Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Book review: Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, Alec Ryrie (2017)

The author is an Anglican minister but there is no hint of triumphalism in this brilliant historical work, one that takes the reader from the modern origins of Protestantism in the 16th century up to our times. Ryrie was born in the UK and graduated from Oxford Uni but grew up in the US.

There is the occasional mention of the Lollards and the Hussites but nothing substantial, whereas for Luther and Zwingli and Calvin there is a complete exegesis based on original sources. There are 20 pages of notes as well as an index.

Ryrie is a clever writer, it should be said, who is aware of how the reader is feeling at different points in the narrative and who inserts divagations at points apropos in order to provide a rich and rewarding experience. While complex, the book is not difficult. This combination of factors is an index of Ryrie’s skill.

While the facts are comprehensive it is the building of a story that sustains the reader who spends time with this book. It tells a story that has a remarkable origin and that continues to sustain both people and polis wherever it is practiced. Again: no triumphalism. Rather, an awareness of the protean nature of the project, one that occupies and rewards the people involved in it wherever they may live and whatever their roles.

While Ryrie’s main point about this form of religious practice is centred, in his mind, on a love affair with God, it also has other characteristics: the tendency of Protestants to both cleave to the word of the Bible and to splinter into groups. The way that this plays out at different times helps the reader to understand identity politics, which Ryrie (possibly optimistically) sees as another offshoot of Protestantism.

He takes the reader from the homeland of Protestantism in continental Europe, to the United States of America, to Korea and China and places beyond. His task is massive but stylistically he’s up to the challenge. A very good book indeed.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-six

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

27 April

Had a nap after lunch and dreamt I was in mum and dad’s house looking after granny. Mum and dad had died but granny was still alive. There were two staircases made of wood, one on each side of an entranceway going outside to a verandah. A cousin was there with her daughter, and an aunt – not the mother of the cousin – was there as well. In the dream the two women were, strangely, about the same age.

Someone had put carpets on the top steps of the staircases and I asked if they could be taken away as I was having trouble walking down to the dining room-kitchen area at the bottom of the flights. There were banisters set in the wall, and I descended with my left hand on a wooden banister, carefully balancing on the steep flight of stairs, worried lest I tumble down to the bottom and hurt myself. Each time I got down to the bottom safely, I felt relieved and grateful.

A friend was there as well and he was watching something on Netflix. There was a bookshop display cabinet with a mechanism to enable it to turn, and it had lots of copies of children’s books on it. With my hand I turned it round looking at the multiple copies of each book it contained, most of which were small and had hard covers, and wondered why mum had bought so many and how much the bookcase had cost. “Who are the books for?” I asked myself, then remembered the children I had seen playing in the house.

In the pool off the back garden, on which the verandah looked out, was a cat trapped in wrapping paper that had come from a posted parcel. The cat was white and it was making a fuss in the water. I told my friend to get it out of the pool, and he did so quickly evidently fearful, like me, that some misadventure could befall the creature.

28 April

Dreamt I was in Tokyo and trying to get back to my family’s house in Yokohama. At the time of the dream I was in Tokyo City, about an hour away, by train, from my destination. I was inside a large train station servicing multiple intersecting commuter lines, one of which would take me to northern Yokohama and another to the Yokohama central business district, and one of which would take me to Shinjuku. IRL there is one station that would fit this description – Shibuya – which I used for my daily commute when I lived in Yokohama.

As I was walking in the dream along the platform, having gotten off one train, I was talking with an older American woman who, it became clear to me, lived in the area where the station I was in had its street exits. I was describing to the woman about a potato that you grate in order to make a sort of paste. Or slime; we had been talking about food made from slime, including a kind of jelly. To illustrate the food I’d mentioned I used my hands to depict the grater as I couldn’t remember the name of the utensil. The word “grater” eluded me so I made circular motions with my right hand, its fingers pinched loosely as though holding a narrow tuber, and used my left hand’s fingers to pretend to hold a utensil, as though I were rubbing the potato against it in a circular motion. IRL the name of this dish is “tororo” and it was a favourite of mine when I lived in Japan between 1992 and 2001.

As we kept going I realised that if I didn’t catch another train I would have to get out on the street and catch a taxi which, I accurately estimated, would cost a lot more money than it would cost to go by train. I left the woman and turned back, searching for a passage to take me to a platform where I could board a train going in the general direction I desired. 

I looked, occasionally, to the walls and ceilings of the spaces I found myself in. They were inlaid with a mosaic made up of complex networks of lines and dots and words representing the network of tunnels, tracks, and stations I was inside. The words were linked to the dots by shapes like the chocks you use to keep an aircraft immobile while it is on the ground; triangles but with the longest side made of a curve, as in a graph. 

I didn’t know where I was but knew, at least, that I was inside one of the indicated stations. Endeavouring to get to my destination I walked up and down flights of steps, under overpasses, into tunnels and out again, always looking for the right place to stand and wait for a train to arrive. The stairways had concrete banisters that were covered with yellow tiles. 

