Category Archives: Random thoughts

A Question this Gay Christmas…

and a recommendation …

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This piece was written by the smart and switched-on Australian journalist Julia Baird, sister of former NSW Premier Mike Baird, the bloke who presided over intensified police drug dog operations that made us hate and fear the cops again, the one who went on with his cronies to become such fierce and thick upholders of the NSW lockout laws, which effectively obliterated social life in general and Sydney’s gay party culture in particular as we knew it…

Remember that guy?

sleaze ball 90s dancefloor

Me neither.

Anyway, back to the good bit, Julia wrote this piece in 2004 ~ more than a decade before her brother Mike became Premier of NSW  (the same year, it turns out, that internet sites  for the first time became the most common way men looked for each other for sex; a circumstance strangely absent from the accounts the article engages with to work out what was changing, how, and why …but I say this in hindsight, more a retrospective thought to inform present activities/ activisms.

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In Chemical Palace, Fiona McGregor articulates that sense in the late 90s that things were splintering, but what were the mechanisms of that splintering? It splintered in so many ways: including all those she names, for sure, and more ..

For guys especially, I think, one important source of this splintering was the new pleasures and possibilities and problems of digital cruising ..(I explore the impacts of digital culture on queer sexual sociability in my new book, The Gay Science (Routledge, 2017).

One thing I wonder about, re-reading this piece today, at any rate, is whether Mike ever read his sister’s piece, and if the did, what he thought of it? could he relate? how did it affect him? Could he even be bothered trying to get a sense of what it’s feeling out for, its significance, its meaning?

Because I guess in the back of my mind I’m wondering, Mike (if I may): did you ever have the pleasure of partying at Mardi Gras? with your sister? or whoever? did you enjoy it? make new friends? smile with someone? learn new dance moves? get a jiggle in your hips? have an adventure? have a chat with ….anyone? anything?

(I just remember how my sister and I loved these parties, went to them together, or separately with our friends and others, so many times, such awesome times, all of us dancing, playing, laughing, crying, moving, joking, smiling, zoning out, searching, encountering each other, beside ourselves, together…)

And Mike if you did get the pleasure, what did you think of it? What did it do for you? How did it change you? How could it not have??

Tell us, wherever you are, Mike Baird, what did you make of it?  Do you remember? (because many of us do). What did you do to it? Where are they now?

I can’t help thinking, you see, Mike, had you actually got that pleasure …  ( & now I’m just speculating I suppose) … what would Sydney feel like today? How would it differ?  What would we be capable of? How would it feel?  What might become of that history today –  the good bits at least – & what supports do we need to build for these good bits to flourish, right now, all together, in the present?

It’s not at all a matter of wanting or thinking we can somehow just go back and live happily in some romanticised mid 1990 bubble.  I don’t think anyone really thinks or wants that, anymore.  Things have changed.  We’ve moved on.  New things are happening now, some better, some worse – including for new, previously excluded, identities and constituencies – that nobody could have imagined then.  Creativity.  Or, as Muriel Heslop’s father would say, ‘You can’t stop Progress’…   (I beg to differ)

No, it’s more a matter of thinking about what this time did for us, what bits are worth carrying forward, what bits are worth affirming and remembering, what we want to let go of, what can’t we forget? .  In other words, this isn’t a whinge, or some sort of nostalgic rant (ok maybe just a little bit of each/both to be honest), but actually meant this festive season, in the gayest of spirits as an entirely practical question:

How can we make what was nourishing and energising and important about those times, those spaces, those processes, those connections, those intimacies, those dynamisms, return/again ~ be renewed ~ newly happen?

I love Dion Kagan’s fresh new thinking on this question, by the way … he’s young and well-read and smart and lives in Melbourne and well, he definitely gets it. His book is even bathed in the inverted colours of Gay Christmas! 🖤❤️🖤

Perfect Summer Reading ☀️  Hopefully it’s out before Gay Christmas (by which I mean late February… what were you thinking??)

 

 

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Science is Magic: practical aesthetics and vernacular creativity in social media

“To engage in practical aesthetics … is to conceive of an aesthetics informed by and derived from practical, real world encounters, an aesthetics that is in turn capable of being used or put into effect in a real situation.  In other words, it is to orient aesthetics – with its specific qualities and capacities – towards actual events or problems (much as practical ethics is shaped around particular problems).

~ Bennet, J (2012). Practical Aesthetics. New York: I.B. Taurus

Framing the selfie as an instance of practical aesthetics allows us to conceive of it as an intervention that both responds to a particular event or problem, and seeks to amplify, redirect, or intensify the impact of that event/problem.

