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Friday, 20 September 2019

Equality or equity: which is a better gauge of community health?

In a story published by the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday 18 August, journalist Eryk Bagshaw wrote, “Young Australians are being locked out of a ‘generational bargain’ as the wealth gap between children and their parents soars, new figures show, as the government prepares the terms of reference for its landmark retirement income review.” The story goes on:
In a report to be released on Monday, the Grattan Institute found Australian household wealth has tripled over the past 30 years from $2.8 trillion in 1990 to $10.3 trillion in 2018. 
"But the wealth bonanza has been far from equally spread. Most of the increase in wealth has been accumulated by older households, who benefited most from the housing boom and growth in superannuation assets," researchers Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths found.
This story feeds a common source of discontent in the community broadly, and it’s a gripe that is almost as old as Modernity itself. From the downfall of China’s Qing dynasty to the October Revolution in 1917, around the world people with not much wealth have been mobilising their forces in order to try to capture the wealth of the better-off parts of societies. But this impulse – the idea that all people in the community should share in the community’s wealth equally, regardless of their profession or their talents or their industry or their dumb luck – has been a source of untold suffering. The 20th century is strewn with the bodies of the dead, people killed in the service of promoting equality. The corpses of martyrs to this idea, if they were all placed above ground, would probably stretch from the top of Mount Everest to the moon.


The image above is a piece of propaganda produced in the wake of the French Revolution, the originary cash grab launched by the proletariat. It’s a curious image. In the left of the image you have two symbolic figures, a man and a woman. The man holds a pole on which a pennant, the Tricolor – the flag of the revolution – is flying. The woman has bare breasts to show that she is liberated. But in the right of the image there’s a heteronormative couple with three children: a girl, a boy, and a toddler. The boy and the girl obediently hold their arms out toward the titulary figures, encouraged by their mother. The father, obligingly bent a few degrees at his waist, brings up the rear as the supporter of his family. There’s a plough in the frame, a symbol of industry. The woman with bare breasts holds against her knees a cornucopia to embody plenty – the benefits available to be enjoyed by the people if they follow the dictates of the state. The image is full of interest and shows how, at that time, in the final years of the 18th century, French people were expected to obey in order to prosper. Obey not the king but the state.

The state today fulfils some of the same roles, particularly through taxation and redistribution of wealth. It can also function to regulate wages so that even the lowest-paid among the community’s breadwinners are adequately compensated for their labour: if people have no money to spend, then not only do tax receipts go down, depriving the government of funds from which the poor can be supported, but business also flags and the economy tanks. Equality turns out to be a matter of degree rather than an absolute good in itself.

Australia today, according to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, is the fifth-best place in the world for workers, as measured by social mobility. But despite the prosperity stemming from a high degree of equity in the system, a current bugbear is the Baby Boomer generation, as the story mentioned at the start of this piece shows. Boomers are the bad guys du-jour, the group that the majority of the population loves to hate. They are, if they are white, the patriarchy who have benefited from favourable policies and so have quarantined for themselves the majority of the nation’s wealth. If you say this often enough it becomes true, regardless how much wealth each person aged over the age of 55 actually possesses. An entire class of people is demonised. They must, consequently, pay. 

The parallels with Germany in the 1930s come to mind here. It’s probably only a matter of time before the family home will be included among assets to be assessed for the purpose of calculating the pension. Already, the government has been clawing back money from older Australians, including in 2014 when, in a bipartisan move, the government changed the way that nursing home fees are calculated. Before this time, fees were calculated based on income alone. But assets are now included in Centrelink calculations of the fees people are asked to pay to stay in a nursing home (the government provides a subsidy depending on the individual’s ability to pay). So both sides of government are in on the game: older people will be asked to pay more and more older people will therefore be living in poverty as a result.

If you have worked, as I have, in the education sector, you will know that there is another measure of social health: equity. In the tertiary education sector equity of access to academia is a gauge of institutional health by which senior managers judge their own performance. The idea is not that all people are equal (because, clearly, this is a nonsense). The idea is that all people have equal access to the good things that are available in the society in question. In this case that thing is higher education. A passport to higher wages and to personal fulfillment. Making sure all people have the same level of access to higher education is a goal of university managers and they take this task seriously through the use of a range of measures that can help people coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and from linguistically diverse backgrounds to enrol in a course of study.

So the measure that we should use to gauge the health of our society is not whether people are equally remunerated, but whether they have the same opportunities to develop their skills and talents so that they can thrive. Seen this way, the task for Millennials envious of their Boomer parents is to try to build something as robust as that class of people has managed to construct over the years. They should also be cognisant of the fact that most Boomers, when they die, will, in any case, bequeath their wealth to their children, so we will see a massive transfer of wealth between generations as a result of mere mortality. 

In any case, Boomers are entitled to their wealth. Once you arrive at the age of 55 it is hard enough to keep your job. Just try getting a new job if you lose your job and you are aged 55 or above. The number of Australians over 55 who are on Newstart is increasing at an alarming rate. Millennials on the other hand might switch easily from position to position. They might change jobs every two years, as far as I know. But once you hit the big 5-0 you are considered by most employers to be a liability even though the things that you can contribute to a workplace are many and varied.

Boomers, for their part, are very aware of the community’s views about them. In the past year, for instance, I have read two novels by older Australian men that had a man as the protagonist who philanthropically provides a home for a woman fleeing a dysfunctional family. Neither novel was influenced by the other but both had this common plot element. This indicates to me that there is a type of survivor’s guilt among Boomer men who find themselves, in their later years, comfortably well-off and able to avoid relying on the government to supplement their income. Headlines like Bagshaw’s are neither needed nor warranted.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Book review: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyou (2018)

In relation to this engrossing book and the events it recounts, TechCrunch reported on 29 June this year:
Theranos, founded in 2003 by then 19-year-old Stanford dropout [Elizabeth] Holmes, raised more than $700 million from private market investors in what’s been referred to by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an “elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.”
Carreyou, who was working for the Wall Street Journal at the time (he has since left the company), started reporting on Theranos in October 2015. A number of official investigations resulted from the Journal’s coverage of the company, including a fraud case its two founders will have to defend in the Federal Court.  This book is much more, however, than just a case study in how not to run a technology startup, although that aspect of the book, in itself, makes it worth the time needed to read it.

It demonstrates the bad faith that can lie behind what, on the face of it, seem to be responsible companies. In this case, the executives of Theranos routinely and repeatedly misled a wide range of people – from potential customers to investors to employees – about the readiness of the equipment that it wanted to manufacture and sell.

Pharmaceutical companies would be able to purchase the machines it was trying to develop – named Edison and “4S” (the name borrowed from Apple’s usage; Holmes idolised Steve jobs) – and install them in the houses of their own customers. These customers, in turn, would be able to use the machines, after taking their medications, to assay their own blood, and the results of the tests would be communicated to the relevant chemical company. The problem was: the machines weren’t commercialised and even the mock-ups that were built would only work sometimes, or not at all.

But the deception went deeper than this (although this is bad enough). Companies like Theranos that have an idea and a business plan don’t just make up results to convince people that their ideas can work. They also often tell the world that they are operating in the interests of the broader community. This is how some mask the pure greed that underpins their activities. By packaging the message that what they’re doing has an altruistic purpose, they can bring people on-side who might baulk at what might otherwise appear to be either wishful thinking or a cynical grab for cash. It’s just another aspect of the PR operation such companies carry out.

Carreyou is a good journalist but this is a complex story, so you might become disoriented from time to time as you proceed through the narrative. People who have been mentioned earlier might later be referred to by only their given names, and this can lead to feeling a bit lost. In the end, it doesn’t really matter though because the pattern of awful behaviour on the part of the company’s executives is consistent and you roll from one clash, one defection, one firing, to the next. It’s a crapshoot. Some people’s names have been changed to mask their identities and Carreyou mentions the reasons for this at the outset.

About halfway through the book Carreyou himself enters the story because he is contacted by a blogger with a specialisation in medical analysis who had been in touch with a former Theranos employee. This blogger wanted to get the Wall Street Journal involved because he was concerned about the lives of ordinary people. Carreyou then started his investigations, contacting a number of former Theranos employees as well as doctors using Theranos services. When the company got wind of this, they sent in the lawyers to try and kill the story. They also monstered whistleblowers and others who had had relations with the company. Without the ethical position taken by such people, who had to put up with aggressive threats from Theranos and its lawyers, the story would never have got off the ground.

Holmes even went so far as to approach Rupert Murdoch, who controls the company that owns the Journal, and got him to invest in Theranos. But Murdoch, even though asked to do so, refused to kill the story. Murdoch’s principled stance in this story stands out because it is so much at odds with the greed and immorality of other prominent people who came into contact with Theranos. The mystique of internet companies is so widespread now that dodgy operations, like Theranos, are given money by investors keen to get in on a successful play on the ground floor.

