Tuesday 31 January 2012

Canberra Tent Embassy saga lasts like a boozy lunch

It's not as bad as it looks, Felicity
The spillover of protesters from the Tent Embassy in Canberra that took in a nearby restaurant where the PM and Opposition leader were giving out awards has taken on a life of its own. The commentariat has had a field day, with new stories still appearing despite the fracas taking place last Thursday, 26 January, Australia Day. The photos showing Julia Gillard being manhandled roughly by her security detail as they whisked her away from the melee to the safety of her state car are deployed again and again by a press hungry for eyeballs and mouse-clicks. Along with the commentariat, Liberal Party politicians have been pushing hard to keep the issue in the news. The saga goes on and on like a bad and boozy lunch from the bad old days of the fat-jack expense account and the Beemer at the curb on Queen Street. It's time, folks, to fold up our napkins, visit the necessary one last time, and "move on", in Tony Abbot's parlance, to other, more productive debates.

Let's put the thing in perspective.

First, the protesters. Aboriginal activists are not like the anodyne-sounding Institute of Public Affairs, which is actually a highly-active conservative think-tank that ruthlessly campaigns on issues that it deems important. Aboriginal activist groups do not have dozens of well-paid text monkeys researching issues and writing the opinion pieces that the IPA is famous for. They have their Tent Embassy, they have their voices, and they have their passion. At the IPA it's all a bit more civilised, but it's no less raw, the protesting and campaigning. Instead of voices and bodies, scribes at the IPA deploy nouns and verbs. But the upshot is the same: publicity. So let's give credit to the folks at the Tent Embassy. If what they wanted was publicity, they eminently achieved their goal.

The media have beaten this event up shamelessly, with grinning politicians feeding eager journos new soundbites in an effort to keep the machine running smoothly. Headlines in Murdoch tabloids from the day it happened were so over-the-top that I had to check several sites to make sure it wasn't just a lone subeditor on the warpath. But no, it was editorial policy to lash the issue into a froth and the punters swallowed the bait like a school of frenzied orcas driven mad by blood and burley. But it was never critical, never dangerous to the PM. A woman in peril just makes good copy.

So a few noisy protesters made a fuss outside the restaurant. That didn't justify the response of Julia Gillard's security detail in treating the event like an assassination attempt. Dragging a puzzled PM off toward the waiting car was bad enough. Making her lose her shoe? It's truly novelistic. Treating the Tent Embassy protesters like an organised posse of axe-wielding maniacs was the first crime. Treating the event like a major story of national interest was the second. Can we please just turn off the music, put away the cask wine, and clean our damn teeth? At some point we need to start thinking about the serious stuff.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Archer Russell waltzed Matilda as a tonic for modern life

Archer Russell goes a'sauntering
in the Australian bush

Before Steve Irwin was born, before the Leyland Brothers packed up their first Land Rover, before even Rolf Harris picked up a wobble-board for the very first time, there were few people to tell Australians about the bush. But back in the days when nature writing was yet a gumnut on the Aussie branch of world literature – still yet to fully flower – there was a man named Archer Russell.

Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s Archer’s travel books struck a chord with readers living in the nation’s crowded cities, who had begun to value wild places.

“Most of our lyric songsters in poem and prose – great naturalists all – have realised the sedative of the untamed bushland,” wrote ‘Waratah’ of Springwood in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1939, “and turned to it for inspiration, far from the pleasure and scenic resorts.”

I first came across Archer Russell a few years ago when I stopped at a roadside bric-a-brac store that sells books. Then I spent a fair bit of time last year researching the man and turned that into a magazine article published this month. But space limitations meant that an amount of material I had gathered was not published, especially as regarding Archer's iconoclastic bent.

From the beginning of his career as a nature writer Archer saw himself as a man apart. 'Bushwalking' as an accepted pastime was a thing of the future. In those days the guy tramping alone in the outback was looked on with suspicion, especially during the dark days of the Depression, in the 1930s. The swagman celebrated in Banjo Patterson's famous poem, now a song of almost mythical status in Australia, 'Waltzing Matilda', was considered an undersirable interloper by remote communities in the hard-scrabble days following the Wall Street crash of 1929. But Archer tramped on, pen and paper handy in his pocket, and wrote stories which he published first in the newspapers and magazines of in his native Adelaide, and then more widely. His bibliography goes like this, as far as I've been able to fix it:
Wild Life in Bushland, W.K. Thomas, Adelaide, 1919
Sunlit Trails, Building Limited, Sydney, 1930
A Tramp Royal in Wild Australia, Jonathan Cape, London, 1934
Gone Nomad, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1936
Bush Ways, Australasian Publishing Co, Sydney, 1944
The Truth About Spain, Current Book Distributors, Sydney, 1945
William James Farrer, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1949
Murray Walkabout, MUP, Melbourne, 1953
Laughter in the Camp (John Fairfax, edited by Archer Russell), Warwick Boyce, Sydney, 1958
The list of standalone articles is far too long to include here. The key thing is that from the age of about 40 Archer was able to forge a career out of writing about the bush. He was 38 when his first book was published. He was married to Marion, his first wife, by 1920, when he was around the same age. Both the articles and the books would have supplied him with enough money to make a living from writing alone. An iconoclast is someone who dismantles orthodoxies - I'll get to this in a minute. But Archer was also a self-made man who built up a career without any support other than that which derived from the esteem of his readers. This is a fantastic achievement in my view and rivals the achievements of other Australian entertainers such as Clive James and Barry Humphries. Archer's gumption and pluck deserve celebration.

But look at the bibliography again and note what happens in the 1940s. Let's take note especially of the book published by Current Book Distributors, a company known better for its publication of Communist works. The Truth About Spain is less than a book, in fact. The pamphlet, which inveighs against conservative social forces that had assisted the fascist military in the Spanish Civil War, drew the attention of critic Vance Palmer who recommended it on his ABC radio show.

“There is nothing particularly new in these pages, but the humiliating story – humiliating to democratic onlookers in every country – has never been told more clearly and concisely,” Vance wrote. 

This interest in universal values would extend to an involvement in several progressive organisations such as the Australian Culture Defence Movement, the Frank Hardy Defence Committee and the Fellowship of Australian Writers. While publishing with mainstream media he also worked for a magazine called Progress. The pamphlet and such ties would bring him to the attention of ASIO, the national intelligence agency, during the 1950s. ASIO eventually decided that he was merely a “radical minded character, disliking authority”, and left him alone.

Then there's the Farrer biography. Farrer was an unusual man who worked to develop strains of wheat that could withstand the dry climactic conditions found in Australia. His work was not valued at first, and in fact he was ridiculed by many. Farrer is now considered to have hugely contributed to the national good but in his time he was not popular. I have yet to buy Archer's biography and look forward to reading it.

This interest in the individual rather than the mass, the person alone rather than the rollicking group, is what strikes me when I consider Archer's life and his interests.

Somehow a love of nature is blended with this ethos, and it's there in his writings from the very beginning. In a prefatory note to his first book, Archer regrets that “pursuing an unmapped itinerary” is a pastime infrequently adopted by his peers, and he reserves a pointed barb for the “get-rich-quick maniac” who considers tramping “too idle”. The disdain for wealth is clear, and it is linked to a love of the outdoors, which delivers Archer a different kind of wealth.

Archer’s books tend to regard the natural environment purely as a tonic, and he eschews the martial tone evident in the writings of earlier Australian nature writers. Professor Tom Griffiths writes in his 1996 book Hunters and Collectors, about early Victorian naturalists of the generation that came before Archer's, that they inhabited the fringes of bohemian literary culture and shared its obsession with a masculine ethic. “Environmental consciousness blended with the advocacy of racial purity and the assertion of white ‘native’ traditions,” writes Griffiths, director of the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University.