“An object for practical aesthetics might be said to arise from an encounter with an event”

~ Bennet, J (2012). Practical Aesthetics. New York: I.B. Taurus

The selfie imbues the event with personal meanings and associations and sends these associations and affective intensities into (more or less) public circulation – and in ways that often exceed the intention of the creator.

The selfie does not provide a definitive solution to the problem it addresses so much as a situated response to the event with which it is concerned, assembling a platform in the process for the expression of new meanings, objects, responses and affective relations.

In this sense, the creator is participating in the process of eventuation by mobilising the selfie as an affective and aesthetic repository/transmitter of their particular way of feeling an event.

To reformulate the selfie in this way raises practical/ethical/aesthetic questions for the selfie-maker: what style might one devise to become worthy of the event?

Example: Gay Science selfie

science is Magic profile

Image-Affect-Glossary   

* The t-shirt says Detroit and the upraised spanner symbolises the power of workers in solidarity

*I’m having a cuppa in my Science is Magic mug. I love how Beaker embodies the anxiety and clumsiness and the pervasive imminence of catastrophe implicit in modern Scientific projects: Beaker is a Muppet, but fear not citizens! Because haven’t you heard? Science is Magic!

*You know what else is Magic? A nice cuppa tea.

*I’m wearing my Stephani ring, which I always wear to remember my love for Stephan

*Behind me is artwork by Daniel Joshua Goldstein that I bought after I met him, quite by chance, a few days after watching We Were Here, a documentary about the impacts of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, to which Goldstein, as one of the film’s participants, bears moving testimony.  I saw the film in a tiny theatre in the West Village In New York, 2011, and got to meet Daniel himself a week later, when I bumped into him and his partner completely randomly on the sidewalk of 8th Avenue. Daniel was in town to show his For Redon exhibition. His work, and this work in particular, spoke to me.  I’m so lucky to be able to enjoy it every day.

*As FB Cover Art, I’ve used an iphone pic of some beautiful chrisanthemums, which graced a vase at home during the weekend of Club Kooky September 2017.  A wonderful instantiation of queer chemistry if ever there was one.

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Gay Science Studios

You can now follow Gay Science Studios on Facebook ~ just click on my mug

cropped-science-is-magic-selfie

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Update: The Gay Science is out now, + info on new projects

Update: the book based on the research this blog was first set up to facilitate has just been released by Routledge in hardcover and e-form, with a paperback edition to be released in late 2018. It’s called The Gay Science: Intimate experiments with HIV (2018). here’s the cover blurb:

Since the onset of the HIV epidemic, the behaviour of men who have sex with men has been subject to intense scrutiny on the part of the behavioural and sociomedical sciences. What happens when we consider the work of these sciences to be not merely descriptive, but also constitutive of the realities it describes? The Gay Science pays attention to lived experiences of sex, drugs and the scientific practices that make these experiences intelligible. Through a series of empirically and historically detailed case studies, the book examines how new technologies and scientific artifacts – such as antiretroviral therapy, digital hookup apps and research methods – mediate sexual encounters and shape the worlds and self-practices of men who have sex with men.

Rather than debunking scientific practices or minimizing their significance, The Gay Scienceapproaches these practices as ways in which we ‘learn to be affected’ by HIV. It explores what knowledge practices best engage us, move us and increase our powers and capacities for action. The book includes an historical analysis of drug use as a significant element in the formation of urban gay cultures; constructivist accounts of the emergence of barebacking and chemsex; a performative response to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and its uptake; and, a speculative analysis of ways of thinking and doing sexual community in the digital context.

Combining insights from queer theory, process philosophy and science and technology studies to develop an original approach to the analysis of sexuality, drug use, public health and digital practices, this book demonstrates the ontological consequences of different modes of attending to risk and pleasure. It is suitable for those interested in cultural studies, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, digital culture, public health and drug and alcohol studies.

So thrilled that Indian-Australian artist Leon Fernandes generously granted me permission to reproduce his extraordinary piece Krishna in Erskinville on the cover, an artwork first exhibited at East Sydney Doctors Gallery the week I sent my manuscript off to the publishers (!!); AND to have received such generous endorsements from Lauren Berlant and Steven Epstein – such brilliant, inspirational and inspiring critics and social thinkers.

