Monday, 14 October 2019

Book review: Ball Lightning, Cixin Liu (2018)

Despite some slightly clunky characterisation and some cliché (drunk Russians, absent-minded professors), this novel is a lot of fun to read. I also wasn’t totally happy moreover with a couple of the major plot points, notably the childhood stories of the two main characters – Chen (this is his surname, his first name is not often noted as he focalises the entire narrative), who is a man, and Lin Yun, a woman who is in the military – which serve to motivate these two to behave in various ways. Don’t leave yet though! There are lots of good things to say about this book as well.

For the Western market Liu uses our naming convention of putting his first name first and his surname last, in place of the more normal Chinese way of writing names (in Chinese his name would be Liu Cixin).

But there are some particularly Chinese characteristics that provide some of the drama in the novel, notably the relationship between Lin and her father. The relationship between Chen and his parents is complicated by the fact that he witnessed their death due to ball lightning when he was 14. After this event, there is a sudden jump in the story so that Chen ends up at university all of a sudden; what happened to him after his parents died, and who raised him, are not touched upon by the author.

In addition to this concern with elders there is the issue of nationalism. This aspect of the book is emphasised by the fact that the military conscript Chen to help them to develop weapons based on ball lightning. This is where he gets to know Lin and Ding Yi, an Einstein-like figure who eventually leads the research effort and who has, in addition to qualifications in physics, a degree in philosophy. There is war and there is the matter of protecting the homeland. There is a link with the Cold War and Russia (China’s “parent”), and there is a twist on the usual trope of the Chinese stealing technological knowhow from the West.

An overriding theme in the novel is the inherent value of the individual, even though for much of the time you are reading about what people in the armed forces do and say. On the other hand, there is not a single reference to the endemic corruption that blights existence for ordinary Chinese, so I felt the author has not been entirely candid. Of course, this very absence could be construed as a kind of oblique criticism. And it doesn’t pay to criticise the Party too openly. Liu does though make a seemingly random comment, through an unreliable Russian character, about aggressive Chinese mercantilism.

As well as being difficult from a technological standpoint, the novel is ambitious, evidence of this being the author’s desire to portray China’s place in the world in a nuanced and intelligent way. The way that the research the main characters are involved in reaches into their lives, and how it continues to affect them even after they have moved onto other things, is impressively handled. And the kick at the end is strong. The book’s final message is also powerful.

I also liked the novel’s regular appeals to something that is universal among people but that seems to be strongest in the Far East. This is the sense of the need for having a harmonious existence with the entirety of creation. It is implied by the use of striking images taken from the natural world – something that is very visible also in classical Chinese poetry – that provide ambience and colour for the action, and that deepen, in the reader’s mind, the feeling that the author is sincere.

Such descriptions might also, on the other hand, be convenient for an author who does not want to cause problems by criticising the political or social system he or she lives with. So it is an authorial tactic that can serve more than one end.

A little on the book’s publishing history to end this review. The novel came out in Chinese in 2005 and was published in the US in 2016 under the imprint Tor, which specialises in science fiction. Then it was translated (again?) by Joel Martinsen (who does a very good job with sometimes complex material) and was brought out by Head of Zeus in the UK. This British publisher was responsible for the very excellent ‘Bunny’ by Canadian author Mona Awad, which I reviewed last month on this blog. ‘Bunny’ also has speculative elements. 

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Odd shots, 05: Boycotting the right-wing media

This is the fifth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The 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 survey started on 2 September and continued for about a month. It covers a range of different topical issues centring on the desire of some in the community to shut down parts of the media in order to promote narrow ideological aims. I probably should preface this post by saying that I am not a blind supporter of any political party, and vote, when elections are held, on the basis of the policies they put forward. I hope saying this can prevent any misunderstanding. All times shown are Australian Eastern Standard Time.

So, an extreme example first. It arrived in my feed on 9 September at 7.57am when a self-identified Philadelphia social-justice warrior tweeted, “Deplatformed alt-right personalities Milo, Jacob Wohl, and Based Dragon are all having a collective meltdown together about how their Telegram audiences have stalled at extremely low numbers right now and it's glorious. Sweet, sweet nazi [sic] tears.” Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging and voice over IP service, according to Google. At 8.06am a man named Derek Powazek retweeted this tweet with a comment of his own: “This is why deplatforming works. These grifters lose interest when their hate speech stops getting amplified.”

I have no idea how much attention the people named by the guy from Philadelphia get on social media as I am not interested in the kinds of content such people produce. Milo Yiannopoulos is, according to Wikipedia, “a British far-right political commentator, polemicist, public speaker, and writer”. Wikipedia says Wohl “is an American far-right conspiracy theorist, fraudster, and internet troll”. The only indication of the existence of “Based Dragon” is a Google result that cryptically says, “BANNED from YouTube, lost 9K subs, 20 Year Old Zoomer, Against ALL Tyranny”; this person’s Twitter account is no longer active. A “zoomer” is a person born in the mid-1990s to early-2000s (Generation Z) and the label is a play on the word “boomer” (Baby Boomer).

This is an extreme example but the enmity between the left and the right extends also to more uncontroversial media outlets that have a conservative agenda. Closer to home, in my own country, for example, there had been a campaign to get people in the community to cancel their subscriptions to Murdoch newspapers. On 10 September at 1.17am freelance journalist, author and TV personality Benjamin Law tweeted:
Stoked to see people still unsubscribing from the @australian because of its corrosive and often shithouse "reporting". 
Also wonder if the Oz's senior gatekeepers are aware of the extent to which their own staff are disappointed and distressed over how the newspaper's devolving.
The tweet came with a screenshot showing something who had posted something somewhere (little was clear from the evidence visible) about unsubscribing from the Australian (a Murdoch paper) because of their editorial policies on trans people and refugees. This man went on:
I explained the work we do with the trans and refugee communities and he [the News Corp employee] said “I’m just turning off the recording mechanism sir”. He than [sic] explained that he himself was a refugee and how distressing it was for him and many others in the call centre to have to deal with the daily “news” that was printed in the Australian and he wanted to thank me for cancelling my subscription. Not what I expected!
Another media outlet that had come under pressure was Macquarie Media (owned by Channel Nine, a publicly listed company), which owns Sydney radio station 2GB. On 26 September the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH; also owned by Channel Nine) ran a story about 2GB titled “Alan Jones lashes corporate cowardice over activist 'blackmail'” that was based on an interview with the 2GB radio shock jock. In the story Jones complained about companies being pressured to act on the basis of the opinions of the majority of climate scientists. The story also said:
[A] boycott against Mr Jones and Sydney radio station 2GB is being driven by online activist groups including Sleeping Giants Australia and Mad F--king Witches. It comes after Mr Jones said on air that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should "shove a sock down" New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's throat after she criticised Australia's approach to dealing with climate change.
The Twitter handles for these groups of people are @slpng_giants_oz and @MadFckingWitch. The comments about the New Zealand PM that were mentioned in the article were made on 15 August and Jones had apologised, the SMH story went on, the day after they were made. The SMH story went on:
More than 100 brands have distanced themselves from Jones and in some cases the entire Macquarie Media network in a move that is estimated to have cost the radio business more than $1 million. Macquarie chairman Russell Tate has since put Jones' show under review.
In the interests of transparency, the story also said:
Macquarie Media, the owner of Jones radio station 2GB, is 54.5 per cent owned by Nine Entertainment Co, parent company of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Nine is in the process of buying the rest of the shares in the radio group it does not yet own.
At the time the post you are reading was made, Nine had bought more of the shares of Macquarie Media that it did not already own, including those owned by Jones.