The book also shows how the law can be twisted by the rich to protect their own financial interests ahead of the public good. It also shows how personal relationships can be gained through deception and constitute influence peddling. This rewards businesspeople who claim motivations manufactured purely to feed this system. When you drill down to the micro level, it is shown ruining people’s lives. This is just one element of the case described in this worthwhile book.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Environmental water flows in the Murray-Darling river system

On 5 September the Weekly Times, an august rural newspaper now owned by News Corp, ran a story on its website about farmers in southern NSW throwing into a river an effigy of Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud, a conservative. It’s not what you’d normally expect from farmers, but the drought is cutting deep in the bush.

This post ultimately has its roots in expressions of outrage on Twitter in April that I discussed in a 24 April blog post titled ‘Water buybacks and pressure from social media’. Following up from what happened at that time, on 8 July the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) ‘4 Corners’ program aired its ‘Cash Splash’ episode, which elaborated on concerns raised by people on social media. As a result of this program the level of outrage visible online again spiked.

This episode of the program was criticised by the ABC's ‘Media Watch’ program not long afterward, and I took note when that happened. The main reservation the host of ‘Media Watch’ voiced was that ‘4 Corners’ hadn’t consulted widely enough. They hadn’t, for example, talked with the National Farmers’ Federation to produce material for the show. ‘Media Watch’ found, as a result, that the show had been tendentious and biased because it was unrepresentative of the broader community affected by the drought, which started in 2017.

In the middle of July I saw a tweet from a farmer from Wentworth, a town in southern NSW near Mildura, that was a retweet from a farmer named Jeremy Morton, who lives not far from there but to the east. Morton grows rice and other grains, and raises cattle and sheep, and his tweet contained an image from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office that had been used in a presentation one of its officers had made at a community meeting in Deniliquin.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder was set up, as a result of the Water Act (2007), “to manage water acquired by the Australian Government as part of a suite of national water reforms, including the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.” This description comes from the CEWO’s website.

Here is the image that went up on that July day and that appeared on Twitter because Morton snapped a photo of it with his phone. This table doesn’t make much sense unless you know what you’re looking at, so I’ll give an explanation of it in what follows.


The table in the photo is split into two sections and it shows the total amount of water available for environmental flows that is held by different institutions in two areas. One area (the top three lines) is the NSW and Victorian Murray River. The Murray, as everyone knows, forms much of the border between the two states. 

The first line in this group of three lines shows the CEWO’s holdings of environmental water, or water that is not to be allocated for irrigation but that is to be allowed to flow down the Murray to South Australia and, after there, to the sea. The second line shows the environmental water that is held by other institutions: those controlled by state governments. The final line in the group of three is the total for the two categories of environmental water. This is water that is currently held by these organisations. 

The second group of three lines shows the same information but, this time, for the Southern Connected Basin, which is a larger area that comprises the first area (the NSW and Vic Murray area) as well as other rivers such as the Murrumbidgee and the Goulburn. The following image, from the website of the Murray Darling basin Authority, shows the extent of the Southern Connected Basin.


The total amount of environmental flows available for the southern reaches of the Murray-Darling river system is, according to the CEWO, 750 gigalitres or 750 billion litres. This is an amount equal to the amount of water that can fill 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools and it is half again as much as fits in Sydney Harbour. When I spoke to Morton, he said that 15 years ago this amount of water would not have been set aside for environmental flows but would have been available to be used for irrigation. 

What is striking in this table is that, even though there is a severe drought, water is being added for environmental flows due to purchases funded under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Another thing Morton told me is that when the Commonwealth buys water from farmers the money has to be used to build infrastructure to improve the efficiency of water used on farms, so the money farmers get from the government is not just going into their bank accounts to be used on irrelevancies.

A total of 2750GL in water entitlements was committed under the whole of the federal Basin Plan toward environmental flows. This is made up of 2100GL that the federal government owns as entitlements bought from farmers, as well as 650GL contributed as a result of allocating money to the states to implement different ways of managing water and to build infrastructure. For example, work currently being undertaken at the Menindee Lakes will add 100GL to environmental flows.

A water entitlement is like a piece of property and the allocation is like the rent that derives from leasing it out to a tenant. Even if you have an entitlement, if it doesn’t rain you might not get any allocation in a given year. Just in the same way as, even if you own a property, you won’t get rent if it’s not leased to a tenant.

Water for irrigation was capped in 1995 at the level of development that applied in 1993-94. To ensure irrigation water use was at or below the cap the state governments instigated rules to limit water use such as capping announced allocations to 100 percent of entitlements (not more) and setting volumetric limits for accessing unregulated river flows which were previously unconstrained.

The following chart, which is from the Murray Darling Basin Authority's 2010-11 Annual Report, shows the cap targets for (x-axis) the years from 1997 to 2009. It shows the quantity of water for the cap targets (green line) and the actual diversions farmers made for their irrigation operations (yellow line). The y-axis scale shows volumes measured in gigalitres. You can see that, over the period in question, the amount of water diverted for agriculture has halved to comply with cap targets. The other thing that is noticeable in this chart is that diversions have equalled cap targets or have even come in under them.


Morton wrote in an email that the states erred on the side of caution when setting the rules and between 1997 and 2018 cap credits, or under-use, accrued to the tune of 19,000GL. A drier climate during this period contributed to this level of credit owing to farmers. But on 1 July this year the 19,000GL of cap credits were extinguished as the new Basin Plan water sharing rules came into force. Many of the rules that underpinned the accumulation of the 19,000GL cap credits have been carried over, Morton went on, and irrigators think that new rules are too restrictive. 

A peak body for irrigators in the region, the NSW Irrigators’ Council, released a press release on Thursday 12 September about a request it had made of Littleproud not to take what it said was an additional 2000 gigalitres of water to use for environmental flows. This is in the form of limiting access to water, not the purchase of entitlements, and is viewed as a diminishing of the rights of irrigators without compensation.

The reason irrigators asked this is because the council said the federal government’s actions would harm regional communities not merely by removing water from its use on crops, but also from towns that need water for residential and other purposes. Letters about this matter have been sent to Littleproud and the relevant NSW government minister in recent weeks. 

“This is extremely complex policy,” Morton wrote in an email. “It’s only now as the water sharing plans (the rule book for managing water in each river valley) are being finalised that irrigators are certain that the rules will limit water extracted for irrigation to a far greater extent than the Basin Plan intended.”

He went on: “The way the water sharing plans are written the cap credits are being claimed as planned environmental water (PEW). The plans explicitly state that PEW cannot be extracted for irrigation thus locking in the cap credits as PEW.” The problem as Morton sees it is not what happens when, as currently, there is no rain, but rather what happens when it does rain and there is abundant water in the Murray-Darling basin.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

More on the new literary mode of Divergism

Back on 1 March this year I published a post I had written to outline what I see as a new literary mode. I called it Divergism in order to encapsulate the variety of different styles that are available, now, for writers and readers in the marketplace for books. But when I recently read through the post, I saw that it was quite spare and I felt, on review, that there were other things to say that were germane to the case. Hence the current blogpost. What you are reading now is an attempt to fill out the gaps that I see, on a second look, in that original post. You might want to go back to read that post first, before going on with what’s below. It might help you to orient yourself as I won’t repeat here everything that was in it.

The first thing to say about Divergism is that it builds on the gains that were made in the art of novel (and short story and novella) writing as a result of Modernism and Postmodernism. To illustrate what that means, I’ll insert a case study here.

Recently, I read a novel written by a second-tier novelist who publishes all of his work in French and who is not as well-known in the Anglosphere as he is in France. He is very old now and his most productive era was the 1990s. Reading his book, it struck me how old-fashioned it felt to me. One thing that was missing here were the internal processes of the individual’s mind. The rich tapestry of thoughts and impressions that help us to understand the motivations of the individual characters. There was also a lack of detail in the depictions of the environment in which the characters moved.  I felt that the book was a bit jerky, like a film that is not running at the correct speed on the spool. It was like seeing an uncoordinated animal trying to walk, like a foal just out of its mother’s womb, standing up jerkily on the straw of the barn and moving uncertainly forward.

The book was an historical fantasy and it was very good in the end but I noticed something about it that the author if, when the book was originally published, he had been told what I felt, would probably have been puzzled by. He might have said that he wasn’t writing a literary masterpiece. The kinds of detail that you find, say, in the novels of James Joyce or Marcel Proust, were not relevant for his purpose. But in today’s book market this kind of separation is no longer necessary. Even books that are deliberately aimed at a specific market – crime thrillers, say, or romance – now often have in them elements that derive consciously from the innovations that people like Joyce and Proust introduced into the canon at the beginning of the last century.

But the situation is stranger even than this, even. There is, now, a rich croop of hybrids available for readers to consume. It’s not just that genre novels are more literary in their style now than they had been, say, 20 years ago. It’s also that writers who want to send a message are using both genre elements and literary elements in their books. The market for literary fiction is small (and always has been; people benefit in many ways from what is classed as literary fiction but they won’t take the risk to buy a book by an unknown author who aspires to producing high culture) and so authors are pitching their work at the middle market. To do this they wrap a plot that is heavily influenced by genre norms (for example, by the norms common for crime or science fiction novels) in a package that also contains a poetics that is heavy on literary fictional devices.

