Saturday, 24 August 2019

Odd shots, 01: Fires in Brazilian rainforest

This is a new series about the strange ways that people online go about blaming the media for society’s ills. I don’t know how long this series will go for, but the trope is so common it’s actually unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

23 August

The day before I had seen a tweet from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist that said something along the lines of, “People have read in the media about the Amazon fires and then are complaining that the mainstream media isn’t covering it.” This journalist had actually covered the fires herself for the public broadcaster and on that Wednesday she expressed puzzlement due to people’s comments about her profession.

Then on Friday I saw a tweet from a journalist who lives in Portugal named Rita Vaz da Silva (no relation). It was part of a thread and I will put the whole thing here so that you can keep up with the meaning of this episode of ‘Odd shots’.
Misinformation on what is happening in the Amazon/Amazonia is insane. On social media is total chaos, no respect whatsoever to the facts. The worst of it all is watching the mainstream media disseminate stuff they see on social media without verifying any of the info, sources. 
One of the reasons this misinformation is spreading is actually reassuring. This is one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the world. For reference, it takes at least 15 hours to go from Santarém to Manaus by boat. It's impossible to drive to most places. 
The fire count is slightly above average in some states - Amazonas and Rondônia. But the virgin rainforest isn't burning like most people think it is. It's mostly slash and burn agriculture and fires near populated areas. This is nothing new and has been happening for decades.
The final tweet in the series was published at 6.48am on this day, Sydney time. A bit later, a woman who routinely lambastes the media and who has over 15,000 followers, named Denise Shrivell, retweeted a tweet from an Australian author named Jess Hill that said, “I know the media has close to zero interest in South America, but given the catastrophic fires burning right now in the Amazon may accelerate the climate crisis, maybe it’s time to start paying attention?” Denise added for her followers the comment, “Anyone seen any mention of #AmazonRainforest in Australian media?” I replied “ABC has covered it.” Denise didn’t respond to my tweet and when I retweeted the thread from Rita da Silva with a tag so that Denise would see it, she also didn’t respond.

Her silence was not surprising considering the extent of the information blitz the day before. Here are just a few examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. One person who tweeted was French President Emanuel Macron, saying, “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs which produces [sic] 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is [sic] on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days!” With its charmingly original English his tweet had been retweeted 13,000 times and had received 36,000 likes when I checked the stats. It came with a photo showing jungle burning, but it wasn’t clear when or where the photo had been taken. If you saw the tweet and looked at it uncritically, you would think it was a recent photo of the Brazilian rainforest, but this was not stated.

Another tweet came from a journalist I follow named Miriam Cosic, who included in her tweet an image containing the following text:
The lungs of the Earth are in flames. The Brazilian Amazon – home to 1 million Indigenous people and 3 million species – has been burning for more than two weeks straight. There have been 74,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon since the beginning of this year – a staggering 84% increase over the same period last year (National Institute for Space Research, Brazil). Scientists and conservationists attribute the accelerating deforestation to President Jair Bolsonaro, who issued an open invitation to loggers and farmers to clear the land after taking office in January.
The text was from, allegedly, an outfit with a handle “ourplanetdaily”, but it was hard to know for sure who had put the information into the public sphere and whether the facts that it retailed in were actually true or not. I found a Twitter account named @OurPlanetDaily but it hadn’t put up anything since 7 November 2017.

Another tweet from an Irish campaigner named John Gibbons contained an image that was a map of Brazil showing fires in red on a green background. His tweet read, “So many #Climate emergencies worldwide, it's hard to keep up. But #AmazonRainforest burning is stand-out global disaster. Every red dot below represents a significant fire.” The locations of the fires were not, as expected, in the areas where the heaviest forest exists, in the northwestern part of the country, but closer to the south. As with the other information that had been put out on Wednesday 22 August by so many people, there was no indication where this image had been made or who had made it.

There was a tweet from a US outfit called the Sunrise Movement that contained a video showing what appeared to be an Indigenous woman (with elaborate headdress) standing in dark countryside and pointing to burning vegetation behind her. It was impossible to know when and where the video had been taken and it was even unclear what kind of vegetation the fire was consuming.

Later, I saw a photo in a Vox story published online on Thursday that featured fires burning in different countries. There was one photo that purported to show a fire in Brazil, in the Amazon basin. The photo was put up by a person with the handle @mohsinkazmitakepictures on Instagram and shows some vegetation burning in the foreground, part of what appears to be a field used for agriculture (which corroborates what da Silva had said). In the background is the forest margin. On the guy’s website the same photo is found but there is no caption to say when and where it was taken. There are other photos that might have been taken in Brazil but nothing that could be described as rainforest burning. You can go to his Instagram page to find the text that he published with the photo described.

Then, on 23 August at 9.46am, da Silva put up a new tweet containing the same image that Macron had used in his tweet. She said in relation to this photo, “I tracked down the granddaughter of Loren McIntyre, the photographer who took this photo everyone is sharing. An old image, pre-2003, of a fire in Pará. I'm dying to DM her to know what she thinks of all of this.”

I checked the ABC News website but could find no story about the Brazilian rainforest fires there, nor on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. But I did a Google search and found an ABC story by a journalist named Claire Knox (who might have been the person mentioned in the first paragraph, above) that had gone up on the web on Wednesday with the headline, “Record wildfires raging through the Amazon can now be seen from space.”

The story had a photo in it showing burning forest but there was no textual gloss accompanying the photo and it might have been a stock image. The story quoted the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) of Brazil, the same source that Cosic’s tweet had used. There was also a photo that looked as though it had been taken from space that was captioned, “Satellite data captured on August 13 shows fires in the Amazon creating a dome of smoke over South America.” The photo was taken from space and appeared to show smoke from what could have been fires in the central western part of the country, an area which could have been in either of the states of Rondonia or Mato Grosso. The caption also said that the photo had been supplied by a person named Santiago Gasso, but who he is or where he works was not disclosed. The photo itself might have provided substance to the claim that rainforest was burning but it wasn’t at all clear if you just looked at it without any accompanying narrative. The story also said:
Since last Thursday, [the INPE] said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest — a habitat seen as vital to countering global warming.
Now, if you accept the truth of the photos in this story (two of which were probably from the archives) and the message in the headline and the information from this (to me) previously-unknown “space agency” then you might think that rainforest was burning in Brazil.

A Guardian story dated that Friday with an image containing information sourced from NASA showing fires in the country appeared to add substance to the claim, but the image (which the Guardian made) showed most of the fires were not (repeat: not) in the Amazon basin.

Corroborating what had appeared in the satellite image put on the ABC’s page, there were dots on the Guardian’s image showing fires had been burning in the central west of the country, but (also corroborating what was shown in the ABC’s satellite photo) more appeared to have been lit in Paraguay and in Bolivia. There were also dots on the Guardian image showing fires burning in the east of the country, an area in which, going by the ABC’s satellite image, no smoke was present. The text on the web page didn’t actually add anything to corroborate the information, already mentioned, that had been sourced from the NISR. 

Then I saw a story that was linked to in a Guardian opinion piece by a Brazilian journalist named Elaine Brum. The story in question was on the website of an organisation called Science Alert and was originally published on the website of Business Insider. It is by a journalist named Aylin Woodward and it contains an image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US government agency, that shows some smoke from fires in the central west of Brazil. Part of the image includes the Amazon basin but Bolivia is in the centre of the photo, which was taken by a satellite. There are some plumes of what looks like smoke that have their sources in different areas of Brazil but in its first paragraph the story says: “Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across Brazil, primarily in the Amazon basin.” As in the image in the ABC story the smoke is heading southwest. The photo is dated 12 August.

A bit later I saw a story published yesterday from Business Insider titled, ‘Brazil's climate change sceptic government says warnings about the fires consuming the Amazon are 'sensationalist,' 'hysterical,' and 'misleading'.’ It contains the following to back up its claims of widespread rainforest fires:
The government is painting itself as the subject of an international smear campaign as activists and political leaders around the world urge action and decry state policies that have allowed increased clearing of the forest for farming and logging, which has likely been the source of many of the fires.
“Likely” but they’re not sure. The lack of evidence doesn’t stop the outlet adding its two cents’-worth to the campaign though. But let’s pause and consider for a moment what da Silva is not saying. She’s not saying that there is no burning of rainforest going on in the Amazon basin. What she is objecting to are the unsubstantiated, uncorroborated claims of widespread rainforest destruction using fire by the international media and by others, including politicians like Macron. It’s no surprise that a politician would lie for effect or to achieve some secondary goal unrelated to the issue in the case. But it is a bit more unsettling when the media feels a duty to follow people like Macron, blindly and without asking questions. 

