Monday 29 April 2013

Thinking about the media at the edge of the earth

This is where I live; Silicon Beach, anyone? A regional centre populated by retirees - the men all dressed in their neat uniform of polo shirt, shorts, socks and athletic shoes - and a constant stream of cashed-up tourists who flock to restaurants and cafes dotted around the villages that form the area's commercial hubs. I'm a big-city would-be entrepreneur in a laid-back town, and I can't leave because I'm caring for my elderly mother. I stopped pitching stories to magazines mid-2012 because of those responsibilities and also because the financial return of freelancing was so restricted. But I don't stop thinking.

It's hard though to do what I call "building capacity": sharing ideas, generating interest, testing concepts with informed people, bringing people on-board to participate, and to contribute their skills, knowledge and time. A media business depends on ideas, which cannot be copyrighted. And people who might be able to participate via remote connection - email, Skype, plain old telephone - are usually loathe to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. So you sit on the emails and wait. There is an entrepreneur's centre just down the road near the university and you've sent in your application for membership - which comes with valuable perks such as mentoring, and possible access to people working or studying in various departments at the university - and wait for them to get back to you. They have to push the application through the board approval process.

Meanwhile, New York and Silicon Valley form the twin poles of the new-media universe but those places are so far away. People are doing things. Ideas come to fruition and websites appear. But your ideas remain suspended within the grey matter between your ears. You can't test them because there's noone around you to talk with about them. You can't talk about them because you worry that your ideas will be appropriated by someone else. Catch 22.

The big question for people who are looking at the future of the media is revenue, but I think that even more important issues are how to drive the public agenda and how to form trust in the media within the public, trust that has been eroded over time. For example, there's a privately-funded, non-profit website here that started out promising to deliver strong, longform journalism outside the 24-hour news cycle, but after a change of editor and a redesign the signs are that they now want to slot into the ongoing debate, and deliver stories that fit with what's happening elsewhere. The promise of strong longform journalism has fragmented as the website relies more and more on low-cost in-house writers, and fewer new ideas from freelancers appear on the home page. In short, they ran out of steam because of low pageviews, got scared, and decided to go for the short-term uptick rather than betting on establishing a unique brand proposition long-term. As a result they have lost their profile, and are just "chasing the dragon", as the Chinese say: steering with their eyes fixed on the road just in front of the vehicle, instead of fixed on a point further down the highway.

What is "elsewhere"? It's where the life is draining out of the business although that mainstream continues to set the pace and mark the boundaries of debate. One outlier, part of a private company that runs several media websites, runs strong stories but they're mainly informed commentary on stories happening in the mastheads of the Big Two: News Ltd and Fairfax. But it's the only viable alternative. For the Big Two, the tempo stays the same - there are just as many stories as ever - as they move toward raising revenue via paywalls, but overall the quantum of effort in the media environment is shifting to well-funded public relations at the expense of in-depth public-interest journalism. Public confidence in the media is eroded, but the Big Two can't slow down or else they'll lose clicks, so they just keep on doing what they've always done.

Paywalls are a danger to journalism because they can keep you out of the debate; the community shares what's free and available, and they do this enthusiastically and with passion. Proof of the relevance of social media is that News Ltd has decided to move away from a solid paywall to a metred model, for its flagship masthead, the Australian. Editors want revenues but they fear exclusion from the ongoing debate; Twitter matters. But despite a few forays into podcasts by News Ltd the primary product is still the flat news story; there is no experimentation occurring into new ways of engaging the audience through innovative use of software: you click on a story and you read it. You might comment, but that's it.

And there's only one option for payment: a monthly subscription. What about if there was a different structure for the content? You could envision a pyramid structure with part of the content for a story available free-of-charge - this can be shared online - and more in-depth items available for a fee. And you could move beyond the flat story, too. For example, you might offer a podcast video free at the top of the pyramid, with a story readable for a fee and then, lower down the pyramid, transcripts of the source material that can be read by people willing to pay more for more context. Interview transcripts can run to thousands of words and you might have three or four interviews for one 1000-word story. Would people be willing to pay for that? I'd like to find out.

In addition to a straight monthly subscription fee you could offer the option of a per-story charge: a micropayment. You could also give people the ability to maintain a digital wallet on your website, one that can be recharged periodically using a credit card or PayPal. Many people may not see value in a $15-per-month ongoing subscription - they don't like to see a debit on their account if they have not visited your website recently, and anyway it's a hassle to keep track of all those rolling charges - but could be willing to pay $2 for a story or $4 for the story plus access to the source material.

Driving the agenda and maintaining public trust are the big challenges for any media startup; see the success of tiny InsideClimate winning a Pulitzer. But there has to be a motivation to monetise the content that is made available; the community has to change its attitude to the media, and start paying for what it consumes. A website that positively encourages sharing and participation by the community, and that delivers strong, well-resourced material for a reasonable fee is the only kind of media model that can reach critical mass, adequately fund itself, and survive public scrutiny intact.

Indonesian sovereignty in West Papua only possible with Australia's consent

It appears Indonesia is using cheque-book diplomacy in an effort to generate support among melanesian nations, but there remains substantial support, it seems, inside those countries, for West Papuan independence. There appears to be a tussle for influence in Micronesia involving Indonesia and West Papuan independence leaders, with the Solomon Islands PM recently agreeing that the issue should be discussed by the Melanesian Spearhead Group. In Vanuatu, the PM has said that the Free Papua Movement should be given membership of the MSG. Regional support for independence is growing, and the issue is gaining attention in New Zealand.
[British-based tribal leader] Benny [Wenda's February] visit [to the region] helped to reignite the West Papua debate in Melanesia. It is now probable that the Melanesian Spearhead group of nations, which includes New Caledonia's independence movement (FLNKS), as well as Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu will grant West Papuan representatives official observer status when it meets in June.
Australian government support for Indonesia's sovereignty over West Papua looks unlikely to change even given a change of government here in September. There is no official support here for scrutiny of events taking place in West Papua, and apparently no official action to protest the use of force and violence inside the two Indonesian provinces that form the putative country. This contrasts strikingly with Australia's official representations to the Indonesian government following the 1991 Dili Massacre. Australian involvement in Timor-Leste sits comfortably with the Australian people, who overall consider it to have been right to take action to force Indonesia to run a legitimate referendum, and to honour the result afterward. In the case of West Papua, while it is widely accepted that the 1969 "referendum" staged by Indonesian authorities was illegitimate, the Australian government turns its face away from the lie.

Australia should set up and resource an official commission of inquiry into the 1969 poll that forms the basis of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. The Australian government should also protest against Indonesian efforts to keep journalists out of West Papua, so that the people they represent can be reliably informed of what is happening there. There are too many bits of unsubstantiated but compelling information coming out of West Papua to justifiably ignore. A reliable media presence in West Papua is essential to ensuring that people living in the region can see clearly the type of events that appear to be taking place on a regular basis, including murder, intimidation, unwarranted arrests and jailings, and routine suppression of free speech.

The man shown in the picture that accompanies this post, for example, is breaking the law. How can it be illegal to hold a flag? Indonesia's brittle attitude toward the legitimate aspirations of the indigenous people of West Papua is only possible with the consent of the old democracies in the region - Australia and New Zealand. The Australian government must do more to ensure transparency in the provinces, and to uphold the human rights of people living in West Papua.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Last Post ceremony streamed online is great, but why stop there?

I think Brendan Nelson is doing a great job at the Australian War Memorial, that mathematically privileged structure adorning the nation's capital, Canberra. There are things afoot. Each day, at 5pm, a Last Post ceremony will take place, and each day a different dead soldier will be commemorated. The ceremonies will be streamed live on the internet. It's open mourning via gov 2.0 with lashings of paper poppies and bugles on tap.

