Saturday 28 July 2012

Olympic ceremony a grand vehicle of symbolism

It's the most widely-watched vehicle of symbolic representation in the world, the Olympics opening ceremony, displacing the global media for one day every four years as the primary vehicle for such progressive ideas as diversity, fairness and aspiration.

The symbolism saturates even the walk-through of the athletes, as TV commentators make remarks on each team entering the arena, focusing especially on the flag-bearers at the front of each procession. One prominent moment of symbolic meaning for me was seeing the Chinese athletes walk into the stadium, some of them carrying both the Chinese and the British flags. I was in Shanghai in 1997 for the handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong, which was another moment of symbolism that had global significance. Surely, I thought this morning as I watched these athletes stroll forward in their colourful clothes, the IOC's head honchos had kept such drama in mind when they selected Beijing for 2008 and London for 2012. East and West participate in a moment of global reconciliation and move forward past the final remnant of the colonial era, an era in which Great Britian participated more completely than most European countries. As those athletes walked down the track they walked past those same remnants and into a brighter future.

For the TV presenters as for Jacques Rogge, the IOC chairman, participation this year by women in the Olympics holds particular relevance. Rogge said that all participating teams had at least one female member. And the TV commentators made special note of the women in the Saudi Arabian team. Then, at the finale with Paul McCartney doing his schtick in the form of a spirited rendition of Hey Jude, the 1968 classic, he got the women in the stadium to sing separately to the men, the "Na na na nanananaaaa, hey Jude!" chorus that makes this song of struggle and hope so instantly recognisable throughout the world. Hearing the bass tones of the men, and then the contralto tones of the women, was a moment of intense symbolic meaning for anyone who was watching their TV this morning.

British contributions to the global musical vernacular were multiple, of course. When the British team finally entered the arena to do their walk-through we heard David Bowie's Heroes start up, and saw billions of pieces of shredded paper waft down from a passing helicopter, each representing one person living in the world. Later, we would get to hear part of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon amplified to accommodate the size of the arena and the thousands of spectators and participants it held on the night in London. All three of these songs are emblems of my youth, all three markers in my development from child to man, all three instantly recognisable to people familiar with the musical vernacular of the 20th Century. The songs are very suitable components of the opening ceremony as they serve not only to unite people with ease and enthusiasm around the world but to point to Britain's unique contribution to world culture.

Friday 27 July 2012

Prudish film censors have real modern analogues

Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls, 1932,
a film rejected for classification in 1933 and 1957
in Britain, and finally given a PG rating in 2011.
Film classification is as old as the cinema in Britain, with the British Board of Film Censors being established in 1912 following the passage through Parliament of the 1909 Cinematograph Act. "To pre-empt censorship by central government, the film industry set up the board," writes Kira Cochrane in her Guardian article on the British Board of Film Classification (the name was changed in 1984). Classification might be of long standing but the fact that it continues today doesn't mean that there haven't been a number of bizarre rulings over the years. The image here is from one movie that originally failed to get passed, and only did so in 1958 when cuts were made. But then, in 2012, it's being featured in a special screening by the British Film Institute. The movie is based on the 1896 sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau. So from inception to celebration it has taken the Brits 116 years to face up to this dark fiction squarely, and to realise that censorship is the real bogeyman. Writes Cochrane:
Because of those strong restrictions, most films rated A for adult in the board's early days would now be rated PG. One that's showing in the BFI season, 1932's Island of Lost Souls, was rejected for classification in 1933 and 1957, apparently because its narrative – a scientist conducting experiments to turn animals into humans – was deemed too horrifying. In 1958 it was granted an X certificate after cuts were made, and by last year it was classified as a PG on DVD, with those cuts restored.
Cochrane also recounts that Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film Battleship Potemkin was suppressed by the BBFC. As senior examiner Craig Lapper now recounts:
There was certainly an element, at the time, of worry, with the general strike and so forth, over whether it was possible these films might lead to revolution in Britain. Again, from today's standpoint that seems ludicrous. But perhaps then it wasn't quite so much.
Classic B-movies and arthouse films being refused the right to screen would set the nerves of any dedicated movie buff on edge nowadays, but the fact is that classification of material is all too common everywhere, even in the most emulated democracies. Cabinet discussions among members of government are released in dribs and drabs every year in Australia, decades after the fact. In the US, presidential conversations are likewise only released a generation after the relevant events have passed into popular memory. And some documents, where spy agencies were involved in their production, are never released uncensored at all.

But the most important contemporary analogue for the repressive and prudish attitudes of censors such as the early-day BBFC are today's governments, who are passing into law the latitude for law enforcement agencies and others to have open access to our private online communications. These new laws often receive little public scrutiny. And they are coming into force everywhere, including in Australia, as police struggle to keep up with the volume of activity that has been enabled by ubiquitous internet. In future, will we frown on such laws as we do on the petty scruples of over-sensitive film censors from the early days of the talkies? Or will we just become accustomed to self-censoring in the knowledge that we have no way to know who is privy to what we say to others online?

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Movie review: A Little Bit of Heaven, dir Nicole Kassell (2011)

Marley Corbett, played by the beautiful Kate
Hudson, tells her friends she has cancer.
When I finished watching this fabulous movie, tears streaming down my (handsome) face, I went online (as you do) to find out more; about the actors, about the director, and about what other people thought of it. With this final item of interest bookmarked now, my reaction to what I read was disbelief: the reviews were largely negative. What had happened? Was I an idiot? Perhaps the movie's distributors had rushed through a final, additional cut and this new version had ended up in my video store (and noone else's)? Of course not! The fact is that anyone who did not enjoy this lovely film has completely missed the point it tries to make. Which is that we all take life for granted, in a number of ways. Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson) shows us how we do this.

There is nothing wrong with this film. Quite the contrary.

At the movie's opening, Marley is on a bit of a roll. Her career in advertising has taken an upturn with a new promotion. But then there's a doctor's appointment, during which she discovers she has late-stage colon cancer. There's little that can be done. For the emotional rollercoaster that Marley now performs it's hard to blame her. How easy is it to die, especially when those around you maddeningly display the kind of diminishing pity that you abhor because it insults what is best in your relationships? Marley declines the clinical trial treatment that is recommended because she wants to enjoy the time that is left to her. It's about quality of life, she says. And for the same reason, she lashes out angrily at those friends who fail to engage with her in a way that allows her to live life to the fullest.

Ultimately, she understands the problems she is causing, and adapts her behaviour to accommodate those close to her. This change makes it impossible for others close by to be idiots. Marley brings out the best in her friends and family. By the moment of greatest crisis, Marley has mellowed to the point where she is consoling her best friend, Sarah Walker (Lucy Punch), a woman who feels a depth of grief so deep that her cheerful facade has become insupportable. It's a moving transformation, like watching a butterfly slip the bonds of its grey cocoon, open its still-wet wings, and breathe the world's air for the first time.