But Jones and 2GB were not the primary targets of people’s anger in September. Because of the strength of the rancour felt by many in the community over the issue of climate change there was one unexpected, and significant, result. On 18 September at 3pm the Australian’s account tweeted, “Academic website, The Conversation, has banned publication of comments that dispute man-made climate change and will lock the accounts of readers who attempt to post dissenting views.”

The next day at 8.01am a Melbourne man named Andrew Mackenzie, with 605 followers, tweeted, “Hurrah for those that stand up for science and the pursuit of knowledge, unlike your comic book of opinionating bigots. Jeez, Murdoch really has debauched what last vestiges of quality you once had.”

I replied, “Yes, but this is not the way to go ..” and Mackenzie answered me: “I disagree. On one side there's a cashed up organised lobby group, funding institutions, lobbyist and campaigns to discredit science. On the other, a world on fire. Their position is to respect the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change and not opinions and lies.” I replied, “Sure, that's all fine. But censoring people's comments in this way is not a good thing and sets a disturbing precedent. What other issue will be policed in this way? I think it reflects badly on the news outlet.” He replied, “If I said I had compelling evidence that smoking can be good for you, and more young people should start smoking, would it be censorship to refuse to publish it. In my understanding of where 97% consensus is at, this is the same.”

I didn’t let the matter rest as I felt strongly about the right to free speech which, I thought, the publication was compromising. So I replied to Mackenzie, “In the 1990s the High Court said that the Constitution protects political speech. It is not an unqualified privilege, but that court case demonstrated the importance of allowing people to voice their ideas in public. You can't make stupidity illegal.” He replied to me, “You're confusing freedom of speech (yes, we are free to make idiots of ourselves) with a publishing policy (not to publish idiots). Are you saying that anything other than agreeing to publish the opinions of idiots is censorship?” And me: “Yes.” He relied, “Ookee dokey. I'll just leave there.”

Later that day the progressive media outlet the Guardian published a story about a Liberal politician, Eric Abetz, who had compared the Conversation’s position on comments to the Nazis. At 11.42am I saw a tweet, with a link to the story in it, from the paper’s Gabrielle Jackson. At 12.59pm an astronomer named Michael Brown tweeted in relation to Abetz’s comments:
Abetz confusing #science with a comments shouting match and then invoking Hitler is totally wild. 
“This ugly, unscientific, totalitarian, arrogant approach taken by the @ConversationEDU is the exact opposite to the principles of scientific endeavour.”
The debate continued the next day. On Thursday 19 September at 10.39am Linda Vergnani, a Sydney-based freelance journalist, tweeted, “Brilliant decision by The Conversation where editorial team in Australia is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating #climatechange deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”

On Monday 23 September at 9.39pm Andrew Laird, a Victorian barrister with 23,586 followers, tweeted, “A significant element within Australia’s privately owned media actively promotes climate science denial. Against that backdrop it’s entirely reasonable for a serious website like @ConversationEDU to say there’s no place for such nonsense on its website.” The tweet had had 196 likes and 83 retweets when I saw it.

Murdoch’s Queensland tabloid newspaper then came in for some flak on account of its coverage of and event, a protest against government inaction on climate change. On 21 September at 7.18pm an account named ”politic@l spinner” with 12,313 followers tweeted, “Guess which newspaper printed this story and shared it. Yep that right wing @couriermail ffs.. #auspol please boycott it. Climate strikes: hoax photo accusing Australian protesters of leaving rubbish behind goes viral.” The Courier-Mail is a Murdoch tabloid based in Brisbane, the capital city of the state of Queensland.

The comment contained a reference to a photo that had circulated during this day that was supposed to have shown litter left by protesters from a climate strike held in Hyde Park the previous day, the Friday. The photos had been ridiculed by many people. For a start the Sydney protest hadn’t even been held in Hyde Park (it took place in the Domain, which is nearby). A Guardian story headlined “Climate strikes: hoax photo accusing Australian protesters of leaving rubbish behind goes viral” went online at 12.18pm. It said:
Though it lacks any verification, and was debunked in April, the image and false caption have been shared 19,000 times in 12 hours, and thousands of times from copycats.
And it went on:
However, the photo is not from a climate strike, not from Friday and was not taken in Australia. It is from a marijuana-based festival called 420 held in London in April 2019.
All of these things led to some people making strong statements, notably, on Tuesday 24 September, Kerry O’Brien, the former host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) ‘7.30’ nightly magazine program. On this day he taklked about his appearance on the ABC’s ‘Q and A’ program the night before. ‘Q and A’ airs every Monday night and has become something of a cultural institution. It allows members of the audience to ask questions of people sitting on the panel. O’Brien had been on the panel that Monday night.

When I heard him speak he was talking about climate change and how the science is, in his view, so overwhelmingly in favour of the view that humans are causing it and that we need urgent action to counter its effects that, he said, opposing views should be ignored by journalists. “I’m not saying we need to become activists,” he confusingly said, then went on to say that journalists should just ignore views that gave an alternative view on climate change. So, he was precisely saying that journalists should become activists. The debate was all becoming very strange, with otherwise sensible people, motivated by passion, saying things that made no sense.

But other people with influence were taking the same line. At 2.36pm on the same day the account of an academic from Charles Sturt University named Richard McLellan tweeted: ”’Readers are warned that this article may contain lies’. This should be a warning posted on all such articles.” The tweet contained a link to a story from Network Ten’s website 10daily that had the title ‘Statement from Sussan Ley - Environment Minister’. It contained 140 words. Network Ten is owned by US TV network CBS. The story outlined the government’s position on carbon emissions. The statement said, in part:
If the purpose of the protest is to draw my, or the government’s attention, to climate change than I can assure everyone that our attention, is already there. 
We are taking real and coordinated global action on climate change, while ensuring our economy remains strong. 
We are on track to overachieve on our 2020 target by 367 million tonnes and our $3.5 billion Climate Solutions Package maps out to the last tonne how we will meet our 2030 target.
And at 2.41pm Ketan Joshi, a journalist with 21,758 followers, tweeted, “Media outlets have largely stopped granting a platform to anti-vaxxers - even elected ones. What's it going to take for climate deniers to be treated the same way?”