Archer’s Romanticism is from an even earlier time than this, and resembles that of Wordsworth rather than that of Kipling. When you read Archer's books there is in them the ancient (for us!) Romantic concept of 'Joy', Schiller's 'Freude', a sustaining sense of pleasure that only the natural environment can deliver. It comes together, in Archer's mind, with the labour of a man like Farrer, who worked against the odds to create something that only he could see a benefit in. It is a feeling that is self-evident to the person who undertakes the activity, in Archer's case bushwalking, in Farrer's case agronomy. And it makes him value freedom from oppression wherever it occurs, as for example it did for Archer after the bloody Spanish civil war of the later 1930s, a war backed by Nazi Germany with the support of the Catholic Church and (what Archer called in his pamphlet) Big Business.

In my mind, the disparate publications that constitute Archer's bibliography all have something that ties them together.

Thursday 26 January 2012

What can Australia celebrate on its national day?

Mary Lee, sufragette, 1821 - 1909
A country that ignores its history is a country that has lost its memory. Without a memory a man or woman cannot live. That goes for any man or woman. Imagine having no memory. My father died with Alzheimer's in March last year with, to all intents and purposes, no memory. If you had no memory how would you recognise your friends, your enemies? How would you do the simplest thing, like make a pot of coffee or clean your teeth? Without a memory you regress to an inflantlike state and, like an infant, you merely cry when you're hungry and laugh at teddy bears held up before you by your doting parents. In short, you lose the ability to care for yourself. You are dependent, helpless, and vulnerable.

When I see people on the street wearing Australian flags or with Australian flags attached to their cars I see vulnerable people. Like the man walking down the street yesterday wearing an Australian flag as a sarong. The man had long hair, down to between his shoulderblades, and he wore a slouch Australian bush hat. He also wore a black T-shirt with 'Australia' printed on it next to a depiction of the Southern Cross. When I saw him I felt a mixture of pity and revulsion. Here is a man who depends on overt expressions of patriotism in order to make sense of the world, I thought, and the belligerence attached to his patriotism makes it brittle, like a dare. Overt patriotism in Australia carries always with it an unmistakeable tone of racism, of exclusion, of a sense of entitlement explicitly denied to people whose only difference from ourselves is the place where they were born. This is ignoble and I want nothing to do with it.

So how should we view Australia Day? Perhaps there are things that can be celebrated, that we can justifiably be proud of? Proud of wherever in Australia we live. After all, you do not see cars emblazoned with patriotic signs in the countryside, but that doesn't mean people out in the bush have no feelings to call forth on the national day of celebration. I know that cars in the bush do not have Aussie flags attached to the cowlings of their mirrors because I was out in the bush recently during a 5000-km roadtrip to Adelaide and back.

I don't recall seeing flags around Adelaide either. But Adelaide has a special reason to be proud on Australia Day because the colony of South Australia amended its constitution in 1894 to enable women to vote. At federation, in 1901, the female franchise was extended to all Australian women. The pic attached to this post shows a bronze bust set up on North Terrace outside Government House in Adelaide to celebrate one of the activists associated with the female franchise in Australia.

South Australia was not the first place to allow women to vote. That credit belongs to New Zealand, then still a British colony, which had made the change a few years earlier. But Australia was the first sovereign nation where women could vote and stand for parliament. Why in these places and not, for example, in Europe or North America? I think it has to do with the fact that these places were still settler societies. In settler societies there are never enough women, for a start. But also, there was the recognition that the work done by women was absolutely essential to the continued prosperity of the colony. "Thank you," farming husbands might have said to their wives. "I work in the paddock all day. I cut down trees, lop branches, cart away logs, blow up the roots, put up fences, I plough, I sow, I harvest, I store away the grain." But that's not enough to live. You need food prepared to enable you to sleep at night, because you need sleep to enable you to work the next day. You have property in freehold, which implies inheritance, and inheritance implies children, and children imply a mother to concieve and birth and raise and care for them.

So here's a 'value' that Australians can rightly be proud of: equality. When we talk about Australia Day we talk about values. It's the same on ANZAC Day. In fact, surrounding the cenotaph here near where I live there are some big, black blocks of granite on which are fixed words made from cast metal. The words include 'courage and 'mateship'. I'm not sure I like blocks of granite telling me what to think and how to feel. The ideas expressed by the flying of Australian flags are big and blocky too. I recoil from them in revulsion. But celebrating equality is something that I can accept. After all, it is a universal value. Its roots go back even further than the date of Mary Lee's birth in 1821. It belongs to the Enlightenment project that also gave birth to the idea of Australia in the first place. But if we are to celebrate equality then we have to think about other forms of equality. Saying the word gives us license to improvise and discuss other alternatives, such as marriage equality. Perhaps we should fly the rainbow flag on Australia Day instead of the other one?

And while we're improvising let's take stock and remember the thousands of Aborigines who were still being hunted down and killed when Mary Lee finally achieved her stated goal of "leaving the world better for women than she found it". Our memory demands that we do so. Remembering the Indigenous fallen makes us think that their sacrifice should also be celebrated on ANZAC Day, too. Why not? The notion of equality is a rational one. And once you start really employing your memory and your reason there is no end to the things that you can achieve.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

To the brown country, then back to the green country

The Mallee - brown country
I drove down from the green country - Queensland, northern New South Wales - into the brown country, to my destination, which was the city of Adelaide, a place as dry as a chip surrounded by wineries soaking in the sun. There are grapes growing all across the meridien, even as far east as Griffith, a town I stayed at on the way down in NSW. I didn't have to drive. I covered around 5000 kilometres during the trip. And, for sure, next time I go to Adelaide I'll catch a plane instead. Sitting cooped up in a thundering coccoon of plastic and metal for 10 hours a day is not exactly lots of fun. But it's the price you have to pay if you want to get around in this vast country on the ground - that or the train, and I haven't travelled interstate on a train since I was a child. Maybe next time I will.

I had driven from Melbourne to Brisbane before, along the Newell Highway. But I'd never been through the Mallee country, which extends mostly west of the Newell across into South Australia, capital Adelaide. After waking up in Griffith in the half-light of dawn I hit the road, gouging a path down the local road to the Sturt Highway past paddocks filled with growing grapes and across irrigation canals that were filled with water. Once on the Sturt, I headed west, through the Mallee. It's a lonely landscape, flat, where you can see the trucks coming for a long way. The trucks appear as big, flat boxes jutting out of the landscape, then they get closer, then they thunder past a few feet from your car.

I spent four days in Adelaide talking with people. It's a comely city with lots of limestone-and-brick buildings, and sandstone buildings along the western part of North Terrace where Government House sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the library, the art gallery, the University of Adelaide, and the hospital.

On the return trip, which I decided would take me four days instead of three, I stopped at midday on the first day in Mildura, the biggest town in the Mallee. Mildura is citrus country, and is located on the Murray River from which it draws the water needed to grow its crops. Mildura is hot and dry. The hottest I felt during the trip, however, was when I stopped for a few minutes on the road between Hay and West Wyalong. This stretch of road is 250km long and you pass almost noone as you drive along it. If something goes wrong with your car out there it'll be a while before you get back to business. So I felt nervous. When I stopped to relieve myself the dead vegetation crackled under my feet as I stepped across the dirt shoulder of the road toward the trees and bushes. The cockpit temperature gauge told me it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. The desolation overwhelmed me and I didn't tarry. There's a pub out there somewhere and I stopped for a bottle of water, then continued on.

At Forbes that night there was a thunderstorm, which I watched from the motel's restaurant as I ate an enormous steak with a serving of giant grilled marrow. The space between the lightning and the thunder was a mere millisecond's distance. The action was taking place right overhead. But the storm only lasted about an hour. When it was gone the road was wet. When I woke in the morning it was dry again. That morning I drove up through Parkes and Coonabarabran, and slept in Moree. Green country again. By the next morning I was in Queensland.

As soon as I was able to see Toowoomba I could see the rain sheeting down out of a bank of cloud hovering over the mountain range. Rain fell on the country I drove through. I put the wipers on. There was no rain when I drove along the Lockyer Valley - scene of much of last year's flood drama - but by the time I hit Brisbane it was bucketing down. Back to the green country. The country I live in. The country of summer rains so heavy the rain takes on an elemental force and drowns out every other sound when it falls, unrelenting, from the grey sky.

