Wednesday 28 February 2018

Book review: Rogue Nation, Royce Kurmelovs (2017)

This fussy little book dates the appearance of populist politics that is threatening the stability of Western democracies globally to the late 90s when the carrot-headed Liberal, Pauline Hanson, quit the party to set up her own operation, which became One Nation. The author furthermore worked for a spell up to the middle of 2017 in the office of South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon, who also set up a minor party, the Nick Xenophon Team. (Xenophon has now quit the federal Senate and instead will run in state politics in future under the banner of SA Best.) Given this set of circumstances you might think that you were in for an interesting ride but things don’t turn out exactly as planned.

Kurmelovs has a structural problem with the book and gets bogged down in an endless stream of details amid the politics of the minor parties in the Australian Parliament. The book is enticingly subtitled ‘Dispatches from Australia’s Popular Uprisings and Outsider Politics’ but the promise of purposeful action is largely unfulfilled.

Any firm narrative that he might have begun with is lost in the onward rush of minutiae, surely compelling enough in themselves but in aggregate an indeterminate mass that you constantly have to sift through for meaning, in the form of things like press conferences, policy decisions, and media releases. It’s a disappointing book that doesn’t really have a central core that you can rely on to carry you through to the other side. Kurmelovs is assuredly a competent writer and the words emerge with ease and efficacy, but I found the book’s dramatic arc not well enough realised to warrant the time and effort needed to finish it. I dropped out at about 25 percent of the way through, and this review is my response to it.

There are fruitful possibilities for the themes it raises about populism and the jettisoning of the political mainstream by large swathes of many electorates, such as the recent rise in the US of Donald Trump and the Brexit movement in the UK, but the author didn’t make much of them.

Hanson reemerged as a political force after a number of missed opportunities punctuated by a stint in the clink, but in the 2017 state election in Queensland – her home state – her party only secured a single parliamentary seat with about 14 percent of the popular vote. It did even worse in the 2017 Western Australian state election, securing about five percent of the vote and no seats. There are state elections soon in South Australia, where SA Best is expected by some to hold the balance of power in the lower house of the Parliament, and also in Tasmania and Victoria. The next federal general election will not take place until 2019.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Got something in my eye

On Saturday night at about 2am I woke up for some reason and tried to open my eyes but something had got into the right eye and it was painful to blink. The pain didn’t go away with my eyes closed because even when your lids are shut your eyes keep on moving in tandem. Tears were streaming down my cheek on the right-hand side of my face as I blinked furiously, and with a rising sense of panic I got up and went to the bathroom, where I tried splashing water on the eye to rid myself of the irritation. It was very difficult to open it because of the pain from whatever was in there and when the washing produced no results I felt the panic rising higher. I decided to call an ambulance and went to my phone, which was next to my bed on the right-hand side table instead of on the left-hand one, where the charger is located, because I had messaged someone after getting into bed.

I called triple-zero and got the ambulance operator. I told her my address, which took a few attempts because it was hard for her to grasp the suburb’s spelling from my delivery, and then the street name. I told her I would wait on the street for the ambulance and she said that it was up to me. She also asked me if the eyeball was cut open, and I said “No.” After hanging up, I dressed in a clean short-sleeved shirt and put on my trousers and a new pair of socks and went to the living room, where I loaded up my pockets with my wallet and keys. Then I went to the lift and descended to the ground floor of the building where the lobby is. In the lobby there is a navy blue couch and a matching lounge chair, which I sat in to wait, my eye giving me trouble all the while.

After about ten minutes of waiting with my eyes mostly closed in the deserted lobby of the building the ambulance turned up. I saw the light from its headlights illuminating the street before it came into view from the right, and I went outside through the front door to meet the paramedics. One of the men remained in the driver’s seat and the other man was already standing on the street in his uniform next to the vehicle, opening the side door as I walked up. He asked me my name and I told him, then he told me to sit inside on a seat that was there.

He asked me some questions including whether I had any medical problems, and I told him that I have a psychiatric illness and was taking medication for it. He asked me how long I had lived in the building and I said it was about two years. He asked the name of my mental illness and I told him. He asked the name of my medication and I told him. He asked when I usually took the medication, and I told him I take one wafer at night. He asked me if I had taken the medication that night and I said, “Yes.” He asked me if I take the medication in the morning as well and I said, “No.”

He squatted next to me on the floor and bustled round the cab while asking these questions and then he stood up as far as the cramped space at the back of the vehicle allowed and located a small plastic bottle of fluid. He put a towel across my lap and chest and told me to lean my head back. He asked me to open my eyes and then leaning over toward me he squirted water from the bottle onto the right eye, which was impossible to keep open because of the extreme discomfort. The water irrigated my eye and ran down my face onto my shirt where the towel was resting. He told me to keep the eye open and I said I was trying to.

He repeated this operation a number of times but the irritation in the eyeball didn’t go away. He asked me if I had tried to wash the eye myself and I said, “Yes.” He said my eyebrows were long and touched one of them with his fingers, saying that one of the hairs from there might have gotten into the eye. The driver, meanwhile, had found the name of my medication on his computer and he told the other paramedic that it was an antipsychotic. The paramedic next to me went around to sit at a table set in the floor and typed something on the keyboard of his computer, then looked intently at the screen, which he eventually closed shut. The driver started to spell out the name of the drug and the paramedic in the back with me made some remark. He came back to me and tried again with the water bottle to dislodge the irritant from the eyeball, which was a bit better but still painful, but it didn’t work. He asked me if I wanted to go to the eye hospital and I said, “Yes.”

I asked him for a tissue so that I could blow my nose – thinking that this might help to dislodge whatever was in my eye – but it didn’t make any difference. I adjusted my position slightly in the padded seat and shoved the used tissue into my left-hand trouser pocket with my left hand. The paramedic closed the door of the ambulance and put on my seatbelt, then we got on our way. During the trip, he sat in the back of the vehicle at the table near me. The driver at one point said, “244 has been sent to Carlingford” and the paramedic in the back made a noise with his throat to acknowledge the remark.

We had been going up hills and turning corners but I had no idea which route we were taking to get to the CBD, where the eye hospital is located. I asked the paramedic if it was Saturday night and he said, “Yes.” I asked if we were driving to the city and he said, “Yes, that’s where the eye hospital is.”

We arrived at the building and the driver put down the steps leading to the cab in the back of the vehicle where I was sitting strapped into the seat. The other paramedic undid the safety belt and told me to follow him, which I did, exiting the vehicle slowly and carefully down the fold-out steps attached to its side. My vision was still partial because it was almost impossible to comfortably open and use either eye. I blinked and swivelled my eyeballs frantically, catching periodic glimpses of the world through the veil of tears that coated my vision. I tried to keep up with the feet retreating in front of me, and we went through an automated door into the ward. The paramedic told me to sit down and pointed at a chair with a plastic frame and a padded seat that was covered with a different plastic material. I sat down to wait.

An Anglo nurse in her middle age who had a round body dressed in a blue tunic came up to me then and asked some questions, I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she went away and came back with a small plastic vial the tip of which she put right in front of my right eye resting her fingers on my cheek for support. She told me to open my eye and tried to put in some drops. I had a lot of difficulty opening the eye and she had to remonstrate with me, saying, “If you don’t open your eye I can’t get it in.” The paramedic was still standing in front of me while all this happened. I told her I was trying to open the eye and eventually after a few attempts she was successful in getting some of the anaesthetic from the vial into the eye. She said the procedure hadn’t fixed the problem but that the liquid in the vial would take away the pain. I looked at her and concurred that the pain had gone away.

A doctor appeared who was middle-aged and from an Asian background and was dressed in a green tunic that had the word ‘Doctor’ embroidered over the left-hand side where his heart was. He told me to sit in a large chair with arms that was draped with a clean white cloth a few steps away from where I was seated. He used a small, powerful torch with its lens set at a right angle to its grip and peered into my right eye for a fairly long time as he assessed the problem. He asked me where the pain was and I pointed to the bottom left of the eye, saying, “It’s here.”

He said that he had to lift up the top eyelid of the eye and I said nothing as he went ahead with the procedure. With my left eye closed I could see through my right eye the pink lid in the field of vision. There was some movement as the light swerved around but I couldn’t see clearly what was happening. The doctor said he had identified the source of the irritation under the upper eyelid. The torch continued to shine in my eye. He let the lid close again and went to the side, then came back and lifted the eyelid again as before, giving me once again a view of the pink membrane on the inside of it. I could see something white approach the eye and felt something moving across the surface of the eyeball as he applied a small implement shaped like a cotton bud to the eyeball underneath the upper lid. Then he said he had got it. I opened my eyes.

