Tuesday 30 November 2010

Just a week ago there was an open floor during a Journalism Education Association of Australia conference which was held at the University of Technology, Sydney. Questions were taken. One attendee, Jolyon Sykes, had a voice recorder switched 'on' and another, Julie Posetti, had her laptop open and running with her browser pointed at Twitter, and she was posting to it when an ex-News Corp journalist, Asa Wahlquist, who was not a marquee name for the event, began to speak within the confines of the room.

What Wahlquist said - that she became disheartened with her treatment by editors at The Australian while working for the paper as a science journalist because her stories about climate change were routinely changed to fit a politically-driven agenda oriented to the right wing, and that it was affecting her health - would explode into controversy when Posetti's post came to the attention of staff at the newspaper. Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell declared that he would sue Posetti, who promptly clammed up as the heat came on and the temperature dropped in the air surrounding the debate. She had probably even forgotten about her post when news of the threatened action broke.

Various staffers at the newspaper editorialised and reported, confirming for many Twitter users a suspicion that the newspaper had decided to launch a crusade against the micro-blogging service in much the same way that many thought it had launched one against, say, the federal political issues of the National Broadband Network or The Australian Greens.

Posetti dropped out of the online debate but a Facebook group was set up where supporters could register their mindset by 'liking' it. The level of chill that had come to predominate in the air around the debate even after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported - using the actual voice recording to compare against Posetti's posts - that she had been accurate in her online reporting during the session, was best summed up by a post by Posetti at this point:
I am so very limited in what I can say for a short time longer on #twitdef, but please spare a thought for Asa Wahlquist...
Many people on Twitter felt that The Australian, as a news organisation, was displaying a double standard, as its parent company, News Limited, has been vocal on numerous occasions in response to legal action taken against it or threatened, by individuals operating in the public sphere. To register their support for Posetti, a large number of Twitter users reposted her post. There were also a number of fairly triumphant posts from users who saw that Mitchell's case had been fatally wounded by the ABC's story and the public broadcaster's release online of the audio recording that had been made during the session. Despite its sometimes poor quality it caused a palpable stir in the ranks of supporters.

One or two of them pointed to an earlier event, tagged #groggate on Twitter, as they searched for a reason for the newspaper's apparent highly-confrontational stance vis-a-vis Twitter. Caught in the middle, Posetti remained silent. Wahlquist, meanwhile, has also been silent except to deny at one point to a reporter for The Australian that she said what was attributed to her. Like Mitchell, Wahlquist no doubt hardly suspected that a recorder was running during her speech last week. But such events are public, a fact Posetti underscored during the session when, addressing Wahlquist, she congratulated her for her forthright honesty and courage. It seems that that acknowledgement of a higher order of conduct was prescient. It sounds a deep knell, now, when you listen to those files.

But the issue of media bias remains unresolved. When a journalist is faced with answering a question about it on the TV, for example, the normal response seems to be "We don't want to get involved in self-reflection that viewers aren't interested in, let's stick to focusing on the real issues". I've heard this a number of times and it's frustrating. It is an interesting issue and it does need to be talked about. It might be the type of thing that the ABC's MediaWatch program could focus an episode on, to bring to light what is currently obscured in the constant churn of stories in the public sphere, and by the coy shrugs of reporters reluctant to reveal any embarrassing trade secrets. What the #twitdef case shows us is that there is a lot more going on under the varnished surface of the media than is easily acknowledged.

Monday 29 November 2010

Review: Atlantic, Simon Winchester (2010)

I freely admit to buying this book as comfort reading having heard - on the radio, I think - a brief bit of verbal applause for it that caught my attention recently. To be brief, the book is a well-written and well-researched general guide to the Atlantic Ocean.

Winchester's background as a peripatetic journalist and science wonk held him in good stead for the writing of this book, which attempts to cover as many aspects of the subject as is possible within the confines of a big, fat volume. The best part in my mind is possibly where he looks in detail at the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery during the 1980s and 1990s. Winchester suggests that the world has learned little from the experience.

His review of the world's literature that touches on the Atlantic, however, is less successful, being for a start restricted to English-language writing. Indeed, it's pretty cursory, omitting such classics as Tennyson's The Kraken, which to my mind was evidently inspired by late-19th-Century deep-sea exploration in the Atlantic. Winchester also completely fails to understand the nature of Romantic literature generally, and ascribes its authors' fascination with the sea to the long availability of source material about the Atlantic Ocean, rather than grasping how the nature of the ocean itself - wild, untamed and inhospitable - was congenial to Romantic sensibilities.

However to be fair it was Winchester's book that allowed me to make the Tennyson connection. Winchester spends a good deal of time describing how, for example, the first telegraphic cables were laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. There's also a fair amount of description dedicated to the 19th-Century exploration vessel HMS Challenger, which forshadowed the many scientific vessels that have been sent out in the intervening years to map the ocean floors, wildlife and currents.

But thank god for journalists. And generalists. Winchester's accessible writing gives up a swathe of information and those who value travel writing and single-issue non-fiction generally will get a lot out of this competent book. For those who appreciate the romance of travel, especially travel by sea, there are many capable passages here that will provide insights into the secrets of diverse sectors of the broad Atlantic and into the people who have, over the millennia, attempted to traverse its solemn wastes.

Sunday 28 November 2010

In Victoria's election yesterday there were a few definite winners: politicians from the right who won seats previously held by Labor, and several Labor politicians who won their ballots for the first time because a Labor incumbent had stepped down this time around. To listen to the customary post-poll speech by the Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu, you might be forgiven for thinking that his party won if you didn't listen too closely to what he said.

And if you take a look at the ABC's election results page you might get the same impression. The ABC has already given 45 seats to the Liberal-National Party coalition. To win a majority in a Victorian election the winning party needs 45 seats. But this is wrong. Baillieu did not say that his party had just won the poll, just as the incumbent, John Brumby, did not say his had lost. The Herald-Sun on the other hand is giving 44 seats to the Coalition and 42 to Labor, which is a closer match to reality. The Age has given up the field entirely and does not show a quick-count number for its readers, instead making them rely on its reports and editorials to grasp what happened in Victoria yesterday.

Overall, the quality of information given by all Victorian media outlets is pretty low, and especially disappointing is the ABC.

Normally, I watch the ABC's election coverage on their News 24 station because there are no adverts and because they have the useful Antony Green bringing up the numbers on his laptop throughout the evening. But the map the ABC used to show locations was abysmally ineffectual. Its low resolution was unchanged regardless of whether the commentators on the panel - which also included, as usual, a chap from Labor as well as one from the Liberals - were talking about a rural seat or a metropolitan Melbourne seat. So it was impossible to engage fully with the results as they came in from the Electoral Commission. The big, red dot that sprang up whenever a seat was a metropolitan one gave the viewer no indication at all about whether the seat was inner-urban or peripheral, north or west or east. It was appallingly concieved, and assumed (a) that the viewer was from Victoria (as if only a Victorian resident would take an interest in a Victorian election) and (b) that the viewer understood where on earth the seat of Narre Warren South was actually located. Seats do not always correspond to suburbs.

The ABC compounded this failure by starting to call a total of 45 won for the Coalition pretty early on during the coverage, despite what the Labor panelist (Health Minister Daniel Andrews) was reporting from the numbers he was receiving through text messages, phone calls, and elsewhere throughout the evening. Time and time again he corrected Green, anchor Virgiani Trioli and Liberal Senator David Davis, but the figure remains on the ABC's election website today, the day after the poll, and nobody has conceded defeat and nobody has called a winner (apart from Green).

This failure would not matter so much if there were a detailed alternative that showed by some easy means (colour, for example) which seats were conceded last night and which were still yet-to-be-conceded.

The most interesting element, for me, to come from what I could glean from the coverage was that The Greens improved their result (compared to the 2006 election) by only 0.7 percent. This means that the large swing to their side at the August federal election did not translate to a greater share of the votes on a state basis. People are discriminating between party offerings at the federal and state levels. This leads me to conclude that the strong Green result in the federal election was due to people's concerns about global warming.