These new hybrids both challenge – through the use of secondary colour and through the deployment of detail that relies often on imagery – while also reassuring the reader that he (or, more often, she) will get something that is fun to read. In a hybrid novel these things do different things and they complement each other. The genre plot ensures that the story has strong forward movement. But the stream-of-consciousness and the secondary colour help the author to create drama.

Both give the reader an opportunity to engage with the book. You keep turning the pages because you want to find out who did it, or what happens to the protagonist at the end of the book. But you are also entertained by the feelings that the secondary elements evoke in the spaces between the end of one chapter and the end of the next. Reading this kind of novel is doubly fun: through access to their personalities and interior feelings and thoughts you get insight into the nature of the characters who animate the drama and, as well, you are compelled by the need to know, by the overriding suspense that runs through the novel like an electric current, to find out what happens to the man, woman, boy, or girl (or non-binary individual, or animal, or plant, or rock) sitting at the centre of the web.

Not everyone likes books that actually challenge the reader’s way of seeing the world. Most people want the reassurance of what they are used to, and they will stick to their favourite type of novel loyally: not just the author’s name but the cover design will orient them toward their preferred type of book in the bookstore. But the aspiration to express things in a novel that cannot be expressed in any other way and that go to the core of who we are and what the world is, remains in any number of complex and beautiful (or flawed) novels that can be found in your local independent bookstore. This kind of aspiration is found especially in novels that cleave to our legacy Postmodern mode.

And the stylistic elements that you find in such novels are also often found, today, in genre novels which are, more often than not, an example of the hybrid form of novel I have described above. These novels also express things that can be expressed in no other way than through a novel, but the messages they send, and the ontological superstructure they rely on to create meaning, is rooted in the world rather than in the realm of ideas. Novels of ideas are still being written and they are still being read and they are still being enjoyed – by a few – but the mainstream now has the same goals. Writers of the new hybrids want to change the world in the here-and-now and their readers share their desire for novelty on the political front. Who would have thought, in the 1990s, that the most completely engaged fiction would turn out to be crime thrillers?

I want to add a short note at the end here about the ways that novels are talked about in public. Because of the large number of books I read and because of the necessity of putting books somewhere once they are read, I get most of my books from the Kindle store now. I use a standard non-backlit Kindle that I bought a few years ago. But I still go to bookstores from time to time. I might combine a walk to the bookstore with an outing for lunch, and while at the bookstore I will browse the new-release shelves looking for things that look interesting. I have found some real gems this way and I have also found some real stinkers (often, topical nonfiction).

But most of the recommendations I get nowadays are from social media. I use Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. With the first of these, especially, every week I see the titles and covers of a large number of new releases. If I see something that I think I might be interested in reading, I will write down the name of the author and the book’s title on a piece of paper I keep next to my PC for this purpose. If I am out and about and see the title of a new book on the Twitter app I will use the Notes function of my phone to capture it for future reference. People tweet book covers frequently to their followers, and they also tweet the titles of books and the names of authors they like. You also see, from time to time, magazine articles with a specialist angle. An article a friend posts on Facebook might contain the titles of 20 new novels from one part of the world and, if this happens, I scribble furiously for a few minutes in order to capture as many new items as I can.

People want to share in order to create community and so book recommendations are a staple of social media; they give people an opportunity to express something about their own personalities and to signal to others where their allegiances lie. My magpie-like behaviour is also a facet of Divergism. There is a plethora of new works out there are and, even if you even only pay occasional attention, they will come to you without your having to do anything more than sit in front of the computer or look at your mobile phone. Just choose good people to follow.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Book review: A People’s History of Computing in the United States, Joy Lisi Rankin (2018)

This history book wants to function as a corrective to the standard narrative for the rise of personal computing. It is the third book of IT history I’ve read and have reviewed on this blog.

The first was 2009’s ‘Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age’ by Kurt W Beyer, which describes the career of the admiral who invented one of the world’s first programming languages (COBOL; see review on 1 December 2009). The second was 2003’s ‘Microchip’ by Jeffrey Zygmont, in which the author describes how a (now) important industry ended up being based in the countryside near San Francisco (see review of 29 April 2010).

Books like these add depth to what we commonly talk about in relation to computers and Rankin, for her part, also chooses to step away from orthodoxy, aiming her lens at the time-sharing ecosystem that flourished in universities in the years leading up to the years, the late 1970s, when PCs started to emerge in the United States.

Starting in the early 1960s, time-sharing formed the primary means whereby (mainly) young men used computers, machines that were accessed using “terminals” that were often teletype machines. Using the telephone network, terminals could be located distant from the computer in its specially air-conditioned room.

The first system, implemented at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, was designed to be as easy and cheap to use as the open-access stacks of the university’s library. Academics at Dartmouth also invented the BASIC programming language in order to enable novices and laypersons to learn to program computers. The liberality of the democratic-minded paradigm that motivated the men and women who participated in these projects inspired many early innovations of the digital world at tertiary education institutions.

One type of application program that was popular among students was games. Although the playing of games on time-share networks wasn’t always done without controversy, games encouraged people to spend as much time as they could on the terminals and worked like a drawcard for administrators keen to broaden the reach of the networks they managed. Popularity meant people talked about computers, and also helped with fundraising.

The paradigm was expanded when it became evident that a large number of simultaneous users could be cheaply accommodated on networks that were imagined, in PR copy and magazine articles, as utilities like the electricity grid or the telephone network. Several computer makers were involved in supplying equipment for this market, initially GE (which sold parts of its computer business to automation and controls company Honeywell in 1970), but also later arrivals Digital Equipment Corp, Control Data Corp, and Hewlett-Packard. IBM was involved in other projects, mainframes specifically, and didn’t participate in the time-sharing business as much as the other companies named here. This book does touch on earlier projects that were associated with WWII and the Cold War, in which IBM was deeply involved, but the main focus of the book is time-sharing.

Another aspect of time-sharing was the use of touchscreens and keyboards for the PLATO network build by the University of Illinois. By adding a small program, users were able to incorporate an early form of messaging to the system, ahead of email, which was first pioneered on the ARPANET network. In fact, ARPA partly funded PLATO and its originators had access to the Illinois University network in the 1960s. Users would leave notes in different locations on the central computer so that they could be seen and read by others, although the messaging service was able to be more tightly controlled, allowing, say, two people to talk to one another instantaneously from wherever they were located on the network. Here, again in the United States, is the origin of social networks and the kinds of phenomena that exist now – from anonymity to inappropriate behaviour, and from hacking to verbal abuse – were present then.

One theme that comes out in this book is the way that government funds helped establish the embryonic computer industry. A similar theme is visible in the two books I point to at the beginning of this review. The federal government through the National Science Foundation and the military, as well as state governments, put money into setting up these early time-share networks. Computer manufacturers worked closely with the universities and secondary schools that participated in the boon.

The book comes out thanks to the efforts of Harvard University Press and its providence is evident in the language used in the book, which tends, as is common with writing that originates in academia, to be heavily Latin-based. This kind of writing can tire you out as you look for reliable, Germanic word to hook onto so as to keep your balance. The book also has a large number of footnotes, so the progress counter on my Kindle edition was not wholly indicative.

The introduction could have been shorter and have done its intended job better, but this is a serious book, one based on extensive research. Some readers might want to skim the introduction and head straight to chapter one, where the narrative really starts with a man named Kurtz travelling by train from Dartmouth to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he is able to use a mainframe to test a computer program stored on a bagful of punched cards.

It is 1958 when the book opens and each chapter has a different focus in places stretching from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Hanover, New Hampshire to Minneapolis, Minnesota to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Rankin tries to see the ways that people used computers and gives priority to the individuals and the collectives involved in the situations depicted, rather than to the technology or to the institutions that bought it. This is a “people’s history” and, in this story, the participation of a range of people in the business of running computer networks is humanised and becomes broadly relevant. Personalities emerge and, in an era when computer users were more like citizens enjoying the benefits of the commons rather than mere consumers buying products, the main emotion you notice as you make your way through the story is enthusiasm.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

“Stubborn as a mule:” People dig in to protect their guy

Although it contains a lot of particular details, this vignette can be taken as representative of something that is common on social media: people’s tendency there to do anything possible, in the conversations that they hold, to avoid conceding the tiniest sliver of ground. People don't want the truth, they want their own ideas given back to them. I’ve written before about people’s tendency to treat politics as a kind of football game: they support political parties in the same way that they would support a football team (use your preferred form of football, in Australia we play four different kinds). That is, with passion and unthinkingly.

But it’s the case with any event that engages people’s attention. If you grab someone by the collar or by the button and talk to their faces, they will talk back. And they will tell you that you are wrong. If you disagree in public about someone they are used to agreeing with, they will take this very personally. They will, in fact, take it as a challenge. “Hey,” they will think, “this guy Matthew is dissing my guy Eric, I have to stop this!” So to help Eric they will do whatever it takes to discredit Matthew, starting with the arguments he puts forward.

