Saturday 31 August 2019

Book review: Otared, Mohammad Rabie (2016)

Published in Arabic in 2014, this work of speculative noir eventually morphs into a cosmic fantasy. It deals initially with events surrounding a resistance fighter living in Cairo in 2025. Egypt has been occupied by a foreign power and Colonel Ahmed Otared, an ex-cop, is a sniper in an organisation peopled by others who used to be police, by people who used to be in the armed forces, and by civilians. Despite the sometimes violent and unpleasant nature of some events that go to form the plot and that constitute the colour that makes additional meaning in the book, the writing is beautiful. It is characterised by a clarity and an economy that make reading this novel a real pleasure.

As is true of a lot of speculative fiction, Rabie tries to grapple with contemporary issues in his novel. The first chapter is set in the present (now) at a time when the autocrat had been deposed and the Arab Spring had played itself out and the military had staged its coup to take power from the elected government. In this part of the book, Otared has to deal with the murder of a family by its father. Otared goes to the scene of the crime and then, later, to the court to watch justice being done. Rabie is scathing in his assessment of the judges in the Egyptian justice system but Otared has no idea why the murders he had been exposed to were committed. It was a crime for which there were no neat answers, and to explain which no reliable narrative could be advanced.

This set-piece provides context for the reality on the ground once the foreigners have moved their ships into position in the Nile, to a point lying between east Cairo (which is occupied) and west Cairo (which is not occupied). It is 2025 and Otared has just been called back down from the tower he had been working in, a place from which he and the men under his command had an unobstructed view of most sectors of the city and from where, over a period of two years, he had regularly used his rifle and scope to put to death to people who had been singled out for him as targets, as well as people he had decided, on his own initiative, should die.

Drones are used by the resistance to communicate and, once he is out of the tower and finds himself in east Cairo, Otared receives a message from a small machine shaped like a scarab beetle that takes a shine to the assassin. He meets with a number of other operatives in an apartment in the city and there they discuss a new plan and also relive past glories, recalling events that took place a decade before when the state, which they had been devoted to protecting was, in their view, threatened by the citizenry’s demands for representative government. As before, as in the scenes taking place in court that were recounted in the first chapter, in this staged discussion Rabie examines a number of issues that (today) characterise politics in Egypt, and this conversation ramps up in intensity in the third section of the book, which is set in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring.

This part of the book starts at about midway in the volume and is followed by another section, dated AH 455 (1063 AD). “Anno hegirae” is the Islamic dating convention, starting from the year Mohammed and his followers left Mecca to move to Medina and establish the first Islamic community. This chapter is, quite simply, extraordinary in its imagining and involves people witnessing what happens after the death of a man named Sakhr. The chapter contains intimations of the Last Judgement accompanied by a kind of messianic zeal that occupies the minds of people who come to see Sakhr’s corpse. It is a tour-de-force of imaginative writing that relies on very little in the way of scene setting beyond the crowds, a few guards, a gate, a cliff (which also feature in the book’s first section set in 2025), and the deceased man’s body. Everything plays out in the mind of a man in the crowd and, in this part of the book, Rabie convincingly demonstrates the breadth of his skillset.

But most of the narrative dances between 2011 and 2025 with one character who links the two periods. To say who it is would require me to reveal more about the plot than readers, who have not read this book, might want.

Otared is a complex character and Rabie does not look for simple solutions to Egypt’s problems. Rather, he acknowledges the importance for Egyptians of revealed religion and the equally powerful force of cultural momentum in deciding the form that government can take at any given point in time. He also lays responsibility for the health of the polis at the feet of the people, rather than merely blaming unaccountable heads of government. In such a way the novel can be taken as a commentary on humanity more broadly, not just on Egypt; in this light Otared’s obsessions might appear unsurprising.

To find a reasonable way to explain the end of this novel you might ask if Otared suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He certainly saw enough of the grisly result of crime during his time in the police force to suggest a mental illness as the reason for his visions. He most certainly could also have been rendered severely traumatised as a result of killing so many innocent people. But this is a novel and it is not necessary to always find neat, logical explanations for endings. Sometimes the existence of a paradox can be just as rewarding for the reader as a pat solution, one where everything wraps up neatly and all the loose ends are tied up in a bow. Rabie’s poetic vision might best be summed up by lines written by America’s Sylvia Plath (from ‘Tale of a Tub’, 1956):
each day demands we create our whole world over,
disguising the constant horror in a coat
of many-colored fictions
Rabie has a larger vision than most writers, and this exceptional novel deserves broad acclaim. In fact, this is just one of many very good novels that in recent years have come from countries in the Middle East. You cannot forge an alternative perspective of this kind. Forget about cultural appropriation: if a Western author wants to write about a person of colour living in a developing country, let him or her do so. It’s not important. What is important is that books like this one get read as widely as possible.

Lastly, if the indiscriminate shooting of people walking in the street were the only type of objectionable violence this book offers, I wouldn’t add a warning, but there are other things, which are very dark, that might prove too challenging for some readers.

Friday 30 August 2019

What kind of yacht is the Malizia II?

Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her father arrived by yacht in New York early in the morning on 29 August, Sydney time. She had left Plymouth in Cornwall on 14 August, so her journey took about 16 days. A tad over two weeks, in any case.

I couldn’t find any information about how much the trip would have cost if it had been one operated commercially but the Malizia II made the crossing with a two-man professional crew (plus Greta and her dad). According to this page, normally this type of voyage would require payment of money. I found some pages on the web that said that two crew would have to fly to New York in order to sail the boat back to Europe, as you need four people on the boat to sail it. Those people might have already arrived in New York, it’s hard to say.

The yacht the two adventurers sailed on is a very modern boat called the Malizia II that is normally berthed at Monaco. The yacht was built at the Multiplast yard in the town of Vannes, which is located between La Rochelle and Brest (on France’s Atlantic coast), and it was designed by naval architects Verdier. There is a web page about the solar energy system that has been installed on the yacht. The boat was originally named Gitana 16 and launched in 2015.

The people who now operate the boat have a web page explaining why the boat is called “the wily one’’.  There is a link in the name with the House of Grimaldi, the current head of which rules in Monaco. The name is, reportedly, a tribute to Francesco Grimaldi, “a Genovese who arrived by sea in 1297 and founded the Grimaldi family dynasty.” The boat’s skipper is a native of Monaco.

The Malizia II’s design is IMOCA60. “IMOCA” stands for the International Monohull Open Class Association. The “60” in the class ID refers to the length of design-compliant boats: 60 feet (18 metres). I couldn’t find any information about what the hull is made of, but it could be fibreglass. The specifications for this design class don’t specify the type of construction material to be used for compliant boats and disclosing the nature of the material used for the hull might risk reducing the boat’s competitiveness; this is a racing yacht.

According to more than one source, the boat has a “tumblehome” hull shape, which means that the beam at the sheer is less than the maximum beam of the hull. The beam is the width of the hull at its widest point. The sheer is the point where the hull is separated from the deck. So the boat would have a slightly rotund appearance when seen from astern or from past the bow. This kind of hull is designed “to limit the beam of the deck and thus make [the boat] more lightweight”.

I doubt that you would find a faster yacht than this, at least a faster monohull (catamarans, or boats with twin hulls, tend to be faster than monohulls). The following photo is by Jean-Marie Liot and is from the boat’s website. It’s really a stunning boat! I couldn’t help making this blogpost as I was a keen sailor from even before reaching my teens.

Thursday 29 August 2019

Poor writing by the media

This post deals mainly with examples of things like poor written expression, incorrect use of punctuation, and bad grammar by the media in Australia on social media and on websites. Sampling started on 29 July and ran until 28 August, in other words this survey went for a calendar month. These are just the ones that I caught myself. Others will have seen different errors in their social media feeds and on the web pages of their favourite media outlets. I limited my sample to the media because I think that different standards should apply to them. Errors visible in remarks made online by people in the broader community are, of course, far more common.

I think that what follows can serve as a comment on the decline in the news workplace of the subeditor; you don’t see the same problem on web pages published by bigger, better-funded outlets like the NY Times or the New Yorker. In such places, to ensure a consistent and high-quality product, there are enough people checking the copy as it is produced. Subs were among the first to go when revenues of news organisations started to take a dive about 15 years ago. What you see here is the result of a major change in economic circumstances for the news. In the end what was remarkable for me, however, was the fact that I didn’t find more problems.

In some cases the very meaning of the article you are reading is so badly distorted by the errors that are present in the text that, when reading, you can’t really understand what the journalist was trying to say. This type of error is in the minority – most of the errors aren't as egregious as this – but it still happens from time to time.