But why stop there? There's more to talk about, surely. After all, not all of the soldiers we sent overseas to fight in war were killed, as I mentioned a couple of days ago right here. Some soldiers return to a life of mental anguish, alcoholism, drug abuse, penury, and social dysfunction. But we shouldn't forget about them! So for these loyal, brave returned servicemen and -women I suggest creating a new

Australian Memorial for Embarrassing Family Members

At the new memorial, all those unfortunates who couldn't manage to get their lives together, or who suicided, can be publicly commemorated, and a daily ceremony involving booze, smack and tobacco, can be streamed live on the internet to millions of curious Australians, many of whom also have suffered due to the toll of war on their close relatives including fathers, uncles and grandfathers. The memorial can also commemorate members of bikie gangs who were once soldiers, and who entered into those fraternities seeking the comfort and solace of the kind of close comradeship that only such organisations can provide.

Don't stop there! There must be plenty of people whose sad fates are linked to specific causes, such as the

Australian Poor Memorial

A structure with this name can reliably be used to celebrate all those Australians who died as a result of poverty, in the short or long term. Here also suicides can be remembered. And all those people whose lives degenerated into a spiraling cycle of crime and incarceration, and who passed away at a relatively young age, their bodies wracked by substance abuse, poor nutrition, and exposure to the elements - many of these people sleep rough, as we know - can be remembered fondly at such a shrine, especially if it is accompanied by tasteful landscaped gardens, gravel walks, and sandstone porticoes.

Australian Dumb Memorial

What about all those young people who lose their lives every year because they drive their cars too fast, and don't take care when they are on the roads? How can we commemorate those lives? Many such people already have small shrines, of course; just drive on any road and sooner or later you will come across a small, white cross by the roadside, one garlanded with wreathes of fresh or dried flowers. But they're not the only ones who would qualify. There are so many stupid deaths in Australia these days, some even involving young men who die as a result of being king-hit outside the local pub. There are glassings, youths who train-surf, children of parents who reject vaccination, and many others. Let's not forget all these valued members of our diverse community.

And there might also be the Australian Sick Memorial for victims of sex crimes, the Australian Greed Memorial for those who die as a result of corporate cupidity, and the Australian Bad Gene Memorial for those who die because of untreatable diseases.

There are so many groups of people who die each year for specific reasons and that can be meaningfully addressed by a caring and prudent government. If we need to have graphic warnings on cigarette packets, why not curb alcohol sales so that fewer people are hospitalised with life-threatening ailments on Friday and Saturday nights? Surely, in these cases, a small, tasteful ceremony at the Australian Dumb Memorial would help raise the profile of stupidity? I'm all for streaming Last Post ceremonies online, but I just don't think that the government is going far enough. If we want to draw attention to grievous injustices and deleterious social ills, then we can't rely on the bloody media. We need to use positive action, in the pattern of the ex-Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, and make way for the new frontier of digital grief. More ceremonies, not fewer, and put them online all day, twenty-four-seven. Let's get serious about grief. I'm ready to bawl.

The savagery within the Chinese

Two particularly striking murders this year involving Chinese people bring attention to the violence that lies behind a domesticated and civilised public demeanour. A couple of days ago two Chinese women were found dead in the Sydney suburb of Auburn as a result of a "gruesome" and "brutal" murder; not long afterward the body of the primary suspect, Hong Rui Fu, was found dead on train tracks southwest of Sydney. From the guarded official language used in the news stories about Fu's death it appears he suicided. And back in February, Shan Wu, a Chinese woman living in Newcastle, a city about an hour's drive north of Sydney, was killed in a "violent" and "horrific" murder; the primary suspect is a man who arrived from China immediately before the murder and who Wu had picked up from Sydney airport.

In the case of the Auburn murders, "The crime scene was so confronting that paramedics and police who arrived on the scene had to have counselling." In the case of the Newcastle murder:
Blood had been spattered across two of the unit's three rooms. The woman's body was discovered with a weapon, believed to be a meat cleaver, lodged in her neck. A bloodied fishing gaff was found nearby.
These three murders combined to remind me of the famous Lin family murders of 2009, another Sydney case that is routinely labelled "brutal". In the Lin case, five people were bludgeoned to death with "a hammer type weapon" while asleep in their Epping home. Robert Xie, a relative of the Lins, has been charged with the murders and the case is still before the courts. The motive for the Lin murders has not been established.

No motive has been mentioned in the Newcastle case but in the case of Fu it appears that the motive was linked to domestic concerns. Apparently one of the murdered women, Fu's wife Doris Yan, had talked about a divorce.

It's always dangerous to generalise on the basis of ethnicity, especially when, as in all these cases, guilt has not been explicitly assigned by the authorities. But here are eight people who have been killed in especially violent ways and they are all Chinese. Historically, China's high population has bred a culture of civility and domesticity; Europe's cultural, political, and economic dominance in the world is a recent and aberrant phenomenon. With so many people living together at such close quarters, civility for the Chinese is an essential coping strategy, but these violent murders point to a type of critical moment in the Chinese psyche. A facade of civility can be long maintained but when the tipping point is reached the reaction can be cataclysmic, like an elastic material that is stretched to beyond breaking point.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Why are bookshelves so attractive when we visit?

When you visit someone at their home and they show you around the house, it can happen that the bedroom door stays shut. A bedroom is, after all, a locus of intimacy and a refuge, a place where people find peace and privacy. But a bookshelf is a thing that is solidly in the public space within the home, although once I found that looking at someone's books - something we all like to do, it seems - was unwelcome. 

This was in space-deprived Japan, a place where privacy is decidedly at a premium, and we had gathered in her apartment for purposes quite other than to check out what books she had bought and kept. I had gone to the bathroom and then had lingered outside the toilet door to take in the names and titles on the books' spines, as I found them ensconced on miniature shelves there that had been stuck to the wall; she hurried down the hall and switched on a light as if to help me, but I felt as if I was intruding, and quickly returned to the gathering.

But books are enticing even when stored on a shelf, let alone read. We can be disappointed, as when the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, recently appeared in a promotional video seated in front of ranks of those inscrutable legal volumes you see in lawyers' offices; this pointed at the man's legal background, but let down bibliophile viewers because the titles and names were illegible, and anyway not of general interest. Much better for us was a video produced by the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian think tank, where the representative of the organisation sat facing the camera with fully-stocked bookshelves right at his back. It made for good viewing for the curious.

Here are two of my bookshelves (click to expand). I have seven bookcases dotted around the place - as well as piles of books on the floor in one room - and there is no order to the arrangement, except in a couple of cases, so where the books sit, or what they sit next to, is purely arbitrary. This situation is less than optimal, obviously, because it means it can take me a while to find a book when I am looking for it. I always put off reordering the bookcases but it is something that I should do at some stage to make my life easier.

It has been said that books add character to a home. Certainly, I take a dim view of someone if I find that they own no books at all. But taking stock of a person's books definitely gives you an insight into their intellectual and cultural make-up, which is something that prospective partners, for example, can find to be of great relevance. Friends, we take as they come, but it's also likely that our friends will have the same kinds of tastes as we do. Their books, ranked side by side, can confirm this, or undermine the theory.

Of course, these days you don't need bookshelves in order to own books; electronic books can be stored in a number of devices. But I still prefer to read paper books. Not only are they impossible to delete - Amazon angered many recently when it deleted a book that had been downloaded many times, removing it from users' Kindles - but they are comfortingly inert. I spend a lot of my day sitting in front of the computer, and when I go to bed and pick up my current read, I like to run my eyes over lines printed on a physical object, and not lines displayed within a digitised simulacrum of a book.