It's in the relationships between people that the real drama in this excellent movie plays out. In a sense, we've been acclimatised to certain types of sickbed interactions because we've all watched countless hospital dramas over the years. There is always a kind of reckoning. I don't think it's equal to criticism to say that this film is aware of those earlier cinema and TV experiences. It's also aware of how children relate, within popular culture, to their parents after they grow up and leave the nest. There's a period, while the parents are still hale and active, but when they no longer live with their children, when these relationships can be awkward. These are the kinds of relationships Marley has with her parents, Beverly (Kathy Bates) and Jack (Treat Williams). I felt at one stage like the filmmakers had decided to reconcile all those other faulty cinematic parental relations, in this movie. Sure, Beverly is scatty and congentially unhappy, but all Marley wants is for her to relax, stop fretting, and show her her love. Likewise with the egregiously wooden Jack. And they do. For me, years of strained relations with my own parents of that age dropped away and I saw how it should have been with them, but was not. This kind of revelation is rare in cinema.

But there are plenty of laughs, as well. The word "irreverent" has been used to describe Marley but I think "irrepressible" also figures in the equation. Like her romance with Julian Goldstein (Gael García Bernal). It has this comedy routine where Julian fudges jokes. The jokes are a key element of Marley's persona, an index of her desire to enjoy what life is left to her. So Julian practices his daffy delivery on her as she looks on patiently, and with time he gets better and better at it. It's just funny, or at least it was for me. If you can laugh at Julian getting caught up in telling his jokes then you have "got" how to watch this movie. And when he finally nails it, you cry-laugh along with Marley, a young woman in love.

The romance is necessary for the filmmakers to achieve the heights they are seeking, and it's a bold device. Where the real drama plays out is between people, as I said earlier, and it's signal to me that both the director and the screenplay writer are women. There is something so true and human about this wonderful, affecting movie. It moves past the cliches about sex and "making it" to a place of mature focus where a funny, clever and competent woman who is sick to the point of death can fall in love with a gentle man in a way that ignores the facile enticements that her situation might otherwise throw in the way of the scriptwriter and the director. There is nothing cloying or desperate about her infatuation. It is just Marley being the kind of woman she is: strong, wise and nurturing.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Book review: The Family Law, Benjamin Law (2011)

There were any number of reasons why I should read this book. Law is a freelance journalist, and so am I. Law grew up on the Sunshine Coast, which is where I live. Law is an Asian Australian, and I am interested in the experience of migrants and their children. And Law is gay, which is a cause I take very seriously and the way political parties address the issue usually determines how I vote.

Beyond these things, the book is very easy to read. It's also well-written. And Law appears to be determined to undermine stereotypes of the quiet, industrious Chinese family by showing a lot of the earthier elements of Chinese culture; there are a lot of "vaginas" and "penises", along with "shit" and "cunt", and it's not just the kids who bruise decorum. Law's mother Jenny is as down-to-earth as his brother Andrew, the determinedly heterosexual and masculine boy in the Law family. Law's sisters are here also (there are three girls, two boys) but it is Jenny Law and Law's comically hardworking father who emerge most well-defined from the narrative.

The two arrived in Australia in the 70s from Hong Kong, it appears. Later, many Hong Kong Chinese would come to Australia in the lead up to the handover by the British, which happened in 1997, but Chinese have been coming to Australia for over 150 years and there are many ethnically Chinese who are deeply embedded in Australian society through generations of native birth. In this book, one aspect of this common multicultural experience that is evident is what happens between parents who are foreign-born and their children, native-born. There are also some more routine generational issues; Jenny's hilarious attempts to come to grips with computers and the internet kept me giggling for pages.

Law's father made me laugh heartily, too, for his constitutional inability to be the recipient of gifts. This episode seemed to me to illustrate something about Chinese attitudes to duty and how that fits in with the idea of the family. Those strong family ties are threaded throughout the book, in so many ways. The family is the root of your consciousness, it appears, something so elemental that it permeates every aspect of your life. For an upwardly-mobile culture worker like Law, one who is easily placed on the progressive end of the political spectrum, these ties yet remain essential. You can see this is so in reading the quote Law places at the start of the book.

But beyond the possibility of cliche that such a view of an ethnically-Chinese family story might offer there's the routine chaos of family life. Every family contends with its own brand of chaos, but incipient disaster holds hands with strong interpersonal links in Law's family story as it does for every family on earth. It is this edge-of-your-seat normality that should represent one of the more important achievements of Law's book.

Monday 23 July 2012

Americans feel entitled to their guns despite Aurora

There's no surprises, really. The perpetrator fits the profile of mass shooters: a young man, intelligent and well-educated, who is having problems with his life. There's also no surprise that it has happened in the US, a country where guns are readily available to people with no crime record, people like the ones who routinely commit such crimes as this one in Aurora, Colorado.

Many Americans will not hear any criticism of their laws, despite Aurora. On Twitter after the shooting, I engaged with one person, a US military veteran, who hurled abuse ("this guy is to blame noone else you f,n moron!") and said that "people like me ... want everyone to be a victim" when I gave the opinion that the perpetrator had a mental illness. I also blamed the National Rifle Association because of its campaigning for private gun ownership, but the guy would have none of it: "Well U cn just B a victim then i'll not, & i'll carry my .45 always, thx 2 my 2nd amendment rights." I was a bit shocked that the world "victim" appeared so often during this exchange, because there's no question that we have seen, yet again, real victims of lax gun ownership laws in the US. At least 12 of them. This time.

There will be more cases in the US, and sooner than we would wish. The Guardian has gone a bit further than most media outlets and published statistics showing gun murders globally, by country. It should be no comfort to Americans that only Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela have higher incidences of gun murders than the US. Even as a proportion of the number of people living in each country listed (murders per 100,000 of population) the US ranks higher than any comparable country, at number 28. By this revealing index, Leichtenstein ranks similarly high but then there's a big gap until you come across another OECD country, which is Switzerland at number 47. Italy is at number 49 on this index, and Australia (my country) comes in at number 90.

The numbers reveal the reason there was no surprise to hear of the Aurora movie theatre shootings. More compelling I think for most people will be the link with the new Batman movie, an original twist in the case that must have occupied the thoughts of the perpetrator for a long time. As he went about his tasks of buying an automatic rifle, a pistol, a shotgun and 6000 rounds of ammunition, plus the bullet-proof clothing he wore to go to the theatre to do his thing, he must have dwelled in his mind on the delineations of the characters and the sinister plots that makers of Batman films use to expose the darker sides of our nature. There's something circular about a young man choosing a character from popular culture to frame his murders with, as if he were merely operating to a set script in carrying them out. But the fact is that the script is readily available for anyone who has a death wish, and who can only see a resolution for their personal difficulties within such a macabre context.

We had an guy, an academic, on TV here in Australia who has studies such crimes. The incidence of such murders has accelerated since 1913, he said, when a man in Germany carried out the first public killing of this nature. The second such crime was in Australia, in 1924. It's a relatively new form of expression for men in the West. He said that the 1966 Texas University killings, when Charles Whitman killed 16 during a shooting over a couple of hours, were the most well-publicised to date but that, now, somewhere in the world, there is one about every month or so. These young men want to "go out in a blaze of glory", he opined. There is always some mitigating circumstance.

Nevertheless, ease of access to firearms enshrined in the 1791 Bill of Rights (a document modelled on the British original from about 100 years earlier) has meant that Americans are more likely to commit such crimes than people in any other developed country. Americans should not take comfort from the fact that their situation is better than it is in, say, Honduras. Hardly so. But the sense of entitlement reflected in the comments left on Twitter by my interlocutor mean that change is unlikely to arrive any time soon.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Book review: I'm the One that I Want, Margaret Cho (2001)

I don't really know where to start with this because I enjoyed it so much - it was read in one sitting; it's just over 200 pages long - and because I think I saw quite a lot of myself in it. The book appears to have grown out of a comedy routine Cho developed in the late 90s. Since she was born in 1968 that means that by the time she emerged from the drug- and alcohol-fogged years that constitute much of the material for the book she was in her mid-30s.