There are 25 individual errors in this post and I have categorised them for the convenience of readers, starting with the most serious offences and continuing down to the least serious. In the most serious categories (the first three categories listed) there are eight errors, with the rest of the errors I caught being relatively minor in nature. The categories are:
  • Errors of fact
  • Incorrect word choice
  • Missing word
  • Wrong preposition
  • Spelling errors
  • Errors in punctuation
  • Lack of agreement
Errors of fact

On 30 July in the evening a headline appeared on the front page of the SMH website saying, “Paintings ‘seemed to disappear’ within months of artist John Olsen’s death.” In actual fact it had been the wife of John Olsen who had died, not the artist himself. I tweeted to the SMH Twitter account, “John Olsen hasn't died ...” and the headline on the website changed to, “Paintings ‘seemed to disappear’ within months of John Olsen wife’s death.” It seems as though close enough is good enough in many cases.

Incorrect word choice

On 8 August the Age published a story headlined, “Massive warehouses filled with recyclable materials that no one wants,” that contained the following: “’One of them is twice the size of this shed,’ says Whitington, standing in the 14,500 square metre warehouse, in front of massive bails of recyclable material, with scores of flies buzzing around her.” It’s “bales”, not “bails” (which are the things that go on top of the stumps at cricket matches).

On 26 August at 7.04am an account I follow with almost 20,000 followers tweeted a link to a story from the New Daily, a Sydney-based online media outlet. It read, “Worst night of violence as Hong Kong police draw guns and water cannon.” This puzzled me as it wasn’t clear to me how you would go about drawing a water cannon from a holster on your belt. It might have been better if the tweet has said, “draw guns and use water cannon.”

On 26 August at 6.44pm the Guardian’s Lisa Martin tweeted, “Qantas to face renewed pressure at its next annual general meeting over forced deportations of asylum seekers. A US investment firm is throwing its wait behind call for human rights risk review.” It should be “weight”. I saw the tweet two days later because it had been retweeted.

Missing word

On 24 August at 5.45pm the Independent, a UK newspaper, tweeted, “Man accused of raping, murdering and eating parts of ex-girlfriend's body ends granted mistrial.” The text should have read, “Trial of man accused accused of raping, murdering and eating parts of ex-girlfriend ends, with him granted a mistrial”.

On 25 August a New York Times story titled ‘ Trump Allies Target Journalists Over Coverage Deemed Hostile to White House’ appeared on the company’s website. It contained the following paragraph: “’They are seeking to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with the leading news organizations that are asking tough questions and bringing uncomfortable truths to light,’ [A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the newspaper,] said. ‘The goal of this campaign is clearly to intimidate journalists from doing their job, which includes serving as a check on power and exposing wrongdoing when it occurs. The Times will not be intimidated or silenced.’” The correct expression would have been to say, “to intimidate journalists and stop them from doing their job.” Admittedly this was an instance in spoken language, and so was not, strictly, in written form until it was transcribed to use in the story. I include it anyway as Sulzberger is the owner of the paper and certainly should know better than to make this kind of rookie error.

On 26 August the Sydney Morning Herald put up a story about the Parramatta light rail line that contained the following paragraph: “The party's transport spokesman, Chris Minns, said the government had been ‘ducking and weaving’ on its commitment to build the second stage because it did want to admit that it was not funded.” The second “not” was omitted from the sentence, making the meaning all but opaque to a reader who was not paying close attention.

On 27 August at 5.44am, the ABC News account tweeted, “Centrelink seizes tax return of robodebt recipient in what may breach policy.” They probably meant to say, “in way that may breach policy,” but it wasn’t clear.

Wrong preposition

On 5 August at 6.50am Al Jazeera’s English language account tweeted, “India imposes lockdown in Kashmir, suspends mobile internet and puts leaders on house arrest.” They meant to say “under arrest”.

On 6 August at 9am the Sydney Morning Herald Twitter account tweeted, “NBA basketballer Ben Simmons appears to have suggested he was racially profiled when he was denied entry from Melbourne's Crown casino last night.” They meant to say “to” but made a mistake.

On 7 August at 5.55pm I saw a headline on the Sydney Morning Herald home page saying, “CBA puts $100m down payment in Afterpay rival.” They meant to use the conjunction “on”. The story was about an investment that the country’s biggest bank had made in a lay-by (“buy now, pay later”) firm named Klarna. The Swedish firm has a number of other investors as well.

On 10 August on the SMH website an article kicker read, “Australia Post and Qantas have signed a new deal to keep up with Australia's love for online shopping.” It should, of course, be “love of” not “for”.

On 15 August Michael Scherer, the Washington Post national political reporter, tweeted at 10.17am, “In 1939, 20,000 Americans rallied in New York's Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism -- an event largely forgotten from U.S. history.” The correct preposition was “in” as in “largely forgotten in US history”.

On 16 August a story on the SMH web page about the tunnels being made under Sydney’s CBD for the new Metro train lines included this paragraph, “Named Nancy, it is one of five giant boring machines churning away to form twin 15.5-kilometre rail tunnels stretching from Chatswood in the north, under Sydney Harbour to Pitt Street station and three others in the CBD, and onto Sydenham in the south.” It should, of course, read “and on to Sydenham in the south”.

On 27 August at 7.28am Carla Marinucci, a journalist with the California news outlet Politico, tweeted, “California Supreme Court backs greater access to police misconduct cases.” The correct conjunction was “in”, not “to”.

On 27 August at 7.30am the Age’s Twitter account said, “Racism remains widespread in Australia's primary and secondary schools, with discrimination coming from both students and teachers, ANU researchers find.” Better expression in this case would have had: “… with discrimination by both students and teachers.”

Spelling errors

On 4 August in the late afternoon a headline appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald website: “Hatred of migrants, support for Christchurch: Hate-filled manifesto linked to Texax [sic] massacre.”

On 16 August at 8.25am Neil McMahon, who writes the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Q and A’ rundowns for publication on Tuesday mornings, tweeted, “The first breakfast TV show host in history to quote Nabakov in her farewell? This is lovely.” He misspelled the Russian-American writer’s name (it’s “Nabokov”) and I sent him a comment to this effect but he didn’t respond.

On 20 August a story in the Sydney Morning Herald written by two doctors had the following sentence: “There are so many myths about birth order, so much that the decision whether or not to have a second (or third, or fourth) child can be a vexxed one.” “Vexxed”? I thought to myself. Is this a word like “doxxing” that belongs to the Millennial generation? Admittedly the story wasn’t written by a journalist, but the Herald’s subeditors should have picked up the error.

On 27 August at 2.33pm Yahoo Finance Australia’s account tweeted, “@HonJulieBishop taken aim at Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Boris Johnson over their self-interested style of leadership.” The meaning would have been properly conveyed with the word “taking”.

On 27 August the Sydney Morning Herald put up a story on its website about vlogger PewDiePie that contained this sentence, “By then, his figures had experienced a wild boost – he'd actually racked up more subscribers in the last months of 2018 then he did through all of 2017.” It should be “than”, not “then”.

Errors in punctuation

At 5.14pm on 29 July a journalist with the Guardian in Sydney tweeted, “Text ya friends, see whose keen.” The tweet was in relation to an announcement that he book, a novel, would be released in the UK in the near future. The correct word to use of course is “who’s”, not “whose”.

At 5.28pm on 29 July Business Insider Australia tweeted from its account, “Australians are flocking to Victoria and its got the best economy in the country as a result – here’s how the other states stack up.” The correct expression of course is not “its got the best” but “it’s got the best”. In this case, “it’s” means “it has”.

On 12 August the kicker for a story on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald read, “Financial comfort among working Australians dropped the sharpest with full and part-time workers all registering sizeable declines, new figures show.” It should, have read, of course, “Full- and part-time.” This is a relatively tough one for a proofreader to produce but it seems completely logical tome.

Lack of agreement

Later on 12 August the Guardian’s Dave Earley tweeted, “All departure from #HongKong airport have been cancelled.” He meant to write, “All departures … have been cancelled.”

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Book review: Samarkand, Amin Maalouf (1992)

This historical fantasy was published originally in French in 1989 (a mere decade after the revolution in Iran). It tells a story based on the life of the poet and scientist Omar Khayyam and it also supposes the fate of an original manuscript of his poetry. The city named in the title was where the poet spent parts of his youth, although he was born in Nishapur, a city in what today is called Iran.

Maalouf is a dedicated chronicler of a creative genius he holds in high esteem but while he is no doubt well-informed I suspect that records from the time the first half of the book deals with – the 11th and early 12th centuries – are not perfectly reliable as historical sources. Maalouf has some decided ideas about things to do with the figure of Khayyam, such as the origin of the word “assassin”, so I presume that he has followed his own head in order to develop a plot that allows him to make the points that he chooses to make in the book. I am prepared to offer ignorance as the cause of my hesitation to venture any further comments as to the accuracy of Maalouf’s version of events. What I can say with confidence is that Maalouf thematically ties the two sections of the book together mainly using characters he invents. The work is thus artful and well-designed and the language used in each of the parts is appropriate for the purpose.

