Thursday 31 December 2009

Review: Bangkok Dangerous, dir Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang (2008)

To label this film pure schlock would be dishonest, and would also give pure schlock a bad name. Cage's career as an action player takes a dive in this cliche-ridden extravaganza, which feeds off all the stereotypes of Thailand that we've ever seen.

It doesn't give anything back, however.

You've got a hitman who takes assignments from a flabby thug with a blonde sidekick. There's a gormless local who the Cage character 'adopts' and trains. There's the nightclub dancer who is the contact between hitman and crime boss. There's even a pharmacy assistant who can't speak that the Cage character falls in love with.

And there's lots of elephants.

Hails of bullets, motorcycle chases, whistful longings by the Cage character - becoming sick of his life of violence - there's a lot of good stuff here for the action afficionado. Trouble is, it's stuck together with double-sided tape and displayed without an atom of flair.

Definitely one to miss.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Review: Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

Going by reports of box office in Australia, few people will have missed seeing the movie by now, a few days after its launch. It's not surprising, what with terrific special effects, decent acting by Sam Worthington, and a story that seems to have been designed to spark debate as the world moves into 2010 with one eye fixed on the climate and the other on its collective wallet.

The story is simple and, like that other Sigourney Weaver vehicle, Alien, it's about a globalised universe - or, perhaps more accurately, a universalised globe.

Humans have discovered a relatively haibitable planet, Pandora, that harbours an expensive mineral. The Na'vi are native humanoids and are resisting occupation and exploitation of their environment. Alongside military efforts to counter this resistance, the humans have put in place a program using avatars - Na'vi bodies controlled by sleeping humans - to find a diplomatic solution.

But the bosses and the generals are impatient, leading to the scientists taking sides. The resulting battle of Na'vi against humans is spectacular. But perhaps more interesting is the love story between the Na'vi controlled by the Worthington character - Jake Scully - and a Na'vi female.

It's a Pocohontas storyline, with the woman's love and loyalty remaining after almost everything else has been lost.

Weaver's character is important but secondary. The main action is between the avatar controlled by Scully and the Na'vi female played by Zoe Saldana.

Cameron has gone to great lengths to create a viable world in the best traditions of classic sci-fi authors like Philip Jose Farmer and Isaac Azimov - the writers he (and I) read in youth. In a sense, this is the first great sci-fi movie to emerge after Star Wars - with possible exceptions being Alien and Terminator.

Recommended viewing. Makes for great post-screening conversation.

Friday 18 December 2009

Review: Faraway Hill, H A Lindsay (1963)

Written by a 'bit of a character', the novel is a paean to the Howard battler. The author, Harold Arthur Lindsay, is a misogynistic xenophobe whose main interest in life is the getting of filthy lucre. But it's a good read.

Beginning in the early 1920s, just after the end of WWI, we meet Leslie Farrant and his new wife, Doris. They're on their way to the irrigation projects on the Murray River, where thousands of people are labouring to force the land to submit to industry, creating jobs for returned soldiers.

While life in the camps is hard, Leslie turns his hand to carpentry. When he's retrenched due to lack of funding, he moves to the city and finds employment in an auto factory. Leslie and Doris buy a house, but the life of the wage slave is not satisfying, and the young man decides to sell everything and invest in bee hives, a trade he'd dabbled in earlier in his life.

They leave the city and head for the hills, staking a claim on the property of an old, curmudgeonly cocky. They barely survive, and Leslie buys a new truck and starts doing courier work to supplement the income of the bees. When the old landowner dies, the couple - with young daughter Jean in tow - move elsewhere.

Here they meet Peter Menzies, a returned soldier and bee-keeper with a realistic outlook on life, who takes a shine to Les. He helps him set up his hives, and warns him away from the dreaded local rabble-rousers, the Hirosseks.