One thing that middle age does for you, of course, is to allow you not to care about what other people think of you. For Cho this had always been a problem. Cho was born with three liabilities, if you believe not just her but many others who write from similar perspectives: she is a woman, she is of Asian extraction, and she is bisexual. But on top of that there is another liability that less frequently gets a mention in the public sphere, but that is no less real: she is intelligent and sensitive. The book, then, is the story of how Cho comes to terms with herself, and learns to live comfortably within her own skin. A lot of people can glom onto that story, I think.

Creative types often have difficult childhoods. It's not just their parents, it's the whole world. There's also a fair amount of score-settling here, in the vein that Sophia Coppola outlined in The Virgin Suicides. You remember that routine? The girl is seduced on a football field in the middle of the night and the guy ungallantly abandons her; she wakes up alone and cold. Cut to several years later: the guy is in a mental institution getting handed one of those pathetic little paper cups containing his daily dose of medication. Her shame leads to his shame after she "makes it". Cho's book has quite a bit of this kind of thing. But it's not the most important thing.

Cho combines good writing - some of it quite poetic; you can tell that she is making a big effort - with some pop psychology, and this is layered onto what comes out of a reliable and refreshing comedic talent. There are insights that resonated particularly closely with my own experience, and that probably cannot be described in any other way. Take this section, for example, on crushes:
I decided that I was gonne have a crush on him. Crushes allow us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as we believe the crush might.
Very often, a crush is not about the other person, but about us and how we think we are in the world. By looking at this reflection of ourselves through another person, we find a way to achieve self-love without actual self-esteem, a way to admire oneself without admitting that is what you are really doing.
Crushes are about fantasy colliding with reality, the fantasy of who we think we are matched against the reality of who we are. Other people have little to do with it.
I thought this was worth thinking about. I said to myself, "Hmm!" This had happened to me. Clearly Cho has thought about her own responses to the world in great depth. It's this thoughtful attempt to make sense of her experiences that is so attractive in the book. Sure, the comedy helps you to zoom through the pages of the book at lightening speed. But at her best Cho is deeply reflecting on who and what she is, and what that represents in the larger scheme of things. This is a considered tale.

Americans will have more of a motivation to read Cho's book because that's where her fame inheres. I only saw a TV interview with Cho posted on Facebook by a friend. After clicking and watching Cho talk on camera - looking slim and beautiful - I decided that she made a lot of sense and that I would buy one of her books. So I did. I'm glad I did, too. I think many people who are or have been confused about who they are and where they fit in the world can take away a lot from this book. The sex, drugs and alcohol might place Cho's experiences outside the boundaries that circumscribe the lives of many, but the desire for self-understanding is universal, and Cho's funny way of framing things works to facilitate an empathetic response in the reader.

Cho's experiences and her response to them naturally exist within the loci of broader issues such as prejudice, racism, media image, and the kind of public response to difference that occurs in any country and for a very many reasons. Her story is particular but she makes it general and this is her greatest achievement, so I would recommend this book to anyone who has or has had doubts about themselves. And that probably includes just about all of us.

Friday 20 July 2012

Movie review: Carnage, dir Roman Polanski (2011)

Kate Winslet playing Nancy Cowan picks up the
contents of her handbag, which Jodie Foster,
playing Penelope Longstreet, has just
thrown across the room.
This fabulous ensemble piece resembles nothing more than a cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - the 1962 Edward Albee play that has become a classic of the stage and screen - and The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas' 2008 novel - which was made into a TV series in 2011. As in Woolf, Carnage is tied to a cast of four people, in this case a pair of married couples, and as in The Slap the spur to the action is an altercation involving children. In this case Zachary Cowan hits Ethan Longstreet in the mouth with a stick, breaking a tooth and causing bruising. So Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) visit the apartment of Ethan's parents, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) to discuss the matter and achieve some sort of resolution.

They do discuss it but they do not resolve it. We are the richer for their failure. There are several notable dramatic devices used to progress the story, one of which is Nancy's vomiting over the coffee table. The other major device is Alan's constantly taking phone calls on his Blackberry. Alan is in PR and is tied up with a damaging story in a major newspaper about the drug that is a product made by a client he represents. Everyone is annoyed with the repeated telephonic interruptions from Alan's colleague Walter. Michael, meanwhile, takes several phone calls from his elderly mother.

But it is the dialogue between the four that mainly pushes the narrative forward. On several occasions Alan and Nancy look set to leave the Longstreet's apartment but discussion and an (initial) desire to solve the problem created by the children's argument bring them back inside. Eventually another dramatic device - the scotch whisky - is produced, with Alan and Michael initially partaking. Any thought of leaving the room is abandoned when Penelope and Nancy decide that they should have some fun as well, and take a drink themselves. There are quickly four drunk adults in the living room, each with an axe to grind and grievances - against the other couple, and against their respective spouses - to air.

There are no stand-out performances in this movie because each actor acquits his or her role with great mastery, led in the drama by the brilliant director Polanski. Jodie Foster's wet-liberal-writer-and-art-lover Penelope Longstreet and Christoph Waltz's hard-nosed-uptown-player Alan Cowan really do produce sparks when they clash. John C. Reilly's middle-brow-plumbing-supplies-retailer Michael Longstreet and Kate Winslet's glamorous-professional-working-mum Nancy Cowan are truly fine also as they try to both manage their disputatious partners and present their own points of view within the broader set of arguments about parenthood, wedlock, politics, culture, and work.

I suspect that this truly fine movie will be rediscovered at some point and held up as an example of how a lot of action can be achieved with very few props and cinematic devices. Of course, coming from Polanski, we really should expect nothing less than pure perfection from it.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Ignore the big brouhaha, true originality arrives rarely

From the Guardian's map of London Olympic
competition venues.
It just screams money. The Olympics, like other sports events, is saturated with the effluvia of Big Capital. In Singapore in mid-2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London and authorities in the city and in the UK more broadly have been planning, designing, legislating and constructing since then so that the requisite venues and services would be in place by the scheduled day, which is due to fall to in about two weeks from now. For seven years, British bureaucrats have worked with project managers, architects, town planners, members of parliament, police and the military to ensure that the program goes off without a hitch. Years of effort will be funnelled into the span of about two weeks so that people all around the world can watch athletes from most of the world's nation states compete in a broad range of sporting competitions.

But when it all comes down to it, it's all about money. Without dedicated employees the Olympics would not happen, of course, but when you take into account the fact that they're being paid to perform the tasks they complete, the conclusion is unavoidable. Money makes the Olympics, like most things, go round. Building a multi-venue sports complex is not difficult, and neither is designing and building a bridge or a skyscraper. Sure, there are engineering problems to solve in all these cases, but the designers involved are all getting paid to do their work. Same with designing and releasing a new model of car. It's easy. All you need is sufficient funds and you can get up just about any project that is based on the hard sciences.