The fate of the manuscript is present like a base note in a musical composition, often lying just below the surface of consciousness though sometimes emerging into the melody like some talisman of hope for a forgotten people.

It seems that in real life an ability to accurately attribute any of the poems in the collection we possess today to Khayyam the historical figure has to be questioned. Many, if not all, of the poems in the collection that is available to buy in bookstores under the title ‘The Rubaiyaat’ were written by people other than Khayyam. Maalouf’s fictional ploy is to posit a reliable, original copy of the collection, a manuscript that has survived for 800 years and has to be rediscovered by a young American named Banjamin Lesage in order to enable the poet to be suitably honoured and acclaimed. This novel is, in a very real sense, a work of devotion and it goes to the heart of the author’s idea of himself as a Lebanese living in Paris.  It is, in short, sincere and earnest.

It is a fairly conventional novel with a satisfying structure and colourful characters. There is a good deal of romance and intrigue that is underpinned by a species of indulgent orientalism of a kind familiar to people who have seen in an art gallery any of the many late-19th century European oil paintings that are available to view and that take their inspiration from the Middle East. Precisely, the first half of the novel deals with events taking place in Central Asia and the Middle East (Samarkand is in modern-day Uzbekistan and Isfahan, another city that features in the story, is in modern-day Iran).

The second half of the book is focalised through the character of Lesage who, in the years around the turn of the 20th century, travels twice to Persia to find and bring back to Europe the manuscript that Khayyam was found making in the first half of the book. While in Teheran he becomes involved in the events surrounding the Parliament that was established despite the wishes of the two major powers – Britain and Russia – before the shah was returned to absolute power.

Historically, Maalouf is on firmer ground in these sections of the book, and for a person like me with no knowledge of the events of those years (especially the years between 1908 and 1912) the narrative provided here offered a good primer to add information to my knowledge of modern Iran. The second half of the novel was somewhat burdened stylistically by tropes that appear to have been stolen from mediocre novels of the 18th century. I am certain that this was done by Maalouf quite consciously; the style used in this part of the novel differs markedly from the style used in the first half. But even given this conscious authorial ventriloquism, overall the novel does seem a bit old-fashioned when read now, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

As in the first half of the novel, in the second half the manuscript that had been begun in Samarkand lies at the centre of events, this time in an environment enlivened by contact with notables of the era; Benjamin had been introduced to one of Iran’s most prominent intellectuals by a French uncle, and this connection leads to others which prove useful to him. In this part of the book themes that had appeared in the first half – such as Khayyam’s inability to tolerate cruelty, his respect for the sanctity of life, his lack of interest in mundane concerns, and his unimpeachable honesty: the things that made him so welcome as a companion for the rulers in his own day – reappear in the context of the trials Iran faced at the beginning of the 20th century.

This kind of characterisation is artful and satisfying, and it points to the author’s willingness to face the sometimes-uncomfortable realities that existed in the region 100 years ago and that (from all the evidence) still exist now. Underneath all of the thematic development that he carries out lies the author’s desire for justice for the people of the region. This aspiration was as important in the 1920s as it was in the 1980s, and it is still important today.

It’s salutary to take note of the date this book was originally published, especially in the light of events that would overtake the world in the decades following that point in time. The character of Hassan Sabbah, who Khayyam befriends early in the tale, morphs into something quite different from the man the poet originally got to know. Sabbah turns into an influential figure and, although I hesitate to list too many details so as not to give the game away, it’s true to say that he occupies something like a key dramatic role in opposition to the ascetic and unworldly Khayyam, a man more interested in learning and in art than in influencing the tide of history. In fact, Maalouf casts Khayyam as a kind of Spok and Sabbah as his nemesis.

Parts of the book are a bit hard to follow and I wasn’t sure whether the author had not forgotten some of the facts he had earlier deployed in the narrative. I seemed to remember that Sultan Malikshah’s second son Barkiyaruk had died in childhood but later he emerged as an actor in a succession crisis. This kind of plot device is common in this rewarding and complex novel which in its first half relies on an omniscient narrator who is completely reliable and who has no role to play in the story.

This book should appeal to people who like TV dramas like ‘Game of Thrones’ and movies such as the films in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ franchise. The matter of the value of art is also explored, in both parts of the book, and in the light of these aspects of the plot you would have to say that Maalouf is a committed Humanist. There are other questions that need answering for the reader apart from those to do with the careers of kings and the loyalties of mullahs. Firstly: what will happen to the manuscript? And will Benjamin, like Khayyam, marry the woman he loves? And what of the future for this rich Westerner from Annapolis? Khayyam lived to a great age, will Benjamin resemble him in this regard, too?

Maalouf was born in Lebanon but has lived in France for a long time. In that country he is feted and his novels are acclaimed. He is less well-known in the Anglosphere and this is a shame as he appears to me to be someone we should have been watching in the years leading up to 11 September 2001. The story in the first half of the novel could have provided Western leaders with a guide to their conduct on the international stage, and if people like George Bush and John Howard and Tony Blair had paid attention and heeded Maalouf’s message from the early 90s the world might have avoided the disasters we have seen in Iraq and Syria.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Intolerance of diversity by people on the political left

I sat on a draft of this post for most of this month before finally deciding to post it, so no-one can accuse me of dashing it off in the heat of the moment. And as I note in what follows, I’ve been thinking about this issue for a good deal of time. In fact, I started writing on the blog about the ways that people use social media in the middle of 2017.

This episode started when the Christopher Hitchens account put a quote up on Sunday 11 August and it was retweeted by a Twitter contact of mine (we both follow each other), a man who used to be a Greens municipal councillor: "Every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own actions because you deny yourself the right to hear something." The writer is dead now but quotes of his come from this account from time to time.

On the same day, I saw a tweet from a person who, like me, writes book reviews. She doesn't follow me but I follower her. Her tweet contained a link to an old story about Kashmir by a journalist named Matthew Clayfield, who used to be a Twitter contact of mine (at one time we both followed each other). I checked Matthew's profile and saw that he had blocked me. For the life of me I could not imagine what might have convinced him that blocking me was necessary. I will only disconnect from people if they use bad language or do something antisocial, and that isn’t my way of behaving on social media.

This episode underlined for me how bad social media is for the conduct of interpersonal relations. There is no time for nuance and people usually go in hard, using all their rhetorical skills to prosecute an argument, rather than modulating their language in order to remain within the bounds of reason or politeness. And there are no secondary markers available, as there are, for example, in face-to-face conversations: body language, vocalised inflection, facial expressions, pauses, and the kind of deliberate hedging that people use when they are with someone, even if they disagree with that person's ideas on a specific issue.

I don't see why it's necessary for people to have 100% of their views consoning with everyone they encounter online. Surely, we can tolerate diversity. And it's generally people on the left, like Matthew, who are least likely to tolerate diversity. They want everyone to think the same way as them and if they find someone who thinks differently, they often block.

Having lost Matthew, I then did a search for another journalist from whom I hadn’t seen much in recent weeks, who is named Royce Kurmelovs. He had written a couple of books and I now found that although he was mentioned a number of times on Twitter his account had disappeared. Then I checked for the account of Kurt Johnson, who I knew from university and a poetry circle that had been active there a decade earlier. Kurt had been visible from time to time at poetry readings around the traps in Sydney. I was relieved to see that Kurt still had his account active and that he had not blocked me, although, as previously, he wasn’t following me.

To do something positive for diversity, I decided to send a friend request on Facebook to a person I had unfriended some months before. This woman had actually been unnecessarily rude, which is why I made the decision I made. The night before, on 17 August, I had had a dinner party at my place to which a mutual friend had come, so the friend request was timely.

I had been thinking about these things for some time. In fact, I had even started a new post about how people on the left often recommend something, a book, say, along with an assertion that “everyone” should read it. For example, on 1 August at 1.13pm someone retweeted a tweet from a self-identified academic with 14,634 followers that read, “This is a powerful article, every Australian should read.” The tweet contained a link to a story on the website of the progressive magazine The Monthly titled, “The terrible truth of climate change.”

Let’s leave aside the scientific consensus about climate change: that it is real and that it is caused by human activity. But you see at play on the left all the time the kind of unhealthy homogenising instinct this person displayed. It links with the idea that part of the community – the part that self-identifies as being on the left – is ahead of history on a range of issues. The thinking goes that due to the successes of the post-war counterculture – the generation their parents had grown up in, or even that they, themselves, had grown up in – in terms of improvements in human rights everything that they, today, think, will therefore be an inevitable result of history (still, paradoxically, unfolding of course). For such people, the phrase “being on the right side of history” links in with this way of thinking. Hence the intolerance. They consider that because people in the future will inevitably think the same way as they do now, then your objection to something they say is a complete nonsense and not worth giving time to considering.

