactured, to satisfy people just like you. Blessed are the average amongst us. Maybe your accepted culture has you salivating over a delicious dinner photographed on the plastic packet of a snap frozen supermarket meal. You will microwave the dubious mess inside the packet and suck it up. By the time you suck it up, your mind is on TV football or a soapy anyway. Such is one kind of happiness. If your culture is a millenium old and tells you that meat (or whatever) is unclean, you will smother some overcooked vegetables in curry and wash them down with a litre of Coca Cola to prove that you are up with the times. Such is progress.

These notes have not been written for average people in any known culture. 'Culture' is shorthand for a rough consensus on the grab-bag of events, habits, attitudes and actions that make up daily living. Once you start to ask questions about any of this stuff, you are stepping outside of the consensus. You are no longer average. You are alone in the big bad world, and there is nothing heroic about it because probably there is no one there to clap. So these notes are about non-average survival, specifically my own. Take what looks useful, ignore the rest. ...

55. If a Market is Not a Market

The Invisible Hand has been having a rough time of it lately. This is very interesting. Since the management professional class was invented by James Burnham in 1941, this priesthood has claimed to interpret the will of The Invisible Hand for the unwashed masses. However, like most priesthoods, they soon began to invent a self-serving scripture. A major tool of the invented economic scripture, as played by the sect of Investment Managers, has been Invented Magical Markets, operating beneath the veil of Public Markets and known only to the chosen few. Pretty early in the game of modern capitalism, it was seen that insider trading (or what I have called an Invented Market) was toxic to Public Markets. Solemn rules were therefore promulgated against insider trading. Ha ha. What a forlorn exercise. The enforcers were that very class of the economic priesthood most likely to benefit from violation of the rules. The history of economic booms and busts for two hundred years now has been a tale of new ways to pull off insider trading in hidden Invented Magical Markets. 

54. Snow Flower and The Secret Fan

When Wendi Deng (邓文迪 ), from China magically fell into the pan-national world of international business and married the media billionaire Rupert Murdoch, (who had abandoned Australia for the same stateless realm of five star hotels), at once we recognized that age old story of the gold digger and the sugar daddy. Perhaps though our belief in a simple storyline was, if not wrong, at least incomplete. Origins matter after all.

As a teacher to young women in Zhengzhou, central China for three years recently, I could sense the conflicting currents of duty, ambition and the hope for love that tossed them about in relationships. The mix for each modern girl was individual, and Deng herself is a product of those choices. It is surely no accident then that Wendi Deng and another high profile Chinese-American transplant, Florence Sloan, were co-producers of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a film which deals directly, though often through a veil of tears, with just these dilemmas.

The film is a fairly free adaptation of Lisa See’s now widely praised novel of the same name. What follows here are some personal reactions to the film, plus a few references to the book, which I have not read yet (some published reviews about the book are pasted at the end of these notes). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a film about relationships between women. It also highlights the conflict between feminine friendship and how each woman deals with the men in her life. Partly because of the Chinese historical context, the dimension of affection between men and women gets little attention in the film, which makes a jarring contrast with the world many of us like to think we live in today (even if we are deluded). However, the film’s director, Wayne Wang, has done a masterful job of bringing to life the relationships between two pairs of women. The first pair, Snow Flower (Korean actress, Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing), were both born in 1823 and tied into a lifelong feminine sworn bond called lau tong (老同), which may have been more emotional and stronger than the man-woman contract of marriage in 19th Century Qing China. The second pair are two young and ambitious women in today’s Shanghai, Sophia and Nina, equally enmeshed in a lifelong but tempestuous bond of friendship.

53. The South Pacific and Someone’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is where we all hope to be on that expansive Friday evening when the curtain comes down for the last encore. There they are, that motley collection from history, lounging over their drinks, singing, weeping, roaring with laughter, for what else can you do when there are to be no tomorrows? So this, Earth Mother, is why we put up with those damned foreigners for countless millennia : the privilege of a seat in Luigi’s Galactic Cafe on a spaceship escaping to oblivion.

In the meantime, a few tens of millennia back in Milky Way’s time warp, you and I still have to scheme for tomorrow. This discussion paper is one Australian’s unvarnished view of his neighbourhood. If it wounds a tender spot here and there, call the writer a fool and chalk up a debt against him for drinks at the last gasp in Luigi’s. But try to find an idea or two in here as well, for if we stop communicating this vibrant planet will be a dead planet long before the musicians take a bow.