Eventually, I came to what I thought was the right platform and stood there in front of a train with its doors open but I didn’t, for some reason, board the train. Instead, I started talking with a homeless man who had a dog on the platform. The dog was friendly but I was wary. It was a tan Labrador. The man had some kind of mark on his face; under his left eye I could see what appeared to be a bruise or birthmark.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book review: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, Laura Thompson (2015)

I was bored out of my brain watching TV, since my home contents has been packed up due to the fact that I’m moving house, and so I walked to Glebe and bought some books, this being one of them. It turned out to be a good choice as my state of mind – feeling a little vulnerable and uncertain due to the change underway – consoned with traces of anxiety the book communicates.


It’s difficult to write a biography about six women like the Mitford sisters because of their connections with Nazism, but Thompson has done us a great service by indulging in her personal fascination with her subjects. This is a magnificent biography.

It’s a thorough exposé of a period of time so different from today but, also, so similar in many respects, not the least of which is the reason for notoriety of the women under examination. The fact that so much is known about them, due to the survival of a large number of private letters and also due to the existence of published works of fiction (and memoir), adds richness to Thompson’s account.

She had to become acquainted with some of the darkest parts of history in order to write it. I applaud her gumption and recognise the worth of her approach, which mingles the personal with the public in a thrilling manner. The way the sisters related to their parents, to each other, to significant others, and to the public provides a view that is at the same time microscopic and broad. 

The title is stripped back and modern, matching the subject matter. Reading the book it’s actually easy to see why some of the Mitford sisters responded to the call of the siren, but I wonder if Thompson might not have realised how nihilism made them liable to succumb to fascism and Communism in the absence of other, equally rewarding, inputs. Nancy, who went on to become a successful novelist, seems to have remained least liable to respond positively to the lure of the political extremism that animated the era, though even she did so at some points. 

Jessica went the other way from Unity and Diana, and became a Communist. And while Thompson remarks from time to time how difficult it is, now, for us to understand people living then – almost a century ago now – she is reticent about going the next step and making proclamations that might explain why some of these youthful sisters (and, indeed, their parents) cleaved so strongly to fascism. In my mind it certainly had something to do with youth, but it was more complex than that, and I alluded to some of the things that were in action at the time in a review of another book, which I read in May

Again, it’s germane for me to say that Thompson has done us all a favour at the same time as she indulged her own fascination with these women. I strongly recommend this book to people who are curious about the 1930s or to people who want to understand more about our own times, with its violent public sphere and extreme views.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Grocery shopping list for July 2020

This post is the nineteenth in a series and the fifth with rona. 

3 July

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) taramosalata, marinaded goat’s cheese, onions, linguine, a sultana butter cake, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and – whoops-a-daisy! – a bottle of tonic water.


5 July

Went to the convenience store and bought eggs, milk, and sliced chicken breast. Then popped in at the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

6 July

Drove to Woolies and bought fillet steak, a barramundi fillet, smoked hake fillets, bread, an oakleaf lettuce, bean salad, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” and blueberries. 

This trip to the supermarket was my first one in the RAV4 and, with the roof racks on, as headroom is sufficient, I had no dramas going into the carpark. Standing under the store next to the car, I eventually worked out how to open the rear door, which works by touch (not using the remote control). After a few false starts the door opened. 

7 July

Walked to the pharmacy and popped in at Coles while in the arcade to buy (see receipt below) some no-sugar flavoured mineral water. It was dearer than I usually pay at Woolworths, though Woolies’ price for this (from my point of view) essential item seems to change from day to day.


On this day I had a conversation on Twitter with @GayCarBoys about my contretemps with the rear door. “It took me 5 minutes to work out how to open the rear door!” (Actually it was more like 30 seconds.) He answered: “Was the button not working?” “I had to learn by doing,” I replied. “The sales guy gave me a 30 minute rundown of features when I picked the car up, but some things weren't covered ...” He replied: “TBH they really don't have time to. I reckon there is a business in showing people how to work their gizmos ;)” 

I couldn’t actually accurately recall how long the explanation took that Ryan gave me in the auto retailer’s showroom, but it took forever. A RAV4 has so many features, and the way it talks with the driver’s phone is astounding (I feel like a Boomer in the Geeks 2 U ad).

9 July

Went to the pharmacy and then the tailor’s (to pick up dry cleaning) and on the way home popped in at Woolies and picked up (see receipt below) sliced pastrami, sliced ham, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg”, couscous with pumpkin, tomato soup, lamb soup, and lentil soup.


11 July 

Went to the convenience store and bought milk.

12 July

Drove to Officeworks and on the way home popped in at Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) sliced chicken breast, sliced ham, raisin butter cake, carrot cake, chillies, tomatoes, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


14 July 

Went to the tailor’s and to the pharmacy and while out used Woolworths to buy (see receipt below) bean salad, lentil salad, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


Later drove to Officeworks and bought (see receipt below) a bottle of hand sanitiser for visitors to the apartment, which I’d decided to sell.