He held the implement in front of my face and I could see sitting on the end of it a small speck of black matter. It looked like grit or sand, and was quite visible to the unassisted eye. The doctor said that I might have had pepper for dinner and he laughed. “I didn’t have pepper with dinner,” I said then but on later reflection I probably had done. He stood facing sideways looking away from me, then he faced me again and I looked at him. I thanked him plainly and said that the pain had gone away.

I got up from the chair and he pointed me to the service desk at the front of the ward, where a large Anglo man aged in his thirties was seated. As I approached the desk with its Perspex shield separating the clerical staff from members of the public, a woman in her twenties wearing tight denim shorts and a red tube top came in the front door from the courtyard. She walked hesitantly and used her hand to motion me to precede her to the desk. I moved toward it and immediately afterward saw that she walked behind me to enter the ward following the doctor.

I asked the man at the desk if there was anything I needed to produce for him and he shrugged and said, “No.” I asked him if the ambulance that had brought me had left and he said that ambulances don’t take people home. I said “Ok” and thanked him and turned to put some distance between us, passing by the security guards’ enclosure as I walked outside. One of them, a large man in middle age seated on a stool, turned his head to look at me as I hurried past.

With my unimpeded vision I quickly oriented myself to my surroundings and headed up the slope toward Macquarie Street. It was about 3am by this time and the street was practically empty of cars. I waited a minute or two before an empty cab came down the street from the north, its roof light shining bright yellow in the darkness. I got in and told the name of my suburb to the driver, who was a middle-aged man of African descent. I told him why I was on the street at such an early hour and he sympathised with me. Eventually we moved on from talking about the healthcare system to talking about gun control in America. I voiced a note that Australia had changed the law in 1996 because of a massacre and he replied, “John Howard.” I directed him to my street and paid using my debit card, applied my access tab to the front-door proximity sensor, entered the lobby I had quit some 90 minutes before, and then went upstairs in the lift.

In bed, I had trouble getting to sleep because of all the drama and when I did my sleep was disturbed. It felt to me the next morning as though I tossed and turned all night. By morning, my right eye was still sensitive and somewhat sore and I could feel like a headache the remembered traces of the irritant where it had lodged for so long under the eyelid. Later, I went to Cabramatta and the movement of the train carriage as it lurched from side to side and up and down along the tracks, like a big drunken metal boat, mimicked the sick ache around my right eye. It dragged me down to street level and once there I endured the realisation that if things had not gone as they had done, I might have suffered in actual fact a good deal more. After lunch we visited three Buddhist temples in the rain.

Monday 26 February 2018

Dragon boats on Darling Harbour

I was walking through Darling Harbour on Saturday and saw dragon boats lined up on the water with full crews. Each boat has a drummer sitting in the bow on a chair, 10 paddlers, and one sweep handling an oar in the water to steer the boat with. I talked to some of the people sitting and standing around near the marquees that have been set up by the City of Sydney, which organised the races, for lunar new year. Of the five people I spoke with for this story, four were aged in their twenties and were of Asian ancestry, but they all spoke without an accent so they must have been at least second generation Australian. Four were men. One man, an older Anglo gent with a moustache and goatee, had come to Sydney for the event from Nowra on the southern NSW coast.

The public address system announced crews from the Illawarra and from Pittwater, on the southern and northern extremities of the city respectively. I asked the people dressed in their team colours where the boats had been put in the water because I was curious about the logistics of the undertaking, but it turns out that the boats used in the races, which were 200-metre sprints, were all kept normally at the Blackwattle Bay Dragon Boat Club, around the point to the west in Pyrmont. On the day, different crews used the same limited fleet of boats on rotation. There were 150 crews competing in 60 races and crews had come from as far away as the Central Coast and Orange. I took this photo when I was out on the way to have some Indian food for lunch.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Book review: Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2017)

This is a happily optimistic book about big data by a single, middle-class white male who graduated from Harvard and worked at Google. It tries to elencate the gains to be made in a future where more data can be more quickly quantified and analysed by more people for more purposes.

It suggests a world where difficult questions can be solved using the vast amounts of digital information that is always being collected about us, most often through web searches. What people tell researchers who use surveys might not necessarily match reality in all cases, so conclusions that rely on such information have to be taken with a grain of salt.

But some things are impossible using big data. You can’t pick winners on the stock market using big data, for example. There is already so much information available about publicly-traded companies that is being studied by so many people, so trying to find causation or correlation using other things as indicators of stock price performance is unrealistic. (The author was asked by Lawrence Summers, treasury secretary, 1999–2001, to find out if it was possible to do this. Stephens-Davidowitz had by that time published some articles that had garnered attention in some quarters in the US.)

There are also some things that governments should not do with big data, such as trying to predict if someone will commit a crime based on their web searches.

But in other areas, such as health care, the use of valid comparisons – Stephens-Davidowitz calls them dopplegangers – between different people can lead to good outcomes. Companies like Amazon use them already when they recommend books for you to buy, for example.

The author paces his material well in some cases but he still goes too fast in many others. He tends to get carried away by the novelty of the instance and forgets that the reader is coming from a position of complete ignorance, while he remains an expert statistician. I found this a bit annoying at times, and wished he would have slowed down a bit so that he could background his material better, to ensure better comprehension. And the technical concepts to do with the art of statistics that he introduces get lost completely in the wash of information because he doesn’t explain them well enough. The end result is that I sit here in front of my keyboard trying to think about some of the individual case studies he describes, so that I can talk about them for readers, but my mind comes up a blank.

I tell a lie: there was one experiment which stuck in my head. It involved conversations between men and women that were recorded during a first date. The content was then converted into text files and analysed. The study found that if the conversation involved the woman using the word “I” a lot, there was likely to be a second date. If there were a  lot of questions asked, however, there was likely to be no second date. This was an interesting study and was the kind that might reveal truths that regular surveys would miss, because here you were dealing with people who acted all along as though they were not being observed.

Problems of pacing are common when you have an expert writing a book for the trade market. The art of writing for this market is different than the art of writing for a peer-review community, whichever discipline is involved. You have to make sure you treat your reader like a little old man with a walking stick, and you are helping him to cross the road. Each step has multiple phases with many moving parts to think about in order to complete it reliably. A crossing that a young man manages almost instantaneously and without any effort at all might take an old man minutes to complete only with intense concentration. Stephens-Davidowitz says in the book that he worked hard on each chapter to make sure his word selection was always right, but I think his editor could have done more to make the book more accessible for the layperson.

While overall the book was sometimes of more than passing interest, I furthermore found it a tad parochial. You can only ask questions that are as good as the categories you rely on, for a start. It comes down to a question of defining what you are measuring and how to identify the best representatives of the target population.

I think that while it might be possible to do something ephemeral like picking good batters for a baseball team by relying on statistical data, it might be a little more difficult to do important things, such as reducing the quantity of income inequality in the US, unless you ask the right questions of the right people. When it comes to raising living standards, if you think that unbridled capitalism is the answer to every question asked, as Republicans do, then you are never going to reach the right conclusions. Same goes with health.  I dare say that like many  people employed by technology companies in the US, Stephens-Davidowitz is likely a Democrat, but that doesn’t say much. A right-leaning Democrat is more like a true Australian conservative than anything else. We have few politicians here to compare with the types of extreme ideologues you routinely find in the Republican Party.

And categories are important for studies of this kind. In the US, for example, they airily mention “going to school” when they really mean you attend a tertiary education institution. So your categories and your way of perceiving the world – which will determine the questions you ask – are already determined to a certain degree by the language that you use when you talk about something. In other countries, they usually refer to “universities”, not “schools”. So how do you go about doing a search for data about tertiary study when the referents you use are different in different places?

The author, who is regrettably a big baseball fan, depends heavily on a view of the world made through American eyes, and so his choices when it comes to asking questions that might help to actually improve regular people’s lives are always going to be constrained by focalisation.

