Thursday 31 May 2012

Writing quality Kindle Singles is not so easy

Because I'm thinking of starting up a publishing venture using tablet-ready files, or ebooks, I had a look at the Kindle Singles thing a bit this morning, which drew me to a website dedicated to this market. As a working journalist, a lot of what I read there had me laughing ironically to myself. As if writing long form journalism were somehow a lesser thing than writing a book. As if writing long were harder than writing short (it's not). As if anyone could just set up as a writer of shorter nonfiction and turn out a bestseller in a week. And then there's a paidContent article attached to the site which has more questionable things to say about writing. This story came out about 10 months ago and says Kindle Singles are "hot" (I hadn't heard of them until today) and are "bite-sized e-books, priced accordingly". Whoa, I thought. Hang on a second.

The fact is that writing short is often harder than writing long. The idea that the buyer gets value for money in terms of length is just so distorting to the real journalistic process it's not funny. For a working journalist the realities of value for money in length can be heartbreaking. Take this story, for example: 'Fishing for tuna solutions'. I wrote this back in 2010 and it was just the hardest thing I'd done up to that time, even though it comes in at roughly 750 words; that's two pages. But look at what went into it. There's four interviews, for a start. For a 750-word story! One interview was conducted with a gentleman who lives on the Marshall Islands, in the western Pacific. One interview subject lives in California. So there's two overseas phone calls right there. I also contacted the retailer Marks & Spencer, in the UK, by email. All to get the material for the story I wanted to write. And with that information - including two interviews with people in Australia - I had to write it short at 750 words. Because that's the length the website runs. Because editors think readers won't go for longer pieces.

Amazon spruiks Kindle Singles as 'Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length' - that's their tagline for the brand. But then they say they are "typically between 5,000 and 30,000 words". Now, for a journalist, even 2000 words is long form. There are vanishingly few outlets that run stories even of that length. And there are plenty of journalists capable of writing to that length. Then they suggest prices; these are "between $0.99 and $4.99", which is sort of dispiriting when you think of the work that goes into such pieces. These prices are mere tokens and in no way represent a just recompsense for the work that has gone into a story. As I said earlier, it's harder to write short than write long. Anyone can write long, given a measure of competence in writing.

Length should not be used as an index of value.

How do you gauge the effort that has been expended in writing a piece of journalism? Well, count the number of interviews, for a start. Look at the story flow and think about whether it is neat and logical. If it is very nice, then probably an editor has also spent time working on the story. I just finished a 3400-word piece (which has not yet been published, so there might be more change requests as far as I know) that uses material from 10 interviews, one of which was conducted via international phone linkup with two people in the US; nothing from that interview made it into the story because it turned out what they said wasn't germane to the angle. After submitting the story the first time, the editor came back with requests for more information. That led to another interview as well as numerous emails to different people as I hunted down the requested details. All of this takes time. In fact, the additional work requested by the editor took more than a week to complete. That's on top of the weeks that went into the initial draft. And this story originally came to me while I was working on an earlier story; so the work on that story should also be taken into account when calculating the amount of time expended.

Excellence should be the only index of value.

I wrote about excellence in journalism at the end of last year. The ideas in that post remain important for me because it shouldn't be about churning out thousands of words. It should be about crafting intelligent and interesting stories that will stand the test of time. The paidContent story says Kindle Singles are "easy to publish quickly"? No, sorry, I don't think so. At 2000 words or 10,000 words, quality journalism is never easy. And if you want repeat customers then you have to avoid this mindset and aim for producing work that is high quality and that will continue to be useful and compelling even years from now.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Book review: Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012)

The 20th Century is not my forte. From a history perspective I prefer the 18th Century and early 19th Century, but the 20th was the century I was born in and so I naturally have assimilated a lot of information about it in the course of my life. So it wasn't my normal inclination that drew me to this book. It was, rather, simply that a few influential people on Twitter were saying that they were reading it. It was the social graph, guv'nor.