16 July

Drove to Woolworths and bought eggs, bread, milk, a saucepan (because I’d forgotten to put one aside prior to the move), pastrami, a cos lettuce, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

17 July

Went to Bunnings and bought (see receipt below) Stanley knife blades and cleaning liquid. This gear was to get tape off my apartment window. The stuff had been used to hold up a pillow case designed to keep the sun out of my eyes while I sat at the computer in the early mornings but now, with the sale, it had become an eyesore. 


18 July

Drove to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) instant oats, apples, blueberries, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


In the evening went to the Feather and Bone Butchery website and put in an order (see confirmation screen clip, below) to be delivered.


20 July

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) a perch fillet, salmon steaks, smoked hake fillets, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, tomato soup, taramosalata, a sultana butter cake, and two bottles of Schweppes “Agrum” no-sugar drink.


I’d taken an email from Feather and Bone Butchery out of the spam folder in the morning and at 12.06pm Nevil called me on the phone as the intercom, he said, wasn’t working. I went down and met him and carried the box upstairs, then repackaged everything for freezing, finishing at 12.23pm. I called the building manager’s office to log an error notice for the equipment and they said someone would probably come out the same day, or the next, to fix it.

In the afternoon I went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero. While out I popped in at the convenience store and bought biscuits (Caramel Crowns, and Mint Slice) and a packet of chips.

22 July

Went to Woolies and bought sliced pastrami, sliced ham, apples, blueberries, lamb soup, chicken noodle soup, hummus with harissa, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

23 July

Walked to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg”, sundried tomatoes, d’affinois cheese, bhuja, Tim Tams, and mouthwash.


24 July

Went to Woolworths and bought lentil salad, bread, milk, biscuits (Chocolate Gaiety, Caramel Crowns), and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

25 July

Walked to Glebe to buy books and while there stopped at Harris Farm Markets and bought (see receipt below) harira (tomato, lentil and chickpea) soup, chicken and white bean soup, Hungarian salami, Danish salami, Maffra “Riverslea” red cheddar, blue cheese, blueberries, and lentil chips.


26 July

Went to Woolworths and bought Jatz crackers and no-sugar mineral water.

27 July

Drove to Lakemba (to buy a shirt); while there I popped in at a grocer’s and got a container of spiced, fried fish, a container of beef and potato biryani, and a container of chicken tawa (which involves pieces of an animal being cooked on a “tawa”, or round frying pan with, according to Google, “fresh tomatoes, onions chillies and a range of spices”; it is popular in India and Pakistan).

28 July

Had a local appointment and on the way home stopped at Woolies and bought hummus with harissa, taramosalata, apples, blueberries, bean salad, cauliflower soup, beetroot soup, a sultana butter cake, and some Caramel Crowns (a type of biscuit).

29 July

Had some errands to do with the car so, while out, I popped in at Coles and bought (see receipt below) paper towels, instant oats, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Book review: Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1990)

I bought this book in or soon after April 2007 at the Co-op Bookshop, where it had been put on sale at a reduced price; it had been, in retail parlance, “remaindered” and I picked it up on one of my lunchtime sorties – I worked nearby, on-campus – for $9.95.


This novel of manners was originally published in Arabic in 1956 and, having been translated by the American University in Cairo, holds up for the scrutiny of readers of English – the language of Egypt’s occupiers at the time it opens; this part set in WWI – a clever portrait of the family of the prosperous, chauvinistic, and distinctly middle-class Shia shopkeeper al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. Mahfouz, who won a Nobel Prize in 1988, is skilful at entertaining, taking us inside al-Sayyid Ahmad’s house with its many rooms and its occupants – his wife, Amina (who is rarely named in this way, and is more often referred to as “the mother” or “the woman”), five children ranging in age from young adults to a nine-year-old primary school student, and the housekeeper Umm Hanifa – and then to the shop of the paterfamilias, who is richly realised and complex, making his deliberations – and his actions – harder to understand.

Regrettably and unnecessarily – in each of its short, punchy chapters the novel harnesses an explosive power – its editors, eager to inject a sense of drama equal to the author’s talent, disclose a major plot point on the back cover of the volume. It’s hard to see why this would have been done unless they were worried that an unusual – and foreign – name would put prospective buyers off completing their purchase. One variable – the ability of men in Egypt at the time to stop women in their household from going outside – constituting the basis on which the novel is constructed.

It’s a brilliant exposé and, as was the practice of great 19th century European novelists (and is still the practice of talented novelists today), Mahfouz uses secondary elements – a street, for example, or the inside of a building – to talk about the world he wants to evoke in the reader’s mind. Along with strong characters he uses language that is redolent with meaning to depict an approximation of “reality” within the world of the novel.