Friday 26 April 2013

Catafalque party a fitting symbol for what war means

The most compelling aspect of yesterday's Lone Pine ceremony at Gallipoli - televised online via the ABC - was not contained for me in the MC's words, in the procession of dignitaries laying wreaths, in the words from the Padre, or in the sung national anthem; it was contained in the emergence of the catafalque party, drummed in and ordered into position around a block of stone.

It's an affecting sight. The four individuals come out and take up positions at the corners of the stone and stand, for the duration of the ceremony, immobile, faces downturned, guns held pointing downwards at ease. And I think about how hard it must be to stand still for such a long period of time. What do they think about while they're standing there? For me, the catafalque party represents a type of solidarity, a link with the past, a real demonstration of solidarity shown by living servicemen and -women with their dead comrades.

Yesterday's remembrance ceremonies as I saw them, and also in the words of people I'm connected to on social media, maintained a fittingly somber tone. And it's not just the dead that those people were commemorating. I saw servicemen and -women on TV, for example, thanking people in the Australian community for words of support sent to them. On social media one person posted to mark her reflections on people alive today: "I am thinking about the damage done to the children of the severely emotionally wounded men who returned." Her post received a number of comments from others who put down their own thoughts, remarking on their families' experiences of war. It's not just the dead. There was Adam Shand on his web page writing about his maternal grandfather who returned from Palestine and took to drink. I wrote about my grandmother's brother, who returned from north Africa and died within a couple of years as a result of health problems occasioned by his posting overseas. And then there was a story on the Age's website about a special centre established by the RSL in Frankston, south of Melbourne, where returned servicemen and -women can go to build resilience following their tours of duty.

When I saw on TV men and women playing two-up in Melbourne it jarred with what I found elsewhere, and clashed with what I myself felt when thinking about what Anzac Day means. Thankfully, I didn't come across any bagpipes during my wanderings online; bagpipes always make me teary. Instead, someone on Twitter posted a link to The Pogues' The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and it became my resident earworm for the rest of the day. The old song's lyrical melody and the band's nail-hard realism cohere to form a striking amalgam of wet and dry, patriotic yearning and wry pragmatism.
I looked at the place where my legs used to be 
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
There was a cartoon on the Australian's website showing two people at Lone Pine seated in the morning dark, and one is contemplating out loud the sadness of the occasion and all the lives lost while the other one says something like, "Strewth mate, you'll ruin Anzac Day." Behind the imported draped flags, the warm beanies and the full eskies lies the unpleasant truth that war should always and only be used as a last resort. Irony is readily available for the cartoonist because of this tendency for commemorations of war in Australia to contain within the matrix of ideas these two discordant things: patriotism and the reality of incalculable mental and physical damage to the individual. We use Anzac Day as a proxy with which to say something about ourselves as a nation, but when it comes down to it men and women not only get killed, they also sometimes suffer for decades, and their children can also suffer, because of the stress that state violence visits upon the individual. What does the violence do to us as a nation?

I don't have the answer to that question, so I must look to proxies in order to express myself. For me, as I said, there's something refreshing and apt in the complete immobility of the catafalque party positioned in strict order around the commemorative stone; not just at Lone Pine but elsewhere in Australia and in New Zealand during events to mark this transitional moment in the histories of the two nations. Politicians might get a poll rise out of sending young men and women to face danger, but for me a fitting symbol of Anzac Day is the catafalque party, the immobile soldier in his or her crisp uniform, the infinitely suspended threat of violence that belongs to the trained guardian who is retained off-duty at his or her operational base, the willing expression of solidarity from the individual compelled by tradition and duty to stand stock-still for a good hour while everyone else participates peacefully in the moving ceremony.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Finding my dead uncle's lost war medals

Last year I wrote briefly and not very competently about my grandmother's brother, who died shortly after returning from war, in 1946. He was 44 years old when he died. He died from complications stemming from his war service in north Africa, where he served in Tobruk. He was already fairly advanced in age when he enlisted in Sydney.

These are medals of his, about the existence of which I was alerted in August 2011 by a man who has established an organisation called Lost Medals Australia. He found me because I had uploaded to my website the memoir my father wrote before he died, in which he talks about his family as part of the narrative of his personal story. The gentleman went on to write about returning the medals to the family; they had been held safe for 30 years after having been "picked up in a box of second hand goods".

As my blogpost of last year about William Robert Ralph Caldicott, my uncle, is not very competent because I find it difficult to read the writing in his war record, this post now is also full of shortcomings because I do not know what the medals represent, why they were awarded, and generally what they mean. Further reading is required. Suffice it to say that the medal on the right in the picture above shows a lion standing on top of a griffon, with the dates 1939 and 1945 stamped above the animals. The medal on the left is stamped with the words 'The Defence Medal'. If you know more about these medals, please feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Book review: The Waterlow Killings, Pamela Burton (2012)

Although the book is subtitled 'A Portrait of a Family Tragedy', it might also be called something along the lines of "case study of decades of policy failure". As is mentioned in the book, people whose mental illness goes untreated are no more likely than anyone else living in the community to hurt another person, but in the case of Anthony Waterlow, who stabbed his father Nick and sister Chloe to death in November 2009, two decades of living with schizophrenia did indeed lead to a family tragedy. Behind her highly competent and in fact gripping roll-out of the facts leading up to the murders and the ensuing court case, author Burton whispers her own conclusion. While in cases belonging to the fairly distant past, such as that of New Zealander Janet Frame (1924 - 2004), the state took away too much of the individual's power and discretion, leading to unwarranted imprisonment in utterly dysfunctional mental institutions, in the case of Anthony Waterlow, who clearly gamed the system and effectively played the mental health professionals who talked to him, leading them to hold back from forcing him to go into care where he could be reliably medicated, the pendulum appears to have swung too far the other way.

Burton brings the system into relief with a ton of detailed research and scads of interviews with survivors and professionals living in both Australia - where art curator Nick Waterlow died - and England - where he was born into a family of some substance. But this story could be that of any family. It reminds me in some ways of my own family; a cousin of mine has done a lot of research into the Caldicotts, my father's mother's lineage, and there I also find the three sibling horrors of destitution, death, and mental illness. While 1-in-100 people will personally tangle with schizophrenia at some time in their lives, 1-in-5 people will have to personally deal with a mental illness of some sort. Despite the numbers there is still a heavy burden of shame associated with mental illness, and this fact serves to keep stories of personal struggle out of the public eye, which militates to withhold pressure from the governments that must properly fund its treatment and management, leaving so many to end up in prisons instead of in care.

Stepping back, then, you can justifiably say that society failed the family, and especially Chloe's husband and three children. We are all complicit in the drama because if we knew more about how mental illness is handled in contemporary Australia we would be vocally outraged, and the state machinery would be compelled to makes the changes that are needed to stop people like Nick and Chloe from dying. Reading the book you are frustrated by Anthony's unawareness of his illness and by his serial refusal to accept the antipsychotic medication that would have given him the clarity to better deal with his illness. But schizophrenia is a devil of a disease, and the person living with it may have no basis in objective reality to rely on, and so may not be able to make such decisions themselves.

For those who know the Sydney streets and suburbs where the book plays out this is an especially gripping story. Burton has worked hard to fill in the gaps that lie between words in the news headlines, and has created a dramatic and compelling narrative that will keep you turning the pages. She brings to life in words many people involved in the story, especially Nick, whose successful career in the art world contrasts so strongly with Anthony's impotent destitution. But there's also Chloe and her other brother Luke, Nick's wife Romy with the story of her death from cancer, and Nick's London-based mother Barbara. These people are at the centre of the circle of those who were affected deeply by Anthony's dysfunctional behaviour and by the failure of the authorities to properly manage his illness.