Also of interest was the large number (549,000) of pre-polling votes this time around. This figure was double the amount received during the 2006 election, Andrews told us, and that was double the number received in the previous election. Another item to think about is the apparently large number of no-votes: people who just didn't turn up at a polling station on the day or who didn't register their vote in any other way.

In the final analysis there are a handful of seats that are still too close to call either for the Coalition or for the Labor Party. Which ones are they? Bentleigh (an inner-southeast seat) is still hanging, as is Monbulk (a regional seat on the city's northeastern fringe). But that's all I can remember. We'll just have to wait and see what the pundits drag up out of the morass of data, this morning, that the major Victorian media outlets were too poorly-organised to order appropriately for viewers and readers on the night. Their performance disappoints me. If it's compared with what the New York Times presented viewers of its website during the recent mid-term US election, it must be given a 'Can do better' mark, and a 'C' for only 'adequate'.

Saturday 27 November 2010

It's a highlight of Toy Story 3 (dir Lee Unkrich, 2010) when Buzz Lightyear has his program reset by Rex - whose tiny hands are small enough to fit into the recess where the reset button is located - and turns into a passionate Latino. It hadn't been their intention to do this to their friend, but the toys unfortunately hold down the button too long (Rex is as dim as always, in this sequel) with the consequence that Buzz starts speaking in Spanish and coming over pretty strong when he sees Jessie the cowgirl. It's a character twist that's sure to appeal to youngsters who watch the movie.

The basic story is simple. Andy is 17 years old now and is about to go away to college when his mother forces him to decide what to do with his toys. Sister Molly is to move into Andy's room and space must be cleared before he leaves home. Most of the toys he shoves into a black garbage bag which he leaves in the upstairs hallway near the entrance to the attic, the place where he intended to store them. But he gets sidetracked before he has time to put them away and his mother sees the black, plastic bag and, thinking that it's rubbish to be thrown out, puts it by the kerb outside. The toys manage to escape from the bag but end up inside a cardboard box of cast-offs destined for a daycare centre.

In the centre, the toys meet a collection of other toys who are used to the routine. Andy's toys are new to the centre so they are relegated to the room where the younger children play. The regimen is severe with these kids, and Andy's toys complain to Lotso, a large, soft, purple bear who is in charge of the toys in the centre. Lotso comes down hard on Andy's toys, and has them confined to cages at night, ordering his henchmen to patrol the building to prevent escapes.

Meanwhile, Woody ends up at the house belonging to Bonnie's parents. Bonnie's mother works at the daycare centre. Bonnie gets a lot of toys from that place, including Chuckles the clown who has a strange story to tell about Lotso. Woody doesn't linger there as he is determined to free his friends at the daycare centre. He is confident in his abilities to do so now that he has additional information about the toys who run the place. Needless to say, Andy's toys eventually overcome the odds and escape from their subjection.

But there's only one way out of the daycare centre: through the rubbish chute. The toys are about to achieve freedom when Lotso, who has been pushed into a dumpster, grabs Woody's foot and they all pile in trying to free him. Now they're on their way to the rubbish tip, a mechanised hell where items of garbage are shredded and burned. It looks as though Lotso might save the day for them all but he reverts to type and abandons Andy's toys to a desperate, fiery fate.

The flamenco shenanigans of Buzz are not the only novelties in the film. Andy's sister Molly's Barbie doll is also involved in a fair bit of action after she is discarded among the toys in the box Andy's mother takes to the daycare centre. Barbie meets with her Ken at the centre and it's love at first sight, initially at least. There's an hilarious scene where Ken, to impress Barbie, dresses up in a range of costumes he owns, and that are stored inside the huge, plastic house he inhabits in one of the daycare centre's rooms.

The unkind regime that Lotso has set up at the daycare centre is the centrepiece of the film. Ken is one of his strongmen at the centre, but there are other ruthless toys there too who willingly do Lotso's bidding. Lotso's at-first kind demeanour hides the ugly truth that he's a tyrant who keeps some toys in subjection in the room for the younger children while a select few live comfortably and in peace where the older kids play. Lotso's character is complex and interesting, and makes a fascinating addition to the original cast. His fate is eventually sealed when he is picked up at the tip by a fanciful worker and strapped to the front bumper bar of a garbage truck. It's poetic justice. Just because he smells like strawberries doesn't mean he'll end up in clover.

As for Andy's toys, including Woody, who had initially been set aside by Andy to take away with him to college, their destiny is far rosier. But the thrill of this well-executed movie is in the journey from danger to a satisfyingly peaceful resolution, and I won't spoil the ending for those who haven't seen it yet.

Friday 26 November 2010

It's pretty clear that things need to change. At least according to Food, Inc. (dir Robert Kenner, 2008), a documentary that draws together many of the activist strands that have appeared in the public sphere over the past decade and presents the viewer with a damning set of cognates suitable for inspiring a bit of consumer behaviour change. Of course, it's not all new. But it doesn't have to be. It just has to be interesting.

And the movie turns out to be fascinating, despite the fact that some of the large corporations whose practices are documented in the movie declined to appear on camera. They include Smithfield, a major US meat processing company, and Monsanto, a chemical company which uses extremely aggressive tactics - if the movie's allegations are correct - in order to compel farmers to use their seed and pesticide combinations, such as the products they market for soy production. Keeping and cleaning seed is anathema, it seems, for the company. Farmers are fearful of appearing on camera, too, lest they be sued. Legal action is one way that large corporations involved in food production keep farmers compliant. It is easier, the movie tells us, for them to go along with the crowd than to fight against the tide. And cheaper too.

The movie makes a compelling case for purchasing organic products when you visit the supermarket - which is where most of us buy our food, naturally. Especially in Australia. In the US, organic food companies are starting to be taken seriously by large operators such as Wal-Mart. In the film we see two clean-cut Wal-Mart employees surveying an organic farm, and then stocking the organic product. The pragmatic retailer sees an opportunity for profit in holding lines that, even five years ago, would not have been found on the shelves of their stores.

In the end, the film reminds us, it is up to the individual to change the way the industry operates. It's not just about petitioning a congressman to make sure there's another vote on "Kevin's Law" - a piece of legislation Democrat members of Congress have been pushing to pass through the House for almost a decade and that would see more scrutiny of companies whose meat products had been proved to cause sickness. It's also about where you buy food, and what you buy. The choice, the filmmakers tell us, is ours. What we do on a daily basis can change the way the food industry operates. By changing the food industry, they say, we can enjoy better food, and healthier lives.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

It was a slow-news day yesterday in Australia with small comfort for newshounds in that the Vatican made some more noises about whether prophylactics could be used to combat sexually-transmitted diseases and North Korea lobbed a few live shells onto a small island located about 100km west of South Korea's capital city, Seoul.

On the home front, some of my friends made appreciative noises about the New South Wales Department of Education and its decision to run ethics classes for school students in lieu of religious instruction. The battle will continue in the media today as journalists anticipate that the state government will likely lose an election coming up soon. The Opposition conservative party says that it will not support the classes if it wins in March, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
''While the NSW Liberals and Nationals understand the importance of ethics we do not believe it should be positioned as an alternative to special religious education,'' the opposition education spokesman, Adrian Piccoli, said.
''We don't think that students should have to choose between special religious education … and ethics classes.''
A jaundiced eye might read this statement and think that the conservative Liberal Party sees ethics classes as the thin edge of another wedge designed to separate the state's unsuspecting residents from an active relationship with the God of the Christian scriptures. It's not a stretch. There is no doubt that the Libs have been moving to the right in recent years, with Labor following dutifully behind.

