Saturday, 31 December 2011

Six things to know for journalism excellence

I’m wrapping up this blog for 2011 with a list of things journalists need to know in order to practice their craft excellently. I got the idea for this post from a tweet that had a link advertising a position teaching journalism in Africa. I saw the tweet and my mind went off on a tangent all on its own.

I hesitate to use the term ‘profession’ for journalism as there is not any type of body that is used to routinely vet journalists who could be on their way to entering a list of regulated practitioners. Not anywhere in the world, as far as I know. Unlike for accountants, lawyers and doctors, for example. It’s true that journalism has changed markedly from the training standpoint. These days you are more likely to have formally studied journalism at tertiary level before being hired by a media company. It is a recent development. There are more and more journalism schools at universities, and not just in Australia.

The six themes that will be explored in this post are: time, editorial relationships, access to sources, expertise, liberty, and connections. There may be more conditions for excellence. Indeed, the longer you practice as a journalist the more things you might think of to add to this list. I have worked full-time as a freelance journalist for two-and-a-half years. These are the things that I think most directly affect the quality of my own journalism.

Time

In journalism, as in everything else within the professional realm, time is money. Stories are paid for usually on a per-word basis, say 65 cents a word. If you have in mind a longer piece that can accommodate within itself more of the topic’s complexity, then you might envision a story 2000 words long. At 65 cents a word that’s roughly $1300 for the story. Given that you are rational about allocating your time to stories, you would think that two weeks would be all that you can afford to dedicate to this story.

Of course, you would not think of sectioning off a two-week period and doing nothing else but work on the one story. It doesn’t work that way, despite your understandable preference. Once you start getting up to speed as a journalist you will need to be able to manage time across a number of stories simultaneously. You might make a phone call for one story one day and the week after that do a preliminary interview off the record; after all, the person you identified as a qualified source might be on leave or simply be too busy to talk with you when you first call.

As a general rule, there is never enough time to give to a story. There are always more angles to explore, more people to identify and contact, more interviews to complete. But reality intrudes on your most cherished plans. And the thing that will most decisively restrict the amount of time you can dedicate to a story – apart from the rational consideration of money – will be the amount of space you can use. This detail is mostly up to the editor, which brings me to the second of my themes.

Editorial relationships

If you only have 800 words to give to a story because that’s the word limit an editor usually applies, then there are obviously going to be limitations in terms of journalism excellence. Often the editor has no choice. He or she has a managing editor to report to. There’s a set budget for the year and the budget is predicated on a standard, 800-word story length. There’s nothing you can do about this.

Some editors don’t care how long the story is, and will not give you any guidelines. But a long story may take longer to place due to the necessity, for a piece over, say, 1500 words, of finding enough space in the layout. So you might complete a story in February and not see it in print until December. This editor gives you scope to be excellent but may deny you the turnaround that is important to keep your work process on track.

Other editors care less about the length than the quality (within reason). But they might have a set rate on a pro-rata basis, instead of a word rate. It’s up to you whether you write 2400 words or 1600 words, but you’re still only to get the $700 the editor is offering you. This editor is interested in excellence but actually cannot afford to pay for it. You may choose to pursue it anyway because you are passionate about the subject, but requests for more money will fall on deaf ears.

There will be other types of payment regimes used by other editors you come across. Each will have an upside and a downside. It’s up to you whether you want to write for the editor. The best thing about editors, from your point of view, is that they read every word you write and will sometimes give you feedback. Feedback is invaluable, as we shall discuss later on. A really good editor will talk with you about the trajectory that a story is taking; you can see this at work in the Millennium Trilogy novels of Stieg Larsson, which focus on a small, independent magazine and its staff.

Access to sources

Often a story idea and a pitch to an editor will hinge on your already having secured permission from a source to be interviewed for a story. And finding sources takes time, so even before you get the commission you need to spend some time looking into your topic and locating and contacting sources. For highly topical stories this can be especially challenging. Everyone has seen the movie All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal. In the story, Deep Throat is the source. You will not likely be in a position to crack a story of this magnitude in your career, but it doesn’t really matter. Most important is finding useful sources who can tell you things that will really add value to the story you plan to write. Again, it’s time that counts here. And persistence.

A word about communications departments is required here. Large companies have corporate communications staff to control access to information about their companies, as do government departments. Small companies might contract this work out to a public relations company. Government departments are the ones most likely to refuse to give you direct access to a source, someone who you can interview on the record. Most likely the person in the communications unit will take an email containing specific questions and pass that onto someone within the organisation. You will receive a response in a timely manner, but the language will be careful, guarded and colourless. This is unavoidable. Large companies might also do this. However, if a corporate public relations operator gives you access to a person with expertise within the company they might still want to see the story before it gets submitted to the editor. You have to decide whether you want to do this.

Often, this will lead to changes being made to the story, even changes to direct quotes you have recorded on the record from the mouth of your contact. Naturally this tends to deaden the language. But it may also lead to useful information being added to the story. It’s a trade-off. If a public relations practitioner tells you that their being able to vet the story prior to publication is a condition of your gaining access to the interview subject, then you probably have no choice. But treat changes as suggestions, and talk with the PR about the draft when you get it back if there are significant difficulties.

Expertise

Most journalists are inexpert in the topics they write about and this is a characteristic of the profession. Journalists write about so many things that it’s impossible to be on top of all aspects of every story. You rely on expert sources to provide the depth you need to cover a topic thoroughly. But most journalists tend to stick with a small subset of topics that they develop a level of expertise in. This makes it easier to come up with good story ideas. It also enables you to develop a relationship of trust with your editors. Again, developing expertise takes time but you will find that you do it naturally. It may take three stories on a single topic before you acquire a level of expertise that enables you to write that truly excellent story. But stay with it; it’s one way to become excellent.

Liberty

Scores of journalists died in 2011 while undertaking activities related to their profession. In some countries, there is government pressure or censorship. These things affect the quality of your work, and impact on the excellence of your stories. In the West, the other themes discussed in this blog post are more likely to have an impact on the quality of your work. In short, however, you must have liberty to report if you want to write a good story.

Court reporting operates under specific rules and journalism students will learn about these rules while doing their coursework. Also at issue are laws relating to defamation. You just cannot say anything you want. Most of the time, your editor will work with you to make sure a story is unimpeachable before it is published.

Another aspect of this theme is the system of corporate values if you work for a media company. The values that matter will probably not be written down anywhere, or even communicated, but they will colour your way of approaching and writing a story. All large media companies campaign on certain topics, and this drives the editorial approach on stories related to that topic. If the corporate values of the organisation are inimical to you, you have to decide before writing the piece how you envision your future career. Too often going against corporate values can lead to professional dissatisfaction, a lack or opportunities for advancement, and frustration.

Connections

A problem for freelance journalists is isolation. If you can find people to talk to about what you’re working on, this will enhance the excellence of your stories. This can be a challenge. It’s important to ask for feedback from your editor; if they have a few minutes spare they will do this for you. But it can also be important to talk with people outside the journalist-editor relationship. So cultivate connections and try to find ways that you can secure feedback from people who you trust. Being connected is one of the things the internet enables, and this avenue can be useful for you in your quest to attain a high level of excellence in your writing. Good luck.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Coben meets Coleridge: Thoughts about the novel

It was a kind of empty feeling I experienced when, having spent a week or so reading crime novels and action thrillers, I realised that the last one was finished and it was my regular time for reading, which is in the evening from about 8pm after dinner is finished and I am once again back home after cooking dinner at my mother's house. I didn't know what to do. There were no new crime novels, no new action thrillers. In a way it was a relief. I had felt a sort of exhaustion a bit earlier, having closed one of them for the last time and put it aside. I craved a new one. The stimulation you get from reading a crime novel or an action thriller leaves you a bit worn out. Without a new fix you feel drained, unsatisfied, tired. Like coming down from a sugar high. It's the mental analogue of the feeling you get two hours after eating an apparently hearty fast-food meal. It's a real downer.

How to modulate my aesthetic sensibility again?

Something different was needed, so instead of a new Harlan Coben or a new Michael Connelly, I picked up a book I had owned for a fair number of years, but that I hadn't read, William Christie's 2006 Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Literary Life, part of the Palgrave Macmillan 'Literary Lives' series. It's a hardcover and looks very serious, but I had once attended a lecture of Christie's and knew him to be up-to-date and well-informed. The book tries to trace the development of the poet using a biographical framework, starting at the earliest times. It demonstrates deep and wide reading for the period in question, especially the late 18th century.