Many of the images that I saw in a Guardian video on another of its web pages might easily have been vision of wildfires rather than fires that had been intentionally lit in order to clear land for agriculture. The following chart from NASA shows, for example, that wildfires are common at this time of year in the state of Amazonas. The trend for 2019 shown here is not significantly different from the lines for any other recent year. Unsurprisingly, this information was published from da Silva’s Twitter account.

Given the left’s hatred of the Brazilian president in Brazil and elsewhere, this kind of story was catnip for progressives. But if you have a more critical mind you might think, especially taking into account what da Silva had said, that the whole thing was just a massive beat-up. I am open to persuasion if evidence of large-scale burning of rainforests in the Amazon basin can be produced but so far there is nothing like this available anywhere. 

The thing about this case is that rather than not covering what appeared at first blush to be a major international story, it turns out that the media had uncritically repeated allegations without bothering to find anything substantial to back up its claims. So the media was to blame in the case of the Brazilian forest fires, but not for the reasons given by Shrivell and others.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Book review: Women of Karantina, Nael Eltoukhy (2014)

This writer (despite the feminine-sounding name he is male) wants his novel to be emblematic of the story of the people of his region of the world. It’s a rollicking ride across the majority of the 21st century, although the speculative elements are by no means as compelling as the melodrama. Eltoukhy’s book starts out in the future, two generations from the time when the story opens in the first decade of the century. With a typically vibrant flourish, this part of the novel contains the story of two mangy, flea-bitten dogs who die in a hole.

The relevance of this scene with respect to the rest of the narrative is not immediately clear and it’s not really spelled out at the end of the tale either. It’s purely symbolic and it’s also flamboyant. The writer is remarking on his country’s lowly status and on the overriding sense of loyalty that motivates people who live there and that helps to form the communities that people enjoy.

The novel has at its centre a family and a criminal syndicate founded by two people, a man named Ali and a woman named Inji, who are second cousins and who marry. At the beginning of the book, the two flee Cairo in the direction of a town in the south of the country after, to protect Inji’s honour, Ali throws a man onto some train tracks, killing him. The action then turns to Alexandria, where the two end up engaged in a number of more or less legal businesses, including the operation of a café and the running of a brothel. The couple’s son, Hamada, is instrumental in keeping the story going in the middle of the book and later the baton of responsibility for generating drama is passed, in turn, to Hamada’s daughters Lara and Yara.

The plot is loose and accommodates a series of structurally and logically unrelated events, much in the same way that an old 18th century picaresque novel is made up of a series of independent episodes: just one damned thing after another, one by one, scene after scene.

At the centre of their circle of patronage, amid all the murders and the conversations with religious persons or policemen and amid all the marriages, Ali and Inji stride through time like two ancient legends, surrounded by a coterie of adoring onlookers and supporters and hangers-on. It’s true that there is something charismatic about the two of them, and this feeling endures perhaps because of the endless marital spats they enter into and negotiate as Eltoukhy tries to come to terms with contemporary Egyptian society and politics. Key to most of the actions that people complete in the novel is the idea of revenge, of the seemingly endless search for justice in the sublunary world.

Some of the problems I felt in my first attempt to read the novel, and that were expressed in parts of the first draft of my review, remained once I had bitten the bullet and decided to give the beast a second chance. It’s not just the thin plot. Slapstick and melodrama are to comedy and tragedy what crime is to legitimate business, and the foundation of the dynasty of Ali and Inji is crime. But the story is suffused both with humour and a kind of sentimentality familiar to people who have seen or who watch soap operas. A good deal of the drama is expressive and some of it is overwrought, but this is all in the service of conveying larger truths about an entire citizenry. The main actors stand in for millions and so they are larger-than-life and their exploits are dangerous as well as gestural. At the core of the novel sits the maritime city of Alexandria which, evidently, occupies a special place in the author’s heart. The city is an international entrepot with a colourful history but in the novel’s shifting present it regrettably occupies second place to the larger and more important city of Cairo.

Much of the poetics of place is introduced through the use of dialogue; there is not much done in terms of drawing word pictures of Alexandria and its locales although the main characters tend to get a brief portrait when they are introduced for the first time. It seems that this author thinks in terms of the conversations that take place between people, such as Ali and Inji, or Ali and Abu Amin, an early patron, or Inji and Hagga Itemad, wife of the dead Alexandria crime boss Hagg Mohamed Harbi whose command of the affections of the people Ali dreams of rivalling.

A lot of the dialogue is rendered in straight prose without quotation marks or other punctuation. The narrative swallows up such conversations and buries them in its fundamental matrix. And some sections of dialogue are not entirely transparent. You sometimes miss cues and the object of people’s conversation can get lost among the details being put forward. This is a bit frustrating at times but it doesn’t completely spoil the story as the main characters retain prominence by being at the centre of the action for most of the time. While it’s something that might have been remedied by better editing this is a minor matter in the wider scheme of things. As mentioned earlier, this is a big, rambling novel with a large cast of characters, not all of whom are central to the project of making meaning.

The lack of significant locality portraits is however a bit surprising given that the novel has a place name – Karantina – in its title. In the novel (and, possibly, in real life; I don’t know), this working-class Alexandria suburb became the focus of government disaffection and dwellings there were removed in favour of other structures. But, in Eltoukhy’s version of events, the “legend” of Karantina is revived by Ali and Inji as they vie with the authorities and other gangsters in feuds fought for supremacy and for popular support. Scrappy and proud, Ali and Inji seek to buttress with the gravitas of history their mundane status as people of means.

Central to the plot is a property dispute that arises between the two parts of the crime family sitting in the middle of things. In the Middle Eastern context, for obvious reasons a device such as this contains broad relevance. And it is this kind of novel: one that has justified pretensions to stand in for a whole social system.

After reading about 10 percent of this Egyptian melodrama I wrote a version of this review that never got published. Then I finished the book. I was glad that I persevered although the ending is not as decisive as the length of the book, especially one with such strong central themes as this novel, encourages you to believe will be the reward for the effort expended in reading it.

There is also a mystical streak in this author’s worldview that makes sense in light of all the violence; in a book with so much death in it this is hardly surprising. The role women are given in the book as nurturers is modulated by their carnal appetites and by the leadership they provide in mundane concerns. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why the book’s title was devised the way it was, furthermore, but it’s at least a catchy title. And it’s an entertaining book. Well worth the time given over to reading it.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Train trips: Five

This is the fifth post in a series. The first in the series went up on 27 July 2019. This series is similar in its execution to the ‘collage’ series that started in May 2017.

4 August

I went to the light rail stop at the Fish Market and it was 10 minutes to wait until the next service. I stood on the platform and a number of other people came before the tram arrived and stopped. I got on a sat down and at 10.50am it stopped at the next stop, John Street Square. There were two teenage girls sitting in front of me, facing across the aisle. One of them had a brown paper carry bag with “Irreplaceable Store” printed on it in lettering that looked like script that is sprayed on a wall by a graffiti artist.

The two of them got off at Exhibition Centre. An Asian woman and her small daughter got on here with a man who appeared to be the girl’s father. Mother and daughter sat down where one of the teenage girls had been sitting and the father stood in front of them. After a while the mother changed seats with the girl so that the girl could see out the window. The man and the woman spoke to each other in Chinese.

Later a man, with a woman who might have been his wife and a teenage girl, got on the tram and the woman and the girl sat down opposite the Chinese-speaking passengers. The man, who was skinny and wore long beige-coloured shorts that showed there were tattoos on both his calves, stood in the aisle. He carried a red backpack over his shoulder. The woman was very overweight and wore a black top.

As the tram crossed the bridge over Eddy Avenue the skinny Anglo man and the Chinese man both spontaneously looked out the window toward the west, letting their eyes follow the opening created by the corridor of the street. I got off when the tram stopped at Central and tapped off using my Opal card then went down the stairs out of the building. I looked at the video route displays at the Eddy Avenue entrance and mentally marked the platform for the next service to Newtown, then went through the barriers and headed past the stairs to platforms 18 and 19 and those to platforms 20 and 21. These platforms were closed on this day.

I climbed the stairs to platform 22 and waited for the next service to Homebush which I saw was leaving in nine minutes. A Leppington service pulled up and I let it go then looked across the tracks to the next platform where a crew of seven men and a large machine, that was being operated by one of the men, were doing something to the track at platform 20. The machine had “Anric Rail” painted on its operating arm, at the end of which was a piece of gear like that which you find on forklifts. The machine was being used to lift up a heavy piece of steel assembly, and it was then used to carry it to another location on the track.