One Queensland resident and prominent blogger-in-residence at the Herald's stablemate the Brisbane Times called politicians like Piccoli "mouthbreathing fuckwits" in a public space (Facebook, in case you're even vaguely interested in this rather tawdry public spat, even if - as seems likely - it will inflate and so become a major NSW election issue). The fellow obviously belongs to the camp of cold, intellectual, inner-city elites which is responsible for Australia's cataclysmic (for the Libs) drift to the Dark Side as evidenced by the success of the Greens in the September federal elections. In Victoria, where residents go to the polls in less than a week, the Libs made their desires known by pulling the carpet out from underneath the Greens through the most efficient mechanism at their disposal: they have given their voting "preferences" to Labor.

The Greens achieved an historic result in the federal election - one Greens MP is now sitting in the Lower House - due to Liberal preferences going to the Greens instead of Labor. The electoral system used in most Australian constituencies is designed to give one party majority control over the lower house of whichever parliament is being contested, and so votes that are given to a losing party are subsequently "given" to an alternative party during vote counting "in preference" to any other party. Parties announce where their preferences will go before polling takes place. Tasmania is the only constituency in Australia that does not use this system, and there power is currently shared by a coalition of Labor and the Greens. The Greens originated in Tasmania, a large island located off the south-east coast of the continent.

Pic credit: Martin Schutt

Tuesday 23 November 2010

It's not often that a big, splashy film makes you smile like a demented loon for most of its length but in this case I did. Knight and Day (dir James Mangold, 2010) has the ideal set of qualities for the generations of moviegoers, like mine, that were raised on a cinematic diet of spy thrillers (think the James Bond franchise) and movies showcasing the doings of warm-hearted renegade cops (think the Lethal Weapon franchise). There's also a number of TV fantasies in the equation, particularly the 70s crime thriller The Magician, a favourite of mine as the main character, Tony Blake, lived on an aeroplane and used his significant personal fortune to fight crime across the world. It was pure fictive ambrosia for an imaginative 10-year-old.

In the movie I'm looking at today, Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller, a renegade secret agent. He doesn't seem to have been tasked with protecting genius inventor Simon Feck (Paul Dano is a convincingly awkward Gen-Y genius recluse) but that's what he does. His enemies from within his own operation work, it seems, entirely on an extra-legal basis and are therefore despicable. Spooky-looking Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) is the primary nemesis, with his suitably sleazy night-after-the-big-soak pallour and his plausible professional demeanour. It's enough to get June Havens (Cameron Diaz) into his black SUV but we just "know" that he's as bent as a stick and applaud when Miller ambushes the convoy of cars that are spiriting Havens away to a "safe, secure" location (Miller had warned her when they first met on the flight out of Wichita that these words mean they're going to kill you, but of course she's new to the game and is abducted anyway) and frees the girl from the clutches of the corrupt authorities.

The film has everything you want from an action thriller. There is the remote Atlantic island used as a safehouse and which is only reached by high-speed boat or from the air. There's the fight on a train chugging its way across the Alps. There's the dim-lit Eastern European city with hidden winebars off dark, cobbled alleyways. There's even running with the bulls while riding a motorbike in Spain. The creators of this movie have given Cruise plenty of expensive sets on which to play out his fantasy.

There's also the relationship between Havens and Miller, who is both enigmatic and masterful. Diaz has enough innate fibre to carry off her role as a sassy West-Coast antique-car enthusiast (she's carrying car parts through the airport when the two first meet). It's the boldness of that persona that bleeds eventually into her alter-ego as a renegade, by the end of the film, in her own right. She can punch and dissemble even before she learns how to shoot a gun, something she is forced by circumstance to do. As for Cruise, his latterly public notoriety as a bit of a loose cannon is roped into the script so that he's convincingly unpredictable in the movie, where that characteristic is an asset rather than (in real life) a liability. In sum, the package has credibility from the get-go.

In fact the closeness that develops in the relationship between Havens and Miller works well within the movie's general rumble-jumble, where a posse of black-suited and -helmeted special forces types are likely to crash through the hotel window at any moment. No place is safe, except with Havens. It also fits the neat polarisation between the "good" selfless renegade Miller and the "bad" self-interested agent Fitzgerald. It all snaps effortlessly into place and it's surprising that the film didn't get more play in the media. It's far better as a piece of cinema than many others of its type, and deserves respect for its craftsmanship if not its depth.

Monday 22 November 2010

This film, Farewell (dir Christian Carion, 2009) is an ambitious but suitably low-key affair; 'suitably' because of the depressing nature of the situation in play at the time - we're in the early 1980s just before Gorbachev's perestroika program of reform which changed Russia's attitude toward the West and led to the Berlin Wall being dismantled. The film purports to chronicle the events on the Russian side, in the catastrophic failure of its espionage program due to the activities of a lone person, that directly caused the policy change.

Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica, in pic at right) is a Soviet agent who has decided to dismantle his country's network of foreign sources of information, and so contacts Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, in pic at left), a French engineering contractor working in Moscow who somehow gets 'turned' so that he starts funnelling intelligence from Gregoriev to France. As the operation gets more sophisticated with the use of micro-cameras and other paraphernalia of the trade, more national spy agencies get wind of what's happening, notably America's CIA.

While there is a lot of tension between the different characters - such as Sergei's son, Igor (Evgeniy Kharlanov), who finds out about Sergei's mistress, Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite); or Froment's wife (Alexandra Maria Lara), who starts to get cold feet as the fiction of her husband's status in Moscow is drawn out in time - there is no reliance by the filmmakers on abrupt expressions of emotion or overwrought physical action. It all takes place in the film where it would realistically take place in life: within. This makes the viewer watch the main characters closely, and as a result they become multi-dimensional and complex.

Sergei, especially, is a person with complex motivations. Dismantling the secrecy system in Soviet Russia is a personal matter for him. He loves his son. He doesn't want his son to grow up in the same atmosphere of distrust and fear that he grew up in. So we see him, on the couch late at night, watching old home movies from a time when Igor was a small child. Sergei lies in the darkness smoking a cigarette and reflecting on a happier time in his family's life together.

Froment's motivations are less clear but he acknowledges Sergei's disquiet and attends to his needs. There is a fair amount of personal interaction between the two when they meet in parks or fields to exchange items of importance to the drama: a book of French poetry and a Queen tape for Sergei, a sheaf of papers for Froment. As Sergei has noone else to confide in he tends to muse aloud on his current state of mind at these meetings, which adds interest to the script.

Igor is not the only secondary character to be realised through the addition of depth and colour. Sergei's wife Alina (Dina Korzun) is also made active in the plot as she hovers around the periphery of Sergei's complicated existence within the country's spy system. Igor is in his teens, and while Alina is still attractive there is the little matter of Natasha to consider when weighing up one's opinion of Sergei. Infidelity itself is one thing, but ignoring a woman who is your wife and who is past her prime, is another thing entirely.

But that's the thing about this movie. People's motivations, the reasons they do things, are important. Achieving this level of engagement by the audience is no easy thing to do, and the filmmakers should be congratulated for spending little (it's not a 'big' production) to achieve a lot.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Review: Shakespeare's Wife, Germaine Greer (2007)

The number of scholars who can get their monographs situated on the biography shelf of a middle-high-brow independent bookshop is probably calculable using the fingers of one hand. Simon Schama springs to mind (so that's two). Hmm ... Let's see ... Nope, there ain't nuthun' that's springing forth in my dismal mind right now, friends. Which makes Greer an oddity, but we should not dismiss her new book on that account, even though she takes on a long string of (what she calls, hilariously) "bardolators", or stubbornly refuse to unpack the coinage: it refers to those scholars and historians who, in order to praise their favourite Renaissance author (and probably the most famous author of all time in any country), must disparage his wife.

Greer, who made her name as a feminist polemicist, undoubtedly sees a form of elite-level sexism at work in the equation. She may be right. What is disturbing is that noone has ever publicly attempted to systematically dissect the bardolators' biases by doggedly returning to the records of Stratford and nearby towns, and of London, in search of any proof. That's the problem, she thinks. These middle-aged white guys just built on an assumption made early in the history of Shakespeare writing (and it's got a long history, starting in the early 17th century), and elaborated on it in the absence of any information to the contrary. It's a clear case of how a monoculture (white, middle-aged guys) can distort the record and bring forth deformed progeny.