Friday 13 January 2012

What does SOPA mean for me?

This is what I think of SOPA: it’s the entertainment industry getting the rest of us to watch out for piracy, and to stamp it out for them. Wait, I’ll explain.

But first: there’s a fair amount of material available on the web about the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA for short) that has been brought to the United States House of Representatives for consideration as law. Unfortunately, most of the online comment is furiously partisan. Because SOPA has to do with freedom of action on the internet tech writers and bloggers en-masse hotly condemn the law. In doing so they say some fairly sharp things. A lot of heat, but little light, as the saying goes. This blog post is designed to (hopefully) increase the amount of information available about SOPA without resorting to the hyperbole of its heretofore critics.

To be bald and unadorned (whew!), to start off with: “SOPA is an effort to get at the very real problem of rogue Web sites … offering illicit downloads of movies, music and more,” according to David Carr in the New York Times (1 January 2012). 

Now, one of the problems the online commentariat has with SOPA stems from the fact that the companies pushing for the law, such as big motion picture production companies, have deep pockets and are donating money to politicians. That has made for a big, fat, easy target set up in the faces of anarchically-minded web-naturals like Cory Doctorow, the fiction writer.

Carr’s article is worth reading but his conclusion is that you the individual should just go away and work out what SOPA means for yourself. Not a big help, David, but thanks. The law is important for people to know about but his suggestion is not helpful when you’re dealing with some great, big piece of legislation that is expressed in incomprehensible legalese. So I’ll use Doctorow’s article in Publisher’s Weekly (5 December 2011) as my jumping-off point because I think that his clear style at least makes the partisan viewpoint easy to understand.

Keep in mind that, for the moment, my main concern about SOPA is its likely ability to impact on my own activities as a blogger and user of social media. Blogging is something that I have thought a lot about, and I’ve also written about it before in an opinion piece on the implications of paywalls for bloggers (12 February 2010). I also have plans in the future to make movies at home using material available on the internet, such as photographs. So I would want to know how SOPA would affect my use of such material.

SOPA places the onus of responsibility on the middleman, rather than on the person loading the offending material to the web. So, for example, “Web hosts, payment processors, and operators of technical infrastructure, like the Domain Name System,” observes Doctorow.

“Under SOPA, these intermediaries could be ordered to censor or block access to, and funding for, any site accused of copyright infringement, without due process, without a jury or the right to rebut accusations,” Doctorow goes on. Who does the ordering? The US State Department, Doctorow tells us. Carr says it’s the Department of Justice. 

Doctorow says that body would be “vested with new power to demand Web sites be delisted from domain name servers” and also be able to “demand that payment processors cut off access to funds for these sites and demand that advertisers and ad brokers sever ties with the accused”.

It’s the mechanism that would be used, say the law’s opponents, that offends intelligence. It’s the fact that an order to cease service could be issued “without due process, without a jury or the right to rebut accusations”, that rankles. But what does “due process” mean? Ok, well Carr says the Dept of Justice “could seek a court order against a Web site that illegally hosts copyrighted content”. So there’s a judge involved, not just the government department alone. Wikipedia’s SOPA page says that judges could “immediately block access to any website found guilty of hosting copyrighted material”. Presumably that means the copyright holder would have to convince the government department of an offense, and that body would then have to convince a judge that an offense had taken place.

Carr says also that under SOPA “private companies would be allowed to sue Internet service providers for hosting content that they say infringes on copyright”. So private companies can go straight to court to get a website blocked. Carr again:
[These measures represent] a very big change in the current law as codified in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grants immunity to Web sites as long as they act in good faith to take down infringing content upon notification.
Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), websites that are identified as hosting infringing material are notified by the copyright owner and then given a certain amount of time to remove it. SOPA brings that onus of responsibility back to the ISP rather than just the website. And the block would be immediate, rather than delayed.

The DMCA is obviously not working, for copyright holders. For example, right now, YouTube is fighting a suit brought against it by entertainment company Viacom, who say the Google subsidiary “was engaging in ‘massive intentional copyright infringement’ for making available a contended 160,000 unauthorized clips of Viacom's entertainment programming” (from Wikipedia’s DMCA page). I think Viacom’s case has merit. There are a lot of pirated videos on YouTube at the moment.

SOPA would allow the offending website to be blocked immediately, with the “burden of proof then resting on the website to get itself un-blocked” (Wikipedia’s SOPA page). Opponents of the proposed law say that websites would in future need to remain vigilant against the possibility that infringing material could be posted on their pages. In such a situation, a chilling effect would come into play as website managers would be extremely cautious about what material was posted on pages they hosted. Yes, there is no doubt that the law, if passed, would exert a chilling effect. But maybe it’s time for websites like YouTube to take responsibility for content that is loaded to their pages.

Lamar Smith, the Republican proposer of the law, says that “Sites that host user content—like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—have nothing to be concerned about under this legislation”, but of course we know that users often post content they do not create, such as pirated videos and links to pirated videos. This is a common form of sharing and engagement on social media.

Just imagine that Twitter was shut down by a judge on the urging of a US government department because one user had posted a shortened URL pointing to a page containing a video that offended a copyright holder. What the law is about, in effect, is distributing responsibility for breaches of the law of copyright. At the moment, the copyright holder holds all of the responsibility. What the entertainment companies are saying is: we want the middleman to also take on part of the burden of making sure that the law is not broken.

What might happen in the real world is that a copyright holder might tell a middleman, such as YouTube or Twitter, about an offending video or an offending link. The middleman would then immediately take it down – not wait until it had confirmed that a breach of copyright had actually taken place. Because of SOPA the middleman would act quickly, fearing that its entire domain could be taken offline. It seems to me that SOPA giving this kind of muscle to copyright holders is not such a bad thing.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter would then probably instruct their users in what could and could not be posted on those sites. Social media sites, given responsibility for ensuring copyright law is not broken, would shift some of that responsibility onto users.

Consideration about copyright would in future become something that everyone will make more of. If you’ve followed so far, then I’ll get to Doctorow’s summation, which follows. I’ve highlighted the words that I think are just wrong:
SOPA would put the world’s ability to communicate freely about anything—movies, music, or books; or government corruption, police violence, employer malfeasance, and military atrocities—behind the entertainment industry’s desire to secure its business models, because, under SOPA, there would be no way to create an Internet platform for free public discourse that could satisfy the level of control demanded by these firms.
Really? And what about fair use? Personally, I can live without the need to post videos I might have made using my TV that show Beyonce singing her latest blockbuster. The way Doctorow phrases his summary it sounds as though commentary by unpaid bloggers with, say, a photo clipped from a promo vid, would be actionable under SOPA. I don’t believe it, and neither should you.

But if you know of examples of egregious abuse that have been perpetrated by copyright holders under the DMCA, then please put your information in the comments. All opinions are valued, and will be listened to.

Thursday 12 January 2012

US not-for-profit radio serves a glass way over half full

Mike Daisey
I was on Twitter yesterday and saw a couple of mentions of this guy, Ira Glass who, it turns out, is in Australia to appear at the Sydney Festival. So I did the normal thing when you see several unconnected people talking about the one thing: I checked out the website for This American Life online. That led to me listening to Mike Daisey's monologue, 'Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory' via the podcast. Go on. I can wait. Listen to it, it takes about an hour.

This post is not about Mike Daisey the performance artist but I used his photo because there are virtually none available online for Glass, which is not too surprising because he's a radio host. This might have something to do with the culture of public radio in the US, for all I know. Maybe public radio hosts in the US don't show their faces because they're too busy making outstanding radio programming for their audiences. Or something. There were virtually no news stories in the past 24 hours about Glass, too, and so I decided to do this post to rectify a perceived lack. The podcast impressed me intemperately and I think more people should know about Glass and what Chicago Public Media, his employer, do. All this information is from the web but readers may find this little digest to be of value. If you are an American reader and you think I've missed something please feel free to use the comments section.