The thing that was so galling about what Matthew had done was his vaunted dedication to diversity. He had been busy travelling for as long as he had been a freelance journalist. Travelling to parts of the world that most people ignore and avoid, such as Kashmir. In fact, visiting hotspots had become a leitmotiv in his production, presumably on the basis that he thinks it incumbent on a white, Anglo journalist from a wealthy country to give attention to people the world usually ignores. How much more progressive can a journalist be than this? So, the lack of tolerance for diversity of opinion that is expressed by people like this is not merely ironic, it is profoundly hypocritical.

But it is typical for the political left. They have any amount of time to dedicate to listening to people who are different from themselves but none at all for people like themselves. How much more racist can you get than to say, “I will give time to people less fortunate than myself but I won’t give the time of day to my equals”? Well-meaning paternalism like this is behind the same selfish impulse that makes progressives unthinkingly criticise Israel and give blanket support to Palestinians.

Some people also think that in developing countries the governments alone are corrupt. If the people were given their own head, they think, then everyone would be honest and government would be run in the interests of the common people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Governments are made up of people, and the same corrupt institutions that operate today in places like China or Egypt would operate in the same way if you switched out all the personnel tomorrow and replaced them with fresh faces.

Progressives who harbour fantasies about the goodness of the common folk are infantilising the people they pretend to support. If you want good results you have to at least treat people like adults who are capable of deciding their own future. If you treat adults like children they will think you are insane and at the very least take advantage of your misplaced goodwill.

Rereading this post I am mindful that it is a bit of a grab-bag of things. But it’s not just a case of sour grapes (although there is an element of that). In fact, I have been meaning for a long time to write a post on this subject. The incident with Matthew was just the last straw. 

Monday 26 August 2019

Book review: Comemadre, Roque Larraquy (2018)

This refreshingly good novel of ideas was originally published in Spanish in 2010. The author is Argentinian. I think the title translates as “eatmother” but I’m not a Spanish speaker so I’m not sure. Aside from some acid (though possibly ironic) sallies at the expense of the English, I thought this relatively short novel was brilliant. I had a bad reaction to it about three weeks before this review was made and set the book aside, putting my negative review in a slush pile, before picking the book up again and finishing the rest of it in one sitting. My first impression was that it read like a ‘Goon Show’ script and had only one likeable character (the nurse in the first part of the novel, who is named Menendez). On a second visit the thing made more sense.

The novel is cut into two sections that are linked through a character (who appears in the second section) named Sebastian. The first section is dated 1907 and is in the form of a diary and it is focalised through one of the doctors in a medical institution, whose name is Quintana.

The second section is dated 2009. In the beginning of this section we are witnessing the world through the character of an Argentinian artist who is not named. A woman named Lynda is writing a dissertation on him and his work and he is, in the novel, corresponding with her and answering questions that she has asked him, in a way that can furnish material for her study. The artist was a child prodigy and he teamed up with another gifted man, named Lucian, to make artworks that have been exhibited in galleries around the world and that have garnered broad acclaim.

The plot in the first section of the book is equally appealing, in a macabre sort of way, and concerns a plan by a sanatorium’s operators to trick cancer sufferers to donate their bodies to science once the (knowingly ineffectual) serum they had been given, fails. A machine like a guillotine would then be used to take their heads off in order to test the belief that the head of a person thus murdered would retain consciousness for a period of nine seconds once it was separated from the body. Insights into the nature of death could consequently be gleaned from studying the severed heads and by asking them questions before life is entirely extinguished.

Fragments of speech are captured as the heads are removed from the bodies of innocent people, and what they produce in the form of spoken words is recorded as text. These fragments have the sort of allusive hermeticism of tweets captured by a bot to furnish evidence of the intellect and education of their real-life authors. This is thrillingly funny and is typical of the kind of material this book retails in.

You can see, furthermore, how this kind of scenario might be attractive to a contemporary artist. The metatextual narrative detailing the lives of the artists which the author adds on at the end of the account of the medical institution is replete with knowing glances at the authorial process and at the business of sense-making generally. Which is why I think that Larraquy’s snide remarks about the British are more like an attack on Argentinians themselves, a people who still have raw memories of military defeat. Neither of the book’s narrators are anyway entirely reliable.

The thing that is really great about this work of fiction is that it relies entirely on novelistic solutions to the problem of communicating complex ideas. It is however a tantalising work in many respects and it is certainly one that defies attempts by the reader to assign neat meanings to any of its parts. If it is about anything it must be about identity and the self and the way that individuals find meaning in relation to others.

In support of this interpretation there are some examples in the narrative of twinning. In the first half of the book a filmmaker named Mauricio is discussed who has a brother, also called Mauricio. The doctors in the sanatorium comment on the case as an oddity, so it occupies some sections of text. Then there are the two artists in the second half of the book – one the narrator of the latter section of the novel and the one named Lucian – who are both child prodigies and who meet during their childhood before, as adults, partnering to create new works together. But then again, the book seems also to be about history and collective identity and the sense the individual has of belonging to something larger than him- or herself. Though to be honest I am not at all sure what it means. It is so, so many things and they’re all fascinating.

The meaning of the book’s title and the rest of the ontological paraphernalia that sustains it remained for me, once I had finally put the book down, something of a conundrum. But it contains a whole slew of catchy artistic ideas. I can’t wait to read other people’s reviews, because this book seems to me to be something of a puzzle. 

Sunday 25 August 2019

More heart palpitations

On the evening of the day after my 57th birthday, as I do every day I took a shower and brushed my teeth, then got into bed. It was around 9.30pm by this time, and as usual my heart began to beat fast. What normally happens – now that I have quit drinking alcohol entirely – is that after about two minutes’ time it regularises and I can get to sleep. But this night each time my heart rate fell to a reasonable level it would start going at a higher rate again. After about 20 minutes of this I got out of bed and got dressed with my trousers and a clean shirt and called triple zero. I was shaking uncontrollably by the time the phone call was over.

As had happened three times over the previous two weeks, by the time the ambulance crew arrived at my door my heart had gone back to normal. They rigged me up with dots (the sticky patches that contacts are connected to which deliver a signal to the electrocardiograph, or ECG), and printed out a sample, but by this time my heart seemed fine. When I told the ambo with the long hipster beard that this was the fourth time I had called an ambulance in a period of two weeks, he suggested to me that I go with them to a hospital. I agreed and got my medications from the bathroom, got a phone charger, and put this stuff in my green satchel. We went down to the street in the lift at about 10.25pm.

Inside the ambulance they confirmed that the destination would be the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown and we set off. I was sitting in a seat in the back of the vehicle facing backwards, a seatbelt buckled over my torso. Tito (the bearded ambo) asked me questions and typed away on a ruggedised laptop as we negotiated the streets before we were delivered outside the main building where the emergency department and the resuscitation room are located. Inside the building’s foyer, I sat in a chair next to Tito and his colleague stood nearby. This colleague a bit later got cups of coffee for him and his partner. Tito told a nurse attached to the hospital about my symptoms and then after about ten minutes’ wait we went indoors. I sat in another chair while Tito told another nurse what had happened.

After a while an emergency department nurse guided me to a vacant bed and I lay down with my clothes and jacket still on. I had my satchel over my shoulder and at some point someone suggested putting this article behind the bed. My shoes went under the bed. I wasn’t connected to an ECG at this point, although I would be later once I moved to the acute care ward next-door. As soon as practicable a nurse put a cannula in my hand so that blood could be taken for tests.

While in the emergency department I saw a number of people admitted. There was a young woman in a pair of black jeans and a black top who had a bruise on her forehead above her right eye. She was accompanied in a room near the door by two pairs of police. Evidently something had happened and police were taking a statement from the woman, who was with a young man wearing a T-shirt.

Later a woman named Julie who was complaining of abdominal pains was admitted and put in the bed to my right, behind me. She sounded very crook, in a lot of pain, and her groans filled the space. From time to time a hospital employee would come and take her to get a scan. There was a CT scan and an X-ray and, each time, someone came and wheeled her away as she lay on her bed. It wasn’t clear to the staff why she was in so much pain and she had to explain twice about a blockage in her intestine that had been fixed 30 years previously.

A young woman with a husky, girlish voice and a pink backpack that contained a tan teddy bear came in and was put in the bed to my left, in front of me. She had drunk, she said, three bottles of wine as well as some vodkas. She lay curled up in her bed and the staff ministered to her prone form.

My own blood tests came back negative. The troponim test was the one the staff were most interested in learning as it can indicate whether there is something very wrong with the heart. After waiting for about four hours a young woman in doctors’ green scrubs came up to me and we talked about what had happened. She had dark skin and evidently had her roots in the subcontinent. She asked me a lot of questions and made notes on a computer installed on a wheeled stand. At some point after she left my bedside a man attached to the hospital’s administrative unit came up to me and I signed some papers relating to my private health insurance and to Medicare. I used my mobile phone occasionally to have conversations with people and I saw, while still in the RPAH, that an Apple software update was available.