Many people will find Greer's book puzzling, if not overwhelming. This is due to its density. The sheer volume of facts plucked, like live eels, and stuffed into the literary confection one holds in one's hands, will make some readers squirm. Many will plug on out of solidarity with the author. Others will simply revel in the copious trove of new information that gives substance to a far-off time, and pocket Greer's stated conclusions as viable coin to be used in the marketplace of ideas we all inhabit.

For myself, the book has additional usefulness as my earliest-known ancestor (a certain Thomas Caldicott) had a son, Thomas, who became a husbandman and was buried in Warwickshire, the county in which Ann and William were brought up and where Ann lived. There is an estate named Caldicott in Greer's book which was owned by one of the powerful Greville clan. The Grevilles don't come out of the book looking very wise or very nice at all. As a husbandman, however, Thomas Caldicott (fils) may have been well-off, and Greer's book tells me much about what was happening in the mid-Renaissance in England in terms of the economy which was, of course, still largely based on agriculture. Thomas may even have been involved in the extensive "enclosures" of land that took place at the time, when profit-hungry landowning gentry fenced off areas traditionally used by the wider community for pasturage, a practice that sometimes led to bloodshed, if not at least civil conflict.

Ann Shakespeare would have led a productive and useful life in her household, regardless of what her husband's post-mortal groupies inferred from the slim file of reliable records that still exist. Greer does a lot of hard work by combing through a wide array of records from the time and performing a type of literary triangulation, in some cases where nothing concrete still exists, in order to prove her points. Ann was clearly beloved and may have been the subject of some of Shakespeare's sonnets. She was faithful and diligent in her homemaking, raising two children to adulthood at a time when so many children died, as her son Hamnet did, before puberty. She kept the home fires burning while William was away in London or else touring around the countryside with the Kings Men, his theatrical troupe. She deserves our esteem.

You get the feeling that the bardolators have simply dropped the ball. That Greer has been equal to the task, one that to most would be utterly daunting, of assembling convincing evidence to support Ann Shakespeare's claim on our regard is proof, is any were needed, of the depth of feeling involved in the case. Greer must have gnashed her teeth often, over the half-century or so during which she has studied the works of William Shakespeare, as she discovered each case of the intellectual crime of bardolatry. Why, one is forced to ask, is it necessary to seek to raise one person up by putting another down? Surely William would have disapproved?

Saturday 20 November 2010

Walls come in all shapes and sizes and possess a wide range of meanings; a single wall may even mean different things to different people. But news that News Limited will, next year, place at least part of its online content behind pay walls reminds us that journalism is an endangered craft and that while journalists should be paid - certainly more - for what they do, consumers are not always cooperative.

The big news coming from Richard Freudenstein, CEO of News Digital, is that not all of the news sites' content will go behind the wall (the major centres in Australia each have a News tabloid - The Mercury in Hobart, The Advertiser in Adelaide, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, the Herald-Sun in Melbourne, The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and NT News in the Northern Territory - with the exception of Perth, and then of course there's The Australian, the country's only general-interest national broadsheet).

Freudenstein's revelation is anchored to a mention of the Wall Street Journal (another News vehicle, owned by US-based News Corp), which charges for some content. But it is, like Fairfax's Australian Financial Review (which charges for all content online), a special-interest daily, not a general-interest one. Financial news properties have done well everywhere they are charged for online. It is the general-interest vehicles that should worry about their readership simply dropping away. For this reason, a better comparison would have been to the New York Times, which is planning to place a lot of its own content behind a pay wall, probably also next year.

Falling readership in terms of very soft page view figures is what has happened in the UK, where the News vehicle The Times lost 97 percent of its online readership when a pay wall went up earlier this year, an eventuality that prompted media commentator Clay Shirky to label the site the "online newsletter of the Tories", according to the Guardian.
"The Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience," writes Shirky.
News Corp head Rupert Murdoch will have taken the same message away from the UK experiment, and his Australian editors will be keen to ensure that their mastheads are not similarly neutered. After all, Murdoch has never made any bones about his willingness to control editorial direction, tone, and political bias. Placing The Australian completely behind a pay wall would render it a toothless tiger. With his other media interests in Australia subject to forms of government control, Murdoch will want to retain all of his options when the time comes to attack the administration at either the state or federal level.

The question remains: which elements of content will be placed out of general view? It has happened, in the UK in one case I am aware of, that an opinion-piece writer has quit a news vehicle in order to prevent his work from being hidden from the widest possible audience. If you were a journalist working at The Australian you would be very concerned, right now, about where your work would appear once the wall is erected. Would it be in front of the wall, visible to all Australians, or would it be relegated to the obscurity of Australia's very own "online newsletter for the conservatives"?

Friday 19 November 2010

Extraordinary news from India as microcredit borrowers have refused to repay loans from for-profit lenders. The New York Times story notes that politicians in Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state where the financial crisis is placing pressure on microcredit lenders, have told residents not to repay their loans because the companies are "earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor". It's a compelling narrative in India, clearly, just as the narrative driving the reknown of the first microlender, Bangladesh's Grameen Bank (est. 1977), was so compelling that others decided to start doing a similar kind of business next door.

It seems that their desire for a financial return made them cut corners, however, leading them to make loans without also providing financial management advice (which Grameen does). This oversight has led to some people not being able to repay their loans. Some of these people then took out other loans to help service the original loan, with a vicious debt spiral taking hold in a number of cases. There have been suicides and abscondings. These led to the politicians getting involved, urging borrowers not to service their loans.

There also seems to be a problem with the interest rates charged. I'm not a complete expert on Grameen Bank and its levels of interest, but this story mentions that SKS Microfinance - which is India's largest microlender and which in August listed on the Indian stock exchange, raising $350 million - has "reduced its interest rate by six percentage points, to 24 percent". Seems a little high, akin to what Westerners pay on their credit cards and hardly an indication that the lender keeps the borrower's best interests in mind when giving out loans.

The whole scenario is just extraordinary. Grameen Bank was established by teacher Muhammad Yunus as an alternative to village loan sharks, who are in the present case expected to retake the initiative.
The collapse of the industry could have severe consequences for borrowers, who may be forced to resort to money lenders once again. It is tough to find a household in this village in an impoverished district of Andhra Pradesh that is not deeply in debt to a for-profit microfinance company.
Grameen Bank's repayment rate is in the order of 97 percent and, as far as I know, it has never been singled out for comment on the basis of the kinds of spectacular non-performance that are emerging in India now. No suicides. No abscondings. But also it's a not-for-profit enterprise, and was established in order to provide a service, on humanitarian grounds, to those unable to viably raise capital in any other way. It was designed to break the cycle of poverty in Bangladesh. The new Indian microfinance companies appear, rather, to have been established in order to generate a return for shareholders. Corners have been cut and the whole house of cards is now threatening to collapse.

Grameen was a true "social enterprise" and it's extremely telling that the reporter, when using this label alongside the new types of companies operating in India, places it in inverted commas.

The "crisis has been building for weeks, but has now reached a critical stage" and "is likely to reverberate around the globe" causing disruption in other financial markets, most of which are just now recovering from the global financial crisis of 2008.

"From little things, big things grow." This Aussie adage cuts both ways, it seems.

Thursday 18 November 2010

This is Liberal National Party Senator Ron Boswell. Who wants this bulk-serve middle-aged white dude determining policy that affects the wellbeing of Australian children who are same-sex attracted (SSA)? The Queensland senator has come out against same-sex marriage, most recently in a Sydney Morning Herald story, where he nastily predicts the type of negative reception a Labor Party MP who had decided to campaign for same-sex marriage might receive in "the front bar of any working class pub":
''I will happily take any Labor (MP) to the front bar of any working class pub. He can advocate gay marriage and I will happily stand back and hold his coat.''
Yes, senator. And we don't want to help those idiots in the front bar to change their misguided views, do we?