The soft arts are a different beast altogether. Creativity, originality: these are things that cannot so easily be purchased. We see the truth of this every time we go to another "blockbuster" major Hollywood release, one that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it turns out to be just another dog. Remember 1995's Waterworld? It cost $175 million to make and tanked faster than a seive full of hot rocks. Most people will have their favourite big-flic-gone-bad to draw on if they're looking to make something of their own, and when they get downcast.

But then suddenly along comes something different and original, like this year's Australian screening of the TV series Wallander. Produced and originally broadcast in the UK, the series is based on the crime novels of Swede writer Henning Mankell and it felicitously stars British stage actor Kenneth Branagh. Branagh brings to the role of Kurt Wallander a set of skills honed over decades acting for the stage and for the screen, and his experience shows in the nuanced way he handles the character of the stressed-out, intuitive and talented policeman.

Although the show is the work of a number of different people it could easily have been dull and predictable. But it's not. The combined effect of original stories - supplied by Mankell's crime novels - and high-quality acting - supplied by Branagh, mainly - has meant that the series is set to become an often-watched classic of mainstream broadcast TV. It's a rare event and deserves to be celebrated by everyone who appreciates quality.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Greens alone have a sensible refugee policy

Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat
face countless dangers.
Not that I normally watch the ABC's Q and A, no. Almost never. But last night I did, coming face to face, again, with the regulation Lib-Lab muppets butting heads across the table, begging to clarify points while quietly snarling at each other like a couple of pit bulls fighting over a piece of rotten meat. The two neat suits. The neatly shaved faces. And there, in the middle, was the 30-year-old Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens dressed in a lacy white blouse with a white jacket, and with dangly green earrings, just basically talking sense on asylum seekers and reminding us to what extent we have lost any perspective in the debate about refugees.

The conservatives have fundamentally lost the plot with their idea to "turn back the boats", a suggestion so toxic (the Indonesians hate it) and stupid (how many more lives do we need to endanger by exposing these barely-seaworthy vessels to longer periods at sea?) that engagement with the Liberal Party is utterly impossible. Labor has taken the Liberals' lead and now promote a policy of coralling refugees in Malaysia. Hanson-Young says the Greens want to increase the intake quota and invest money in the UNHCR so that it can more quickly process applications for asylum. And she's right.

There have been, arriving by boat in Australia from southeast Asia, in total over the past 10 years or so, a few thousand refugees. Almost all of the people arriving in this manner have been found by Australian authorities to be actual refugees, who are escaping social and political conditions in places like Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran that do, indeed, endanger their lives. Let's say 3000 and so stick to the upper end of the scale.

Acting as a foil to Hanson-Young's reasonableness on the panel was Jennifer Hewett from the Australian Financial Review, the financial daily newspaper. If we make it easier for refugees to get in, Hewett said, then the numbers will just increase "exponentially" and we will be flooded with arrivals. Hewett offered no evidence that this would occur and time constraints meant that the debate on the panel took a different direction at this point, so the challenge was not answered. A pity.

But let's step back for a moment and look at some historical precendents for scale. In the 70s and 80s about 137,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia by boat, fleeing persecution and conflict in that country. In 1989 following the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, gave 42,000 Chinese students visas so that they could stay in Australia legally, and not be forced to go back home to face possible persecution.

Just in these two instances that's about 180,000 arrivals on refugee visas. These foreign nationals assimilated into Australian society and made a place for themselves here, finding jobs, buying property, having children. They contribute measurably to the country and their arrival, once so dramatic, has morphed into mere citizenship.

There were no major social upheavals associated with these arrivals in Australia of large numbers of refugees. So we get a couple of hundred thousand new arrivals, tops? Big deal. We can handle it. So even if what Hewett says is true, then so what? The implication of what she said is that large numbers of refugee arrivals is a bad thing. But is it? I don't think so, and this is why, for me, the only rational asylum seeker policy is being promulgated by the Greens. There is no other political party in Australia offering us a sensible refugee policy at the moment.

Friday 13 July 2012

Movie review: Headhunters, dir Morten Tyldum (2011)

I found this amusing little film down away from the most recent releases because it's based on a novel by Jo Nesbo, a Scandinavian crime thriller writer and I'd read one of his books, which is a story called The Leopard that has the Congo as a major theme. In it, the main character is a flawed policeman who is tasked with solving a series of murders. But in this film the protagonist is not a policeman, instead it's an art thief named Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) whose day job is as a headhunter recruiting senior employees for Norwegian companies. Roger deftly elicits details about artworks owned by people he meets, including people he meets in the course of his work, and then steals and sells them.

One day he meets Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) during the opening of his wife's art gallery. Clas, he discovers, has recently left work at a company that is a competitor of a company for whom Roger is currently recruiting a CEO. He suggests they meet again later to talk. And later that night, after the party, his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) tells him that Clas owns a painting by Dutch master Rubens. Things get more interesting when he finds Diana's mobile phone in Clas' apartment.

Once he has stolen the painting, Roger goes home to his lush residence but the next morning he finds slumped in his Lexus his partner-in-crime Ove (Eivind Sander). Thinking that Ove is dead, he dumps his body in a lake, but the man revives. Roger takes him back to Ove's house, where they argue. Ove shoots an automatic weapon at Roger but every bullet misses. The one shot that Roger manages to get off from a handgun hits the mark, killing Ove. Then Clas arrives unexpectedly. He is armed.

The chase that ensues is exhilarating in its twists and turns, with dozens of unanticipated moves by the novelist and the filmmakers. The latter have done a great job translating the book to the screen. There are solid performances by Baard Owe as Sindre Aa, the antiquated farmer, and Julie R. Ølgaard as Roger's mistress Lotte. Every element is turned to perfection in this film, and minor characters such as these add measurably to the quality of the film's drama. The four rural policemen who end up in the car that goes over the road railings (see pic) add a touch of dark humour to the story. And while there is an inspector from the Norwegian central investigation body Kripos, his role is ancillary. The hero is the thief, Roger. It is for Roger that we barrack, and it is the superhuman efforts that he produces to extricate himself from the web that Clas spins that push the plot forward.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Book review: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Time Weiner (2007)

No doubt Weiner's book is the most comprehensive account of the CIA's history but it's hard keeping up with him. For most of the book, quotes from people pop up and then they're gone forever, like a series of shoot-em targets in a fairground sideshow. Even the names of the major players get lost. You are left with impressions. This weakness in the book's narrative structure diminishes as events approach the present day; the names of people working under George W. Bush are easier to remember. But the official record is missing for these years, whereas for earlier generations of people documents written, say, in the 50s and 60s had been released by the nougties. So while you're more likely to get the truth for those earlier years, you're less likely to be able to follow the action, and vice versa.

As time moves forward, especially for the years of G.W. Bush's presidency, you also have to question Weiner's objectivity. You pick up just a tad too much approval for the CIA's special culture and it's unique mission. For all of the morally indefensible conduct of the CIA under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (and then, after a refreshing hiatus, characterised by the more rational attitudes of Carter, under Reagan) - and, of course, abetted and encouraged by those men and their governments - Weiner appears to give the CIA qua organisation a big, fat tick. For any rational observer, living outside the bubble created by access to operational secrets or private conversations with managers and directors, it is clear that the CIA from the beginning should not exist. The crusade against Communism tainted the relationship between the US and other nations while it continued, and it has continued to infect those relations to this day.
"It was easy, once upon a time, for the CIA to be unique and mystical. It was not an institution. It was a mission. And the mission was a crusade. Then you took the Soviet Union away from us and there wasn't anything else. We don't have a history. We don't have a hero. Even our medals are secret. And now the mission is over." (p. 498)
In the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks in New York, when al Quaeda flew jet airliners into the Twin Towers, the CIA had plenty of information to convey to the powers that be. Not only that, but the director, George Tenet, failed on multiple occasions to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden when he was at large in Afghanistan. Nothing happened. The CIA did not stop the disaster. Why would it? The agency had been struggling with budget cuts for at least a decade, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It had had a series of short-lived directors and it was not trusted by those who controlled the purse strings.