I especially love this period in English literature. While Coleridge was at the Christ's Hospital school in London, Jane Austen was learning to read in rural Hampshire and Walter Scott was listening to tales of derring-do from earlier times at home on the Scottish Borders. The English novel was in plentiful supply and was beginning to vie with verse for the mantle of popularity, if not the crown of repute. Doctor Johnson was recently deceased and Boswell was touring Europe on his father's healthy cash account. Montreal had fallen to the British a generation earlier and the American colonies had prosecuted a successful war against Britain. France was on the cusp of a change in its political structure that would alter Europe for generations. Poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth and novelists such as Austen and the Irishwoman Maria Edgeworth were reading William Cowper along with Fielding and Richardson. They were also reading the numerous gothic tales that had taken the market by storm. And novels about women in trouble, about injustices against orphans, and meditations on what it meant to live in a world in constant flux. These were troubled times, even in England.

Rising prosperity in England allied with higher levels of literacy meant that the gentry - the middle class - was reading more than ever before. For young men like Coleridge it was even possible to parley close acquaintance with contemporary politics and classical literature into a paying job doing lectures in Bristol. Such a life was of course unavailable to Austen but she was busy, too, writing spoofs of the popular literature of her time. In fact, the novel was to a large degree a product aimed at the female part of the population. Who read Richardson? Who did he write for? A generation later there were novelists like Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney. By the next generation - that of Edgeworth and Austen - novel-writing reached its peak atop the closeted desks of England's able women writers. Poetry was a manly, noble, honourable pursuit but it lost out to the scatterbrained, unhealthy practice of novelisation. Poetry would continue to be important well into the 19th century but the novel was hitting its stride, big-time.

Coleridge, of course, never wrote a novel but he read them, especially those of his hero, William Godwin. Godwin, a radical (the term dates from the 1790s) would marry early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and their daughter, Mary, would go on to write Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. Jane Austen had died the year perviously. Maybe parts of her oeuvre were gathered together by Mary Shelley in order to complete her famous book. Certainly Emily Bronte, who would form part of the next generation of English novelists, would deny that Austen had any part in her own aesthetic development. But Walter Scott was right: Austen was the preeminent exponent of the novel in her generation and her discoveries would continue to enrich the art of the novel throughout the 19th century.

The outlook for poor Coleridge was bleaker due to an addiction to opium and endless money troubles. But just as Austen inspired Dickens, Coleridge would inspire the American Edgar Allen Poe, who in turn would be a major influence on Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet. The printed book takes on a life of its own, ricochets around the globe due to commerce, and comes to rest in paper bags and Christmas stockings with all the relevance of an instruction manual to the individual's inner life. In reading, we participate in an exchange of feelings - aesthetics is the study of feelings - and images, ideas and values. Even in the reading of a trashy action thriller or crime novel there is a rich aesthetic experience.

Genre fiction has gained credibility in the past decade, just as the novel gained credibility through the agency of a man like Charles Dickens, in a way that it had not ever done before. It bleeds over into literary fiction in such works as those of Australian author Peter Temple, who has won the Miles Franklin Award for a crime novel. Or in the books of Haruki Murakami, who mixes crime and science fiction with high-end literature and has captured the esteem of millions of readers worldwide. Perhaps we are now living in the golden age of the genre novel. We've had crime for centuries, of course, ever since the heyday of the gothic romance in the last half of the 18th century. (Although it would be Poe who wrote the first pure crime stories.) And we've had science fiction for centuries too, particularly in the late 19th century when science was starting to change the world in radical ways.

So it's ok to read crime novels and action thrillers. But the experience would be more satisfying, for me at least, given access to other forms of literature, such as biographies, history, and even literary fiction itself. In a sense it's not what you read. It's how you read it. A critical sensibility brought to bear on even the trashiest novel can unearth the most interesting nuggets of thought. Happy holiday reading.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Arab League's Syria delegation a bit disappointing

We've gotten used to seeing Bashar al Assad's nerdy little rat face on TV denouncing as "terrorists" thousands of protesters in Syria demanding change of the regime Assad inherited from his father 11 years ago. A total lack of credible elections, a lack of viable opposition parties, and a dirty electoral process has caused Syrians - like their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia - to finally voice their opposition to the Assad regime. Authorites have reacted with lethal force.

The situation on the ground was supposed to come under scrutiny as a delegation of observers from the Arab League entered the country. Syria has banned foreign media from entering the country. Syria also protested loudly against Arab League calls for a cessation of hostilities. The Arab League has threatened to take the cause to the UN. Syria backed down. But what sort of delegation have we got?

It's early days yet. Initial reactions from overseas observers are not encouraging. The delegation is headed by a staunch military man from Sudan, Mustafa al Dabi, who was involved in human rights violations in that country's western Darfur province. So far he has not voiced the type of reaction that many have been hoping for, as the Guardian reports:
A video distributed by activists in Homs showed Arab League monitors in a battle-scarred area of the city on Wednesday/, taking cover when heavy fire rang out. Another showed the body of a little boy, purportedly killed in this week's fighting in Homs, being laid on the bonnet of an Arab League monitors' vehicle.
"I felt they didn't really acknowledge what they'd seen – maybe they had orders not to show sympathy. But they didn't seem enthusiastic about hearing people tell their stories," Omar, a Baba Amr resident and activist, told Reuters.
"We felt like we were shouting into a void. We placed our hopes in the entire Arab League. But these monitors don't seem to understand how the regime works, they don't seem interested in the suffering and death people have faced."
Similar reports are available at the New York Times website:
The continuing violence — and comments by an Arab League official praising Syrian cooperation — have fueled concerns by the Syrian opposition that the Arab League mission is a farce and a distraction from the ongoing killings.
"This mission has absolutely no mandate, no authority, no teeth," said Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the country's main opposition group. "The regime does not feel obliged to even bring down the number of casualties a day," he told The Associated Press.
Initial reports say that al Dabi was "reassurred" by what the delegation saw in the western city of Homs, which has a population of around 800,000 people. Homs has been a centre of protest and is where a large number of Assad-generated casualties have occurred. Arab League delegates were supposed to go to Homs to see how the government is mistreating its people, who have legitimate grievances and who have used legitimate methods in expressing them. This has not happened yet. Al Dabi will be very sensitive to the feelings of the Assad regime, especially since violence erupted in Syria when the delegation was announced. The world waits to see if the Arab League is honest or if it is just present to give the Assad regime a clean bill of health. All eyes are on Homs and on the delegates as they continue their inspections.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Can SBS doco help change Oz West Papua policy?

The Arab uprisings continue as a civil war develops in Syria. Apparently fair witnesses, in the form of a delegation sent by the Arab League, are touring Syria taking notes and visiting hotspots. The protests are painted as "terrorism" by the Assad regime but it's clear that some army soldiers are defecting and joining in the rebellion. Many people believe the protests are a legitimate expression of dissatisfaction with the government, as they were in Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia. The world watches as the Arab League delegation gets its shoes on the ground, and starts, hopefully, to deliver reliable reports about what is really happening there.

But Syria is just one place where the media is banned. Right on Australia's doorstep, in West Papua, a similar ban is in place. It has been in place for a long time. The ban has effectively enabled the Yudhoyono regime to limit exposure of what many call crimes against humanity. Hundreds of thousands dead, say some reports. Even if it's not precisely true - we have no way of knowing due to the media blackout. An occasional story appears in the media in Australia about the situation in West Papua but it's entirely sporadic and transitory. Meanwhile, the Australian government continues to recognise Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. In Papua New Guinea - a country with its own problems - the government says nothing also. They're probably worried about a refugee influx in the event of a full-scale war like that which took place in East Timor.

There's no novelty in the West Papua conflict. It's low-level and enduring but not notable. The main reason for our apparent complacency, I think, is the attitude of the Australian government, which is chary of upsetting a prickly Indonesian administration at a time when it needs their cooperation in order to keep up the pressure on people smugglers. Australian people are unaware, as a result, of the savagery being committed by troops from across the seas. Maybe a new documentary will help. It's to screen on SBS next Tuesday at 9.30pm and it's worth watching. The doco was first mooted a year ago and then it was screened on the BrisbaneTimes website earlier this month. Made by Australian Charlie Hill-Smith, it takes a long, hard look at the crisis simmering in West Papua and is good-quality as well as informative.