"Wait a bit -- there'll be a catch in it. You'll stike really bad trouble there. Down here we've got a crowd of toughs who give beekeepers a bad name. On the site I'll show you tomorrow you'll be only two miles from one of their apiaries -- and they'll be down on you in no time."
  "What'll they do?"
  "Play every damned trick you can think of -- and a few you've never heard of. If anyone puts bees within miles of them, they give him such a hot time he's glad to shift away. Knock holes in his honey tanks; tip his hives over; start a scrub fire to burn him out; put bent nails on the track he uses to puncture his tyres ... "
  "Good God," Leslie protested. "I'd have to clear out myself."
  "I haven't finished, Les. They've got most of the landowners here bluffed. If a man won't give them permission to put bees on his land, they take out a box of matches and remind him of how dry it's been lately. We dread bushfires down here. When one gets going properly in the scrub, you can't do much except pray for rain or a change of wind."
  Leslie sat staring at Menzies as the words sank in. You read about things like this in magazines or saw them in films; you didn't expect to run up against them in real life.
  "Only two groups of families are responsible," Menzies went on. "The Barodies and the Hirosseks. The Barodie brothers -- there's six of them -- are just plain crooks. Sneak thieves, sheep stealers and so on. The Hirosseks are the real wild men. Their father -- dead now, and a good job too -- was some sort of Russian. Big, nasty-looking brute with slanty eyes. Their mother -- still alive, worst luck! -- is a mixture of Gipsy and Negress. they raised the four lovely blokes you'll be up against."

Naturally, with Menzies' help, Les catches the Hirossek brothers in the act of poisoning his bees. Les works hard, brings on an enterprising young helper who finds a fruitful run of trees, and goes from strength to strength.

Soon, he's bought a property, Faraway Hill. With the Depression in full swing, the house and land sell cheaply. Nevertheless, it takes all of Les' money to buy in. But Peter Menzies has a trick up his sleeve, introducing a hardy form of clover he'd brought back as seed from the Middle East. The clover turns the poor land fertile, and Menzies and Les reap more gain when the seed sells.

Meanwhile, Bethea Musgrave joins the intrepid crew. Bethea grew up in Faraway Hill but her feckless brothers lost the property by frittering it away on expensive horses and trips to Melbourne. The enterprising woman had run a private school but the bad economic times forced her to shut down.

She asks if she can buy into the property. Doris, smitten by the old-money charm of the tall, competent Bethea, tells Les to take the offer. Musgrave is the keystone to the happiness of Les and Doris. Without the cachet of the ancient regime - the early pioneers who cleared the land of Aborigines and removed the 'scrub' of native forest - our frugal couple could not truly enjoy the fruits of their labours.

The novel ends with the advent of WWII, when Les is 38.

Lindsay's achievement is to write swiftly. But the boy's-own character of the novel flattens out any art, making each character two-dimensional and thin. He's got a world view and will do anything possible to promote it. It's a world view rooted in classical themes of pioneer ingenuity and thrift, married to a love of the Old Country and the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon people.

Some people would get angry at the book. I did, in places. But I found it interesting to read.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

The above was sent to me in an email from a friend; these are not my words.

Cambridge University research shows that only the first and last letters need to be in the correct position for words to be understood by 55 percent of those surveyed.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Review: Brokeback Mountain, dir Ang Lee (2005)

Cleanly inverting the classical stereotype of the tough cowboy, the movie presents a series of anguished moments as two gay cowboys negotiate the hostility of a narrow-minded world. When the final tragedy strikes, it's so unexpected it must have been inevitable.

So much has been written about this movie over the years, and so many other productions have found their inspiration in it, that it is almost impossible to be original. Everything you say will be read through a myriad of filters set up by others. Yet it is a good movie.

Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar is almost too good. Ledger captures the stoic taciturnity of the cowboy who is faced with an image of himself at odds with his world. Growing up as a gay boy in the boondocks must be one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. The movie makes you want to sing the praises of cities everywhere, which allow for anonymity and seclusion.

As he ages, del Mar doesn't lose his appeal. If anything, he gains kudos for being so forbearing in the face of a cruel existence. Separated from his wife, who witnesses a passionate kiss given to Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), del Mar survives in a succession of run-down abodes, each less than the one that came before it.

Twist marries into money, but remains his own obnoxious self throughout the movie.

The laurel must go to Ledger for creating an unforgettable character.