At 5.30pm I was moved to a bed in the acute care ward. Here, my shoes and bag were stowed, as before, under and behind the bed. I lay down to wait and to rest. A nurse offered to change me into a hospital gown but another nurse said I would probably be going home soon. I closed my eyes again from time to time and, on and off, secured fragments of sleep.

From time to time I also thought about the health system and how it works but whenever I started to become emotional about this subject I would imagine the person walking in the ward in front of me to be someone who would tweet commonplaces about refugees or some other hot-button topic, and the spell would be broken. The man or woman I was looking at would stop being a member of the elect and would revert to being just another ordinary citizen with a manageable array of pet gripes and hobby-horses.

The ward came alive at about 6am when the lights went on. An orderly brought me breakfast on a tray and I ate two slices of white bread with margarine and apricot jam spread on them. I also drank a contained of fruit juice and a small plastic bottle of milk.

I saw an unhealthily-skinny young man in a bed to my left and in front of me, on the opposite side of the ward, complaining about the drink he had been given. He threw a Styrofoam cup onto the floor and said he wanted ice in a proper cup. He would later ask for a jug of water and the staff would have to tell him that only cups were available. When he insisted on getting some juice they were forced to explain that the stock of this item had been exhausted in the ward’s fridge and that this usually happened by about midnight. He started taking off the ECG contacts and the other things linking him to the ward, and although a hospital security guard was called to the ward, the young man finally got a gown put on so that he could go outside to smoke a cigarette.

Julie was in the ward with me, a couple of beds over on the other side of an old man named Brian who was aged about 84 and who had dementia. He would later be transferred to Balmain Hospital. Green curtains were drawn around Julie’s bed and a large number of people came in and out of the enclosure they made, including one man aged in his early 50s who wore a doctor’s dark-blue scrubs. He had a bright orange backpack on his back. At 8.40am he told the poor woman, “We’re hoping to have you in the theatre in less than an hour.” Julie had a blockage in her bowel and part of the organ would have to be removed. “It’s literally life-threatening,” chirped the dapper man in blue.

At some point a new crew of nurses came on-duty and were briefed about each patient by the retiring crew. The nurse who was looking after me from this point in time was from Ireland and had blonde hair. There was also a nurse who looked like an Aussie girl from the 60s who should have been a Beatles fan. On top of her head her dark hair was put up in a shape like a bagel. There was another nurse who had wavy hair that was tied at the back of her head. And the nurse who would take the cannula out of my right hand wore a University of Tasmania fleecy top and was junior to the Irish nurse.

The same doctor as before came around and she told me what the cardiology team had advised her to do. I received from her an envelope with test results that I was to give to my GP. My GP was to put a Holter monitor on me for 24 hours to monitor my heart. In addition I was to make an appointment to see the cardiologist who had done the ablation (the surgical procedure) back in January. I was also to take the beta-blocker prescribed for me 30 minutes before going to bed; this measure had been suggested by the unnamed ambo when the three of us had been in my unit prior to the trip to the RPAH.

In the ward, the Tasmanian nurse carefully removed the cannula from the back of my hand, peeling off the tape that held it in place and, once it had been extracted from my flesh, pressing a patch of gauze over the hole that had been made, to staunch the blood-flow. After the cannula was removed I put on my shoes and left the ward. As I passed her bed, Julie was on the phone to someone. In the waiting room out front, near the street, a young woman was curled up in the foetal position on a bank of chairs and she looked as though she was crying. Outside, I flagged a cab and told the driver where to take me. We used Pyrmont Bridge Road, which was very crowded, and I got home at 9.25am.

It had been a busy 12 hours and now, I reminded myself, I would be able to update my phone using Wi-Fi. But things didn’t stop being a problem with the new operating system installed. It wasn’t just a matter of pulling off the adhesive dots used for the ECG contacts, either. I found to my deep consternation that even lying down on the bed to have a nap in the daytime – let alone trying to get to sleep at night – resulted in heart palpitations. Learning this unpleasant fact, I immediately phoned my cardiologist and made an appointment for Friday the following week (the earliest time they had available). Then I called my local GP clinic and made an appointment for the afternoon of the same day I came home from the hospital. I had to talk with someone who could give me advice as to what to do. How to manage your life when you can’t even lie down?

Because my regular GP wasn’t working on this day I booked an appointment with another man, one I had used on previous occasions. When I arrived at the clinic he was still busy so I took the receptionist’s offer of an appointment with another GP in the same clinic. I had met with her on one or two occasions before and anyway all the doctors use the same patient records during their consultations.

The doctor listened to my story and read the letter that the hospital had given me to pass to my GP and prescribed me temazepam, a tranquiliser. What if it doesn’t work? I asked her. If it doesn’t work you can come back and get a stronger dosage, she said. She took my blood pressure and it was a bit high but that could be explained, she averred, by the fact that I had not slept the night before. I took the script to the pharmacy down the road and got the drug. It wasn’t available in a bottle, the pharmacist advised me, and I said, “I don’t care I just want the drug.” He mentioned the fact that I should only take one tablet daily (the doctor had said to take it 45 minutes before retiring) and that there was no repeat on the script; the printed packet said it contained 25 pills, so: enough to get me to the appointment with the cardiologist a week distant.

Time became something alive under my changed condition as an outcast from the shores of oblivion. As I was deleting email messages in my client software I remembered the hours and minutes in the RPAH the previous night. The email thing was necessary because I had received an email from my ISP telling me that my inbox had reached 75 percent of its limit. I patiently got rid of months of emails starting with the oldest ones in the folder. But that feeling of endless time, time without boundaries, that I had felt the night before as I waited for the doctor on duty to come and talk with me in the wards where I was lying throughout the long night, returned to me as I mechanically clicked on email after email, zeroing in on the trashcan icons in the display window, one by one by one. Click, click, click.

That night I took the temazepam 45 minutes before going to bed. Then at 30 minutes before bedtime I took the beta-blocker. And finally I took my anti-psychotic at 10 minutes before bedtime. I had my shower as usual and got into bed and my heart went fast as expected. It kept this up for about 20 minutes but it got slower and slower until I fell asleep. I slept from 8.30pm to 6.30am and when I awoke I felt like I had been reborn.

The next day, a Friday, I saw my regular GP and we talked about the Holter monitor the hospital had advised putting on to observe my heart function over a period of 24 hours. He said he had already made out an order to give to the pathologists (who operate from the same office he works from) and he took the order that the doctor the previous day had made, saying that he would shred it. He said too that he would follow up with the pathologists to try to get the Holter monitor put on before the appointment with the cardiologist.

I asked him if the palpitations this time were pathological or psychological and he said he didn’t know. Learning more about the heart’s function would enable him to eliminate variables and narrow down his focus onto the real problem. He didn’t charge me for the visit although the doctor the day before had done so. 

Saturday 24 August 2019

Odd shots, 01: Fires in Brazilian rainforest

This is a new series about the strange ways that people online go about blaming the media for society’s ills. I don’t know how long this series will go for, but the trope is so common it’s actually unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

23 August

The day before I had seen a tweet from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist that said something along the lines of, “People have read in the media about the Amazon fires and then are complaining that the mainstream media isn’t covering it.” This journalist had actually covered the fires herself for the public broadcaster and on that Wednesday she expressed puzzlement due to people’s comments about her profession.

Then on Friday I saw a tweet from a journalist who lives in Portugal named Rita Vaz da Silva (no relation). It was part of a thread and I will put the whole thing here so that you can keep up with the meaning of this episode of ‘Odd shots’.
Misinformation on what is happening in the Amazon/Amazonia is insane. On social media is total chaos, no respect whatsoever to the facts. The worst of it all is watching the mainstream media disseminate stuff they see on social media without verifying any of the info, sources. 
One of the reasons this misinformation is spreading is actually reassuring. This is one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the world. For reference, it takes at least 15 hours to go from Santarém to Manaus by boat. It's impossible to drive to most places. 
The fire count is slightly above average in some states - Amazonas and Rondônia. But the virgin rainforest isn't burning like most people think it is. It's mostly slash and burn agriculture and fires near populated areas. This is nothing new and has been happening for decades.
The final tweet in the series was published at 6.48am on this day, Sydney time. A bit later, a woman who routinely lambastes the media and who has over 15,000 followers, named Denise Shrivell, retweeted a tweet from an Australian author named Jess Hill that said, “I know the media has close to zero interest in South America, but given the catastrophic fires burning right now in the Amazon may accelerate the climate crisis, maybe it’s time to start paying attention?” Denise added for her followers the comment, “Anyone seen any mention of #AmazonRainforest in Australian media?” I replied “ABC has covered it.” Denise didn’t respond to my tweet and when I retweeted the thread from Rita da Silva with a tag so that Denise would see it, she also didn’t respond.