The children of idiots who are against same-sex marriage are the ones who persecute SSA kids at school, on the bus, and walking home afterward. Teenage suicide is an epidemic in Australia but it is a silent one because of the compact made by newspapers to not report such events when they occur. This compact lets the likes of Ron Boswell off the hook when they vociferate publicly about things that materially and detrimentally affect the lives of millions of honest and hard-working citizens.

The Labor Party actually has a pretty good track record in terms of progressive policy implementation, most notably via the abolition of racial aspects of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which had prevented non-whites from entering the country and had been the first piece of legislation passed in the new Parliament of Australia. The Whitlam government, which took office after the December 1972 election, won by Labor, made those important changes. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which made discrimination on the basis of race unlawful, was also a Whitlam initiative, arising out of his government's ratification of all international agreements relating to immigration and race.

There is no question that the White Australia Policy, enshrined as it was in federal law, caused suffering to millions. My father's memoir vividly describes how non-Anglo kids were treated in the street by kids from the dominant ethnic group and even before he handed the CD-ROM to me he had for as long as I can remember made his feelings clear through the bitter and ironic tone of voice used when recollecting his childhood. And this policy was furthermore responsible, at least in part, for his disappointment with his father, who came here in 1924 from the Portuguese African colony he grew up in. The man simply sought a better life; a visionary, he struggled with language and with discrimination for decades.

The push for tolerance that has suggested to Julia Gillard the wisdom of rescheduling the Labor Party's national conference, is a virtuous one. Tony Abbott, the Opposition leader, might accuse the Labor leader on the floor of Parliament of giving in to the Greens. But she should remember that the large Green vote of the September election was due mostly to disaffected Labor voters changing their ballot preferences. The Left faction of the Labor Party knows this. The push for tolerance on the basis of SSA is coming from within Labor as much as from the current government's junior partner.

It's time for the Labor Party to return to its progressive roots and stake another claim on the future's fond regard by making gay marriage part of the Party platform. It's definitely time, Julia.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

It's been 30 years since the last large-scale British royal event: the fabulous marriage ceremony that joined together the futures of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and which took place at St Paul's Cathedral in London. I was studying at university at the time and was living in a residential college with a common room and a large TV and I remember the approval of the exclusively male watchers as they lounged around that small concrete room. Before that it's necessary to travel back in time another 28 years to reach the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. My mother remembers even today the procession the young queen made through Melbourne, and has told me how beautiful she thought Elizabeth was, especially her skin (!).

Last night after dinner (about 9.30pm here in Australia) news of the engagement of Kate Middleton and Prince William hit the interwebz with an official announcement and it was quickly echoed by people in this country and, presumably, elsewhere too. Groans mingled with applause as each of them reacted to the news in their own way. In Australia, the memory of the republic referendum of 1999 is still vivid for many and the language of royalty tends to grate on their ears (one person said she would leave Australia unless the British media stopped referring to Middleton as a "commoner"). Regardless how people feel, the reality is that William is likely to be King of Australia (William V, in fact, following Charles III) at some point in the future, so we should take notice of who his wife will be when that happens.

In Britain, there has been, almost exclusively, a positive reaction, at least in the public sphere, led (if you choose) by the prime minister's prediction of "a great day of national celebration". British workers have seen their economy struggle hardily to cope in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and the announcement could probably not have been better-timed, as it will become a lightening rod for public commentary in the months leading up to the nuptials, which are likely to be held in the northern summer.

Talk of Australia's political settlement has not flourished wildly in recent years, but the wedding will no doubt catalyse both monarchists and republicans to public debate. Some have said that it might be timely for Australia to transition to a new status when Elizabeth steps down. At 84, Elizabeth has been queen for 58 years. Charles has been waiting patiently but he's not going to have to wait much longer, and the Middleton-Windsor marriage will probably delay the succession until at least 2013, after the Olympics that will be held in London. Regardless of the vagaries of queenly plans for the immediate future, expect discussion in Australia to echo in a distorted way what's going to be said publicly in the UK, where this event will matter more than it does here.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Strangely, the momentous event anticipated in Sudan - separation, and the formation of a new country - is hardly present in the media yet, even though Sudanese in the south of the country are already preparing to vote for or against secession by registering at designated locations in that part of the country, which is Africa's largest. The south is oil-rich but the north has the majority of citizens, so observers are asking how smooth any transition from a one-state settlement to a two-state one will be. It is difficult to imagine that the poll, which was first mooted as part of a 2005 peace plan that brought an end to fighting between the north and the south, will be welcomed in the north.

For many, the country is best-known from depictions in a type of memoir, What is the What?, a 2006 book written by San Francisco writer Dave Eggers. The trials of Valentino Achak Deng that were rendered in the book have made the man famous in the West, and he has been involved in humanitarian ventures in his native country in recent times, even appearing on TV here. In the book, the Deng character recalls events that took place when he was a boy escaping the fighting.

Monday 15 November 2010

Natalie Tran deliberately avoids playing up her success. This edgy lack of, what the world deems to be, seriousness is at the core of her appeal, even if it's not the whole story. So when she encounters traditional media there's always a disconnect between what she aspires to (making "friends I haven't met yet") and what she's supposed to do with her fame: exploit it for all the cash she can get. As a result the reporter is constantly wrong-footed by Natalie. It has happened before. This time she spoke at length with Neil McMahon and his article was published yesterday on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, a respected broadsheet. The story has much new material but it's a bit disappointing because McMahon struggles with the demands of an invisible public and those of his own intellect as he comes to terms with a new phenomenon: a bona-fide reluctant star.

The signs of this struggle are everywhere in the first half of the article. Natalie enjoys "global recognition of a rarefied kind" but she "ticks none of the boxes" that normlly fit with notoriety in the entertainment world, McMahon tells us. Natalie, he insists, you're "a rich, famous celebrity"! When McMahon suggests that a major entertainment personality would be happy with the scale of the public reaction she garners online, she gives him a "riddle of an answer". Natalie "wants it known" (he states glibly) that she doesn't take her success too seriously. Does he get it? "So what is Natalie Tran about?" he asks. Yes, he does get it if he's being honest (which eventually happens): "she really finds the whole thing a little absurd," he writes. (He should have asked her what records she listened to when she was 17. Maybe there are some clues hidden there.)

"Absurdity," McMahon tells us, is what Natalie is about, as he attempts to segue as effortlessly as possible into a brief run-down of the type of humour the comedian specialises in. But he's still stumped as he tries to shoe-horn Natalie's qualities into categories readers might be familiar with:
They are hard to describe. She is no Justin Bieber, the Canadian sensation who used YouTube exposure as a springboard to global fame as a singer. And she's not entertaining bored office workers with laugh-for-a-second grabs of dogs on skateboards or dancing babies.
Helplessly, McMahon then reaches for a metaphor he deems suitable for his audience, calling Natalie's videos "Seinfeldian". Not screamingly funny or irreverent or a little dark, but comparable to an American comic we all know is funny at least by reputation if not from direct experience. He's funny but for many it's because they're told he is, not because they think he is. However Natalie's fans were never told she was funny, at least not at first. And they don't need the commentariat to tell them it's OK to like her because, well, they all agree that she's funny. Fans watch her because she makes them giggle.

Then there's the Asian angle to explore, and McMahon dives in: "her family background ... provides clues to be explored." He still can't get his head around the fact that a raging success of the type Natalie has built is not being milked economically for all it's worth, so he reaches for a recognisable prop. We then get some useful history of how it all started (as a response to the videos of Lonelygirl15, a vlog hit in 2006, which is like saying: in the pre-Cambrian era).

McMahon tries hard in the second half, when he gets his mind around some of the real issues that Natalie has (not yet) explored in her videos, such as sexism and racism. Dealing with these issues is a public service, but it's a little sad that the journalist couldn't deal with Natalie's attitude to money with the same aplomb. When he later attempts to label Natalie a "role model" she again begs off the honour, as she is wont to do in such circumstances. It's all a bit embarrassing to be pigeon-holed by journalists eager for a big story with extra heavy-duty suction and three separate snap-on attachments for those hard-to-reach places.