In a real sense, the CIA needed Bin Laden so that it could reassume the position of power that it had held under successive presidents spooked by the Soviet bogeyman. It's pretty clear that the CIA assisted Bin Laden in escaping death or capture. And they also intentionally failed to raise the alarm about an attack from the air - which they knew was coming - so as to put pressure on Congress to increase their budget. They needed a new crusade, and so they manufactured it.

Weiner never posits this idea. He is too close to the psychopaths in charge at Langley, Virginia, where the CIA's headquarters is located. For this reason, this book is not a trustworthy exercise for the average reader, at least in its latter parts. Weiner clearly enjoys the derring-do even though he knows that it was failures in intelligence gathering that led the agency to pursue so many illegal acts of regime change over the years. The count seems endless. Guatemala, Iran, Japan, Thailand, the Congo. Billions of dollars of money were spent in secret, tonnes of armaments were supplied, right-wing leaders who had no popular mandate were ushered into power in dozens of countries just so that the crusaders in Washington could feel that they had done their bit to thwart the Reds.

This book, where it is based on facts taken from actual documents and not on intimate conversations with avowed liars, will make you angry. It fails when concrete evidence is missing and where the author relies on heresay and rumour to make his case. There is nothing glamorous about what the CIA does. It is supra-democratic, secretive to the point of paranoia, and it has copies throughout the world. In your country, wherever you live, there are men and women spying on citizens and then spinning the information gathered so that it fits with the agendas of the governments in power. It is truly frightening to contemplate.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Movie review: Columbus Circle, dir George Gallo (2012)

Selma Blair as Abigail talks with Ray, played
by Beau Bridges, in Columbus Circle.
This pretty little ensemble piece has the added attraction that it deals with the top end of town, a part of the world characterised by an intense longing for privacy. There was another film about this social locus, the unfortunately credibility-free Tower Heist from 2011, but Columbus Circle wins hands down in the acting stakes, and for suspense. This Hitchcockian thriller has a tightly-sprung plot and an economical method of delivery where every small gesture and pause comes loaded with meaning.

The premise is simple but to disclose it would spoil the surprise. You can say, however, that a lot of the action takes place around the doorway to Abigail's apartment, a place where she has lived alone for decades without venturing out into the world. Abigail's apartment is one of two located on the penthouse level of Columbus Circle, a high-end residential address in New York. One night her neighbour is killed, and the murder is made to look like an accident. Her calm is shattered when a policeman from the NYPD knocks on her door the next morning looking for information. It gets a lot worse for Abigail when the next-door apartment is rented out to a young couple, Lillian (Amy Smart) and Charles (Jason Lee). Abigail had tried to buy the next-door apartment but failed. She fears her precious peace will be further disturbed by the new arrivals.

It is disturbed, and in unexpected ways. One night Lillian stumbles into the hallway with Charles behind cruelly beating her and Abigail manages to drag the nightgown-clad blonde into her silent domain, where the two spend the night. The episode brings up bad memories for Abigail from her own violence-prone childhood, which are rendered in quick flashbacks. It also serves to create a bond between Abigail and Lillian, which is encouraged by a few words from Ray, an old acquaintance of Abigail's whom she trusts for advice and counsel. Abigail then invites Lillian to dinner, for which she cooks a delicious meal accompanied by fine wine. The two women exchange stories and talk about their lives of violence and their hopes.

Charles is a plausible thug. One day when Lillian convinces Abigail to leave her apartment to go out, Charles returns home apparently drunk. Cowering under a table in the hallway, Abigail gazes up into Charles' face and the bad memories return in force. Abigail is rigid with anxiety as she squats on the grey carpet, unable to move. When Charles enters her apartment soon after this brief encounter, however, he doesn't seem drunk at all, considering the way he darts purposefully through the doorway. But Abigail is unable to take in this shift in tone. The viewer is not.

Tight scripting like this functions effectively throughout the film, as when the two detectives - Frank Giardello (Giovanni Ribisi) and Jerry Eanns (Jason Antoon) - pay a visit to Ray at his comfortable suburban house and question him about his relationship to the dead woman and to Abigail. Giardello is a careful observer, even going so far as to visit an antiques dealer in order to find out what the mark on the cup that contained the coffee that Abigail had served him when he visited her to ask about the killing represented. The antiques dealer tells him that the mark is not an 'M', as Giardello had thought. It is actually a 'W', and belongs to a famous family of great privilege by the name of Winter, a family featured in a TV segment that had been shown while Abigail went about her daily business online using her white iMac.

Once Charles darts almost unseen into Abigail's apartment the axis upon which the movie turns shifts decisively, and while the real motivations of Charles and Lillian are uncovered, the outcome of the drama is not at all clear. It remains in doubt until almost the very end of the film, and the film keeps the viewer in suspense throughout. This is a lovely movie that will delight viewers.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Movie review: Cleanskin, dir Hadi Hajaig (2012)

The movie starts with the heist of a suitcase
containing the explosive Semtex.
Although it's promoted as a spy action thriller this movie uses complex elements drawn from real life. It is also very nuanced and character-driven, which will please some people. And while Sean Bean is very visible on the CD cover in his role as Ewan, the secret agent with the gun, perhaps more important in the movie is Ash, played by Abhin Galeya. Ash is a young law student who becomes radicalised in London and whose trajectory from dissatisfied youth to Muslim activist defines the movie to a significant degree.

Some might look at this mix and yawn, just dreading in their bones watching another worthy docudrama that aims to key into contemporary concerns about Islamic terrorism in a dull and mercenary fashion. But while the London Tube bombings are an ostensible point of reference for this movie, the filmmaking is excellent. And it is fast-paced despite two longish flashbacks that work to chart Ash's progress from the lecture theatre to the wider theatre of covert operations and street action.

There are very good performances in addition to these two actors', as well. Tuppence Middleton plays Kate, Ash's girlfriend for many years. This role is important as it is essential to underscoring the reasons Ash took the route he took. Peter Polycarpou is brilliant as the charming imam Nabil, whose role is central because it is this man who guides Ash into embracing violent jihad. Charlotte Rampling turns up only occasionally but her role as spy baron is important to how the story turns out in the end. There's also Tom Burke as Mark, Ewan's partner in the search for the bombers, who adds a quantity of dry humour to the cast.

The movie starts with an action sequence that results in a suitcase of Semtex being appropriated by Ash and another man. At this point in the drama Ewan is a bodyguard but he's quickly picked up to solve the mystery of who took the explosives by people in the secret service because it is discovered that the Semtex was used in a suicide bombing, that we see, at a London restaurant. The action is quick so you have to pay attention. There's also plenty of action in the flashbacks, during one of which we are introduced to a chilling assassin named Amin who serves to bring some of the wild west swagger of Middle Eastern jihad to the English countryside. For Ash this episode highlights the inner struggle between his English customs and his Islamic faith, a conflict that is also expressed within the scenes he occupies with the pretty and conventional Kate.