The Gay Science flyer

Meanwhile I’ve commenced a new ARC Discovery Project with Dean Murphy, Toby Lea and Kiran Pienaar on LGBTQ drug and medication use, ‘Chemical Practices: Enhancement and experimentation‘ this year (DP17), which proposes to treat queer and trans drugtaking practices as intimate experiments (in the science studies sense) while considering the forces that constrain and enable such experiments to assemble and find their publics and thus become more collectively and carefully elaborated. More details and a link to the project’s website, still in development, to follow

I’m also continuing work on my interest in the design and transformation of geo-sexual networking devices and how they structure the arrangement of sex between men, as well as dreaming up a new project about the normalising effects of the terms of national membership in Australia and the opportunistic policing of citizenship via mundane legal provisions that serve as pretexts for increased surveillance of migrant/ethnic and queer & gender minoritized communities & populations.

This project will work across ‘queer’ and ‘wog’ practices of body modification in Australia (car modification culture and queer drug and party practices mainly) to bring anti-racist critiques  into better articulation with queer counterpublic theory in critical studies of the  disciplinary terms of Australian citizenship and national membership, as well as the ethico-political and aesthetic dimensions of self-experimentation, body-modification, collective self-transformation, and how they are inter-implicated with evolving markets, cultural economies, and gender identities in the pre- and post-digital context.

Tentative working title-headers for this longer term project are taken from the subcultures this work will learn form and have particular vernacular relevance within them respectively.  They include “Policing Cruising: body-modification and resistance within queer and wog scenes in Australia”;  “Defected”; or maybe just “@toughstreetmachines”

 

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PATHOLOGICAL

Kane Race

{Invited contribution to The Great Moving (Further) Right Show, closing panel discussion at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, Sydney, 2016}

 

In Mad Travellers (1998), Ian Hacking argued that each historical age produces its own types of madness or mental illness. What happens when a hegemonic social identity – in this case, white and heteromasculinist – starts to lose its presumptive grip on national space and understand itself as an aggrieved and embattled minority?[1]

In the wake of Trump’s election, digital snippets began to emerge that captured white people ‘losing their shit’ in the course of a range of mundane consumer transactions. Losing their shit is a polite way of putting it: those encountering these clips on social media became spectators to a series of highly public, abusive outbursts, precipitated by frustrated feelings of entitlement to special treatment:

  • In a Miami Starbucks, a white man started abusing African-American employees because his coffee was taking longer than expected. ‘I voted for Trump! TRUMP!’ he screamed. ‘You lost, now give me my money back!’ he demanded of the woman behind the counter, calling her “trash” before going on to harangue and harass employees and other customers.
  • In a Chicago store, a white woman went into a highly public fit of vitriol and abuse when an African-American cashier asked her to pay for a $1 reusable bag (as per store policy). She felt she was being discriminated against because she was white. ‘I voted for Trump!’ And look who won!” she announced for all to hear, before launching into a 45 minute tirade directed against African-American and Hispanic employees and other customers, in which she directly compared one store manager to “an animal”.
  • A man flying Delta from Atlanta to Allentown (located in a borderline electoral district in Pennsylvania) subjected passengers to a noisy pro-Trump rant, demanding to know whether there were any ‘Hilary bitches on here’.

In each of these incidents, subjects emboldened by the Trump win fly into highly public scenes of vitriol, rage  and abuse at the drop of a hat. Trump and Brexit-style rhetoric has carefully mapped out sites of external blame for whatever it is these white folks are suffering: racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, liberal elites, independent women and transgender individuals are typical scapegoats.

The documented spikes in racisthomophobic and transphobic violence that occurred after Brexit and the US election can be read as further manifestations of a syndrome or structure of feeling ‘triggered by’ these official endorsements of populist ethno-nationalist sentiment. These violent acts, committed in bids to reassert failing sovereignty, remind us that the idealised nation  is not only racialized (white), but also has a sexuality (heteronormative) that is felt to be constitutively endangered.

(These vigilante posters, which appeared in Melbourne over 2016, could be regarded as Australian symptoms or subtypes of this syndrome.  The Antipodean Resistance describes itself as a youth organisation that opposes “substance abuse, homosexuality, and all other rotten, irresponsible distractions laid before us by Jews and globalists elites”)

 

What I find particularly interesting about these acts of aggression and violence is their adoption of the prism of identity politics to vent out their claims on cultural supremacy and special treatment. These people feel they have been discriminated against: that, were it not for radical intervention, the liberal state would further conspire to reduce their recourse to the terms of abuse that once kept minorities and women in their place and thus served to ensure their own social status and dominance so effectively.[2]

In 1997 Lauren Berlant observed, “today many formerly iconic citizens who used to feel undefensive and unfettered feel truly exposed and vulnerable …They sense that they now have identities, when it used to be just other people who had them.”[3] What has happened in the interim, and what few could have predicted, is how enthusiastically these self-same subjects have embraced the terms of identity politics to understand their own plight and vituperatively restore their hold on cultural privilege.