I first wrote about Natalie's contra-rational financial predilections almost two years ago and a few months later I wrote about her collaboration with the Sydney Morning Herald on a series of video podcasts.

Pic credit: Marco del Grande.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The two tweets dealing with SBS reporter Karen Middleton's visit to Japan to cover the APEC meeting that appeared yesterday afternoon around 1.40pm show how social media has started to change the tone of debate in the public sphere.

In the first tweet - which has been retweeted in the image below - SBS rather unnecessarily tells us that Middleton is in Japan. It also tells us that US President Barack Obama was meeting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Nothing exceptional about that. News services are constantly spruiking their awareness of "important" events such as this "historic" meeting.

Then something strange happens when we get a new tweet a few minutes later from Middleton herself. Obama and Gillard are engaged in "mutual admiration"? Odd. No breathless recount of a handshake. No frenzied account of an air-kiss as the two leaders come together for the first time. Just an ironic reminder that reporters, too, have a sense of the ridiculous. Instead of puffing up the encounter, Middleton shrinks it down to a human, manageable size.

This kind of dealing with information would have been impossible without Twitter. It might have been caught on a microphone if the reporter had thought the mic had been turned off when in fact it wasn't. But it's not the very existence of the tweet, alone, that is significant. The tone of discussion in social media is qualitatively different from what we're used to on the (oh-so-polite) airwaves.

The meeting between the two leaders wasn't merely put into perspective, from the point of view of the average media consumer back in Australia. It wasn't just "mutual admiration" but, in fact, "the usual mutual admiration", so becoming completely un-newsworthy in an instant of critical reflection by the reporter. It's critical of the type of expression of solidarity we were habituated to watching take place between Obama's and Gillard's predecessors, Bush and Howard.

After all, Obama had the chance to visit Australia during this trip and had cancelled an earlier scheduled trip to Australia due to the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill crisis. This time, he went to Indonesia as well as Japan. But not Australia. So Middleton is seen here doing some of the critical thinking the average person does whenever they are subjected to the media's take on such an insignificant event as a brief meeting between two national leaders.

Saturday 13 November 2010

For a feel-good experience that is replete with fast one-liners and almost bereft of plot, Sex and the City 2 (dir Michael Patrick King, 2010) is a stand-out performer to safely bring into your lounge room and enjoy unencumbered by difficult story-lines and hard-to-read aesthetics. I never saw the first movie in the series, but from the way this one proceeds I assume it had something to do with how Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) got married to handsome, debonaire John James Preston (Chris Noth). So it's now two years down the track and the glamour has started to wear off with the close of the nuptials and the end of the honeymoon. John has turned into a kind of big dog who drops onto the couch at every opportunity, where he automaticlly switches on the TV. He even gets a TV installed in a desk in the bedroom so that viewing is never far away from the pair's intimacy. Carrie wonders if the "sparkle" he promised at the outset has been extinguished.

Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has two children in her care and is stressing out in a major way. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) gets the chop at work because one of the senior partners is targeting her. So when Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is invited to visit Abu Dhabi for a couple of weeks' restorative holidaying, the four friends pack and head for the airport.

That's about all the plot we need to understand the movie. One more thing will happen to draw all the separate parts together, however, and of course it relates directly to Carrie's marriage problem. While in the bazaar Carrie meets an old flame and they make a dinner date, after which they kiss. Carrie flees, mortified with her cavalier attitude to her marriage (pic) and makes a point of phoning John in New York to confess.

And naturally Samantha gets in trouble with the local authorities when on a beach she kisses a Danish architect she met while riding camels in the desert. As you do.

But apart from these structural elements the viewer is largely free of any constraint and can focus attention on the zippy repartee that accompanies the four women as they negotiate sexual politics in two time zones.

A highlight for me was seeing the four do a karaoke number in an Abu Dhabi nightclub, where they sing the classic Helen Reddy feminist anthem I Am Woman and elements of the audience join in with them to celebrate some sort of coming-of-age. It's a largely symbolic gesture though due to the film's distinct lack of plot, and it depends on received ideas for much of its authenticity, which is a lazy way to score points. The film is full of such unambiguous nods at big ideas, such as the opening scenes which take in a glitzy marriage between two men and which features a breathless-looking Lisa Minelli in signature black jacket-and-tights.

A more topical acknowledgement of sexual politics occurs near the end of the movie when the girls, caught exposed in the bazaar, are succoured by a group of Arab women wearing full burqa. Their saviours take them aside into a niche behind a shop and reveal the Western high fashion they keep hidden underneath their normal clothing. It's a nice moment, too, when these women hold up copies of a book they're reading for their book club, and it turns out to be a book Samantha had recommended to her friends when they were still in the US. But, again, such scenes are mostly driven but stuff happening outside the movie, in the wider public sphere.

The Middle East setting also allows the girls to examine whether there is true equality between the sexes in the US. There is grumbling assent that not everything is as good as it could be, especially by lawyer Miranda.

For me the best moment at the end came when John admitted to Carrie, once she has returned to their stylish apartment, that he had been "killing time" walking around the city. It's an authentic moment in an otherwise fairly insubstantial line of the story, and it gives his masculinity a filip since he risks turning into a cypher dependent for essential agency on Carrie's moods and preferences. A walk around New York to clear your head? I can relate to that.

Friday 12 November 2010

Review: The Masque of Africa, VS Naipaul (2010)

One thing I hear from time to time is how Africa is fruitlessly and frustratingly homogenised by Western commentators and the media. Under the label 'Africa' lie hundreds of millions of souls and dozens of countries in a broad range of climatic regions, some landlocked, some small, some polarised by religion, others simply invisible. How, then, can Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner (in 2001), honestly sit down at the launch's presentation table and diligently sign copies of this book for Ulrike and Sarah and Gianna and still keep a straight face? How can he honestly think it possible to encapsulate truths about that enormous continent and all of its peoples, in one small volume that purports to say something useful about "African belief" as the subtitle advises us it deals with? Thankfully, Naipaul adhered the modest "glimpses" to that compendious rubric, and thereby saved himself a whole load of embarrassment.

I think the honest reader will not be disappointed with the book, despite this failure of courage by the author. Why, after all, didn't he visit all African countries instead of just six? Is he too frail of body to attempt such a task or was he simply overcome by it? But it will have to be enough that he accompanies the reader to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Ivory Coast and South Africa. There's no more time, unfortunately. It's getting late and we're tired of all this hobbling about in fields of grass as thick as an Afghan hound's pelt. Hush and be still. Let's see what we can find.

Quite a lot, as it turns out, and all of it elaborated in Naipaul's beautiful, concise prose, as simple and unadorned as a spoon. This implement is, of course, fashioned out of the best Sterling silver and not rough wood. So we're shown around by an educated Westerner, one who, to all intents and purposes, shares at least a majority of our prejudices and desires. Prejudices against cruelty to animals, children, women and the weak. Desires for fair-dealing, wisdom, intelligent conversation, and healthy food and sleep as restorative interludes between exotic encounters with village headmen and shamans. A desire for ordered, stimulating life. Fear of being hoodwinked. Or worse.

Belief is a tricky subject. It's what we instinctively rely on to negotiate everyday life. For a Ghanian or a Gabonese or a South African black, the pressing urgency of modernity can be a threat inasmuch as it clashes with the old ways, the ways of the ancestors. Naipaul ventures into contested territory that lies between the demands of the global economy and those of the forefathers. It's a location every African appears to be coming to terms with in his or her own way. For Naipaul, the contrarian liberal, it's a fascinating place to write about. Hence the book.

And of course, Naipaul is aware of his incipient failure. The journalistic style enables him to point to the specific when challenged on the grounds of the general. "I didn't go there," he can say. "I was too tired to continue that day," he might add. "I left a pair of sunglasses in the car in Abuja and then the sun made my eyes water so I didn't really see what happened after that." It's OK. We understand, Vidia. It's really not a problem.