Her silence was not surprising considering the extent of the information blitz the day before. Here are just a few examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. One person who tweeted was French President Emanuel Macron, saying, “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs which produces [sic] 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is [sic] on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days!” With its charmingly original English his tweet had been retweeted 13,000 times and had received 36,000 likes when I checked the stats. It came with a photo showing jungle burning, but it wasn’t clear when or where the photo had been taken. If you saw the tweet and looked at it uncritically, you would think it was a recent photo of the Brazilian rainforest, but this was not stated.

Another tweet came from a journalist I follow named Miriam Cosic, who included in her tweet an image containing the following text:
The lungs of the Earth are in flames. The Brazilian Amazon – home to 1 million Indigenous people and 3 million species – has been burning for more than two weeks straight. There have been 74,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon since the beginning of this year – a staggering 84% increase over the same period last year (National Institute for Space Research, Brazil). Scientists and conservationists attribute the accelerating deforestation to President Jair Bolsonaro, who issued an open invitation to loggers and farmers to clear the land after taking office in January.
The text was from, allegedly, an outfit with a handle “ourplanetdaily”, but it was hard to know for sure who had put the information into the public sphere and whether the facts that it retailed in were actually true or not. I found a Twitter account named @OurPlanetDaily but it hadn’t put up anything since 7 November 2017.

Another tweet from an Irish campaigner named John Gibbons contained an image that was a map of Brazil showing fires in red on a green background. His tweet read, “So many #Climate emergencies worldwide, it's hard to keep up. But #AmazonRainforest burning is stand-out global disaster. Every red dot below represents a significant fire.” The locations of the fires were not, as expected, in the areas where the heaviest forest exists, in the northwestern part of the country, but closer to the south. As with the other information that had been put out on Wednesday 22 August by so many people, there was no indication where this image had been made or who had made it.

There was a tweet from a US outfit called the Sunrise Movement that contained a video showing what appeared to be an Indigenous woman (with elaborate headdress) standing in dark countryside and pointing to burning vegetation behind her. It was impossible to know when and where the video had been taken and it was even unclear what kind of vegetation the fire was consuming.

Later, I saw a photo in a Vox story published online on Thursday that featured fires burning in different countries. There was one photo that purported to show a fire in Brazil, in the Amazon basin. The photo was put up by a person with the handle @mohsinkazmitakepictures on Instagram and shows some vegetation burning in the foreground, part of what appears to be a field used for agriculture (which corroborates what da Silva had said). In the background is the forest margin. On the guy’s website the same photo is found but there is no caption to say when and where it was taken. There are other photos that might have been taken in Brazil but nothing that could be described as rainforest burning. You can go to his Instagram page to find the text that he published with the photo described.

Then, on 23 August at 9.46am, da Silva put up a new tweet containing the same image that Macron had used in his tweet. She said in relation to this photo, “I tracked down the granddaughter of Loren McIntyre, the photographer who took this photo everyone is sharing. An old image, pre-2003, of a fire in Pará. I'm dying to DM her to know what she thinks of all of this.”

I checked the ABC News website but could find no story about the Brazilian rainforest fires there, nor on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. But I did a Google search and found an ABC story by a journalist named Claire Knox (who might have been the person mentioned in the first paragraph, above) that had gone up on the web on Wednesday with the headline, “Record wildfires raging through the Amazon can now be seen from space.”

The story had a photo in it showing burning forest but there was no textual gloss accompanying the photo and it might have been a stock image. The story quoted the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) of Brazil, the same source that Cosic’s tweet had used. There was also a photo that looked as though it had been taken from space that was captioned, “Satellite data captured on August 13 shows fires in the Amazon creating a dome of smoke over South America.” The photo was taken from space and appeared to show smoke from what could have been fires in the central western part of the country, an area which could have been in either of the states of Rondonia or Mato Grosso. The caption also said that the photo had been supplied by a person named Santiago Gasso, but who he is or where he works was not disclosed. The photo itself might have provided substance to the claim that rainforest was burning but it wasn’t at all clear if you just looked at it without any accompanying narrative. The story also said:
Since last Thursday, [the INPE] said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest — a habitat seen as vital to countering global warming.
Now, if you accept the truth of the photos in this story (two of which were probably from the archives) and the message in the headline and the information from this (to me) previously-unknown “space agency” then you might think that rainforest was burning in Brazil.

A Guardian story dated that Friday with an image containing information sourced from NASA showing fires in the country appeared to add substance to the claim, but the image (which the Guardian made) showed most of the fires were not (repeat: not) in the Amazon basin.

Corroborating what had appeared in the satellite image put on the ABC’s page, there were dots on the Guardian’s image showing fires had been burning in the central west of the country, but (also corroborating what was shown in the ABC’s satellite photo) more appeared to have been lit in Paraguay and in Bolivia. There were also dots on the Guardian image showing fires burning in the east of the country, an area in which, going by the ABC’s satellite image, no smoke was present. The text on the web page didn’t actually add anything to corroborate the information, already mentioned, that had been sourced from the NISR. 

Then I saw a story that was linked to in a Guardian opinion piece by a Brazilian journalist named Elaine Brum. The story in question was on the website of an organisation called Science Alert and was originally published on the website of Business Insider. It is by a journalist named Aylin Woodward and it contains an image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US government agency, that shows some smoke from fires in the central west of Brazil. Part of the image includes the Amazon basin but Bolivia is in the centre of the photo, which was taken by a satellite. There are some plumes of what looks like smoke that have their sources in different areas of Brazil but in its first paragraph the story says: “Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across Brazil, primarily in the Amazon basin.” As in the image in the ABC story the smoke is heading southwest. The photo is dated 12 August.

A bit later I saw a story published yesterday from Business Insider titled, ‘Brazil's climate change sceptic government says warnings about the fires consuming the Amazon are 'sensationalist,' 'hysterical,' and 'misleading'.’ It contains the following to back up its claims of widespread rainforest fires:
The government is painting itself as the subject of an international smear campaign as activists and political leaders around the world urge action and decry state policies that have allowed increased clearing of the forest for farming and logging, which has likely been the source of many of the fires.
“Likely” but they’re not sure. The lack of evidence doesn’t stop the outlet adding its two cents’-worth to the campaign though. But let’s pause and consider for a moment what da Silva is not saying. She’s not saying that there is no burning of rainforest going on in the Amazon basin. What she is objecting to are the unsubstantiated, uncorroborated claims of widespread rainforest destruction using fire by the international media and by others, including politicians like Macron. It’s no surprise that a politician would lie for effect or to achieve some secondary goal unrelated to the issue in the case. But it is a bit more unsettling when the media feels a duty to follow people like Macron, blindly and without asking questions. 

Many of the images that I saw in a Guardian video on another of its web pages might easily have been vision of wildfires rather than fires that had been intentionally lit in order to clear land for agriculture. The following chart from NASA shows, for example, that wildfires are common at this time of year in the state of Amazonas. The trend for 2019 shown here is not significantly different from the lines for any other recent year. Unsurprisingly, this information was published from da Silva’s Twitter account.

Given the left’s hatred of the Brazilian president in Brazil and elsewhere, this kind of story was catnip for progressives. But if you have a more critical mind you might think, especially taking into account what da Silva had said, that the whole thing was just a massive beat-up. I am open to persuasion if evidence of large-scale burning of rainforests in the Amazon basin can be produced but so far there is nothing like this available anywhere. 

The thing about this case is that rather than not covering what appeared at first blush to be a major international story, it turns out that the media had uncritically repeated allegations without bothering to find anything substantial to back up its claims. So the media was to blame in the case of the Brazilian forest fires, but not for the reasons given by Shrivell and others.

[UPDATE 10.44am, 27 August 2019]: So today the Guardian actually does some real journalism and gets a guy on the ground in Rio de Janeiro to do some phoning. He finds some bureaucrats in the environment department to say (on deep background; they won't give their names) that their organisation had evidence of some fires deliberately lit to clear forest in order to make land suitable for grazing or for cropping (it's not stated which) in the state of Para. The fires started burning on 10 August, which coincides with a photo taken from a satellite showing some smoke over the west of the country on 12 August (see below). The point of origin of this smoke could easily be in Para. The image was copied from the ABC story mentioned in the above blogpost.

Friday 23 August 2019

Book review: Women of Karantina, Nael Eltoukhy (2014)

This writer (despite the feminine-sounding name he is male) wants his novel to be emblematic of the story of the people of his region of the world. It’s a rollicking ride across the majority of the 21st century, although the speculative elements are by no means as compelling as the melodrama. Eltoukhy’s book starts out in the future, two generations from the time when the story opens in the first decade of the century. With a typically vibrant flourish, this part of the novel contains the story of two mangy, flea-bitten dogs who die in a hole.

The relevance of this scene with respect to the rest of the narrative is not immediately clear and it’s not really spelled out at the end of the tale either. It’s purely symbolic and it’s also flamboyant. The writer is remarking on his country’s lowly status and on the overriding sense of loyalty that motivates people who live there and that helps to form the communities that people enjoy.