[UPDATE 17 March 2012: It has been revealed that Mike Daisey fabricated some elements of his story. Daisey is unrepentant, even though TAL has been forced to edit the piece for accuracy and publicly apologise. Daisey says he is "not a journalist".]

[UPDATE 27 March 2012: Mike Daisey finally publicly apologises for including untruths in his monologue about Apple's Chinese suppliers.]

The one news story about Glass's appearance in Sydney mentioned that Glass is "Best known for his weekly radio show ‘This American Life’ on Public Radio International (PRI)." And this is true. But the program is actually made by Chicago Public Media, although out of premises in New York City.

PRI is a producer and distributor of radio programming and it reached 14 million weekly listeners in the US in 2011 via 887 radio stations, and the website says: "PRI leads by identifying critical but unmet content needs and partnering with producers, stations, digital networks and funders to develop multi-platform resources to meet those needs." The annual report says that production expenditure in 2011 was around US$13.5 million and PRI bought programming worth about half that amount in the same period. Total revenues for the year were US$23.7 million, with 21 percent being grants and gifts, seven percent corporate sponsorships, and 58 percent station revenue (presumably, sales of programs). There's a list of donors as long as your arm in the annual report, and they range from Allianz to Turner Broadcasting. PRI has supplied programming to the ABC in Australia.

Public radio in the US seems to have kicked off in 1970 as a result of a Lyndon Johnson law, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Chicago Public Radio started in 1943 as a broadcaster of programming for schools and was one of the first charter member stations of National Public Radio in 1970. In 2010 they changed their name to Chicago Public Media.

For some, the idea of American public radio is almost as implausible as the notion of healthy and nourishing fast food. But it's real. In Australia we're used to public-good broadcasting because we've got Aunty, but then again we've also got the Labor Party. For Americans the idea of a Labor Party in a democracy is about as implausible as multi-party elections in Communist China. In terms of public media perceptions, one of the touchstones is James Murdoch's 2009 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In those pre-NoTW days of carefree outspokenness, James Murdoch really hit the accelerator in this attempt to frighten the BBC into scaling back its activities. The wash also reached Australia where it animated various members of the commentariat into slamming the ABC. I've come across Americans who deprecate the notion of publicly-funded radio on Twitter also, the reality being that NPR receives most of its money from sources other than the government. "In 2009," says Wikipedia, "member stations derived 6% of their revenue from federal, state and local government funding."

All this could have been said more economically, to be sure. But regardless of how NPR and its member stations get money, their not-for-profit status remains a stubborn bird-flip to the likes of the Murdoch clan. Not only that. Going by the quality of programming that Mike Daisey's contribution represents, NPR stands out as a leader in the US media space and is lightyears ahead of such trash buckets as Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Looking to a fourth way to ensure a viable news media

The product hasn't changed much since
1942, when this photo was taken
Newspapers still have a patchy relationship with social media. There are quite a lot of self-identifying journalists on Twitter now, after a rocky start, and even Facebook has begun a campaign of sorts to draw them into its web. The relationship wasn’t always as healthy as it is now.

Back in September 2009, I wrote a story about how the media were talking about Facebook. Not long after it was published the media began to change its tune, so the story was a little late, but never mind. I didn’t talk about Twitter in it because I wanted to restrict my focus so that the story kept itself short enough for the target website. Then six months later, in March 2010, I wrote another story, about how the mainstream media were using and thinking about social media. Both stories tell a tale that is unfortunately characterised by a slow pace of adaptation. And I think that the disaggregation that social media promotes remains a problem for media companies today, in 2012, rather than being perceived by managers to offer a solution to the fundamental problem of monetisation.

Fairfax, the big Australian media company that hosted the event which formed the basis for the second story I have linked to above, has done a bit better by readers than has News Ltd, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. News Ltd has started charging for stories at its flagship The Australian website using a proprietary login method. Fairfax recently started enabling readers to log into their masthead websites, which could be the first step down the track to charging to read. But at least Fairfax allows readers to login using Twitter or Facebook, rather than encumbering them with the need to remember another set of login details. This is a good move, as it demonstrates awareness inside the company of reader preferences.

As a journalist myself I sympathise with the step taken by The Australian. Readers should pay for content. But just charging them a subscription fee while retaining the corporate infrastructure underpinning the news-gathering and -publishing process seems, to me, a bit lame. Surely there are other ways to engage with readers. We know by reading down past the end of online news stories to the comments section that there is a huge appetite among readers for more involvement in the news process. And this appetite is as visible again within the confines of social media.

Rupert Murdoch has his own Twitter account now. So do a lot of working journalists. But what about the editors who provide so much of the direction a newspaper follows? Where are they? They’re at their desks, old-school, answering emails and working to ensure the next day’s edition gets published. They are not on Twitter, engaging with the audience, as the working journalists are. They are firewalled away from the action taking place in social media. I think that until these individuals start to engage with their audience in social media their companies will just continue to privately express regret at the relentless disaggregation of the publications they work at, and do nothing to address the monetisation problem.

Twitter is, of course, appearing in the news. Journalists talk about how the Twitterverse reacts to particular stories. But that’s it. There’s no attempt to extract opinion in the aggregate from Twitter, which could be done if a newspaper decided to build a curation engine for inhouse use. Such an application could be used to drive the editorial process, even in such a limited way as helping to refine the agenda for the following day’s output. With eyes on the interface, journalists could also pinpoint specific individuals who could be interviewed for any follow-up story.

But that’s not all they could do. Live curation of information already happens, for example, and to a limited degree, on the Guardian website. This company often runs a live blog for developing stories, with updates every few minutes. The rate of refresh of the displayed data this entails, ensures editorial consistency and accountability while supplying readers with new information on a regular basis. And it’s a model that could be used by all media companies who decide to give social media curation a whirl. Readers on social media want to be involved, they ask cogent questions, they are intelligent and often better informed than the journalist writing the story.

The monetisation problem still remains. Readers balking at keeping track of multiple passwords will be a major barrier for news media companies. What’s needed is a micro-payment engine that lots of media companies across the board could deploy on their websites. The workflow has to be as simple as Fairfax’s website login design: click on the short URL in Twitter, click to pay ten cents or twenty cents – this would be a small screen that pops up and that would be delivered by the transaction provider – and read the story. No logging in, no fuss, no barrier. Google could provide this service, as the search engine company already provides services linked to the Gmail account of each user. Whether news media companies want to give more cash to Google, however, is another issue.

There seem to me to be four levels of media engagement with social media. The first level is not working; just pushing out stories and letting readers access them for free is unsustainable for media companies. This is the model most media companies follow but they cannot continue to just give their content away for free. The second level is a login-with-subscription method. This seems unimaginative and also unsustainable because readers will just bypass these websites. A third way is micro-payments using Google as the transaction service. Everyone, in practical terms, possesses a Gmail account, so why not piggyback off this existing infrastructure to enable small payments for individual stories in a way that does not put readers off clicking?

But there’s also a fourth way. This method of engaging with readers while ensuring continued profitability involves curating the chatter that takes place in the Twitterverse, drawing on the opinions expressed there, and accessing the expertise that it will inevitably lead to. How this would be done is hard to say, but media companies need to start thinking about developing user interfaces that link editorial material with the conversation that is happening in real time. If it was successful they could charge for it.

When tablet devices started to be talked about there was a lot of anticipation in media companies starved of cashflow. Managers thought they saw a new income stream. It didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen is not because the devices were unpopular. The reason it didn’t happen is because media companies were unwilling to change their content production methods. If you want new income streams you need to offer new products, and this is something that media companies have signally failed to do.