Monday 22 April 2013

The terrible power of female desire

In 1991, when I Touch Myself was released, I was 29 and I got married but I hardly understood the terrible power of female desire at that time; it would take another eight years when my then-wife asked me to leave the house one freezing winter's night - my clothes and a few items of furniture shoved inelegantly into the back of my Toyota - before I started to get an inkling of what female desire really meant. And what it meant to ignore conjugal imperatives. A happy mother makes for a happy family, I learned, too late.

I was better prepared for love many years later, when I was firmly in middle age. This time I had better sense and fell head-over-heals in love in a kind of desperate, unutterable surrender. It worked, for as long as she wanted me, but there came a time when that fell away too. I desired nothing but her happiness, and told her so, and for some unfathomable reason she allowed me to hang about, and listen to her when she needed advice. Men rarely learn that women are always looking for advice; it's what allows them to so skillfully negotiate the traps and pitfalls that line the mundane path they so elegantly tread.

But on one occasion it was more than advice that she wanted, even though we had stopped seeing each other years before. It was because she trusted me. She knew me. She lay down on the bed in the hotel clad only in tights and a cotton shirt and asked her to rub her back, which I did. Softly, she pulled my hand down to her buttocks and soon I was stroking her intimate flesh as she moaned and moved her body out of pleasure. I was a tool. She wanted something specific from me, and I was as obliging as I had ever been. When Amphlett sings "I want you above me," there is no question what it is she is asking for. It is the observant male who must in such cases respectfully grant the wish thus expressed, and submit to the terrible power of female desire. It is our destiny, and a type of salvation, to serve a woman in this specific way.

Note to news media: slow down, and don't be too self-critical

There's a fair bit of self-flaggellation within the media over boo-boos committed during coverage of the Boston bombings and the subsequent chase in pursuit of the suspects a few days later. One example of this is by Andy Carvin, National Public Radio's social media strategy head, given as a keynote at the recent International Symposium for Online Journalists symposium in Austin, Texas.
Whether it's Boston, or Newtown, or some other breaking story, we all kick into high gear. At every newsroom, it's all hands on deck - battle stations. These are the moments where the public expects us to do our jobs, and do them well. These are the moments we pride ourselves in our roles as professionals. And thankfully, many of us rise to the occasion.
The bottom line, Carvin says, is: "No. Dead. Air." It's like what Jill Abramson, the New York Times' executive editor, said during her talk at the same event. Here's what I wrote on Facebook after listening to Abramson speak.
Listening to NY Times executive editor talk abt Boston bombings coverage. She's saying nothing about how the media can examine the underlying motivations of the suspects, and the matrix of ideas that sits underneath all the stories that appear. All she talks about is the chaos of the bombings and how her newspaper had journalists running in the race. Why do "big news stories" like the Boston bombings get journalists so excited? They seem to thrive on adrenaline, and eschew the more contemplative approach of the long form.
Carvin's role in social media for NPR means he's on the cutting edge of reporting, pushing out tweets to the audience, some of whom are glued to the various receivers available: be it the TV, the radio or Twitter. But that's not the whole population. A lot of people just tune in occasionally. Like a friend of mine who yesterday complained to me about the way the media got caught up in the traps of the rushing mechanism during the Boston coverage, and as a result made mistakes. It may be important to NPR or CNN to keep the feed rolling, delivering non-stop information to a seemingly insatiable public, but it's not the only way to go. As for reliability, I stuck to two news websites during the period in question: the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times. The Twitter feed had too much noise, most of which I didn't need.

I think that news organisations feel compelled to scramble like fighter pilots when the air-raid siren sounds, but that's just their instincts kicking in. A little sober reflection would tell them that what people want is the best possible news available in the shortest period of time. In that order. A media company might be terrified that if it slows down it'll lose eyeballs. So be it. The race to be first works as a kind of drug, with the result that the product quality is compromised.

In any case, these bouts of self-reflection really miss the point. For people who want 24/7 news saturation, a few small errors along the way will not matter. So don't fret, is my advice. As Monica Guzman put it in a piece published on the Seattle Times on Saturday:
News is not just something we check every now and then. It’s not just a job, for some people, or an interest, for others. What goes on in our world and how we come to understand it tells us more than we know about who we are and how we’re connected. There are facts and reports and updates. Those are the bones. But there is also feeling, reaction, emotion. That’s the blood. 
And it’s pumping.
If you're going to engage with the audience on Twitter there are going to be errors. The same rules for factualness that applied in the more placid routine of the morning news era don't apply. If you are going to be out there mixing it with the news junkies, the trolls and the civil authorities, you are going to slip up. Live with it. Noone really cares.

Postscript: That final remark does not apply to the New York Post, but it's a Murdoch vehicle, so what can you expect.

Goldilocks planets abound, but what about that ride?

This is a painting by an artist of Kepler-62e, a goldilocks planet NASA has located 1200 light-years distant from us. I love these stories of earth-like spheres the boffins behind the consoles punch out from time to time in the global media. There's even a video. And it's timely in Australia to talk about light years because we're debating a fiber-optic broadband system the current government is building; the Opposition says it's too expensive and proposes a slower alternative. But imagine if we digitised a space crew. It would still take over a thousand years for the data packets to reach Kepler-62e. Busy as we remain linked tightly to the pressing matters that course through our democracies like filaments of light, we glance briefly at these numbers and shrug.

But there are dreamers out there. Two big stories of outer space - the Alien franchise that began in 1979 and 2009's Avatar - let us dream of an uncalculable wealth of mineral resources. In the film Alien, the bulk carrier Nostromo is cruising back to earth from a mine located in the far reaches of some galaxy when people start to die on the ship. It's so easy to imagine. People have been scouring the earth of our rocky planet for millennia in search of the riches buried within it. But how to get there?

Is there some rule of physics that can be used to shorten the time it takes to travel to such a distant place? Instead of spending 1200 years as a series of bits and bytes, can we somehow bend space so that it takes, say, only 100 years living within the confines of some outlandish craft to reach Kepler-62e? But even then you can imagine the cultural shift that would occur, once the crew arrived at its destination, set up camp, and began to forge a new life on Pandora. Leaving aside the possible existence there of other, sophisticated lifeforms such as ourselves, it would take hundreds of years before the venturers returned to this planet; what would they find?

What might have happened to Earth? To the idea of the nation state? To democratic rule? Even literary fiction writers such as Michel Houellebecq tangle with the options that arise in the imagination, the mind struggling with the limitations of time, and creating a vision designed to negate time. Meanwhile, news stories of goldilocks planets plummet through the miasma of messages, of information, inside the rapidly-expanding public sphere, and potentially find a resting place within the mind of a person who is yet to reach full potential. Some future day he or she verges on the cusp of a technological breakthrough. The fiction precedes the fact just as it feeds off it.

When a novelist becomes a flunky of the plutocrats

Plato hated democracy, the idea that everyone has a voice to influence the direction of society. Our dear old Plato recommended a sober oligarchy to vouchsafe the safety of Athens. And before Henry VIII broke with Rome, the vernacular Bible was barred in England from any but the "sober" men who would be able to appropriately consume its message. It was considered too dangerous to the status quo to let just anyone read its messages of hope and liberation. Even the framers of American democracy were never democrats, and recommended a limited franchise out of fear that the rabble might get to decide things that had always been subjugated to the will of men like themselves. Limiting information and restricting a public voice to a powerful  few has always been the way of autocrats despite technological changes that have tended to thwart their self-interested machinations. The internet is part of the revolution in communications technologies that is allocating space to anyone with the money to afford a computer (or a smart phone) and a broadband connection (or a data plan with a telco).