The novel has at its centre a family and a criminal syndicate founded by two people, a man named Ali and a woman named Inji, who are second cousins and who marry. At the beginning of the book, the two flee Cairo in the direction of a town in the south of the country after, to protect Inji’s honour, Ali throws a man onto some train tracks, killing him. The action then turns to Alexandria, where the two end up engaged in a number of more or less legal businesses, including the operation of a café and the running of a brothel. The couple’s son, Hamada, is instrumental in keeping the story going in the middle of the book and later the baton of responsibility for generating drama is passed, in turn, to Hamada’s daughters Lara and Yara.

The plot is loose and accommodates a series of structurally and logically unrelated events, much in the same way that an old 18th century picaresque novel is made up of a series of independent episodes: just one damned thing after another, one by one, scene after scene.

At the centre of their circle of patronage, amid all the murders and the conversations with religious persons or policemen and amid all the marriages, Ali and Inji stride through time like two ancient legends, surrounded by a coterie of adoring onlookers and supporters and hangers-on. It’s true that there is something charismatic about the two of them, and this feeling endures perhaps because of the endless marital spats they enter into and negotiate as Eltoukhy tries to come to terms with contemporary Egyptian society and politics. Key to most of the actions that people complete in the novel is the idea of revenge, of the seemingly endless search for justice in the sublunary world.

Some of the problems I felt in my first attempt to read the novel, and that were expressed in parts of the first draft of my review, remained once I had bitten the bullet and decided to give the beast a second chance. It’s not just the thin plot. Slapstick and melodrama are to comedy and tragedy what crime is to legitimate business, and the foundation of the dynasty of Ali and Inji is crime. But the story is suffused both with humour and a kind of sentimentality familiar to people who have seen or who watch soap operas. A good deal of the drama is expressive and some of it is overwrought, but this is all in the service of conveying larger truths about an entire citizenry. The main actors stand in for millions and so they are larger-than-life and their exploits are dangerous as well as gestural. At the core of the novel sits the maritime city of Alexandria which, evidently, occupies a special place in the author’s heart. The city is an international entrepot with a colourful history but in the novel’s shifting present it regrettably occupies second place to the larger and more important city of Cairo.

Much of the poetics of place is introduced through the use of dialogue; there is not much done in terms of drawing word pictures of Alexandria and its locales although the main characters tend to get a brief portrait when they are introduced for the first time. It seems that this author thinks in terms of the conversations that take place between people, such as Ali and Inji, or Ali and Abu Amin, an early patron, or Inji and Hagga Itemad, wife of the dead Alexandria crime boss Hagg Mohamed Harbi whose command of the affections of the people Ali dreams of rivalling.

A lot of the dialogue is rendered in straight prose without quotation marks or other punctuation. The narrative swallows up such conversations and buries them in its fundamental matrix. And some sections of dialogue are not entirely transparent. You sometimes miss cues and the object of people’s conversation can get lost among the details being put forward. This is a bit frustrating at times but it doesn’t completely spoil the story as the main characters retain prominence by being at the centre of the action for most of the time. While it’s something that might have been remedied by better editing this is a minor matter in the wider scheme of things. As mentioned earlier, this is a big, rambling novel with a large cast of characters, not all of whom are central to the project of making meaning.

The lack of significant locality portraits is however a bit surprising given that the novel has a place name – Karantina – in its title. In the novel (and, possibly, in real life; I don’t know), this working-class Alexandria suburb became the focus of government disaffection and dwellings there were removed in favour of other structures. But, in Eltoukhy’s version of events, the “legend” of Karantina is revived by Ali and Inji as they vie with the authorities and other gangsters in feuds fought for supremacy and for popular support. Scrappy and proud, Ali and Inji seek to buttress with the gravitas of history their mundane status as people of means.

Central to the plot is a property dispute that arises between the two parts of the crime family sitting in the middle of things. In the Middle Eastern context, for obvious reasons a device such as this contains broad relevance. And it is this kind of novel: one that has justified pretensions to stand in for a whole social system.

After reading about 10 percent of this Egyptian melodrama I wrote a version of this review that never got published. Then I finished the book. I was glad that I persevered although the ending is not as decisive as the length of the book, especially one with such strong central themes as this novel, encourages you to believe will be the reward for the effort expended in reading it.

There is also a mystical streak in this author’s worldview that makes sense in light of all the violence; in a book with so much death in it this is hardly surprising. The role women are given in the book as nurturers is modulated by their carnal appetites and by the leadership they provide in mundane concerns. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why the book’s title was devised the way it was, furthermore, but it’s at least a catchy title. And it’s an entertaining book. Well worth the time given over to reading it.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

What Queenslanders think about Adani’s Carmichael mine

The other day in response to something put on Twitter by a person I know, who is a journalist, I made a comment about this mine. The man I was talking to is English and works in Europe. His main preoccupation seems to be the environment and he is one of that new breed of practitioner who would embrace the epithet “activist” if it was applied to him. So he feels very passionately about what he does. It’s not important how I got to know him, suffice it to say that he is considerably younger than me.

When we had finished our conversation on Twitter I thought a bit about what had been said and, more importantly, what had not been said. It occurred to me that there are a lot of people in different countries around the world who are invested heavily, in an emotional sense, in the Carmichael mine, but that there is also a lot of ignorance about it and the political context surrounding it. The conversation I had had with the journalist in question demonstrated this to me. So I decided to write a short primer on the issue so that people in other countries, countries that are not Australia, can understand why the Carmichael mine will surely go ahead and be built. Most locals will already know what is included in this article, which is really designed for people resident overseas.

It’s not important what I think about the Carmichael mine. I have my own ideas about the environment and what should be done to preserve our future. But what is more important is what the people of North Queensland think. They are the ones, ultimately, who will decide what gets done in their territory.

To start with let’s step back and contemplate Australia briefly. This is a country with about the same land mass as Europe but with a population of 25 million. Queensland itself is the same size as Alaska and has a population of five million, of whom most live in the southeast corner in or around the state capital of Brisbane. North Queensland is parochial and independent; it is the furthest extremity of a frontier state. People up there are very independent-minded and they hardly tolerate being told what to do by politicians in Brisbane, let alone by activists in the southern capitals of Melbourne and Sydney. In Queensland the state government is very aware of this dynamic and some governments there even hold their parliaments up north in an effort to bring the people who live in that region closer into the fold.

Queensland has always bred mavericks. Julian Assange grew up in North Queensland and his mother lives in Southeast Queensland now. You also have the likes of Clive Palmer, a rich businessman who has run for office and who has won it and lost it. Then there is Pauline Hanson, the xenophobic populist who initially won office in 1996, trumping Trump by a generation. And you also have Bob Katter, who is the federal member for a North Queensland seat and who has set up his own political party, a party which includes his own son. I lived in Queensland for over five years and it was while living there that I first met the journalist mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

In outback Queensland you don’t see many cars. The ones you do see drive very fast on sometimes poorly-maintained sealed roads, or else on unsealed roads that are covered with gravel or dirt. Working on a mine means a lot of driving, often, to get from a major population centre to the work site. So it is dangerous work for the simple reason that you are going very fast for a good deal of the time on bad roads. Roads cost money to fix and Queensland is very big and very sparsely populated.

Jobs are especially important in this kind of country because workers spend their money in town buying food, staying in hotels, buying beers at the pub, and buying petrol to fill up their utilities. A town might have a population of a few hundred or a few thousand so every single job is considered to be a kind of gift to the whole community. In this context, the potential mine employment figures that are bandied about by a left-wing think-tank like the Australia institute or by the Adani company or even by the state government, are not the most important thing. What is most important is how locals think about the level of employment will be produced. You can publish any figure you like but you can’t argue with a $50 note put down on the counter to pay for a steak dinner. That $50 note is good for the whole community because it goes toward paying wages and paying for supplies. The money gets circulated through the community as retail employees and business owners pay their bills and do their shopping.

About five years ago, to do a story, I drove north on the Bruce Highway from the town near Brisbane I lived in to a place near Home Hill in North Queensland. I had a contact and he had promised to meet me at a certain time in a roadside café and he was there soon after I parked my car in the parking lot out the front, next to the highway. I shook his hand and the first thing he said to me after “Hello” was, “So you’re a Mexican.” I had to think for a moment because I have a surname that might sound Mexican if you don’t know your history (and a lot of people don’t, I have found). But I understood him in the end: I was from south of the border. I was an outsider because of where I lived in the southeast of the state. So he used this casual pejorative from the get-go just to test me. I agreed that I was a Mexican and we had a busy and productive day together.