To show how this happens, let me describe a conversation I had with a US journalist, who is the deputy editor of a reputable news outlet. He is based in New York City and I saw his first tweet at 10.40am on 3 September, Sydney time. I’ll use his first name for convenience. Eric said that his niece, who is 14, had written a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times to complain about an op-ed that had been published in the paper that had remarked on the fact that teenagers don’t read serious books anymore. She said, in reply, that, while literature (specifically, Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’) had changed her life, so, too, had the fantasy podcast ‘Rabbits’, the ‘Harry Potter’ books, and the video game ‘Minecraft’.

In reply to Eric, I said that studies had shown that reading literary fiction helps to improve empathy in the reader, while other forms of culture, such as genre fiction, movies, and video games, do not. “I call bullshit on said studies,” said Eric. I replied that he was being a bit unreasonable, like a climate-change denier discrediting the work of scientists that shows that global warming is caused by humans. He said that he meant for me to show him the studies. I hadn’t gotten this particular Americanism – “call bullshit on” something is apparently a common turn of phrase there – and then told him to google it.

In response some of his followers had a look for the studies. And while Eric never responded again to me, I got a long series of comments from people on Eric’s side who questioned what I had said. In order to discredit the whole, they took apart what I said and debunked bits of it. There was only one study, went one guy. The study didn’t take into account video games, it only compared reading literary fiction with reading other types of book, such as nonfiction and popular fiction. One person said that, in her view, “There are *many* movies that increase human empathy.” Other people were less kind. One said, “produce the evidence or shut up,” even though others had substantiated what I had initially said.

Others were supportive of what I had said and one person even put up a blogpost about a study that had been done on the phenomenon in question. One Melbourne writer said, accurately as it turns out, “yeah the studies don't confine it to literary fiction, fwiw. found the same thing with Stephen King as they did with Proust. a large part has to do with the level of engagement of the individual with the art, not the art itself.”

The thing is that I had known about the benefits of reading literary fiction for over a year and it rankled with the people who objected to my statement that they had been caught out sitting in ignorance. It was shame that made them all so defensive. So they backed their guy to the hilt, and damn the facts. This is the way Twitter works, I have found. This example was just so neat that I felt compelled to describe what happened in detail.

Strangely, just as I had finished editing this post a guy I follow from the US put up a retweet that contained a quote. It went, “’If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.’  -  Jim Rohn.”

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Book review: The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)

It’s difficult to say much about what is recounted in this memoir because I don’t want to give away anything the reader might not want to know before buying it. Having said that, this is a very good read and, while the person who wrote it is completely unremarkable, it must stand as a reliable account of how a mother can become a menace to her children and to her husband. As such, this tale reverses some of the commonplaces that populate the media in our day and age.

The name of the book derives from a succession of large rocks that were left in the wake of the retreat of a sheet of ice that once sat along the west coast of North America where, now, parts of the United States and Canada are situated. This piece of poetry is skilfully performed and the rocks reemerge at the very end of the narrative to form the second of two brackets within which the drama plays out.

The language is succinct and the author is a competent user of commas, which are deployed to help create the cadences of speech and to add emphasis at points of heightened tension or of relief. The reader must forge on from them not knowing how the story will play out. The technique used belongs in the arsenal of the novelist, and it is good fun to find a writer who can use the same tactics that animate fiction to create a work of nonfiction. This breed of book is not uncommon these days but I find that it is still unusual enough to warrant remarking on it when I find it.

This book won the Stella Prize, a prominent literary award exclusively for Australian women, and I feel that, for a change, the right book was chosen. So many prize-winners turn out, in the reading, to be poor substitutes for the kind of reading experience that transports, entertains, and educates.

Laveau-Harvie’s father fought in WWII. She worked (like her mother) as an academic. She has adult children and has made Australia her home, embracing aspects of the local culture that contrast with what she and her sister grew up with in Canada. Occasionally, such insights appear in the novel to help anchor the reader’s imagination in the real world as the author tries to explain her mother’s personality. She begins slowly, deliberately, and her mother doesn’t really make much of an appearance until you are already caught in the web of the narrative.

Despite her childhood trials, the author’s own personality lacks any trace of a need to feel sorry for herself. There are a lot of other good things I could say about this book, which was originally brought out by a small Sydney press (which has now closed its doors) before being picked up by an imprint belonging to one of the major houses. 

Friday, 13 September 2019

Refugees and racism in Australia: An alternative view

The recent case of a family of Tamils the government chose to return to Sri Lanka, whence the parents had fled (the children were born in Australia), highlights some things about our treatment of refugees that need some cool appraisal. Twitter skews very progressive, so it is not a reliable gauge of public sentiment. The view on Twitter is that the government is doing the wrong thing in trying to send the family back, potentially, to danger. Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, gets described using some pretty hard language.

Then another thing happened. John Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who relocated from his native South Africa to Adelaide 17 years ago, wrote a piece on refugees for New York Review of Books that came out in the 26 September issue.

Coetzee has form on this front however. His 2013 novel, ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, deals with a refugee although the country where the boy ends up is not named. A book with a similar title appeared a few years later and the Wikipedia page for the author says there’s another one coming out next year. I started the first of these novels and didn’t finish it, finding it tendentious. There was no freedom for the reader in the novel’s world, you had to have one opinion about the protagonist and one only.

The NYRB piece is written in the same fashion as that novel. The article runs to over 6000 words and revisits commonplace talking points of the left, linking the country’s refugee policies to the kind of outdated racism that belonged to the colonial period and the first half of the 20th century. And although Coetzee mentions post-war migration, there is not a single mention in the piece of the word “multiculturalism”, which is the policy that has driven migration and refugee since the early 1970s, long before Coetzee chose to make this country his home. After Canada, Australia was the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official government policy.

This oversight from a prominent writer is disappointing, but at least Coetzee does one thing good in his piece. He outlines the basis for Australia’s refusal to admit refugees who come here by boat. I’ll include this whole section for the reader’s information.
Australia’s treatment of refugees is constrained by a number of treaties. First among these is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified in 1954 though with a number of reservations. This convention confirms the right (already enunciated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948) of any victim of persecution to seek and enjoy asylum. It also binds signatories not to return asylum-seekers to the countries from which they have fled, a requirement known as non-refoulement. 
While adhering to non-refoulement, Australia has over the years exploited two lacunae in the convention, namely that it does not confer on an asylum-seeker the legal right to enter the country where asylum is sought, and that it does not oblige the country where asylum is sought to grant asylum. Successive Australian administrations have therefore taken the position—validated by Australian courts—that a person who enters Australian territorial waters without the requisite papers is in Australia illegally, whether or not that person has come to seek asylum. 
The question of asylum was repeatedly debated in the United Nations in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia voted alongside its allies the United States and the United Kingdom in favor [sic] of the right of asylum, while consistently reserving its position on the actual admission of asylum-seekers. In 1977 it spelled out that position: Australia “will wish to retain its discretion to determine ultimately who can enter Australian territory and under what conditions they remain.”
So, the Morrison government refusing to accept some people as “refugees” is not, as so many people on Twitter say, illegal. Even Coetzee says it is not, and why would he lie when his purpose is to embarrass the government and, by extension, Donald Trump?

Now, there is one thing which causes a lot of people a lot of anxiety. This is the warehousing of innocent people in unpleasant circumstances on Pacific islands (Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru). Labor introduced mandatory detention of refugees coming on irregular boats in 1992 and in 2001 the Howard Coalition government opened an offshore camp for them. This was closed in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, the Labor PM, and the boats started to arrive again, so Julia Gillard, who had replaced Rudd, reopened the camp in 2012.

Currently, Labor and the Coalition have offshore processing of refugees as party policy and neither party says it will allow people coming on irregular boats to settle in Australia. The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the Liberals label refugees who come by irregular boats “illegal” and Labor does not. This debate has been going on for almost 30 years and the jury is well and truly in.

Despite what Coetzee says in his article, Australia is very welcoming of migrants. Migration is the biggest component of population growth, even larger than natural increase. Both major parties support multiculturalism and both support high levels of migration. OECD rankings have Australia as the fifth-best country for social mobility behind the Scandinavian countries, even despite the poor performance on these terms of the Indigenous population here, so it’s clear that people who move here are able to get good jobs and to keep them.

People who come to Australia have good lives and that’s why they come. And even though there is a right-wing fringe in the community that dislikes foreigners, such people as go to make it up are very much in the minority. Even in the electorates that would be expected to have the highest number of voters choosing One Nation, the party’s share of the vote in elections are usually much lower than either of the majors achieves.

Not all One Nation voters are xenophobes, of course, although a distrust of people from overseas appears to constitute a major part of the party’s ethos. And for that matter even some Greens voters are anti-immigration (since it’s bad for the environment). Many Liberal and Labor voters, furthermore, probably don’t like migrants or having a high level of migration, but despite all this both of the major parties go out of their way, in public, to appeal to communities that have a large proportion of migrants in them.