Now, I start a lot of books and finish quite a lot fewer, but I finished this one. This, despite the fact that a lot of the discourse is difficult and even obscure. Judt and Snyder use hard referents at times, even going so far as to couch discussion in terms of philosophical precedents. Their familiarity with the material makes them refer to people and even events that are unknown to most people. But despite these obstacles I read the book with pleasure. Those obscure things made their way into the matrix of my own knowledge of the 20th Century, filling in the cracks between my own, blockier, ideas with their fine analyses.

Judt also, especially, has a very elegant and efficient way of talking. Because the book takes the form of a verbal conversation you can only assume that Judt's written style is equally nice. So while the material can be obscure at times the delivery is always lucid. The book itself came about because Snyder knew that Judt was dying of a progressive disease and decided to capture the historian's thoughts on tape. The discussions were then transcribed and served to form the matter for the book. The discussions took place in Judt's New York apartment prior to his death in August 2010.

Each chapter in the book takes the same form. The chapter begins with Judt talking about his own life. So the book is partly a diary of the life of a successful historian. After this initial stage, Snyder himself enters the narrative asking questions. The question-and-answer stage takes up the rest of the chapter. So each chapter is like a wave in shape; the diary stage crests and becomes a long discussion about the 20th Century as seen through the eyes of two highly qualified writers of history.

I suppose there's something geeky about listening in on a fairly arcane discussion between two history specialists, but I also presume that the word 'geek' does not pose such an impediment to social success nowadays as it did, say, back in the 80s when I first learned it. I guess that a geek is someone who is amused by some set of inaccessible minutiae, but I'm not that. Or not just that. As Judt says in the book, you have to know the history before you can draw conclusions; approaching history with a pre-existing and firm principle that you then try to substantiate by looking at past events is just bad history, he says.

What this book will do for people born in the 20th Century (and that includes the overwhelming majority of people who would buy the book) is stretch their minds. Yes, it has a lovely cover that suggests both Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright, but that's just the teaser. The substance of the book is both interesting and important. How you wish that your history teachers at high school had been as knowledgeable as these two men! For a person born in the 20th Century, understanding that period is essential; to being a complete individual, to being able to exercise his or her democratic rights, to generating a full picture of his or her parents and grandparents, to even understanding him- or herself. And this multicoloured book can also form the basis for further reading. I certainly will be looking to get hold of Judt's Postwar, for example. And then Snyder, too, can now form part of my cognitive map as I navigate my way through the incessant barrage of information and disinformation I am exposed to on a daily basis.

You don't have to be a geek to grok this book but it will help if you are the type of person who can be entertained, challenged and informed, all at the same time.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Movie review: The Debt, dir John Madden (2010)

Jessica Chastain as young Rachel Singer in The Debt.
I watch a fair number of movies and I love spy thrillers and action movies; the Mission Impossible franchise with Tom Cruise is a favourite. I love the rapid pace and the unexpected events, and I have a geeky passion for the paraphernalia and subterfuge that characterise the world of spies. But it's not often that I write about such movies. The Debt is a bit different. It's a Miramax production, for a start, so it's already got the promise of arthouse quality in the credits. When I picked it up I also noticed on the cast list Sam Worthington, the Australian actor, and Helen Mirren, the famous British star. These things in themselves don't guarantee excellence, of course.

But this film's got it in spades. This is really a must-see movie, perhaps a sleeper (I had not heard of it although it came out two yeras ago). The movie is set in two eras. The age of youth for Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) takes place in 1965 when they are sent into Soviet-controlled East Berlin to extract a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the 'Surgeon of Birkeanu', who conducted terrible experiments on Jews during the Holocaust years. There's plenty of action in the extraction, but more interesting for the viewer is the web of relationships that develop between the three Mossad agents, and between the Mossad agents and Vogel.