You'd be surprised to learn that even those who we turn to for spiritual recreation remain nonplussed by the democratisation of speech. Today, novelist Lionel Shriver has weighed in with a severe message of opprobrium to denounce "a whole swath of the human race" which "feels ostracised, under-appreciated, sour and fiercely resentful" and dare to use the internet to publish their views. And Shriver finds those views unpleasant. Stunned by what she finds online, Shriver glibly stretches logic and equates comments on blogs with terrorism.
Terrorism is merely a physical manifestation of the spleen that contaminates nearly all public conversation these days. The internet is awash in bile, sometimes so acidic that it drives teenagers to suicide. Vandals on the sidelines sneer at anyone foolish enough to say something, under the misguided impression that demolition is a form of creativity. Hence packing pressure cookers full of nails, ball bearings and explosive and crafting an especially vicious, below-the belt comment on a website seem to entail their own admirable flair and daring.
"Whether the weapon of choice is explosives or expletives," Shriver wisely and wittily opines, "the underlying spirit of violence is identical." "These days"? Or is it, Lionel, that the internet has finally given more ordinary people the ability to say what they were previously - in a world more consonant with your tastes - barred from saying. Once, it was easy for the letter's editor at the local broadsheet to filter out the distasteful, the profane, the embarrassing, or the overly revealing. The sober tone could be maintained through editorial fiat. Someone responsible was in control, but not now when every mad-as-a-snake would-be pundit can weigh in with his or her totally misguided viewpoint and disturb the otherwise serene daylight hours of distinguished novelists with fecund back-lists and the luxury of time to sit down and craft careful sentences. Secure that an admiring literary agent will be able to place your next opus with a reputable publisher whose eager and talented media flaks are sure to get plenty of exposure with a supine national press.

Shriver has decided that the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by hatred and is content to leave it at that, with a sisterly filip to the US president's condemning the "small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build"; but while he was talking in his usual unctuous tones about terrorists, Shriver is talking about internet trolls. It's as though Shriver had drunk a bit too much of whatever Rush Limbaugh imbibes every morning when he gets out of bed. How did it happen that a noteworthy novelist turned into such a reactionary gull? Was it after she bought the second house? Was it when she decided that she would regularly consume truffles for lunch? Did it have something to do with the price on the bottles of rare Chilean wine she has come to prefer?

But maybe I'm wrong, and there is nothing for anyone to get mad about these days. Maybe the indecency of a Russian oligarch paying US$90 million for a New York penthouse so that his daughter can attend a US college in comfort, is merely nothing after all? Perhaps it is uncontroversial that the minimum wage in the US is $7.50 an hour, and that single mothers have to work two jobs while their children lack the basic care that will enable them to exit the cycle of poverty into which they were unwittingly born? Can it possibly be offensive that a woman born to wealth can earn hundreds of dollars each second while hundreds of millions earn two dollars a day? We know that Shriver is aware of these things; Shriver is a bit of a wonk when it comes to demographics. When did it happen that she became a flunky of the plutocrats, though?

Sunday 21 April 2013

Ignorant America is always going to make enemies

As a wounded, frightened Dzokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody yesterday, crowds of Bostonians began to emerge and to celebrate the capture after a week of anxiety and stress that started on Monday with the two bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line. But instead of contemplating why the two young men suspected of causing so much death and pain did what they did, the intemperate mob broke out into chants of "USA! USA!" in an effort to ease their own burdens. Meanwhile, on Twitter, many Americans got confused between the eastern European country of the Czech Republic and the Russian enclave of Chechnya - where the two young men who are suspected of the atrocity originate from - forcing the Czech ambassador to publicly affirm his country's support of the US in its continuing war on terror. The contrast between these two images is striking and disheartening. But the administration encourages it. In his speech to mark the capture of Dzokhar, President Obama rattled out a few cheesy commonplaces designed to appeal to the masses who elected him. Diversity? America "above all other countries" had welcomed immigrants from across the globe. It's probably wrong, but who cares? It sounds good, and it makes Americans - who don't even know the difference between the Czech Republic and Chechnya - feel good about themselves.

Monday's terrorist attack itself violently demonstrates that the overweening self-confidence Americans feel, and that they seem to need to trot out whenever there's cause for celebration - and that their country's promise of "liberty and justice for all" - again, Obama's words from yesterday - are plainly wrong. Tamerlan Tsernaev was a teenager when he immigrated from Kazakhstan to Massachussetts, so he brought his views, his identity, and his religion - Islam cleaves tight to the individual's identity, in a way that is not true for other religions - along with him. But Dzokhar was eight years old at the time, so he's clearly home-grown. For these two young men there was evidently not liberty and justice for all in the US. Otherwise we wouldn't be where we are.

For devout Muslims the idea of liberty is inseparable from notions of God, with the believer desiring to make his or her whole life conform to God's plan as set out in the Qu'ran and in the surah - the sayings of Mohammed, the Prophet, while he was still alive. Western individualism as expressed in the term "liberty" makes no sense to a devout Muslim. It's a matter of identity. He or she makes an effort to follow the book of Islam down to its smallest details, those which concern the human body even. For this reason, the idea of "justice" felt by a Muslim also must derive its delineations from the Qu'ran; Islam as a religion was established to a large degree, in the Arabian city of Mecca, to right injustices perceived to exist in the streets and within the tribes that inhabited it. One aspect of pre-Islamic Arab life that Mohammed objected to was the wealth of the few and the economic subjugation of the many; the new religion was most popular among the disenfranchised of Mecca, in a way that echoes the early success of Christianity. But in addition to the wealth of the few, Mohammed objected to the self-serving Arab ethos that put honour above compassion, that placed more importance on revenge rather than humility and understanding, and that served to cement the power of the ruling class within the social matrix through a mixture of violence and blood.

For this reason, nationalistic exceptionalism in the US - such as the post-capture crowds in Boston exhibited, and that Obama's words made equally apparent - is always going to clash with Mohammed's vision of a just world, and offend Muslims everywhere. Chanting "USA! USA!" in an effort to create a feeling of social cohesion while a misguided, disenfranchised, and terrified young man is taken bleeding to the hospital, where he can be stitched up before being charged with murder and then condemned to exemplary punishment, is just the wrong thing to do. And then to demonstrate your ignorance to the world by mistaking two countries separated by over 2000km of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity? This makes plain in a graphic way that your country is not doing enough to engage with the world beyond your borders. Ignorant America is always going to make enemies. It's time for America to look hard at itself and to find ways to improve the model it employs when interacting with the world.

Friday 19 April 2013

Middle-aged white men whinge about China's booming food market

In a story based on the food forum it's sponsoring in Melbourne, the Australian this morning runs interference around Labor's Asia push, getting a Liberal MP and a businessman, namely Peter Hughes, of the Hughes Pastoral Group, to whip the government, which is yet to establish an FTA with China. Having attended the forum and finally talked with food producers (where have they been all these years?), News Ltd journalists look across at New Zealand's FTA with China with hardly-disguised envy. Watch the video to see them trying to contain the saliva as it pools at the corners of their mouths. But as I mentioned yesterday, the Gillard government announced its Asian Century white paper in September. You wonder where all these wise men have been all this time. Have they been waiting for an opportunity to slam Craig Emerson, or have they been out there doing constructive things to further Australia's trade interests in China?

You also wonder why, among all these men pictured by the newspaper in its blanket coverage of the business event, where are all the Chinese? As I discussed back in October, there are tens of thousands of Chinese graduates living and working in Australia, having completed their university degrees here, as they wait for their permanent residency applications to be processed by the government. None of these young, talented, informed and energetic people are involved in the Visy-sponsored food gabfest in Melbourne. But it's people like them who can immediately contribute to Australia's business health by performing a vital role in linking local producers with Chinese markets. To ignore them is folly.