Perhaps if more people start to take note of this conflict we can get the Australian government to do something about opening up the province to external monitors, as they have done in Syria. Or at least let the media in freely. The people there, who want independence, are unhappy with Indonesia's rule and want change. We should be trying to help them.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Did Jesus Christ enable the scientific revolution?

In 1450 the printing press, invented in Europe by the German manufacturer Gutenberg, was operating. It was blue-sky stuff. By the second decade of the 16th century - 70 years, or three generations, later - when Martin Luther started his campaign against the sale of Church indulgences, the printing press was in wide use in Europe. The combination of technology and protest was dramatic and pamphlets took Luther's message from country to country. And the Reformation didn't stop with Luther's gripe about indulgences. All forms of scholasticism were up for disputation because thanks to the printing press more people than ever before had access to original texts, including new Bible translations drawn from the original biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramiac, Greek. Then there were the classical texts, now rediscovered via Spain, where they had come in from North Africa. This combination of ready access - basically more eyeballs - with a discredited Church hastened the development of the scientific method.

People such as Francis Bacon, who was born in 1561, were ready at the right time to exploit this new way of seeing the world. Another was William Harvey, who in 1626 began demonstrating publicly his theories about the circulation of blood (see pic). Things started to pick up, but it was still an elite concern, science. The Royal Society was founded in 1660, a century after Bacon's birth and 200 years after the printing press first appeared. It wasn't until the popular magazines of the early 18th century began to disseminate all sorts of knowledge at low cost and in an accessible format that science appeared in everyday living rooms.

At this time these people writing and reading about all the new discoveries encompassing the human body, plants, the behaviour of light, the solar system, animals, geology and everything else, were all practicing Christians. They believed that is was seemly and right to gaze with discerning eyes on Creation. It was a form of worship. By this time the rancour of the early Reformation, which had led to the discovery of science, was gone. Not only that, but the most common type of book available at this time, and even later in the mid- to late-18th century, was the religious tome. Books about religion were everywhere, although few have lasted down to our age so we naturally discount their importance. But it's an illusion of historical perspective. Religious books - about the gospels, martyrology, about the Reformation, about personal conduct - were read by most people who could read. In England, where Reformation policy had instituted almost-universal schooling for boys 200 years earlier, the middle class read a lot and books were cheap, or available through lending libraries which gave access to novels and other printed publications in exchange for a subscription fee.

With the American Revolution in 1776 and, even more importantly, the French Revolution in 1789, a new curiosity about roots took hold in England. Novelists like Walter Scott (born 1771) would make fun of the amateur historian in such novels as The Antiquary (1818), but Scott was a more than a bit obsessive about ancient wares and how they related to his family history. His home was a museum. By the 19th century the study of history had become important within popular culture in England, which led the way again as it had done for centuries. It was within this cultural milieu that Charles Darwin was born, in 1809.

Freethinking had begun to take hold in Europe in the previous century in opposition to the Church but it was an elite preoccupation. In 2011 it's easy to imagine a world without a guiding hand that directs the behaviour of whatever happens on Earth. We've had 200 years of polemic to help us get used to a more democratic way of seeing the world. By now those who class themselves as areligious are in the majority in most Western countries. I have always been like this, although I went to an Anglican school from the age of five. University helped me to gain access to more texts in a more systematic way, but it wasn't until I had lived in Japan for several years that I began to think about the role of Christianity in innovation. It happened one day as I was sitting at my desk in the office in Shibuya, a retail and commercial district located on Tokyo's western border. My way of viewing the world had come up against an immoveable object: the Japanese way of doing business.

I began to think about what it was that made the West different from Asia. In Japan there was plenty of technology and there were gadzillions of people involved in manufacturing. In fact, Japanese businesses had completely overtaken their Western counterparts in the manufacturing and quality stakes. They could make better things, more cheaply, and with fewer defects. But when I tried to think of things the Japanese had actually invented from scratch, I scratched my head. There was almost nothing. This led me back to the problems I was having working in a Japanese company. It was personal, so I thought about it a lot. My Anglican schooling came to my aid. I regressed, at times, when confronted with difficult problems. I thought about the Lord's Prayer and one line in particular. I had it off-by-heart, naturally, and it gave me comfort at a difficult time:

... Hallowed be thy name / Thy kingdom come / Thy will be done /  On earth as it is in heaven / Give us this day our daily bread / And forgive us our trespasses ...

It hit me. The Japanese way of learning is by rote. In an artisan's studio the student who can most accurately replicate the form of his master gains the highest praise. It is then the journeyman's labour to make a specific type of object over and over again for the rest of his life. This is the beauty of Japanese craft, and it bleeds into the manufacturing system. The Japanese are the best in the world at making things but they do not innovate because they do not have the license to make mistakes. Making a mistake is severely punished. But in the West we are told from an early age that we can make mistakes and that they will be forgiven. After all, it's in the basic book of worship, the Book of Common Prayer, which was first published, in English, in 1549. Right at the start of the scientific revolution. Twelve years before Bacon was born. Was this a coincidence? I thought. What do you think?

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Santa's rep and the matter of substance (A Christmas tale)

So here I am, telling you how I met up with a representative of Santa Claus last week. It's strange but there was something inspiring and at the same quite ordinary about her. The conversation we had appears below but some people reading it will miss the sense of cameraderie that permeated our exchanges in that house in Brisbane, on a sunny late December day. I just sat and listened while she talked. I sat in the chair at the kitchen table and during lulls in the conversation thought about the odd series of events that had brought me to this place.

First there was the hashtag. Or, rather, there was no hashtag but there was a column that appeared to the left of my home column, rather than the right. TweetDeck had suddenly seemed to be frozen but it was just dissonance flashing across the face of the application like ripples emanating from a stone cast into a still pond. Then I noticed it. Next to the symbolic icon representing the home column, a small rectangle rendered by the program in a shade of grey lighter than the background colour, there was a new grey box and I clicked on it, in doing so revealing a new column in which there was a single tweet with the hashtag #bestoffer. I quickly read the tweet.

Merry Xmas jobseekers. Journalist wanted apply here: bit.ly/0iU4nPe #bestoffer

The link led to a page on a site in Finland. Surprisingly the address given was in Brisbane, which is about an hour's drive from where I live. I knew the street because I had been to the city on a number of occasions in the past but central Brisbane is a dull, dirty place and there was nothing in the address to give me much hope. I rang the phone number displayed.

"Thank you for calling SC International. Please hold the line." Then there was the sound of sleighbells and an old man's voice going 'Ho, ho, ho'. I waited.

"Good morning," the woman's voice said. "Would you like to make an appointment for later this week? We are interviewing a few candidates and have time on Thursday at 3pm. Is that suitable for you?"

Of course, I said.

"That's great. You don't need to bring anything with you at all. Is there anything you'd like to ask at this point? We often have questions from candidates who call this number."

"I'm sorry, I just wanted to ask what sort of job am I applying for?"

"Of course. We are looking for a fair witness to bring our message to the world. You won't know but we monitor a lot of social media and one of your tweets triggered an alert in our system. We thought you might like to apply for this job because of that reason. It sounds extraordinary, I know, but we have to communicate with all stakeholders and each year we try to find someone with your skills who we can trust."

"Skills?"

"We read your website."

"But what's a fair witness?"

"It's from a novel published 50 years ago. Do you read science fiction?"

"I think I know the one. I'll be at the address given at 3pm on Thursday. Thank you for giving me this opportunity."

I cut the connection and set the handset on its recharging stand. The red charge light came on. I stood up intending to have a shower. It was Tuesday just before 5pm. The sun was shining. A car drove past my building toward the estuary near the local shopping strip. In the park across the road a young man wearing a pair of shorts walked toward me holding a surfboard under his arm. Apart from him there was no other soul in sight.

#

I parked the car under the art gallery and walked from Southbank across the bridge into the bustle of Brisbane's CBD navigating my way through the shoppers and office workers, the legal clerks and the parking rangers, the mothers and fathers, and the children slumped in strollers like bulky toys. In the building's lobby I stopped in front of the directory board looking for the name of the company I had come to visit. Third floor. I headed for the lifts and pressed the call button and waited.

When the lift arrived I stepped aside as a woman holding a set of manila folders in her arms exited and headed for the street. The sounds of cars swishing by came into the lobby like backing drums in quiet jazz. As the lift doors closed these sounds ceased and a soft hum began as the lift started its ascent, which ended soon at floor three. I stepped out and walked down the carpeted hallway toward a door at the end of the corridor. On the door was a name, Pendleton Serviced Offices, and next to the door was an intercom panel with buttons. I pushed the door open and entered the reception area where a man at a counter directed me toward the side of the building, to an open door. Inside the room were a chair, a teak-veneer desk, and a set of windows looking out over the street. A woman in her early thirties with her hair twisted into two coils on each side of her head, a red skirt suit, and green high-heel shoes was standing off to the side, next to a door leading to another room.