They have journalists but they need to bring in more developers so that they can build new interfaces that allow them to really engage with what’s happening in the real world. Twitter is not a fad. It’s not going away. It’s where people like to spend time. Unless media companies start to think up new ways to interact with this growing constituency they will continue to stagnate financially. If the media fails and falls, we will all be worse off.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Othering and the dynamics of survival in a time of peace

Got a minute? Yeah you. I know you want to know more about what I want to say. And what do I want to say? Well yes, it does have something to do with the photo attached to this blog post, which shows a scene shot at the Cairo riots. It's also got something to do with my recent blog post about the human need for community, which I said was "hardwired" in humans. But what's that got to do with the Cairo riots? Ok. Maybe I should explain this notion of 'othering', which is the topic I have chosen for today.

This topic came to me while I was on Twitter. Someone mentioned that she had picked out 27 different flavours of feminism, and wondered what all that was about. Then I saw another tweet which asked what had happened to the ANC (the African National Congress, the political party that grew out of black South Africa's struggle for ownership of the franchise and for social equality). In the first case, I think that what "happened" is that feminists lack a credible enemy and so have started to turn on themselves as they work to continue the feminist program. In the second case, the ANC has entered a new phase of its existence, in the absence of the traditional white police state as an enemy, and now finds itself in a position where it must "win the peace". In both cases the problems experienced by the 'movement' relate to the absence of the Other, and it's the same in Cairo. Or it will be at some point down the line once Egypt has done what it needs to do in order to feel that is has entered the community of stable, successful nations. Egypt has already held parliamentary elections. It must now complete its Constitution, and then hold presidential elections. Then it must work out how to handle the Army. Once all these things are done it must start improving the conditions of everyday life for Egyptians.

So Egypt achieved the universal franchise and regular elections by othering Mubarak. Feminists achieved some sort of equality in Australia by othering the entrenched patriarchy. And the ANC achieved government by othering the white South African police state characterised by Apartheid. Once these goals have been achieved you enter the phase of gradualism, where governance is more important than guns and consistency is more important than protest. I don't know who first made that line about "winning the peace" but it was Russian writer Anton Chekhov who said, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

A classic case of failure in the absence of an Other is visible in the phases of the French Revolution. Once the monarchy and the clergy had been removed and Reason placed in the void, the new state apparatus failed to sustain itself and this led to a military coup which brought Napoleon to the leadership. The new state then turned on external enemies and began its explosive expansion across Europe, which continued for about a decade until Waterloo. With the failure of the government to deliver prosperity and security, a king was reinstated. Three steps forward, two steps back. Same in England 150 years earlier with the Commonwealth.

In Europe, nation states have indulged in othering for as long as there has been written history, and probably longer. You wonder if there could be a thing called 'England' without a rival thing nearby called 'France', and vice versa. You see the dynamic at play, today, in places like Iran and North Korea where leaders drum up internal support for their regimes by demonising an external enemy. In these cases it's the United States. "Look," the leaders say, "you need to support me because otherwise the US will come and take over and then where will you be." It sounds like bluster but for their part the people being addressed in this manner have a dominant grievance, too. They resent the wealth differential that characterises the relationship between their country and the othered country, and so they play along. It makes them feel better. It also delivers the feeling of community they need to compensate for a real lack of material wellbeing. So othering serves the purposes of the leadership and also those of the people led. This kind of relationship between leaders and the people they lead has happened innumerable times throughout history.

In Australia, othering occurs as well. From the outside, Australia probably looks like a really stable, happy place where people are fulfilled and nothing ever goes wrong. The truth is that, inside, it is animated by conflict and riven with rivalries every bit as fierce as those that exist in a revolutionary nation-in-the-making. What is different is the way that these rivalries are expressed. To a degree you have to be in a position to fully view them in order to appreciate how fierce they are. Journalism can - and should - do this for people outside. But who cares about Australia? It's hard enough for Australians to get reliable information about rivalries inside the United States, that wondered-at global hegemon.

But we have othering too. You take a classic example. One day another boatload of asylum seekers appears off the coast, or near Christmas Island, or at Ashmore Reef. The Navy picks them up and the headlines start to appear. Then along comes that delightful character, Scott Morrison, with some quip about the Labor Government's failure to protect our borders. Typical dog-whistle stuff. What the Liberal Party is doing is drumming up support for itself among the disaffected and the marginally unbalanced, the people who troll the comment threads of Daily Telegraph news stories and who make phone calls to Alan Jones to whine about how Australia is going to Hell in a handbasket. Morrison gives them an enemy - the Labor Party - and they start baying. The shock jocks and Andrew Bolt know they are there, and play to their prejudices. It's delightful, yes? But this is party politics in a stable country.

The 27 different flavours of feminism have the problem that both major parties support equality. Yes, we had some slight embarrassment with At Home with Julia, but we've also got the deputy leader of the Opposition who is a woman. The problem here is that feminists need to locate a new enemy inside the fabric of Australian society. It must be one that most Australians can easily recognise, and it must be demonstrably dysfunctional. Further, it must be identifiable as such by the mass media. By fighting amongst themselves those 27 groups of radicals are in the process of identifying who the new enemy is to be, and how they should be addressed. Progress isn't easy, especially once you have achieved the step-change that can be illustrated with a headline, a quote, or a dynamic frontline photograph. Up on the plateau the air is thinner and the dynamics of revolution come to assume the dynamics of survival.

Monday 9 January 2012

Japan recklessly endangers its good name for nothing

Sea Shepherd crew in action, January 2012
It's exhausting. Every year, Japan sends ships into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales and every year the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit outfit based in Washington State, USA, sends out its boats to try to disrupt the harvesting of whales. And every year, in the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, near the Japanese city of Osaka, boats crewed by other Japanese hunt and kill dolphins.

The whale hunt always makes the news because of the danger involved when boats on the high seas jockey for space in close quarters. It's inherently risky and the media thrive on stories of danger and death. And Taiji got its fair share of publicity in 2009 with the release of a movie, The Cove, made by conservationist Ric O'Barry and his team of stealth activists. If you haven't yet seen the movie you should because it's not just about an issue of great concern, it's also quite fun. Distressing but fun.

Japan stubbornly continues to kill cetaceans, claiming it's for scientific research. Some of the harvested meat is consumed in Japan but Japanese people are about as fond of this source of protein as Australians are of kangaroo meat. The average Japanese would much prefer to eat a good, lean piece of honest Aussie beef than a carton of fatty cubes, which is how whale meat is sold in Japanese supermarkets. To claim that Japanese people have a cultural heritage in hunting whales that needs protecting is like claiming that Australians have a cultural heritage in eating unleavened damper. We're about as fond of damper as the Japanese are of whale or dolphin meat. Japanese consumers simply don't care about whale meat.

The stubborn attitude displayed by this globally-relevant country every year is a source of great distress to millions of people around the world. And there's no doubt that it's a stance the government has decided to adopt despite significant international pressure on them to reverse it. We can see the truth of this statement by remembering how two Greenpeace activists were treated. In 2010, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki were given one-year suspended sentences for entering a transport depot, removing a box of whale meat and giving it to the authorities as evidence of embezzlement of public money. In short, whalers were selling boxes of whale meat on the side to make some extra cash. This is meat from whales harvested for scientific purposes. The "Tokyo Two" appealed to the Sendai High Court but their appeal was rejected. This despite the fact that after the original verdict was handed down the Fisheries Agency of Japan admitted that its officials had illegally accepted whale meat “gifts” from the whaling industry. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

It's just difficult to believe that modern Japan could be so at odds with international public opinion. What are they fighting for? To preserve a so-called ancient prerogative (whaling) that benefits noone and that the Japanese people in aggregate do not care about, and to protect a handful of jobs in a single fishing village in the central countryside, the Government of Japan is willing to risk its good name in the world. International opinion is overwhelmingly against the continuation of these activities.

But instead of taking a path that would bring Japan back into alignment with the international community, this year the Government of Japan has dispatched a guard vessel to the Southern Ocean to act as a watchdog for its whaling fleet. So far this year, three Sea Shepherd activists have been detained onboard a Japanese ship and will most likely be returned to Japan to be tried in court. Sure, some sort of "justice" would be done in the eyes of the Government of Japan, but the court cases will also present the international media with another opportunity to show how backward Japan's leaders are, and how out-of-step they are with a modern, humane and rational viewpoint of the natural world where cetaceans - whales and dolphins - are considered to be intelligent, harmless creatures and that killing them for any reason is viewed as a crime against the natural order of things.