When the train arrived I went downstairs and sat down next to the window on a bench of three seats. I counted seven people on the deck after a group of four people – two heavyset, conservatively-dressed couples aged in their sixties – got on at Redfern, where the train stopped at 11.20am. One person left the deck at this station and a man in a hi-vis shirt got on and sat down two rows in front of me. I could smell a faint odour of tobacco smoke.

Two stations later at Newtown I got off and walked up the stairs to where the barriers are located. As I was walking in the station building I heard two young men talking behind me. One said, “I’m off milk.” The other replied, “Like, you’re completely diary-free?” His companion said, “No, not diary-free.”

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

What Queenslanders think about Adani’s Carmichael mine

The other day in response to something put on Twitter by a person I know, who is a journalist, I made a comment about this mine. The man I was talking to is English and works in Europe. His main preoccupation seems to be the environment and he is one of that new breed of practitioner who would embrace the epithet “activist” if it was applied to him. So he feels very passionately about what he does. It’s not important how I got to know him, suffice it to say that he is considerably younger than me.

When we had finished our conversation on Twitter I thought a bit about what had been said and, more importantly, what had not been said. It occurred to me that there are a lot of people in different countries around the world who are invested heavily, in an emotional sense, in the Carmichael mine, but that there is also a lot of ignorance about it and the political context surrounding it. The conversation I had had with the journalist in question demonstrated this to me. So I decided to write a short primer on the issue so that people in other countries, countries that are not Australia, can understand why the Carmichael mine will surely go ahead and be built. Most locals will already know what is included in this article, which is really designed for people resident overseas.

It’s not important what I think about the Carmichael mine. I have my own ideas about the environment and what should be done to preserve our future. But what is more important is what the people of North Queensland think. They are the ones, ultimately, who will decide what gets done in their territory.

To start with let’s step back and contemplate Australia briefly. This is a country with about the same land mass as Europe but with a population of 25 million. Queensland itself is the same size as Alaska and has a population of five million, of whom most live in the southeast corner in or around the state capital of Brisbane. North Queensland is parochial and independent; it is the furthest extremity of a frontier state. People up there are very independent-minded and they hardly tolerate being told what to do by politicians in Brisbane, let alone by activists in the southern capitals of Melbourne and Sydney. In Queensland the state government is very aware of this dynamic and some governments there even hold their parliaments up north in an effort to bring the people who live in that region closer into the fold.

Queensland has always bred mavericks. Julian Assange grew up in North Queensland and his mother lives in Southeast Queensland now. You also have the likes of Clive Palmer, a rich businessman who has run for office and who has won it and lost it. Then there is Pauline Hanson, the xenophobic populist who initially won office in 1996, trumping Trump by a generation. And you also have Bob Katter, who is the federal member for a North Queensland seat and who has set up his own political party, a party which includes his own son. I lived in Queensland for over five years and it was while living there that I first met the journalist mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

In outback Queensland you don’t see many cars. The ones you do see drive very fast on sometimes poorly-maintained sealed roads, or else on unsealed roads that are covered with gravel or dirt. Working on a mine means a lot of driving, often, to get from a major population centre to the work site. So it is dangerous work for the simple reason that you are going very fast for a good deal of the time on bad roads. Roads cost money to fix and Queensland is very big and very sparsely populated.

Jobs are especially important in this kind of country because workers spend their money in town buying food, staying in hotels, buying beers at the pub, and buying petrol to fill up their utilities. A town might have a population of a few hundred or a few thousand so every single job is considered to be a kind of gift to the whole community. In this context, the potential mine employment figures that are bandied about by a left-wing think-tank like the Australia institute or by the Adani company or even by the state government, are not the most important thing. What is most important is how locals think about the level of employment will be produced. You can publish any figure you like but you can’t argue with a $50 note put down on the counter to pay for a steak dinner. That $50 note is good for the whole community because it goes toward paying wages and paying for supplies. The money gets circulated through the community as retail employees and business owners pay their bills and do their shopping.

About five years ago, to do a story, I drove north on the Bruce Highway from the town near Brisbane I lived in to a place near Home Hill in North Queensland. I had a contact and he had promised to meet me at a certain time in a roadside café and he was there soon after I parked my car in the parking lot out the front, next to the highway. I shook his hand and the first thing he said to me after “Hello” was, “So you’re a Mexican.” I had to think for a moment because I have a surname that might sound Mexican if you don’t know your history (and a lot of people don’t, I have found). But I understood him in the end: I was from south of the border. I was an outsider because of where I lived in the southeast of the state. So he used this casual pejorative from the get-go just to test me. I agreed that I was a Mexican and we had a busy and productive day together.

The joke was hardly surprising to me once I had talked with this man, a retired marine engineer aged then in his fifties. People in North Queensland want to draw a new border at Rockhampton and govern themselves. Even though they rely on money provided by the state government in the southeast, they feel a good deal of resentment about the current political settlement. Queensland is the only state to have only one chamber in its parliament. They abolished the upper house in 1922. That’s how much they respect politicians up north.

In May there was a federal election in Australia and the result was unexpected. Everyone had thought Labor would win but the Liberal Party with its coalition partner, the National Party, won a slim majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Coalition increased its share of the available seats and although the Coalition does not have a majority there, the minor parties that control the balance of power in the upper house are mostly of a conservative bent. So the Coalition did something remarkable and are now in power until the next poll, in three years’ time. Before he was appointed party leader, the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, once scandalised the Speaker of the Reps by bringing a lump of coal into the chamber to make a point.

Before the election, the former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, travelled with a convoy of cars north into Queensland to protest against Adani. Some of the cars were Teslas. They were jeered in the streets by some and welcomed by others. But the stunt did more than make headlines: it galvanised voters in the state to reject parties that might – even potentially – be against Adani. Hence the Coalition’s windfall in the Senate. The people of Queensland spoke and they spoke decisively in favour of coal. A Labor government in Brisbane that ignored that voice would be committing political suicide (the next state election is in 2020). There’s no question but that the Carmichael mine will go ahead.

It should be added that many people in places like Sydney and Melbourne, and even in Brisbane, think that the Carmichael mine should be stopped. There are a lot of Australians who agree with the global consensus that we should avoid wherever possible using fossil fuels for energy. But the dynamic in play in this country is what you find in many places: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. North Queenslanders are pushing back and it is what they think that will decide the outcome in this case.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Dream journal: Ten

As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is always the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

28 July

I dreamt I was trying to get a job with Yamatake. In the dream I actually sold a couple of the industrial measurement and control instruments they manufacture, one to a client that wanted to measure the flow and concentration of suspended solids in effluent. The effluent was made up of biosolids that had been treated so that the toxins had been taken out, and this was being mixed with water. There was another application but I don’t remember the details of that one. Even without any training – I was not an engineer when I made these two, small sales – I had managed to get a foot in the door with two new customers.

They didn’t give me a fulltime job straight away, but instead matched me up with a man who was a manager with the company. He was a fairly senior employee and he was independently wealthy (his father had traded shares and he as an only child). He let me sleep in a camper van in the front yard of another employee, a family that had a child. I could use the van as my residence while I worked in one of the company’s factories. For the record I worked for Yamatake Corp in the 1990s.

30 July

I dreamed I was made the manager in an organisation as a result of my manager leaving it. The role had something to do with the US Navy and its visits to their defence counterparts in Australia. I had to help communicate information about the visits for the to the broader community. But when the ships came I was sidelined and was unable to do what I thought was my job.

I got in touch with my ex-manager and he agreed to visit the place to see what was happening. But when he got there he just walked around for a while and then left without talking to anyone. There was a group of large men, some of them overweight, sitting around a table near the front door to the complex. I had to carefully place my feet to make sure my path over the floor was reliable because the legs of one chair were sticking out into the passage. I didn’t interrupt the people at the table by asking the man sitting in it to move his chair, instead taking it upon myself to negotiate the difficult passage that had been created because the number of people at the table was too large for the table to accommodate.

I understood that my ex-manager wouldn’t have been able to do anything to help me and I understood that there were security concerns that made my bosses cautious about what information they released to employees like myself, but still I felt put out and disappointed that I wasn’t being included in the discussions surrounding the defence force visits that had started to take place.

3 August

This was a long dream but only part of it remained after waking. I was in a large house near the edge of a cliff and there were parapets, fences, railings, and gates all over the place to keep people safe. But there was a demonic baby that wanted to jump off the cliff and it tried and failed several times to get over the final railing before the plunge to the water and the rocks below. In the end, I went along behind the thing as it hopped from a wall to the top of a fence to a patch of grass. I seem to remember there had been a party on and I was invited. For some reason, the baby became the major focus of my attention and after a few futile attempts it managed to get itself into the right position from where it could jump into the air from a railing separating a small enclosure from the vacant space in front of the house, and disappear from view, its back curved and muscular, its head pointed down and forward, all of its will aimed at one result: self-annihilation.