"Good afternoon, Piers. I hope the rain didn't bother you too much. We haven't been lucky this week, have we?"

"It's fine. No problem. Good to make it on time. I parked in Southbank and walked."

"Take a seat and I'll be with you in a minute." She stepped sideways through the door and closed it, leaving me alone. The rain fell softly outside the windows. I looked at a snow dome positioned at the corner of the desk. Inside was a winter sylvan scene with a sleigh, a creek, and pine trees. A small brown house sat at the back of the panorama like a nut. A figure was crossing a bridge over the creek holding a bundle of sticks in his arms. Apart from the snow dome there was a small lamp on the desk, a telephone, and a bottle of orange juice that had already been opened.

#

They had been impressed with my tweet, they had done further screening using online resources, and had particularly taken notice of my LinkedIn profile and what it said about my aspirations. My aspiration was, I told Lace Bracken, who wore Christmas colours and didn't drink coffee, to be a writer. I had always wanted a Bohemian life and she nodded.

"We can't let you know until Sunday but we think you will have a good chance. You need to bring a number of things next time. I assume you have a voice recorder?" I nodded and said 'Yes'. "Good then. Can you tell me if you will be using social media over the next few days?" Again I said 'Yes'. "Ok, then keep an eye out for the sort of thing that happened before. There will be an indication if you are successful. We will call you anyway on your mobile later on just to make sure. And thanks for coming."

#

It was a big house, too big for two people. The directions had taken me off the Gateway Motorway just south of the river into a suburban neighbourhood. Lace Bracken stood at the door with the flyscreen held open in front of her. Behind her the front door stood open inside the house. She was framed in black and wore Christmas colours: a red singlet and green jeans with yellow low-heeled shoes. Her hair was the same as before: two coils on either side of her head. I parked on the grass next to a red Prado sitting under a gum tree. In front of me stood a safety fence running around a swimming pool, with shrubs and trees growing madly on the far side of the water's surface. A hose ran from the house into the pool.

Inside the house it was cool. We sat down and Lace started talking and didn't stop for two hours. The voice recorder sat on the table between us, its LCD clicking over the minutes in silence. I had a pen in my hand and there was a notepad in front of me which I occasionally used in order to remind myself of something so that I could ask a question later. Transcribing this interview would take days, I knew, but what I heard so astonished me that I didn't begrudge the organisation all the work this assignment would entail.

#

Lace Bracken was part of a large, multinational not-for-profit organisation. SC International operated on every continent and in every country. No surprises here. There wasn't a lot that she could tell me that I couldn't easily imagine. This was due to the corporate structure which gave access to information in an isolating, non-linear hierarchy. There were a lot of things that Lace herself did not know. The technology, for example, was highly sophisticated but she didn't know how it had been secured or who the Lowlanders were.

"There was a rumour about how hard peace was to maintain," said Lace. "They want to secure it throughout the universe, or something. I just heard some people talking in an unguarded moment but there's never any corroboration for the more outlandish ones, the rumours. You just get smiles."

And there were other rumours, she said, of an interstellar connection with some sort of technology transfer, a rigorous screening process that had been completed successfully by the organisation hundreds of years earlier, in fact a lot of rumours. These rumours passed through the organisation by way of the usual channels. Personal relationships were important but the organisation's cellular structure made it hard to ascertain the truth of all rumours for certain.

Lace smiled reassuringly. "I do know that it's got to do with the tree. Chimneys? Nobody has them anymore except in the countryside and in a few inner-urban suburbs in the big cities. Not worm holes, either. But definitely a transfer mechanism. You can quote me on that. It's some sort of dematerialisation technique, like a physical modem, if you like.

"The main thing is to set up a tree. Without some sort of marker like this there can be no transfer. Like a Japanese wish tree. Yoko Ono is famous for them, you probably know. There has to be the intent. Without the intent we can't make the connection and the modem doesn't work. It's out of our hands. It's part of the system. You ask, we supply. Simple really. The Boss is another thing entirely. Nobody meets him, at least not on my pay grade."

Lace had visited the Arctic early on in her time with SC International during a work orientation trip but the organisation's headquarters is so huge that she only had time to meet a few people, mainly new recruits like herself and the staff sergeant who conducted the in-house training sessions.

"He was funny. He told me to wear my hair like this because it was traditional. He loves tradition! Elves do, in general, and I've met a lot of them. Tie pins, badges, medals, that sort of thing. There's a lot of paraphernalia involved once you get into the operational side of things. My work is mainly liaison."

Lace had graduated from UTS with a degree in international relations and communication five years earlier and took the transfer to Brisbane because her husband, a chef, got a good job offer in the city.

"There aren't a lot of elves in Australia. There doesn't need to be. It's like the military nowadays. You've got these staffers holed up in a bunker in the Arizona desert operating remotely all these aerial drones. We work in the same way. The hardware is all at HQ and there is a team of technicians looking after that side of things. Operators tend to stick together. Human resources is very senior. On the sourcing side you've got buyers, mostly elves of course, all over the world. We have good relations with all the major retailers but that side of things is considered to be entry-level. The big decisions are made by the standards committee which is also at HQ. They decide who's been nice, for example."

#

The Prado's shadow was long on the lawn by the time I got into my car, backed it carefully up the driveway, and manoeuvred it slowly down to the street. I stopped to check for traffic then turned right. The road was flanked by tall trees and the occasional gate all the way down to the main drag, where I turned right again. At the lights I stopped and at the green signal I turned right onto the ramp leading to the motorway which would take me north over the river and up the coast to my own home.

There were a lot of things I would not be able to write about. No one would believe them and full disclosure might have ramifications for me personally. Primarily the message was about doing things for other people, I knew that. Children demonstrated delight, which their parents loved. Mothers and fathers offered rich treats, which their sons and daughters loved. Friends said nice things to each other, which their friends loved. Even the shopping was somehow replete with purpose, like the squads of elves at SC International HQ in the Arctic Circle. They went about their business with determination and resolve, intent on fulfilling the wishes of seven billion people.

Since the 1950s, Lace had told me, their job had become more demanding as the global population rose rapidly. Every fifteen years another billion souls to think about, plan for, listen to. There was something miraculous, she said, about how the organisation had adapted to these new constraints. "Like the loaves and the fishes," she said with a smile as I made a note on my pad.

"We know there are questions people have about how it all works, and that's why we asked you to come and talk to me here, in my big suburban house. We're all just employees but the corporate ethos is deeply ingrained and most of us find it extremely rewarding to work here."

#

"There's one thing I think we should cover in a bit more depth," I said at a point near the end of the interview after remembering a note I had made a bit earlier. I leafed through the rumpled pages looking for the place where I had made the note I wanted to review. Time was running out. "You mentioned the loaves and fishes, and this is clearly a reference to the Christian gospels."

"Yes, Piers," Lace waited for me to elaborate.

"I just want to know if there's a connection between the organisation and the religious tradition."

"Sure. Look, the traditions you are talking about predate the organisation. My understanding is that a decision was made at some early point in the business to leverage the power of those traditions. But remember that those traditions are themselves predated by others which would have served us just as well. That's my understanding.

"In the early days the organisation was a lot smaller and a lot less influential than we are now. Some people might balk at my admission and even think we should be accountable for this decision in some way, but it's probably too late for that now. SC International runs a very professional operation but we're not like a government, which represents its constituents and can take actions for the common good on behalf of all of them."

"Even governments have trouble making major changes."

"That's true. Our traditions basically help to sustain the integrity of the organisation as it changes to changing circumstances, such as new technological methods or demographic shifts. But underneath those traditions is, hopefully, a more substantive notion. Goodwill to all men and that sort of thing, right? The important thing to remember is that the organisation has survived not because of the religious tradition, but alongside it. If there are common elements –"

"It's because there's something essential in them that makes them desirable –" I completed Lace's sentence for her. I kicked myself quietly. It's a bad habit but it was because part of journalistic discipline is to closely track what your interlocutor is saying. The habit ensures that you can juggle a number of different things in your mind at the same time.

"Something essential. Like forgiving others when they do you wrong. Yes."