Even though its style is determinedly realistic, this abundance results in pleasure for the reader. Dialogue serves the same end, for example conversations between the two sisters, Aisha (16) and Khadija (who is a little older), or the rich interior world of little Kamal whose thoughts about jinn, as he walks home from school, are shown to the reader in reports interwoven, for example, with a depiction of the appearance of an ad outside a tobacconist’s shop or with a quote from the Koran.

Within a few chapters, Mahfouz – who is still, now, virtually unknown in the West – conjures up the world that drew his interest, and peoples it with credible characters. His vision is adequate to conveying meaning in terms of a man out on the town with his mistress or else that of a young boy sitting at home with his mother and older sisters enjoying a conversation about things familiar to him.

It’s like looking through a stereoscope.

These were devices used for family entertainment in the 19th century. Into a stereoscope you placed a set of special transparencies, and it allowed you to see, if you situated your eyes on one end and held it up to the light, a far-away scene – a building like the Crystal Palace or the Taj Mahal – in a tiny diorama. In Mahfouz’s novel you get images of Cairo in 1918 (or thereabouts – the year the book opens in is not captioned explicitly) in many of its facets. Each street – some are named – is rendered in detail, and it is as if you could go there today and see and hear the same people who – in the novel – are depicted in glittering sentences.

In each short chapter, by focalising the narrative through a different character, Mahfouz is able to delineate society of the time, each of his characters an individual as different from the others as is a person you meet in real life. As a novelist this fascination with the particularity of the individual is, like the restriction that drives the plot, endlessly productive for him. He’s like Walter Scott, but far better, and more elaborate in his creation, as the psychological states of his characters are also visible, allowing you to understand the situations his fictional creations face, and how they think and, just as importantly, feel.

Passions roil behind the silent walls of Palace Walk – the novel’s name signalling at the author’s interest in the threshold upon which the private (the individual, the family) and the public (neighbours, the wider society) meet. His particular interest in personal conduct, justice, and sociability hinting at other concerns, for example the role of government or religion.

Mahfouz, a giant of the artform, deserves to be more widely read and, just as importantly, talked about. By restricting himself to interpersonal relations he gives himself freedom, but because this is a novel you, also, are free to make associations while reading, so your focus might shift from al-Sayyid Ahmad to God or to the head of the administration – the secular and divine points of origin of law. In fact, Mahfouz makes this point explicit in chapter 38:
Everything in the house yielded blindly to a higher will with a limitless authority almost like that of religion. Within these walls even love itself had to creep into their hearts timidly, hesitantly, and diffidently. It did not enjoy its normal influence or dominance. The only dominant force here was that higher will. Therefore, when [Aisha’s] father said no, his verdict had become lodged in the depths of her soul. The girl had firmly believed that everything was really over, since there was no way to escape or to ask for a review. She had no hope that anything would help. It was as though this “no” were one of the processes of nature, like the alternation of night and day. 
The intoxication of living in the presence of such a force must be extraordinary.

Perhaps all fathers are like this. In any case, considered today in the light of recent history, this novel can have broad appeal.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Ad capture (03) – Pandora

This the third in a series of posts that are designed to take a detailed look at TV advertisements. I want to slow down the experience and pay attention to what is offered to view between programs on the small screen. This kind of content tends to be considered unimportant or ephemeral.

This 30-second jewellery ad came just after one advertising fruit and vegetables and just before one for an electrical goods retailer. The way the earlier ad approached its subject was to promote health advantages, especially as they relate to mood. The retailer’s ad was aimed at businesspeople – many of whom run small businesses, or people who operate as sole traders – who might be interested in taking advantage of the federal government’s instant asset write-off policy, allowing people to immediately (instead of incrementally, over the longer term) subtract from taxable income any business expense (equipment) that might be incurred before the end of the financial year (I saw the ad on 28 June, two days before the end of the financial year).

The Pandora ad – which I saw again in the morning on 4 July while watching ‘MacGyver’ on 10 Bold – opens with drums and the soundtrack quickly segues into a song that was specially produced for the company, a Danish jewellery retailer with manufacturing facilities in Thailand. The lyrics are simple and direct and play over the top of a series of video segments that are carefully orchestrated to support the corporate goal, which is for people to go online and buy a bracelet for their significant other.

The lyrics go like this:
You bring me joy,
you bring me joy
you take away the pain
with your loving ways.
About the way I love.
Cause every time I see you,
you remind me just the reason
you bring me joy.
The song is bluesy and emotive, evoking a time in the past when manners and mores were more traditional, but with a modern twist (since no-one can meaningfully suggest that jazz is old-fashioned; it’s timeless), and contrasts with the broad smiles of the people shown in the video, most of whom are women. The overall effect of the ad is more refined than pushy.

I’ll return to the theme of variety later on in this review, but it’s worthwhile mentioning at this point that the tune and the lyrics are appropriate as accompaniment for both busy and slow segments of the video, and with this ad you get both.