In Australia, there has been no shortage of privileged white men prepared to line up to whine at length, publicly and pathetically, about their intolerable sense of of having been victimised. white-man-sooksThe federal government actively panders to these sentiments, withdrawing funding from anti-bullying programs offering sex and gender diversity education in schools, and more recently, announcing a parliamentary inquiry into whether provisions that make it unlawful to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on the basis of race impose “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech”. (Won’t someone please unfetter the poor privileged white darlings?).

safe-schools-hate-speechImage: Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox’s critique of Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s intention to stall a vote on marriage equality by requiring a public plebiscite, and de-fund the Safe Schools program, February 2016.

 

The ebullient outbursts I’ve described above are steeped in vindictive and vengeful ressentiment that seeks out sites of external blame upon which to avenge hurt and redistribute their pain.[4] It is very tempting to diagnose these psychotic outbursts as symptoms of a new pathology: Trumpitis? Brexophilia? Post-Trump Manic Spectrum Disorder? After all, anger and violence generated by delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution are regarded as textbook signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

Pathologising people isn’t my usual style – I’ve spent most of my life contesting the imposition of therapeutic morality – but part of me says, why not? If these folks truly want to qualify as minority identities, bring it on! After all, would LGBT, feminists, and people of colour really qualify as minority identities in the absence of their historical subjection to intensive pathologization, criminalisation, surveillance and brutal treatment? If you’re really a subordinated identity, show me the evidence!

The problem with psychologisation is that it dehistoricizes affective complications, extracting these feelings of the world from any broader sociopolitical, historical trajectories. It’s also patronising, and therefore likely to compound the problem: In 1997, when a ‘highbrow’ journalist asked Australia’s far right politician Pauline Hanson if she was xenophobic, Hanson’s blinking response, “please explain?” resonated with many older, white non-tertiary educated Australians, powerfully embodying a spreading sense of alienation from the structures of liberal power.[5]

pauline-hanson-giphy

One of the most subtle and provocative arguments of Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury – perhaps the least popular among liberal critics – is that the disciplinary genres of US identity politics personalise and naturalise some of the complex injuries of capitalism. In taking the white heterosexual middle class as the standard against which social injury is measured, the North American habit of staging politics through identity makes categories of identity “bear all the weight of … sufferings produced by capitalism.”[6]  I find this insight particularly useful in terms of getting a grip on the present conjuncture, where the capitalist dream is failing to deliver on its promise even for much of the white middle class.  In this instance, the siphoning of socioeconomic and cultural frustrations into a racialised category of wounded identity has generated particularly abusive, vindictive and (dare I say) psychotic manifestations.

What I think would be most helpful now is a more affirmative understanding of identity and difference, a reformulation of the possibilities of identity that equips us for dealing with our multi-ethnic, multi-gendered times – and even take some pleasure in them. (I’m struck, for example, by the factoid that recently came to light that Trump supporters ‘are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones’ and have limited interaction with other social groups.  The point speaks to the critical relevance of contact theory, whose vision of social safety is elaborated most imaginatively and queerly by African American Sci-Fi writer Samuel Delany.[7])

Imagine if identity was conceived, not as a category of victimhood or failed sovereignty requiring the protection and reparative intervention of a (presumptively white and heterosexual) state, but a source of multiplicity and difference – a contact zone – that is valued and affirmed for the occasions it opens up for mutual transformation? Whose promise consists precisely in the unpredictable and exciting possibilities that emerge from inter-class/identity encounters for what nations and worlds and states might become ?[8]

With this more affirmative approach to identity and difference, perhaps we will get a more active, constructive handle on what might become of the present phase of consumer capitalism and globalisation. But of course this will require white heterosexual subjects to renounce their claims on sovereignty and special treatment, and address their present manifestation as retaliatory violence against unknown others – as a matter of urgency.

References

[1] In the Australian context of state multiculturalism, Ghassan Hage theorises this situation as one in which a white majority starts to worry it is losing its grip on the managerial relation it has enjoyed over national space, which it feels is its birth-right. See Hage, White nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society. Routledge, 2012.

[2] For a wonderfully pedagogical and accessible explication of this point see Meaghan Morris, ‘Sticks and Stones and Stereotypes’ http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-June-1997/morris.html

[3] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays on sex and citizenship. Duke University Press, 1997, p. 2.

[4] On ressentiment, see Friedrich Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. Vintage, 2010.

[5] For a brilliant discussion of this moment to which this argument is indebted see Meaghan Morris (2000), “‘Please explain?’ignorance, poverty and the past.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1,2: 219-232.