Before leaving I asked Lace why there were two graduation photos on the kitchen wall.

"One was from UTS for my bachelor's degree. The other one, with the red frame and green mounting, is for my 'graduation' at the company. They call it 'substance', for some reason. Just the way they talk. I got substance and they took this photo. There were others too who got it but not everyone gets through. I was lucky, I guess."

'Substance?' I thought when I arrived home and parked the car under the building, in my allocated spot. Standing under what? Positioned subject to what? You are part of a large organisation. You have limited access to information. You hear rumours about the inner workings of the complete entity but have no way to verify everything you hear. You do your work, get paid, get promoted. Or not. I wondered how Lace's career with the organisation would go. Would she, too, get to sit on the standards committee?

#

The lift arrived and I used my access key, pressed the button for my floor, and heard the motor start as the lift began its ascent. Inside my apartment there was the usual mess with books and magazines everywhere, the inner tube for a roll of wrapping paper, receipts from a few local businesses, some laundry still sitting in the blue plastic basket I used to carry it down to the washing line, a pink tin of coloured pegs. Outside, the evening was coming on like a thought. The roundish moon had begun to separate itself from the atmosphere's rich milk, ringing itself with light captured from the sphere of superheated gas that sustained the life of everything that grew on the blue-green orb, tethered in the void, which I inhabited.

I plugged in the voice recorder, sat down, opened up the audio manipulation software, moved the digital file onto my hard drive and, using the replay foot controls that were permanently stationed on the carpet under my desk, began to type.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Get your fax on: dated device boasts second wind

A software developer at Kei Katsu America
 demonstrates a prototype 'Polly'
shoulder-mounted fax machine.
Thought the fax was dead? Think again. A new type of fax machine which is miniaturised, portable and contains cutting-edge patented voice recognition technology is under development by a leading Japanese electronics manufacturer. Two squads of developers – one in Japan looking after the hardware side and the other in California working on the software – have invented the groundbreaking ‘Polly Phonic Fax’ and it is set to be released within a year.

“We were a bit sceptical at first, when we heard about it,” said analyst Brendan Verhooj of Auckland technology watcher GD Ventures. “But their marketing plan is interesting because it taps into a real need, especially in Japan where the population is ageing rapidly.

“’Who cares about a new type of fax?’ we said. But they are very cleverly targeting people who cannot use such devices as smart phones but want a way to communicate with their children, for example, who do.”

The standard ‘Polly’ (for short) will be shoulder-mounted, which leaves the wearer’s hands free to do other things. It contains a powerful microphone that rests close to the wearer’s chin and, developers say, can pick up speech easily.

“The person wearing the Polly talks normally,” said Chandra Biswas, development manager at Kei Katsu America, the Japanese company’s US outfit. “That feed is digitised and converted into characters by the voice recognition software we have been making. It’s trained to understand the wearer’s speech patterns, so there are few errors.

“The message can then be sent via Wi-Fi or other medium to any other device, say an iPhone. Similarly, a text message from an iPhone can be directed to the wearer’s device, the Polly, which prints out the message there and then.”

“The basic technology appears to be sound,” said Verhooj. “We do not see any competitors here or anywhere else. It’s credible.”

The person wearing the Polly can also dictate a message and print it out for immediate personal use.

“In Japan we have traditions,” said Masa Ban, a technology writer based in Nagoya. “You are familiar with the temples and shrines in this country, I think. Many people pray. Some people leave onikuji tied to a tree or bamboo for wishes. It’s very popular, especially with traditional Japanese. Polly is good for those consumers.”

Onikuji are pieces of white paper that have a wish or a fortune printed or written on them. Use of onikuji is widespread and of long standing even among tech-savvy consumers in Japan.

“They can print out a message and tie it to a tree. It's a good feature,” said Ban.

Sales of the Polly are expected to ramp up from a low base but profits would also derive from service provision. Older Japanese can have difficulty getting used to such technologies as the internet and mobile phones, said Ban. Kei Katsu plans to offer a range of service types to their Japanese customers.

“This is a really exciting thing,” said Verhooj. “You can get the paper blessed at different temples around the country. For different people at different times of the year, different temples might be more auspicious. We would not attempt to replicate this marketing strategy in the West, but focus groups that have been run in Japan tell us it is a popular idea.”

“You cannot bless electrons,” said Ban. “Or liquid crystals.”

Different colours of paper are also planned. 

“Kei Katsu KK has many successes in electronic devices,” said Kei Katsu corporate secretary Amawasu Sitegawa. “Our goal always is to give good products and services to our customers. If you want paper blessed by the priest at Yasukuni Shrine or by monks living in Kiyo-Mizudera Temple, it’s no problem. We can handle that requirement.”

“Do I think it will be successful? I think so,” said Ban. “The problem with many manufacturers of communication devices is profitability. Manufacturing costs in Japan are not cheap and many companies have moved their factories to China and Thailand. But services will not be moved overseas.”

“We think Polly is a cracker,” said Verhooj.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Reading genre fiction a legitimate reaction to politics

Ever since reading the Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson not so long ago I have been flirting with genre fiction in a way that would not have been likely five years ago. I'm a die-hard literary fiction fan and have been since graduating from science fiction - supplied by my brother, who is two years older than me - back in my teenage years. In my late teens and early twenties I was into Henry Miller and Marquez. I studied arts at university, mainly languages. My fourth-year undergraduate thesis was on the oeuvre of a second-tier Italian novelist of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Italo Svevo. I once made a girl cry by reading in public a poem by High Modernist Italian poet Eugenio Montale. I even write poetry myself. Yet the changes that have taken place in the cultural landscape over the past decade have led me to give genre a try at a time in my life when most people are unlikely to change preferences cemented in their habits from long use. It's not that I felt stale: there's plenty of good literary fiction available nowadays. But I have been more concerned in the past 10 years with politics both local and international. And politics is what thrillers - one of the genres men generally gravitate to - are all about.

Guns, cars and armed mercenaries are the glue that bind together narratives that also involve more 'normal' elements of global malfeasance, such as clandestine documents, secret societies, corrupt government agencies, and venal corporations.

One of the books I've read is Matthew Reilly's Area 7 (2001). The story is full of action of the most extraordinary kind and you think, 'Noone could possibly survive all that stuff in a single day.' No, they couldn't. It's not realistic. The number of times that the hero gets shot at by automatic weapons, and the range of ways that a whole slew of antagonists attempt to kill him, stretch credibility to its utmost extent. But it doesn't really matter. The underlying plot elements are believeable. There's a new virus made in China. The US government at its secret Air Force base in Utah has developed an antidote. The thing about this virus is that it's engineered only to kill Caucasians and blacks. A shadowy group of Air Force officers which holds racist views wants to bring down the government and return to pre-Civil War days. There's also a South African group that wants the virus in order to control Africa. Then there's the Chinese who want world domination. Geopolitics was never this neat, but the underlying motivations are not just hot air.

The book I'm reading is by Allan Folsom and it's called The Hadrian Memorandum (2009). Here it's the CIA working in a loose league with a mid-sized Texas oil firm to control a massive new oil discovery in West Africa. There are Russian agents involved also. The hero teams up with an employee of the oil firm, a woman, who had been following him. Now their destinies are tied together. Action migrates from Equitorial Guinea to Paris to Germany to Portugal.

Such stories respond to the same parts of our psyche that is engaged by the current WikiLeaks drama. They recognise in a material form that politics is often about money, or racism, or the lust for power. They also recognise and talk to us about the nexus between corporations and government. They tell us that there are men and women who are prepared to kill to achieve their goals. They illustrate ideas about extrajudicial murder carried out by governments. In short, they talk about things beyond the experience of most people that are credible because of the existence of real stories that have been told in the media. In a sense, also, they confirm for us the failure of media in the face of 'spin' to tell us the whole truth about what political actors get up to on a daily basis.