The three return to Israel to acclaim and then go about their lives. Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson, who is often used to play older, powerful men) stay in Israel but David (Ciaran Hinds) spends his life in many countries, wandering the world in a stateless quest for resolution. Rachel's daughter has published a book about the exploits of the young trio which tells the official story. But there's another story that we don't see until later and it is this true story that animates the three protagonists in their mature years, and plays a determining role in the way their lives unfold. This may appear to be elliptical, but that's for good reason. To tell the story in all its fascinating details would be to give away the game for those who have not yet seen it, and that would be a shame. You should watch this movie, it's worth it.

Nevertheless, it's still possible to talk about the movie intelligently without revealing the crucial twists that make it so compelling for the viewer watching it. For a reasonably informed viewer the movie addresses the broadly-held sense that Israel's character has become compromised over time. In the same way that there's a contrast between the faces of the young trio and what they become later in life, in 1995, when they have acquired a bit of extra girth, slackening facial muscles, and the inscrutability that comes with age. In those 30 years so much has happened and many of the things that have taken place are not as pure as was the youthful mission of Rachel, Stephan and David.

As for Vogel, his only way to engage with his Mossad captors, trussed up as he is in a dingy East Berlin apartment, is to use his wits and his voice. These interactions are notable for the way they reveal things about each of the agents as they feed their captive. Who is Stephan and what does he stand for? And who is Rachel? Who is David? Each of the agents has his and her own character, and they show us who they are when they come face-to-face with a man who has committed horrendous crimes in the name of science. There is a sense of reckoning. In these scenes we, also, face something strange and alien, but also perhaps not so uncommon. So, as each generation grows up to enter the world, each generation should be confronted with the facts of Nazism so that its participants can ask themselves not just what happened, but why those things happened.

Yes, the movie wrestles with difficult themes about humanity, evil, truth, and the consequences of these things. But it deals with them in interesting cinematic ways. There's plenty of spy-craft in 1995, as well, when Rachel played by Mirren sets about trying to settle matters finally before the lies told 30 years before become public. Mirren expertly plays a middle-aged Ukranian woman as she breaks into a newspaper office looking for information about someone the world thought had been dealt with a generation before.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Increasing the specific gravity of the news

Globally, as of this year, more people live
in cities than in rural areas.
European countries like Greece and Spain have severe debt burdens and high unemployment and the EU and the IMF have imposed austerity measures to bring debt under control. But then in recent elections the Greek people rejected these measures by voting for parties that oppose them. Then there's a run on a major bank in Spain. Global share markets plummet, destroying part of the wealth of millions of individuals. And this is 2012, five years after the GFC. So are we seeing a rerun of that crisis? Is it going to be a double-dip recession, worldwide? How can we know?

One of the best studies of the 2007 GFC was by Michael Lewis, an American journalist who writes books. Books are fine, in their way, but they have the problem that they take a long time to put together. They come out after the fact. They're mostly retrospective. People, on the other hand, need news now, today. They need to know what's going on. But they also need the type of analysis that they can rely on to signpost future possibilities. In the case of the GFC, they didn't get any advance warning, and so many people suffered. Lewis points this out in his book. To put it one way, journalists let the public down.

It's not the first time. The Greek crisis seems to me to be a product of not one but two major policy changes that took place in the US over a decade ago under Clinton. Tell me if you think I'm wrong. One was the loosening of trading regulations that enabled trading houses to act more independently. (Someone might be able to put a more comprehensive lens to work on this for me; feel free to comment.) The second was the granting of MFN status to China. Let's look at the second of these first. China's government was set on economic growth, following the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Clinton said that granting MFN status would produce jobs in the US but the opposite happened. Jobs may have been produced in the US due to China trade prior to his 2000 announcement but following that China's game plan involved setting up manufacturing companies in China that would export to foreign countries. Western companies signed manufacturing agreements with Chinese companies. Jobs fled from the US and from places in Europe that had until then functioned as low-wage production bases for global companies.

The crisis in the PIGS countries in Europe now is a result of these two policy decisions, as I see it. Now journalists are mostly tasked with reporting what is happening now. This is what's called "news". But is this good enough? And do we need to wait until books can be published before we get that future-facing analysis that can help individuals and countries avoid major crises? Who can do it?