There are some things that he will never see, and I suspect no amount of big data analysis by people like him who belong to the elites is going to help solve the big problems that daily confront regular people living in the US, such as the ludicrous minimum wage, the ridiculous gerrymandering of electoral boundaries that keeps the Congress Republican, the fact that health care costs twice as much in the US compared to the OECD average but the average lifespan is about three years shorter. And forget about gun control. The number of wicked problems in America abound and everyone already knows what they are, except for Americans themselves. Will big data help solve them? I frankly doubt it.

On the upside, the book, subtitled ‘What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’, posits that big data might allow social scientists to finally earn the level of respect that society routinely bestows on physical scientists. A much bigger problem however is that Americans never see anything beyond their own borders, and so ignore gains that communities in other places have made over the years by intelligently adapting their politics, labour relations and economies to fit their unique cultures.

Learning from others’ successes is something that everyone, especially American social scientists, should do.

Saturday 24 February 2018

Book review: Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)

This piece of gun schlocky starts with a machine-built ship escaping from a galaxy. At its edge, the ship is intercepted by enemy vessels and intentionally detonates, but the Mind that inhabits it escapes to a planet in a nearby solar system. It’s all very high-tech and glossy but then you cut to a torture chamber of the Culture on the planet Sorpen, where the Changer Horza is kept shackled in a pit of filth, threatened with drowning in it as he hangs there, suspended by his arms on chains. The chasm that opens up in this nexus of seminal values and striking imagery between the technologically advanced society being described and the unspeakable treatment of its powerless enemies is vast, and according to its cruel logic Horza must be liberated by an Idrian with a plasma cannon. Yay. Call 911.

I optimistically bought this unpromising novel, Scottish author Banks’ first science fiction production, because it was announced today that Amazon would make a production based on it for TV. The announcement reminded me of a similar one that was recently made by Netflix for ‘Altered Carbon’, a TV series based on a novel by English author Richard K. Morgan. I saw a poster advertising the latter series when I was walking through the CBD the other day, and it showed a man intensely looking out at the passing public while holding in his hand what appeared to be a powerful futuristic handgun. The sight of the ad merely made me feel nauseous.

The most recent Star Wars movie, which I reviewed here in January, boasts similar credentials, and it turned out to be a pale shadow of the imaginative fiction that originally inspired the franchise. Another schlocky gun drama bites the dust, but we never learn because we still pay to go see. We lap it up and so they keep on making it.

It’s as though American originary myths are constantly being replayed in worlds where rewards and punishments can be meted out correctly according to the current audience’s circumscribed version of justice. As though they’re always making the same story again and again and again. Future landscapes especially facilitate this opportunistic ruse on the part of producers because you can just change the aesthetics while keeping the narrative the same. It’s cheaper, too, because it’s all done with digital graphics and you can use the same stable of writers on different projects. So the evil empire and the diamond in the rough get a run in every film. It’s 1776 every six months.

War and violence anyway are sterile vehicles through which to introduce concepts that might possibly one day belong to the future. Like the torture scene in the novel that opens this review, they are characterised by moments of heightened drama but remain nevertheless stuff that must distort anything but the most obtuse narrative out of any normal shape. Under such conditions the more delicate outlines of imaginative secondary characters will be crushed into forms beyond all recognition. These bellicose tropes just serve to suck in the gullible to watch, open-mouthed and dribbling.

So  I don’t know why science fiction, which so often seems to be based on such stale contrivances, is considered to be offering “alternative” stories, since the devices upon which it so often relies for its stock-in-trade are tired and shop-worn. In ‘Star Wars’, which came out in 1976 on the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution, the real drama focused on a small group of exiles on a remote planet far from the centre of political power. In this out-of-the-way location, the awakening of Luke Skywalker began so that the story could turn out to have a happy ending. The magic of that movie had nothing to do with blasters and X-wing fighters and everything to do with an individual’s self-knowledge.

There might be something equally compelling at the core of the novel under review, as well, but it’s just so tiresome to have to wade through the meat-headed paraphernalia that buttresses it. So consider a successful science fiction movie of recent times, ‘Arrival’ by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. The 2016 film’s lead role goes to a university-trained linguist whom the military ropes in so that she can learn how to communicate with aliens arrived in ships that seem to negate the laws of gravity. They have superior technology, the generals ask, so why are they here? It turns out the strange squid-like beings inside the egg-shaped starships want humans to help solve a problem faced by their civilisation. This was a deeply affecting film that played out on a broad dramatic canvas and as in the case of ‘Star Wars’ the guys with explosives and guns turn out to be the enemies of mankind, rather than its friends.

This was a triumph of the filmmaker’s art, but in many cases the idea that you have to go to another world, not yet born, to construct an affecting story seems to me to be something of an ego-trip. As though you personally had already identified and catalogued every conceivable type of story in the here-and-now, or else using the annals of history, and had to go elsewhere to find something remarkable to write about. It smacks of intellectual hubris if not plain ignorance.

The impulse not only betrays the supersized ego and short attention span of the true amateur, it also forsakes the legitimate claim on our attention of other, less notable but equally real stories that are everywhere available if you scan the shelves of history or journalism. Why bother with strange aliens on some as-yet-unrealised battlefield when factual stories are available that are on the surface far less violent but equally compelling? In the developed world such stories currently might be those which have to do with growing income inequality, rather than with some hubristic super-state that straddles many star systems in some still-to-emerge Age of Idrians.

The real stories are still emerging from the archives, if you take time to look. There is plenty to read and be informed and moved by, within existing philosophies, Horatio. Let’s ditch the plasma cannons.

War and crime might be the most visible elements of contemporary culture but it’s just lazy thinking to imagine that they constitute the whole story for any civilisation. What we click on when we are online may not always be the most important story, just as what we readily pay money to see in the cinema might not always be the most deserving object of our esteem. And in any case, recent studies have shown that what we tend to share on social media are the positive stories, not the negative ones.

We have to look beyond the shocking headlines if we are to find the real stories, the ones that will in the future serve to truly define our era. The most representative stories are often hidden in plain view. It has always been thus. There’s nothing new to see here.

Friday 23 February 2018

Book review: The Court Reporter, Jamelle Wells (2018)

Having worked for almost two decades as the ABC’s court reporter, Jamelle Wells is well-placed to fulfil an important function as go-between between the public and the media. The law must not just perform its social, economic and political functions, it must also be seen to perform them. Open courts are a long-established part of the legal justice system in Australia (and other former British colonies such as the US and Canada), going back to eras long before the colonies were founded. This book is an artefact of open justice.

Court reporters continue to be necessary because of the stop-start nature of how justice works. The fluid narrative that you get in the evening newscast is nothing like the spasmodic drip of crucial information surrounding a case which might take literally years to emerge for big or complex cases. Careful attention by the court reporter is necessary at all times so that important information is not missed during a trial or a related hearing where details about a case are discussed in court between the prosecutors, the judge, and the defendants.

In her book, Wells touches on all levels of justice in the state of NSW, including the High Court when it sits in Sydney, the NSW Supreme Court and other, lower,  Sydney courts, local magistrates courts in the suburbs, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as well as bespoke bodies such as the inquiry into the Sydney siege conducted by Man Haron Monis in 2014.

Dates are not always overt in the account, so it’s hard to know when Wells actually started working for the ABC; she was already working in the media before 2001 when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and she moved to the national broadcaster after that. But her wise, artful and interesting account of working on her chosen beat is something of a revelation. While she is tight-lipped about domestic arrangements – you never work out if she is married, has children or has a family of any sort – she is forthcoming in so many other ways.

Her discretion about personal lives comes into play in a topical fashion in 2015 when she breaks her hip outside the ICAC  court and is admitted by ambulance to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where nursing staff ask her about the domestic arrangements of colleagues including ABC News presenter Joe O’Brien, who visits her one day in the ward.

I mention family because it is true to say that working on this round would be stressful for anyone. You are repeatedly exposed to such harrowing accounts of abuse in the real sense of the word and you need to recalibrate from time to time in order to cope with the tireless onslaught of toxic information. Family would be one way to wind down. Wells talks at some limited length about such stresses of the job but you feel that more could have been said about how she personally deals with them on a daily basis. Juggling the cases she researches on the internet, looking for a variety of cases to cover in her round, might be one way to do this. But there might be other secrets of the trade that she could have reliably vouchsafed to her readership. Preserving mental health must be a priority for any worker in a large city. Or even in a country town (Wells hails from the remote NSW township of Cobar).

