My graduation speech

I was given the chance — surprisingly — to give the student speech at my graduation ceremony on the 20th of December. I submitted a version of my speech for approval but couldn’t miss the opportunity to make some additional remarks on the day. I gave a plug for divesting from fossil fuels and I also thought it was worth mentioning the appalling decision by the ANU to threaten me and some other students with disciplinary action for a satirical piece in Woroni earlier in the year (see my final contribution to Woroni or just Google any combo of: ANU, Islam, censorship, Koran, Woroni, rape fantasies).

Anyway, here’s the text of my speech as it was delivered on the day (roughly accurate, I made some off the cuff changes too; hopefully I’ll have video of it soon [EDIT 25-02-14: video of the speech now available here). My themes, were two of my favourites: scepticism and self-reference.

Thank you Vice Chancellor and good afternoon to all the friends and family joining us today and also of course the Chancellor, distinguished guests up here and graduates. Everyone in a funny hat.

When considering what to speak about today I naturally ran through the usual options and then naturally watched a bunch of graduation speeches on YouTube for inspiration. In doing so I noted that graduation speeches follow a familiar form and obey certain conventions of style and content.

Having now completed my second honours year in Arts, I naturally fell back on what I feel comfortable with and considered making my graduation speech an incisive critique and deconstruction of the graduation speech genre itself. But even a cursory survey of the literature (Youtube, again) demonstrated that even that is now something of a cliche. And if there’s one thing I should have learned in my English literature major, it’s that a big part of good writing involves avoiding cliches.

So there’ll be no hackneyed attempts here at self-deprecating arts humour, relating to future joblessness; no trite in-jokes about spending the night at this or that local nightclub instead of doing the essay; there won’t be any commonplaces about how it’s not what you learn that’s important but the journey you took; an aphorism so pithy, it’s barely even true.

A keen student of aesthetics will also of course realise that it’s quite tedious to become overly self-referential or “meta” — but I’d say I’ve already violated that principle of good writing merely by mentioning it in the foregoing sentence — and the current sentence is even more self-referential — especially this bit…We’re straying somewhat from the thrust of this speech.

But then again, let’s not under-sell the value of self-reference either. It’s the self-referential aspect of language that allows us to say half of the things we say. Computer science is impossible without self-reference and recursion; and Mathematics and logic are in some sense only about themselves. Moreover, arguably the defining feature of consciousness itself is that we can think about ourselves, thinking. It’s this reflexivity that demands we always interrogate our own views. We interrogate them based on new facts about the world, gained from experience and we talk to people and read books and learn what others think. But ultimately it’s ourselves who decide what is right and good — albeit warped by cognitive biases, cultural imprinting, historical context, discourses, linguistic structures, ideology, the mirror stage, et cetera. All of those things we learned that make certain knowledge impossible.

The self-referential self is our gift but sometimes it’s hard to appreciate if you’re the kind of person who does constantly question themselves, who, like me, lacks confidence, who constantly feels inadequate, who wonders why with such privilege, it’s still possible to be miserable, who feels that gifts are being squandered if one doesn’t use one’s affluence and education to cure cancer, reverse climate change and write the great Australian novel — who, in short, endures the standard neuroticism of the best arts students. But that’s infinitely preferable to the alternative: which is the abdication of the responsibility of trying to figure out yourself and the world. Most frequently this responsibility is arrogated to some religious dogma, a political ideology or some horrible abstraction like a national identity. The constant questioning of the fretful humanist is a position of massive integrity compared to those who have sold out for the comfort of someone else’s version of truth.

Maintaining scepticism and self-criticism may seem tiring, it may seem like there’s nothing to hold on to — but the worst that can happen is that you become something like a jaded philosophy professor. There are worse things you can do. Much worse. People do horrible things when they think they know something for certain, because they can never keep it to themselves, can they?. The temptation is too great apparently, to tell gay people that their form of love is illegal, to tell women they’re inferior to men, to tell children they’ll burn in hell if they think the wrong thing. These people have no sense of scepticism, or irony, or style and we give them a level of respect incommensurate with the meanness of their ideas.

Institutions, too, have to be self-critical and indeed this very university, for all its gifts, could look no further than to divest from fossil fuels for an easy piece of self-improvement, which I offer as a suggestion. Or its decision earlier in the year to threaten disciplinary action against some students for a satirical piece in a student publication.  But props to the university, because they did invite one of the students to give a graduation speech today. So that decision either signals the offer of an olive branch of reconciliation, or demonstrates a lack of ability to sufficiently Google me. It isn’t clear.