I should add, in an effort to explain this strange dream, that I had had a bit of trouble getting to sleep for a few nights before this one. I would lie down and as soon as I was horizontal my heart would start going fast, making it like I was having a panic attack. This scared me as I had had heart surgery in January to correct a fault in the organ. The day before the night in question I had had lunch with a friend in a pub but I hadn’t drunk any alcohol. Even after getting home I stayed off the grog. The result of this abstemption (is that a word?) was a hassle-free bedtime. I explain the suicidal baby as alcoholism aborted.

16 August

Most of this dream escaped me after I awoke, but I do remember being in a flying machine picking up a person who, in real life, used to be a friend of mine on Twitter. This person, who is an older woman, had become very popular and I had practically stopped talking with her. In the dream, I was hovering over a broad expanse of water where grasses grew, or bulrushes, and she was standing on the ground waiting for me to arrive. In the machine I was controlling, I dipped down to where she was and picked her up, transporting her away with me.

19 August

Dreamed I was at work in a place where software was made. I had a work tool on my PC that was designed to look like wood. Unfortunately, it was also all written in Japanese (I worked in Japan from 1992 for about nine years) and I couldn’t understand what was written in the menus. There was a work function on and a guy who, incongruously, I used to go to school with, asked me to sit with him and his friends. His name was Guy Parker and, in the dream, most of which resembled my time with Honeywell in Sydney, he was very popular. Guy Parker of my school days was in fact a cerebral type who had his own close group of friends but who wasn’t broadly popular among students in our year.

I hurried over to the entertainment centre and walked around for a while in different areas to look for the others. One area I went into was shaped a like an amphitheatre and in it were seated people who had disabilities. They were on the seats in the theatre when I walked in and after looking around a bit I walked out to find my friends. In another area of the building there were seats set up that looked like bar stools, so I guessed that this was the right area to be in. I walked along until I saw Guy Parker and some people sitting at a table, then I had to find a beer. The others all had beers in front of them on the table except for a girl in a dress who had something else in a glass.

Monday, 19 August 2019

‘Free Hong Kong’ graffiti, Chinatown, Sydney

I snapped this photo (above) yesterday when I was down in Chinatown for yum cha. This was visible at around 1pm on Dixon Street, in the heart of Chinatown. More than half of the street is a pedestrian mall, so wholesale deliverymen bring produce to restaurants that operate there using trolleys like this one, pushing them along the pavement on foot.

It wasn’t surprising for me to see the graffiti here. The day before, in Belmore Park, about five minutes’ walk from this spot to the east, a pro-CCP rally had taken place. Hundreds of protesters were there, and the day before that an anti-CCP rally had taken place in Sydney as well. These rallies can get quite boisterous, they are not at all friendly. The second photo (below) shows the same graffiti on the same ornamental lion but without the people walking in front of it.

It might seem a little incongruous for an Australian to publish a post like this one. Easy to do this when you are protected by centuries of precedent and by institutions that tolerate dissent. But I felt that it is important to do what you can to support the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Every little bit helps when you have an enemy as powerful and determined as they do. Whoever wrote this slogan evidently thought the same way as me.

I actually have little patience for people who say that it’s not worth talking about these problems because it’s common knowledge that the CCP is corrupt and unaccountable. For Hong Kongers, they are real and not at all abstract. It’s hardly a “truism” to say it if you live there and if you want to decide who makes the laws that govern your life. It goes to the very core of who you are.

(UPDATE 7pm, 19 Aug: The graffiti had been rubbed off by someone using their hand. The chalk was smeared all over the lion's plinth, making a mess.)

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Book review: Ottoman Odyssey, Alev Scott (2018)

Before I talk in detail about this book I have to register the importance of the feeling of pleasure that reading it gave me. At the time I bought it, in a bookstore in Newtown, in Sydney, on one of my regular weekend outings, I had just started three other books of nonfiction by people who were, or had been, journalists. I finished one of them, skimmed one, and left off reading the third out of frustration. They were all Australian books but out of the three only one was readable. Even then, I had reservations about the author’s approach to her subject.

But here’s the thing: all three of those books had been brought to my attention by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in programs on their local Sydney radio frequency. All three had been promoted probably without the people talking about them even reading them. Then, on this sunny day, I went into a bookshop and deliberately picked off the shelf a book that had as little as possible to do with the identity politics that those three books retailed in. Choosing this book by Scott was, consciously, a bird flipped at the local publishing industry, a business that has its usual methods of getting media coverage, and one that had let me down so badly.

Scott’s book is journalism but it is a kind of journalism that is more and more common these days. The author points, at the end of the book, to the danger that her brand of journalism faces, when she talks with a colleague, a man who had, like her, been singled out for censure by the Turkish government. She uses the word “activism” as an adjective to qualify the kind of journalism I am talking about.

One of the things that is most interesting about Scott’s book, in fact, is her own character as it appears from time to time in the narrative. More toward the end but throughout the book the author points to herself as an example of the kind of person she wants to talk about, or in order to register her reactions to the many different people she meets in the course of making her story. Now, there is nothing unusual about this kind of journalism. It is, in fact, a kind of commonplace for a journalist to includer him- or herself in the narrative. But it does mean that you are going to lose some of the control you have, as a journalist, over the messages you are making. At the core of journalism, indeed, is the idea of objectivity. If Scott tells us, when she visits a small village in Cyprus or Bosnia, that the man she is talking to wears a red shirt, then we have to believe this is true. But she cannot blithely bury her own ideological position vs-a-vis Ankara or Jerusalem.

At heart Scott is not in favour of nationalism although she does mention at different points how it functioned as an effective element of local politics in different places at the time the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. And this book is about nationalism and religion, specifically, and how those two things combine within different individuals, and within individual communities, to influence personal conduct as well as politics. I hesitate to mention the positive role that nationalism played in Europe in the 14th century at the beginning of what came to be known as the Humanist project. With any tool or with any means to an end, sometimes what you use to achieve your goals can be constructive and sometimes the same thing, used by different people, can be destructive.

Scott singles out a kind of tribalism as an element in the political settlement in a number of different countries she visits, but especially in Lebanon, where the different groups of people in the community have their own representatives in the legislature and in other institutions such as the armed forces. This kind of extreme solution to the issues that Scott raises – the ways that people’s identities serve to mould the political settlement – is one of the insights that this book delivers. In a modern, pluralist democracy, most often the tribes that exist in the community correspond to the major political parties. The situation in a country in the Middle East can be very different and this dynamic can cause problems for politicians there that you won’t find in, say, Australia.

There are a number of different themes that emerge in the course of the book, although it is difficult to settle on one or two considering the broad range of places Scott visits in order to gather the material she needs to write her stories. Basically she is trying to pick out some common ideas that have emerged in the generations since the 1920s, when Turkey emerged from the ruins of the empire that had existed since the 14th century. The book’s subtitle is “travels through a lost empire” and the author certainly does a lot of travelling (although the government bars her from entering Turkey at a certain point in the tale). This is a useful book to read if you have some knowledge of the region already; it might be hard to gain access to it if you know nothing about the geographical area we know as the Middle East. My own May trip to the region certainly informed my understanding of what Scott writes.

What it makes clear is that Turkey today leverages its Ottoman roots to try to influence countries in the region through soft-power diplomacy, in the same way, for example, that China uses similar tools. Money to build mosques or to set up tertiary education institutions is linked to a crude branding strategy that emphasises the significance of past glories. Local politicians in different countries use this kind of jingoistic pork-barrelling to gain influence within the communities they lead. But this book is far too complex to enable a reviewer to make too many easy conclusions. You really have to read it if you want to understand the complexity of the region and the types of relations that have emerged, since the 1920s, between governments there and the people they govern.

Scott chronicles a dizzying array of different groups of people, each of which has its own history, its own forms of religious observance, its own values and allegiances and even, in some cases, professions. The region is characterised, thus, by a vast diversity of people and Scott is a worthy observer of this.

On the other hand, Scott’s opinion of Jerusalem I found unnecessarily harsh, and it was probably mostly due to her personal ideas about Israel. As a committed lefty, Scott feels an obligation to support the Palestinians and this aspect of her identity colours the passages that she writes about the old town with its high walls, many religious institutions, and shops selling tourist tat.