Monday 14 December 2009

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dir Julian Schnabel (2007)

A successful journalist is suddenly afflicted by a severe stroke one day while driving his son in his new car. When he wakes up in the hospital, he finds the only part of his body he can move is his left eyelid, which he proceeds to use to write a memoir.

This seems like an opportunity for some heavy sentimentalising, but Schnabel eschews such an approach, focusing instead on the humour available in the situation. Jean-Dominique Bauby, erstwhile editor of Elle magazine, is no saint. In fact, he's something of a womaniser, and a bit vain to boot.

His immobilised fantasies about the speech therapist, the physiotherapist and the stenographer from the publishing company tickle your funny bone. Then there's the estranged wife with her smooth thighs. Everything that's feminine within the scope of his gaze is ripe for a laugh.

Writing a book one letter at a time might seem an impossibility. But when you think about it, we all waste a lot of time each day. Just writing a page a day would be fair going for any writer. And this is what he's able to accomplish.

Except for Sundays, when the hopspital practically shuts down.

He has plenty of time to dream - and day-dream - in his newly-immobile state. We're taken on a trip by a few flash-backs, and on occasion into a fantasy involving women and/or food.

But these are the least satisfying parts of the movie.

The best bits involve Bauby's wry monologues. These are interior conversations that nobody but the audience can hear. They're brief but to-the-point, and generally include a joke at the expense of whoever is currently within his orbit.

This may be a member of the hospital staff, a visiting friend, or an occasional workman come to install a phone. Whoever is on the receiving end of these grumbled barbs has usually done something insincere or oafish. We're enriched by Bauby's unsentimental gaze.

Overall, a satisfying film, although the pace is a bit uneven. Some scenes just don't fit - such as when he takes a mistress to Lourdes. The anti-religious jokes are just not cruel enough to be funny.

Friday 11 December 2009

Review: Lust, Caution, Ang Lee (2007)

Small details matter in this adaptation of Eileen Chang's brilliant short story. It's not just the perfectly-rendered Hong Kong and Shanghai of the 1930s that impress us. Lee takes pains with small gestures - like the look of sudden fear that sweeps across Mr Yee's face as he sits in the jeweller's with Mak Taitai - so that we are completely engrossed in this story of love and subterfuge.

The story is simple. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is a young student in China's south when war between the Kuomintang and the Japanese breaks out. Invited to participate in a theatrical troupe, she accepts. Later, the ringleader, Kuang Yu Ming (Lee-Hom Wang) orchestrates a change of pace for the troupe by inspiring them to participate in a sting designed to kill a notorious collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

Mr Yee is a stiff, autocratic character not given to sudden outbursts of emotion. He walks with a straight back, talks softly, and tolerates his wife. Wong is a true believer. In the beginning we see her - in close-up - acting on stage in a patriotic drama. She doesn't need to cry - the audience is too far away to see her tears. But we can see them.

Wong becomes the bait, in the guise of 'Mr Mak''s wife. She is to seduce Mr Yee and draw her to the house one of the troupe has secured - it is owned by his father - so that the young people can finish him off with guns. She fails. Mr Yee is sent back to Shanghai. Wong resumes her student life.

Three years later, Wong is again approached to operate as a spy, this time for the Communists. Again, Kuang is there to convince her of the plot's virtue. As a house guest, this time, in Mr Yee's domicile, Wong becomes like a member of the family. Mr Yee is quick to take advantage of the opportunity, and organises trysts during which he and Wong grapple passionately.

We're never sure if Wong is taking to her task with more than requisite abandon.

It's this uncertainty about Wong's true feelings that energises the movie. The crunch comes when she lures him to a jewellery shop where Mr Yee has bought her a large stone, and paid for it to be set. Even at this point - minutes from the end of the movie - we don't know if Wong loves Mr Yee.

But it is positive proof from Mr Yee that he loves her, that saves his own life.

For Wong and the gang - initially just earnest students committed to serving and preserving China against an alien invader - the story ends badly. For the viewer, even the final scene - an unmade bed shot with moody lighting - plays its part in the shadowy drama that has unfolded over the course of the film.