What does this diatribe have to do with getting a BA you ask?

Well, when I applied to be a speaker at this ceremony (a particularly self-indulgent act) I had to fill out a little web form summarising what I would talk about. And so in an act of ultimate and literal self-reference, I’ll now quote from myself: truths — Freestone writes — may come in various forms and The Truth is ultimately a chimera, but the pursuit of it is both the object and reward of higher education.

That’s studies in the liberal arts in a nutshell. You can’t know the absolute truth; anyone who thinks they do is dangerous and should be called-out on it; but you still have to keep trying to figure it out, or else there’ll be no one to oppose the absolutists. I hope this endorsement of scepticism doesn’t itself sound like a tired cliche, because it’s the only thing I do know for sure. And happily, it doesn’t stop when you walk out of here with a funny hat and some letters after your name, to do whatever it is you’ll end up doing. Surely we’ve all seen as arts students, that there’s nothing stopping us reading stuff and questioning it and thereby questioning yourselves. There actually isn’t anything more important than that.

Thank you and good luck to all the people graduating here today.

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Mah thesis about mathesis

Here is my thesis “Wordsworth and non-Euclidean Geometry”, submitted for Honours in English Literature at ANU. Note the formatting error on the contents page — thank you Google Docs.

My final contribution to Woroni

In light of the recent mainstream media interest  in one of our little pasquinades (including from some people one doesn’t necessarily want on one’s side), I’ve decided to publish here my final contribution to Woroni, which was actually a letter to the editors responding to some of the complaints and criticisms we received for the piece. Views are my own and not necessarily those of my co-authors, the editors, or God

Dear Woroni,

I won’t make any comments about freedom of the press or censorship: they’re issues for the editors. I want to respond to criticisms of the piece and explain why I think it’s right to respect people, but not their religion.

The Koran mentions houris: large bosomed virgins who are apparently a reward in paradise (55:56, 56:22, 78:33). Admittedly, the phrase “rape fantasies” may be going too far in describing the enticement of these figments, but the houris are surely for sexual gratification, otherwise why would The Koran’s authors emphasise their sexual characteristics and the fact that they have “not been touched by other men or jinns”? And what do women get in paradise? Unmentioned male equivalents? Are only lesbian women gratified in paradise? Do women even get to paradise? Exactly what are jinns? These speculations can be dismissed as absurd, but only if the idea of the inerrancy of The Koran is as well.

The Islam piece was not our best work but it wasn’t racist or about discriminating against minorities; rather it was about that ever present discrimination against one half of humanity in the form of misogyny and how misogyny is present in The Koran. Some will say that interpreting The Koran is a mistake and solely the purview of Muslim clerics or scholars of Islam. But I think that discouraging ordinary people from critically reading and interpreting a book which purports to tell over a billion people how to live, is a mistake. I encourage people to read The Koran for themselves and to decide whether the explicit and implicit derogations of women therein, which are not satirical but earnest, are more or less offensive than what we’ve written (not to mention passages extolling atrocities, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc. — 2:191, 3:10, 4:91 8:67, 10:13, 16:26, 17:17, 17:58, 18:58, 19:98, 21:6, 21:17, 22:45, 26:120, 28:58, 33:64, 36:31, 37:136, 38:3, 38:33, 42:34, 46:27, 54:34, 54:51, 71:26, 77:16, 91:15; 5:65, 7:166, 16:118; 4:16, 26:166, 27:56, 29:28; and countless passages threatening eternal torture for anyone who doesn’t believe).

But the most important point is that people are blithely using things that don’t exist to influence and affect a reality that does. I think that’s fine for important abstract concepts, but not for imagined beings, the fabricated orders of whom people cite when telling us what we can and can’t do. When a second-hand reproduction of an oral story, of dubious veracity, from over a thousand years ago is used as a justification for being sexist towards women here and now — well, that idea is not only open to criticism, but is almost ostentatiously asking for it.