52. Performance-Linked Micro-Tariffs

The letter following was addressed to Prime Minister Keating, 8 July 1995, and later posted on my website ( The reply to me from a minder was what you might expect: vapid. Nevertheless the points outlined remain germane to any Australian government. Why have I resurrected it here? Well occasionally web page statistics show up something interesting. Somebody has been accessing the article. Curious, I checked and was immediately struck by the relevance of “performance-linked micro-tariffs” to Australia’s economy in 2011. What do you think?

51. Managers: Getting It Done, Or Your Gift For Mine? - An Echo from the Philippines

Imagine meeting a man who, without asking, gave you gifts of great value. At first you might be pleased, though a little embarrassed since you had nothing of obvious value to offer him in return. However, this man had no interest in whatever humble things you might proffer anyway, but each day insisted on giving you new gifts. Shortly you would probably begin to resent the fellow, and wonder if you were merely a vehicle for promoting his glory (yes, there are echoes with religion in this business too). The sullen students that I meet have had the gift of education shoved down their throats for most of their short lives. They are held captive to receive this gift, and are considered ingrates if they question it at all. The human spirit would be entirely dead if they were not simmering with revolt...

50. Why Write A PhD?

The internal rules in universities rules which define a PhD invariably say that it must be an original contribution to human knowledge. Ground breaking dissertations have indeed been written from time to time. In fact though, few PhDs amount to some grand, original contribution to human knowledge. Many dissertations do include fresh assemblies of data, which may or may not be useful to someone. However, the interpretation of the data found within these documents is rarely original, except in a trivial sense...

49. Cultural Operating Systems

To those who wish to keep their "cultural operating systems", like the Korean or Russian or Thai or French, "pure", closed, proprietary, without outside influence, I say you are in great danger. Maybe your closed cultural system was elegant and refined. Maybe it has a glorious past history. But it ultimately comes from an earlier human civilization of small, savage tribal groups. Now we humans are many, crowded on a small planet, and communicating with everyone instantly. We need a different design, and that has to be an Open System.

48. Somebody Else's Problem

The Peoples Republic of China has many faces, and its inhabitants come in every imaginable shade of character. The seven deadly sins are richly represented, and a healthy bouquet of virtues can be found as well. There are however some constants in public life. Whoever the PRC belongs to, it is not Joe Wang and Molly Liu on Jiefang Lu in any of the 700 cities or countless thousands of villages. It probably isn’t the old men in Zhongnan Hai either, or even the Black Hands that shadow every lucrative trade. Perhaps, in the tradition captured so well by Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , the place is really owned by some prissy field mice wheeling a UFO above the Yellow River plains. In any case, it is totally predictable in every imaginable situation that in China nobody traceable is responsible for anything, ever.   more

47. The contest for Competence

If some people don't break the rules sometimes, then a normal society will cease to function. Breaking the wrong rules for the wrong reasons is like breaking legs though. And if everyone breaks the rules, then a society will disintegrate. A paradox? Yes. See how this cake is baked...

46. The End of Capitalism is Announced

So the crookedest brains in Moscow, Beijing and Washington didn’t want to make a system that worked for you or me.  Has anyone managed to do it? Well, yes, more or less, for brief moments in history.  Virtue, like vice, is a temporary affair with unpredictable outcomes....

... more

45. Mind Games Under Heaven

All the world art mad but thou and I. So it seems. The collective mind of peoples as nations expressed either through the ballot box or by the voice of the emperor (L’Etat c’est moi) seems erratic at best in most locales...

... more

44. Australia Blue  (poem)

Centre country scene:

A thousand miles of desert,
Ten thousand miles of shimmering heat.

... more

43. Covert and Overt Values

Cultural patterns are often phrased as value statements. Ask someone what it means to be Chinese and they may offer you a list of virtues (this kind of response is the same in every culture). The virtues they state for you will be OVERT values — those actions and beliefs that are publicly approved in the culture. In practice the real shape of the society also includes behaviour driven by COVERT values. In fact, for several reasons covert values are usually a far better predictor of where a society is going than overt values... more

42. Life, Content Management Systems, and the Answer to Everything

From time to time I have picked at CMS/blog machines, and wondered how to migrate the now denigrated "static" html of my sprawling site to the tidy content of databases. The main attraction has been the incorporation of some way to give readers a voice, assuming there are any readers left out there. A few years ago, they used to send a steady stream of e-mails, but now expect something more instant and public. The voices have fallen silent.... more

41. Ruddite

The dishcloth has landed. It was unfair, but the phrase kept nibbling at my ear, one of those ear-worms like an advertising jingle. Maybe that was the problem. I have never met the man, and the TV cut of an election victory speech is not the best way to get someone at their avuncular best....