So Kraft Foods is setting up a food R&D facility at Ringwood in Melbourne? I hope they hire some of these young Chinese people to work there. Just think about how Chinese youth consume food in the places in our metropolitan areas where they congregate. Go to Chinatown in Sydney and see the Chinese bakeries with their specialised products. There's no accounting for taste. While young Anglos are ordering flat whites, young Chinese go for such odd concoctions as cold, milky white tea served in transparent plastic cups with extra-thick straws. And there are many varieties of tea to choose from. And while your average inner-westie might prefer a genuine Portuguese custard tart from that great shop in Petersham, the Chinese want sweet, fluffy cakes and fried sticks of dough from that low-rent store in Campsie.

Australia makes it hard for these young people to work in the jobs where they're needed. Many jobs require you to have PR already, especially government jobs, so someone on a bridging visa who has worked for, say, three years having completed a postgraduate degree - or even two postgraduate degrees - in Australia is limited in how they can contribute to the Australian economy. And the process is slow and frustrating. While applicants work while waiting for the system to operate they pay taxes but have no stake in the political process. Truly, they are ambitious if they tolerate the drawn-out humiliation embedded in the status quo.

So while a bunch of rich, white, middle-aged men whinge about Labor failing to get an FTA with China, they ignore the tens of thousands of talented, energetic, ambitious, and informed Chinese graduates living in our midst. It's just sickeningly hypocritical. What we should be asking for is that the government make it easier for Chinese graduates living here to get PR so that all these young people can fire up their neurons, roll up their sleeves, and work alongside our managers, accountants, marketing executives, and food scientists to work out ways that Australian companies can get involved in the Chinese markets that they apparently want to enter.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Oz business finally gets behind Gillard's Asian program

At Boao Forum: ANZ's Mike Smith, Fortescue
Metals' Andrew Forrest, Westpac's Gail Kelly.
It has taken them a while, but Australia's business leaders are finally getting the message that there are opportunities for profit in China. The domestic push started back in October, with reports of the Asian Century white paper set to come out. But it seems Australian executives didn't want to move until the Opposition moved first, including a plan for education in its pre-policy Plan. In that plan, the Opposition would establish international links so that Australian students could complete part of their university degrees at an Asian university, if elected in September.

Business is coming on-board, with Andrew Forrest paying for Australian journalists to attend the recent Boao Forum on Hainan Island, which drew the PM and the Chinese president to attend. And now packaging magnate Anthony Pratt joins to form a chorus, asking the government to make it easier to do business in China. This puff piece is from the Australian, and leads its news coverage today in a prominent position on the website. Pratt's company, Visy, serves Australian food producers, who have been hard hit in recent years by high costs and the high dollar, with many plants closing. Now Visy is set to open production facilities in Asia.
AUSTRALIA would become a food "superpower", capitalising on a $2 trillion export opportunity in Asia, under sweeping industry regulation and tax reforms that will be put to a global food forum today. 
In a speech to be delivered at The Australian and The Wall Street Journal's inaugural Global Food Forum in Melbourne, billionaire packaging and recycling magnate Anthony Pratt will today call for sweeping changes that would allow Australia to quadruple its exports and feed 200 million people. 
The Visy Industries executive chairman will also call for a new "coalition of the willing", comprising federal, state and local governments, to put the national interest above political, sectional and regional interests and save the embattled food manufacturing industry.
It's not really a "story" to report that a businessman will talk at a forum your own paper has organised (the Australian and the Wall Street Journal are both owned by News Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, a businessman with extensive media interests in China). Reporting a press release as news is hardly a criminal offense, but the story demonstrates that while the big end of town has delayed joining the government in its Asia push, once on-message it can move with determination. Visy is a sponsor for the event and would benefit from any increase in Australian food manufacturing that would follow from bigger food sales to Asian countries.

NZ marriage equality bill a boost for global human rights

Extraordinary scenes yesterday as the New Zealand Parliament passed its  Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill by a vote of 77 to 44. Struggling to carry out his official duties, the Speaker of the House calls for order. Watch the video on the page. "Members and the gallery, I just ask that you refrain from any comments. There will be a waiata after the clerk has announced the third reading. But I just ask so that we can get the procedures of the House completed. Members, the ayes are 77, the noes are 44." The applause starts up and most of the members join the gallery in applause, before the clerk makes the third reading. Immediately thereafter a voice rings out in a call to song and the gallery joins in a traditional Maori song of celebration.

In a moving display of solidarity, most people in the Parliament joined together in song to mark the passing of the bill. The bill was a private member's bill sponsored by gay Labour MP Louisa Wall, who said that a cross-party working group that had been established "shows we are building on our human rights tradition as a country". National MP Tau Henare said Australians would come to New Zealand for wedding ceremonies. "Hopefully it will push the Aussies into doing something." But Julia Gillard said she won't be moved on the issue.
Asked by a member of the public at a community cabinet in Melbourne on Wednesday night why Australia lagged behind New Zealand in legalising gay marriage, [Prime Minister Julia Gillard] said she would not be changing her mind on the issue. 
"I doubt we're going to end up agreeing," Ms Gillard said.
Last year, the Parliament in Australia had a vote on marriage equality but Gillard refused to make equal rights Labor policy, and the Opposition leader did not allow a conscience vote. The bill was not passed.

The news from Wellington was posted on the website of the Australian, but quickly removed, not unsurprisingly given that paper's conservative orientation. The news was noted internationally by the New York Times and by the Guardian.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Book review: The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Mark Bowden (2012)

Unlike Bowden's 2006 Guests of the Ayatollah, about the Iranian hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter, which I reviewed here a few years ago, this book focuses almost exclusively on matters from a domestic point of view. The actual Special Forces raid takes place in Abbottabad, of course, but the reader of The Finish sits, as it were, inside the Beltway looking out at the world, especially the world in the Middle East and Central Asia where the jihadi movement has its origins. Bowden had access to many of the central players in Washington, including Barack Obama, and interviewed them at length. Even more than in the case of the 2006 book, The Finish demonstrates how a great quantity of work can be refined in the hands of an expert practitioner and turned out to look surprisingly simple. Bowden's skill and his effort to cover as many bases as possible mean that this book is a delight to read.

The book details the origins of and the push within the administration to give continued importance to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. In addition to the CIA there are many other people involved, from Silicon Valley software engineers to foreign interrogators - key pieces of information were secured using coercive methods by the US through the extra-legal "rendition" of captives - to the US military and the specially-trained and highly-experienced soldiers who finally went over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan to carry out the assassination. Bowden rightly focuses on a few individuals to give his narrative coherence and relevance for the reader, including the US president, a White House speechwriter, and a senior CIA staffer. Focusing on individual personalities is not a new technique, but it is effective here, and the result is a better book than Bowden's 2006 one.

The book's domestic focus also delivers other dividends. One of these is a measure of balance with respect to the public sphere itself. When you read spy novels there is always the presence of politicians and the media, and usually some politicians, and most of the media, get a bad rap. Here, because of the book's domestic focus, these elements also get play, especially toward the end where Bowden takes a look at how the assassination was handled domestically in the US. The last chapter is titled 'Glitter', and it's about the spin that often adheres to high-profile events such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But it's not the media that loses control of objectivity, in the book, but rather the administration, and when Obama goes to Kentucky to thank the SEALs who carried out the raid, and is asked about the untruths that had entered the "narrative" surrounding the assassination, for him to brush it off is disingenuous:
"Don't worry about it," said the president. "That's just Washington, that's just media, that's just noise."
While the SEALs in the room just laughed, Bowden tells us, it's actually no laughing matter. In spy novels generally there is a sharp contrast in affect between noble soldiers and ignoble and tainted Beltway operatives, such as politicians and the media, and this dynamic has always surprised me. If Bowden's book does anything, it shows how the people involved in such actualities as the assassination are just that - people - and normally they are dedicated and passionate people too. The way operators in the public sphere are routinely smeared by fiction writers - the people who write the fictional analogues of Bowden's book - is a source of amazement for me, because it is precisely the democratic process that they are engaged in that is what is being protected in the War on Terror. There's something dysfunctional about this matrix of ideas and feelings, as if we are ashamed of how well the system works compared to the alternatives; alternatives that can cause so much trouble to the democratic majority, as the recent events in Boston show.