It wasn’t just climate change that was making people in the community call for media bans, either. For example, on 4 October at 6.51am the very popular @noplaceforsheep tweeted, “It’s time to stop giving platforms to Newstart bashers, in the same way that it’s time to stop giving platforms to climate change deniers. There is no *balance* issue in either matter.” The “Newstart” reference was to comments made the previous day, by Anne Ruston, the Liberal government’s social services minister. As characterised in a Guardian story published on that day Rushton had said, “an increase to the unemployment benefit Newstart would end up in the hands of drug dealers and pub owners.”

Now, in the US, CNN, the cable TV channel, had done something similar to the Converrsation, so it wasn’t just in Australia that the media were boycotting dissenting views. On 4 October the SMH ran a story titled, “CNN refuses to run Trump campaign ad.” The story started like this:
CNN said on Thursday that it would not run a new ad from President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, saying that the 30-second spot about former Vice President Joe Biden contains inaccuracies and unfairly attacks the network's employees.
Not all journalists, however, are sanguine about taking this kind of approach to views that lie outside the mainstream. This became clear on 28 August when, at 9.31pm, the Washington Post’s White House correspondent Josh Dawsey tweeted, “Beto O'Rourke Ejects Breitbart News Reporter from Event.” The tweet came with a link to a post on the website of the right-wing media outfit Breitbart titled, ‘Beto O’Rourke Ejects Breitbart News Reporter from Event at Historically Black College.’ Breitbart is a far-right-wing news outlet.

Attached to this tweet, on 29 August at 12.17am New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg added a comment, “No matter what you think of Breitbart, this is wrong. No campaign should be deciding who gets to cover its events. An event is either open to the press, or it is not. Freedom of the press is not a conditional right — it applies to every American regardless of their views.” Then at 5.18am on the same day Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard University professor, tweeted:
Matt, taking different approach to this as you and I have talked on and off the air about Facebook.  I don't see how your argument isn't exactly what Zuckerberg tried to sell us for the last few years: that for him to assert any agency over the platform denied free expression. 
You've covered Facebook brilliantly and you know that Zuck's argument was, in fact, a form of agency, that by deciding NOT to decide he was in fact making a normative judgment.   
So what if a campaign -- a platform -- were to do what Zuck never did: to make a calculated judgment on what constitutes news.  Yes, slippery slope I get it. But the slope works the other way too, that to deny any agency means you are not protecting the value of free speech? 
Anyway, after that tweet, I couldn't quite get why I disagreed. Sure, a campaign may kick out the NYTimes. They will likely suffer more than you; the market does work. But for conspiracy/lies/not news/foreign ops, why not let a "platform" exert agency?
In early October I found out about something called “cancel culture”. I hadn’t heard this term before, but it is a thing. Looking on Wikipedia I found that it refers to the ways that people use social media to launch criticism at prominent individuals.

The definition on this web page reminded me of the boycotts that consumers launch at companies that offend shared norms, which is why I included it here. On 3 October at 3.09pm an account named “Workers, Jesus, and Mariah Carey Stan Account” with 1774 followers tweeted, “Bespoke: cancel culture is the only kind of culture that has ever existed, all communities have norms, and cancel culture is only visible now because we have multiple competing sets of norms.” The tweet that this person was responding to with their tweet had been blacked out so I didn’t see the context in which it was issued, but it rang a bell so I put it in here.

But what is the cost of this kind of conflict that is playing out? And what do we risk losing if we boycott media outlets? Maybe all people in the community deserve to have their views heard, however much others might object to hearing them. On 2 September a story appeared in BuzzFeed’s US bureau about a right-wing “Straight Pride” march that had been held in Boston. It seemed unremarkable and, indeed, inevitable to see this kind of story in my social media feed considering the increased polarisation of the media and considering the tendency for organisations such as universities to deplatform people with right-wing opinions.

The way that people exclude those with opposing views, had led, in my mind, to events such as this march. There is no tolerance for opposing views and people block and unfollow and ignore, and verbally abuse, those who express views that differ from their own. Calls for media boycotts are a symptom of the same problem, which is merely intolerance.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Book review: Inside the Greens, Paddy Manning (2019)

This is a useful book but it’s a bit of a hybrid. The first section, which is made up of 11 chapters that chronicle the emergence and changing fortunes of the political movement we know as the Greens, right up to the 2019 federal election, is good but the second half – which I didn’t complete – appeared to be a sort of policy document designed to provide a platform for the party to engage with the community.

Even in the first half of the book the scholarship is sometimes unconventional due to the fact that Manning is not a historian. Not that professional historians are not allowed to have personal opinions or to express them in their works. But Manning is not just any journalist, he is one who is personally invested in the subject he has chosen to study. As a result, you are inclined to wonder about objectivity when the author chooses certain events or certain words to include in the text – often quotations taken, presumably, from interviews conducted with politicians – in place of others.

I had trouble classifying this book as it does contain a lot of history but it also reads in part like journalism, especially in the second section of the book. I finally plumped for “history” on account of the strength of its first section, which represents a significant accomplishment.

The Greens have been at the forefront of a number of useful initiatives that turned out to be ahead of their time. Barack Obama, who started the “Green New Deal” theme in American politics, also led on the environment.

But the Greens have also been behind some disastrous failures, such as the Labor Party’s policies on negative gearing, family trusts, and the capital gains tax concession. These tax policies unquestionably helped to give the Liberal-National coalition (one of the major forces in Australian politics; they sit on the right of the political spectrum) a lower-house majority following the May federal election. Labor was predicted, in all of the available opinion polls, to win the contest. But the Greens have often struggled with policies other than ones dealing with the environment, and Manning competently details these struggles in the book.

When the Murdoch press talked, in a predictably biased way, about the motorised cavalcade into Queensland led by former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown that was designed to protest against a coal mine that the local subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Adani Group planned to build in the Galilee basin, I understood Manning’s frustration. But Brown’s highly visible stunt did in fact turn off a majority of Queensland voters, especially in the regions, basically ensuring that the Coalition won more seats in the Senate than they had held there before the federal election. I lived in Queensland for over five years and I can say, from personal experience, that Queenslanders hate little more than being told what to do by educated lefties from the southern states.