It's exhausting, every year, to be reminded of this ugly drama because it tells us that the Government of Japan actively promotes policies that are irrational, xenophobic, inhumane, and unnecessary. This ugliness remains, for the vast majority of people in the world, a toxic stain that can only be removed by stopping the hunt for cetaceans.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Assange, in free-fall, needs people to speak out

Julian Assange, tall poppy,
London, November 2011
It's been said that Julian Assange is the most famous Australian currently in the world and you'd have to be pretty isolated not to at least ask yourself if that were true. For some, Assange has been a presence for several years. I remember watching him, via a live link, at a podium in some European country in 2009 talking about what he was passionate about, and because he is Australian I paid special attention. Jumping around on stage, Assange gave off a geeky vibe. Another reason to listen. Then there was what he was talking about. Yet another reason to pay attention. Pretty soon, people started to pay a lot of attention to Assange.

Julian Assange knew he was going to attract attention. He knew that he would be a person of interest for many people. One segment of his audience cheered at first, and this was the big media franchises: the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK. Here was this solitary crusader for free speech with strong opinions about right and wrong, but instead of the usual blogger or leftie protester, Assange was delivering the goods in a way that forced the media franchises to sit up and listen. Because he wanted to maximise the impact of the information WikiLeaks possessed, Assange decided to work with the media companies. For their part, the media cos chosen to participate in the preparation of material for publication were enthusiastic. At first at least. But Assange had his own way of doing things and it seems that he didn't pay enough attention to the needs of these companies. Never get between a reporter and an exclusive!

The same self-reliance that made it difficult for WikiLeaks to work with the media companies had enabled Assange to reach the point at which he had something that they wanted a part of. But as a sole operator, Assange failed to ensure that he could rely on the media companies to support him if things got complicated, which they did when he was accused of rape in Sweden. Things got even more complex when a US Army private, Bradley Manning, was arrested for allegedly giving information to WikiLeaks. Because of this new event the US government began to put together a case against Assange in Virginia. They put Manning in solitary confinement and then they put him up before a military tribunal, hoping to extract information from him that would implicate Assange in the process of leaking the material that caused such a sensation when it was released in early 2010.

It's all a bit cinematic, in fact. Everyone has let go and Assange is in a sort of free-fall, heading toward the crushing jaws of some infernal judicial machine that aims to inflict maximum harm. It seems the only link that is keeping Assange from falling is his successful appeal, in the UK, to take his case against extradition to Sweden to the Supreme Court in London. Of course, lots of people are baracking for Julian Assange, some of them people with a high profile. But the Australian government has failed to take up the suggestion that it approach the US government on Assange's behalf. One Greens senator has talked with the Swedish authorities. But the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, remain silent. Gillard's contribution, when the merde hit the fan, was that Assange's activities were "illegal". The Australian federal police looked into it and said that, no, they were not. But the pollies here stay mum.

It's hard not to pass some of the blame onto the media. Assange was cool and they were happy to work with him when he had something they wanted for themselves. But he pissed them off and now they also remain largely silent as Assange dangles helplessly in space desperately holding onto that last link to the normal world. The media companies have placed their pride in the balance with the truth and found that their self-esteem is more important than are the principles that animated Julian Assange in the first place. Thanks for the footage and the lists and the stories but, sorry matey, you're on your own now. Their embarrassment, like the embarrassment the US government felt when the information WikiLeaks possessed became public, is of greater moment than are the values they - and the United States - routinely use to justify their actions: truth, justice, transparency, accountability.

Assange is being consumed by the organisations he has come into contact with, not the least of these being the global public. He is being martyred for his ideals, and while many people experience feelings of horror as he dangles in space, even more do nothing. As the days tick off on the calendar the silence in official quarters sounds more and more ominous to our ears. If they will do nothing and say nothing, it is up to us to at least say something so that people in positions of influence at least take a few moments to think about what they are doing. So that, if Assange does go to court in Sweden, they can hear us complain. And if Assange does go to court in the US, they can also hear us complain.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Community is a need hardwired in the human fabric

I was listening to Stephen Fry talk on a video that someone posted on Twitter about the internet, and noted that he began by talking about how humans are social animals. People need to feel part of a community, he said, and this sets us apart from other animals. This may be true in some cases. On balance, I think it is true to say that people - and many animals - want social interaction as much as possible, and seek it out wherever they can find it. Sometimes we need to be alone, but in the main we feel more comfortable when we are in contact with others of our species.

Community is something that religion provides and I believe that this is the reason for its popularity. And it's not just going to church that I'm talking about. It's also the personal relationship that you can achieve with a God that gives you comfort at those times when life seems to offer up just too many challenges. It's a community of two, if you like, but if you feel like your life offers nothing but some form of solitary confinement then one other person is enough to give you what you need. In a modern secular democracy authority ultimately resides in the collective of individuals and this reality shifts the weight of responsibility for the health of society onto the individual. That is a responsibility in addition to the other responsibilities the individual carries, such as completing an education, keeping down a job, managing family life, balancing a domestic budget, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Secularity is a very recent phenomenon but its rise corresponds with the period of greatest improvement in the material wellbeing of the largest number of people. There has always been a lot of debate in the West within established religion, and this conflict has led to schisms and the emergence of new religious denominations. But the forward movement of rational justifications for the universe began in the 18th century, along with science. By the end of that century there had also been big changes in the political settlement in several major countries, including the United States and France. Those changes quickly led to changes in other countries, such as England and Italy. By the end of the 19th century the claims of science and technology had begun to challenge the dominance of revealed religion as an organising principle for individuals throughout Europe, as well as in the United States and other countries with roots in the democratic West.

But secularity was not always easy to support, for the individual. To find evidence of this we can look at how the Romantic poets, for example, decided to order their intellectual lives. These articulate men and women offer us insights that are not available elsewhere, at the micro level, during the period when Western culture was taking on the form that it would largely keep up to the present moment. The Romantics, faced with the triumph of Reason in France after the fall of the monarchy and the clergy, faced a severe trial. On the one hand they welcomed the new world order but on the other hand they sought to retain a spiritual link with the world, because not to do so would conflict with their deepest-held feelings. This spiritual element might be labelled pantheism, or just an overarching organising principle for the universe, or else a kind of visceral sympathy with other people. Whatever it was, it is clear that in the absence of organised, state-backed religion - which the Romantics initially turned away from violently - something other than pure reason was required to enable them to live happy and contented lives. The great poetry that we still read today chronicles these internal debates.

This pattern would continue, later, during the 19th century, among even people we would identify as the most rational beings in history. Different forms of spirituality arose in this period that would go some way toward replacing the apparently indispensable intellectual cognates of revealed religion. Always, something other than reason was needed to enable the people to live happy lives. Victorians were always searching out some larger scheme of organisation for the universe.

And so religion endures as a prop for many people who cannot live without this overarching organising principle for the world. They should know, however, that they are not alone. Even people, like myself, who live without religion, seek out community and attempt to develop theories that will explain the complexity of the world. In a largely secular country, like Australia, where about eight percent of people go to church on a weekly basis, there are myriad props available, such as sport. For those who eschew this rite there are other ways to achieve a state of grace, be it through music, food, literature, volunteerism, or something else. We all crave the comfort that community brings. Like language, it is a need hardwired in the human fabric. We all look for ways to connect with the world, and a reliable conduit for information about distant events is essential for individual happiness.

This is why we criticise the media when it appears that it distorts reality. The media is a contested space. On the one hand, it is a public good, like clean water, safe streets, universal education, or unpolluted air. In a sense a price cannot be placed on it, and so it feels natural to us that online we do not pay for news. But on the other hand journalism takes time, and so it costs money to produce, and so the majority of media is privatised. The conflict between these two aspects of the media is present whenever we consume a piece of news - whether it's in textual form, over the airwaves, or via TV - and we are forced to exercise our judgement in order to interpret it so that we can establish the truth about any event. Because our judgement is linked to our value system, we then judge the media itself in terms of our own political beliefs. And so we seek out media that corresponds most closely to those beliefs.