Beat journalists develop expertise in an area of human endeavour. By doing this they are able to recognise what is news, so that they can report on it. But they also get to know people. These people work in government and in corporations and they have a lot of knowledge. A beat journalist is ideally placed to review past events and extrapolate that into analyses of future trends. These types of stories can take time to put together, but not as long as a book. The guy who writes the book is one of the guys the journalist will want to talk with to write his article. Then there's the analyst in the government department whose job it is to know everything about a subject. Getting information out of companies is harder, but there might be a stock analyst who has relevant knowledge. And there are university employees such as lecturers and professors who possess scads of knowledge.

The thing is that none of these people has an interest in making what they know public. But it's most definitely in the public interest that this occurs. It's really a matter of knowing what questions to ask. Not every question will get answered as fully as the journalist desires, that's a given. But the journalist will be able to put together these threads of information and weave them into a convincing story. People read the story. They talk. There might be a major public debate for a few days or a week. The government sees a political benefit in announcing a policy change. The crisis is averted. See how knowledge from many sources published through a single, long story can turn into a significant public good?

Friday 18 May 2012

In the middle-class Dreaming, what is your role?

One thing's reliable. There's one person on Twitter I follow who makes it his job to analyse the media. In fact there's two I can think of straight up, but there's one in particular I'm thinking of here. This morning he tweeted, "Abbott turning up at markets and babbling the inconsequential lies about Carbon Price he has said 1000 times is not news."

And it's not, in any honest sense of what "news" is, or should be. But that's not how the media works. There are some events that have a strong performative aspect, and whistlestop spots by politicians for the benefit of the attendant media crew are like this. It's like an opera solo: we don't understand the words but it's really not important. Every now and then, during an opera performance, the lead signer will get up and sing by himself. Or by herself. The reason this is important has to do with the way we understand the performance, which is a story. Stories are important, as is artistic form. We understand the world using stories. What the media does so effectively is tell us the stories we care about deeply. They may not be the most important stories in the end; only time can tell us that. But they are the stories that anchor us to the world. We participate in these stories in an active sense. This is why, for example, Pup's marriage is such a big deal. It's part of the Australian middle-class Dreaming. It has resonance. We instinctively like such stories.

For a freelance journalist, it's possible to use such stories to sell work. It's called, as I learned recently, writing a "contextual" story. So the story you want to write is made to fit into the broader scheme of topical issues that have "currency" already in the news space. (The "public sphere" is another term that can be used but in Australia it sounds a bit up-yourself, so people generally avoid it, unless they're with the Greens.) Participating in the Australian middle-class Dreaming is something that ensures participation, for a freelancer. Off-the-ball or future-facing stories usually remain just that: a curiosity. Finding larger trends that are actually important in the longer term can be done but such stories will usually be anchored at the top to a resonant context. It takes more time to identify and characterise larger trends, of course, which is why it's not frequently found in the media. But it's possible. You might get a book written about something, and the book gets talked about in the news. Mainly, though, such stories are mere curiosities, not game changers.

A game changer is a story like the Indonesian abattoir scandal of last year, which caused the government to shut down exports of animals to that country. Suddenly, things turned askew and the world could never be seen in the same way again. But such stories are in the minority, and require a dedication that most often eludes journalists, who are so busy producing enough stories daily to fill the news space. This space is filled with soloists, choruses, (sinister) conductors, and sounds off-stage. If we write a comment on a news page, it might be in the way of applause or it might be a cat-call. It's hard to criticise this theatrical news environment, because all Australians participate in creating this Dreaming.