All these things were neatly summed up by a tweet from the Australian (a Murdoch outlet) on 6 October at 2.14pm that said, “Bill Shorten concedes he misread the mood of voters who saw Labor as anti-worker and 'green-left'.” Shorten had been the leader of Labor at the time of the election – in fact he had been party leader for a number of years by that time. The tweet came with a link to a story on the newspaper’s website titled, “Shorten: Labor loss my fault.” I don’t have a subscription to the paper so I didn’t read the story but later the same day the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) tweeted, “Bill Shorten has accepted blame for Labor's surprise election loss as the party prepares to release an election post-mortem in which he is expected to feature heavily.” The story started with this:
Former opposition leader Bill Shorten says he "misread" the level of anxiety caused by Labor's franking credit policy and failed to promise enough tax cuts to people earning under $125,000 a year to win the May election.
The franking credits issue, like the other tax policies noted above, would have hit retirees hard (I wrote about this problem in February, three months before the election).  Later on, further down the page, the SMH story went:
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said Mr Shorten had "set an example for the rest of us" by taking responsibility for the loss. 
"We did have some big, controversial tax policies, and we did spread ourselves too thinly on the commitments that we made, that that growth story was obscured, and we got in our own way a little bit," he said on [Murdoch-controlled] Sky News. "We can't afford to drag our bums around and mope around about the last election. We need to look to the future."
Franking credits are tax refunds available for retired shareholders. Because companies pay income tax, the government decides that shareholders do not have to pay tax on money earned, as a result of owning shares, in the form of dividends. But under the existing system, even if you pay no income tax, you still receive a payment from the government equal to the income tax paid by the company relative to that part of its equity that you hold.

Negative gearing is where the expenses incurred from owning an investment property – such as council rates and the interest owing on your mortgage (if you don’t own the property outright) – are deducted from the assessable total income you present to the Australian Tax Office when you lodge your annual tax return.

As for capital gains tax, tax has to be paid on part of the difference between what your investment property cost and what it realised upon sale – this is called the “capital gain” – but only on the first 50 percent of it. Labor had wanted to reduce that to the first 25 percent with the exception of properties that had been bought before the new law would be passed (this is called “grandfathering”). Another exception would have been newly-built properties, which would have still attracted the full, 50-percent tax concession.

Labor had also wanted to reduce the amount of benefit that could be realised through the use of family trusts, which many retirees use to organise their money. On 21 January 2019 the website Accountants Daily, which is operated by Momentum Media, published a story about the Labor policy. It included this:
About two years ago, opposition leader Bill Shorten announced that Labor would reform the taxation of discretionary trusts to prevent income from being allocated to household members in lower tax brackets. 
As part of its reforms, Mr Shorten outlined that Labor would introduce a minimum 30 per cent tax rate for discretionary trust distributions to adults. 
Following the release of a report on trusts and the tax system by RMIT University this week, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said that Labor’s proposed trust tax would eliminate “tax loopholes” costing the budget “billions of dollars through tax, avoiding income tax shuffles including income splitting via beneficiaries”.
As a result of its poor judgement, Labor lost to the Coalition. As part of the deck-clearing Labor carried out following the loss, Shorten and Bowen both lost their jobs.

As for Adani’s coal mine, the SMH ran a story on 10 October, just before this review was published, titled, “'Clumsy' Adani arguments left Labor voters feeling abandoned: Richard Marles.” The first two paragraphs of the story went:
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles concedes the opposition's "clumsy" attempts to "walk the tightrope" on Adani during the federal election campaign left the party's traditional voter base feeling abandoned. 
As a new split opens up within Labor over climate policy and how to win back middle Australia, the senior Victorian MP will say in a speech on Thursday night that the party's line on blue-collar regional jobs - especially in regional Queensland - left voters feeling they "looked down" on them.
So, as far as this story implies, Labor would in future back down from criticism of fossil fuel industries.

On balance, I learned a lot from reading Manning’s book so am grateful for the work he undertook to produce it. The Greens are a bit different from other Australian political parties, especially the majors (Labor and the Liberals), because of the relatively flat organisational structure they use. This impacts on certain aspects of the Greens’ operation, such as funding and the formulation of policy. It gives the grassroots more influence but this, as it turns out, and as Manning demonstrates, is not always as good as it sounds. As a history of the creation of a political party, Manning’s book cannot be ignored. And this publication is, as recent events have shown, extremely timely.

The book furthermore confirmed things that I have for some time understood about the politics of Australia since, in the early 1980s, I became aware of such a thing even though, in my twenties, I was far more interested in art and literature than I was in politics. At the end of March I wrote a post that contains a bit about the rise of the Greens and the matching rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (a conservative and populist political party) and, in the light of what Manning puts in this book, I stand by what I said then. For me, reading this book (bar most of the second half, as already noted) was time well spent. 

Friday, 11 October 2019

In The Field, number 03: Beneficial use of domestic waste

The first post in this series was published on 24 November last year. The post you are reading is an abbreviated version of a story that may, in future, be published on my personal website. Research for the story was performed in April and May 2012 after which publication was halted when the commissioning magazine closed.

In Sydney in the 1980s, “Bondi trout” was a term redolent with meaning. Sydney’s waste had been piped to Bondi since the 1880s, a time when, over a period of 10 years, the city’s population grew from 220,000 to 750,000 and, “the old and very primitive sewerage system was breaking down under the increased load,” wrote architect Morton Herman for his 1956 book, The Architecture of Victorian Sydney.

“There was a period there where before they built the ocean outfalls, where they were discharging sewage at the cliff face,” said Paul Darvodelsky, who at the time was managing director of Pollution Solutions and Design. Our interview was conducted by telephone in April 2012. “When we say at the cliff face, it was a metre off. And it was horrible.”

Tim Moore who, from 1989 to 1992, served as environment minister in the Coalition government led by Nick Greiner, made a statement on the news one day in 1990 that Sydney would not discharge any more sludge into the ocean. In future it would be treated to remove most of the waste and then the resulting liquid would be piped to outfalls placed, at the bottom of the ocean, away from the coast.

The challenge

What to do with the solid waste that would remain on land became a question for managers and scientists, initially within the NSW Environmental Protection Agency. Then within NSW Agriculture (now part of the Department of Primary Industries), which developed a guideline.

“What they did then was develop a document and they looked at the US regulations and they took all available Australian research and fed that in,” said Darvodelsky. “It all went through that and it went through a stakeholder process, and they came up with a document. They also identified shortcomings with the US regulation and ended up with a regulation which was actually much stricter than the US regulation.” Each state developed its own regulations, beginning in 1997 with New South Wales.

While producing viable material was achievable you then had to convince farmers to use it. But the cost of managing biosolids produced by is largely assumed by municipal water authorities.

The Australian Water Association (AWA) said that the average cost for biosolids management was in the order of $300 per dry tonne but Darvodelsky said it was more like $700 per dry tonne. Added to that cost for water managers was the cost of disposing of biosolids, which Darvodelsky said was about $300 per dry tonne. It is given to the contractor at the treatment plant gate. “The range of that is $150 to $500.” Then there are transport costs.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimated the value of biosolids to farmers to be between $66 and $300 per dry tonne. “Beneficial use costs are almost always expressed in cost-per-wet-tonne, or as-is, and the average cost is about $75 to take it from the treatment plant and have all the systems and management in place to reuse it,” said Darvodelsky. “They’re getting less than $5 per [wet] tonne back from the farmer.” Wet tonnes – “as they’re working with it” – are about five times larger than dry tonnes.