In broadcasting their original song with segments of carefully designed video, the admakers have added a certain discipline with respect to the timing of words and images. What I mean by this convoluted explanation is to describe how, sometimes, particular words are timed to appear along with certain images – a child, say, or a segment of plain text on a dull pink background (which is also the colour used to display the company’s logo) – but, on the other hand, sometimes synchronisation is absent. By alternating a disciplined approach to the broadcasting of segments, and a looser, less formal one, the creatives behind the ad allow the viewer to experience a range of emotions, and to relax. (You’re not being pushed into doing something you don’t want to do.)

I talked in the previous post in this series about how diversity and contrast in the transmission of elements to the viewer enriched the experience of watching an ad. The same is true of the Pandora ad, even though the subject matter is very different. Whereas, in the Nurofen ad, such things as colour and the opposition between dark and light added meaning to your experience, in the Pandora ad contrast is equally subtle though it relies on other elements.

--------------------

First of all I want to look in more detail at the lyrics. In the above transcript I have tried – to the best of my ability – to add punctuation though, of course, when you listen to a song there is no punctuation and the pauses and phraseology must be implied by the use of voice and rhythm. I had a bit of trouble with the sentence “About the way I love” because it wasn’t precisely clear, even when I slowed the audio track down to half its natural speed – there’s an online tool that allows you to alter the tempo of a song without changing the pitch – where the punctuation should lie in respect of these words. In fact I didn’t even quite get the words at first; the word “about” was particularly difficult to pin down as the stress falls heavily on the second syllable, so much so that the first syllable almost disappears in the singer’s vocalisation. It almost sounds like “out”, with the “a” swallowed in the throat of the singer and the “b” almost lost in the ecstatic explosion of the final syllable.

The singer is a young woman. She has no discernible accent and, importantly, the words used for the song don’t require her to do so. If the makers of the ad had relied on a commercial hit – as many advertising companies do – they might have met with a problem. By getting a songwriter to create original lyrics that are distanced from any secondary meanings – meanings that unavoidably adhere to songs that are part of the culture – the admakers have been able to produce a distinct and authentically Australian ad for its target market.

There is, for example, no “r” at the end of any word which, if an American were singing, would have required a different pronunciation compared to if, say, an Australian had sung the same song. It is clear, however, that the singer was educated in an English-speaking country so, at least on the surface – going by appearances – she belongs to the dominant culture. This is important for this company because it’s a foreign enterprise although its franchise system – which was introduced globally in Australia in 2009 – makes it more likely to be responsive to local markets.

The lyrics do not rhyme and there is no metrical system used for the 38 words they comprise. The word “you” appears in every line (once as the possessive pronoun “your”) except for the one I have already mentioned (“About the way I love”) which contains, rather, the first-person singular pronoun. This line therefore stands in contrast to the other parts of the song. We’ve already seen how it stands out for its lack of definition and clarity, and we now see that, grammatically, it is set apart also. In my transcript I have given this line the status of a discrete sentence as, unlike the other lines, it doesn’t flow into the start of the next line or naturally result from what goes before.

It’s distinct and individual. It’s also important to note that the target of this ad is women but the person who would buy the product would be a man (in many cases; the ad does address the issue of same-sex attraction). The ad however refuses to rely too heavily on the dominant Anglo culture, although in the cases of some of the models it’s not clear where their parents were born. Most of the women featured in the ad are dark-haired, however. In fact, there’s only one blonde, and she is not the most important person you see.

There are four Asian faces and two of the women pictured might have forebears from southern Europe or the Middle East. It’s just not clear and, the creatives behind the ad seem to be saying, it’s not important. This is clever targeting as over 50 percent of Australians have at least one parent who was born overseas. If you count people who might have a grandparent from a non-Anglo culture then you have an even higher level of diversity in Australia in terms of ethnicity. In this ad you see, in fact, traces of a vibrant, multicultural society with distinct values grounded, the creatives behind it seem to be saying, in close personal ties of affection. In fact, with one case pictured it’s possible that the woman who would be the recipient of a gift of jewellery has a partner of the same sex.

The content of the ad signals modernity in other ways, too. Mobile phones (what Americans call “cell phones”) feature prominently, as do, in one scene that places the ad after Covid-19’s onset, computer screens. In a scene starting around the eight-second mark there’s a shot of a woman driving a car and talking on a phone using an earpiece (see image below). These segments underscore the fact that women Pandora is targeting have agency and are independent yet attached to their partners, a seeming paradox of post-war generations for whom the idea of equality is not arguable and is, indeed, a defining element of their personalities.

On the other hand romance is important as well, as the makers of this ad demonstrate in subtle ways. But rather than possessiveness, the ad privileges the idea of gratitude.


As the segment showing the woman driving the car is displayed the song is at the stage of “With your” (the soundtrack quickly cuts to “loving ways” for the subsequent segment). In fact, the audio over this section of video starts with an intake of breath, necessary for the singer doing her job – in the same way that the woman in the car is busy going about the business of looking after the family – to recover from the word “pain” in the previous line of the lyrics. 