When a US Army armed helicopter is allowed to kill scores of people in the street, when evidence of that is made public and the US government does everything possible to take revenge on the people responsible for its publication, when politicians call for the assassination of those people, then the sweet lies a Folsom or a Reilly tell seem innocent indeed. The pleasure you get from reading a thriller is about innocence as well as guilt. Not just the innocence of the characters who are shot at from passing cars in a Lisbon street at night, but your own innocence and the peace that you keep daily as you go about your business in the streets around your home and workplace and commercial district. Rather than saying that the world's fucked up, these books tell you that you are OK and that life is good. That's not an insignificant outcome and I, for one, will keep reading thrillers for the moment.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Researchers: No Australian "middle class" any more

Dr Letitia Stork-Wang in the Centre for
Human Studies lab in Sydney yesterday.
There is no longer such a thing in society as a "middle class" say researchers at a distinguished Sydney research centre that focuses on cultural studies. Two years of studying the Australian resident in every concievable setting - from coast to coast, and from Bar to barroom, lab wits affirm - allows the prestigious non-profit Centre for Human Studies, headquartered in Rhodes in Sydney's west, to release a new document showing that the term "middle class" no longer applies to any of us. We've never had an "upper class" anyway, for many reasons, say researchers. For the vast majority of Australians a niche can be found within a new set of classificatory intruments that have been developed in conjunction with the Humanities Science Lab at West Texas Pentecostal University in the United States and Denmark's Royal Institute of People-Technics.

"The idea of a 'working class' and a 'middle class' no longer applies," said Letitia Stork-Wang, who is also chair of the government's long-standing Social Index Reform Committee, which advises on a range of matters relevant to a number of ministerial portfolios.

"The working class ceased to exist during the era of the Keating government and Howard virtually finished off that project. We talk of 'Howard battlers' but what we should be talking about is 'bogans'."

The CHS document proposes two major classifications for Australian residents. Australians living overseas were excluded from the study because of difficulties in matching overseas cultural 'markers', or cognates, with those "more specifically" found in Australia, according to reasearchers.

As well as the 'bogan', Dr Stork-Wang and her colleagues here and overseas came up with the term 'elite' to encompass those who might formerly have been labelled 'middle class'. 'Snob' was canvassed as an option but, says Dr Stork-Wang, many found it distasteful. It also had a strong link to outdated systems of societal classification.

"Our research told us that the term 'elite' was equally disparaging in the Australian context. I mean, who wants to be called "elite"? There has been a trend in popular discourse for decades that makes it actually quite undesirable to have that label attached to you nowadays, I think."

Dr Stork-Wang is confident the new labels will eventually meet with broad community approval and says that the research method has been particularly rigorous, and strictly follows international best practice.

"If we use the old labels based on income generating capacity then everyone would now be middle class, with a few exceptions," says Dr Stork-Wang. "In the new scheme it's not how much money you earn but, rather, what you do with it. We decided to base the classification system around notions of cultural production and consumption. This was more realistic we found. Otherwise so many people would just have dropped off the map."

The term 'bogan' has been a term of disparagement for a long time, however Dr Stork-Wang says this will now change as the government introduces a new series of policies in a range of schemes that will derive from the comprehensive CHS study, which was funded mainly from private sources.

"You have two main types of bogan," says Dr Stork-Wang. "There's the 'dependant bogan' on the one hand and the 'independent bogan' on the other. These terms refer to the person's income-generating capacity. With the elites, you've got the 'consuming elite' on the one hand and the 'productive elite' on the other. These terms relate to the person's range of activities within the distinctive cultural milieu that he or she inhabits. Is she involved in the production of cultural products, or is she just a consumer?

"Both types of 'elite' like the same things, but some of them are actually making stuff that they and their peers consume. The rest of them just go to arthouse movies, read literary fiction, and eat croissants. Both demand espresso coffee but that's also a characteristic of the 'independent bogan', who can get fairly good coffee pretty much anywhere in the major cities nowadays. We call this the "Westfield effect".

"'Dependent bogans', on the other hand, generally will take whatever they can get. Even International Roast is good enough if the water's reasonably hot. Which it often isn't in many households."

Details of the document, which has not yet been published due to uncertainty as to which ministerial portfolio owns it, are due to be released in the near future in the form of a four-colour pamphlet with photographs and prepared for broad distribution at libraries, doctors' offices, and many government agencies. The CHS media unit says that most Australians will be able to locate a free copy on the counter next to the rubber plant or near the water dispenser.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Even if refugees don't die at sea, Australia can do more

This is the face of a desperate man. This survivor of the recent refugee boat sinking off Indonesia, during which over a hundred people died, is recovering at an Indonesian facility in East Java. If you were in his shoes, you too would hold your head in your hands. You would have left your country because of discrimination, torture, harrassment, overwhelming economic hardship - the types of occurrances we cannot easily picture because they were removed from the social equation here a hundred years ago or more as a result of the gradual liberalisation of Australia and the development of our economy. You would have paid a lot of cash to a travel broker, received your visa to Indonesia, and caught a plane. Once on the other side you would have waited in substandard lodgings until you were told to meet up at a certain place at a certain time, when the boat would be ready. You would go there and crowd yourself onto the wooden vessel anticipating days of illness due to rough sea conditions. Then disaster might strike. It has, again.

The past few days have been drearily unedifying for Australians as politicians have tried to parley this latest crisis - it's only a year since the last dreadful sinking, off Christmas Island - into attempts to promote policy. At least on the Labor side. The Liberals have no working policy since the High Court decided to rule out most of our neighbours as suitable stock yards for the dispossessed. Nauru is impossible just as Malaysia is - unless the law is changed. And Labor has welded its reputation to an offshore processing solution, emulating the Howard government which came before due to pressure from a xenophobic public. Public figures from the Right and the Left have tried to pass blame for the disaster to the other side. While the general public looks on, disgusted, the survivors try to make sense of their losses - many would have lost relatives when the boat sank - and have even blamed Australia for keeping its border open. If the border is open, they say, of course they will try to come.

Australia has no choice but to keep its border open to refugees due to its international committments in regard to the treatment of refugees. But beyond this unarguable fact we are lucky because the number of refugees who try to reach Australia by boat each year is small in any international comparison. We're talking about a couple of thousand people desperate - and brave - enough to hazard the crossing from Indonesia to Australian territorial waters. Compared to what they face at home, being locked up in a detention centre in Australia holds no terrors. But how much easier it would be if refugees who arrived in Australia could simply take possession of a visa and then go to live peacfully - and gratefully! - within the community. How much less intemperate would be the tone of the debate. How much higher would Australia's reputational star rise if this were our solution to a problem that will not go away because the conditions that obtain in the countries of origin are simply not tolerable.

Instead of holding his face in his hands, this man could be holding a hamburger, a doughnut, an apple, a book, a bus pass, a new video, a bottle of milk, a newspaper, a pot of coffee. These things we take for granted. They are cheap and readily accessible in Australia. We are lucky. Let's spread that luck around, make friends, and welcome refugees into our society so that they can be treated like people, and not as though they were just a damned inconvenience.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A new kid in charge of the North Korean toy box

News yesterday that North Korea's hereditary leader Kim Jong Il had passed away began to filter through to Twitter in the morning and newspapers were quick to follow up as people around the world quickly began to speculate as to what this event might mean for them. Share markets fell, most notably in South Korea, and regional militaries went on alert. Australia's foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, took the initiative and was soon on TV talking down fears and voicing his government's hope that relations with neighbouring states would remain peaceful. There is that much bruited-about figure of 1.2 million regular troops maintained by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and there is the official government policy of "military-first". Ears around the world listened in to the broadcast of the official TV channel as the news was made public.
We must hold high the flag of songun [military-first] policy, strengthen military power a hundred times and firmly defend our socialist system and achievement of revolution.
Kim's successor is in his late-20s. Kim Jong Un has received the paternal imprimatur but there is little information about his personal qualities, his beliefs, his aspirations for the people of DPRK. Will they be allowed to experiment with free markets, and thereby work to improve their tenuous existences? We just don't know. There was no significant change when Kim took over in 1992, for example.

The image used with this post is almost a meme, used commonly to indicate the dire state of the country's economy. It's the kind of image that tells a story. It's a photo from space of the region at night. There's Japan on the right with the big white dots showing Osaka and Kobe. The isolated glow surrounded by black is South Korea, with the bright spot of Seoul prominent near the top. On the left lies China, the Asian dragon that has developed economically while still holding fast to its one-party political structure. How long China can remain Communist is, of course, a huge question. So many anxieties derive from this single fact, and these anxieties contribute largely to driving government policies in other nations, especially those of the United States.

There are tens of thousands of US troops stationed in South Korea and tens of thousands more stationed in Japan. But noone in the US, bar the looniest of far-Right loonies, would welcome a military face-off with the DPRK. Certainly the Japanese fear this outcome more than most things, and the South Koreans too. Along with nationals in those countries, Australians watch the DPRK make its transition from an untrustworthy leader to the unknown quantity of Kim Jong Un, with curiosity and concern.