It’s salutary to contrast the things she says about the tourists who flock to the city in a steady stream, and the things she says about people with whose feelings she sympathises, such as the Greeks living in the northern part of Cyprus she meets and whose stories embellish the final pages of the book. Both groups of people are finding meaning doing their thing but Scott suggests that the feelings of rich Christians, from places like Europe and the US, as they stalk along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem are, somehow, inauthentic. It’s really a shame. You sense, too, conflicting emotions for the author when she talks about the pronouncements of Turkish President Erdogan on the subject of Israel. On the one hand she doesn’t like Israel but on the other hand she doesn’t like Erdogan, so in such passages she’s caught in something of a quandary.

Scott’s English is sometimes slightly idiosyncratic and this might be due to her having spoken a different language when she was growing up. One solecism can serve to illustrate this point, where she talks about “boiling oil”, which is an impossibility in the domestic context. It might be possible in an industrial plant to get oil to boil but at home it can only get very hot, and will not boil on a regular stove. It might possibly become as hot as boiling water, but it won’t boil without special help.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Polarisation and profitability as media compete for readers

Last week on Friday I unfollowed Greg Jericho on Twitter. I had been a follower of his since about 2009, before he was a Guardian employee. He used to follow me, too, but this circumstance had changed in recent months for some reason. Greg used to be a good journalist and would use lots of figures in his Guardian stories which were, however, often hard to follow. His writing style was not all that hot but he had a reputation for being fair and measured in his conclusions.

In recent times, however, Greg had become more and more polarising online and more and more overt in his ideological preferences. Following Jay Rosen's dictum that journalists should declare where they sit on the ideological spectrum, Greg would fulminate openly about, say, private education or about the use of renewables for energy production. It became more and more difficult to engage with him because of the types of rhetoric he would use to express himself in arguments with people whose views he disagreed with.

In a real sense, the decision to unfollow Greg embodies older ideas of mine about the internet. There is less and less room for debate as people become more and more extreme in their language choices. They do this to get more followers and to get retweets and likes. Funnily enough, on the same day as the unfollow happened I saw a headline from the ABC about media and the profits to be made from polarisation but looking for the story proved difficult after I had briefly seen the headline on Twitter.

Profitability as it pertains to the media is something I am always interested in, for obvious reasons. The Australian reported on the same day I unfollowed Greg Jericho that News Corp had reported 2019 full-year revenue of A$14.8 billion, a 12 per cent increase over the previous year. The Guardian reported that the company globally had reported a profit of A$228 million but said, on the same day, that, “Revenue at the Australian mastheads run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp fell by 6% last year.” Nieman Lab reported in a story I saw on the same day that the NY Times "now has 3.78 million digital subscribers". "There was [A$165] million in digital subscription revenue, up 14 percent over this time last year." And on 1 May the Guardian had reported, “Guardian News & Media recorded an [A$1.43] million operating profit for the 2018-19 financial year — compared with a [A$102] million loss three years previously.” (For convenience I have converted all the figures into Australian dollars at the exchange rates that applied last Friday.)

The Guardian is one organisation that seems to have taken a leaf out of a book opened by Rupert Murdoch over a generation ago. In her book ‘On Disruption’ (review on this blog on 9 July last year), the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy regrets the polarisation that had started to take over the public sphere but her colleague was now ignoring her warnings having turned the practice into a fine art, one he prosecuted with acid wit.

When I posted about what had happened that morning, one person I know from my childhood, who is also a journalist, commented, “There’s no clicks in balanced. Plenty in outrage, [outspokenness], shock and put downs. Gets 50 per cent of the readers liking you and the other 50 looking at what outrage you’ll make next.”

There’s money in a bad attitude, but the public sphere is being debased because of it. Conversations can only be held with people with views like yours. Anyone else will lose their temper and unfollow you or block you. Or you will do one or the other to them. No quarter is given and people go in hard and fast to avoid similar treatment. The bubbles that people inhabit are becoming less likely to overlap with others, those of people who think different to them. Dialog is difficult and compromise impossible. What kind of government will arise as a result of this situation remains to be seen but I’m not optimistic.

The issue of polarisation is actually a very important one because if you are always unthinkingly wedded to the policy platform of your preferred political party, or if you will only listen to what its spokespeople say when an issue is raised by the government, and follow that lead, then you are going to miss out on the benefit of the good policies from the government that might be proposed. It just doesn’t make sense to always follow the lead suggested by the Opposition, if you are politically inclined that way, as you restrict yourself unnecessarily to a narrow set of ideas and principles that might not, in all cases, be suitable for the production of good laws.

This kind of politics is endlessly frustrating. We need to be able to pick and choose the good policies from both the government and the Opposition so that we avail ourselves of a wider range of ideas and principles than would otherwise be available to follow.

When it comes down to it, your view on any issue will correspond to your values. If your values require that your preferred political party is in government, then you will always criticise what the other party says. This is a kind of tribalism, which is something that is a major problem for people living in developing countries. The difference in a pluralist democracy being that the tribes correspond roughly to political parties.

But if your values demand good governance and the implementation of good policy, then you will cherry-pick from the parties’ responses to whatever issue comes up, and choose the best one. Is winning more important than good governance? I think not.

The reality, however, is that many people find the public sphere too complex to navigate. Surveys that have been conducted recently in some countries, showing that younger people are often in favour of abolishing democracy, point to this fact. Democracy requires that the individual deal with a broad range of issues that are thrown at them constantly, day in and day out, in a busy media ecosystem. Following a political party simplifies the process for people. If people are always being asked to decide where they stand on every, single issue that arises, then the danger of burnout is real.

So party loyalty is a coping strategy that most people resort to in order to maintain their equanimity. Resorting to a primary media outlet that shares the same values as you do, makes this easier to do. People don’t necessarily want the truth, they want comforting verities that resemble it often enough not to worry them.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Train trips: Four

This is the fourth post in a series. The first in the series went up on 27 July 2019. This series is similar in its execution to the ‘collage’ series that started in May 2017.

3 August

Caught the train home from Newtown, arriving outside the station there at 8.05pm. I went downstairs to wait for a train I saw was due in four minutes’ time.

At 8.07pm a train coming from a point further west cruised east on a different line from the line that had its tracks serving the platform I was standing on. About a minute later a Berowra-via-Strathfield service cruised west on another set of tracks lying out past the platform’s hard edge. A train that was going west stopped at the platform adjacent mine and a large number of young people alighted. Evidently they were going to enjoy a Saturday night out with friends in the pubs and restaurants on the street above. Then, just before my train arrived, a diesel service, an intercity train, cruised east, heading to Central Station.

I got on the local train that arrived on schedule and went upstairs where I walked to a bench of three seats, pulling the hinged seat in front of it into position so that the back of it would face me when I sat down next to the window. A pair of young women, both aged in their twenties, got on at the same station and one of them pulled the same seat back the other way so that she could sit down, next to the aisle, facing her friend, who sat down on the same bench as me.

The woman who had shifted the seat’s upright into place was Asian and spoke with a kind of American accent, emphasising strong “r”s. She told her companion a story about how she had worked at a restaurant and how her job had been to bring in new customers. One night five drag queens had come into the restaurant under her tutelage, she said, and had even flirted with her. They tipped her well, she went on, enjoying the sensation of something outré. She later dove into her mobile, as did her friend, and then she showed her friend a photo on its screen, saying, “The sacred mountain of the Aborigines.”

When the train was about to reach Central Station I asked them if I could get out and they both shifted their legs out of the way, swivelling in their seats as they did so. I heard one of them say they should get off at Town Hall. I got off the train when it stopped and went downstairs from the platform, heading through the barriers. I walked through the Grand Concourse and next to the light rail platform tapped on with my Opal card using the reader mounted at the building’s exit.

There were still 11 minutes to wait for the next tram. Standing next to me on the platform an Anglo couple, who appeared at a glance to be aged in their sixties, talked quietly between themselves. They had small wheeled suitcases with them and had evidently caught a plane from somewhere.

When there were two minutes to go before our departure the tram came up the hill through the park. I got on when it pulled up and its doors opened, and sat down in a seat. Opposite me, to my right, a man and a young woman were seated. She looked to be his daughter and wore a white hoodie that had red writing on its front. The hood was pulled up over her hair. The man had black hair and dark skin, but the girl’s skin was darker. They might have been Indian or Bangladeshi. The man had some grey hairs and wore a green, blue, and black Adidas windcheater. On his back he had a backpack and around his neck he had a black bag hanging on a strap. A Woolies shopping bag sat between his feet and he wore black plastic sandals.

At Exhibition Centre a man wearing a red embroidered vest got on who was talking loudly to a group of neatly-dressed young people. Their high spirits made me think that they had been to the theatre. They stood in the carriage as all the seats were full by this time. The man with the Adidas windcheater got off the tram at Pyrmont Bay with the girl and a large young male who had been seated elsewhere. I got off at the casino and, after waiting for the line of passengers to let me tap off with my Opal card, left the building through the east exit. The Century Restaurant was doing a brisk trade, with all the tables facing the street occupied by diners.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Book review: Trust Exercise, Susan Choi (2019)

This is a big novel and it has made a splash. I have read two positive reviews of it and I share with those reviewers a need to praise this novel, which takes its central theme from something that is very topical: the #MeToo movement.