Ewan's dour Britishness evokes the 'squadie' of broader renoun. There is a wife somewhere but she's gone now. Ewan is the classic loner of filmic fame and he struggles with partial information as he goes about solving the mystery, as well as with the ugly exigencies of his chosen profession. Killing is a means to the worthy end of protecting his country. But he's also good at it.

Beyond these things there's also the spy agency and its politics, which contrast so strikingly with the messages in the TV clips conveying a lot of the basic information about the attacks that take place during the film to the viewer. The difference between what's said on the TV and what we know of the investigation Ewan leads is replete with ironic overtones. Here's the duplicitous spy agency of movie fame once again, but it's an interesting take on an old drama. There are so many good things about this movie. Even though some of the tropes are fairly recognisable, they're not worn out in this telling.

Friday 6 July 2012

Cold War has a half-life in discovery of Higgs boson

The Large Hadron Collider tunnel.
It's funny how things turn out. If we look back to when CERN was established the things that stand out are who, when and why. The year the European Council for Nuclear Research - it's from the French version of this name that the acronym 'CERN' derives - was set up is 1952.

This is Cold War territory, the era of the Truman Doctrine ("the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures", i.e. the Soviet Union; announced in 1947), and the era of the Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program, where the US supplied funds to European countries to rebuild following WWII; instituted in 1948). The CIA was established around the same time, in 1947; funds for the operation of the CIA in early days were taken from Marshall Plan resources. The post-WWII US effort to counter the power of the Soviet Union globally was singular in its focus and lavish in its funding of foreign entities. Lots of cash was floating around.

So while there were 12 European countries in CERN in 1952 it's pretty clear that a lot of the cash that went into it at the beginning was from the US, and this cash was channelled by ideological concerns. The aim of CERN would have been to direct the work of specialists resident in European to develop weapons that could be used in a new war against the Soviet Union. The name changed to the European Organization for Nuclear Research in 1954, but the acronym remained unchanged when this occurred.

There are now 20 states who are members of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider started to be built in 1998 - nine years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Member states contribute on a sliding scale, where Germany puts in just over 20 percent of the budget, equal to 174 million Euros. Britain, at number three, puts in 125 million Euros. And so on down to Bulgaria which puts in 2.7 million Euros. So CERN is a matter for the commons, and not just in Europe. When Tim Berners-Lee first put together the WWW in 1989 it was at CERN that this happened.

It would be interesting to know what kind of rhetoric has been used, especially in recent, lean times, to enable the continued appropriation of funds in European parliaments for the type of work that CERN undertakes. I think that this kind of commons-focused, large-scale scientific work could only happen in Europe. In the US it would be too easily subject to the vagaries of political expedience, and in fact I think there was a US analogue that was dumped in recent times for this very reason. In the US, the military and NASA would be undertaking the kind of blue-sky research that CERN represents.

But what does the LHC work mean for physicists? Today in the Australian, Kevin Varvell, an associate professor of physics at the University of Sydney who is involved in the LHC research wrote:
Well, I can't point to an immediate practical application that will improve quality of life for everyone on Earth, although I know more than a few high-energy physicists who will feel a lot happier with life and breathe a lot easier, but it means we now have a dependable theory that explains how the universe we can sense around us is put together. And we can use it with more confidence to predict what is likely to happen to matter in unknown or novel circumstances.
And of course the immediate future is full of next steps, including a lot more collisions so as to "measure [the Higgs boson], analyse it, describe it and sketch out its properties". "That's going to take us at least another couple of decades," says Varvell. And so it goes on. For whatever reason these enormous amounts of money are allocated to high-end research, the benefits accrue to everyone. This is the locus of the commons. In the case of the LHC, we will all benefit in innumerable ways from understanding the universe better. This knowledge will radically alter our idea of ourselves, of Creation, and of the nature of everything.

It's just funny how things turn out. My parents first met around the time CERN was established. The Queen visited Australia for the first time. My grandfather - my mother's father - died. Nabokov's Lolita was published. Almost three generations later the original political motivation for CERN is a mere institutional memory. So much so that the current communal approach to funding this research contrasts oddly with the motivating ideology of the prime mover, the US, of the original effort. Things turn out in strange ways.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Book review: Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner (2012)

You've seen them, the menacing, dark-suited police who turn up at a crime scene and try to take over the investigation, frustrating the detectives of NYPD or LAPD, or wherever. It's usually the FBI trying to muscle in on an investigation because of its "national significance". They're the other bad guys of popular folklore. They populate our collective imagination. But the reality appears to hold more secrets than you might have suspected, and Tim Weiner's book is aimed at the shadiest of the FBI's activities, where it gets involved in secret intelligence.

From its beginnings, in 1908, the FBI has tried to function as a counteracting force against the "enemies" of the US. In those early days before WWI the enemy was terrorists and anarchists and Communists, and these forces continued to preoccupy FBI heads after the war too. Most famous of those men was J. Edgar Hoover, who served as chief from 1924, and whose obsession with Communism throughout his tenure - which continued until 1972, freakishly - makes him come out looking pretty bad in this book; far worse-looking than last year's movie warrants. Because of the length of his tenure Weiner's book actually fits into two parts. Once Hoover has gone the FBI has to pick itself up in the aftermath of the disgrace the legendary director brought upon it, and recoup.

The last sections of the book deal mainly with Islamic terrorism, and so these are the most interesting sections for the contemporary reader. The book is factual but episodic, in any case. The narrative glue that Hoover provided in the parts dealing with his tenure, once gone, is not substituted by anything else, so the later parts of the book are more confusing. They're also a bit repetitive. The problems that the FBI faced during these years - lack of funding, siloing of information between agencies, poor relationships with politicians - morph into a collective warning against unpreparedness. It's hard to gauge the relevance of such dour pronouncements from interested parties, which is the kind of analysis that Weiner should have provided. In many cases, because Weiner's interest is in the FBI's intelligence function, documents will remain classified and out of his reach, and with them the truth. It appears unproblematic however to say that the FBI failed to anticipate the real extent of Islamic terrorism during the 1990s.

Part of the continuity issue is resolved for the general reader because Weiner deals with real events he or she will probably be familiar with, like the Lockerbie plane bombing, the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya, and the first World Trade Centre bombing. The US's Islamic enemies have been troubling presidents since Reagan, and possibly there's another book for Weiner to write dealing just with this part of our recent history, just as there's probably another book for someone to write about terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Maybe someone has already written these books; I'll try to find out.

A theme that continues throughout the book is the balance that politicians and law-enforcement needs to strike between protection of civil liberties and the maintenance of national security. Under Hoover, the balance was clearly way out of whack. With the rise of Islamic terrorism, the issue nowadays gels around the extent to which we allow surveillance of private communications. The question which must be asked, in the light of Weiner's revelations about Hoover's habit of profiling suspects who might pose a threat to security, is to what extent this kind of thing still takes place now. And, is it warranted? This is a question Weiner doesn't fully answer, although it's clear that post-9/11 George W. Bush tilted the balance in favour of harsher security measures than Clinton had done. Which begs the question: if Clinton had been more vigilant would that episode have been nipped in the bud?