The solution

Darvodelsky said that biosolids don’t command much of a price at the farm gate because of the inconvenience. In 2012, Brendon Clarke Arkwood Organic Recycling out of Gatton, in southeast Queensland, was charging farmers $2.50 per wet tonne.

Arkwood sources biosolids from coastal communities from as far south as the Tweed and up as far north as Noosa. “All up it comes to about 340,000 [wet] tonne a year,” Clarke told me in May 2012 on the day I met him in Cecil Plains, west of Toowoomba, in southern Queensland.

The following photo shows an Arkwood spreader applying the biosolids to a field owned by Cecil Plains cotton and grain farmer Graham Clapham. The biosolids are trucked to the field where they are to be used and dumped on the ground. A front-end loader is used to tip them into the hopper. At the back of the hopper two toothed screws spin rapidly, flinging out the material so that it lands on the soil.

There are strict regulations controlling how biosolids can be used and a 2009 report (Australian and New Zealand Biosolids Partnership - Review of Biosolids Guidelines) put out by the AWA says that the higher the quality of the biosolids, the fewer restrictions are placed on their use.


Clapham manages the nutrient levels in his fields and applies biosolids to his crops “when the opportunity presents itself”. “It mineralises quite fast,” said Professor Mike McLaughlin, of the University of Adelaide. “You do get an immediate benefit and a residual benefit for up to two or three years after.” 

Clarke said you get higher crop quality with biosolids compared to using inorganic fertiliser. “There’s a massive difference. On your best soils like these black soils here, you normally end [up with] around a 20-percent better yield, or your quality – particularly with protein in grain – is higher, is quite a lot higher, without exception. It’s always the case. As your soil quality declines – so when you go out [west from Cecil Plains] towards Milmerran, on your lighter soils, or the other side of Cecil Plains – the proportion of increased yield goes up. So, you start around that 20-odd percent on this type of soil [and] we have seen as much as 300 percent, on poor-quality soils, particularly down the east coast.”

“We run a program on our farm that we call nutrient bank,” Clapham said. “It’s a self-made thing, I guess. We do it in conjunction with our agronomic advisor. What that enables us to do is to keep track of the nutrient levels in our soils without actually physically testing them, you know, taking a soil profile and getting it analysed. 

“So, what we do is we have a starting point of what’s in there. Sometimes that’s determined by soil analysis. And from then on – and we’ve been doing this for probably eight years now – we keep track of what we put on and we keep track of what comes off, and there’s a little bit of basic knowledge and a bit of science around mineralisation and effects of floods and effects of irrigation and that sort of stuff. And we’ve got it down to a pretty fine art.” 

The following photo was taken of some of Clapham’s cotton plants growing at the side of a field. Clapham was harvesting the crop on the day I visited his farm, which relies solely on water from precipitation.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

The real significance of the term “virtue signalling”

I see tweets that are whimsical, funny, adorable, precious, humorous, ironic, attractive, informative, engaging, brilliant, sweet, fantastical, or just plain nice. There are poems, paintings, and diverting memes. There are pictures of birds and sunrises as well as pictures of animals doing mad things. Here, for example, is a photo of someone’s pet lizard wearing a hat. On 21 September Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham put the photo up on Twitter with the following comment, “ALERT my brother and his wife sent Holly a tiny cowboy hat, this is NOT a drill.” Clickbait, but cute.


On the other hand there are other kinds of tweets, and these are the kinds I want to talk about here. We’ll start with a cornucopia of acronyms. Social-justice warriors (SJWs) blame right-wing nutjobs (RWNJs) and men’s-rights activists (MRAs) for using the term “virtue signalling” to belittle them and to degrade their arguments. And it’s not just these categories of people, either. Ordinary citizens and ordinary subjects are often prone to using the same term.

People on the left (the first category named) complain that people on the right (the second category named) use this term (“virtue signalling”) to unfairly denigrate their efforts to change society by dint of their (that is, the people on the left) being on the right side (as they see it) of history. This disease has crept into the mainstream and, like an ulcer that does not heal, infects even our most prominent newspapers with its ripe distemper.

But the culture we have fashioned for ourselves feeds this war and its mutual hatreds, and so guarantees the continued use of the term. On 17 July this year I published my review of Bret Easton Ellis’ brilliant ‘White’. It’s a nonfiction work that came out this year and that examines, in forensic detail, what must be evident to anyone who observes what is going on, who has their ear aimed at the grapevine. I have also written about social media on this blog on many other occasions, notably on 23 August last year in a post titled ‘We need to be kinder to each other on social media’. For me, the main takeaway from Ellis’ book was the humourlessness of the left, its messianic conviction that it is, in all cases it turns its attention to fixing, indubitably correct.

This view results in intolerance in online conversations and so on Twitter the left goes about prosecuting its case using all the rhetorical resources at its command. It is unkind, cruel and aloof, it belittles its opponents, it deliberately insults people, it deploys sarcasm in great quantities, it ignores those it takes a dislike to, it abuses others, and even threatens some with physical violence. The right, for its part, does similar things. No consequences equal no control. And the most extreme views are, diabolically, rewarded with likes, retweets, and replies.

And the left is supposed to be all about human rights. It is supposed to care about the wellbeing of others. It is meant to give a toss about the mental health of people its members come into contact with online. But many on the left do none of these things. You get the feeling sometimes that the virtue they appear to embrace is merely skin-deep. In fact, they very often provide a perfect example of the most condemnable characteristics of the human species, a collection of sins of varying kinds and degrees. Things that we teach our children to distrust when we talk to them about conduct of theirs that we find a need to encourage them to correct. Twitter often resembles nothing as much as a schoolyard. Hence the title of this post.

When RUOK Day rolled around this year I experienced nothing but amazement as people jumped on the bandwagon, voicing their support for the proposition: to reach out and ask someone near them if they were travelling well. What a complete sham, I thought to myself. I thought, “Many of these people who are, on the face of it, pursuing noble goals and who say they care about how other people feel, tomorrow will be doing things the same way they did them yesterday.” The bad behaviour would continue because there is always a new battle to be fought, always a new peak to scale, always new territory to occupy. The SJWs will be going hammer and tongs with the RWNJs and the MRAs again soon, and vice versa. The lizard people, some of them, are cowboys.

So, the real significance of the term “virtue signalling” is that it involves, in many cases, the precise opposite of virtue. It can easily involve evil. In my feed as I was composing this post on 21 September, the following quote from the Roman orator Cicero appeared: “What people do not hate the arrogant, the evil, the cruel, or the thankless?” But it is us who are evil, cruel, and thankless.

Having said all these things, I have spent a lot of time over the past decade on social media and have come into contact with many good people. Some have become friends IRL, including one man, who has since stopped using Twitter, who I meet with from time to time. So it is possible to have positive, meaningful exchanges with people using social media.