The devastatingly abysmal national reputation tolerated by most African leaders and citizens on almost any modern scale of reckoning may be a contributing factor in terms of the homogenising influence of the media and Western commentary generally. Naipaul attempts to get behind the sad tales of corruption, inefficiency and quotidian tragedy by bringing his intellect to bear on the minutiae of African belief systems. These often clash with imports such as Christianity and Islam but, as Naipaul finds, the imports are also changed by the encounter. They become Africanised, which is something that seems not to occur for the author himself.

For those interested in witch doctors, magic charms and potions, voodoo and bloody rituals, this book is going to be a dud. What it shows, rather, is another way of dealing with the world, a world that is qualitatively different from that found in the West, which of course is a place where the state has taken precedence over the ancients, and the law has been long codified in writing rather than being handed down along lines of descent from father to son and from mother to daughter. And the writing is so good that you will need to concentrate. If you start dreaming because of a particular image you stumble across, it may take several paragraphs before you realise that you have completely lost the plot. Never mind. With Naipaul it's always a pleasure to do a quick recap before venturing on, again, into the shadowy core of the continent.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Costa made a no-dig garden at the Sustainable Living Expo held a couple of weeks back and it was an energetic performance taking over an hour to complete. That might seem like a long time when you consider that everything needed to put the garden together was prepared in advance and on-hand. But with Costa on stage we certainly got more than just a simple demonstration in practical horticulture, regardless of how effective it was; we also got a beginner's course in sustainable gardening and tips on managing biodiversity in the backyard.

The biosphere is singular, he began. If the person living on the hill (pointing north-westward in the heat of mid-morning) sprays their garden with pesticide (squirting the assembled onlookers with water from a plastic bottle labelled with a skull-and-bones) it will filter down to the creek (which flows west-to-east through the municipal park where the expo took place) and affect the organisms living in it. Everything we do in our garden is public. There is a disjoint between notions of private property and the way the biosphere operates, he told us as we listened to his vigorous talk on things some had come to the expo specifically to listen to.

In fact, the talk took up most of the allotted time. A minder circled around the outskirts of the gathered crowd occasionally shouting out the number of minutes remaining before time would be up. His name is Nick and he's from the UK. He told me after the crowd had dispersed that working with Costa was stimulating but I got the impression that it was also quite challenging.

At large, Costa began to assemble the no-dig garden, starting with slabs of hay taken from one of three bales positioned at the back of the open auditorium near the loudspeakers. On top of the base layer he added soil from a nearby trailer, fertiliser in the form of rock, and more layers of hay until the mound stood about 30cm high. At this point he threw himself on top of the mound while telling us how much he loved no-dig gardens. Later he added a range of plants from a number of black, plastic containers.

Costa didn't forget the small people, either, and invited them to help him assemble the no-dig garden by assigning simple tasks to two boys who had been infected by his dynamic delivery. They ran about fetching and throwing, caught up in the spirit of fun that overtook the whole crowd. The sun beat down but nobody minded or took a break to visit one of the drinks stands located nearby. There was too much to see right in front of them.

With the performance ended, Costa began to hand out seedlings to a number of children who had hung around waiting for a chance to secure an autograph or just to say 'hi'. I waited a good 30 minutes before the interview I had set up through an Armidale council employee, could take place. Eventually Costa and I sat down together in the shade - I had worn no hat and was visibly burnt - and chatted for about 10 minutes about biodiversity. It was rewarding, and now I will write a story for a magazine about the experience.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Ivanhoe Girl's Grammar School in Melbourne's leafy north a good destination for your child? Possibly, as I shall explore. But one same-sex attracted young person found that the school did everything possible to thwart her natural inclinations earlier this year when it prevented her from bringing her partner to the school formal because the partner was also female, as we learn from a story by The Age. Sixteen-year-old Hannah Williams subsequently left the school so that she could be with her girlfriend, 15-year-old Savannah Supski. They both now attend a state school.

While this disturbing scenario enhances one's faith in the public school system while also engendering in one a deep suspicion of the underlying ethics of a school, like Ivanhoe, which advertises its Christian bias, at least in part Ivanhoe has lived up to its goals, among which are the following choice items:
  • enables girls to practise independent, critical thought ...
  • enables each girl to explore and develop her own spirituality ... while affirming tolerance and appreciation of other beliefs
  • fosters responsibility ...
  • develops leadership ...
  • fosters healthy attitudes which enable girls to respect one another, develop resilience, enjoy school life and approach the future as responsible, caring citizens
Hannah's choice in this case was to stop pursuing her complaint with the state's Equal Opportunity Commission. She did this because the process was too upsetting for her, and she didn't want the issue to interfere with her studies.

The school's principal, Heather Schnagl, says she is "very upset" that Hannah feels discriminated against. There's something deeply complacent and unaware in Schnagl's stance vis-a-vis Hannah Williams and her case. Hannah says that she "had meetings with principals" to try to resolve the impasse and that her friends out of solidarity with her put up posters around the school protesting the decision but that "the teachers ripped them down". Hannah's perception is that the school was intransigent: "They kept on making up excuses," she says.

Christian organisations have recently been granted exemptions under EEO laws in Australia and it appears, from reviewing the Hannah Williams case, that Christian schools are prepared to weather further criticism in the public sphere in order to maintain the purity of their vision regarding the life choices their students make.

On the one hand, you have to applaud Ivanhoe Girl's Grammar for having produced a student with as much determination and such strong convictions as Hannah Williams. On the other, it is easy to condemn the school for being small-minded and unbending in the face of the earnest wishes of one of its own.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

On last night's Q and A, the ABC's ever-more-popular panel show which has finished screening for the year (worse luck), right-wing journalist Janet Albrechtsen appeared crisp and up-to-the-minute in a pair of rarefied eyeglasses but I couldn't help thinking that her beef against the Greens - they're "wolves in koala suits" - was, like, so three-years-ago. George Brandis, the Liberal senator, was also on the panel but he seemed more interested in scoring points against the Labor Party's Bill Shorten, who sat the the other end of the counter.

But while Albrechtsen's poised posture and unruffled demeanour is generally quite effective on shows like this and she has appeared from time to time on the panel, her little rant about how "dangerous" the Greens are seemed utterly out-of-date. It's the type of over-hyped scare-mongering we got used to during John Howard's prime minstership when the Greens were a minor party holding about seven percent of the vote. Now that they're scoring up to 14 percent and are currently sharing power in a finely-balanced Parliament, the wind has decidedly shifted. Albrechtsen is still trying-on the old line the Libs used to peddle back in the day. Let's move on, shall we?

Sunday 7 November 2010

Review: Faces in the Water, Janet Frame (1961)

Although it opens with a disclaimer that the work "is a work of fiction" the joke's on us if we give any credence to the thundering disavowal because clearly the events described in the book must be based on Frame's sojourns in mental institutions in New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s.

It is a frightening scenario. By situating a moral component within the frame of a person's mental illness the state medical authorities opened up the door to innumerable abuses of patients, whose conditions were estimated to be, somehow, self-willed rather than pathological. To do so is to enable the custodians of the realm they find themselves in, to consign patients to punishing routines and deplorable conditions, even unnecessary brain surgery that strips them of their humanity, simply on the grounds of deeming their behaviour unseemly or "naughty". A naughty girl gets a lobotomy. To "teach you a lesson". A patient is "bad", rather than merely sick. This moral component has to be removed from all discussions of mental illness in order to adequately address the needs of people with a mental illness. If there is a moral component, there is shame attached to it. If there is shame attached to it, we cannot speak about it in a way that will enable us to appropriately deal with it as a social issue.

Frame's prose is sensationally detailed and articulate, and it indicates without question that her illness was other than what the doctors and nurses were accustomed to seeing in their charges. She remembered everything said to her and everything done to her, and only changed the names of people to suit the style of a novel. The author has a facility with prose that enables her to explore motivations in a way that makes sense of an otherwise apparently senseless world of systematic abuse and arbitrary punishments.