The novel is made up of three parts, the first of which takes you up to about 50 percent of the way through the book. This is an account of the lives of a number of teenage students at a performing arts school in Houston, Texas. The central characters in this section of the book are students Sarah and David. The narrative in this part of the book is focalised through the character of Sarah.

The two young people have a romance and this part of the book examines their relationship through the lens offered by the linkages that exist among the faculty of the school and the pupils. There is also a number of people who come from England to put on a performance of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, and some of these people go on to occupy an important place in this part of the book, as well as the second part of the book, which starts in the middle of the volume.

This second section is focalised through a person named Karen who has an ambiguous relationship with the Sarah of the first part of the book. Sarah is also present in Karen’s narrative, as is David and as is Martin, one of the actors who had come from England and whose exploits had been covered in the first part of the book. In the second part of the book, it turns out that Martin has written a play and David, who now, 13 years after the events chronicled in the book’s first part (a time that took place in what we are told was the early 1980s), is a theatre director, wants to stage it in Houston. Martin has also been accused, in England, of sexual impropriety in relation to a student of his and this occasions some alarm in the mind of Karen, who sets in motion a plan.

The third part of the book starts at about the 90 percent mark and involves a young woman named Claire who is looking for her biological mother. She goes to the school described in the first part of the novel, which has expanded and which is now housed in new premises, and there talks with a man named Robert Lord who is the school’s head. He invites her to dinner at his place and she goes along but the outcome is not satisfactory for either person.

Now, this complex and brilliant novel has a tight plot but it also relies for a good deal of its allure on the quality of its language. The page-long sentences and subtle examinations of motivation and awareness put this book in the same league as the greats of the past. One of the authors that Choi deliberately nods toward is, of course, Nabokov. But it’s not ‘Lolita’ that you think of in relation to this challenging novel. The novel of his that I was put in mind of is the less well-known and less well-liked ‘Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle’, which came out in 1969, 14 years after the author’s more famous work.

As in that novel, here time does not move in a uniform or predictable manner. There are detailed descriptions of small events and there are also, unexpectedly, quick jumps across time that span periods of years. Choi’s medium is adequate to both types of narrative, attesting to the superior skillset that she has at her command.

Choi’s book does more, furthermore, than just dramatise the problem of what is sometimes bad behaviour by males once they are sexually active. The way that the different sections of her book are structured says important things about not only the writer’s craft and the art of fiction, but also more broadly about the ways that reality is constructed after the fact, and the ways that key individuals can get left out of the really important stories that need to be told. From what Karen says in the second part of the book, her story is central to events that are communicated in the first part, even though she only plays a minor role in it, as “Karen”. In fact, she is present in many ways that only become evident later.

If the narrative in the first part of the book – a text produced by one of the students – had been written differently the events that close its second part might have been impossible to conceive of. But as in the Nabokov book already mentioned things that might have revealed dark secrets went unnoticed by many people involved in the story. The metafictional elements of this book are competently handled and have a signification beyond a purely rhetorical one belonging to novel writing and the fictional act itself.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Twitter redesign mainly serves its purpose

This company has done some things that turned out to be less than impressive, such as the acquisition of Periscope (does anyone even remember it?). The decision to allow people to use 280 characters in tweets was, on the other hand, a good one to make.

Overall, the recent native site redesign seems to have been managed well. The actual design decisions that were implemented as part of the redesign are mostly good and have to a large degree improved the experience of using the site. This is just my view, and other people might have different ideas about this.

With the new interface, the navigation buttons have been put down the side of the feed. You can, for example, click on the “Profile” link if you want to see how many followers you currently have, or to see how many people you yourself are following. Nearer to the top of the page, the “Notifications” link allows you to click to see the interactions people have performed with respect to your account, such as likes and retweets and replies. As with the “Profile” link, clicking on this link does not cause the home page to refresh (unless you are at the top of the feed) so you won’t always lose your place when you go back “Home”.

The indicator on the home page that shows the number of notifications currently registered that you haven’t look at yet, is also welcome. This feature is also linked to your mobile phone app, so looking at a notification on your phone will mean that it will be flagged as having been seen on the website as well.

The following image shows the notifications page in a screenshot I made recently. You can see that the “Notifications” link has been selected using the mouse cursor. The notifications are shown in the centre of the display and some other, unimportant, items are (optimistically) shown on the right-hand side of the screen. The indicator that shows you how many unseen notifications there are is not visible here because it disappears once the “Notifications” link has been clicked.

From these implementations of interactivity, it seems to me that the designers have thought deeply about how people really want to use the site, and they have evidently tested out different iterations before settling on the final configuration. 

One thing that surprised me however is that the “Profile” page does not show all tweets that you put up. At least that’s true in my case, as it only shows me tweets that contain links from my blog. Other tweets, such as replies to tweets from other account holders, are omitted from my view. This is a bit strange but, in any case, I usually use TweetDeck to carry out my daily tasks on the platform.

The new webpage is a big improvement over what existed before the change. Back then, I used to use the app on my mobile phone to view notifications, whereas now I use the webpage. What is especially welcome is the ability to easily see different views of information associated with your account without constantly refreshing your feed. Even given the reservations I have described above, in my view the changes make for a big improvement in Twitter.

Many people have been asking for a means to allow people with a Twitter account to edit tweets once they have been sent, but I haven’t seen any indication from the company that this change will be brought in. Personally, this does not appear to be a major issue. When I write a tweet I usually reread it before sending it, often more than once. Perhaps people should just slow down their conversations a bit if they want to avoid errors. When I do make an error in a tweet it is usually a minor one that, often, I just allow to stand. Sometimes, depending on the recipient and depending on the nature of the error, I will delete a tweet and resend it, but this doesn’t happen very often at all.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The hat lady and her important husband: A China tale

This was too good not to share. It’s a short story but an interesting one for people who are curious about China and how the public sphere works there. Most people will know about the strict controls the Communist Party imposes on online service providers such as social media and news websites, but the public sphere, as this story shows, can function effectively merely given active participation by ordinary people.

The story unfolded in Chongqing, a populous administrative area next-door to Sichuan in central China. On the day in question an expensive, red Porsche driven by a woman wearing a hat and sunglasses hit an undistinguished sedan driven by a man. The resulting encounter between the two people was captured in a video that was widely shared.

The woman and the man got out of their cars and the woman walked up to the man and slapped him across the face. People watching the events unfold were surprised by this tactic but they were even more surprised when the man slapped the woman across the face in return, causing her hat and sunglasses to fly off. She slumped back onto her car. The woman went on to declare, in a voice audible to people in the gathering crowd, “It was my fault, but you can’t arrest me!” In the end the police arrived.

Intrigued, some of the people who saw the video investigated the woman’s identity and found out that she was the wife of the most-senior officer at a local police command. In the face of the woman’s hubris the outcry from people using social media was so intense that her husband’s organisation became alarmed and embarrassed, and he was compelled to resign from his position. A surprising twist was added to the saga when the man whose car had been hit by the sports car publicly apologised for causing trouble.

The first picture, above, is from the video that was taken on the day of the slap. The second photo, below, was unearthed by a citizen intent on finding out more about the Chongqing hat lady.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Are institutions good for us or bad for us?

I thought for a long time about writing this and eventually decided to go ahead. I am going to omit names of organisations in what follows, and the names of people will also be left out. Some people who have worked with me in the past who read this will know what I’m talking about, but I am going to take a risk and talk about these things because few do.

The title of this post is somewhat inflammatory. This was done for rhetorical reasons. But this post will be deliberate and careful in its conclusions. This is more like a piece of memoir than a piece of journalism, so care should be taken to generalise for the whole of society on the basis of observations made and conclusions drawn here. This account is based on what happened to me and to people I have known. Other people might have different experiences, I wouldn’t know. The lack of information about this kind of thing is, itself, disturbing. I imagine personnel managers attending convocations where such issues are discussed in a collegial setting, but news of such conversations never seems to gain a place in the broader public sphere.

Since the majority of people work, or have worked, in an institution at some point in their lives, and many still do so, this absence of material on such a central part of our lives seems to me to be scandalous. People often talk about suicide and how it is hard to talk about it in public. But work? Surely we are able to have meaningful conversations about something that is so central to our lives. Something that occupies such a large proportion of our lives, in fact. Eight hours a day, five days a week for 40 years. Day after day after day of labour, of restlessness, of thwarted ambition, of disappointments and satisfactions. Month after month. Year after year. And not a peep about any of it in the media unless there is a scandal such as an employer underpaying staff or someone who breaks the law and embezzles funds. We only talk about work if it gets into the court system.