40. Managing Downward Spirals - Getting from Here to There

Hey, will you be here tomorrow? Seg back twenty years and all the news was of a planet overrun by recklessly breeding humans. Today in the media of rich nations, the slightly hysterical whisper is that liberated women are on a baby strike and we’ll all be doomed to robot care in our old age. This downward spiral of fertility is an almost sedate affair in the grand scheme of things. Compare it to the supposed disappearance of dinosaurs after the nuclear winter from earth's traffic accident with a giant meteor. People though, count for more than dinosaurs, don't they...

39. North Korea - Pick Your Godfather

My friendly neighbourhood supermarket checkout girl greeted me with a joke about emigrating to Australia. Geopolitics is not the currency of daily conversation in this small, sleepy city in central South Korea, so clearly something was up....

38. The Doctor's Dilemma - Reading versus Active Experience

Long ago (1967) in a freshman literature class, in response to one of my jabs the tutor asked sarcastically if I thought I was an educated person. For her that meant quoting a canon of classic English literature. Even then I thought that like the rest of us, she was an 'uneducated person'. I was damn sure she wouldn't have a clue how to start her car with a wet distributor. I remain irredeemably uneducated in vast areas of human interest ...

37. Some Mysteries of Language Learning

An expert is a fool a thousand miles from home. Having successfully failed to learn about nine languages, I’m a veteran language learning imbecile, always a thousand miles from success, and an eternally hopeful beginner. I’ve also had the cheek to teach my native language to hopeful novices for over thirty years, which sometimes leads them and others to mistake me for a wannabe guru. The sheer hypocrisy of this dilemma should condemn me to embarrassed silence forever, yet I persist probing the reasons and remedies for my own language learning incompetence. After all, my exasperated search is surely shared by millions of others. The discussion which follows is informal, but makes serious points. It builds on an original e-mail exchange with a correspondent in 2005.

36. Teacher, I Saw Two Foreigners Kissing!

"Yeah, I've got something to tell you; listen up please. Yesterday, I went to Haeundae Beach. And I saw two foreigners kissing each other right in front of me... It was a real scene ^^ . I was shocked..." [student]

35. Why Our Schools Are Failing (... are they?)

In many ways "mass education" is a contradiction in terms ..

34. Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot

Of course, I have some sentimental interest in England, because that is where my ancestors came from, but I would never consider England to be my home.  Ethnic "Koreans" born in Australia will have some sentimental interest in Korea, but they are unlikely to feel that they "belong" in Korea...

33. Euthanasia - Whose Final Choice?

When a student asks my direct opinion, I try to give an honest answer. It is not always easy. Try this one...

32 A Harvest of Souls - Talking to Those Other Fools

..the Bushites were able to marry anti-intellectualism to a faith based movement. Faith corrupts, and absolute faith corrupts absolutely...

31. Article removed from the Internet

30. The End of War

In 1945 the atom bombs used by Americans seemed to make any future atomic wars between states unthinkable (not that the leaders of nation states have ever stopped thinking about just that). Now any failed state with a chemical fertilizer factory can probably achieve the same devastation...

29. The American Beacon of Post-Industrial Failure 

The Darth Vader face of America also has its analogues on every continent. The especially horrible aspect of the American Darth Vader though is that it forces its way into the lives of all the Earth's other peoples, squawking with electronic self-righteousness that it is the harbinger of freedom...

28. The Case for Favoritism  

...yes, there are men and women who have obtained their jobs unfairly. They are legion, and the burden of their incompetence has sunk countless companies and economies. Yet amongst their number are individuals of great ability, who lacking beauty, mediocrity or some other qualification of 'meritorious selection' by average fools, would never have had the chance to exercise their gifts without the unfair intervention of some wiser sponsor..

27. How to Get The Degree You Want OR Are You A Fake?

Are you a fake? This was the engaging header on an e-mail which recently arrived in my mailbox. Well, I admit to a fake tooth, but I think the rest of me is as real as real can be. Truth to tell, the odds are good that the world in general doesn't give a damn if I'm plastic, ivory or Martian rock. Still, the writer had in mind a qualification...