Ang Lee is a master, and this film a fitting reminder that great cinema is always possible.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Review: City of God, dir Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund (2002)

If you've ever been sick of watching Pulp Fiction and wondered what influence it has had on cinema, this film is a good place to look for the jaded movie buff. In fact, it improves on its predecessor by a long mile. At three hours it should have been a stretch on my patience, but the pace never lets up; the story is interesting; and the message is delivered with a driness to flatter Oscar Wilde's dead soul.

Starting in the 1960s, the film chronicles the rise and eventual implosion of a crime gange established by Li'l Dice, a hanger-on to a gang of three hoodlums who prey on the population of an outlying suburb of Rio de Janeiro called City of God.

After earning his stripes and quitting his hometown after murdering a number of people, Li'l Dice morphs into Li'l Ze, and slowly begins to take over the drug distribution racket in the area, a lucrative business.

Eventually he goes too far with his megalomaniacal posturing and makes an enemy out of Knockout Ned, who falls in with Li'l Ze's arch nemesis, drug dealer Carrot.

Meanwhile, Rocket has been struggling to find a peaceful way to escape poverty. In time, he sets his sights on becoming a press photographer - the story is based on a true account - and it's his final triumph in capturing the death of Li'l Ze on camera that cements our allegiance to him. The hero, in the end, is the one who passed up offers of wealth and glory on the streets, and who finds absolution for the crime of being poor in a respectable profession.

The film is sometimes horrifically brutal, so it's not suitable for children. But anyone else who desires an introduction to excellent cinema should watch. The film also provides a good introduction to the slums of South America.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

As talk hots up in Copenhagen for the UN's COP-15 gabfest, a number of interesting animations are appearing that illustrate the way climate change has altered our perception of human industrial activity. A month ago, Canadian artists Dale Hayward adn Silvie Trouve posted a video dubbed 'H2Oil' on Vimeo showing how the Alberta tar sands project is likely to play out as reserves of oil dwindle globally.

Hayward says in comments that the project took five months, this year, and they worked on a very low budget.

H2Oil is also the name of a documentary shot in Canada about the evils of the oil industry. Parts of Canada are major centres of oil development.

Monday 7 December 2009

It's difficult to blame the media when things like this happen. Here's a story about an Indonesian soldier admitting that the journalists from Channel Nine and Channel Seven who were killed at Balibo in 1979 were killed on purpose. It had three readers when I read it.

Then there's a story about Keira Knightley, the British movie star, and how women are jealous of her. The story, by glamorous UK columnist Celia Waldren (pic), had 39 readers when I read it.

Both stories featured prominently on the web page. Admittedly the Knightley story had a picture.

It's really hard to criticise news outlets for giving in to the entertainment lobby when you see this kind of reader reaction.

Then again, it's not right for websites to be endlessly chasing clicks, is it? I mean, if we ascribed equal importance to each click, there would be no higher learning, and no hope of acquiring obstruse knowledge. But if newspapers only see how sex sells faster than human rights, there's no hope for human rights.

Let's hope the ABC's new opinion site, The Drum, lives up to our high expectations. Admittedly, it seems as though there's a bit too much emphasis on in-house writers. I prefer the format of Fairfax's National Times, where occasional writers get given a fair amount of prominence.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Putting the fox among the chickens? Will Barnaby Joyce - slated to join the shadow cabinet - be given the energy portfolio?

The announcement begs the question, just as it begs the question whether Joyce is being bought off by patronage. A silent Joyce is a harmless National Party, as the saying goes.

Ironically, on the same page of The Australian where this announcement appeared, there's a prominent ad by Shell Oil spruiking its green credentials. You can click through to watch any of four short video animations - with voice-over - to find out how Shell is "helping to prepare for the new energy future".

The one on CO2 management includes an earnest exhortation to support the legistation of measures to encourage energy producers to invest in "costly carbon capture and storage".

The colours used in this animation are mainly brown. But there's a green-themed animation that talks about 'energy diversity' - in this case the manufacture of fuels using sources other than crude oil. The light blue one is about 'energy security' and it gives a few choice details about exploration deeper under the sea and in colder conditions, as though these technological measures are meritorious, and to be applauded.