The range of cases she has covered is extraordinary but among the interesting things the book gives you access to are ancillary stories, such as that of Robin Gandevia and Denis Sullivan, two court watchers she came to know though her rounds. When Denis died, the elderly Robin wrote a letter to NSW Supreme Court Justice Lucy McCallum telling her how much the two of them had come to admire her in her courts. The judge took the time to respond to the letter, and the response is included in the book, along with the letter Robin had written.

Wells has a background in theatre, which has evidently been part of the way she stays sane outside of work, and one of the cases she elucidates is a trial involving songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was suing a former colleague in Los Angeles when Wells was visiting there one year. Wells went into the courthouse and made notes, which she subsequently turned into a story for the ABC – even though she was away on holidays at the time – but then she was approached by someone who asked her if she was a Buddhist. No, she replied, and asked him why he had asked her this question. He said it was because she had bowed before entering and leaving the court. In Australia bowing to the judge is conventional practice but it isn’t in America. Her training as a NSW court reporter had followed her to a foreign jurisdiction.

The voice in the book is knowing, wise, full of humour and sometimes incredulous at the lengths criminals will go to to mitigate the importance of their crimes in the face of the realities of the justice system. Wells also has a heightened sense of drama, and a nose for the right length a story should last before being terminated. She begins the account with the news of her mother’s terminal breast cancer, and the book ends with a small token her mother gave to her: a piece of jewellery shaped like a dragonfly.

It’s a fitting emblem for the book, because of the way this insect – which can go forward, backward, and stop in an instant, due to the fact that it has four wings that work independently of one another – can do remarkable things in flight.

The book is a welcome addition to the canon of books about journalism because it serves to humanise an often besieged cohort of the working population. Journalists are routinely attacked on social media by those whose expectations for other people far exceed the standards they would realistically apply to themselves.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Street censorship, Ultimo

When I went down to the shopping centre yesterday to have some salad for lunch I came across a number of painted black boxes on the pavement. There were four of them within the space of about 100 metres, on the west-side footpath of Bay Street. Three were like this one, regular square or rectangular shapes. But one had been made in close proximity to the kind of builders’ marks that are put down with cans of brightly-coloured spray paint to show the existence of utilities (gas, electricity, sewerage, telecommunications) in the ground under the pavement. This one had been painted in a way that involved it intricately with one of these mundane markings, markings that have a purely utilitarian function related to urban improvement.

But the way all these meticulous black erasures had been delicately and thoughtfully made made me think of what they had been made to conceal, whether it had been an advertisement placed on the pavement by an enterprising advertising agency, or some random slogan by a member of the public pushing an ideological line. Or perhaps just a graffiti artist’s tag. I wondered who had made these distinctive marks on the street and why they had made them. Bay Street is heavily-trafficked and so is often used by graffiti artists for their markings, as I showed in the second half of last year on this blog when the marriage equality debate was playing out in public.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Book review: Tell Them I Said No, Martin Herbert (2016)

A kind of history of post-war art practice, the book chronicles the practices of artists who for one reason or another eschewed the bright lights and fanfare of the art world, and dropped out. For various reasons usually related to notions of authenticity they quit the scene and went AWOL. It’s a serious discussion to have because art remains a place where truth is spoken without fear or favour. What does it mean if an artist stops pandering to the needs of patrons and flattering them, and so refuses to be involved in the market for their work? How does it change their work if they refuse to go to the gallery openings to shake hands over glasses of chardonnay?

Herbert gives it his best shot but he goes a bit fast for the uninitiated. You sense there are debates going on behind the field of focus of his immediate regard, and these require a bit more elucidation than they get if he is to give the named artists and their work the fulsome elucidation they appear to be due by dint of their place in history. But Herbert is an art-world native, so he reverts to short-hand. There could have been a useful book here about the contemporary art world, and instead there is a fragmentary guide to a few notable players in it.

As the post-punk generation really kicks into gear in the second half of the book, the reasons for giving up the glitz and the glamour become more self-referential. Making art is for such artists as often “about” making art as it is about anything else. What fun.

Since the art world became overwhelmed by the values of capital it has undergone soul-searching and a sort of rebirth, and this book chronicles parts of that self-referential process. It’s often not pretty. When the serious money got into the workings of the system, in the 1970s, some priorities needed to be realigned. Martin starts out with the right attitude but the introduction at the start of the book should have been shifted to the end, in the form of a conclusion, so that he could give us a savvy reappraisal of what had come before, and really nailed down the issues at stake. There needed to be more teasing out of major themes and patterns, but we get a disjointed set of standalone portraits.  A better book would have stretched his talents and served the reader more completely.

In the earlier pieces, facts fall rarely, like raindrops, just merely wetting the ground, while interpretation is supplied in lavish quantities. Any farmer will tell you that rain is money because without it nothing will grow. In the second half of his book, facts come crashing down, flooding the scene, and there is a paucity of interpretation to channel it to useful purposes. We get two incomplete halves of a potentially good book, each of which lacks what the other provides in excess. It’s as though Herbert were quite sure in himself of the artistic value of work produced in the 70s but that for art produced in later years he still relies on the bumph produced by interested parties.

I enjoyed particularly reading about the lives of Agnes Martin, an American Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 2004, American figurative painter Albert York who died in 2009, Charlotte Posenenske, a German sculptor who died in 1986, Stanley Brouwn, a Dutch conceptual artist who died in 2017, and David Hammons, an American conceptual artist.

When Herbert wrote about Lutz Bacher, Christopher D’Arcangelo, Laurie Parsons, Cady Noland and Trisha Donnelly, however I found myself rushing to the end of the chapters, eager to move onto the next thing.

The author aspires to be useful and enthusiastically and authentically embraces the culture of criticism that modern art embodies, but his use of facts often falls prey to a habit of repeating the rote theorising of art-world pundits. You feel a need for someone to cut through the spin that normally gets served up for ulterior purposes in glossy brochures at gallery openings.

I was like an outsider with a porthole-like glimpse into the workings of a larger machine, and often felt a need for someone to stand by my elbow to point out the real workings of the ungainly beast as it laboured away in a space just beyond the reaches of my ken.

It’s an ambitious book but it ultimately fails to draw in the lay reader, merely offering up a few hints that needed to be joined up with already-existing facts in the reader’s mind in order to make sense of them. Those who already have some familiarity with post-war art in the West can profitably read this book. For the rest, other authors will have to do the work to fill in the gaps. I’m not sure where they can be found.

The book is not available in electronic format and you have to buy it online direct from the publisher, Sternberg Press in Berlin.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Book review: The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

This biography shows how the abused little boy Peter Collins became the successful businesswoman Sandra Pankhurst and it is structured in convenient slabs of text. The biography of the transgender woman is interspersed with lively vignettes as Krasnostein accompanies Pankhurst on jobs – she is a professional trauma cleaner, many of whose clients have mental illnesses; hoarders and such – and discovers things about her subject that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

There is much dysfunction in society, and Pankhurst in her daily rounds comes across evidence of it in all sorts of places. She works with a team of cleaners to scrape up the shit and the rubbish and the mould and the litter, amid smells and vermin and filth, to make the houses she is contracted to clean better where possible than when they first encountered them.

Pankhurst is her own achievement, furthermore, physically a shadow of her former robust self but nevertheless someone who has endured despite the beatings meted out by her father, the savagery of work in brothels, the rape she survived which led her to look for regular work, and the abortive starts that presaged her success as a self-employed businesswoman.

Krasnostein knots these strands together with workmanlike efficiency and tries to find something of universal relevance at the end when she is called upon in her role as author to tie them up in a memorable bundle that can serve to help others, in some way.

The shortness of the chapters is a relief. You can easily become tired of the remorseless self-referential meanderings of people with evidently compromised intellectual faculties. People who live with mental illness are sometimes difficult to be with, as the author finds. But in Pankhurst, who has a learned knack for dealing with such people empathetically, she alternately finds a rich source for her inquiries, and after many years of work she has produced something that withstands close scrutiny.

If there is a soundtrack that might serve to go with the book surely it must be Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which appeared in 1980 at the same time that social mores were finally changing along with the law in a way that would allow someone like Pankhurst to eventually live something approximating a normal life. The song’s minimal tonal register has traces in it of the flat-bat irony of Pankhurst’s interjections when confronted by something challenging or unpleasant. The book is subtitled somewhat ironically, ‘One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster.’

Dismissing an affront with a self-deprecating curse, Pankhurst manages to soldier on through thick and thin, and thrive. The book is timely considering the marriage equality debate and next Sunday’s ABC TV documentary, ‘Riot’, about the origins in the late 70s of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2018.