26. So You Wanna' Write a Poem??

We watched as he carefully unwrapped his little bundle from a scarlet kerchief, and spread it out on the dirt floor before our altar. It was given with a good heart, we could see. But we sighed. That sigh of a god who is sick to death of gifts of chicken feathers, and milk, and honey. Should we tell him? Damn it all man, we want GOLD ......

25. Third World Minds

The Third World is a state of mind. It is not a geographical place. It is not the plumbing in a man's house. The geographical place may be a stage for Third World living, and the plumbing may be a symptom of Third World limits.

The "Third World" itself though, if the metaphor is to be predictive at all, is a collection of designs for living -- that is, cultures -- which dominate the thinking of particular, critical masses of people.....

24. 9/11 and the Constituencies of Dissent 

...the US is waging war on a certain category of terrorists, notably those posing a threat to current American interests. That is a credible and normal objective for a nation state. Further, the United States has also declared that it will ignore the sovereign rights and interests of all other states and peoples in pursuing such terrorists. This is neither wise nor defensible...

23. The Paradox of Scholarship: Pissing On Every Lamp Post

Scholarship is that process of becoming familiar with, ordering, and acknowledging the thinking of earlier workers in a particular line of inquiry. It can easily become a lifetime task. The process is obviously valuable. Subduing the arrogance of an ignorant mind (especially one's own) is very healthy. Scholarship not only helps to avoid past mistakes and save the waste of "reinventing the wheel", but can also be a stimulus for new and more sophisticated ideas about a topic.

However, the largest body of scholarship always remains inert, not only failing to stimulate new ideas, but actually forming a bulwark against the intrusion of fresh thinking...

22. Gender Puzzle

Gender differences are the great distractor, source of misery, spice and occasional joy, but to make the most of more important human things, not shared by dogs, cats and goldfish, you have to settle for some kind of working compromise on gender relationships. One of the nice things I've found about being fifty-six is that it is at last occasionally possible to talk to a woman without both sides secretly (or not so secretly) sizing up the sexual equation...

21. Dead or Alive?

At this moment I looked around the carriage, and a chill went through my body. Of all those passengers, not a single one showed the slightest signal that one of their number had collapsed, and might be in mortal danger. The bodies remained lax, the eyes unfocussed, the woman on the floor invisible to their attention. It was surreal.

My disbelief gave way to outrage, and throwing decorum to the winds, in a loud voice I demanded in English, "SOMEBODY CALL A DOCTOR". Nobody looked at me, but an uneasy twitch rippled through the crowd...

20. Star Wars Revisited

We kidded ourselves for a while that Star Wars had gone away. We pretended that flower power was winning. But in our heart of hearts, in our 3 a.m. nightmares, we knew that no toy of destruction, once conceived of, has ever been left to rest....

19. Unseen Grammar – Suspecting The God Of Cracks Between The Floorboards

The flight of a bird is not in wings, but in the shape of the space-time enclosed by each wing from instant to instant. In other words, flight is a grammar of relationships. An infinite variety and number of wings may participate in this grammar of flight relationships, but it is the grammar alone which remains constant. ..

18. When Is It Rude To Be Rude?
(Korean translation also available)

Rapid global social change, the transmigration of millions of people within and across national boundaries, and the internationalization of employment have all made the preservation of social harmony both more important and more difficult. The traditional dependence upon formulaic politeness persists, but the swift punishment which might have followed violations of form in traditional societies is no longer sensible. In a dynamic and ever changing world, we wish each other well, but pause after each handshake to see if the other fellow is holding an olive branch or a gun behind his back....

17. Student Activism: Truth & False Prophets

The personal legacy of this Vietnam consciousness raising in young adulthood was a lifelong skepticism about power and the would-be powerful. But there were other spin-offs too. One was the assumption that the causes adopted by the educated youth of the age, that is, the students, would always be in the vanguard of enlightenment. That is certainly how students would prefer to see themselves.

Alas, accumulated experience and a wider reading of history, has made me increasingly skeptical of the proposition that students are typically in the vanguard of anything but their own fashion statements. Sometimes they are on the side of the angels, but just as often they are dupes...

16. Individualism or the Group?

... a typical naive set of assumptions about "group oriented" cultures it that the participants within them are basically altruistic, self-effacing, self-sacrificing and sociable. A society of such individuals should exhibit the very best of human civilization working in equitable, democratic communities. By contrast, those from individualistic cultures should be cold, grasping, selfish, egotistical and almost incapable of the cooperation demanded by a civil society. Indeed, a society of individualists, by this stereotype would be a dog eat dog affair, dedicated to conflict, riven with disloyalty and betrayal, forever failing to build a stable and humanistic community.