Of course, there are subcultures with their own Dreamings, and these are also trundled on-stage from time to time as events unfold. Some journalists dedicate themselves to writing about such minor roles in the larger scheme of things. On the other hand it's hard to take a longer view, regardless of your predilection as a journalist. Taking a longer view can mean taking more time. And time is money. It may pay off in the end but, then again, it may not. When it comes down to it a freelancer has to decide what is important, and then has to convince a publication to give it a run. Creating a new Dreaming is a challenging undertaking.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Smackdown: Lucky cat vs Hercules

Stormtrooper lucky cat (credit).
This, from me on Facebook, is where this post started:
Global economy, right? Developed economies lose manufacturing to developing economies. Developed economies struggling. Developing economies booming. So the manufacturing jobs go to Asia and economies there do well, while jobs are lost in the West. So wages are lower in developing economies, right? So workers in developed economies are in effect competing for jobs against workers in Asia. So the lower wages in Asia are pulling down the wages in the West. Does this make sense? Ergo recession in the US and Europe.
"Yes," said a friend on Facebook. OK, so I'm not a finance expert or an expert in trade. It's just a question. I asked it because there are things happening economically in the world that I don't understand. And you need to. Why? Because everything's connected. Every economy is affected by the recession in Europe and by continuing slow growth in the US. Australia's is. For example, on the day the results of the recent European elections were revealed in the media, Monday, the stock market here dropped by two percent. A lot of people in Australia own stock, so it's everyone's problem, not just one that belongs to a few market traders and a few more large companies that are listed on the ASX. We all need to know, for example, what is going on in Greece.

The French election result is more clear-cut. It was a presidential election, for a start, so one person was elected. The Greek parliamentary elections are more complex. You need a government. No single party won enough seats in the chamber to form a government, so there will now be negotiations between the various contenders so that that can happen. The first try didn't work out with the right-wing New Democracy failing to get enough support from the other parties. Now the baton has been passed to the left-wing Syriza, which will try to form a government. From my standpoint living on the other side of the world the issue that arises is one of legitimacy. Syriza is a new party and it got 16.8 percent of the vote, so it represents a significant proportion of Greek opinion. I conclude that a lot of Greeks are very unhappy with the EU bailout and the conditions attached to that. For their part, stock market traders are unhappy with Syriza having so much influence in Europe now. This tells me a lot about the lineaments of the issue. A lot of Greeks object to changes to their way of earning a living proposed by the EU and the IMF.

But what are those changes? What have Greeks risked losing that made them so unhappy that they gave support to a new, left-wing party that is opposed to the way global capital works? How do I judge the Greeks? What should I think of them? The author Michael Lewis went to Greece asking the same questions and came to the conclusion that Greeks don't like paying taxes. And so investors in Australia have their prosperity put at risk because Greeks, by and large, don't want to fulfil their social obligations? How valid is this notion?

These Greek elections place an obligation on the media to follow up on Lewis' book, which was published in 2011 under the auspices of US magazine Vanity Fair. But the problem with Greece is compounded by a recession in Europe generally. And that, in turn, is compounded by continued weakness in the US economy. The Greek thing is one part of a bigger puzzle. Australia's stock market is largely trending upward and the two-percent drop we've seen in the last few days does not necessarily mean a major, sustained downturn is going to happen. Nevertheless, people in Australia need more information, in an accessible form such as Lewis' book, about how the global economy has changed in the past decade. Which brings me back to the Facebook quote at the start of this post. And the image that accompanies my post; lucky cat can be found in many Asian shops, and represents a desire for good fortune.

One thing is certain: democracy and capitalism do not necessarily work together. Greece shows us this. So does China, where there is no democracy and the economy is due to grow at about eight percent this year. In the Australian media China is handled in two ways. On the one hand journalists are quick to focus on human rights issues. There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach. One the other hand they talk about how China's economic influence is good for the Australian economy. The mining boom, the two-speed economy, etcetera. But there has been little talk about how regular Chinese people are being employed. Because of this lack of information it's hard to understand which jobs are being done in China and which ones are being done in major Western manufacturing centres, such as Europe and the US. What has been lost?