Friday 6 January 2012

Crime novels, thrillers use cliché to heighten drama

Is her name Honey Chandler? Well,
she'd better watch out!
A few days ago I posted my thoughts about crime novels and thrillers because I had decided to do a bit of reading within the genres. It’s been fun but I want to bring up a concern I have with these books because it’s something that I’ve noticed in pretty much all of them, even in Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds (2007). I make this clear because Fossum has a special sort of rep in the industry, as do a lot of Scandinavian writers of crime novels. It’s deserved, I think, at least in her case (I haven’t read any of the others who have been singled out for praise) but even Fossum gets a mention in this post – which is a sort of critique – because to leave her out would not be entirely honest.

Before I start I want to talk a bit about the people who read crime novels and thrillers by comparing them to people who read so-called ‘literary’ fiction. I’ve posted comments on Twitter about my recent readings and have got back a fair few comments along the lines of “Yeah, Fossum’s great. Just read her latest.” It’s welcome and refreshing. People who read literary fiction tend to be more critical, so you’d get something more like “Yes, Banville is good but I prefer Tsiolkas.” You can’t seem to win, whereas with readers of genre novels it’s just positive all the way. I don’t know which is better, but as an habitual reader of literary fiction this detail must serve as a sort of apology to genre readers who may take exception to what I have to say.

In the same vein, I object to negative epithets being aimed at genre fiction. I do not believe that it’s “trash” or “rubbish”, as I’ve heard people say. Writing a good novel of any type requires discipline, practice and imaginative powers beyond what I myself would be able to command. As I mention in the post linked to above, the novel itself copped a lot of flack in the early days, back in the 18th century when it was starting to become popular. All sort of outrageous things were flung at the novel, that it was disordering the impressionable minds of young women, that it was this, that it was that. It’s garbage, just like it’s garbage to say that “genre is crap”. It’s not. But it’s not for everyone.

So in that spirit, perhaps what I have now to say can be taken in the guise of constructive criticism aimed at perhaps somewhere down the line improving the way genre fiction functions. My earlier post said something about why genre fiction is worthwhile reading. Note also that the following review contains spoilers and I’ve highlighted the names of the books so they’re easy to spot.

To start with I recall genre-writer John Birmingham reversing the tables and having a red-hot go at literary fiction, labelling it dull and unconcerned with anything outside the lounge room. And I think that’s true to a degree. There have been exceptions, of course, such as Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace (1869). Another Russian writer, Andre Bely, wrote about an assassination in St Petersberg (1913). But the realm of high drama that crime novels and thrillers occupy has been neglected by writers of ‘serious’ novels.

Now I want to get serious and talk about the way that genre novels deploy cliché to maximise drama. I think they do it because the action crowds out all other considerations. There is no room made to fashion out a more nuanced set of characters.

It has been said that all writing is aimed at destroying cliché, but I think that genre novels use it to tell the reader what to value. Character development is something that novels are good at. Good novels give you a clear picture about the protagonist and about ancillary characters that come to interact with him or her. Genre novels, on the other hand, often resort to cliché so that the reader knows that the person being talked about is to be hated, or valued. If the person is to be valued you know that, probably at some point down the line, that person is going to get into trouble that they’ll have to be saved from. Characters that are signalled for hatred will probably shame themselves or turn against the protagonist.

Matthew Reilly, an Australian author, hardly bothers in Area 7 (2001) even though he talks in the afterword to the novel about remarks he has received on this issue. His answer to those critics is, “I want to write about action and thrills and adventure, and if developing characters slows down the action, then developing characters gets the chop!” Which it clearly does. Luckily there’s enough action to occupy the reader’s complete attention. The hero gets the girl in the end but it’s thin gruel compared to what readers of literary fiction are accustomed to.

A less extreme example is Allan Folsom’s The Hadrian Memorandum (2009). It’s a great story that takes the reader from Equatorial Guinea (in Africa) to Paris, then Berlin, and then finally to Portugal. The final scenes take place back at the home of Nicholas Marten, the hero. Complex and dark, the story centres around the pursuit of Marten and Anne Tidrow, a woman Marten meets in Equatorial Guinea where she works for an oil exploration company. They are pursued by a powerful and relentless character named Conor White. White is an employee of a security company that has been engaged by the oil company to protect its interests in Africa. Marten and Tidrow team up in a manner of speaking, in Berlin, because Tidrow wants to make sure that the secrets Marten possesses are not revealed to the civilian authorities. As the story progresses a relationship develops between Tidrow and Marten.

Because the two are on the run they tend to spend a lot of time together, so their relationship has to work and has to be integrated with the bigger pursuit story. But what happens in these safe houses and hotel rooms is confusing. From scene to scene the relationship alters in ways that are not logical and even confusing. One day Tidrow is masterful and commanding and the next day she is meek and submissive. And Marten’s character is jerked about in the same way. A consistent picture does not emerge. The reason for this is that the bigger pursuit story occupies all of the author’s attention and the relationship between these two key characters ends up serving the demands of the pursuit story, and nothing else. The delineation of the main characters suffers as a result of this single-minded focus.

The sex suffers, too, in The Concrete Blonde (1994), one of the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly. Romantic interest Sylvia Moore gets it on with Harry on occasion but the sparks don’t fly, even though they do it on the rug in front of the fire at least once. There’s hot kisses on necks and glasses of wine but it’s a bit limp. Sylvia becomes part of the bigger story – the hunt for the copycat serial killer – when Harry perceives a threat to her. Poor Sylvia threatens to call it quits with Harry as a result, not liking it when she starts to get involved in one of his cases. But you don’t really care what she does. When a teenage student of Sylvia’s is shot in a drive-by shooting Connelly again serves up the house drama, complete with hot tears, but only Sylvia gives a damn. We’re too busy worrying about the killer. In fact, so is Connelly. 

The author sets up a potential love interest in the form of lawyer Honey Chandler, but the heat Harry strikes up during conversations with poor doomed Honey never kindles into flame and in the end she is tortured and killed by the serial killer. Chandler is the lawyer for the plaintiff in a court case Harry is fighting and there are plenty of clues from Connelly that she is a good egg, and deserves our respect. It gets her death with a mean set of bite marks and numerous cigarette burns; it doesn’t pay to have Connelly like you too much unless you’re Harry Bosch.

Fossom was the exception to the rule. I’ve already mentioned her 2007 novel Black Seconds in this post. What Fossum does that delights readers is to reduce the story’s scale. The novel contains a single death, and it’s not a murder although everyone thinks it might be for most of the book. The main character is the cop, Inspector Sejer. There’s also his sidekick, Jakob Skarre. Sejer is intense but also very circumspect in his words and actions; this is not a hard-boiled world of corruption and vice. 

The novel’s prime focus is to find who killed a small girl, Ida Joner, who went out on her bicycle to shop in town one day and never returned. Ida’s mother, Helga, is devastated by her daughter’s absence and it’s Helga’s pain that insinuates itself into all parts of the narrative. Because her grief is well-realised and because it is so important to how we view the case there is no room for rough drama. It’s rough enough when Ida’s cousin Tomme keeps up his involvement with an unattractive local fellow named Willy. Willy helps Tomme when Tomme’s new car is damaged in a traffic accident. It gets a lot worse when Tomme and Willy go to Denmark by boat from Norway, where the story is set, to do some sort of unsavoury business deal.

Tomme turns out to have been responsible for Ida’s death – he hit her with his car while driving on the road – but his non-communicativeness almost gives him away. Here’s the flaw in Fossum’s creation. Tomme’s presence is so weird that it does give him away toward the end of the book. And on top of this structural weakness Fossum uses a clumsy device – a ticking sound that only Tomme can hear, and that we hear with him – which is somehow linked to his feeling of guilt. The sound kicks in when he is being asked questions. It’s reasonably effective but it’s a device as old as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tel-Tale Heart (1843) and not a very subtle one. 