What Bowden does also in his book is to show how essential good journalism is - Bowden is, after all, a journalist - and how it can bring truth to light despite the spin that politicians often apply to facts in order to gain advantage in the public sphere. What Obama should have said to the soldiers instead of "the media" is "the public sphere", but the concept is a bit elegant, perhaps, for most. The public sphere is a highly contested space, and it always has been. The feeling of shame that appears mainly in fictional narratives that deal with the point of confluence between the polity and the military might be assuaged by books such as Bowden's, which tries very hard to portray the truth. Bowden's reputation as a fair witness gives him access to people most of us are barred from discussions with, and his dedication to truth serves him in the form of a passport in this sense.

Monday 15 April 2013

Book review: Big Data, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (2013)

The age of Big Data started years ago and we all need to manage it. Just yesterday, in Sydney, there was a story about a university using students' online activity to predict performance, with administrators saying they'll step in to help if needed. The use of large amounts of data to predict outcomes is having an affect within companies and governments, and within society generally, across the world, and it's predicated on the low cost of data processing and storage.

The book contains many examples of Big Data activity, mainly in the US. It also contains warnings, as the use of massive quantities of data enables organisations to forsee the future through the use of correlation rather than causation. The authors say that we have to be careful not to allow mathematics to negate the notion of free will, on which our legal system is based. Just because it's likely that a person might commit an offense, doesn't mean that he or she should be arrested because a computer algorithm has decided that this is so.

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier even propose the creation of a new profession of "algorithmists", men and women who can understand the complex mathematical tools that are being developed to handle Big Data, and use their understanding to make sure that evil is not committed. The two men also touch on the issue of data storage horizons. How long should data about people be kept when the likelihood is that new, useful applications of data might only be discovered years or decades hence? Most people already think about this issue in relation to their lives online, and about the right to be forgotten. As data manipulation for civic and commercial purposes becomes more commonplace such issues will arise in the public sphere, and governments will be forced to tackle them even through legislation.

The two writers have produced an interesting and engaging book, although the first 30 pages or so might be cut; there's a certain bureaucratic necessity in them that disappears once talk turns to how Big Data is actually used, later in the book. They turn to Big Data projects of the past, as well, sometimes retracing our steps to the fairly distant past.

The men are certain that the world will change in significant ways once Big Data becomes more common. This book is an introduction to new possibilities, and a warning to new forms of abuse that were not cogent before the era of Big Data emerged.

Sunday 14 April 2013

The fraught matter of breeding tomatoes

There's no question that agribusiness has an image problem with metro residents. To see this at work, you can check out a petition page aimed at gathering signatures in response to activities of Monsanto in Europe. Watch the page and see the signatures roll in from all over the world; the total number gathered as I type is over 1.46 million. I saw the petition on Facebook where a person I'm connected with posted it, and it made me ask a few questions because the information contained with the petition has a few holes. It runs, in part:
They’re trying to patent away varieties of our everyday vegetables and fruits like cucumber, broccoli and melons, forcing growers to pay them for seed and risk being sued if they don’t. 
In the comments thread on Facebook I read things that my Facebook connection thinks about the issue, and they included "food security issues, genetic engineering ethical and health issues, planetary consequences issues" and also a suggestion that companies like Monsanto should not patent germplasm (seeds) but rather develop new varieties of, say, tomatoes out of "altruistic motivations". The petition site exploits this ignorance to generate support for its cause, but the pitch, to me, is full of holes. Avaaz provides no substantiating documentation, such as news stories detailing exactly what is supposed to be happening. Where has this been happening? I have no idea. This level of incoherence seems to gel in the minds of readers, such as that of my Facebook connection, alongside other issues such as food security (new varieties of vegetables actually improve food security), GM issues (seed companies may or may not use GM to develop new varieties of tomato; there's no information on this in the Avaaz petition), ethical issues (this is a bit vague), health issues (I have never read anything that convinces me that GM crops are bad for people), and "planetary consequences" issues (whatever that means).

It's a bit of a mess and just shows how little the average person knows about how the vegetables they eat are developed and grown. As for making a profit, the economics of plant breeding mean that profitability is necessary, as it's an expensive process.

Even if you get past the GM issue because a certain breeding program being conducted by a seed company is only using traditional breeding practices, then you hit a generalised distaste for hybrids. People who have opinions on these things and who live in cities want heirloom seeds, it appears, and not those expensive hybrids that companies like Monsanto produce for "industrial farmers". But talk to the farmers themselves and you get a different picture. In Australia we're spoiled because we can grow tomatoes year-round. In northern Queensland around the town of Bowen, for example, there are many farms producing tomatoes during winter months for supermarkets located in the southern capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. Consumers in those places love this availability, and farmers want varieties of tomatoes that provide a sufficient yield (number of fruit per plant) as well as disease resistance (there are many diseases that plague monoculture crops, including fuserian wilt, powdery mildew, nematodes, tomato yellow leaf curl virus and tomato spotted wilt virus).

This is where the scientists step in, and the seed companies provide their expertise and their production capacity to make it happen.

It takes years to develop a variety of tomato that contains all the disease resistances that are necessary for the farm environment. And government might be involved as well. In Queensland, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has long conducted a breeding program in association with seed company Syngenta to develop disease resistance varieties with hybrids. Using expensive gene-mapping equipment and low-cost labour located in parts of Asia, as well as the expertise of Queensland scientists, the program is moving toward its goal.

"You generally accumulate two or three disease-resistance genes in one parent, and the remaining disease resistances you accumulate in the second parent," Des McGrath of DAFF Queensland told me when I interviewed him in early 2011 for a magazine story. "You bring them together in a hybrid, and because of the way they’re inherited, all of the five genes – in this case – will be expressed in the hybrid. Three will come from this side, two from the other."

This bringing together of genes is done manually, as this 2012 departmental press release shows. "The flowers contain both male and female parts," McGrath told me. "If you want to use one parent as a female you remove the male parts before they shed pollen. So you’ve just got the female part there and you transfer pollen from another flower, from another line, onto that parent." This operation is done in Asia, where labour costs are lower.

Once the seeds have been planted and have borne fruit, the resulting fruit contains seeds but these cannot be used to grow the next crop. "You’ll plant those seeds, you’ll get a crop," McGrath told me. "That crop will also produce seeds but the seeds in that next generation will be variable." Because these new seeds are variable they may not contain all the required disease resistances, so the farmer does not use them for the next crop, but instead buys more seeds from the seed company. And farmers work closely with DAFF Queensland and Syngenta - and Monsanto - to make sure the future lines of product meet the requirements of consumers as well as intermediate customers, such as supermarkets. It's a complex business satisfying the appetite of metro consumers for winter tomatoes, and people up and down the chain have to make a profit so that the supply can be maintained. Consumer demand drives the business.

As for the Avaaz petition, if anyone has more information about what Monsanto is supposed to have done in Europe, I'm all ears. There's a comments facility on this blog.

Saturday 13 April 2013

The Conversation's new Talking Points podcasts are a keeper

The mediaspace is rapidly adapting to changing consumer preferences; well, maybe "rapidly" is the wrong word. I should say, it appears that the media is finally getting the message that people like to listen to human voices and see human faces while consuming news. There has been a mini boom in podcasts - with and without video - and the new 'Talking Points' series that The Conversation has just launched fits into the digital ecosphere neatly. The first episode has been edited by Bill Code working for SBS alongside The Conversation, and it features three interviews and runs to about 30 minutes.