How is it that China has ramped up its economy over the past decade but Western economies have been slow to adapt? Maybe retraining and reskilling in the West takes more time than does building a factory in China. What kind of skills do Europeans and Americans need to get in order to engage with the new, global economic reality? Can businesses do anything? Do governments have something to contribute? How should Australian businesses react in order to benefit from this major economic shift? Who are these people in China with jobs? What do they need? Where are the opportunities for Western companies to do business in China so that these companies can start hiring more Europeans and Americans?

Australians need the media to help them understand more about how China works. We can't rely on the spin published by Chinese government media agencies, it doesn't make any sense. We need to know about peoples' lives in China. What do they aspire to? What is the real relationship between the individual and the government? How does that work?

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Metro consumers want relationships with producers

7% of fresh food sales happen here.
Consumer preferences change and retailers adapt to fulfil them. When I lived in Sydney, in a suburb about 10km south-west of the CBD, I used to shop at a large supermarket like everyone else. The suburb I lived in was very multicultural, predominantly Chinese but with populations of Greek and Pacific Islander people as well. It sits outside the area normally labelled "inner city" (with all the connotations implied in that term), but only just. Gentrification is only a matter of time and for me it made itself felt when a smallgoods-and-cheese gondola suddenly appeared in the supermarket one day. Here you can buy salamis, prosciutto, sausages from Germany and elsewhere, specialty delicatessen cheeses, flavoured olives and the like. It reminded me of the cappuccino revolution that took place in Australian cities over a couple of decades, starting in the early 80s.

Now there's another major change underway and it's not new but neither are a number of concerns held by people who shop at farmers markets, such as human-induced climate change. For many people living in Australia's cities, the message this video imparts is a no-brainer. Such people are progressive in outlook and they vote accordingly, which accounts for the growing importance nationally of the Greens. But they have money to spend and the way they choose to spend it should be of interest to retailers. Such people are influencers. They set trends, just like the young kids who sought out good coffee in the inner city 30 years ago, and so people involved in food production should be looking at what they spend their money on. What they are doing now will become orthodoxy in 20 years' time.

The Australian Farmers' Markets Association has published some of the findings of a report produced by the federal government, Australian Food Statistics 2010-11. Published by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it shows that farmers' markets have more than doubled between 2004 and 2011 to 150-plus nationally (the section on farmers' markets starts on page 58 of the PDF). For farmers, these markets offer higher returns, opportunities to develop new products, and a place where they can feel valued.

Food miles is something that concerns some consumers. Personally, I think the jury is still out as to whether transport to and from farmers' markets positively reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, compared to trucking produce in on large, articulated vehicles. But it's not just food miles that concern consumers. There is also the issue, as the report mentions, of interaction between consumers and producers. Top chefs in cities go out of their way to establish meaningful relationships with the people who produce the food they prepare in their restaurants. Like the young people who buy food at farmers' markets, these chefs are major social influencers. They appear on cooking shows on TV in cities and deliver messages that they believe are important. They have clout. Their stories cut through. And because of the growing awareness of sustainability in metro areas they are on-message.

The same chefs often grow their own produce in kitchen gardens, and backyard gardening is also a growing trend in cities, harking back to the war years when the government asked urban residents to produce food themselves in order to offset shortages induced by the international conflict. Everything old, is new again, as they say. I think major retailers are aware of these changes happening in Australian cities and I think it's only a matter of time before they move to positively address some of the issues involved. Perhaps the major retailers will start a program where they invite farmers to man a stall inside the supermarket, so that consumers can talk with them and learn about where their food comes from.

Whether consumers will listen to major retailers, of course, is another matter. In fact, farmers themselves are in a much better position to influence consumers because of this issue of trust. An entrepreneur is always telling stories, I understand. Entrepreneurial farmers would be busy telling their own stories to consumers, in order to establish those personal links that make such a difference to the metro resident.