After the initial notices of Kim's death, Twitter quickly took to relaying the anxieties of nationals everywhere in the form of humour. The jokes ran thick and fast. A number of terms trended as a result of the announcement. Some of them still trend this morning. We are still coming to terms with the succession. No doubt the people of the DPRK are coming to terms with it as well, just as the PRK military will have to come to terms with Kim Jong Un. And he with them.

This is a huge development in the political arena in Asia. It will have a major impact on relations between Asian nations for decades. There are a number of options available to the Great Successor. Let's hope that Kim Jong Un takes a Chinese path toward economic development rather than remaining resolute within the climate of fear and distrust maintained by his father. Economic development is essential as it improves the likelihood of social cohesion, thus diminishing the importance of the state apparatus, especially the military. It also delivers more-normal relations with nation states globally. And it would provide access to global cultural products that could serve to diminish the rigid ideological machine that has been put in place to ensure stability in the DPRK. China is changing almost despite itself, as a result of its policy change under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. I hope that the Great Successor will take his political cues from that diminutive giant rather than from his brittle and unreliable father.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

London riots: Revenge was due to lack of respect?

A 20-minute video produced by the Guardian provides new insights into the mindset of people involved in the August riots in London. Reporters interviewed 270 people in making the video, with the interviews being part of research conducted alongside the London School of Economics. (I wrote about this research, and the government's reaction to it, recently.) Revenge appears to be a dominant theme for people who participated.

The justifications for the riotous behaviour that engulfed the country during those weeks, that arise repeatedly in the voices contained in the video, are:
  • Routine stop-and-searches conducted by police, 
  • A lack of respect by police for people living in disadvantaged areas of London, and 
  • Cuts to government-supplied benefits and the increased cost of university tuition. 
Government attacks on 'criminals' and gangs appear to have been competely misplaced, in light of the video. The video, which in the link above sits on the New York Times website, will be embarrassing for David Cameron's conservative-led Coalition. Cameron tried to deflect blame for the riots by casting aspersions, at the time they were taking place, on 'criminal' elements in society. This tactic now appears to be utterly misguided.

People interviewed were not criminals, just ordinary citizens. They resented the way the Coalition has been making it harder for them and people in their neighbourhoods to improve their lives. Cuts to government handouts and rising university tuition costs are cited as examples of the lack of attention they, and people like them, receive from the government. This lack of a just system compounds with feelings of powerlessness deriving from a lack of respect from the police. So the attacks were an opportunity for people living such lives to get revenge on a system that had ceased being interested in their welfare, and that had started to make life increasingly difficult for them on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, these interviews were conducted sometime after the fact, and although measures were taken by reporters to preserve the anonymity of those interviewed, we can intuit a degree of special pleading in their words. Given this caveat - that perhaps those interviewed are not being completely honest, and are merely trying to justify their actions to make themselves look better - it appears that the ingredients for a repeat of the riots remain alive in the community. Many of those interviewed said that such events could happen again.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Hitchens: The most famous writer I've never read?

It went off without a hitch, if you'll pardon a pun at this sad time in the world of letters. Actually it's broader than that because Christopher Hitchens was, most recently, as well-known for his TV appearances as he was for his famous works, which anyway tended to be the ones that are polemical in nature rather than literary. But what I mean is the universal consensus among the Twitterati that the passing of Hitchens, from complications associated with oesophageal cancer, was a sad event in their day. As soon as the event was announced on the Vanity Fair Twitter account - Hitchens worked for the magazine from 1992 - scores of followers rushed to announce their feelings of regret at hearing the news. Hitchens trended quickly. On Facebook, blog posts appeared (including this one, which is very good) and here, again, the tone was rousing, triumphant, and heartfelt. Hitchens has never been so well-known as he was yesterday (the VF announcement came through in the late afternoon, Sydney time).

The funny thing is that apart from the occasional VF piece by Hitchens, I've never read any of his books, of which there are, apparently, a lot. I count 18 since 1984. What I remember Hitchens for are his TV appearances, which were always stimulating. But for all his writing and talking over the years it seems that the one effort for which many people cannot like Hitchens - his backing of the American war in Iraq - is the thing that caused him to become well-known enough to be invited onto the TV shows in the first place. So I predict a renaissance in Hitchenology now that he has gone to the other side. People will begin to reappraise his work. There will be reassessments in the light of his not-unexpected demise. I foresee omnibus editions, new collected works, and coffee table books for the less text-tolerant among us in the wealthy West.

His death will turn out to be the best thing that happened to him, career-wise. From being a little-known though erudite and effective Left-wing writer on current affairs (think of journalist John Pilger) Hitchens will turn into a person we rely on to confirm the importance of bigger issues, and against whose ideas we will test the constitutions of other people visible in the public sphere. He might not attain the status of an Orwell or a Churchill, but Hitchens will certainly be remembered by posterity. New editions of his works - many of which are not now readily available - will help this process. In a sense, he will be more 'present' in future than he was, I guess, before the second Iraq war. Hopefully, too, he will start to be well-known not just for his writings in defense of atheism, but also for his ideas about politics and literature.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Rudderator not a pollie, he's a rockstar

Time for Kevin Rudd's people to begin working on setting up an IMDB page for the man we all love to speculate about. There are more rumours of impending leadership challenges for Ruddbot than there are DUI charges for Mel Gibson. It's embarrassing. Give the guy his due you facelsss minders! A list of starring roles can't be hard to put together, with names of co-stars and directors. Anything less will just cause strains in Rudd's vivid relationship with his doting constituents - which means, of  course, everyone in Australia. Even in Perth.

Today Fairfax websites went all Daily Telegraph, taking the cachet the Ruddster possesses to a new level of explicit. The story featured on each of the Fairfax websites. It was about Kevin Rudd's sister who, we were told in those dry, factual sentences that journalists are so good at putting together, HAD LEFT THE LABOR PARTY because of the change that was made to the Party platform regarding marriage equality. (I use this term instead of "gay marriage" because it is more respectful in relation to a very serious issue.) Unshaven and moderately-made-up jaws across the nation dropped a good fifteen centimetres (on average) when this news hit the 'net. Dazed commuters stopped on the street and wept. Bus drivers broke down in cascades of tears and collapsed over their steering wheels. Julia Gillard momentarily lost her innate poise and dipped a breadstick into the guacamole instead of the onion dip (she was attending a cocktail party to celebrate the new ministerial appointments). Birds fell from the sky, dead. It was unaccountable.

Seriously, Fairfax. And then you did something even less accountable. It just so happened that, on the same day as this unaccountable event occurred, Andrew Bolt's sister came out with an op-ed piece supporting marriage equality (note the respect there, again, peeps). So you did the only thing possible. You MADE A MONTAGE WITH RUDD'S FACE NEXT TO BOLT'S and posted it prominently on your websites. Cows produced curdled milk. Acid-spitting spiders dropped from trees onto unsuspecting commuters. Bus drivers retched uncontrollably, bringing up quanitities of evil-smelling bile. On the floors of their buses. It was extraordinary and, hopefully, will never again be repeated. At least while I'm in the country.

Ruddy hell.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Greed of elites caused London riots, not Beckham

They've done some research into the August riots in London, which I wrote about at the time, and have come up with a plan. But first, let's look at the reason they think the riots took place. The Guardian reports:
A "get rich quick" celebrity culture exemplified by The X Factor and the dysfunctional lives of footballers has created a society "out of balance", the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, says today in an interview surveying Britain after the summer riots.
My take on the riots was that the rioters were aping the 1% that had been created by decades of frantic globalisation. The type of globalisation that allows a four-bedroom penthouse apartment in the building pictured - London's most expensive address - to be rented for US$90,000 a week by a Middle Eastern businessman. But the Tory administration in the UK has decided it was, instead, David Beckham and the X Factor (a reality TV show where contestants try to sing their way into lucrative recording deals). Oh well, at least it's better than their take at the time, which was that the riots were the fault of just plain criminals and thugs.

But rather than point the finger at the thing that has actually caused the social breakdown that created the conditions within which the rioting took place, the Tories have decided to pay a bit more attention to the "out-of-balance" communities that spawned them.
Duncan Smith, who as chair of the social justice cabinet committee is one of the key figures shaping a coalition response to the riots, warned there was "every chance" riots would recur unless structural reforms were made to repair "communities in which so many families are broken".
He is due to call next week for major investment from the private sector to help prevent social breakdown. He will argue that public-private spending can reduce social failure.
So they want to bring in corporations - which created the problem in the first place - to try to solve the dysfunction that lies at the heart of stressed communities throughout the developed world. Bring in companies to fix "structural" problems (it's not just criminals and thugs, after all, the research, which was conducted along with the London School of Economics, says) that bedevil the lower classes. There's something Elizabethan about this proposal. Next thing you know there will be Poor Houses where the indigent have to sew lace or weave cloth in order to earn their meagre sustenance.