And just to avoid misunderstandings, I made a list of some (though not all) of the progressive causes I support (in the Australian context) and although I won’t include it here it had 19 items ranging from rapid transition to the use of renewable energy sources, to stronger labour unions and more unionisation, and from a display acknowledging the frontier wars for the Australian War Memorial, to independence for Tibet and West Papua. No-one can accurately label me a conservative.

There is a lot more awareness now of the problem I am talking about than there was even in the recent past, and you see evidence if this awareness from time to time. For example, on 9 October at 2.55am an account named Megan Amram, a comedian from Los Angeles with over 1.1 million followers, put up a tweet that went, “You can't be nice to everyone because being nice to certain people is inherently cruel to others.” This summed up the point I am trying to make nicely. Amram’s tweet had been retweeted into my timeline by one of the most whimsical and amazing people I follow on Twitter.

Then on the same day at 10.13am a Guardian Australia journalist named Amy Remeikis tweeted, “Just passing on a piece of advice my Oma used to give to me all the time - ‘it’s ok not to like everyone, just don’t be an arse about it’. Seems relevant here, somehow.” “Oma” is German for “grandmother”.

One last thing to add is that other influential people don’t necessarily provide us with a good example for conduct. I was reminded of this when I saw a photo of Swedish student great Thunberg wearing a black T-shirt with “Antifascist All Stars” printed in white on it. Antifa, the movement, uses physical violence to make its points at protests and to counter identical conduct by people on the far right.

In the photo I saw Thunberg is sitting next to a man ironically wearing a yellow T-shirt with the brand name “Motorola” printed on it. I also saw elsewhere a composite image showing Thunberg and her parents all wearing the same black T-shirt. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Thunberg engages in the same kinds of activities as Antifa people do, but wearing this kind of clothing sends an unfortunate signal. When shown examples like this it’s not surprising that ordinary people behave in an extreme fashion. A story that was published on 24 September said that Thunberg had responded to people who had remarked on the T-shirt. The story quoted Thunberg in this regard:
“Yesterday I posted a photo wearing a borrowed T-shirt that says I’m against fascism. That T-shirt can apparently to some be linked to a violent movement,” she tweeted. 
“I don’t support any form of violence and to avoid misunderstandings I’ve deleted the post. And of course I am against fascism,” she said.
On the other hand, the risk to human civilisation that derives from doing nothing about climate change seems, on the basis of all available evidence, to warrant concern. Is it time to panic yet?

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Visual disturbances: One

This is a collection of 28 photos selected from a total of 200 taken while watching TV on the night of Saturday 21 June 2008. While taking these photos I tried to time the shutter action to fit scene changes or other types of motion. So, for example, a switch between the face of one of the actors and that of another, or a section of drama in which a character was walking across a room. Sometimes people’s faces are blurred and at other times you get a staggered effect as though a movie were being artificially slowed down.

I don’t understand enough about TV or about digital cameras to explain this effect. It might have something to do with the frequency at which the sensor in the camera operates. Perhaps someone can add a comment with the necessary information. I do know however that the kinds of effects that are evident in some of the images included in this post wouldn’t have been possible prior to the advent of digital photography.

The program shown in the images is ‘Silent Witness’, an unfortunately monocultural British TV crime drama that started in 1996 and that is still being made. Action centres on a forensics team helping police investigate violent crimes where a corpse has been the result. Tom Ward played Harry Cunningham and Emilia Fox played Nikki Alexander. Both actors feature in the photos that follow here. The theme music used for the opening credits has a strongly religious feel and was composed by a man born in 1956 named John Harle. The series was created by a man born in 1953 named Nigel McCrery, who had been a policeman.

The narrow categories used for cultural representation in the episode sampled here reflect the program’s origins. I was reminded of this when I went through the images while choosing what to include. My concern was aroused while watching the TV that night – so long ago now it’s almost like a different lifetime – by suspicions of what appeared to be xenophobia; the episode has an Asian woman portrayed in a negative light.

Mediocrity of this kind would be bad enough on its own but in this case the problem extends further. Crime is a staple for many different modalities of art, including TV, literature, and cinema. However, the neat conclusions that characterise crime fiction, which often involve the use of plot points that serve to offset the feeling of suspense that you vicariously enjoy while watching or reading, sit at variance to the complexities of reality.

In this sense, the crime genre is a bit of a con job, although true crime stories also sell well. Crime fiction makes us feel safe on its own terms while the structures and dynamics that condition and control our lives continue to work – often against our interests – even in the absence of individual agency. The neat ontologies of the crim genre – a terrible wrong is examined and its cause is identified and a criminal is, consequently and satisfyingly, placed in jail – can, if we are not careful, dupe us into complacency while real problems, that are far more dangerous though perhaps less easy to see, persist.

Escapism is a bit like religion: it can distract us from real issues that beset us in our lives. A dissatisfying job. A bully for a manager. Stagnant wages. A persistent addiction. A toxic relationship. A debilitating illness.

Like a lot of art, furthermore, works that conform to the crime genre rely on flattery to achieve their aims. We are told stories that we are competent to understand while other, more complex, stories, ones that might more accurately describe our world, remain securely within the province of an impotent minority or else are scattered confusingly across a crowded media landscape.

It is in this context that I offer these imperfect images to the reader. They are reflections of what I see as an imperfect world, a world full of distorting influences that puzzle us as well as dark things that, even given the best of efforts, stubbornly remain outside our control.

Having said these things many works of art that are made these days blend different modalities. You might have a work of crime-and-romance, or one of scifi-and-postmodernism. The times have changed and we are offered a range of options now that didn’t exist even a decade ago. Back in 2008 when these photos were taken such trends were not so evident. The canon was smaller, the lines separating genres were more precisely defined, there was less choice. It was a simpler time, but not necessarily a better one.





























Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Book review: Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, Tim Mackintosh-Smith (2019)

This book is a mammoth tome but, paradoxically, it’s a quick read, too. What it did in my case was to confirm many things I had already thought about the Middle East but it also added to my store of knowledge because it explained in detail the “why” where previously I had only had isolated ideas.

I hesitate to use the expression “a must-read” – because this expression is often used by unthinking people on the left of the political spectrum, a part of the community that seems to want everyone to think alike – but if you do by any chance come across this wonderful book and sit down for a few days to read it you will come away with more insight about the contemporary world than you had before.

Mackintosh-Smith is a Brit but he lives in Yemen and so accomplishing a task of this nature was doubly difficult in his case. Not only is the book erudite and well-written, but the author had to write it in a way that would not compromise his safety. Covering a whole civilisation in 630 pages, including the parts about the Quran and Mohammed, the founder of Islam, could have placed him on the horns of a dilemma, but he is not only scholarly and dedicated to the truth. He also respects the feelings of his hosts. I was deeply impressed by his approach to such a work of this nature.