Although it’s highly unsettling and confronting for believers to have their faith mocked, that is not a reason to have a special standard for established religions that we would never conscience for any secular group, political party or new religious movement. And while some may argue that it’s arrogant to presume other people’s beliefs are misguided, I think it’s disastrous to concede that people should never have their beliefs challenged. It’s also hugely condescending to assume that other people are so fragile that they can’t handle an opposing view. To say that Muslims, Christians or Hindus can’t cope with subtle or blunt refutations of their beliefs, is a calumny against humanity and people’s innate talent for thinking.

I find myself slightly at variance here with popular opinion, so naturally I’ve questioned my own immensely fallible thoughts on this matter and reread parts of The Koran. But I can’t seem to get away from the superseding problem posed by all religions and totalitarian ideologies of all kinds, namely their professed infallibility. “This book is not to be doubted” — this phrase of doubtful virtue opens The Koran. My favourite thinker, Jacob Bronowski, was surely more accurate when he said, “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.”

I’ve decided to make this my last contribution to Woroni. Over the years I’ve had loads of fun and met many brilliant people. Thanks to all of my editors and collaborators and to the literally several readers who have kindly said they enjoyed my stuff.

Jamie Freestone

This letter was published in Woroni on May 16th 2013.

hasa diga eebowai


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God I’m funny

It’s a mixture of gratifying and annoying when you read an article on The Onion which overlaps with something you’ve already done. They’ve got a joke review by recently deceased film buff Roger Ebert reviewing human existence. I did the same thing a couple of years ago for Woroni, as part of my You Can’t Review That column. I reviewed Life as though it were a novel and unfortunately it’s not available online any more but here was my opener:

The novel opens with a prologue called “Conception” wherein two inebriated characters have desultory sex following a blackout. Then we jump forward to a lurid set-piece involving blood, screaming and pain in which the main character, You, enters the world in one of the most grotesque literary introductions to a character since Snowden lay dying in the back.

The Onion’s effort was a bit shorter than mine which followed the concept through. Here’s their best bit:

“While not without its flaws, life, from birth to death, is a masterwork, and an uplifting journey that both touches the heart and challenges the mind,” said Ebert, adding that while the totality of all humankind is sometimes “a mess in places,” it strives to be a magnum opus and, according to Ebert, largely succeeds at this goal. “At times brutally sad, yet surprisingly funny, and always completely honest, I wholeheartedly recommend existence.

Here are some more snippets of my effort, which was wordier and pseudo-intellectual:

This was a bit long. 75 chapters is sort of a bit nineteenth century, somewhat Dickensian — and in fact Life is a bit Dickensian, with its eccentric minor characters, moral weightiness and throngs of poor people.

I think this was my best line:

Some have called Life a sub-Joycean bildungsroman and it’s true that there wasn’t as much sex as one might hope for and there are long passages that simply devolve into maudlin self-reflection from the neurotic protagonist. But there are plenty of laughs all the way through and You, although flawed, is lovable.

I was harsher in my verdict than Ebert:

Better than non-existence, three stars.

Meanwhile, to continue the theme I notice over at Reason Stick and being promulgated by I Fucking Love Science, there’s this hilarious Venn diagram of irrational nonsense. What am I producing nowadays for Woroni? Nothing less than a series of flowcharts and diagrams mocking the illogic of certain religious beliefs.

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7 reasons why I refuse to be Pope

I apologise sincerely but I hereby publicly make myself unavailable to be the next Pope. This may come as a shock, but any votes submitted by cardinals with my name on it should be torn up.

There are many reasons why I’ve made this decision, but in true Catholic style I’ve picked the best seven.

  1. My Latin is caca.
  2. I am not an adult virgin or even an adult-virgin — by which I mean I’ve had sex with at least one adult.
  3. I think The Bible is the basis of Christianity.
  4. I’m too young, born in 1984 A.C.E… so young I don’t even write A.D.
  5. Of course I agree that child rapists should be discreetly whisked away and sequestered — to prison.
  6. I hate condoms as much as the next guy; but like the next guy I hate dying of AIDS even more.
  7. I don’t want my infallibility to be public knowledge.
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Perlustrating asseverations: the finale

perlustratingThis is the final instalment of my and Mathew McGann’s back-page column for Woroni. The editors decided to make the last issue of 2012 a creative edition with stories, poems, artwork, etc. Our column didn’t really fit in so here is the lost episode of our ridiculous, adbsurdist exercise in extrapolation with an appropriately foolish title: Perlustrating Asseverations. This final instalment takes the wordiness and haughtiness to new levels by being self-referential. There’s a lot of this kind of thing:

wielding teaspoons and hardened biscotti, as they too follow the slippery slope towards mass carnage, closing with inappropriate Latin acronyms as they scald the faces of their interlocutors with reasonably hot cappuccino. [..] QED

The other articles in the series can be found here.