Monday 19 February 2018

My father’s favourite charity

When I was a small boy I remember one Saturday or Sunday mum asked me to go to my father’s study to ask if he wanted refreshments. His friend Peter Daly had come over to discuss real estate with dad and they had secreted themselves away in the study where they would have privacy for the important conversations that would lead to new acquisitions. My memories are fragmentary but I would have knocked on the wooden door of the room, then waited in the cool silence of the hallway until I was called inside. I would then have opened the study door and made the offer that I had brought from the kitchen. I remember that dad, whose name was also Peter, said to me, “Thank you, no” in a kindly manner that nevertheless punctuated the silence of the room where the two men sat on chairs next to dad’s wooden desk with the filing cabinets standing in the corners. His words were meant to include me in the restricted society implied by the room itself, as well as to include mum who had sent me as an emissary. All were included within his broad purview at that moment.

On weekends, dad would from time to time drive in suburban streets in the company-supplied car looking for bargains. He called the car “my floaty boat”, and it was a big Holden of a kind that performed best at moderate speeds. He bought and sold real estate at different times over the years in order to better provide for the family’s needs. The family was “my favourite charity”, he would say when an opportunity arose for him to make some sort of personal ideological statement.

His own childhood had been marked by severe financial constraint because the family had been very poor. He told me on at least one occasion that his parents always paid the rent with coins. In his memoir, which he wrote after he retired from full-time work, he tells of when they established a vegetable garden in the backyard of their house during the war. His mother would routinely take in work and repair or make garments on order for people in families in the neighbourhood. His father made his own fishing rods in the living room, and would walk down to Port Phillip Bay to catch food for the table from a pier there. At the time that his mother – who we always knew as “granny” – moved from Melbourne to live with us in Sydney, leaving her husband in the process, she handed over to Joao Luis her share in the milk bar they jointly owned, putting all her belongings in dad’s car and going north without, I guess, a backward glance.

In Sydney, where dad earned a new job in his chosen field of industrial automation and control, he bought some land from a woman named Bennett on a battleaxe block on Hopetoun Avenue in Vaucluse and built the family a house. It was built on two storeys on a hillside, with the bedroom shared by the boys – my brother and I – down a spiral staircase on the same level as granny’s bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was upstairs at the front of the house, looking over the trees of the park that sits behind Parsley Bay. Through a trapdoor downstairs you could reach the solid sandstone foundation upon which the structure was set, and the cat would get in there and catch the mice that lived under the house. Possums would run around on the roof over my parents’ bedroom, making thumping noises with their feet as they ran about with what seemed to us to be wild abandon.

One year during a period of speculation, dad bought a milk bar somewhere out in the suburbs of Sydney and he got the family to come out with him to sell the store’s remaining stock to local residents. We boys stood behind the counter dispensing lollies to children who came in to get bargains. We were used to making change for customers because mum and granny ran their own shop where we helped out during school holidays. In this old milk bar there were crates for soft drinks with the names of the brands and manufacturers printed in coloured inks and stylised typefaces on their wooden sides.

I went with dad to an auction on one occasion. The sale was held in the backyard of the house being sold. I remember the fences all around the grassy space and the forest of legs belonging to all the men standing there waiting for the auctioneer to call for bids. Dad stood quietly for a long time as the silence of the afternoon was punctuated occasionally by a voice here or there, before he made a bid of his own. “Dad,” I piped up, looking up at him, curious about what was happening, “did you say that?” When he told family friends this story in later years he would emphasise that he thought he lost the chance to buy that property because of my interjection. People laughed.

Mum and dad had bought a shop in the Vaucluse shopping centre on the corner of Petrarch Avenue and refurbished and improved it, putting in keyhole-shaped windows as a feature, and building a standalone apartment on the top floor that had its own entranceway to the street so that it could be rented out to paying tenants. Near where the stairs came up into the apartment a kitchen with a pass-through at chest height was built so that the residents could conveniently entertain guests in the living room without leaving the kitchen. From the living room, over the roof of the shop they laid out a balcony that had views over the harbour. A senior nurse who worked at a Sydney hospital and her boyfriend, who was a barrister, lived up there, I forget their names, but I would get a job to serve drinks at a party if they held one for friends, and I remember how kind they were to me.

They had a good relationship with my mother, who with granny ran the shop on the ground floor during the daytime. Mum and granny alternated weeks on duty in the shop, with the one off duty cooking the evening meals at home for the family.

There was also a studio office off the doorway leading to Petrarch Avenue that was rented out to a middle-aged Jewish man who imported and sold tiles for residential construction. In his showroom, the richly-coloured tiles were arrayed in all their glorious diversity around the walls and he would bring builders in to see his samples so that they could buy supplies from him. Mum told me later, before she died, that she had continued smoking cigarettes even into her fifties, and when she was at the shop she would secretively pop out into the stairway leading downstairs to keep the smoke out of the retail space where it might offend the sensitive noses of her customers.

The gift shop had started in Melbourne before the family relocated north after granny’s second son, Paul, was killed by the driver of a car in a drunken hit-and-run. My grandfather never got over the death of this son, and eventually what was considered his excessive mourning would contribute, with his philandering, to his wife leaving him. But she also missed Paul, and dad and his new wife established the shop in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, and named it after granny ‘Miss Phyllis Caldicott’s Home Accessories’, to help take her mind off the loss of her beloved child. Some of the things they initially sold in the shop were painted metal tins to be used in homes for garbage. There were also tins with lids used by customers for storing bulk supplies in the kitchen such as flour and rice. Mum had trained as a commercial artist after leaving secondary school and she painted stylised dogs on some of the tins.

After they moved the shop to Vaucluse, mum and granny sold a dizzying array of gifts, from candles to crockery, and from jewellery to Indian-print silk scarves. They would even make toy clowns to sell in the shop. To do this, granny would collect old bits of plastic that had been washed in the normal washing cycle and dried on the line outside the kitchen door downstairs. Using her sewing machine, she would make up the parts of the body, such as legs and arms, which were articulated so that they would flop around when children played with them, and stuff them with the clean plastic filler using an old screwdriver with a yellow handle. The body parts were made using pieces of scrap cloth that were bought in bulk, by the box-load, from a wholesaler in Sydney. Mum would take me out to visit the wholesaler on occasion and I got to see all the coloured prints that were made in the textile factory. The flat feet of the clowns were stuffed with pieces of foam cut with a knife to the desired rectangular shape. The hair was coloured wool and the clowns had cone-shaped hats attached to their heads with thread. When their bodies had been finished with their arms and legs and heads and hair and hats attached, granny would put the unfinished clowns on the staircase to be taken upstairs where mum would use a needle and thread to embroider the faces on. The eyes were shaped from four-pointed stars and were cut from pieces of black felt. The noses were made from tiny round pom poms that were sewed on with thread. Bright red thread was used to make the lips.

By this time, dad had sold the first house and bought another house in Vaucluse further around the bay on Watsons Bay proper because he had decided to sail a Hobie Cat from the yacht club there and needed a convenient place to keep it. The boat sat on its trailer in the bottom garden of this house. One person could wheel the boat out and slide it off the trailer onto the beach if he wanted to go sailing.

My parents developed the house in two stages. Initially, before we took occupancy in 1969, dad built a second floor for himself and mum to live on. The two boys had bedrooms downstairs that gave onto what was called “the rumpus room” which had a toilet and shower in separate rooms leading off it. Granny, as before, also lived downstairs, in her own bedroom and en-suite bathroom.

The second round of renovations took place at around the same time I left home to study at university, and involved putting up a kitchen and a workroom in the empty space over the carport at the back of the house. The kitchen to that point in time had been at the front of the upper storey, looking out over the harbour. A reinforced concrete slab was laid on bare steel columns that were painted a dull red, jutting out into the space where the cars were parked, and forming a roof over them when they were not in use. The resident of one of the apartments in the block of flats behind the house didn’t like the new structure, and one night when it was finished, and there was an electrical storm, he threw a jar of olives through the window of dad’s new study, which was accessed through a doorway on the stairs leading to the top floor of the house. I was home alone that night, and kept the unbroken jar of olives to give to dad when he and mum returned. Dad provocatively kept the jar of olives in the fridge as proof of ill intent but nothing further came of the episode.