A bigger issue, of course, is why there are so many dysfunctional polities supplying steady streams of migrants and refugees trying to get visas that allow them to live and work in Australia. Again, Coetzee makes no mention of either of these things in his article. Donald Trump might be stupid and he might be unpleasant and he might be ignorant and he might be narcissistic, but he is right on this point: the caravan of refugees never stops. What are developed nations supposed to do? How to deal with an unceasing flow of want and desperation? Where to put all the people who want better lives? Why are things so bad back home that they have to leave in the first place?

No-one is asking this last question but it is the single-most important question to ask. It’s not enough to blame venal and corrupt leaders. Ordinary people enter government in such countries and when they do they turn out to be just as bad as the ones they replaced. There is probably a reason for this. If you won’t participate in the skimming of funds into your private bank account, the people around you who are doing it will suspect you might dob them in, so they ostracise you if you don’t get involved too. Honest officeholders and accountable institutions seem to be something that you only find in the developed world.

Despite this, Australians give migrants visas and passports, employ them in good jobs, give them home loans and even, in some cases, marry them. Over 50 percent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. However, irregular boats arrivals are not tolerated because they are messy, they are risky, and because they disadvantage people who try to arrive through more conventional means. This aspect of the character of the Australian people – a sense of fairness – is never remarked on, though it is quite evident, as is the existence of a multitude of reasons why migrants from developing nations could be excluded if the government chose to make that a point to pursue. In fact, the government is very accommodating of people from developing nations. This is because the Australian people are, too.

As for refugees warehoused on Pacific islands, they are a billboard designed to put off others who might try to come on irregular boats. The plight of these people is lamentable and must be regretted, and the government should be trying to find an appropriate solution to it. I have no suggestions to make as to what form such a solution might take but rallying the troops in order to get rid of Trump seems, to me, to be a bit facile. Coetzee, for his part, should be grateful that he has been able to make a new life for himself in Australia, a place free of the endemic crime that mars existence for millions of people in South Africa.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Book review: The New Me, Halle Butler (2019)

This short, complex, and vividly-imagined novel of manners is very funny in a dark way. It’s not meant to describe everyone’s experience of work, but it is a relief to read: there are vanishingly few works of fiction that deal with working life. When you consider how much time ordinary people spend at work, this absence of topical fiction is unaccountable. It’s as though novel writers had never worked a day in their lives!

In my working life I have had a range of jobs, some of which were crap for part of the time, and some of which were good for part of the time. I’ve also had a range of different managers. Some of my managers were good and some were not so good. One was positively toxic and her actions practically led to me having a nervous breakdown. One, on the other hand, changed my life when she encouraged me to write. So: swings and roundabouts. But importantly, for the purposes of this review, I was able to sympathise with the types of situation that Millie, the protagonist of this novel, faces during her working life. She’s a temp and she wants to get permanent work but, more crucially, she wants satisfying work. She is looking, at work and in her personal life, for meaning.

Although the novel is set mainly in Chicago, for some reason I kept thinking, as I read the book, that the author was English. There is something very plain and unremarkable about its prose. In a work of this nature, this kind of quality must be extremely useful as we all know from direct experience (well, most of us, anyway) how plain language can be used, in workplaces, to achieve punishing goals. In fact, it is often the very unremarkableness of the language that Millie, Karen (Millie’s supervisor), and others use that makes the story so compelling. Everything is in what is not said, in the margins between one sentence and the other, one visit to the employee’s desk and another, one “good-morning!” and the next.

The novel is focalised through a number of characters but Millie is the protagonist and the matter of her securing a permanent role with the company she is working at rests as the main question to resolve. The fictional material is often stream-of-consciousness so you get to see how the different characters think at different times, during and after work hours, on different days. It allows the reader to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the characters, and come to conclusions about their suitability as objects deserving (or not) of your esteem.

It also allows you to decide if each character is a reliable witness to the events described. It’s unclear why Millie has been so far unsuccessful in reaching and keeping a permanent role doing something that she likes in a company that provides a supportive work environment, but she is a little bit emotionally unstable (though who is not?) and while she has been to university she’s clearly not using those skills in the scenes depicted in the novel.

With these things in mind, you can see how the mind-numbingly tedious and essentially meaningless tasks that combine to make up Millie’s workday are roughly on-point. Every person who has worked in an entry-level role with any company at all will have done things like those that Millie is forced to do by Karen.

While people above you in your organisation are able to behave callously, as if you have no importance beyond what you can do to increase the firm’s profitability, in this kind of role you are expected to both be companionable and strive for excellence. It is however understood by your colleagues (both those with jobs similar to yours and those who have more ability to use their discretion in performing their roles) that you are on the bottom rung and so can do few favours for anyone.

In this novel the employment agency that places Millie in the design firm’s office adds an extra layer of signification that serves to flesh out the author’s portrait of modern-day work. A further facet Is added to Butler’s jewel by the blandishments produced by sales staff at Lisa Hopper, the design firm Millie is employed with, who seek to project a positive image so that people in the community will decide to come to the company’s showroom and pay for the products and services it retails in. Butler’s use of irony cuts deep.

Toadying to someone with less intelligence and a lower level of education than you is par for the course at many organisations. Your ability to succeed being linked to both your willingness to lie to get what you want and to follow orders slavishly. Any originality is, in many jobs, not only discouraged but ruthlessly nipped in the bud by the people who control aspects of how you spend a third of your life.

Certainly this is true of the kinds of jobs Butler chooses to concern herself with. Such are, furthermore, the types of jobs that will become (by all accounts) more common in aggregate as more and more tasks are automated using computers and software. Fewer, more boring jobs available to do in what will likely be, in the absence of adaptive changes to national fiscal policies, shrinking economies in the developed world.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Odd shots, 02: The media is part of the problem

This is the fourth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The trope is so common it’s unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This brief survey is only partial but it demonstrates the existence of certain themes that combine to form a recognisable set of ideas shared by part of the community. The survey started on 31 August and went for about a week.

First, though, a bit of background. Federal government in Australia is currently controlled by the Liberal-National coalition. The Coalition also holds power in NSW, the country’s largest state. The Liberal Party holds government in South Australia and in Tasmania. But Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory are controlled by the Labor Party. Despite this even distribution of executive power, there are vocal elements on social media that believe that the conservatives have taken over the joint. And to pin the tail on this donkey, they blame the media for putting them there.

Now it’s true that some elements of the media are loyal to the conservatives, notably the Murdoch press, which appears to be getting worse and worse all the time. This despite the fact that there is evidence that Rupert Murdoch – still in charge despite his advanced years – loves the media business very much.

To illustrate how Murdoch is seen by many in the community, take for example the following, which went up on Twitter on 31 August at 9.25am. In his tweet, investor advocate and anti-gambling campaigner Stephen Mayne (who had earlier in his career established the news outlet Crikey), said, “Old white billionaire fossils like Gerry Harvey and Rupert Murdoch have a lot in common - no wonder Gerry gets such a big run to push his anti-women views in The OZ. Check out these crazy quotes.” His tweet came with a photo of a newspaper article published in the Australian.

On 2 September at 10.22am the activist consumer affairs account Sleeping Giants Oz tweeted, “This is an obscene & unholy union between the Murdoch mastheads & the Coalition government. No democratic government should have the major media organisation in the country on a string to deliver its messages unfettered. And they laugh and point at China.” The tweet came with an image that showed headlines and images taken, it appeared, from of some Murdoch newspapers. In the background behind these clipped sections of text and photographs were words like “propaganda” and “misinformation”. Sleeping Giants was driving the point home hard.

This kind of viewpoint was ironically encouraged that day by an article about the media by the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy that appeared on the company’s website on 31 August and that had the overt purpose of lifting support for the profession she belongs to.  The piece examined some aspects of the media in Australia, especially in light of two public conversations: one about the right of the religious to discriminate on the basis of their beliefs, and one about the government’s apparent disregard for the freedom of the press.

Murphy’s tweet spruiking her article went up in the morning and not surprisingly it drew a quantity of criticism from some quarters. The article was seen by some as a plea for prerogatives based on an underserved reputation as the country’s guard against despotism. For such people, despotism is what we have got.

For example, in reply to Murphy’s tweet, at 10.14am on that day Denise Shrivell (who is often vocal criticising the media) said, “Many of us run to & support journalism which serves the public interest but equally run from agenda-led journalism which seems to occupy the largest parts of Aust’s media landscape & is now damaging our democracy & journalism itself. Could & should be so different.” If this was referring to Murdoch’s newspapers then it might not have seemed controversial, but Shrivell was not just talking about Murdoch’s papers. She was attacking all of the mainstream media.
She was not alone however. At 8.56am, a man I follow named Martin Hirst (he uses the handle @ethicalmartini), had tweeted:
I hear only noisy stones rattling in a can being kicked down the road. 
The road is a dead end. 
The News Establishment is the problem. 
By definition, the problem cannot simultaneously be part of the solution. 
A self-serving sermon on trust, not a solution .
And at 9.23am a man who used to be a Fairfax journalist, named Asher Moses, had tweeted, “Main job of most mainstream news outlets: distract & convince the working class to vote tory [sic] to ensure the capitalist class who own and advertise in said outlets maintain their power. Propaganda in papers is crucial to maintaining control in so-called democratic societies.” This comment was attached to a retweet of a tweet from a man named Tim Dunlop that had gone up at 9.17am on the same day. It went, “Being anti-Labor is baked into the DNA of Australian newspapers. A quick look at the history of this as described in Sally Young's new book, Paper Emperors.” His tweet came with a pink to a piece that had been on the Patreon website, and you need to have a subscription if you want to read a piece published there.