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Chaos in the studio


This is me guest hosting my colleague/friend Meg O’Connell’s program, Bright Pods, on 2XX FM a few months ago. The show had a great format whereby a serious interview with an expert (a “bright pod”) is preceded by an elaborate, absurdist introduction.

I lined up an interview with my mate Mat McGann about chaos theory, which he studies as part of his physics PhD. The interview’s pretty good as a 20 minute digest of a cool topic in an irreverent manner (we’ve both worked as professional science communicators) but I’m particularly proud of the intro. It’s done as a live read with no mistakes, covering some pretty wordy content and is basically the apotheosis of my Micalef-inspired sense of humour; you might not think it’s funny but I do.

Even though we’re generally interested in experimenting  science communication nerds can note a few classic techniques:

  • me playing dumb about chaos theory to position myself with the audience;
  • starting with a framing question rather than a direct one (like, what is chaos theory?); and
  • only asking the expert about their particular speciality at the end because researchers are notoriously boring on their own work and better at the more general stuff (Mat excepted).
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Science communication: hopeless?

Last year my colleague (and  I suppose  friend) Mathew McGann and I participated in the Canberra focus group for the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) audit of how the discipline is doing in Australia. The results of this audit should be out soon and I look forward to seeing if anything from our session makes it into the report.

Mat and I put forward the views that we’ve been debating among ourselves for years. No doubt those views will continue to change as we learn more, but at the moment I think I can summarise what we see as the problems with science communication (SC) with a few questions which don’t seem to be answered at the moment.

How do we measure the effectiveness of an SC activity?

Even if we devoted funds to measuring how SC events are implemented, it’s not clear that we have any metrics for measuring “science engagement” — whatever that is. Should we test people before they enter Questacon about their knowledge of seismology and then quiz them again upon leaving and then follow-up the study six months later? Continue reading

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My own prophecy for December 2012

when-prophecy-failsThe great thing about end of the world predictions is that they’re always wrong. In fact, 100% of them have been so far. Of course, as soon as one is correct that will greatly change the state of affairs. Nonetheless, one prediction I always make ahead of end of the world predictions is that once it doesn’t come to pass, the millenarians will revise their prediction, saying they miscalculated the date. Despite the general lack of predictive power of most of social science, it’s one of the few aspects of the future we can predict with near certainty.

There was a famous study in the ’50s of a doomsday cult called When Prophecy Fails. It’s germane to the current dross being cycled out by harmless hippies and credulous conspiracy theorists. The study examines how people’s beliefs are actually redoubled in the event of a disconfirmed prophecy because of cognitive dissonance and wanting to save face. It’s a cool study of additional interest because it happened to take place when Scientology was considered the bizarre, mainly benign, nonsense-based cult that it is.

I recommend checking the book out as a balm when you hear things on the news like, “If the Mayan calendar is correct…” — the opening of a sentence which presages not the end of the world, but the just as frequently prophesied death of journalism.

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How to sound dumb to smart people

Reading this article by my friend Zoya Patel, editor of Lip magazine, about people who use the word feminazi, I was reminded of something I used to tell my students about the language they chose to use in essays (though it applies to any written or verbal communication). I told them that they could, if they wanted, use pseudo-formal language, the kind that the police use when talking to the media. The sergeant will say, “Police apprehended the individual”, instead of: “We arrested him.” I told them that this sort of language would make them sound smart to dumb people, and dumb to smart people. It was slightly elitist, slightly unkind, but I thought it was a good line and maybe even true.

The same goes for something like the word feminazi. Zoya was worried because:

The term feminazi is obviously a patriarchal construct, designed to create a view of feminism as being extreme, threatening to the status quo, and generally ridiculous. There’s no better way to negate the power of a movement than to create a view of it as being both unnecessary for society, and generally ludicrous. If every feminist who dares to speak out against sexism is treated as if she is being a hysterical woman speaking out of turn, then of course the legitimacy of what she may be saying is negated. It’s a clever move, patriarchy.

True, no doubt, but anyone who does care about language or truth recognises that feminazi is a ludicrous term. In fact, that goes for anything with Nazi appended to it. Continue reading

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