Then there's the dark blue one, which is about "changing behaviour" as part of an 'energy efficiency' drive by the company. And what is Shell doing to help people use less fuel? They are always trying to increase the energy efficiency of their plants - as though this were not an economic measure, but a moral one.

They also - apparently - "encourage customers to use more efficient fuels and lubricants". But, hang on, are lubricants actually 'fuels'? Well, no, but this is only a short animation - it's not a policy statement.

And then there's the Shell Eco Marathon that aims to "encourage teams from universities around the world to explore ideas that push fuel economy to the extreme".

Saturday 5 December 2009

Review: Quarry Vision, Quarterly Essay issue 33 2009, Guy Pearse

This no-nonsense appraisal of the state of government carbon trading at the beginning of 2009 is not only timely, it is a good read. Pearse's experience as a Liberal Party speach-writer, industry lobbyist and PR consultant places him at the nexus of right-wing government, commercial companies, and NGOs. In the era of Rudd and the Labor Party, says Pearse, the call for action from the Left needs to be just as loud.

He says that, under Rudd, nothing has changed from the Howard years. The coal industry is just as active in petitioning government via countless think tanks and industry groups, consulting firms and lobbyists, as it has ever been.

This force in society is pressing for special treatment, which Pearce says the Rudd government is delivering in the form of free carbon credits that average people will have to pay for. He also says that the targets set by Rudd are not much of an improvement over those offered by Howard.

In effect, Labor claims of "11 years of government inaction" can easily be countered with accusations of soft-pedalling on coal. New mines are announced regularly, new exploration leases are granted, new coal-loading terminals are built.

The only thing that would be really new would be to dispense with coal altogether.

Pearse says that, despite what people think, the demise of the coal industry would not damage the Australian economy all that much. Not only are most of the major players overseas-owned anyway - meaning profits get shipped elsewhere - but the fact that Australia could be perceived in the international community as a country committed to clean energy would lead to additional investment.

Not clean coal which, says Pearse, is a pipe-dream.

And it's not just the lobbyists who are putting pressure on the politicians. Howard-era bureaucrats remain in place, says Pearce, making change difficult. Like the lobbyists, these men and women are dedicated to extending the effective life of an industry - coal - which some of them helped to bolster in the 90s under previous Labor governments.

Too much human capital has been invested in the industry, Pearse says, for it to be abandoned now. Yet it must be abandoned, he says, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The coal shipped to China and India will not be burnt 'cleanly' and so Australia is acting like asbestos makers, he says, by supplying unethical operators with a product that will irretrievably damage the global environment within a few decades.

As the Copenhagen climate summit sponsored by the United Nations looms over the next couple of weeks, this Quarterly Essay makes for timely reading. We can only hope that Rudd's anemic emissions trading legislation will be dragged toward the top of its proposed reduction scale, of between five and 25 percent by 2020.

Anything else will be far too little, far too late.

Friday 4 December 2009

Things change. What can seem an advantage one day turns out, the next, to be a liability. This is certainly the case in terms of high-speed rail technology, an area being targeted by the US government. But with the country so long enjoying cheap oil, it seems that underlying technologies required to build a HSR network can be sourced from overseas only.

Even China, usually seen as the recipient of advanced technologies developed elsewhere, is now talking with US companies about tech transfers.

This seems to be the plan for at least one U.S. company. According to Greenwire, General Electric Co.'s transportation division, GE Transportation, recently announced a new high-speed partnership with China's Ministry of Railways in an effort to "catch up to the rest of the high-speed world." The plan would help GE gain technical competency in high-speed rail technology while giving China a foothold in the U.S. market.

It's likely that those technologies originated in Japan or Europe. Japanese companies have won Chinese contracts to build HSR lines and stock them with cars, and German company Siemens is a major player in China's underground rail system.

Korean companies will undoubtedly have begun their HSR tech development efforts on the back of imported Japanese designs.

Why has Japan got such a lead in green technology? Because for so long it had to import all its oil. There are no oil fields in Japan or in its domestic waters, so all supplies came by sea, mainly from the Gulf states.

As a result of this need to constantly battle high energy costs, Japan has emerged as a major player in green technology.