The caravan rolled on all morning. At 10.27am on the same morning Alex Wodak, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, started a thread on Twitter that went as follows:
“The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. ..
.. ’We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... 2/3 
.. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” Believed to have been said by Karl Rove 3/3
This belief that the media are in cahoots with the federal government (conveniently leaving out the states and territories that are governed by Labor) also leads some to suspect the media of going easy on what it finds out about corruption. On 1 September at 11.18am this question arose due to a tweet from an anonymous account with the handle @ultimatequestion and 1259 followers: “Planet Corruption. I hear its rotten to the LNP/IPA core. The atmosphere is completely made up of neoconservative ideology often confusing inhabitants. Some suffer delusions of grandeur while others can't differentiate between malfeasance & self entitlement.”

This perception – that the Liberal Party and certain parts of the media are beholden to the conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs, is not unfounded. In fact, Rupert Murdoch helps to fund the IPA which has, among its many policy demands, the privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC). Many Liberal parliamentarians, furthermore, used to be active in the IPA and some are still members.

Certain policies of the federal government are seen as being unthinkingly supported by the media. Such as refugee policy (even though Labor’s refugee policy is almost indistinguishable from the Coalition’s). On 2 September at 7.57am Aaron Dodd, who describes himself as a Melbourne-based small business owner, tweeted, “BREAKING: TV network run by senior Liberal Party member makes strategic decision to be a propaganda broadcaster for the Liberal government.” The tweet also retweeted a tweet from Channel Nine about a boatful of asylum seekers that had been intercepted by Border Force. This tweet went, “The government has announced this morning that Border Force officers have intercepted a Sri Lankan asylum seeker boat in the Indian Ocean.”

The economy is also seen to be something the government and the media agree on uncritically. On 4 September at 10.05am an account named “Innocent Bystander” with 367 followers tweeted, “Ever the reliable propagandist for a shambolic, incompetent, discredited, corrupt regime with no understanding of finance or economics, no policy clues and absolutely no ideas.” The tweet was in response to one by the Australian containing mention of the prime minister’s opinion of the economy which, at that time, was soft.

On 8 September at 11.26am, an account with 263 followers with the Twitter handle @strongisgentle, tweeted, “The LNP are politically wedded to having this surplus. They pretend it matters against all the expert advice to the contrary. When will journos call out the LNP for the ideologues that they are? They [,the journalists,] epitomise the greedy selfish ‘aspirationals’ that are ruining Australia.”

At the beginning of September all of these ideas rolled into a neat package when something happened that seemed to confirm people’s suspicions of collusion between the media and the federal government.

On 3 September at 8.52am, Denise Shrivell responded to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about the treasurer appointing the former treasurer, Peter Costello, as head of the Future Fund, the federal government’s sovereign wealth fund. The story had been promoted with a tweet and Shrivell was scathing of the boy’s-club nature of the appointment. Costello is, furthermore, the chairman of Channel Nine, which owns the SMH. Channel Nine had just hosted a fundraiser for the Liberal Party (which the treasurer belongs to).

In response to Shrivell’s tweet, a woman named Tina Kulski in her Twitter profile tweeted, “I doubt I'll ever see another Labor government in my life time.” Shrivell commented, “yes - sadly I'm increasingly thinking same. We're heading down a very frightening path under a cruel neo-liberal Govt which has media, business & apathetic voters very much in hand - which any Opposition is struggling to counter.”

The fundraiser soon became the main target of people’s frustration. On the same day at 3.40pm an account named only “Mitch” (with 191 followers) tweeted, “So @9NewsAUS is now the 2nd Media Arm of the @LiberalAus in cohoots with @SkyNewsAust. So shouldn't be long now and we will have that Police State/Country. With MEDIA on tap 24/7 for thier [sic] Propaganda.”

Then at 1.23pm the account of Age journalist Ben Schneiders tweeted, “Letter sent to Nine CEO today Hugh Marks over staff concerns about Nine hosting a Liberal fundraiser. We strongly object to our reputation for independent journalism being compromised. Endorsed by  house committees of Age, SMH and AFR.” The letter included this: “The former Fairfax mastheads have a long history of political independence.” The letter went to ask if this had changed and, if so, expressing a wish that notice of the change should be conveyed to staff of Channel Nine. The fundraiser had, the letter added, made the job of the company’s journalists more difficult. In response to the letter, Channel Nine management said, according to the Guardian in a story on the same day:
Nine management and board have been clear and strong in the support of the charter of editorial independence. 
Editorial impartiality is also integral to the operations of our regulated television business. 
We participate actively in our democracy and speak to all parties to press our case around regulation and other political issues that concern our business and the ability of our people to perform their role. 
We took the opportunity last night to present our case to the Liberal Party at their business forum and today to the Labor Party at their event and dinner with their leader.
Channel Nine’s dilemma stemming from the fundraiser was encapsulated by a visual meme that I saw at around 6.45pm on the Tuesday. It made a mockery of the Sydney Morning Herald’s motto of “Independent. Always.”


Later, at 7.34pm Tom Swann from progressive thinktank the Australia Institute tweeted, “Mining lobby group chaired by ex Liberal senator goes to Liberal party fundraiser hosted by media company chaired by ex Liberal Treasurer.” His tweet came with a link to a story on the Australian Financial Review’s website titled, “Who attended Channel Nine's Liberal Party fundraiser?”

Later in the week as I was listening to the ABC News channel, I heard a newsreader announce that Channel Nine’s CEO Hugh Marks had just admitted that hosting the Liberals’ fundraiser was “a mistake”.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Book review: Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrea Lawlor (2017)

This brilliant novel contains speculative elements that are evident even in its title but the book it reminded me of is ‘Veronica’ by Mary Gaitskill, which was published in 2005 and which I read last year. I put up a review of it on 31 October 2018. There’s something about Paul that reminded me of the character of Alison in Gaitskill’s book. The dissolute youth, the sojourn in California, the being in thrall to pop culture, the presence of death. Gaitskill’s book is, like Lawlor’s, very good and, like it also, has an autobiographical source.

It is a commonplace of popular culture for someone to “take the form of” something else. It might be a superhero who takes the form of a flame or a wave or it might be a god that takes the form of a bull. This kind of trope has been part of every culture from the earliest times, as we know from records that date back to classical antiquity and even, beyond that seminal historical period, in eras during which other communities flourished.

The idea of change (by some called “progress”) is also an idea that is firmly rooted in technological developments that have accelerated since the 19th century as humanity has become more and more able to control the world it inhabits and of which it forms a part. In many countries, alongside such changes, there have been commensurate cultural and legislative changes resulting in the individual’s ability to more securely hold the respect of his or her peers, and of society more broadly, despite differences rooted in sexuality, gender, ethnic background, or nationality. Most recently, we have begun to talk about gender identity and it in this context that this interesting book achieves its most decisive effect.

The authors decline to identify exclusively with either gender and prefer to be referred to using third-person plural pronouns (eg “they take” instead of “she takes”). In the interests of fostering diversity in my review I will follow this convention. Apologies in advance to those who might find such a practice confusing.

I say “most decisive” because I don’t think it’s fair or useful to limit the novel’s ambition to a narrow political scope. By blurring the lines between sexuality and gender, Lawlor does us a service. Reading this book, you are aware of the performative nature of much of social interaction. Hence the adjective “interesting”. I readily sympathised with the protagonist (Paul) and quickly adapted to the cognitive demands that his odd physiognomy places on the reader.

As you get older considerations relating to sexuality become far less important; this aspect of existence thankfully diminishes in importance when you are less burdened by the physiological urges that make people so interested in sex for much of their lives. But I was myself young once and I can see how this kind of novel would be useful for someone who is searching for ways to understand themselves and their place in the world. For just this reason life, for young people, can be confusing and difficult. As you get older the challenges you face are more likely to stem from such considerations as how to stay awake beyond 9pm and what sort of sugar-free soft drink to buy from the supermarket now that you have given up alcohol. Drugs and sex and road trips and music concerts are not the most important things once you are over the age of 55.

But they are for Paul Polydoris and his alter-ego Polly and Lawlor’s writing shines particularly brightly for the sex scenes. Describing sex well and accurately is a fraught business. The record is strewn with solecisms and absurdities produced by writers of every ilk who have tried it and have failed. Lawlor understands the need for both precision and a dispassionate gaze to produce a kind of alchemy of restraint and honesty. They also focus on the feelings of the people engaged in the acts described in a way that helps the reader to understand more about the characters, what they believe is important, and how each feels about the other person.