We are taken along with Istina Mavet, Frame's alter-ego, as she is shunted from one delapidated and unhealthy ward to an even more delapidated and unhealthy one. We feel anger when Istina's aggressive behaviour, which is sparked by her fear of the electroconvulsive therapy she is subject to, leads to her being assigned, "to teach her a lesson", to more and more unsanitary and unpalatable quarters. With each step down the ladder within the institution, Istina becomes more unstable but she never becomes resigned to her imagined fate: that she will never go home. Finally, she baulks at having a lobotomy. She retains her senses in a world of soul-destroying routines and the angry jailers that impose them.

The final pages of the book are devoted to her salvation by a number of the doctors, and the mood of the book lifts. This is the author's novelistic structure taking hold, and we go along with it, relieved that finally sanity has prevailed in a world of unspeakable degradation, a place where the rights of the individual are routinely sacrificed to the convenience of the nurses. The nurses don't come out of the book looking at all respectable, although Frame does at one point refer to how they, themselves, are treated badly by the system. But the book shows how it is the things that individuals do that make all the difference, despite their being subject to a dysfunctional system of punishments and rewards.

It's not an unmanageable stretch of the imagination to apply the lessons contained in Frame's story to a broader context to take in society in general, and all of us living in it.

Thursday 4 November 2010

How has the COP10 biodiversity summit, that has just finished meeting in Nagoya, fared in the press? It appears that Japanese news media organisations continue to be upbeat while the reality presented by the meeting's outcomes is quite stark indeed. Many media organisations - and not just Japanese ones, although they have been particularly vocal in spruiking the conference - trumpeted the pledge by the parties to the convention to increase the amount of land and sea area given over to sanctuaries: 17 percent of land and 10 percent of sea by 2020. But the truth appears less encouraging for keen observer and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who has written a column criticising the Convention on Biological Diversity for not releasing the final agreement. The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) is chaired by Japan.

Monbiot says that the draft agreement of a month ago "contained no binding obligations" and suspects that the final agreement will deliver a similar outcome for governments to act on, if they wish. "No government, if the draft has been approved, is obliged to change its policies," Monbiot writes.

But the lack of binding obligations has not stopped Japan's media from continually trumpeting the importance of COP10, even in the most tangential and dishonest fashion, as is evident from a particularly disturbing story written by Asahi Shimbun reporter Akemi Kanda. It's probably not entirely warranted to dismiss the whole of the Japanese press corps on the basis of one article, but this one deeply fails to impress and suggests that they've resorted to whitewashing the grim reality that the meeting has failed to actually deliver anything of substance to the globe's ecospheres.

Ms Kanda has got approval to visit a fish market in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and to talk to some of the locals involved in the industry. 'COP10/ Port thrives on sustainable fishing' blares the headline but the story tells us a very different story. The fishermen here once caught tuna but the size of the catch was so badly depleted they began to target blue sharks, Kanda writes. And longlines?
It is said that longline fishing--unlike round haul net fishing and other methods which use nets to catch whole schools of fish in one haul--can reduce overfishing.
So longline fishing is not as bad for fish stocks as "round haul net" (purse seine) fishing? That's news to me, but Kanda is betting that her readers will know no better. The rest of the article is dedicated to conveying the impression that by using everything from the sharks' bodies, local authorities are ensuring that fishermen and food processors are behaving "sustainably".
Fisheries industry officials here are trying to ensure the sustainable use of the species under increasing international pressure demanding shark resources be protected.
Movements to regulate shark fishing could emerge if numbers begin to decline or wasteful usage is seen.
As such, industry officials are trying not to catch immature fish, overfish or waste any part of the sharks caught.
Officials are "trying" to make sure fishermen are operating sustainably. Regulations "could emerge" under some conditions. And "industry officials are trying not to catch immature fish" (industry officials catching fish? Interesting thought, that).

The "sustainability" quotient in Kanda's story hinges simply on the matters of whether longlines are used to catch the sharks and whether the whole fish is processed or not. This latter caveat has nothing, in fact, to do with sustainability but that doesn't prevent Kanda from making hay while the COP10 sun shines. She also takes a gratuitous swipe at foreigners some of whom, she says, just take the fin and discard the rest of the shark's body:
It is said that illegal shark fishing occurs overseas and that only the shark's fin, which is sought as a luxury food item, is cut off and brought back to port.
The implication being that Japanese processing companies are better in sustainability terms than those foreigners who just cut off the fin and leave the shark to die in the water. This is a red herring. There is also absolutely no reference to COP10 in the story other than the lone mention in the headline, and the story singularly fails to address sustainability, with the notion of fish sanctuaries - apparently the most important outcome of the convention - being a most striking omission by the journalist.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Review: Londonstani, Gautam Malkani (2006)

This engrossing novel is largely written in a patois, along lines firmly established by American author Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) but which have in fact been employed by fiction writers for centuries for comic effect in their works. The novels of Walter Scott come readily to mind on this point. In the acid vein of humour those great writers established, this novel gives the reader a satirical peep behind the ethnic lines demarcated through British society in London following the 7 July 2005 bombings, which were carried out by four young men - three of Pakistani descent and one of Jamaican descent - and which resulted in 52 deaths.

A wave of xenophobia followed the attacks and blossomed in the media. Gautam Malkani is a Financial Times journalist with a background in political sciences, so he had a bird's-eye view of the public spectacle and the qualifications to understand the social underpinnings of the terrorists' motivations. He understands the problems that beset young British men of non-Anglo descent, and he leverages the prejudices of their parents in the book to illustrate how globalisation and policies such as multiculturalism - a cultural pluralism where equal value is ostensibly granted to the values of each component of the city's ethnic matrix - lead people living in society to behave in distinctive ways.

At one point the book's hero, Jas, is seen giving advice to Arun, his mate's brother, who is in the process of organising his own wedding. The demands made by the Indian culture of Arun's parents - respect your elders, the bride's parents should give especial consideration to the groom's parents - harken back to a day when different social realities prevailed. Reena, the bride, is actually a surgeon, which makes the assumption that she will become a burden on the groom's family a nonsense, and the dowry a sham. And the two young people are marrying for love, not according to the wishes of their parents, which makes a mockery of the superior airs of Arun's parents, who are of the Brahmin caste. Jas, Amit, Ravi and Harjit watch these dramas unfold and wonder how the values that so disturbingly energise the sometimes violent struggle between Arun and his mother should apply to them. So they make their own values, based on the rules of the street and those of conspicuous consumption.

At the beginning of the book the four are just failed high-school drop-outs who have been forced to retake their exams in order to matriculate. They hoon around the streets of an outer-London suburb in Ravi's mother's BMW looking for action. Their main business prospect involves unlocking stolen mobile phones, but when they try to steal the phone of Mr Atwood - a teacher in their old school - they find themselves bailed up in his office listening to a lecture about their dissipated ways. Mr Atwood is especially disappointed in Jas. He decides to hook them up with a successful ex-student, Sanjay, in order to help them understand what can be achieved in life without crime and through education.

Sanjay, it turns out, just wants more of the stolen phones, and pays handsomely for them, so the boys' business continues apace. The older man also helps Jas in his romantic quest for the attention of Samira, a Muslim girl, by loaning him his Porsche and instructing him in the secrets of London's tony nightlife. Suddenly, Jas has everything that he covets: the esteem of his mates, a pretty girlfriend and money.

It can't last, though. In the tradition of 18th- and 19th-Century novels the hero must suffer. Several things happen at once. Arun is blamed for a tragedy in Arun and Amit's family, leading to his mates ostracising him. Then he is seen by someone in an intimate moment with Samira and rumours race around the district that he is thick with a Muslim girl. Their supplier of stolen phones subsequently stops doing business with them, angering Sanjay, who turns out to be less illustrious and more corrupt than Mr Atwood could ever have imagined. Finally, Jas has a serious run-in with the law due to what he carries out at Sanjay's urging. Bereft of all his friends, Jas is forced to turn to the people he likes least for company: his parents. The final, hilarious secret is revealed at the end of the book but even without it - and it's very, very funny - the novel is a great read.