There are other changes occurring in cities, too, that should be of interest to all producers. One notable indicator of the need among metro residents for access to good stories is the growing popularity of a new type of event that people can go to in their spare time. It's about meaningful experiences, engagement, and a positive way of interacting with others, and with the world. Goodbye nightclubbing, hello TEDx.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Don't let a journalist see you drink; review of The Operators, Michael Hastings (2012)

Most of the good residents of our noble, continental-shaped nation will not have a clue who Michael Hastings is but FOR SOME he's newsworthy because he has pulled out, at the last minute, from a couple of antipodean writers festivals due to more pressing engagements. Wanted on Los Angeles TV, Hastings decided not to travel half-way round the globe to Auckland and Sydney. There was also a call from Rolling Stone magazine, who wanted him, apparently, for something or other. Read the linked story for complete details. What it means, in short, is that Hastings now possesses a high profile. Having written the story, which was published in Rolling Stone, that led to the resignation of Stanley McChrystal, the general in charge of US forces in Afghanistan, in 2010, Hastings wrote a book that has cemented his fame in certain circles. Journalists, at least, will all be reading this book.

I never read the magazine story that caused US authorities such concern, but I bought the book and I can say with absolute conviction that it's a cracker. Wide-ranging, loose-limbed, confident and funny, The Operators (2012) takes you behind the scenes. Don't pay attention to the subtitle, 'The wild and terrifying inside story of America's war in Afghanistan', because it's a bit of overreach that self-consciously harks back to the magazine's heyday era with Hunter Thompson. It's a neat piece of hyperbole that is designed to hook you, but don't be fooled. The book is well researched and insightful.

What it also does more than anything, and this is so compelling to read, is take into account the public relations aspect of war. Opinion Stateside is as important for the generals on the ground in Kabul as the good offices of the Afghan president. This is a knowing biography of war and is worth every cent of the cover price. Politics is complex and requires a lot of effort to do well. Or at all.

Hastings also addresses one of the more controversial aspects of his undertaking, which is, of course, how far authorities should trust journalists. He talks about this quite candidly. Naturally people with power will be less willing, in the light of the debacle surrounding the magazine article, to encourage journalists to join the campaign trail (McChrystal's primary goal, it seems, is securing the resources he needs to prosecute the war in the way he thinks it should be prosecuted, so he's always playing politics). So Hastings has pissed in the pool, so to speak. But because he's a conviction journalist I don't think he looses any sleep over this. McChrystal wanted something from Hastings, after all. It wasn't just a one-sided arrangement. If you want publicity you run the risk of bringing attention to things that might cause ructions if they get out. This is what happens, and it's the way the people involved tread the line separating staid wisdom and reckless daring that makes the book so interesting.

Friday 4 May 2012

What is this plant with beans called?

It's just down the street, on the corner, and I walk past it every day. In early springtime there is a flood of yellow flowers. These have now mostly morphed into these bean-like pods hanging off the plant. A few of the flowers remain, but most of them were pollinated by insects, probably bees, and have turned into pods full of seeds.

The reason I took this photo is not just to find out what the plant is called. It's also because of the recent story about the vanilla bean market, which is unhealthy globally giving Australian vanilla growers opportunities to make some extra money. I wrote about vanilla in 2010 through a contact at the University of Western Sydney and so I keep an eye open for stories about this strange pod.

Just growing the beans themselves is a challenge, especially at pollination. Vanilla is an orchid and commercial vanilla is pollinated manually. In their native Mexico, vanilla flowers can be pollinated by a bee of the Melapona family, but the main countries producing vanilla are Madagascar and India. Regular European honey bees cannot negotiate the vanilla flower's complex shape. Getting vanilla flowers to produce beans is a fraught process.

When stressed, which can be done by withholding water from the vanilla vine, racemes emerge in the axils at the base of the leaves. Each raceme produces 15 to 30 flowers and if they are not pollinated immediately the flowers die. Every day only one flower opens on the raceme. Fussy flowers!

But the yellow flowers down the street from my place are not fussy at all and respond plentifully to the ministrations of regular European honey bees. The pods emerge well before summer. No doubt vanilla growers would love it if their plants were as easy to make fruit as this one. Do you know what it is?

[UPDATE 4.25pm:] It's a weed called Easter cassia.