And advances in anti-pollution technology that were legislated into use by the government following several high-profile cases of toxic poisoning, such as Minamata's mercury poisoning scandal, combined with energy-consciousness to propel Japan to the forefront of green tech over a period of a few decades.

When I worked there, in fact, we were constantly writing stories for the company's internal magazine that highlighted green credentials of clients.

We even coined a term - 'Enviramation' - and designed a new brochure displaying all of the company's green-tech installations in vivid colour, accompanied by short stories with details of how environmental savings had been made in Japan and overseas. The project fell through - this was in 1996 or so, before eco-tech became a matter for headlines - but the point had been made.

I'm sure the company continues to use its green credentials to get contracts. I haven't worked there for many years and there has been a lot of organisational change in the meantime.

But one thing is certain: Japan's green legacy was built on adversity.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch stated in a very positive manner that all of News Corp's websites would charge for access, as announced in The Australian.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that News Corp - Murdoch's flagship company - was in talks with Microsoft about switching all of its content to Bing, Microsoft's new search engine. Giving Bing exclusive access to News Corp content would deflate Google's boast of universal reach and unrivalled access to web information.

Now, Google has announced on its official blog that the number of free clicks by a single user accessing news from Google News would be limited to five.

If you're a Google user, this means that you may start to see a registration page after you've clicked through to more than five articles on the website of a publisher using First Click Free in a day.

In the past, a loophole existed whereby users could access paid-for content free if they clicked through from Google News. This loophole has now been closed, although publishers might argue that five clicks from Google News to a single news website is tantamount to allowing unlimited access. In future, Google's "five clicks" policy might change to "two clicks" or even less. We'll see.

At the talk given at a Federal Trade Commission workshop Murdoch also slapped down ideas about government subsidies.

"Good journalism is an expensive commodity," he said. He also said that the idea of government intervention "ought to be chilling to anyone who cares about free speech". It's bad enough for commercial publishers that Australians and Britishers can access free news via government-funded news sites. The last thing they want to see is a US government-funded option appearing.

Meanwhile, newspaper publishers gathered at The World Newspaper Conference in Hyderabad, India, have voiced dismay at the drop in their revenues, asking for "fair share, fair search",

meaning that content providers should be compensated even for very short strings of content and the search results should not be manipulated unfairly against the original content providers.

News publishers have also put a figure on the amount of news that is unlawfully "stolen" by other sites, who take the full article and apply advertising to it.

This is an extreme case, and far different from the Hyderabad publishers' contention that "providers should be compensated even for very short strings of content".

It brings up the assertion made by Murdoch (during a Sky News TV interview), and others (including APN News & Media Ltd chief executive Brendan Hopkins at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association conference held in Sydney), that bloggers excerpting information under 'fair use' legal rules could also - given new realities - be considered to be acting unlawfully.

If this view gained currency, then this blog would definitely be affected.

I can see how a blog post made here that excerpted content from, say, two or three paid-for websites, might be looked upon with a jaundiced eye by wary publishers.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Review: The Secret War, Jonathan Richards (2008)

This "true history of Queensland's Native Police" chillingly reminds us of the cost of progress in the colonial era. Operating alongside the regular police force in Australia's north-east state, the Native Police were a paramilitary arm of government policy tasked with facilitating - at all costs to the despised Aboriginal population of the continent - the agrarian project of frontier expansion.

If you read the book, you will always look askance at golden memories of hardy settlers striving against the odds to tame the land. The land, the book reminds us, was already occupied.

The 1992 Mabo native title case and the 1996 Wik case on land subject to pastoral leases embody the concept of prior ownership. But how many had to die in the interim? Thousands of Aborigines were slaughtered, this book tells us, in the name of progress.

The book details recruitment of Aborigines to the Native Police as well as giving us an in-depth look at the kind of colonial corps heads - sub-inspectors - were recruited to lead them.

These men operated under trying conditions, as they were often forced to proceed in their forays on foot in tropical areas. Their main task was to "disperse" "Wild Blacks" - in other words to carry out reprisals against Aborigines who attacked either settlers or their stock, which was very valuable to them.