The woman we see here is doing two things at once. You can see how her right hand is set on the left-hand side of the steering wheel – indicating that she’s turning left – but she’s also talking on the phone using hands-free devices. Some people drive in this way. I don’t; I’m more likely to always keep my hands at the “ten to two” positions and turn by moving my hands across the surface of the steering wheel rather than, as this woman is doing, fixing one hand on one point of the wheel and dragging it – using the power steering that many cars these days have – to the side.

In the shot you see buildings by the side of the road and, importantly (for a moment), a tree. The setting suggests that the woman is driving somewhere in a suburb of one of the country’s major cities, where living costs are higher but where wages are commensurably higher as well. To add realism, the woman’s hand is not particularly attractive – her wrist is quite bony and her forearm is fairly thick, suggesting strength rather than elegance – and she is wearing (importantly for the people funding the ad) a bracelet that features pearls or some sort of round accoutrement set on a band. There is no watch on her right wrist, suggesting that she’s right-handed.

The reason for her odd hand placement is to obscure the carmaker’s logo – usually found on the centre boss of steering wheels – so that there’s no way to discover what brand of car she’s driving. You can see the seat in which she’s sitting and it’s a new, expensive looking bucket seat. It is pale, a colour like cream, suggesting that a factory option had been selected by the person (probably the woman you’re looking at) buying the car. The steering wheel has controls to the side of the centre boss that is pressed to sound the horn. The steering wheel controls on my old car let you adjust the stereo but on the new car you can do a lot more with the buttons there. 

This shot is extremely complex and varied. You see the woman from the back though also from the left, as though the person (putatively) looking at her were sitting in the back seat of the car. What is most striking in this rapidly replaced scene is colour and variety. You can even see, in the lower left-hand corner of the frame, the other car seat (the front passenger-side seat) in which, presumably, someone (possibly a child) is seated. Perhaps there are two children and we’re supposed to be seeing what the one in the back seat sees every day. 

Which is a woman smiling though she’s shaking her head as if she were saying “I can’t believe it” or something along those lines. As if she were using her voice to express pleasure and anger mixed, concerning something she wants to show was so outrageous that her credulity was challenged but that, instead of losing her temper, she brushed off the disappointment and moved onto the next thing in her busy life. She’s sensible and not prone to unwarranted outbursts of anger.

This is a stunning segment of almost infinite interest, showing the care that the admakers put into every facet of their product. This level of care is evident everywhere, including at the outset, where the lyrics are paired with images to bring into focus the main point of the ad – a man’s gratitude – which we return to again and again, especially as it relates to children. At the beginning of the ad, the song goes “You bring me joy”, and as these words come out from the TV’s speakers we see a shot of an animated and happy, smiling 10-year-old girl (see image below). In fact, the timing of the image is such that she appears a single beat before the word “joy”, on the word “me”. 


Timing is important in this ad because of the centrality, for the viewer’s aesthetic experience, of the original song written for it. Before the scene discussed above, the words “You bring” appear layered over the company logo (see image below) that launches the ad. This is a frame that efficiently serves to cut off the viewer from whatever had come before, and skilfully establishes a sedate tone for the rest of the production. 


The tempo of the music is relaxed and the logo is carefully styled and beautiful in a modern, contemporary way. To return to the idea of diversity, the background of this shot is varied though one colour – pink – predominates but some areas are darker pink and most of the rest is lighter pink. The overall tone of the colour field is subdued and mature. It’s not a candy pink that might be used for girls’ toys and which, in fact, we see in the shot of the ribbon worn by the 10-year-old girl (see earlier image). 

There is a dark patch of colour in the top-right quadrant of this colour field with its company logo. This dark patch of colour blocks out the ideal future, and grounds the viewer in the real past. This is important as is contrasts efficiently with the colour pink, which would otherwise be too cheerful – remember that the lyrics are bluesy and relaxed, and are grounded in an implied viewer’s reality. This is an element of the experience of seeing the ad that returns again and again, notably in the women’s arms and hands. Watching the ad you won’t be mindful of the classical story behind the name “Pandora” – the woman who opened the box of evil spirits – a name that combines a sense of female agency and power with a suggestion of the elemental and irrational. 

By itself, the name might conjure up negative feelings, but the ad reassures. The background colour is moreover one that would suit a mature, elegant, youthful woman who is also a mother, but pink reappears (cleverly) in the next shot (at about the ad’s six-second mark; see image below), which shows a woman laughing while talking on her mobile phone. Here, the woman’s mobile phone case is pink. Her right arm again is wrapped in bracelets – possibly of the kind the jewellery maker funding the ad makes in Thailand – and in her left hand she holds some papers, which distractingly fly around (she’s gesturing with her left hand as she talks), adding variety and movement to complement the movement of her torso as she’s animated by emotion deriving from her phone conversation.