Because the book talks about these issues, it is recommended reading for anyone who enjoys spy movies (anyone, really). Weiner has also written a book about the CIA, which I'm reading now. That agency was established after WWII - again, to fight Communism - and once again there's a problem for Truman, as there had been for those leaders who set up the FBI, to decide whether a "Gestapo-like" agency has any place in the fabric of American society. Doubts harboured by these individuals give the reader optimism. Actions like the World Trade Centre bombings remove a lot of those doubts. Back and forth the pendulum swings, but often the public is unaware of its movement because the agencies that participate in such intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism are so secretive. Weiner's books go some way toward drawing back the covers on their operations.

One question that is not addressed is why the US has been subject to so many violent attacks and other, simlar countries have not. There's also the issue of presidential assassinations. Countries such as Canada and Australia have similar systems of governance yet they have remained immune to such attacks. One reason for this might be that in other countries there are political options for people whose worldviews clash with the mainstream. In Australia, for example, the Labor Party has been a major force in the public sphere since the beginning of the 20th Century; from around the time the FBI was established, in fact. There's a book in this question, too.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

News Corp split will lead to more adaptation

Cell division is a routine part of the lifecycle
of living organisms.
News Corp's recent announcement that it will split into two separate entities the two parts of its business has received little critical analysis in the Australian media, even by Fairfax, its major competitor here. Maybe Fairfax thinks the move is not of interest to most of its readers and maybe they're right. The national broadsheet run by News Ltd, the local arm of the global enterprise, The Australian, ran a number of stories about the split when it was announced. But those stories have mainly disappeared from the website and, in any case, they were mostly laudatory. Interviewed on Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, who will retain leadership of both companies, said the split had nothing to do with the UK phone hacking scandal, a view that I share. The first really independent analysis of the split has come from the New York Times and the story underscores a number of risks for front-line staff as well as for the newspapers themselves. A reporter in the News Ltd business here is quoted in the story, and these words appear to me to contain the most germane analysis of the split so far:
“People fear the loss of the security that has come from being underpinned by a vast and profitable entertainment empire.”
The split extricates Murdoch's newspapers and the publishing company HarperCollins from under the profitable umbrella that has been created over the past decades as Murdoch has bought up and developed free-to-air TV, pay TV and movie assets. Those companies will sit in the new entertainment company.

The story also points out that the split will result in a new level of transparency for the news assets. Lots of people, in future, will be able to understand the scope of the subsidisation that, many believe, has enabled those news companies to continue operating. Released into a hard world alone, those companies will now be forced to innovate in order to survive, instead of relying on cash infusions from the giant parent company. The change will bring to bear new pressures on managers, who must now devise ways to generate profits so that they can continue to operate.

While the majority of committed news watchers believe that Murdoch has a soft spot for the news business, and that this characteristic has enabled largely unprofitable newspapers to continue to operate regardless of the scope of their financial losses, there is no doubt that he also believes in business itself. And he innovates ahead of his competitors. This is why he has been able to move sideways into those profitable entertainment businesses, and remain financially healthy despite the global advertising shifts that have taken place over the past decade or so. It is also why he was the first news proprietor in Australia - apart from Fairfax in the case of the Financial Review - to embrace paywalls for his websites.

There have already been job losses in Australia for News Ltd. It's not surprising that its journalists are a bit wary of what the future holds, and that they express consternation when asked about it. But change in the face of environmental shifts is a characteristic of all living organisms. Cell division, for example, is part of the body's way of repairing itself. It is also essential in sexual reproduction, which is nature's way of ensuring a level of diversity within populations that can allow for evolution. Before sex appeared evolution was slow. With the emergence of new ways of combining genetic material to produce unique individuals, evolution sped up to a degree that has enabled an astonishing array of species to exist across the globe.

In my mind there's absolutely no doubt that, despite the spin produced by News Ltd at the time of the split, this change to the circumstances under which News Corp will produce news in future will lead to futher adaptive behaviours at its mastheads. And that's a good thing. What has led to the desperate straits in the news industry to this point has been a signal failure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

Monday 2 July 2012

The Enlightenment project could inspire our media

Isabella I of Castille, 1451 - 1504,
famous dynastic matriarch.
Our regard is often short-sighted. In the news of the day we focus on immediate concerns and often miss the bigger picture. Well no surprises there, for many of us. There's also no surprise for these people when I say that universities nowadays usually sell themselves as places where you can become certified for work; your course of study is supposed to qualify you so that entering the workforce is as rapid and painless as possible. In this case, too, we expect immediate returns.

This is topical because of the significant changes affecting the media today, changes spawned by the introduction of a new technology, the internet, which we can say was established in California in 1969 with ARPANET. Companies around the world started setting up websites in earnest in the mid 90s. For the media, income streams peaked in 2005 and have been in rapid fall since. In Australia, the 130-odd-year-old masthead the Sydney Morning Herald announced last month that its print publication could close entirely; readership remains very strong with 3-million-odd unique visitors per month but revenue losses have led to owner Fairfax Media announcing it would lay off 1900 staff. In a short 43 years the new digital technology has worked profound changes on a business that most Australians value highly. Many call for help but most of us are too busy to worry too much about the state of the media, and simply watch and wait as the tectonic shifts introduced by the internet work in radical ways to change the information landscape that surrounds us.

A significant number of people have noted an historical analogue for these changes, which brings me to the picture accompanying this blog post. The new technology that changed the information landscape in Isabella's day was printing; she was born about a decade after the invention in Germany of the printing press. Taking advantage of the new technology to embellish her reign, in other words to further her dynastic ambitions, Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, sponsored the creation at a university in Spain of the first polyglot Bible, which was published around 1520. People who are better informed than me can talk in greater detail about the reasons why this project was undertaken but its short-term outcome was to spark interest among Europe's Humanist scholars, who began to do similar work in other countries; the name Erasmus comes to mind in this regard.

In a real sense we, living hundreds of years after the fact, are privileged (if we take a bit of time to look) because we can separate the incidental published work of routine note from the truly influential classic, such as Montaigne's Essais, which appeared in 1580. In this work, the wealthy nobleman was able to explore new territory: the self. The new low-cost, accessible technology enabled a regional French bureaucrat and aesthete to bring out a book that had as its focus something other than God. Focusing on the self - looking inward to internal motivations and feelings - turned out to be truly radical. And in 1620, in England, equally radical turned out to be the publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, a manifesto of a new 'scientific' approach to the study of the world. Again, Bacon's regard took the reader away from God not as in Montaigne's case, inward, but outward to the observable world, the world of things.

How long it took for the printing press to decisively eliminate illustrated manuscripts is something I will overlook, but it's an interesting question. For my purposes it's enough to say that it took 180 years for the new information technology to spawn a philosophy so radical that it could fundamentally and forever reshape the outlines of society, in the West and eventually globally by way of trade. From the time of the invention of the printing press it took Isabella of Castille 80 years to introduce the Complutensian Bible. Another 60 years takes us to the publication of Montaigne's Essais, and a further 40 years results in the appearance of Bacon's new method in a published work. With these figures in mind it looks as though things, today, are sped-up; it took only 34 years to go from ARPANET to Facebook.