It’s a masterclass in empathy. This approach results in some very good paragraphs indeed as the author tries to depict Paul’s life in a way that is suitable for the scope of the work. This honesty extends also to the way that Paul deals with people who are close to him, such as his friend Jane and the various sexual partners he meets with in the course of the story. At a festival in Michigan, Polly meets a girl who likes girls, and this connection leads to a fraught conversation when Diane drives to Iowa one day not long after the festival has finished. When she arrives, Paul is working in a bar. Paul’s university study is only possible due to the low-level service jobs he takes in order to pay for food and rent, and this aspect of the novel is, like Paul’s passion for music, rendered in a way that lets you feel how Paul relates to the people involved, such as Greg, the bar manager, and James who, like Paul, works behind the bar making and selling drinks for customers.

It is winter when the novel opens, and it is 1993. Diane invites Paul to visit the house where she lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on the way Paul stops by in Troy (near the New York capital of Albany) to see his mother. As these trips are completed, a fuller picture of Paul slowly emerges. You get to see different parts of him as he meets with different people and does different things. There is drama and there is humour – as when Diane chastises Paul for ordering a meal with bacon in it – of a rare kind. Such scenes are like a breath of fresh air but this novel is full of such unforgettable moments.

The story of Paul and Polly is interrupted on occasion by contemporary fairytales that have an appropriateness about them, although they are thrown in willy-nilly without warning or explanation. There’s also an attempt at a movie script that fictionalises the situation Paul finds himself in, which is a bit crazy. It’s a meta-fictional device working inside a novel with a deliberate advocacy role, one which skews standard narratives in a way that tries to normalise the non-binary (in fact it goes further than this).

This is all very knowing and self-referential. It is a kind of sense-making that people who live outside the mainstream perform in order to explain their lives. It is done to produce something external to the culture that surrounds them, although they also freely sample from mainstream culture in order to make sense of life. Despite all of this, the main force propelling the story forward is Paul’s fate, always hanging in the balance. The secondary material that helps to complete the work is very fine but the author never loses track of the book’s main thread. This is a work of rare beauty and the authors are people of rare talents.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Train trips: Six

This is the sixth 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.

11 August

From Bondi Junction I headed home on the train. I was with a friend and at about 5.45pm on this cold day we went down the escalators to the platforms and scampered to the train about to depart. The first carriage we entered was very full so we went through the doors at the end to the next one, where we sat down, on the lower deck near the stairs, in seats facing one another. At Town Hall a lot of people got on and filled the deck and I got off at Central at 6.05pm, leaving my friend to continue on to a station further down the line.

I walked back along the platform in a northerly direction and as I was moving a train bound for Bondi Junction pulled up. Some people got on and some people got off, including a woman wearing a black cardigan that came down to her knees. I passed her and headed for the escalators that would take me up to the North Concourse.

Once I arrived there I headed to the toilet and used the urinal – I had drunk a lemon, lime and bitters in Woollahra, and a schooner of Kirin draught, a flat white, and an iced coffee in Bondi Junction – then washed my hands and dried them using a machine blower on the wall. A man I had seen outside the toilets talking with a girl aged about 11, who was evidently waiting for him, stood near the entrance to the space and I could hear him talking to a boy who was in a cubicle to my right.

Outside, I left the concourse and headed through the barrier, using my Opal card to get out. I passed the woman with the long black cardigan as I walked toward the escalators that would take me upstairs. At the upper floor, I walked along the side of the Grand Concourse with, to my right, suburban trains sliding silently along the sandstone viaduct next to Elizabeth Street, their lights glowing in the darkness and the seats of the carriage decks visible to me. At 6.08pm I tapped on using the card reader on the platform and headed to the outbound platform. There were still 10 minutes until the tram would arrive.

Next to me on the platform a young man wearing neat, dark clothes who had a backpack on his back was talking to himself loudly enough for anybody to hear. He was not talking on a phone; I checked both sides of his head and there was no earpiece. He was just involved in a conversation in his own head and was not hurting anybody. When there were two minutes before departure I saw the tram gliding up the hill with its lights on. I had imagined it to be coming a few minutes earlier but as there had only been one light visible at that time I guessed after a moment or two that what I was seeing was a cyclist.

I got on the tram when it drew up at the stop, and sat down. Over the PA system the driver notified passengers that the tram would depart in one minute. A small girl aged about four years was on the tram with her father and she sat down in one of the hinged seats opposite me. She had straight, black hair and had on a red, long-sleeved top with, on its front, a cartoon image of Mickey Mouse wearing a purple hat and, on his feet, what appeared to be roller skates. In her hand she carried a paper bag with a string handle. The bag had an image on it of what looked like a princess in a long, pink dress.

A man wearing shorts who stood immediately to my left kept knocking my shoulder with his backpack so at Exhibition Centre when the tram stopped I stood up and brought this circumstance to his attention. He was English and looked to be aged in his early 60s and was on the tram with a woman I took to be his wife. He apologised and the woman said to me, looking me directly in the face, “It’s better to say something. You’re right.” Perfectly reasonable.

When the tram was stopped the driver spoke over the PA system: “Please keep moving inside the vehicle. Do not block the doors, so other people can get on and off safely.” There had been no announcement prior to our arrival at the stop and I noticed the LED signs in the carriages were malfunctioning. Regardless of which stop we were approaching the signs said only, “Destination: Central” and “Next stop: Central.”

At Convention the person sitting in the seat to my right, an Asian man aged in his 50s who had been using his mobile phone during the journey west, turned and looked out the window of the crowded carriage, evidently confused. I said to him, “This is Convention.” He glanced at my face and said in reply, “Convention, thanks.” At 6.36pm he got off at the casino with me and a number of other people. I tapped off with my Opal card and left the building through the east exit. By 6.48pm I was home.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Back in the hospital again

On the Wednesday in the last week of August, a week after the previous hospital visit (see post for Sunday 25 August), I had returned the Holter monitor to the pathologists’ at the GP clinic and had come home to eat breakfast. My heart started going fast and I called an ambulance. When the guy arrived I recognised him as he had come about three weeks previously on a similar call. As before, this time he had come on his motorbike, and he carried two bags up in the lift from the street.

Smithy (one of the ambos who came to help me a couple of days alter told me his name) pasted my skin with contacts and plugged the leads into the electrocardiogram (ECG) machine he had in one of his bags, then printed out the results, which were normal. He said it was fine now but asked whether I wanted to go to the hospital. I told him about the week before and he got me to sign a form to say I didn’t want to go to the hospital, then he asked me about the new hotel planned for the casino – we could see the skyline of the city out the eastern windows in the apartment – and I explained to him that a new tower would partly block the view from my place.

After he left I sat down to the computer and then a bit later ate a sandwich I had bought in the morning from the café next to the light rail station. When I had finished eating my heart was thumping heavily in my chest (but not going fast) and then I felt a stabbing pain in my abdomen where the lower intestine is, on the right-hand side. An echoing pain appeared in my chest on the right-hand side and I felt the same thing a few moments later. This kept going for a minute or two then subsided, but came back again about five minutes later. I had a heavy feeling in my chest on the left-hand side. I called triple zero again.

The ambos who came this time were in a team, and one of them, the tall one, asked me some questions as the other one (who was shorter and had a beard and grey hair) connected me to the ECG monitor. This ambo took a blood sample with a pinprick to check my blood-sugar levels while the other guy talked to me about my history of heart problems. It was two hours since the first ambo had come. The short ambo asked me about dad’s ensign which is framed and hanging on the wall behind my couch. I explained what an ensign is and how it had been used at the back of the sailing club’s tender during races on weekends.

The ECG printout showed that nothing was wrong but the tall ambo said it was a good idea to go to the hospital because and ECG might not tell the whole story about the heart, so I got ready with my keys and jacket. The short ambo got hold of my medications from the entertainment cabinet, where they had been sitting, and put them in my green satchel, into which I had already put a phone charger. I also had an umbrella in there just in case it rained. We went down in the lift.

Outside, the short ambo was still talking about sailing and I said that I had sailed in my youth but had stopped. The tall ambo asked me what I did and when I said I write he said that he could never do that. I got in the ambulance. The tall ambo strapped me into the seat and sat down opposite me with a ruggedized laptop on which he tapped away while we drove to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. When we got there at just on 1.15pm I walked inside and sat down in a seat while the tall ambo told a nurse about my case. I had to correct some details in his delivery and he asked me a few additional questions while we were in the hallway. Then they took me into the resuscitation ward.

The tall ambo got a chair for me to sit down and he placed it next to a security guard. A young woman who was sitting nearby, in another seat, was complaining about being given medications that she said didn’t agree with her, and added that she wanted to go out to smoke a cigarette. A nurse came over to her and explained that in her condition – she was agitated and very vocal – they wouldn’t be able to let her go outside. She agreed to calm down and spoke in Greek to a woman sitting beside her when the nurse, a man, went away.

A different nurse came over to me and took me to a bed in the ward where I lay down before she connected me to an ECG. Then when that had been done they took me next-door to the emergency department. I lay down on another bed. A young woman who appeared to be aged in her twenties was lying in the bed to my left. She was covered by a blanket and I heard someone say that she had had a seizure. The woman’s brother came in later, talked to her, and went back out of the ED. He bought some food from McDonald’s and came back and gave it to her. She ate the food sitting up in her bed. He sat down in a chair in the ED to wait.