To get back to the title and start off: institutions have been around for as long as society has existed. Some of them, like the parts of national armed forces, are very old indeed. The role of institutions is to organise people so that they can achieve better results than might be achieved if they operated alone.

It is often said that in the West we have such good polities because of the maturity of our institutions. But if you work in one you often find that things are not quite so rosy. The place of the individual in an institution is usually difficult because it is fraught with danger, as well as with opportunity. Like a game of snakes and ladders, you can find yourself on a ladder one year and the next you are on a snake. Twists of fate, things over which you have little control, can affect your mental health and your domestic life. If you are sidelined or if you lose your job this can have a big impact on you in many ways. Marriages can fail, children can lose a parent, financial ruin can follow from events that can operate completely independently of the individual.

Conversations that I have followed about institutions often point to their failings, but these seem to be linked to precisely the same things that go to form their merits. In my experience, institutions can shelter the individual against such things as economic downturns but at the same time they ask for loyalty. Loyalty, for its part, can operate to stymie innovation because people are unwilling to speak out when they see that a policy pursued by a superior is having a deleterious effect on the health of the larger organisation of which his or her work unit forms a part. Often, feuds over territory that an organisation cannot properly modulate into meaningful action can result in people being unfairly criticised, and they may even, as a result of the outflow from a disagreement, lose their job for no reason other than to make sure that another manager, whose work unit had been threatened by the actions of the first one, keeps his or her budget and privileges intact.

In this kind of situation, line workers are often asked to say or do things that are not in the best interests of the larger organisation. Their managers might encourage them to continue to voice opposition to a change suggested to work processes that would result in a diminution of the importance of their work unit, but they will do what they are told even though they can see that making the change suggested would benefit a large number of people. Turf is protected and front-line workers are forced to deal with the majority of the friction it creates.

One problem with institutions is that there is often a knowledge imbalance that characterises the work unit. Line workers know more about the problems that exist but they are not empowered to make decisions that might solve them. Instead, often, a manager has a policy he or she is following in order to achieve a result that consones with her own ideas about how the organisation should operate, or to conform to industry best-practice, or to further their own ambition or the ambition of someone further up the hierarchy from them. Front-line staff may have to do things, in such cases, in order to benefit someone other than themselves. That person might be right and the policy they are following might in the end benefit the broader organisation. But, on the other hand, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So whatever policy it is that is being pursued, there will be conflict resulting from interactions with people in other work units.

What to do? If you are caught up in a feud you are probably best advised to keep your head down and get on with the job. But this can have costs to your and to your family. You might suffer stress or even, in a worse scenario, a mental breakdown. If the latter outcome eventuates, will your organisation let you keep your job or will they sideline you or even fire you? All of these things happen all the time everywhere in the world.

The paradox of organisations is that they both help people to earn enough money to live decent lives and operate to make people conform. Just to survive you have to do what you are told. Failure to do this will often result in your being sidelined into a useless role with low status and no prospects for advancement, or even to you losing your job. For my part, I not very good at working in organisations, although as an arts graduate, at a time when getting an arts degree was considered to be a waste of effort, I didn’t have the most auspicious start.

In my career have learned more than just the rudiments of writing an application report. I have learned more than just that I am good with words. I also learned that the knowledge gaps that exist in organisations lie at the core of the problems they evince. People up the tree know more about the direction your work unit is heading in, but people on the front line know how those decisions are influencing relations with other work units. Caught in the middle are these front-line staff, men and women who risk everything sometimes for no other reason than to feed the ambition or vanity of a person with more power than them.

Is this what we want? Is this the best we can do? Personally, I think not. We can’t live without organisations but if we want them to be better places we need to have intelligent conversations about them. This can be difficult for obvious reasons. People are usually unwilling to jeopardise their livelihood by talking in public about a current employer even if that employer is causing them to experience levels of stress that might, given the right circumstances, lead to a breakdown or worse. People are afraid of organisations and therefore organisations continue to treat people as commodities. A new person can easily be brought in to replace someone who breaks. The whole survives even if an individual is hurt.

But how are people chosen for the fast track to the top? Is it enough to have good ideas? I think not. Is it enough to be good at your job? Again, no.

I haven’t worked for an organisation for a decade but I think that the old rules are still in place. What I found in my time working in them is that in order to survive and thrive you have to obey the ethos they embody and you have to have what are usually referred to euphemistically as “superior communication skills”. To be able to parley your way to achieving personal goals can send a message to people higher up in the hierarchy that you might also be useful for them. So, to get ahead in an organisation you have to believe in its virtue and you have to be skilful at lying without being caught doing it. A strange amalgam of duplicity and conformity is what will help you to progress in your career. Sort of like being in a royal court: every step you take is watched and displays of obedience carry weight.

For every Steve Jobs there are tens of thousands of dead-weight executives who live fat in expensive suburbs in big houses and who send their children to private schools. For executives an innovative mind is relatively low on the list of desirable qualities, so an organisation usually continues to follow a well-trod path until the whole thing is taken over by a more profitable organisation, until it fails completely and its assets are sold off, or until things get so bad that there is a major shake-up and heads roll.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Train trips: Three

This is the third post in a series. The first in the series went up on 27 July 2019. This series is similar in its execution to the ‘collage’ series that started in May 2017.

3 August

Caught the train home from Newtown. Arrived on the platform, after using my Opal card, at 1.25pm and the train pulled up a minute later. As I had been coming down the stairs to the platform two tradies had been descending at the same time. One held a large white plastic bucket containing some items I couldn’t see well enough to identify. The other one carried in his right hand a long paint mixing machine with a spiral on its end. They got on with me and I went downstairs to the lower deck and sat down next to the window on a bench of three seats.

In front of me sat a young man aged in his twenties who had on a grey top with a hood and round black headphones. His hair was short and dark brown and his neck was shaved neatly at the back. I could see one white hair on his head. A few rows in front of this man sat three young women, two of whom had blonde hair. One had brown hair. They were talking and laughing and seemed about to go somewhere to have lunch. I counted 24 passengers on the deck, including myself.

The young man with the headphones got off at Redfern Station as did two young Asian women who had been sitting on the other side of the carriage. At the same station a young Asian woman got on and sat down in one of the seats that had just been made vacant by the women. A young woman also sat down on my bench in the seat next to the aisle and when I got up to get off at Central Station, before I needed to say anything, she stood up to let me out.

I decided to use the toilet at Central and on the way there passed a young woman in a railway uniform talking with an old man with a thin build. She smiled and said something to him in reply to something he had said, although I didn’t hear clearly. In the toilet cubicle I had to forcibly tear a strip of paper off the roll because I couldn’t find the end to pull it out. I also had to wipe the seat as the person who had used the cubicle before me hadn’t put up the seat before urinating.

Outside, once I had washed my hands with soap and water and dried them, I used my Opal card to leave the concourse, then went up on the escalator to the Grand Concourse. On the way inside I passed two women wheeling suitcases out of the building. The one bringing up the rear said to her companion as they walked, “Do we go this way?” I went to the light rail platform and tapped on with my Opal card, then queued to wait. By the clock there were six minutes to go before the tram would leave.

A black man and an older Anglo man, who appeared to be aged in his late fifties, were talking in front of me. The black man was evidently an employee and appeared to be either starting or finishing his shift. The older man wore the distinctive hi-vis vest of tramline employees. At one point he said, “I can’t wait to have grandkids, I really can’t.” The two of them left the queue and I moved forward but before the tram arrived a heavyset, bald man aged in his thirties came and stood next to me, outside my queue, but in front of me. Clearly he wanted, like me, to sit down in the tram.

When it arrived I got on and sat down in one of the seats nearest the door. The bald man sat down opposite me. I saw he had a black bag on his lap with the name of the casino and a logo printed on it. He wore a grey top and blue trousers and black shoes. A group of young people, one of whom was pushing a pram, got on just as the doors were shutting and then made some noises and looked outside, indicating to anyone watching that their companion had missed the tram.

At one of the stops further along a young man wearing brown jeans and a green sunhat with sunglasses propped on it entered the crowded carriage. He had a small white bicycle and an orange Boogie Board. He sat on the bike in the carriage and, at one point, lifted the front wheel up off the floor and span it with his shoe. A sticker affixed to the top tube of the bike’s frame had “Raleigh Racing” printed on it.