The lives of Aborigines were held very cheap indeed. Officially, every 'subject' of the realm had an equal right to peaceful enjoyment of the land, and was due equal protection under the law. In practice, the Native Police would exact retribution for aggression by riding into the camps of sleeping Aborigines at sunrise and shooting everyone they could see.

Then they burned the bodies. This final act was commensurate with the secrecy with which the activities of the Native Police were carried out - at all levels of the force. Even the euphemism "dispersal" carries inside it thousands of untold tales of pure horror and gross inhumanity.

The most common misdemeanour that was aimed at inspectors from the higher ranks was misuse of funds. When it came to killings, it was a case of 'don't say, don't tell'.

The force operated until the end of WWI. It was modelled on similar organisations operating in New South Wales and Victoria. Colonial authorities used locally-recruited police in all of the places where England held power during the 19th century. Local police forces were often particularly feared due to the thoroughness with which they carried out tasks.

In Queensland, Aborigines were often recruited from the southern states so that there would be no conflict of interest when it came to carrying out their savage duties.

Abuses included rape and kidnapping of children for domestic use and sexual slavery. Both Aboriginal recruits and White inspectors were complicit in these crimes.

The corps was issued with state-of-the-art weapons and trained in their use. They were not shy about employing them. Native Police also operated in South Australia (which included, at that time, the Northern Territory) and Western Australia. In Tasmania, the carnage led to the extinction of the Aboriginal occupants of the island.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Review: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt W Beyer (2009)

As one of the inventors of computer programming, Grace Hopper stood with her feet firmly placed on the surfboard of futurity that was riding the new wave of information processing. The book opens in 1944 when, immediately after Pearl Harbor, Hopper volunteered to join the military. A trained mathematician, she found herself in the Navy, looking after a giant, mechanical computer that used electromagnetic contacts to process information.

The building-sized behemoth was tasked with running calculations for the Manhattan Project. Hopper helped run the machine. With an academic background, she started to look for ways to improve its functioning and thus some of the first 'programs' were born.

After the war, she had a choice of companies and chose one that soon ran into management problems. It was bought by the Rand Corporation. But the new name didn't change Hopper's concerns and interests. As the machines we now know as computers became more and more popular, the need arose for more programmers. Hopper took up the baton and wrote compiler software, which she called 'automatic programming'.

The idea was to enable people without mathematical knowledge to program computers.

Her natural-language compiler was popular within her own company, and was used by customers who bought Sperry Rand computers, but International Business Machines (IBM) was soon the biggest manufacturer.

(Beyer puts this success down to IBM's winning a critical Department of Defence contract to build machines to process calculations for a huge, Cold War missile defense system. IBM was, in the 50s, just one of many manufacturers. The DoD contract helped it to quickly become the dominant provider.)

IBM and other manufacturers of computers, such as Honeywell, were busy making their own computer languages. Hopper saw that programming was becoming a major financial drain on customers and suggested setting up working groups to decide on a single, portable language for all computers.

COBOL, as the language was called, was based on the compiler language Hopper herself had developed while working at Sperry Rand.

Hopper fought against resistance from two parties. On the one hand, expert programmers said that the language wasn't elegant enough. It produced code that contained redundancies, and the compiling process took too much time.

On the other hand, she fought against rival manufacturers, who had spent money developing programming languages that looked to be superceded by COBOL.

Hopper's success, Beyer says, came from her strong links in the industry. She was able to convince key stakeholders - especially those in major customer groups, such as the military - that a natural-language compiler was essential as it would allow newbies to quickly become expert programmers. Especially within Defense, which relied on a rotation system for personnel assignment, ease-of-use was key.

She also got other programmers on-side. Having worked in a highly collaborative fashion for decades, Hopper was held in high esteem by the programming fraternity (and sorority). In a sense, then, she 'curated' the development of the first platform-agnostic programming language by marshalling the minds of hundreds of experts, customers, managers, and salespeople.

Even today, 80 percent of computer code is written in COBOL. The quality of the language is, says Beyer, a testament to Hopper's skill in diplomacy, and her hard work over many years establishing a high profile in a male-dominated industry.