Now let´s take a plane trip and look at the real world. Better, like me, let´s work for a while in a fair sampling of both supposed archetypes of culture. What do we find? We find that the real social content behind those supposedly individualistic and group-oriented labels is drastically at variance with the stereotypes...

15. Virtue Rewards Confucian Communists(?)

Ah, now this business of Rule by Virtue. Virtue's Reward is indeed an ancient and potent principle. Machiavelli and Confucius would both approve. The problem confronting all ambitious men and women on grasping power is how to discourage upcoming competitors. Ruthless opportunism which has been so successful for the winner must be discounted somehow. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, and never more so than in a community without rules. The Chinese crown nowadays is definitely made of thorns..

14. Why Grasshoppers Don't Have a Problem

Sometimes whole populations enter a downward spiral of lethargy, neglect and failure, so that by the minimal criteria of maintaining a mere animal population they begin to fall by the wayside. Grasshoppers and, say, fungal viruses, seem to have no such problem. What do humans need that grasshoppers don't in order to remain energetic, goal directed and productive? ...

13. Pain

Well how about your own pain? Could you do without it? You will fight to the death to keep your comfort zone, yet the edge of pain defines and heightens your sense of the real. Without it you would live in cotton-wool land, the mere shadow of a living creature. And here is one of the great paradoxes of life. We crave, as it were, the knowledge of pain, but shrink from its sensation. At the point of pain our courage fails us, we flee, or paralysed by fear, we surrender all autonomy and submit in misery to the conqueror....

12. The Case for Political Impotence

The most successful democracies seem to be those in which the office of president and/or prime minister carry strictly limited authority. These are not jobs for Great Men, but for corporate managers who can make reasonable decisions in an orderly manner, cheer the team along a bit, and keep an eye on the main game...

11. The Conundrum of Men & Women

Out in the backblocks of unreconstructed macho males and pumpkin scone women they never had a problem. They played the eternal seasons of struts and giggles, infatuated romance, white weddings, bawling babies, economic drudgery, drink and abuse, spreading waistlines, kitchen divorce and dad's shed up the backyard. Was it so different, after all, from some middle-eastern religious proscription on the genders?

Late, too late to play the game again, we realized our mistake. Regretted that nature had been politically incorrect and unfair in the apportionment of talent...

10. Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Enter the teacher. A teacher's role is to induce new knowledge into the knowledge systems of other beings. A desperate task, universally unwelcome to the owners of those working systems, no matter that they willfully put themselves in harms way by enrolling for a "course" in this or that. Until the moment of having to learn new knowledge, it doesn't occur to them that a threat to old knowledge is being posed. They bite, swallow a mouthful of the new stuff, and gag. It's foreign matter...

9. Nation States and Other Extremities

The state as an instrument of power will always be hostile in its purpose and ultimately corrupt in its methods. The nation-state, so conceived, has serious limitations. The state as an instrument of service has always had trouble maintaining the integrity of its service because its agents have always succumbed to the methods of power...

8. Average Savagery

The acid bath of fear will quickly reduce our average man to average savagery, whatever the price of his suit. It follows that every situation, organization or government which subsists by some degree of fear will harbour captive agents to spread its terror...

7. Principles - Do They Work?

The common experience of every adult is that the stated principles in a culture frequently fail to match the outcomes that they claim to promote, and indeed often seem to generate results that either contradict or block the realization of their intent. Why?...

6. Good Man, Bad Man

The conclusion which I am drawn to then, is that, as with most natural phenomena, the tendencies to "goodness" and "badness" follow a normal distribution curve in the population. I sense that beneficence is favoured in the largest number of individuals (maybe an outgrowth of the need to nurture), but only favoured weakly. That is, most people are easily lead astray either by misinformation, or by temptations of money, status, sex, ambition etc. However, their attachment to "evil" is likely to be as weak as their attachment to "good"...

5. The Art of Disproportion

So how does a writer differ from the language makers all around him, the cacophony of chatterers? By writing a symphony. The disproportions of our conversation are artless, for where there are patterns they are unconscious, and where there is significance, it is selfish. The writer is able to create patterns of disproportion which create newly defined significance. He marshals the trivia of random occurrence into an enterprise with purpose and direction, just as a musician marshals noise into music...