One particular item that was sold in the shop I remember well. It was a white plastic deck trolley with metal struts and two plastic wheels. My brother and I would assemble the units from kits that came from overseas in brown cardboard boxes with printed assembly instructions, downstairs in the rumpus room before they were loaded, complete, into the back of mum’s bottle-green Toyota Corolla station wagon or, later, into the back of her white Commodore station wagon, and taken to the shop to sell. Locals would buy the trolleys to put around their pools to serve food and drinks from at get-togethers or on weekends.

For his estranged father to live in, when Joao Luis became too old to earn money to pay rent with, dad bought an apartment in a Melbourne retirement village. From time to time dad would go down to visit the old man, and he talks about some of those visits in his memoir.

Dad also bought real estate in America. One summer when the family was staying in Honolulu, as we used to do regularly during school holidays, he got me to type up a buyer’s guide for Australians wanting to buy Hawaiian property, which he dictated to me as I sat at a typewriter in the living room of the apartment mum and dad were staying in. My brother and I were in a separate apartment in the same block called the Ilikai Marina just opposite the Ala Wai Boat Harbour. He owned at least one condominium in this block that he rented out to people wanting a place to stay while they holidayed on the island. You walked across a short pedestrian bridge spanning a quiet street to get to the lobby of the Ilikai Hotel, which is situated next door to the building right on Waikiki Beach.

When I decided that I didn’t want to live anymore at the residential college I had moved into immediately after school ended, dad bought me a unit in Glebe near Badde Manors cafe. I had stayed in the college for all of 1981 but I didn’t like the boisterous, alcohol-saturated culture. Living in a studio apartment was much more my style, and I found I could do whatever I wanted there. I used my time to quietly read American fiction, listen to Mahler and Bruckner records, and to make linocuts using a set of sharp-edged knives made for the purpose and blocks of oily, brown linoleum that had a loose-weave cloth backing for support. You would use a small rubber roller to apply the black ink to the cut lino, then smooth out the sheet of paper required for each print using the back of a table spoon. One print I made was of a street-wise tomcat I dubbed Sylvester after he had one day adopted me, stalking through the bars mounted over the kitchen window on his black paws as though he owned the place.

My apartment had a large room big enough for a dining table and dining chairs, a desk and a captain’s chair, a couch, a rented piano, a stereo, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a kitchen leading off it with a window looking out onto the parking area at the back of the block, and a bathroom with room for laundry equipment. I used to shop for food at Grace Bros on Broadway and walk home through their carpark. The unit cost $30,000 in 1982 and I sold it in 1989 for $90,000 when I needed money to buy a two-bedroom unit in Bondi.

There were also two units in Elizabeth Bay, in Sydney, as well as one he owned on the east side in Vaucluse, on the cliff overlooking the ocean. I would go down on weekends to meet the tenants in the Elizabeth Bay apartments on occasion if I was not busy doing other things. I painted the inside of one of these apartments white one year with rollers and brushes and in exchange for my labour mum and dad gave me mum’s Corolla, which I had learned to drive in in an earlier year. The two apartments were the only units on one floor of the building, which also had parking in the basement. The tenant of the harbour-side apartment was a young executive from a country in Europe, I think it was France, who rode a pushbike for exercise and would go long distances during the summer months in the daylight hours after work. In the rear apartment the tenant worked for the US consulate in the city, and she was from Austin, Texas.

When dad retired he decided that he and mum were going to go travelling around different places, staying in temperate zones where he could go for his daily swim, because of his bad left leg. He asked me before they set off if I wanted to live in the Vaucluse house with my new family, but I had other ideas. I had organised to work in Tokyo for a manufacturing company doing their English-language PR in a small team led by a journalist, which sounded like fun compared to the desktop publishing I was currently doing in Sydney. So instead he gave the job of looking after his investment properties and also granny to another family member.

One year after I had moved with my family to Tokyo and we decided to visit mum and dad in Hawaii, we stayed in one of his Honolulu apartments. Mum made some disparaging remarks to me about the previous tenant suggesting that his residency had not been entirely successful. I remember that there were fishing rods in the apartment when our small family rocked up to move in for the two weeks or so we were slated to stay in the city.

There was also at least one condominium in Florida my parents purchased at some point. Before mum and dad finally ended their travels and settled down in Maroochydore, in southeast Queensland, in 1999, they sold all of their properties in Sydney and overseas.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Bush-hammering concrete

Not long ago I bought a book on brutalism that contains this fascinating Max Dupain photograph showing two builders labourers working on the Canberra Defence Offices, in Campbell Park, in 1971. The two men are using bush hammers to create an exposed concrete effect, giving the building a ribbed look like corduroy. The heavy hammers are shaped like meat tenderisers, with a grid of polygonal metal teeth shaped like pyramids. In a book I reviewed last month titled 'Raw Concrete' by Barnabas Calder, there is also mention of a pneumatic version of the bush hammer that is sometimes used to create the same effect. The workmen use the hammers to smash off the outer skin of concrete on the ribs, exposing the aggregate for that true "beton brut" look. The book was published in Germany to accompany an exhibition, 'SOS Brutalism - Save the Concrete Monsters!' being held from 8 November 2017 to 2 April 2018 at the Deutsche Arkitekturmuseum in Frankfurt-am-Main.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Democracy shoots itself in the foot again

The shooting today at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida will change nothing. When one of America’s major parties is allied so strongly with the radical fringe element in the electorate that wants to conserve gun ownership rights, nothing can change.

In Australia as it happens, on the same day as the Florida shooting there was a gun death, involving outlaw motorcycle club leader Mahmoud “Mick” Hawi, who was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his car outside a gym in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale. This is the kind of gun crime that Australians are used to seeing: a contract killing involving elements of the criminal underworld. Not school children shot in their classrooms. The difference being, of course, that Australia outlawed most privately-owned guns following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. At that time, both major political parties made the decision to make ownership of high-powered rifles illegal for most people. The country has not had a gun massacre since.

But the Republicans in America are notorious for forgetting the purpose of good government: to enable the majority of people to live in peace so that they can pursue happiness in their chosen way.

Look at their health care system. “The share of GDP allocated to health spending in the United States (excluding capital expenditure) was 16.4% in 2013, compared with an OECD average of 8.9%,” an OECD report of 2015 states. Nevertheless, life expectancy in the US is lower than in comparable countries. “Life expectancy has increased in the United States, but less rapidly than in many other OECD countries, so there is now a gap of almost two years between life expectancy at birth in the United States compared with the average in OECD countries (78.8 years in the US in 2013 compared with 80.5 years for the OECD average).”

It’s no wonder that China looks askance at the benefits that democracy is supposed to bring, when these kinds of facts are routine for news coverage of the country that out of a sense of nationalistic exceptionalism considers democracy to be a crowning achievement. (Let’s leave alone for the moment the fact that the British invented representative democracy.) China will do better than the US because the rulers there use common sense to generate policy, and do not rely on outdated and retrogressive ideological positions that cause misery to the majority.

While the Chinese try to control the message overseas - revelations of Party involvement in Chinese language media in Australia are contained in a new book titled ‘Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State’ by Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University, to be published by Hardie Grant later this month – the mainstream media in countries like Australia where democracy is part of the system of government, is struggling both to make a profit and to retain the reputation on which profitability rests.

Twitter routinely lights up with messages condemning the mainstream media whatever the cause of the protest is, as though journalists were part of the problem of bad government when democratic leaders are accused of something untoward. Any divergence by journalists from the most extreme approach is greeted by shameful catcalls. Only a few properties will survive the onslaught of free or cheap information, but news is expensive to produce and journalists need to be free to make mistakes. Holding them to such high standards that they are condemned merely for agreeing with each other, for example, seems a little uncalled-for.

Having said that, the benefits for democracy of vehicles such as Twitter are clear, because they open up the debate to more people. The gatekeepers are left empty-handed, and every man (and woman) and his (or her) dog can participate in the process of tearing down an unworthy politician, such as Barnaby Joyce. There were a few lonely voices on Twitter even a week ago before the Daily Telegraph published its story on Joyce and his girlfriend, but I, for one, remember them with gratitude because they never gave up even when things seemed hopeless. 