[6] Wendy Brown, States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 60. For another brilliant excavation of the trials, tribulations and terms of US identity politics see Cindy Patton, “Tremble, hetero swine!” in Warner (ed.) Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory, 1993, pp.143-177.

[7] Rylan Lizza, “What we learned about Trump’s supporters this week”, New Yorker, August 13, 2016.  For a queer vision of social safety that draws brilliantly on contact theory see Samuel Delany (1999), Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

[8] For a more detailed elaboration of the theoretical coordinates of this approach, and an attempt to put it into practice, see my  forthcoming book, The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV, under contract with Routledge.

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Affective Relations of Care in the Government of Drugs

I’m at NSW Parliament at the moment participating in the Sydney Drug Roundtable organised by state and national MPs who have assembled an impressive group of leading figures in the drug and alcohol field in NSW

Reflecting on the points made by various participants and the examples they have given has made me think about the affective dimensions of care, policing and government more broadly.

Working on the  (generous) assumption that police are concerned with the quality of their relations with citizens and want to promote “order” and harmonious relations within the community, there must be ways of making police and authorities aware of their own implication in the production of these relations and their affective qualities: e.g. trust, mistrust,  contempt, respect, feelings of inclusions/exclusion, goodwill, aggression, etc.

The practices available to authorities are wide-ranging, of course, and the ones they adopt in a given situation make all the difference:

Sniffer dogs for example not only exacerbate drug harm, but position police as moral detectives and citizens as suspects, fair game for hassling at any moment. Despite recent deaths at music festivals (complete with massive drug dog operations) police have bullishly rejected the possibility of allowing pill testing at dance events: Imagine wanting to enhance the agency of citizens to look after themselves.  Unthinkable!

Meanwhile the recent ads for roadside drug testing in NSW reveal little interest in encouraging safer driving, but are bent on reasserting the power of police to discredit people on the basis of any drug consumption. (The tests themselves are unable to measure impairment and have been known to pick up traces of drugs consumed well before the driving event – days in some cases).

The ads are clearly designed to threaten and scare citizens for their presumed moral transgressions: not simply intoxicated drivers, but anyone who might be inclined to smoke a joint or use illicit substances occasionally. They smack overwhelmingly of the desire to intimidate.  Just take a look!  (There is no escaping it):  The aggression is dumbfounding.

As police and civil experts know, there are other ways of addressing and engaging with citizens that promote trust and safety and generate more friendly and co-operative relations.  Indeed, the concept of “community policing” is premised on precisely such principles.

The history of collective experience in the fields of HIV and drug policy consistently demonstrates that the penalization, punishment and criminalization of disapproved behaviours (like risky sex and/or drug use) is counterproductive.  Criminalization alienates people from authorities and produces paranoia, distrust, and evasion of the very services that are entrusted with the task of caring for citizens. This is why the decriminalisation of drug use is such an urgent priority.

The use of punitive strategies in relation to matters of public health alienates people and produces evasion, avoidance, contempt and aggression towards authorities. After all, these authorities are institutions whose existence is premised and justified by the desire to improve the health and welfare of the population and care for citizens. They were never designed, not should they operate as, repellents.

A question that needs to be posed more expansively and taken on as a key priority, then, concerns the affective climate that social authorities want to promote.  There is a choice here: the government can choose to promote the goodwill of citizens by anticipating and expanding their agency, or it can treat them with contempt by belittling and intimidating them, and then just sit back and watch the results. They won’t be pretty.

If you treat people with contempt, they rapidly lose respect for you, and either retaliate aggressively or withdraw from further engagement entirely. Until social authorities understand the implication of their own practices in the making of particular affective climates, they will be locked into their stubborn attachment to enforcement, which rebounds with escalating violence.

 

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The Gay Science

Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV

I’m in the throes of preparing my manuscript for Routledge on gay sex and HIV prevention in the pharmaceutical and digital context

And I think my aha! moment has finally struck me.  My key wager is that science and related knowledge practices should both be guided by, and promote, an embracing of the pleasures some seek in sex.

Because science, too, is best when it feels the risk of its involvement – but also acknowledges its investment in – being transformatively affected by its encounters, experienced as events.

The determining question is the range of feelings one activates in response to such events.

I’m using this proposition to frame a range of social scientific and gay male sexual responses to HIV/AIDS in our digital times. What happens when we treat the sexual and social practices of affected groups as situated experiments and consider how they get articulated with the problems HIV science and policy put forward?

My thinking derives much of its energy from bringing the later work of Foucault on problematisation and ‘bodies and pleasures’ into conversation with A.N. Whitehead’s adventurous definition of events.

For an early experiment with this, see my piece ‘Reluctant Objects’ in the first edition of GLQ this year, 2016.

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