4. Making It Easy To Be Good

The truth is that when cultural paradigms start to fall apart, a few heroic souls will hold out against the tide, but most will bend. If we want virtue, then there must be incentives to virtue. It must be made advantageous and easy for your average timid soul to act professionally, honestly and humanely in his daily life...

3. Birth of a Salesman

With telesales there is a large component of luck. That is, in any bunch of telephone numbers there are X number of sales waiting to happen, and if you do something wrong they won't happen. I doubt very much if I ever persuade anyone who wasn't inclined to buy in the first place. The X number of available sales varies quite considerably, and unpredictably, from shift to shift...

2. The Poor Man's Fountain of Youth

Nobody argues that walking is bad for your legs, or looking bad for your eyes. More locally, procreation is Nature's basic use for all living things. The general pattern is, the organism breeds and then dies. Sexual organs which remain unused, or rarely used, may well send the biological signal that the organism as a whole has completed it's natural cycle. Wouldn't it be ironic if one quick wank a day fooled Nature into constant renewal, a perpetual lease in lieu of immortality. Maybe those gents as rich as Croesus had a point, but were let down by their wily concubines...

1. Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism

...nowadays I pay the rent (barely) by working as an evening telesalesperson, flogging a pen set at an outrageous price and fraudulently in the name of a charity (which actually receives 6%). This is the world of the salesman, where truth is contracted to the immediate goal of securing a sale. I hear from the booths all around me the insouciant lies of a sales contest. They are earnest, genuine, and wholly promiscuous. Once won, the customer like a fallen woman, loses all respect...

...Is the sales team so different from TAFE managements in so-called educational institutions? I think not. I have seen and heard them lying shamelessly about "competency", and "quality", and nonexistent specialist staff skills in order to secure contracts and tenders. "Yep, we can do that. ISO9000 certified". They don't see themselves as lying at the time. The presentations are also earnest, genuine and wholly promiscuous. Once the tender is won they lose all serious interest in meeting educational commitments...

Short Takes

  Thor's Brief Ideas 1988 to 2013

A large number of paragraph-length reflections on life, you, and the universes we seem to be living in.

The two paths to a quiet life are to say nothing to anybody about anything, or to say everything that comes into your head. The second way is easily the most effective. Sooner or later the absolutely discrete person will be blackmailed or persecuted for something they didn't say. However, the purveyor of utter candour is regarded with mute horror by all dignified persons, and given a wide berth. Thus, like much else on this website, the Aphorisms have done a great deal to guarantee Thor perfect social obscurity.


Thor's Take on Religion can be found as an e-book (about 20,000 words) titled The Agnostic's Survival Manual . A pdf version is also online. A third copy (pdf) may be found at my site.


Older Collections


  1. Notes to myself from the bottom of the world

   Part I : Qualities and Values
    [dropping an anchor against the tide]

   Part 2: The Human Circus
   [looking askance at political culture]

   2. Social Innovation
(and resistance to...)

            [ the odd idea to kick around ]

Bizarre Extras (old)


EDINN: Respinning Intellectuals into the Social Fabric (coffee shop babble ... or sparks for a new social order?)

Psychological Time & May's Constant

Curiosity Questionnaire

A Personal Declaration of Membership in the Human Community
(would you like to sign?)

Signatories to the Personal Declaration of Membership in the Human Community  
(... the pioneers) 

Some Political Leftovers


South Korean Language Policy - A Letter to President Roh Moo-hyun [2003]

Australian Parliamentary Senate Inquiry on the Status of Australian Expatriates

Exit of a Hack Teacher

Technical & Further Education in Australia: Is there a star to steer by? 

Abstract: This paper, first written in 1996, should be an historical document. However, in 2012 it is a precise and current description of Technical and Further Education in Australia. The present state government of Victoria, Australia, for example, is currently de-funding TAFEs and aborting their mission, even as Australia is “forced” to import unprecedented numbers of skilled workers from overseas. The paper examines what is obviously a cyclical problem with technical education in many countries – its relatively low status leading to periodic cuts in funding, difficulty in attracting talented career staff, and the cyclical destruction of accumulated skills through casualisation. This document has been published by the Senate of the Australian Parliament as part of a report on the status of teachers.

The De-Skilling of 100,000 Skilled Tradesmen 

National Literacy



 ©Thor May 2013  All rights reserved