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Former Sydney Law School construction site

Back in late September I wrote about the brutalist building that used to be on this site. The site is now almost empty, in preparation for the construction of luxury apartments in the heart of the CBD. You can hear loud sounds coming from the site from behind the hoarding that surrounds it. The hoarding has a jaunty cartoon design painted on it. Tourists were standing around a tour guide who was speaking about convict architect Francis Greenway outside his St James church, which was just next to me across the street from the construction site, when I took this photo on a recent weekend.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Book review: Permission to Bloom, Nicole Llera (2017)

This is the second first-person account by a person living with a mental illness I have tried to read in the last few days. This book is subtitled ‘A novel’ but it’s clear that it is autobiographical.

The other was ‘Moving to Oregon’ by James Townsend (2017) which was subtitled ‘A bipolar journey’. In that case, the book started with what seemed to be some sort of episodic structure that might have enabled the reader to follow the story in a structured way, but the narrator quickly hijacked it and abruptly reverted to what he thought were the origins of his illness in his childhood, much in the same way that someone with a mental illness might approach the same task with their psychiatrist. It demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the reader, and a troubling lack of insight into the nature of his own illness. I gave up and put the book down.

In Llera’s case, the narrative sets out with an odd little introduction from an “external regulator” of the narrative of Michaela Rose, the protagonist. This self-conscious and rather redundant technical device has been inserted by the author into the narrative because she wants it to distance the reader from the focalising mechanism of the character Michaela as she goes about her daily life with her illness, a kind of anxiety that intrudes on her thought processes at inopportune times and makes living a “normal” life difficult. The narrator uses italics from time to time to show the reader how these thoughts appear, but it’s not always clear what are extraneous thoughts and if what you are reading is really what Michaela is thinking.

Her life as a dental student at a tertiary institution is complicated when she decides one day in a fit of optimism to go to work for an established dentist, who operates a secondary business as a supplier of dental implants to local dental clinics in Los Angeles. Originally, Michaela had imagined shadowing Dr Vasquez during appointments with patients to learn more about the craft of dentistry but he has an idea to use her as a salesperson. Michaela is initially teamed up with Heath, a loud and pushy salesman who has a taste for playing heavy metal music in his car. She survives a few trips with Heath but in the end the stresses of the work wear down her reserves of strength and she quits the job. In the meantime she takes up acting classes with a woman named Lexine, who she had met one day at the dentist’s clinic.

She also quits seeing her psychiatrist, who had prescribed medication that Michaela found had made her aggressive. She decides to stop taking the pills and soon she decides to stop seeing the doctor. Her subsequent story makes it clear that she was acting precipitously on both counts.

The narrative chugs along contentedly if a little jumpily – you are sometimes left a little confused as to who is speaking, for example – but it really comes apart when Michaela starts flirting with men. Her coquettish behaviour bodes ill for all concerned, especially for Kenneth, a college friend Micahela helps to teach to drive a car. When Michaela starts flirting with a young man she meets when she is driving by herself to a salsa dancing class, things really start going off the rails in terms of narrative quality and the character of Michaela loses the ability to command the reader’s sympathy.

Michaela’s complete lack of insight into her own motivations with respect to love interests like Raphael queasily mirrors an equally devastating lack of insight into the nature of her own illness. She thinks that she can tough it out alone, like she thinks that she can get away with degrading personal relationships.

Reading about mental illness has this danger: you never know at the outset if the person writing the story has the insight required to do it justice. You soon find out though. Back in July last year, I reviewed a non-fiction book by a Californian teacher, Mark Lukach, ‘My Lovely Wife’, which chronicled a family’s journey through mental illness when his wife started to experience psychosis. The difference between his book and the other two named in this review is that he had the necessary insight to know what was real and what was the product of the illness. Llera does not possess this insight, and I suspect that Townsend does not either.

Llera’s book is also riddled with typographical errors, and would have benefited from proper proofing. There are a lot of problems like using “mirky” for “murky”, “downs” for “dons”, and “arms chairs” for “armchairs”. I suspect that there was very little editing done on the book and that, like other aspects of her life, Llera just went it alone.

Saturday 10 February 2018

Renaissance tapestries draw crowds to AG NSW

When I heard about ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ on ABC TV  last night it was touted as a piece of medieval culture but this turns out to be misleading. The work is a series of tapestries manufactured around 1500 that are designed to hang from walls, and they were purchased by the French state in the late 19th century. Prior to that, they had been prey to deterioration in a house in the French countryside. Once they were saved from certain destruction – rats eat tapestries, and damp impacts on their fabric – they caught the attention of the elites in Europe, including proto-feminist writer George Sand.

The exhibition makes much of the impressions that Rainer Maria Rilke, a German writer of the first half of the 20th century, drew from the tapestries when he saw them. The wall hangings are large and intricate but to call them medieval mistakes the truth, as they clearly originate in the Renaissance. Printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in around 1439 and the religious Reformation started around 1517 in the same country. In fact origins for the Renaissance can be traced back even further if you want to go looking for them in medieval Italy.

What the tapestries offer gallery visitors is temporary access to the physical opulence that was daily available to wealthy French families, a tiny minority of the population, during the period. These are gorgeous objects that have an objective aesthetic value apart from any allegory that they may have been designed to communicate. The catalogue goes into a lot of detail about the possible meanings of each of the tapestries but any such semantic signification seems to me to be of less overall importance than the pure luxury that the tapestries represent. And the lions that feature in all of them have the best facial expressions of all the animals depicted!

This is a great exhibition for the Australian middle classes, who can number themselves among the true inheritors of the Renaissance and all that it entailed in terms of material progress. The exhibition is being held in the small gallery to the side of the ground floor of the Art Gallery of NSW, right above its Asian gallery space. It gets a bit crowded because the space for the hang is quite small, and has seats scattered around for people to sit on if they want to spend more time getting acquainted with the tapestries.

The workmanship in the tapestries is exceptional but the catalogue for the exhibition is however a bit unpolished, and needed to be proofed better before publication.

Friday 9 February 2018

Book review: Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty (2012)

Subtitled, ‘A material history’, this book goes more of the way I needed to learn about the emergence of concrete as a construction material in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1890s, when different systems for using reinforced concrete were first patented, until the 1950s when, after WWII, there was a building boom as a result of decades of depressed demand, the use of concrete gained traction. The Depression and the war had taken business focus away from building high, which is expensive.

I first found out about Forty’s book at the University of Sydney library when I went up there to look for books on concrete, and I then bought it to use on the Kindle. I had already read one book on Brutalism, which I reviewed last month.

Forty looks at concrete through a variety of lenses, including the cultural, and he is an architectural historian so he is familiar with the technologies involved in the material’s use. Readers of the book should be prepared to go looking up words online, as I did, when unfamiliar ones appear.

The use of reinforced concrete began first in Europe and it wasn’t until the end of WWII that the Americans started to use it with any frequency. Before that, American building designers had made buildings with steel frames, but steel is easily damaged by high temperatures, so steel buildings distort and buckle if there is a fire. With reinforced concrete, the steel is encased in concrete, which inhibits the effects of fire.

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems started to appear at the turn of the 20th century. Electric lifts had first been used twenty years earlier. Fluorescent lighting became cheaply available not until the end of WWII. Pre-stressing techniques were invented in the interwar years of the 20th century, and started to be used in construction more widely in the 1940s.

Forty examines concrete as an aesthetic medium as well as a technical device for achieving certain construction outcomes. There have been so many different attitudes toward concrete but what is clear is that it will continue to be heavily used for construction around the world, even though it is energy-intensive to make so it has a heavy carbon footprint. Concrete is partly made up of cement, which is itself made from clay and limestone heated to a temperature of 1450 degrees Celsius in a kiln, which produces clinker, a substance that is ground into a powder before used to make concrete. Concrete is a mixture of cement, gravel, sand and water.

One point that Forty makes well is that even though for most people concrete remains a potent indicator of modernity because of the way it enables the construction of very tall multi-storey buildings, its use is actually very craft-like in nature, although relatively inexperienced people can effectively use it to build. The finish of concrete depends very much on the skill of the people involved in the construction process. The formwork (called “shuttering”) that is made of wood or steel to contain the still-liquid concrete before it hardens, can be beautifully done or it can be less perfectly realised. To eliminate bubbles in walls, the formwork has to be gently vibrated, but not too much otherwise the aggregates used in the concrete mix will pool at the bottom of the formwork.

In some parts of the world, where cost is a major factor for people who build houses, concrete can be used by ordinary people with few tools other than a bucket, a spade and a wheelbarrow. 