The real structural problem in the developed world is not just the result of those decades of globalisation. It's deeper than that. For a start, as Jeff Sparrow pointed out in a recent piece for The Drum:
[N]eoliberalism reshapes the notion of citizenship, so that voters' relationship with their government becomes analogous to consumers' relationship with a corporation. Rather than active participants, they become individual customers, who engage with politics by selecting a candidate at election time just as they choose a product from a supermarket shelf.
Not surprisingly, across the western world, we've seen a long-term decline in political participation. Fewer people join parties or pressure groups – or even pay them much attention. Politics is no longer something you do but something that's done for you: every so often, the political parties court your vote via the media, much as Apple roles out some cool commercials whenever there's a new iPhone to sell.
In Australia and in the UK, furthermore, the relationship between the traditional party of the left (Labor here, Labour over there) and its core constituents - presumably people like those who rioted in August - has changed. The Left no longer protects the interests of its core base. Under Labor in Australia during the Hawke-Keating years Labor became the friend of big business. Under New Labour and Tony Blair in the UK, the party courted the big end of town, pretending that it was revitalising the Left. These dalliances turned out to have had the opposite effect. Noone trusts the Left any more. Of course there is no political protest - they burn shops instead.

The problems that the UK Tories perceive are just more of the same targets that are usually picked out when hands begin to wring among the privileged. Sure, the Guardian/LSE research was right in pointing out that the problem is "an acquisitive consumer culture", but this has nothing to do with reality TV and football players. Rather, it's got to do with the system of money that sits behind those facades. Behind the street frontage of entertainment is a financial mechanism every bit as determined to achieve profitable outcomes as the one that drives the Wall Street trader. These days, everything has become commoditised as, along with globalisation, the power of corporations grows and the power of governments decreases. It's time to start reading Jared Diamond again, the man who says that, in many civilisations through history, greed on the part of the elite results in the collapse of the entire social structure. Famine awaits.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Book review: All That I Am, Anna Funder (2011)

The story begins in the later days of WWI and it concentrates on a bunch of young German socialist activists campaigning against the war despite solid community support for the war effort. After the war ends they organise, and because they are highly engaged in Germany's political sphere they soon begin a struggle against the Nazi push that will continue in some form or another for the duration of Germany's embrace of this new force for social cohesion. But first, expulsion. After the Reichstag Fire, which followed quickly on the heels of Nazi electoral victory, Hitler clamped down hard on Communist activity. Dora - the heroine of Funder's book - along with her friends on the political Left, are forced to take up residence in London. It is here that the bulk of the narrative takes place. Nazi efforts to completely shut down the Left public relations campaign lead to a series of dirty moves that place extraordinary pressure on the Leftists in London, who are furthermore forbidden by their British hosts from participating in political activities linked to their homeland. Pressure from the Nazis, on one hand, and from the British authorities, on the other, cause fractures to open up in the relationships between these people. Tragedy is the result.

Funder's novel attracted a fair bit of criticism from those in the mainstream press who took notice of it. In a sense, Funder has been hampered by the success of the creative non-fiction book that came earlier, Stasiland. Critics have been a bit tough on All That I am - a novel based on historical records - because, it seems, it is not the same as the triumph that came before it, which is a shame. All That I Am deftly uses novelistic techniques - there are long passages of descriptive prose of a high calibre that serve to generate atmosphere and push the story forward - just as Stasiland deftly used the insertion of the author into the narrative to say something about East Germany that otherwise could not be said. Both are high quality works, though each is different from the other.

The story of Dora and her friends is most definitely worth telling. It is a forgotten slice of the Nazi tale, a tale we have come to recognise in its main features. It is the story of how a small group of dedicated idealists tried to warn Britan - and the West - about the war aspirations of the Nazis. It shows us, furthermore, that these aspirations had their roots in WWI and the humiliation that that turned out to be for the German people. The desire for victory and power that the Nazis and their supporters took from their forefathers attained a dangerous form once political power had finally been granted to Hitler. The Leftists tried to talk about this push but were ignored by a timid British government. Squeezed between this obliquy and the dogged espionage driven from Berlin, the Leftists imploded. Some went to the US. One, Ruth, ended up in Bondi Junction.

In Sydney's peaceful eastern suburbs, Ruth is introduced as an old woman living alone. She had been married to Hans, a handsome member of the group that was forced to flee to London, but he is gone. Funder picks up on this real woman and takes her stories as the launching pad for the novel. There are many stories about the Nazi movement, so that we think we know it well. By adding Ruth's story into the mix, Funder has shown that there are still valuable lessons to be learned. The result of reading the book may be the same - fascism is a Bad Thing - but by taking in the lineaments of this personal history we see how every story attached to the myth has to have the same outcome when married to our better judgement. There are millions of stories aligned to these myths, but there is only one possible assessment. Never again.

Funder's novel cements her place as a sort of expert on German history in the 20th century. It should also force us to believe that it is possible for a non-fiction writer to turn novelist. Mailer and Capote did it, after all. This, like theirs, is a fine work, not only because it tells an interesting story. But also because it tells it well.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Gillard wants to change marriage laws cheaply

Australia is holding its breath. For some reason, marriage equality as an issue possesses a gravitas and import far beyond that of any putative consequence which could derive from a change to the Marriage Act. Rainbows have always enthralled humankind, especially in the aeons before the scientific revolution allowed us to explain why they occur. Nowadays for, example, we understand why a person standing at the very end of a rainbow cannot see the rainbow itself. Before the Enlightenment, this phenomenon would have been a matter of philosophical speculation. Now it's just a matter of physics. As an optical illusion, a rainbow cannot, ultimately, be a threat, but many take gay marriage as such. Some, like those who spoke at the Labor National Conference against changing the law, have exceptional influence over government policy. The silent majority - whose disfavour some of those people fear because it can impact on the polls and on election outcomes - watch and wait, but the polls taken so far show us that most Australians favour a change to the law.

Julia Gillard - who personally opposes changing the law - knows this. After the drama of the conference session ended, Adelaide senator Penny Wong - who is gay and is currently expecting her and her partner's first child - gave Gillard a fillip:
''I think it says something of the measure of the woman that she's allowed the conference to do what it wanted to do, which is to have a full and frank debate.''
But Gillard is hedging her bets, in the most brutal fashion. Many in the gay community are angry that Gillard has only allowed a conscience vote on the floor of the House, which means that a Labor member of parliament will be allowed to choose his or her own way of voting when the matter is brought forward in parliament. The Liberal opposition will vote as a bloc against changing the law.

This is why we had the strange events in the Labor National Conference where the vote as to how to vote in Parliament - which was carried in favour of a conscience vote by a majority of 208 to 184 - was given more weight than the vote to change the party paltform itself. This latter vote was undertaken on voices only. Which means that the voices 'for' must have been clearly superior to those 'against' the motion. In other words, the party clearly wanted to change its stance vis-a-vis gay marriage, it just doesn't want to change the law just at the moment.

"Change is long overdue," said Wong, but it will have to wait for another time, and another opportunity beyond the expected introduction of the relevant private member's bill - which will fail to achieve its goal since the Opposition will vote along party lines and not with a conscience vote - until the law actually changes in Australia. It's all very confusing for those who regard politics with only the periphery of their consciousness. Gillard allowed the Labor Party to make up its own mind as to how its platform should be written, but then took away the relief that so many seek by mandating a conscience vote in Parliament when the bill finally comes before the House.

Then again, this kind of crabwalk behaviour has served the prime minister well in the past, even from the very beginning when she had to struggle to gain support from the Independents and the Greens to form government. In a sense, it's perfect politics. By hedging her bets, Gillard makes sure that the entire community is brought along with her. The criticism she attracts as a result of her decisions yesterday can be redirected so as to neutralise attacks from the religious Right. So Labor does not have to expend too much political capital while winning this fight. It's probably Classic Gillard.

Nevertheless, in five years time when gay marriage is an entrenched reality we'll look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. Once we stand, finally, at the end of the rainbow we'll have forgotten the brouhaha that changing the law entailed, and we will all treat the right of homosexuals to marry as a given.