In fact, emotion is readily visible as the woman in this scene actually cries, using her left hand, the index finger bent and raised, to wipe moisture away from her eye. The word “pain” arrives with this gesture, but this scene, with its bright colours, is again joyful and relaxed. The woman wears a blue-and-yellow top and her hair is tied up at the back with an elastic band (which we cannot see; we saw the one for the 10-year-old girl, and it was bright pink). She is right-handed and we see her face from below, as though we were (again) a child looking at his or her mother. 

The woman is not the same one as the woman in the car, but this woman also has a bony wrist and dark hair. She is also wearing, around her neck, a chain or some form of necklace. Importantly, in this shot we also see trees – out of focus and again in the background – suggesting that the woman on the phone is in a park (possibly looking after children while going over some important documents). Adding variety, there are telephone lines on poles, visible in the space to the right of the woman’s head. 

Even more importantly, the visuals in all of these scenes rely on strong diagonals, which link to the manufacturer’s name – there are two capital “a”s in the logo. In the scene with the woman in the park, left-to-right diagonals exist in the line of the woman’s head – she is slightly bent at the waist as she talks – as well as the paper in her left hand, her right arm, and the telephone lines. Going the other way (right to left) are the lines of her left arm and the phone, but there is also an interesting play of lines to do with her shirt at the right shoulder, where the fabric is folded and hanging from it in pleats. These lines harmonise beautifully with the complicated lines of the woman’s right hand, which is holding the phone; the fingers are individually visible and separate. 

You can see the sun shining. Behind the woman’s head you see a blue sky with clouds illuminated by the sun, which also shines on the jewellery on the woman’s right arm. It’s a stunning shot of concentrated power and presence, and ideally illustrates the kind of relationships that a modern, independent woman is capable of making with the people in her life. A reasonable man must be deeply attracted to this kind of woman. The “you” of the song lyrics (though they’re sung by a woman) is the woman in the ad. 

She’s everywoman and with the words “your loving ways” she reappears again at the 10-second mark after the woman driving the car. 

------------------

What I have described so far is only the first 11 seconds (approximately; in fact, a bit more) of the ad; there is so much information packed into it that it’s almost indescribable.

But I try. The first 13 seconds of the ad are, to provide a quick summary, elegant and simple. Then there’s a busy period up to the 24 second mark that is populated by quick changes of imagery with a lot happening in them. At 24 seconds you get the shot of the Pandora shopping bag, and at this point things suddenly slow down again. 

Variety being the operative word in this ad. Between the segments showing people going about their business – driving a car, talking on the phone, visiting friends, walking in the wild, speaking on Zoom – there is text that adds meaning and that spells out a sentence. It’s as though a person were talking to himself with his thoughts being interrupted by memory at particular moments. As mentioned before, the different segments appear either at tonic moments with respect to the song being sung, or off the beat. Variety is the important thing. The sentence being spelt out is, as follows: “Thank you for always being there even when we’re apart.” 

Ads are notorious for nailing the critical point down, in fact they exist precisely for this purpose. To emphasise the ad’s main message, the following is repeated near the end of the ad: “Thank you for always being there.” As with the video used in the ad, these words emphasise the importance of relationships.

In order not to outstay my welcome I won’t go into much more detail than I already have done, but it is worthwhile emphasising again how the ad uses variety. Not only does it vary the types of people – a number of ethnicities are welcomed into the fold – but they are engaged in different activities. For example, featured at around the 13-second mark there’s a group of three smiling young women enjoying junk food. These women are notable for not using technology – everyone else in the ad is either talking on the phone, taking a movie of someone else, looking at pictures on their mobile, or using Zoom to connect with people overseas – but like most of the other people shown they display positive affect (they are smiling broadly).


Then there’s the Zoom convo (which also involves some Asian people) at the 18-second mark:


There’s a woman with a toddler at the 20-second mark:


And you have some people hiking in the wild at the 21-second mark:


These later segments, past the 13-second mark, are less carefully crafted and are more like real life. They’re less staged and less beautiful, more real and less ideal. All this because they’re less important, merely underscoring the points already been made in the opening segments, that I’ve talked about in greater detail above. The long segment with the three young women celebrating with pizza is the hinge upon which the ad turns.

Not until 24 seconds do you get (see image below) the money shot: a segment featuring the precious cargo (the bag with the jewellery in it). The final five seconds of the ad has far fewer segments and is, in general, slower and more thoughtful. You get, at this point, the opportunity to rest after all the business of what went earlier.

It’s also worth noting something else about the ad, which is that you only see jewellery in context, apart from this specific shot at the end of the proceedings. This strategy ensures that you aren’t tired of the sight of jewellery by the end of the ad; in fact you might even be unsure, until this point, what the ad is about.

