Tuesday 31 March 2009

People shuffled between knees and seats and walked across in front of the stage as my computer played the easy-listening tunes piped into the auditorium. Finally the music faded out and a light applause was heard. Then Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre introduced the debaters and opened proceedings.

The Intelligence2 debate has shifted definitively into cyberspace with tonight's face-off being streamed live from the venue and advertised ahead of time on the Sydney Morning Herald's website's front page. Organisers might have to come up with some sort of audience activity to add more value now. Who would want to go out if you can watch it live on your computer?

The story that led me to the video website appeared on the Herald's website at about 6.15pm. The debate started at 6.45pm so there was plenty of time to prepare. Not that there's much to do. A fresh cup of coffee is all that I needed to get ready for the fireworks. The Herald decided to include three unlikely collaborators on the affirmative side: David Marr, Janet Albrechtsen and Peter Jensen. The topic? 'Freedom of expression must include licence to offend'.

On the negative are a law academic, Fleur Johns, a special-interest figure, David Knoll, and Donald McDonald, director of the Classification Board.

Voting tickets were provided for the audience to lodge a preference 'for' or 'against'. The vote is counted before audience questions and presented at the end of proceedings.

One glitch at 6.52 stopped play for a few seconds. At 7.19 and 7.21 there were more short glitches. More glitches at 7.53, 7.58, 8.02, 8.03, 8.06 (twice), 8.10, 8.11 (three times) and 8.16. I wonder where these are occurring – at their end or at mine.

Convenience is a boon when watching streamed video. I got up to make food for a few minutes (no, not cup noodles!) during Albrechtsen's address. I wonder if I missed much...

I got the microwave running while David Knoll was answering audience questions, so the slight advantage the negative side got earlier was nullified.

Female voices are slightly less easy for hearing words clearly, particularly the sibillants which sometimes explode in the speakers obscuring what comes next.

McDonald's defense fell short of the high standard adhered to generally by being almost a defense of his own job – that of chief censor.

The applause following David Marr's address was conspicuous by its force and despite the fact that the rice interrupted my attention during the journalist's address, I thought he'd be the critical factor in ensuring a win for the affirmative.

However, I reasoned, given the purported bias of the audience – online viewers can't vote – it seemed possible that the negative would win. This sounds odd considering that the only things I could see during the lead-up to the debate were a few profiles, a number of bobbing shoulders as people moved along the rows looking for their seats, and the scuttling dark forms of people looking for their seats further up toward the stage at the front of the auditorium.

Marr was compelling because he was funny. The only funny thing McDonald said was to refer to Marr ironically. His method didn't differ significantly from that of the others, who all used examples – colour and texture – to illustrate their point. In terms of pure sophistication I think the laurel should go to Johns. At some points her address was more complicated than the low-res video (it's difficult to lip-read online) allowed for.

I anticipated problems with hearing the audience questions as they would be looking in the opposite direction but it turned out that the only difficulty was created by the fact that many of them stood in shadow while speaking.

Knoll's concluding remarks got a good applause but that may have been due to relief that the debate had finally ended. I missed the SBS Insight program about the government's proposed web black list, unfortunately.

And the vote? 76 per cent voted for the affirmative side, 19 per cent for the negative and 5 per cent were undecided.

As to the other question – who would go to these debates – Longstaff exhorted people to book early as demand now outstrips the number of seats available.

Curiously, when I'd finished watching there was no link back to the SMH website, only to the BusinessDay website. This seems like a curious – if not sneaky – way to get people to visit the website.

Another reason to watch at home? I had a long conversation on chat - though not so disrupting as the food as I could listen while typing - and you can't really do that if you sit in the audience. Although some people might like the chance to get away from their computer long enough to just sit for a while without electronic interference.

Monday 30 March 2009

The boys raised their right arms, fingers pointing outward, as they left the dock via the door in the wood panelled wall to return to the cells. The magistrate stood, we stood, and the court cleared - through the swinging doors back into the waiting area. I chatted with The Daily Telegraph's reporter for a few minutes on the steps outside the building. A group of dark men pulled their sunglasses over their eyes as they marched past toward George Street.

The 15 year old boys will stay in jail for at least 18 months as they are due for release on parole in late spring next year. The salutes were a type of defiance in the face of a harsh justice system but they should have known it would end up like this when they took an axe and a machete into Trinity Catholic College a month ago and smashed the place up.

One of them, seated closest to me, sports a mullet and a short goatee. He was wearing a red T shirt, which contrasted with his dark skin and long eyelashes, high cheekbones and powerful nose. But regardless how grown-up the boys look they were treated like children, in a children's court and using children's justice.

Magistrate Gary Still read his decision to the court, where members of the boys' families sat on the side opposite the reporters, among whose number I sat. One boy among them wore a shell ankle bracelet and his right earlobe carried a stud.

Both boys are of Tongan descent, like the boys who had attacked Merrylands High School a year earlier. They were, apparently, happy that their attack had made the media. A copycat crime, it fetched its perpetrators a slightly stiffer sentence, possibly in consideration of the similarity. The major difference was that at Merrylands there was no axe.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Earth Hour may bring on the darkness in cities worldwide but in Australia the event highlights longstanding rivalry between the two main news media companies here. While The Sydney Morning Herald, a founding sponsor of the event, posted multiple images with its story on last night's big switch-off on its web page - 83 cities and one billion people participate, it crows - News Limited vehicles The Australian and The Daily Telegraph register nothing at all. Who said the media are biased?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

A Facebook data capture story posted on Facebook by a friend is not as hilarious as it first appears as so much law in Australia is imported from overseas, especially from Britain and the US.

The story contains some devastating inconsistencies.

The government is "is considering making ... sites [like Facebook and MySpace] keep data about their users' movements". On the other hand the government "was not seeking the power to examine the content of messages sent via the sites".