Feminist Eva Cox is well-known in Australia due to her appearances on the ABC's Q and A, and here she talks about Maggie Thatcher's legacy. Then there's Suelette Dreyfus, who is an academic specialising in whistleblowers; she also wrote a book on Julian Assange, Underground, on which the recent movie was based. Finally there's Harry Blutstein, an academic, who talks about a US company that's trying to get paid by people who publish podcasts because it says it owns a patent on the technology. Interesting for me is the fact that Dreyfus is from the US Midwest - you can tell from her accent, which sounds a lot like Kristina Kenneally's accent.

I'm not sure that "talking points" is the right name for this program because here you have something like long-form interviews that go to the background of stories that are topical in the media. Code had obviously done his homework, and this makes for serious journalism. The SBS-backed production is slick and sounds professional, and Code's having a grasp of the basic elements of each issue is part of the package that SBS and The Conversation is able to put together for readers. The podcast clearly cost something to make, and I think that as the medium develops and becomes more popular organisations will be spending more money on their productions. Already, the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is getting ready to pay something toward producing its Mediatwits podcasts, as it has advertised for a paid intern to work on the project.

Non-programmed news and current affairs content on the web has a deliberate appeal as it operates to fit in with the reader's schedule; there's no rushing to the TV to catch a favourite program. Instead, the reader can just tune in with a few clicks when he or she has an hour or so to spend online. This scenario is very congenial and welcome. I look forward to more Talking Points podcasts that can deliver informative, in-depth analysis accompanied by real journalism that is researched and balanced. This is a keeper, and I hope the site continues to produce these shows.

Friday 12 April 2013

Traffic in Sydney's inner west is the pedestrian's curse

It was fitting that just before I got back from visiting Sydney a story should appear talking about how bad the traffic is there.
Trips across the city take on average 33 per cent longer during peak-hour periods than they do on a clear run, an analysis of millions of kilometres travelled around Sydney by satnav company TomTom has found. 
In the worst of the travel peak, Sydneysiders on average are spending an extra 40 minutes in their vehicles for each hour driven on choked roads. 
Based on a 30-minute daily commute, that adds up to a staggering 92 extra hours spent at the wheel in bumper-to-bumper bedlam each year, enough to cause both engines and tempers to overheat.
I had hired a car but even though I had places to go on some days I left it in the hotel carpark because it's not just the teeth-grinding experience of negotiating Sydney's inner urban traffic, it's also the problem of where to park. The hotel I stayed in is on Pitt Street and I had occasion to go to Newtown. Drive? Forget it. Better to pay $15 for a taxi.

Even going to Glebe is difficult. On a weekday around 11am, finding a parking space in the Broadway Shopping Centre is no joke. You drive round and round to ever higher levels and as soon as a car departs there is someone waiting to fill the empty space.

In one taxi I took I learned from the driver of a plan to close George Street to traffic. Instead there would be light rail going from the CBD to Randwick. "Great," I thought, "that's what Sydney needs." But it needs more, too. The CBD is so choked with cars that the trip down Liverpool Street, for example, takes place in a fever of acceleration amid harrassed honking of car horns. On Broadway the drive up to the City Road intersection is a nightmare with cars and buses struggling to find an exit. And when the massive Central Park apartment complex opens up in the next couple of years the situation is going to get worse.

Glebe and Newtown are extremely popular with diners and are places where people go to meet and socialise, but getting there is no joke. It means you have to get on a crowded bus and jostle with other commuters through the hellish traffic that goes: start, stop, start, stop. Getting from Glebe to Newtown? The university is placed right between. But these are high traffic areas where a lot of people prefer to walk or use public transport, rather than drive. Meanwhile, hassled drivers surge forward a metre and break sharply, then wait for traffic to clear before edging on again. The wear-and-tear to vehicle and the driver's temper is palpable; you can almost feel the frustration rising as you walk down King Street or scamper across Broadway to the pedestrian refuge on the other side.

As the state government approves more infill development in the inner west the problems are going to get worse. Planners need to develop better ideas to allow people to get around on foot and using light rail, and get the cars and buses off the roads as much as possible. Sydney University hit the right button when it made Eastern Avenue on campus completely car-free, enabling students and visitors to unhurriedly go from one building to the next without worrying about bumping into cars and physical injury. A similar way of thinking has to be brought to bear for the King Street-City Road-Broadway-Glebe Point Road nexus of thoroughfares. And what about the conflict between students and cars on Harris Street and the roads in Ultimo between China Town and Broadway? So far, thinking in these areas has been lazy. A new paradigm is needed to make the pedestrian the main focus, and to get traffic out of these important commercial districts.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Weekly Times milk video hits too weakly

Dairy farmers have had some wins in the public sphere through agitation and publication of news and information, such as on blogs and in socmed, notably seeing Woolworths offer to change the way it buys milk from farmers. While this move is yet to show a real improvement of terms for farmers, the trial's launch shows that supermarkets are highly sensitive to criticism of their business practices. Publicity clearly does work. With this aim in mind, an enterprising person - or persons, it's not clear - have made quite a long video about the situation with Coles and milk producers and it's available to view on the Weekly Times website. This national rural newspaper has popped the video in their regular video section.

The video runs to over 13 minutes. This is problematic on the website because the home page, where the video is posted, has a regular refresh cycle, so you won't be able to view the whole video before the refresh kicks in and shuts down the video, pulling it back to the beginning. This is a problem I've encountered with News Ltd websites before, notably with the Australian, and it shows how the company's professed aim of expanding multimedia content clashes with other priorities in the business. The company just does not "get" digital content. It's a print enterprise and that's where its business practices focus. News Ltd owns the Weekly Times of course.

There's another thing that farmers should not be surprised that the company does not get: the real difficulties that home brand milk sold at very low prices is causing Australian farmers.

News Ltd is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, a thrillingly successful businessman whose business assets span from book publishing to newspapers and from movie production to magazines. He's also a major supporter of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative, economic-libertarian Australian think-tank that is highly active in the public sphere in this country. His father helped found it. He's a donor to the IPA. And Murdoch was in Melbourne this week to give a speech at a gathering, which included Tony Abbott, held to celebrate the IPA's 70th birthday. During his talk, Murdoch said "we must argue the morality of free markets and the immorality of markets that are not free". In this context, it's hardly surprising that News Ltd newspapers are ignoring farmers and, by doing so, clearing the way for the duopoly to continue squeezing them out of profits.

The IPA has form in this area, too, with recent comments to the effect that government-funded agricultural research was a "waste of money", preferring to see innovations emerge from the labs of private companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. The National Farmers Federation has criticised the think-tank publicly.

As for the video, I say it's nice, if a little fast and hard to understand. The cognates of the average metro resident - and you'd think that the video makers would have had this demographic in mind when making it - do not extend as far as is assumed by whoever put it together. Instead of 13 minutes, it could easily have run to twice that. And I think the graphics, while entertaining in themselves, are a distraction. It's hard to follow the rapid narrative and work out where the drawing is going, all at the same time.

But my main reservation about the video is that it's in the wrong place. Farmers read the Weekly Times, and they're not the target audience for the people who made it. People in cities, who buy milk from Coles and Woolworths, do not read the paper, and are more likely to get their information from YouTube or in the Herald Sun or the Daily Terror. Putting the video where it is is completely ineffective. And don't expect News Ltd vehicles with a metro reach to pick up on the story. So far the only places you can get information about milk prices are run by the ABC and Fairfax. News Ltd editors know what Murdoch wants to see in his papers: free markets, not fair markets.