Wednesday 7 February 2018

TV review: The Billion-Dollar Bust, Four Corners, ABC (2018)

This week we got a little more evidence of the way the ABC is shifting to the right on the political scale when the current affairs flagship Four Corners ran a slick piece of PR for law enforcement titled ‘The Billion-Dollar Bust’, instead of the usual in-depth investigative pieces that we have come to recognise as particularly their area of expertise.

The story centred around Pakistani money launderer Altaf Khanani and an elaborate sting set up by the US Drug Enforcement Administration with the cooperation of the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation working with its Five Eyes partners overseas. Khanani was touted as an attractive target because he has been laundering vast sums for drug dealers and terrorists.

The show started with a smaller sting conducted at Clyde Railway Station in western Sydney where an operative linked with Khanani swapped a token – an Australian five-dollar bill with a known serial number – with a contact who he knew had money to clean. There is plenty of this kind of dramatic footage in the program, but by the end of it one of the police officers is shown saying quite candidly that not much will change as a result of the Khanani bust because other players will just come in and take over the same clients with their own networks of operatives.

A more intelligent program would have looked at the way that criminalising drug use is resulting in the loss of billions of dollars and of thousands of lives every year. The post-war experiment that is the developed world’s canonical drug regime – though it’s not followed, thankfully, in all developed countries – has manifestly failed and it is time for fresh ideas for combating drug crime. A good place to start would be to decriminalise personal use of illicit substances, a measure that would enable the government to take over the role of dealer, and result in higher tax receipts and a better-quality product for users by removing the business of production and supply from networks of criminals. Drug use itself needs to be handled as a health issue, not a criminal one, and this is the policy of the Australian Greens, for example.

But the ABC has form in the realm of mindlessly kowtowing to authority with its documentary drama Keeping Australia Safe running since last year that features law enforcement and immigration authorities going about their business. The program website touts the program as “arguably the most ambitious observational documentary series ever undertake in Australia”. But it’s cheap to manufacture and you don’t even need a script writer, just an editing bench.

Elsewhere, Stan Grant has been asking what he calls “the big questions” in Matter of Fact, a daily late-night program that has interviews with global experts on questions that are broadly relevant but it’s a program that eschews the heavy doses of local politics that Lateline gave viewers. Lateline was axed at the end of the year. Where Lateline would bring out Australian politicians to answer questions from an experienced local journalist, Matter of Fact avoids the overtly political and instead focuses on questions that are more difficult to find immediate relevance for in the public sphere, such as the role of the US in international relations, or the rise of China. Grant seems to believe that he has special insights to offer viewers by asking questions of experts along these lines, but I wonder how well-informed he really is.

Also on late at night is a program with Patricia Karvelas, who has had a program on the ABC’s Radio National but also has worked for Sky News and the Australian, two conservative vehicles.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Book review: The Great Seesaw, Geoffrey Blainey (1988)

This is a silly book in retrospect partly because its central claim is so ludicrous. Geoffrey Blainey was already notorious for saying controversial things that fell on the conservative side of public debates when the book came out. In 1984, for example, when Bob Hawke was PM Blainey made some comments at a public event in a town in Victoria about Asian immigration, stirring up the pot in a way that we are now used to hearing from people like Mark Latham and Pauline Hanson. In fact, I saw this morning that Blainey has been invited onto Andrew Bolt’s TV show. I wasn’t surprised.

Blainey is a devotee of a school of historiography that entrusted its followers with the task of finding the larger-term trends underpinning otherwise apparently random changes taking place in the fabric of societies being studied. The technique is called the longue duree. It’s a French term whose meaning should be obvious, and it was first used by writers of the Annales School in the 20th century’s interwar years.

What Blainey tries to do in his book is to apply the things he learned at university to the wider society, position the post-war counterculture of the 60s and 70s relative to larger historical processes, and thereby challenge their exceptionalism. It is a desperate attempt to try and discredit a major cultural shift that he personally resented. He invents the term “the great seesaw” and tracks back to the 18th century to look there for protests against technology in the writings of people living at the time. Blainey also says portentously on the first page of the book that the seesaw he has discerned at work in the West is “powerful” but “rarely noticed”, as though he alone had the learning and intellectual capacity needed to see it at work. Thrilling stuff! His vacuous hubris might sound familiar to those who have heard Donald Trump telling the American people that they were privileged to have the opportunity to vote for him.

Nevertheless, Blainey’s glance back to an earlier time is in itself interesting and if you choose to press ahead past infrequent desultory references to his precious seesaw you can profitably learn something about people living in earlier times. However, just because the book is interesting from time to time doesn’t mean that the thesis that justifies its existence stands up to scrutiny. I suspect Blainey was just upset that cherished notions of technological progress had been so elaborately and roundly condemned by so many intelligent people he knew. When the book was published these debates were still playing themselves out, and public protest anyway never ended, with, for example, the founding of the Australian Greens in 1992.

This book hasn’t aged well, it should be obvious by now. The counterculture went mainstream and so people like Blainey and Latham are rolled out into the public sphere by Murdoch because it suits the octogenarian patriarch’s extreme ideological positions to see their retrogressive views broadcast. Regrettably, he got rich because there are so many people living in the communities his media companies serve that subscribe to such views.

Monday 5 February 2018

A windy late summer’s day

The other day in the Botanical Gardens there was a temporary display of wildflowers that you could photograph with the multi-storey buildings of the CBD lofting skywards in the background. European honeybees vectored in and out of the tall stands of metre-high zinnias, paper daisies and marigolds, homing in on a blossom here or there in a thoughtful manner like spaceships landing on varicoloured docking pads, the yellow stamens bright in the sunlight. The bees minded their own business as they went about the tasks of collecting nectar to take back to the hive and pollinating the pink, orange and purple blooms that nodded contentedly in the drifting air currents.

Further down the path toward the harbour a group of catamarans were visible anchored in the middle of Farm Cove with their sterns oriented together to form a flower shape in the water. Coloured dinghies sat in the water tethered to the cats, each of which was big enough for many people to travel about the harbour on. The five or six cats moored there rested largely immobile though in the stiff and gusty southeast wind blue flags fluttered from a stay that on each of them helped hold up the mast. The dinghies bobbed about in the ruffled water and from where the boats were you could hear loud music that was amplified from an invisible source on board at least one of them. Presumably there were people on board.

A larger pleasure craft navigated around the border of the bay. The women walking on its landward deck wore skirts that they held down with their hands to stop them being blown up by the breeze and showing their underwear. This catamaran made a wide arc as it progressed in a stately manner from west to east, then headed back out north into the main body of the harbour.

Around the corner the sheer tan-coloured wall of the Opera House podium rose up precipitously from the level of the area’s canonical element – the harbour’s dark green water (darker when a gust of wind disturbed it) – with its concrete and ceramic sails poised tantalisingly in grey and white on top. On the macadam of the park’s path, a young woman wearing white slacks and a brown T-shirt the wind plastered in ridges and folds against her torso was standing with her back pressed against the creamy sandstone parapet. She was blonde and could have been English or American or Scandinavian or German, it was impossible to discern where she was from, and she had a selfie stick extending from her right hand. She oriented her head and her upper body in a variety of different attitudes as she took photos next to the landmark. She complacently tried this angle and then that one.

A group of men wearing mid-blue suits walked purposefully east on the path, the wind blowing their jackets open so that you could see their white shirtfronts and the blue satiny cloth that their jacket linings were made of. A man wearing the same kind of suit walked in company with a woman wearing an orange evening gown that showed a significant quantity of the volumes of her breasts, which moved discernibly as she went by.

Further along, on the building’s forecourt, hundreds of other people mingled and sauntered from one part of the plaza to another. Many were walking in the sun north from the Quay and near the guards’ pill box on the public road there were three police motorcycles parked facing north toward where bollards have been installed to stop traffic from entering the building’s grounds. A guard wearing a uniform and a high-vis vest stood outside the box talking to someone. A policeman standing next to one of the motorbikes tapped the helmet on his head as three young Asian men in front of him mounted yellow rental bikes, making sure to put helmets on before heading off.

In among the heavy throng, three policemen wearing dark blue uniforms were walking slowly north carrying food in their hands. They were talking to one another and eating as they moved through the crowd of people. People bought ice cream and sat at the restaurant tables set on the pavement in the colonnade of the residential building situated next to the harbour. Thousands of them moved slowly along the promenade heading north or south, taking their time as they moved past on a temperate Saturday afternoon in late summer.