As I said earlier in this review, this book confirmed many of the things that I already thought about the Middle east, notably the sense that the problems that exist there now are endemic to the cultures of the places that make it up. But Mackintosh-Smith puts meat on the bones of these ideas by signalling to an old dichotomy between the nomadic lifestyle of the Arabian Peninsula and the way of living of its settled communities.

Within this bipolar schema lies the difficulty that these societies have always had to exist in peace. There are centrifugal forces that little, it seems, can overcome. A unified Islamic state would, therefore, be quite impossible.

It works like this. The raiding tendency of the nomad preying on the settled towns and on the trade that ran between them was an early symptom of this schema. In more recent times the strongmen who have led these countries have also preyed on the people who live in them, siphoning funds into their own bank accounts and jailing opponents where any sort of democratic settlement has emerged. Further symptoms of the same dynamic are such organisations as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

But there is a lot more to the Arab world than political unity. It is, for a start, a world largely characterised by its language, and its influence has been broad. In the earliest times, starting in the 7th century AD, the Arabs coalesced in opposition to the two major powers of the day – the Byzantines and the Persians – and congregated under the leadership offered by the Prophet. But once Mohammad died the social glue that had held people together disappeared and so the Arabs began to expand – much in the same way that, after 1789, the French was spurred by internecine struggles to seek cohesion through military expansion throughout Europe – in order to remain unified as a group.

Insights such as these are hard to come by and require much study, but Mackintosh-Smith belongs to a long tradition of British scholars who have learned foreign languages and who have written with clarity and wisdom on countries other than their own. The complexities of dynastic successions and the many revolts led by different potentates from the various communities that made up the Arab diaspora were, for me, sometimes hard to follow, mainly because the unfamiliar names of the people involved, but central themes emerge and it was these that for me brought life to this fascinating work of history. Highly recommended.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Carbon capture and storage: Realities and myths

In the same year my father died, when I was still living in southeast Queensland, I was asked to attend a conference to write stories for use in a company’s in-house communications. I still have a friend who works for this company, which makes instruments, systems and software used by many different industries, including construction, refining, petrochemicals, and mining. I haven’t seen him for many years.

Meetings such as the one I travelled to give people who work in companies that use the technology provider’s products an opportunity to learn about new product offerings, to talk with peers, to learn about government initiatives, and to learn about new research. People also go to them to have fun and, on the final night, there was a fancy-dress party. I didn’t go to the shindig and spent most of the time outside work hours in my room in the hotel transcribing recordings and writing up the stories I had been commissioned to produce. I was reimbursed money for the plane fare, and for other travel expenses, and was paid for the story drafts I submitted but I don’t know if all of them were used.

I started this blog in 2006 and so, for many years, had been vocal in favour of causes I took an interest in. At the time I was also taking commissions for stories from magazines including Australian Anthill (which focuses on entrepreneurs) and Ethical Investor (which had been founded by Australian journalist Paddy Manning and which ran stories about innovations allowing companies to do business and at the same time minimise their impact on the environment). The woman in the technology company’s comms role, who asked me to go to the confab, doesn’t work there anymore. I was never asked to cover another conference held by the company.

In what follows I will anonymise people’s identities. Note that it describes the state of the art almost a decade ago. However if, in the intervening years, someone had discovered an affordable method of capturing and removing the carbon that exists in the emissions of industrial plants, we would surely have heard about it by now. Constant reminders in the media from some sectors of the community about the potential of CCS indicates that it still remains a hope for many. But the problem with CCS is that it is not feasible and I will show why that is so.

One man who spoke at the confab worked at the time for a Commonwealth research agency that had been established under Tony Abbott’s leadership and that is still operating. I shall call him Mark although that is not his real name. He had worked for an Australian petroleum company and is now associated with a privately-funded research centre that helps gas producers.

“The first part of the chain is to capture the carbon,” Mark told seminar attendees, who were seated in a room in the hotel the event was held in. “We’re talking about the capture from anthropogenic sources, man-made sources. The most common examples we have tend to be emissions from power stations, iron and steel plants, fertiliser plants, natural gas processing plants.”

There existed, at the time the conference was held, examples of carbon capture installations at gas processing plants in the United States and offshore Norway, and at fertiliser plants in the US and Canada. Offshore of Western Australia there were plans afoot, Mark went on, to realise an installation at the Gorgon gas project located off the coast of Western Australia (construction of this plant was completed in 2017, so well after the confab had finished).

“Where we do have an issue in terms of technological development, is the application of CO2 capture at scale to industries like power generation, iron and steel, cement, pulp and paper,” Mark said. “It’s been worked out at lower scales, smaller scales. Not at large scale.” The requirement is to take the application from where it is mature into industries where it is still to be proved, Mark said.

He asked, rhetorically and to make a point, why CCS is important for businesses. “One scenario that has been painted by the International Energy Association takes the storyline, ‘If we don’t do anything from this point on and we live in an as-is world, by the time we get to 2050 annual emissions will have doubled, roughly.’”

Global annual CO2 emissions were expected (at the time of the conference) to increase from 28 gigatonnes to 56 gigatonnes. To keep current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere constant up to 2050, it would be necessary to halve emissions, Mark said. “We’re talking about, in this particular scenario, it’s almost like a new industrial revolution in the way we use energy.”

Around one-fifth of the reduction would be due to the implementation of CCS. “It is part of a suite of measures on climate change,” said Mark. “Just being smarter with what we do now, which actually is the major contributor.”

In August 2007, the House Standing Committee on Science and Innovation had tabled a report on an inquiry into geosequestration technology. The report says there are three ways to capture carbon: post-combustion, oxyfuel combustion, and pre-combustion. It goes on:
There are a range of views on the suitability of each of these technologies, particularly in the Australian context. There is some agreement that post-combustion capture is the process most applicable to Australia’s current stock of power stations. There is also general agreement that the focus of research and development should be on the technologies that can be applied to the existing power stations.
On the day before Mark made his address at the conference, I spoke with Karush (not his real name), a migrant from the Middle East who graduated from one Group of Eight university and now works for another. Karush had won a competition, run by the company that held the confab, for research into carbon capture in power plants. He did this by simulating plant operations on a computer.

The academic who supervised Karush’s work, who I will name Omar, said to me, “The project is about improving the efficiency of power plants once they are integrated with carbon capture processes.”

“The carbon capture process is introduced to remove the CO2 from the power plant and purify it, separate it, and compress it downstream and into the geosequestration,” Omar went on. “There are many issues with this implementation.” (Geosequestration is the process of burying CO2 in geological formations in a liquid form as a dense supercritical fluid.)

The power industry, Karush told me, had been focusing its efforts to prove a carbon capture technology using absorption technology, although this is only one of the available methods of removing CO2 from emissions. Absorption had been used in the oil and gas industry for decades, said Karush, but at a larger scale it is still an emerging technology.