But at least Fossum eschews the rapid action, busy cast, and spicy drama that other crime novelists enjoy using, and this is the reason why she has caught the market’s attention. Like Jane Austen compared to the lesser novelists who preceded her and who were her contemporaries, Fossum turns down the dramatic volume control and focuses with greater precision on a smaller set of characters than do other novelists within the genre. She gives herself time and space to pay attention to the small details that make good novels so great to read. She eschews cliché and she’s able to do it because the plot does not occupy all the available space inside the novel. She doesn’t tell us who to like and who to hate, but gives us the license to make up our own minds. This is a boon for the reader.

Verisimilitude is something that novels pioneered – it’s Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” – and it’s not something to be sniffed at. It’s Austen’s “little piece of ivory” all over again and, with apologies to fans of the other writers I’ve mentioned, it works.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Media in Iowa didn’t share it all about Santorum

The sign says it all. Two out of three
ain't bad, eh Rick?
The Iowa count was exciting. A close-run thing, the caucus poll delivered an insignificant margin between the two front-runners, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The headlines made much of the 8-vote difference but a rational view would simply be to do a recount, or declare a tie. The media didn’t do so because it makes better copy to bang on and on about the margin.

The media has so far been oddly quiet about Rick Santorum, who has come out of nowhere to take top spot in Iowa. It’s not just the American media. In Australia we were taken unawares by Santorum’s success. First thing I heard of him was Rupert Murdoch giving him a boost by promoting him on Twitter.

Santorum’s record appears fairly bland. He is from a background that features Italian migrant parents. He served in the House of Representatives and in the Senate before taking off to work as a lawyer. Now he’s back in politics. But there is one thing we should know that he has quite a bit of form for: homophobia. Thanks to a news story by The Independent of Britain a lot more people now know that Santorum is, as a mate, who resides in Texas, says, “a homophobic nutcase”. But the American media said nothing about this, like it’s somehow OK. When it’s not OK at all.

The Independent was coy and here’s what they said:
In April 2003, Senator Santorum, as he then was, gave an interview in which he likened consensual gay sex within the home to bigamy, polygamy, incest, adultery and bestiality. In revenge, a columnist named Dan Savage ran a competition to create a new definition of the word "santorum".

The winning entry is far too graphic to be reproduced in a family newspaper, but if you search for "santorum" on Google you will find out what it means before you learn anything else about the former senator from Pennsylvania.
So, the meaning of the neologism “santorum” is “far too graphic”? Diddums, I say. It’s nothing compared to what this “homophobic nutcase” has said on the record. So, the new meaning of “santorum” is to be “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”, according to the website? Santorum soundly deserves the most cavalier treatment you can dream up because he espouses ideas which should have absolutely no place in a decent society. Here’s what Mr Nutjob said in an interview with USA Today in April 2003. How’s this for “graphic”:
If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything… It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution... You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong healthy families... In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.
Let’s hope that the website and its message get greater play in the media. Let’s hope that journalists call him out on his vicious homophobic views in a way that leads to his embarrassment in public. Let’s try to find ways to tell Mr Nutcase that it’s not just “one guy” who so reacts to the things he says. Let’s all speak out so that he gets well and truly trashed. This guy wouldn’t last 12 minutes in a mainstream political party in Australia.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

'Sounds of the ALP' echo shifting demographics

When you rub a balloon there's a stretching sound. It's the sound of the suburbs expanding all over Australia in cities and towns, in the east and the west, in the north and the south. The houses are growing to fill the blocks of land they sit on - right to the edges! - and the stretching sound is what you hear as they gradually get larger. It's the same sound that's generated as the ALP shifts - slowly, incrementally, and with great effort - to the Right in order to retain the votes of the people living in those ever-more-voluminous houses. Listen carefully and you can hear it. Sqeeeeeeeeee!

But there's another sound, too, Australia. You can do more than one thing with balloons, after all. Let's see how we can let the air out of a balloon! This is the sound some people in Australia generate as they trade in their full-size locally-made cars for compact European models with auto-start wipers and removable rear seats. Stylish! And it's the sound - the sound of air escaping from a balloon - that the ALP makes when these people decide to vote Green. It's a bit like the sound of the value going out of the Euro. With their European styling and concern for human rights, their environmental consciousness and committment to rational values, these people know that they are as chic as the one percent. Squeeeeeee!

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Copy popular miscellanies to get science into homes

It's a bit meta. Danny Kingsley is the Manager of Scholarly Communication and ePublishing at ANU and a sessional lecturer with the Centre for the Pulic Awareness of Science at ANU. Her article on The Conversation website - it's a non-profit vehicle that is designed to bring academic work direct to the public, and employs journalists - talks about the need for scientists to speak plainly.

The article is dated 9 November 2011 but I just heard about it on Twitter, where it sparked a bit of discussion. Those who commented felt that scientists should be doing more to make their work readily available to the public. That's natural. We all want to be informed, and many believe that the mainstream media has dropped the ball a bit in the communication game. They may regret the amount of disinformation circulating regardless of the actual research, and the climate change debate is a classic example of this phenomenon. Raising doubts about complex issues is what conservatives have done so well for generations. The way the mainstream press operates, these doubts are expressed and thereby gain currency. Momentum is lost. Policies fall by the wayside. Frustration results. The media cops the blame. Scientists grind their teeth and keep their heads down.

The article talks about the "duty" that scientists might have to bring their ideas and research results to the public. After all, most Australian research is publicly funded. But I think that most scientists are busy concentrating on publishing peer-reviewed papers. These papers are critical for them in terms of attracting funding, and universities rely on high publication rates for their rankings. So the major effort goes into them, and that's understandable.

Scientific papers are extraordinarily abstruse. Unfathomable, in fact. I did an article last year which took a bunch of published biochar research papers and tried to convey their contents in an accessible style. I basically relied on the introduction for each paper. The main components of these scientific papers are impenetrable for the layman. There's even a special breed of journalist, the science journalist, who does nothing other than interpret research for the public. Magazines such as Cosmos rely on these people for their content. But not that many people buy it. Instead, they buy publications that are less nerdy, more political, or heavier in terms of cultural content. Sure, we're talking high-end like The Monthly, but the popularity of these magazines shows that there is a market for intelligent and accessible material. However they contain little science.

It used not to be like this. Let's talk about the rise of the middle class for a moment. We need to go back to the beginning of the 18th Century, to the days of Daniel Defoe and the first King George. It was a time of discovery, both terrestrial and academic. So you've got Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe, which is part travel story and part political treatise. At the same time there were magazines such as The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. These miscellanies had everything, from advice about polite behaviour to information about the most recent scientific research, from literary criticism to political commentary. They brought the world into the private drawing room. And people loved them. Other publications followed, and the miscellany became as important to popular culture as social media is today. Serendipity, sharing, exchange, comment. All those things. Read the biography of a poet of the day and you'll find references to these magazines, and to the books of travel or science they reviewed.

There's nothing like that now. But science has become more and more complex and disciplines within it more and more specialised. As Kingsley says in her article:
My explanation to those students who are uninterested in communicating is that they shouldn’t expect to have much success in their careers.
Given the high specialisation of science, the chances that the promotion committee or grant application reviewers – or indeed any people making crucial decisions about careers or funding – will be in exactly the same speciality are extremely slim.
Decision makers are far more likely to look favourably on a description of work that is understandable than one they have to slog through.
Kingsley does note how more of the niche magazines that currently serve the market are demanding accessible digests of the longer pieces they routinely run. But this is not enough. Science and Nature, like Cosmos, are great magazines but they're not getting into peoples' living rooms like the 18th-Century miscellanies did. We need to get research-based stories into the magazines that people actually buy for education and entertainment. Average people, and not just the astronomy wonks who get those specialist publications at the newsstand.