A doctor who introduced himself as Dr Chin came to see me and I answered some questions he asked. Soon, a small Asian woman came and took me to get an X-ray done. This would be done in a room near the ED and, when the woman started to move my bed, I said I could walk. She asked the ED nurse if this was ok and the latter said it was, so I got up onto my feet. In the room where an X-ray was installed I had to take off my jacket and shirt to get the thing done. Then when that procedure was over at 2.24pm I came back to the ED and, once I was back on my bed, at 2.45pm a nurse put a cannula in my arm at the elbow and took some blood for testing. A couple of minutes later I heard the PR system announce, “Doctor Chin to resusc bed two.”

To my immediate right in a bed lay an old lady who had fallen over in the street due to low blood sugar and low blood pressure. She was aged 89 and the police had taken her dog back to her place. A man who might have been her son or brother was standing next to her bed and he said, “I might bring you back to our place for a bit.” They were talking about Smackos, but I wasn’t following the conversation closely. At 2.53pm I heard a nurse say to the old woman, “We’re going to move you upstairs to our short-stay area. It’ll be quieter there.” The nurse who spoke to her about the planned change of location told her she looked good for an 89-year-old.

A little later I saw one of the ambos who had brought me into the RPAH. It was the short one with the beard and grey hair. At 2.57pm I felt my heart beating heavily but not fast and I mentioned this to one of the nurses. I started talking about the cardiologist and other things and she cut me short, saying, “If it becomes pain let us know, ok?” An Aboriginal woman named Melissa who was accompanied by a nurse holding an intravenous drip was ushered into a wheelchair near the ward’s door and was then moved to another part of the building.

At 3.09pm I saw the other ambo who had brought me, the tall one. By 3.45pm the ED was much quieter. A man with psoriasis was wheeled, on a bed, past my bed. He was lying on his stomach. A man in a black suit bumped fists with the security guard who had been in the resusc ward when I was there, then they split up and went separate ways.

A nurse came up to the bed in which the young woman who had had a seizure was lying and spoke to an older Asian man as he took hold of it. “She’s going to EMU, Brian,” she said, referring to the emergency medical unit. Not long after this I saw the bearded, grey-haired ambo again. A nurse came to my bed and took my blood pressure, my temperature, and my pulse. “Everything looks good,” she said when this was all done. The other nurse came up to me and started to move her hand to my wrist strap, saying, “We’re going to go up to ... Oh sorry not you.” She meant that someone would now be moving the woman who was in the bed to my right.

Later, another elderly woman was moved to that berth in the ED. “You’re covered aren’t you?” asked a middle-aged woman standing next to her bed. “You’ve got ambulance cover?” It was 4.29pm by this time. The old woman’s name was Maria and she was Greek. She had had dizziness as well as pain in her leg over previous few days. The ambo who spoke to the nurse about Maria was named Rowan. “ECG was unremarkable,” he said, but he said the woman had a long list of chronic health problems including hypertension and high cholesterol levels.

A social worker who looked like Tilda Swinton spoke to an old woman in a bed two beds to my left. This woman had been crying earlier, and had then been moved to a new berth. A nurse had been trying to find out where she lived and it appeared that she couldn’t remember her address. From across the ward I had watched this poor woman trying to get her left arm into the sleeve of her jacket, her face crumpled under the influence of anxiety or despair, it was hard to tell which. She looked very alone.

At 4.39 Dr Chin came to see me and told me I could go home. He gave me a letter for my GP and shook my hand. As the nurse came to take the cannula out of my elbow, a woman in a grey suit came up to the frail, old woman lying now in the bed to my immediate left, whispering urgently, “Mum, mum. I’m here.” As I got up and started to walk out of the ED I heard her saying, “Matt’s on his way.” She was bent over the old woman holding her hand. I walked to the lobby and used the toilet then walked outside and went to the cab rank. I was home by 5.02pm.

Two days later I saw my GP and he said that the Holter monitor result showed no problem with my heart. The range of its beating during the monitoring period was within normal boundaries. There was one ventricular ectopic beat during the 24-hour period. Later that same day I saw my cardiologist and he said the same thing: there was no problem with my heart. That was on the Friday. On Saturday I lay down after lunch to have a nap and had palpitations again that didn’t go away when I got up to sit at my desk. I called an ambulance and even though the ambos monitored my heart lying in bed the symptoms didn’t recur when they were in my bedroom. I let them go.

The following week on the first Tuesday in September, I saw my psychiatrist and he said he thought getting me on a new medication would fix the problem. He gave me a script which I took to the pharmacy to fill, then went home, but I would be back in the hospital again the very next day.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Book review: The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell (2019)

Most Westerners won’t know much about Zambia and I’m no exception to this rule. It is located just to the north of the better-known Zimbabwe – better known for unfortunate reasons; oddly enough, Robert Mugabe died the day before this review was put up. As for Zambia, it is also land-locked and has been relatively peaceful since independence. Since the 1990s elections have been held for the president. The author of this novel lives in the US and graduated from university there.

I found this historical drama fascinating for its breadth of vision and its gentle wisdom. The writers who kept coming to mind when I was reading it were Peter Carey and, by way of the Australian’s novels, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The plot furthermore covers similar ground as was used in a genre novel that came out at the beginning of this century (so as not to give the game away, I won’t say whose it was, but he’s famous), with an original twist added by way of information technology and the internet. Toward the end of the novel, embedded in the text, there is a deliberate nod to Marquez, so Serpell confirmed my suspicions herself, but while her novel has the same large scope of one dating from an earlier era its poetics allow the writer to focus also on the minutiae of daily life.

This includes revelations of the feelings and motivations of individuals, even though there is a deadpan quality to Serpell’s delivery at certain moments in the narrative as though, despite being about to divulge things that might might seem incredible, the author doesn’t care about any potential misgivings arising from the plot devices she deploys or the characters she invents. Poker-faced as a seasoned pro, she hands it over anyway. And her sense of timing is impeccable; this novel is a genre-bender if ever there was one. Of course, without the flexible prose she uses, the performance and all it contains would be impossible to pull off, although things do get a bit bumpy near the end of the story.

It’s a long book that, especially toward the end, contains speculative elements. It starts out with some scenes from the life of an English adventurer who establishes himself, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the town of Livingstone in what would become Northern Rhodesia and that would later, in the 1960s, become Zambia. The place named in the book’s title is a stretch of the Zambezi River located in the south of the country that was used as a point of crossing before better infrastructure was built. Just as the author examines from different angles the word “drift” that appears in the title, toward the end of the book she gives the word “digital” new meaning in an innovative fashion; the scifi aspects of this novel will enthral enthusiasts of the genre who give it a go.

The lives of various characters merge and intersect as Serpell chronicles the emergence of a nation to stand among other nations in the world. Some of the people who appear in the tale are Westerners and others are local Bantu or Tonga speakers. In some parts of the book there are Indian migrants, and there are other people who have mixed backgrounds. The relations between the individuals who crop up again and again in the narrative might be based on money or they might be based on desire but always there is the undercurrent of a shared humanity.

I felt at some points early on that the poetics behind the story threatened to become tendentious but no story is given too much time to ripen before it is ended, plucked like a fruit off a branch and set aside to keep so that elements of it can be later reused in another part of the book. Between the chapters you are given sections narrated by something you understand to be mosquitoes, those pesky insects endemic to the region that are so insistent and that can bring sickness (another “old drift”). Like a mosquito’s buzz, Serpell’s story insinuates itself into your consciousness by dint of a ravishingly flexible style but, unlike a mosquito bite, reading this long book will do you good. Different chapters are written in different ways and the author is as able to render the thoughts of a child of five as a teenager of 13 or a man in his late 30s. Serpell’s ability to mimic is mind-blowing.

While there is a good deal of incisive commentary in the form of character sketches that show individuals sometimes acting badly, there are no easy or pat answers to the problems that characterise each era used for the drama. Although there are persistent feminist and Marxist themes that are explored through different characters, human frailty is the most-frequent explanation for the problems that people who appear in the story face in the course of their lives. No-one is entirely innocent; few escape some form of judgement imposed at the author’s discretion. And while racism is examined in some detail so, too, is the predisposition of the Indigenous people to using questionable thinking in an effort to control their lives.

Superstition, intolerance, misogyny, and an inability to control their own physical and psychological impulses emerge as explanations for things that go wrong, and the heady mix of youth and political self-determination is shown to be dangerous under certain conditions. People try to prosper and survive but in many cases they let themselves down.

As the author moves closer to the present, the types of characters she invents change with the times and as before we are shown the reasons for how they behave. This is done in a way that gives you confidence that what you are reading is anchored in truth. Although there is a distinct lack of worthy male characters, that early suspicion of tendentiousness dissipates under the influence of the author’s careful portraits, drawn with a very fine brush and involving renditions of the feelings behind the actions of each person she creates.