This brings me back to the short-termism I mentioned in regard to universities as job-factories at the beginning of this post. Because what the story of the Enlightenment project tells us is that advances in knowledge come from the arts, and not from the applied sciences. Everything starts with writing and the spread of the written word. We can go back to a time before the emergence of Humanism if we like, in order to trace the origins of the disputational approach to learning that lies at the heart of the notion of "progress". We can say that it is a particularly European way of dealing with ideas, with social organisation, and with knowledge. Indeed we can. What is unquestionable is that the process of nominalisation - the creation of semantically weighty nouns out of longer semantic elements such as clauses and sentences - has been the motor of progress from the start. Wider access to books sped up the process of nominalisation because more people engaged in discussion, and this led to breakthroughs in learning that led to further breakthroughs as people talked about them and spread ideas abroad via books and pamphlets. You only have to look at the multitudinous lexical coinages of the Renaissance as they are visible in the works of Shakespeare to see the truth of this.

Originality is part of the European disputational method, and we first see it in written words. Discussion breaks out leading to resolution and synthesis. More new ideas emerge. Because of this dynamic, which operates every day and all day in every country, we should value the generation of ideas highly because they are what lead to the creation of wealth and the generation of new breakthroughs in all disciplines. Wider broadcasting of discussion is for this reason a good thing. The problem for traditional media companies to solve now is how to create a perception of value among consumers so that they will pay for information they consume.

Looking back it appears simply truthful to say that the diversified media website does not appeal to consumers, who more and more often turn for their information to specialised websites that focus on a single area of interest. Maybe media companies could consider ways to split up their content into a larger number of specialised websites and give more discretion to the managers of those websites to innovate. This might lead to novel ways to monetise the content their journalists produce, which we know is something that is more popular with information consumers than ever before. By operating a suite of specialised websites our media companies could foster the kind of richness that lies at the heart of innovation and wealth creation. It is that richness that will lead to the breakthroughs media executives are so fervently seeking in their effort to ensure that the companies they lead continue to function within the information landscape that has been created by the internet.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Book review: The Wolf and the Watchman, Scott Johnson (2012)

This book is subtitled 'A CIA Childhood', and on its most obvious level that's true, because Scott Johnson grew up with Keith Johnson, the CIA operative who was also his father. So there's the hook. You expect to learn something new about the functioning of America's spy agency in this book. In some respects you do, but the pure, overall excellence of this highly readable book and the ambition of the author - who tries to excapsulate a lifetime of observation and frustration in a few hundred pages - mean that it is also a lot more than this in fact.

To illustrate what you learn about the operation of the CIA, for a start, there's no better place to turn than to a man who Scott, a journalist specialising in war zones, meets during his work. The passage appears almost at the end of the book, where the man, named Abu Ahmed, is talking with Scott somewhere in Baghdad:
'Sometimes, I used to get jealous of the Americans,' he said. 'Every little thing, whether it is important or not - they analyse it, they find out what it means. They never throw anything away because they know they might need it at another time. They even work on holidays.'
The chapter where this passage appears is titled 'Baghdad and Amman, 2008'. Amman is the capital of Jordan, the city where Scott goes to make the connection that will lead him to a person like Abu Ahmed, who is working in the Iraqi counter-insurgency along with his handlers in the CIA. All of the book's chapters are labelled with place names and dates, so you can follow the chronology of Scott's awakening. Getting to meet Abu Ahmed, as a journalist, is something of a coup for Scott. Establishing the tie required a quantity of negotiation with a broker in Amman whose trust it was necessary for him to secure in order to set up the first meeting with Abu Ahmed. There turn out to be many meetings with Abu Ahmed, whose trust he also eventually secures.

To secure the broker's trust, Scott put in operation some advice he had received from his father in Washington State, in 2001.
As my father spoke, he looked at me with a crooked eyebrow and I knew [I] was to understand something; I had known my father all my life and some languages will always be unspoken. 'You're never going to be able to recruit a Soviet by cajolery or coffee-table books or Sears Roebuck catalogues on the living-room table,' the teacher had said. 'Soviets recruit themselves. They decide when they want to come over to our side. So all I can tell you is, get to know as many Soviets as you can. But just be a typical American. And be the kind of person who, when they decide they want to come over to our side, decide they want to come to you.'
Sitting in the office of the broker in Amman seven years later, Scott leans on these words as on a staff and secures the access he had coveted. Access to the source was important to Scott professionally; without it there would be no story. He had been working in the Middle East for long enough that he knew that if he wanted to really understand the insurgency in Iraq he needed access to a person such as Abu Ahmed. But there's also more than this involved in the transaction. Scott had long been on a journey of discovery that had at its centre his father. Scott comes to understand the man whose secret had made itself felt in his life from the beginning, even before the time, when he was 14, that Keith had told him that he was a spy.

It's this quest plus the general beauty of the writing in Scott Johnson's book that generates a feeling of frustration for the reader reading the book. What is the secret? I wondered, as I worked through yet another chapter of the memoir without discovering what it was. But it's a sweet sensation, a type of yearning. To compensate for that empty feeling, the language is often very beautiful, very concentrated and concise. The concision and concentration has to do with the journalist's craft: the effort to render meaning in as few words as possible. The prose has at times what some people might characterise as a Hemingwayesque feel to it.

You feel at the end of the book, however, that the length employed by the author to convey the truths he discovered was necessary to achieve his purpose. Perhaps it's the same with the tradecraft Keith employed during his working life. To understand how the machine works you must be acquainted with the operations of its parts in some intimate detail. And to understand Keith it is also necessary to understand Scott's relationship with his father. There is a lot in that relationship that is routine, in the sense that sons always have 'issues' with their fathers. Every man who reads this book will find something of his own story told along with the story of Scott and Keith. The quotation from Neitzsche that graces the front of the book suddenly makes sense once you have finished it.

So who is the wolf, and who the watchman? Within the ambit of Scott's youthful anxiety about his father's persona - the spy might also be misleading people at home - you conclude that Keith is the wolf, and Scott the watchman. But by the time you reach the end of the book you attain a different point of view. At this point in the narrative, Keith has become the watchman, and the wolf represents those forces outside the home that would do harm to its inhabitants.

But once you get to this point there still remain a few blank spaces in Scott's story that your own intuition fills up for you. You ask yourself about Scott's sense of nationalism, for a start (you have your own issues with secretive organisations that appear to operate supra-democratically). You also ask yourself if Scott has been acute, or honest, enough to fathom the nature of Keith's relationship with his first wife, Scott's biological mother. Why did the marriage fail? Is there something in Keith that was faulty? Or did the secrecy necessary for Keith to maintain a private life ultimately fail the family? Keith's relationship with his second wife, Scott's step-mother, was not great either.

While the second of these questions may remain unsolvable, and may simply reflect the fact that all sons blame their fathers for not loving their mothers enough, the first question, about Scott's sense of nationalism, remains outstanding at the end of the book. Or, at least, it did for me.

As for the publishing of the book itself, it appears that it took Scott some years to complete the process. That he chose an Australian publisher to produce the book says a lot about the aspirations of the company, Scribe in Melbourne, and the skill of its editors. Because this is an excellent book, and an unusual one. Memoirs are by their nature very personal things. The scope of this one, and the ability of its subject-matter to interest the general reader at the same time as its author does a number of difficult things, is also just outstanding.