“In small scale this technology has been developing over maybe three decades. When we go for PCC [post-combustion capture] we have something, it’s not fully available, but it is the best one and industry can at least say, ‘I will take this one and go to the next stage of making it large-scale,’” said Karush.

In power plants, flue gas is channelled to an absorption system where solvent is added to the stream and binds to the CO2. The solvent is then taken to a regenerator where the CO2 is separated from it, so that the solvent can be reused. The energy required to separate the solvent from the CO2 is, currently, “huge”, said Karush.

“I always use the analogy to make it quite simple,” said Omar. “It’s like a pregnant woman. The power plant is the woman, now pregnant with the baby that is the capture plant. It’s a burden. The case here is that the baby is estimated to be the same size as the mother. The capture plant is estimated to be the same size as the power plant.”

Heat must be taken from the steam cycle to feed the regeneration system where the solvent is separated from the CO2. “We need to extract steam, which we are using to generate power,” said Karush. “[And] we need to bring that steam just to add heat to this reaction. Overall the efficiency of the power plant and the power output decreases notably.”

Karush’s simulation had shown that an 18 percent overall improvement in efficiency could be achieved in such a plant. Keep in mind that this was just achieved through computer modelling and hadn’t been reached by studying an implementation of technology installed in a working plant. And even an 18 percent reduction in energy used by emissions scrubbing equipment is not enough to make CCS feasible.

But as the conference progressed it occurred to me that people in these industries, listening in the scheduled information sessions and chatting with engineers stationed around the product display room, would see Karush’s research as a promising sign. Still “early days”. The work would go on. Given the nature of the influence working on many industries to comply with community expectations that they will operate in a way that minimises impacts on the environment, it is no wonder that there is so much work being put into CCS. But the challenges facing researchers and managers are enormous.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Train trips: Seven

This is the seventh 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.

12 August

I had an appointment in Crows Nest that finished at around 11.15am after which I walked south along the Pacific Highway toward North Sydney. On the way there I passed a group of three men who were engaged in cleaning the windows of a building. One of them wore a harness to enable him to scale the exterior of the structure, and as I walked on the pavement he moved out of my way, allowing me to go ahead.

After walking for just on 20 minutes I got to the train station. There were still five minutes to go before the train heading to Central Station would arrive so I waited on the underground platform. When the train pulled up I got on one of its carriages and went downstairs to its lower deck, taking a seat on a bench of two next to a window. A woman with blonde hair, who was aged in her early 30s and who wore a black woollen coat, sat down next to me.

Seated on the bench in front of ours another young woman, with long brown hair and wearing a tan woollen coat, was responding to emails on her laptop. I could hear the tap-tap of the keys she hit with her fingers, and see the changing screen display as she clicked on one icon after another and rapidly typed missives to her correspondents.

The train was ultimately bound for Emu Plains. It entered the tunnel at the southern end of the Harbour Bridge before stopping at Wynyard where a number of people, including the blonde woman in the black coat, got off. At Town Hall a number of people got on, making the deck about half full of passengers. I tried to count all the people on the deck but the task was too difficult to complete without drawing attention to myself.

At Central, where we arrived at 11.55am, I got off and used the toilet, then washed my hands and dried them and left the North Concourse, heading up the escalators. I went to the light rail platform and got there two minutes before the tram was due to depart. I queued at the edge of the platform and when the empty tram pulled up in front of me I got on it and sat down in a seat in the second-last carriage of the vehicle.

Two young women were standing in the space between the carriages, in front of me, talking in Chinese. Later, one of them spoke to a young man who was standing to my left, making it clear that the three of them were travelling together. They would all get off at Pyrmont Bay station. One of the women wore a long, dull pink woollen coat and had a tan knitted scarf around her neck. The other woman had on tight black jeans. The young man they spoke with wore white sneakers on his feet.

At one of the stations leading up to that point, a young mother with a pram and a small child, a boy, who was aged about five years, got on. She stood by the door. The boy knelt on a seat next to the door with his feet hanging over the edge of it, the soles of his shoes facing the people seated opposite. He was looking out the window, as children like to do. The mother and the boy were also Asian and she had a baby slung around her neck in a pouch. She was using her mobile phone as she stood there waiting to arrive at her destination.

A white-skinned man with dark hair who was sitting directly opposite me talked into his phone though a microphone slung around his neck. He spoke in Portuguese. Next to him, to his left, sat a young Asian woman wearing a black coat and to her left sat another man talking into his phone in Portuguese. This man had on headphones and had dark skin. At the end of the row of seats I was sitting on another Chinese woman, who was about my age, was talking with someone standing in front of her, as they were travelling together.

I left the tram at the casino as usual and, for lunch, bought some nori maki and a bottle of orange juice at the shopping arcade just to the east of the building, then took my purchases home, arriving there on foot at 12.37pm.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

The world through a flaw: A train ride in winter

On Sunday 29 June, 2008, I caught a train from the suburb where I lived in the southwest of Sydney to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see a show titled ‘Taisho Chic’: an exhibition of Japanese works and artefacts made in the pre-war era (Emperor Taisho occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne between 1912 and 1926). I wrote about the exhibition on 5 July of that year on this blog.

But I did something else as well on that day: I took a whole lot of photos. I’ll never again use the camera – a Canon PowerShot A530 – because the device broke. I dropped it one day when I was out and about and the lens, which had been extended at that moment in time, knocked heavily against the pavement in such a way that made the camera incapable of retracting it. But when the thing worked it had a four-times optical zoom and each photo had five megapixels.

The following photo shows the camera in its current, decrepit, state. It is stored in my sideboard with other electrical devices, with cables and adaptors, and with tins and jars full of coins I will eventually get around to taking to the bank to deposit in my account.


I don’t know why I keep this wreck, perhaps there is something of the hoarder in my psychological makeup. Perhaps it reminds me of another time, of struggles lived and hardships survived. Hoarding done within reason can be a good thing, as the folders on my computer full of photos going back to 2006 attest to. I have kept almost everything from those years and, each time I get a new machine after one PC dies, the photos get transferred across to the new one. 

What follow are 17 out of a total of 669 photos I took that day. It’s an astonishing number of images and I can’t guess my reasoning in the case this far away in time from that day. But while I was sitting in the train I saw some graffiti scratched into the glass of the window opposite the bench I was on, and every minute or so I snapped an image of this artefact of casual desecration as the train made its way toward the centre of the city. 

Seeing the world through the lens of a flaw. There are dozens of shots showing the sky and some showing people. There are also buildings. The second-last photo shows Central Station with its sandstone façade and clocktower and in the final shot you can see the McKell building, a lovely brutalist structure that stands on George Street. 

These days you would use a mobile phone to take photos like this but doing so on a train for this long might draw unwanted attention if you tried it nowadays. It wasn’t just in the train that I was taking photos, and other shots originating on that day will, in the near future, be posted on this blog.