The bald man got off with me at the casino; evidently he was just starting his shift. He hesitated to push through the crowd that congealed at the door and I said, just before finally moving forward, “Yeah, well, we’ve got to get off.” He didn’t hear me but the man behind him, an older Asian man, heard me and turned his head momentarily to see who had spoken.

I left the station via the east exit and walked home. Above the light rail station nearer to my place were four men and others who appeared to be their personal trainers. Four men had padded mitts on their hands and the other four were punching them with their gloved fists.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Book review: The War Artist, Simon Cleary (2019)

This gripping thriller offers a marvellous overview of contemporary masculinity. At its centre is the death in Afghanistan of a solider, a sapper, named Samuel Beckett (yes, the writer’s presence has to be acknowledged at this early stage in the piece). The man who had been the cause of the death, Brigadier James Phelan, brings Beckett’s body back home but the memory of the death lingers in his mind and he is let go from his command and is retired on a pension.

When doing a review it’s hard to know how much of a book such as this, one which relies so heavily on its plot for forward momentum, you should reveal. I won’t say much more than is necessary to outline the basic themes and to give an idea of the kinds of ideas that lie at the work’s core.

One of the themes – as well as being a major plot device – is physical danger, and this is illustrated early, in the domestic context, away from the battlefield, when Phelan goes to get a tattoo in memory of Beckett in the studio of a Surry Hills artist named Kira. Her boyfriend, Flores, deals in drugs and on the day Phelan comes to get inked a man turns up trying to rob the shop. Phelan decks him and the police take the junkie away but the threat of physical danger lingers, for the length of the book, and never entirely disappears. Flores’ brother Prince is a major dealer and Flores is an abusive partner.

While he is in Sydney attending to official duties Phelan has a fling with Kira and then returns to his home in Brisbane where his wife, Penny, a nurse, tells him she has had cancer and has had a mastectomy. Then, in an effort to control his own physical ailment – post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD – Phelan enrols in a creative writing course and produces some poetry that is published in a university journal. The story gets picked up by the local media and goes national, with Phelan regretting, on TV, the country’s involvement in the Middle East. Kira sees the broadcast, finds his email address online, and contacts him, then makes a quick decision that will change her life. And his.

Cleary tries to reach into the national psyche with this complex novel that, despite overt trade aspirations, attempts to discourse intelligently on weighty themes. It’s hard these days to talk about masculinity and what it means but Cleary gives is a solid go, making believable characters, each of whom possesses a clarity of invention and a substance that enables them to survive a series of long, detailed passages where not much happens beyond the poetry of the words on the page. Kira is finely drawn as the rebel who gave up a comfortable life on account of her art. Penny is the partner Phelan deserves as he tries to come to terms with his changed circumstances. Even the boy, Kira’s son, Blake, has his own personality. Then there are the soldiers and their rude egalitarianism.

There have been other books like this produced in Australia in recent years, and the mixing of genres seems to be a characteristic of publishing nowadays as writers try to reach new audiences while, at the same time, remaining true to their artistic instincts. In fact, the embedding of large themes – such as war and domestic violence, or courage and loyalty, or atonement and redemption – in narratives with tight, fast-paced plotting seems to be something of a new thing for readers here.

I don’t see any chance of this trend abating. Going by the quality of the books that are appearing that conform to this pattern, it looks like we are in a golden age of publishing. An age of new hope and of creative strength that allows people to enjoy the fun of a complex, well-knit plot as well as the satisfaction of big ideas that have currency and that offer their own inherent drama. How could you go past this kind of writing?

Cleary isn’t the only creative artist who has made the link between war and crime. George Gittoes, who made the movie ‘Soundtrack to War’ (2004), which featured US soldiers in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, would later go to the US and do a series of dramatic drawings of youths living in rough parts of Florida. Like Cleary, Gittoes is an Anglo Australian of mature years.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Real power or an advisory role? The nature of a Voice to Parliament

There was a flurry of commentary about Aboriginal reconciliation last Friday as a result of the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, which is held every year in the Northern Territory. Things quickly died down, however, as people turned their attention to other things. But on that day, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Patricia Karvelas, doing a clip to camera, was talking about the constitutional recognition that Aboriginal people aspire to achieve and said, with reference to that aspiration, "they want real power.”

This comment confused me. I published on Saturday 13 July a long post that had been written over the previous couple of days and that included a survey of tweets posted in response to comments from the government in relation to the Voice to Parliament (VtP). The post was titled ‘Responses on social media to Ken Wyatt’s reconciliation effort’ and it ended with the achievement of part of a personal goal: to understand what the VtP would actually be and how it would work in practice. I didn’t end up understanding the second part because this kind of detail hasn’t been finalised yet; Ken Wyatt will be in charge of a consultation effort that will, hopefully at some point in the near future, lead to us knowing more about the government’s anticipated proposal. But according to all leading lights the first part was clear: the VtP would have a purely advisory role.

Karvelas’ comments were made in the context of discussions she had had with Aboriginal people at Garma and the panel for ‘The Drum’ on the ABC on the same night comprised entirely Aboriginal people who had attended the festival. That night I watched the program, which was hosted by Ellen Fanning. This is a photo, taken during the screening of the show, that was posted on Twitter (Fanning is seated at left).

Listening to the panel discuss the issue of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people, it became clear to me why Karvelas had made the comment she made. There is a lot of frustration in the community that these people belong to and most of it is directed at the government. It would be fair to say that their frustration sometimes comes out of their mouths in the form of rancour.

If you took in the information that the panellists were conveying to the ABC’s audience on the night the show went to air, then the aspiration to have “real power” would seem quite normal. Natural, in fact. Why wouldn’t you want a way to influence government policy so that your people could live productive, useful, and happy lives? But this aspiration seems slightly at odds with the stated role of the VtP, which is supposed to be an advisory body, much like the Productivity Commission. The government of the day can accept or ignore the findings of the Productivity Commission as it sees fit. Influencing government policy is not the same as making laws. It’s not “real power”.

Perhaps we should spend a little time looking at the Productivity Commission in order to understand it a little better. It is an appointed body whose members are appointed by the Governor-General (presumably on the recommendation of the government) and has no legal basis beyond its statutory license (in a 1998 federal law). Looking at the ledger of appointees that is available on the Wikipedia page it’s hard to say whether newly-elected governments are in the habit of changing its membership. Since 1998 it has only had 3 chairs, 4 deputy chairs, and 34 other appointees, including current commissioners.

So it’s a fairly stable institution, which no doubt assists it when the time comes to getting its recommendations accepted by the government. Now, a government can only suffer reputational damage if it ignores a Productivity Commission recommendation: if you do it you have to then justify to the people why you took the steps you took despite the advice of people who are, presumably, experts. If your government had not chosen the chair, the deputy chair, or a majority of the other commissioners then you might take a jaundiced view of their findings on a particular issue. But the assumption would be that appointees operate independent of government and purely in the interests of the broader community.

Here we come to a slight impasse with respect to the VtP because we don’t yet know how its members would be selected initially and how the membership would be periodically renewed. If the VtP is to be elected by a cohort of the population that had been selected as deserving to own the franchise, then the VtP would be an elected body representing approximately three percent of the country’s population, and it would not be like the Productivity Commission at all. If the VtP were elected then a government that ignored its recommendation could justifiably be accused of ignoring the will of a minority of the electorate, a minority of the electorate who would be the primary (but not the sole) beneficiaries of its operation.

The current state of play in this debate is that Aboriginal people want to have the VtP enshrined in the Constitution and the government says it won’t do that. As noted above, the Productivity Commission is not enshrined in the Constitution, so it’s not entirely clear to me why the VtP should be.

As this post shows, there are any number of issues that need to be more fully explored before voters can reasonably be asked to change the Constitution. One of these issues is the mere fact of demanding that a VtP be enshrined in it rather than through a law made in Parliament. Presumably, Aboriginal people don’t like this latter option since it makes it easier for any future government to abolish the VtP if it so desires. 

It’s probably germane to remark at this point that no government, in my memory, has even gone so far as to suggest that the Productivity Commission should be abolished. I did find one article published this year in which the Australian Council of Social Services is quoted recommending the Productivity Commission be abolished and replaced by other types of bodies that would be more likely to consider public issues in broader terms than purely economic ones. But this request was rooted in a belief that the commission had been a positive force for good, and that its power should be directed at different kinds of questions, questions that cannot be answered simply by focusing on economics. 

The commission is respected by governments, the media, and by the community because its findings are reasonable and measured and adequate to the purpose. A VtP should aspire to be the same kind of institution. But just changing the Constitution would not necessarily give a VtP “real power”, so it’s not clear to me, beyond the symbolism involved, why doing so is necessary. I thought the object of this entire exercise was to achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal people, and to “close the gap”.