Surely if the data was to be collected and stored in some sort of dark satanic data centre it would be prudent to allow law enforcement authorities access to it. And if this did happen (by some odd convergence of conflicting priorities) then said data would, at some point, be examined.

The "data about users' movements" would presumably include text, which would have to be read by a human. It would therefore be examined by a human. QED.

Lawmakers are keeping busy. They are also intent on collecting the content of every telephone call and email sent by everyone living in Britain.

That means you, Kim :)

Sure, data exchange mechanisms have changed the way we talk to one another and the police are struggling to keep up. It's only a matter of time before commercial TV catches up with reality and uses Facebook in a police drama.

But a storage facility for all Facebook exchanges is just as bad, if not worse, than Facebook's recently-retired terms of service.

In the bigger scheme of things, that is.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

It was painful to watch a once famous - now infamous - judge twisting round like a live prawn on a skewer in a vain attempt to evade any honest appraisal of his own motivations for having committed perjury - for having lied in court - in an attempt to avoid paying a small traffic fine. Kudos to the ABC's 4 Corners program for securing the privilege of following Marcus Einfeld around for a few days in the lead-up to his sentencing hearing.

But no glory, even no redemption, for Einfeld. It was "a moment of madness" that made him, repeatedly and over a long period of time, not admit to the truth. His hubris escalated to fever pitch when he looked down his nose at the media, telling the ABC that when talking to a journalist about the dead Teresa Brennan - the woman Einfeld said was driving his silver Lexus at the time it was caught speeding - he did not feel any remorse about lying "because I was talking to a journalist and you don't feel the same obligation in that circumstance".

Einfeld actually got off easy with three years' detention and a non-parole period of two years. He pleaded guilty to perjury and thus avoided the other lies he had told others - through equally false statutory declarations - being made public in court. He "may have" lied at other times but he is "an honest person". Right.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Brett Stewart has been charged with sexual assault after tackling a girl in the aftermath of the Manly Leagues Club's season opening party at a local hotel. He caught a cab home, saw a girl smoking a cigarette outside the apartment block where he lives, and jumped on her.

He says he doesn't remember anything about the incident. Fans have rallied to his support and academic and League adviser Catharine Lumby has written publicly in his defence, saying that the problem's more widespread, but the fact remains that the guy's been done big time. His image has been erased from a season-opening TV commercial full of positive images of League and its links to the littlies.

Stewart may be classified as a 'significant adult' by those who work with children. If so, he is more accountable for his actions than the average guy who threatens a woman or beats up on his wife. He's very much in the public eye, and unless he is fully cognisant of his reponsibilities, we're likely to see abusive relations between kids at school continue in the frightful manner we've become used to seeing.

Kids tend to become less aggressive after year 9, statistics tell us. But if they're surrounded by images and patterns of behaviour that validate violence against others we can't hope to see the alarming numbers of assaults by school aged children fall. Footballers are responsible to this 15 year old demographic. Until they can get a hold on their alcohol consumption, and curb it, we're likely to see more assaults like the one that occurred last Friday.

And more arrests. It'll be interesting to see if Stewart is now pulled by the club from the opening match against the Bulldogs. We'll wait until tomorrow, when the shit will have well and truly hit the fan.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Another bogus recap of Australians' reading habits appears in today's Sun-Herald under David Dale's byline. And bizarrely he's stuck in a couple of celebrity pics to sex the thing up just that little bit required so that you don't feel like a geek if you bother to click on the link to read it.

To start with, Dale's only looking at bestseller lists. Among the bestsellers in this country you'll usually find a cookbook. Recently, there was that mega-selling book about how to clean everything from lace to lawnmowers, but it's not listed now.

What we get, instead, are Rowling and Meyer. No surprises here. Meyer's book Twilight was adapted recently for film and everything else she'd written is riding on the generous wake of this major cultural event. It's a major movie tie-in situation and make no mistake.

Thankfully, one of Dale's readers took the time to post a comment reprimanding him for his sloppy research. "That list is rubbish," says Jimbo. "A cook book does not count as reading, and neither does the Telegraph, or Woman's Day." Jimbo unfortunately thinks that reading is "a dying art". Readers of a recent post here will know that even niche booksellers can do well, given the right marketing and title selection strategies.

Other commenters make good sense, too. Lilith reads and Teresa has had a good experience with the Sydney Online Book Club which can be found at the social site meetup.com. Similarly, Darryl Mason has serialised a novel called ED Day "and with almost no publicity it still managed to pull in about 5000 regular readers, some of whom were extremly anger when I was late posting the latest chapter".

Bookworm, who works in IT, doesn't like Meyer, like Jimbo. And prefers literary fiction to other forms of publication. Doesn't like reading onscreen, which bucks a trend Dale postulates, that we are reading more online. But will Google classify as 'reading'? I don't think so. Most people scan when they get online. Bookworm's aversion to screens is also based on science, as the vibration inherent in your computer screen is not conducive to the extended periods of intense concentration required to get through a book.

Personally, I think that Dale's readers exhibit more intelligence than his column, which feels as though it was knocked up in about 20 minutes on a Saturday night before going to dinner.

As for Project Gutenberg, blogsprog, I don't really think many people use it to read a book. Although both Bookworm and Becks think books are too expensive, there's not going to be much competition in terms of convenience when it comes down to actually reading a full length novel. You can buy a Jane Austen for $10 now, when printing a Gutenberg version of one of her novels will take hours using a regular inkjet printer. Then how do you bind it? (most staplers aren't big enough.) Use a folder? (Trip to the newsagents required here.) And what if you don't want to read Austen again? (Gutenberg's selection is ridiculously small compared to what's available in a good bookshop.)