The joke was hardly surprising to me once I had talked with this man, a retired marine engineer aged then in his fifties. People in North Queensland want to draw a new border at Rockhampton and govern themselves. Even though they rely on money provided by the state government in the southeast, they feel a good deal of resentment about the current political settlement. Queensland is the only state to have only one chamber in its parliament. They abolished the upper house in 1922. That’s how much they respect politicians up north.

In May there was a federal election in Australia and the result was unexpected. Everyone had thought Labor would win but the Liberal Party with its coalition partner, the National Party, won a slim majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Coalition increased its share of the available seats and although the Coalition does not have a majority there, the minor parties that control the balance of power in the upper house are mostly of a conservative bent. So the Coalition did something remarkable and are now in power until the next poll, in three years’ time. Before he was appointed party leader, the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, once scandalised the Speaker of the Reps by bringing a lump of coal into the chamber to make a point.

Before the election, the former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, travelled with a convoy of cars north into Queensland to protest against Adani. Some of the cars were Teslas. They were jeered in the streets by some and welcomed by others. But the stunt did more than make headlines: it galvanised voters in the state to reject parties that might – even potentially – be against Adani. Hence the Coalition’s windfall in the Senate. The people of Queensland spoke and they spoke decisively in favour of coal. A Labor government in Brisbane that ignored that voice would be committing political suicide (the next state election is in 2020). There’s no question but that the Carmichael mine will go ahead.

It should be added that many people in places like Sydney and Melbourne, and even in Brisbane, think that the Carmichael mine should be stopped. There are a lot of Australians who agree with the global consensus that we should avoid wherever possible using fossil fuels for energy. But the dynamic in play in this country is what you find in many places: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. North Queenslanders are pushing back and it is what they think that will decide the outcome in this case.

Monday 19 August 2019

‘Free Hong Kong’ graffiti, Chinatown, Sydney

I snapped this photo (above) yesterday when I was down in Chinatown for yum cha. This was visible at around 1pm on Dixon Street, in the heart of Chinatown. More than half of the street is a pedestrian mall, so wholesale deliverymen bring produce to restaurants that operate there using trolleys like this one, pushing them along the pavement on foot.

It wasn’t surprising for me to see the graffiti here. The day before, in Belmore Park, about five minutes’ walk from this spot to the east, a pro-CCP rally had taken place. Hundreds of protesters were there, and the day before that an anti-CCP rally had taken place in Sydney as well. These rallies can get quite boisterous, they are not at all friendly. The second photo (below) shows the same graffiti on the same ornamental lion but without the people walking in front of it.

It might seem a little incongruous for an Australian to publish a post like this one. Easy to do this when you are protected by centuries of precedent and by institutions that tolerate dissent. But I felt that it is important to do what you can to support the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Every little bit helps when you have an enemy as powerful and determined as they do. Whoever wrote this slogan evidently thought the same way as me.

I actually have little patience for people who say that it’s not worth talking about these problems because it’s common knowledge that the CCP is corrupt and unaccountable. For Hong Kongers, they are real and not at all abstract. It’s hardly a “truism” to say it if you live there and if you want to decide who makes the laws that govern your life. It goes to the very core of who you are.

(UPDATE 7pm, 19 Aug: The graffiti had been rubbed off by someone using their hand. The chalk was smeared all over the lion's plinth, making a mess.)

Sunday 18 August 2019

Book review: Ottoman Odyssey, Alev Scott (2018)

Before I talk in detail about this book I have to register the importance of the feeling of pleasure that reading it gave me. At the time I bought it, in a bookstore in Newtown, in Sydney, on one of my regular weekend outings, I had just started three other books of nonfiction by people who were, or had been, journalists. I finished one of them, skimmed one, and left off reading the third out of frustration. They were all Australian books but out of the three only one was readable. Even then, I had reservations about the author’s approach to her subject.

But here’s the thing: all three of those books had been brought to my attention by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in programs on their local Sydney radio frequency. All three had been promoted probably without the people talking about them even reading them. Then, on this sunny day, I went into a bookshop and deliberately picked off the shelf a book that had as little as possible to do with the identity politics that those three books retailed in. Choosing this book by Scott was, consciously, a bird flipped at the local publishing industry, a business that has its usual methods of getting media coverage, and one that had let me down so badly.

Scott’s book is journalism but it is a kind of journalism that is more and more common these days. The author points, at the end of the book, to the danger that her brand of journalism faces, when she talks with a colleague, a man who had, like her, been singled out for censure by the Turkish government. She uses the word “activism” as an adjective to qualify the kind of journalism I am talking about.

One of the things that is most interesting about Scott’s book, in fact, is her own character as it appears from time to time in the narrative. More toward the end but throughout the book the author points to herself as an example of the kind of person she wants to talk about, or in order to register her reactions to the many different people she meets in the course of making her story. Now, there is nothing unusual about this kind of journalism. It is, in fact, a kind of commonplace for a journalist to includer him- or herself in the narrative. But it does mean that you are going to lose some of the control you have, as a journalist, over the messages you are making. At the core of journalism, indeed, is the idea of objectivity. If Scott tells us, when she visits a small village in Cyprus or Bosnia, that the man she is talking to wears a red shirt, then we have to believe this is true. But she cannot blithely bury her own ideological position vs-a-vis Ankara or Jerusalem.

At heart Scott is not in favour of nationalism although she does mention at different points how it functioned as an effective element of local politics in different places at the time the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. And this book is about nationalism and religion, specifically, and how those two things combine within different individuals, and within individual communities, to influence personal conduct as well as politics. I hesitate to mention the positive role that nationalism played in Europe in the 14th century at the beginning of what came to be known as the Humanist project. With any tool or with any means to an end, sometimes what you use to achieve your goals can be constructive and sometimes the same thing, used by different people, can be destructive.

Scott singles out a kind of tribalism as an element in the political settlement in a number of different countries she visits, but especially in Lebanon, where the different groups of people in the community have their own representatives in the legislature and in other institutions such as the armed forces. This kind of extreme solution to the issues that Scott raises – the ways that people’s identities serve to mould the political settlement – is one of the insights that this book delivers. In a modern, pluralist democracy, most often the tribes that exist in the community correspond to the major political parties. The situation in a country in the Middle East can be very different and this dynamic can cause problems for politicians there that you won’t find in, say, Australia.

There are a number of different themes that emerge in the course of the book, although it is difficult to settle on one or two considering the broad range of places Scott visits in order to gather the material she needs to write her stories. Basically she is trying to pick out some common ideas that have emerged in the generations since the 1920s, when Turkey emerged from the ruins of the empire that had existed since the 14th century. The book’s subtitle is “travels through a lost empire” and the author certainly does a lot of travelling (although the government bars her from entering Turkey at a certain point in the tale). This is a useful book to read if you have some knowledge of the region already; it might be hard to gain access to it if you know nothing about the geographical area we know as the Middle East. My own May trip to the region certainly informed my understanding of what Scott writes.

What it makes clear is that Turkey today leverages its Ottoman roots to try to influence countries in the region through soft-power diplomacy, in the same way, for example, that China uses similar tools. Money to build mosques or to set up tertiary education institutions is linked to a crude branding strategy that emphasises the significance of past glories. Local politicians in different countries use this kind of jingoistic pork-barrelling to gain influence within the communities they lead. But this book is far too complex to enable a reviewer to make too many easy conclusions. You really have to read it if you want to understand the complexity of the region and the types of relations that have emerged, since the 1920s, between governments there and the people they govern.

Scott chronicles a dizzying array of different groups of people, each of which has its own history, its own forms of religious observance, its own values and allegiances and even, in some cases, professions. The region is characterised, thus, by a vast diversity of people and Scott is a worthy observer of this.

On the other hand, Scott’s opinion of Jerusalem I found unnecessarily harsh, and it was probably mostly due to her personal ideas about Israel. As a committed lefty, Scott feels an obligation to support the Palestinians and this aspect of her identity colours the passages that she writes about the old town with its high walls, many religious institutions, and shops selling tourist tat.

It’s salutary to contrast the things she says about the tourists who flock to the city in a steady stream, and the things she says about people with whose feelings she sympathises, such as the Greeks living in the northern part of Cyprus she meets and whose stories embellish the final pages of the book. Both groups of people are finding meaning doing their thing but Scott suggests that the feelings of rich Christians, from places like Europe and the US, as they stalk along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem are, somehow, inauthentic. It’s really a shame. You sense, too, conflicting emotions for the author when she talks about the pronouncements of Turkish President Erdogan on the subject of Israel. On the one hand she doesn’t like Israel but on the other hand she doesn’t like Erdogan, so in such passages she’s caught in something of a quandary.

Scott’s English is sometimes slightly idiosyncratic and this might be due to her having spoken a different language when she was growing up. One solecism can serve to illustrate this point, where she talks about “boiling oil”, which is an impossibility in the domestic context. It might be possible in an industrial plant to get oil to boil but at home it can only get very hot, and will not boil on a regular stove. It might possibly become as hot as boiling water, but it won’t boil without special help.