The small, hand-written tag on the parcel says “For always being there” and a heart symbol is appended at the end of the clause just to make sure the message gets through. The effort made by the admakers to contextualise the product demonstrates that the manufacturer is not interested in the hard sell. Everything about the ad works through suggestion and, apart from the “o” in the brand name shown over its pink screen at the beginning of the ad – the letter designed so that the circle has a small, crown-shaped feature on its top that is evidently meant to represent a jewel – you aren’t explicitly shown the product until you see this bag with the gift in it.


In the above I focus mainly on the secondary messaging that operates in addition to the words used in the song and in the static text displayed in white letters over a pink background in some segments. Almost like subliminal or hidden messaging, in subtle ways video content affects the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of adverts.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

New car redux: RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD

This post has over 3400 words so, if pressed for time, bookmark and read later.

The old Titan silver Aurion AT-X weighs 1525kg (3362 pounds, or one ton, 97.3 stone) and the new, Saturn blue RAV4 weighs 1620kg (3571.5 pounds, or one ton, 112.1 stone), so my guess about the new car – how heavy it is – was correct just based on driving experience.

But it’s also more tightly sprung, riding without drama over speed bumps and road surface irregularities. It feels neat and comfy – one person who sat in the passenger seat said it’s “huggy” – but it also feels wider than the Aurion. In fact the latter is 1.82m (five foot 11-and-two-thirds inches) wide, and the RAV4 is 1.85m (six foot and four-fifths of an inch), so the difference isn’t really significant. Once I got used to the car – after a week or ten days’ driving – I was able to park the beast (which I nicknamed “Ensign”) in a restricted space.

To compensate for a slightly larger size, a RAV4 has more sensors around the exterior of the chassis. If you come too close to an object in front, the car will make a beep sound and will display video on what’s on the street. For reversing there’s automatic video on the central screen mounted on the dashboard (what I call in my report the centre console) that shows you – from a height, looking down – how much space you have behind you as you move. In addition, like an Aurion, a 2020 RAV4 makes beeps while reversing that, as you come closer to the object behind you, get more rapid until, if you are too close to go any further without touching or bumping, form an uninterrupted tone.

The height of my RAV4 Cruiser is 1.75m (five foot nine inches) with roof racks on and an Aurion (with no roof racks) is typically 1.47m (four foot ten inches) high. That sounds too like a difference too large to be possible and without the roof racks the RAV4 is 10cm (four inches) lower than this figure implies – around 1.65m tall – making it, however, still (in stockinged feet), significantly taller (about 20cm or eight inches) than the Aurion (a standard Australian six-cylinder sedan that was based on the Camry).

And for the first few days you feel higher up: separate from the traffic around you. On the one hand this is comforting; that extra distance between you and the action on the ground makes you naturally to feel safer. On the other hand you worry that the gap will make you complacent or reckless. These feelings soon go away.

In the showroom I got the salesman to bring the driver’s seat back as far as it could go, but once I started driving I brought the seat forward a bit toward the steering wheel and lowered it slightly. I also made the seat back sit at a slightly more relaxed angle compared to the vertical. It only took a few trips to get the settings right for my body and driving style. If there’s one problem with the car it’s the placement of the interior door handle, which is situated a bit too far forward, making you have to reach for it. It’s significantly different from in the Aurion, and the placement of the arm rests is also different.

The aircon system turns on easily with a big button under the centre console, but you need to select a separate, smaller front demist button if you want to get air onto the inside of the windscreen. I tried to do this soon after buying the car while driving on a road outside Sydney, but initially failed – with my knowledge of the Aurion operating like a preset – to get the hang of the controls; while driving that first time on an open road I didn’t have attention bandwidth available to work the system out. I really wanted a blast of air to demist the windscreen so in the absence of knowledge just alternated between periods of blasting air and periods where the aircon was off. On another day on the same road I managed to understand the fact that you just hit the “windscreen air” button, and use the “Off” button to stop the blast.

These are minor details compared to the improvements the RAV4 combines, including touch-locking, the fact that you don’t need a remote control to unlock the car, pushbutton starting, and the ease of driving. The automatic shift is incredibly intuitive and easy to use, and you glide off from a start when leaving your parking spot.

-----------------

The driver-assist technology that comes with the RAV4 is so striking it's like I went to sleep in one century and woke up in another. For example, the car talks to you all the time – providing voice notifications for school zones, red-light and speed cameras – and displays the current street's signed speed limit on the instrument panel. The speed display is white with red writing to indicate the speed limit but it turns red with white writing when you are over the limit. If the car doesn’t know what the speed limit is, it displays a circle with two horizontal bars, indicating empty values.

This feature works ok most of the time but when there are two speeds (depending on what kind of vehicle you’re in; it can be 40km per hour for trucks at the same time as it’s 70km per hour for cars and motorcycles) it doesn’t work. This feature is not a replacement for alertness, but it’s very useful if you’re busy with something else – for example finding your way with the satnav, or tuning the radio – and so is an effective adjunct that’s very useful in areas you don’t know well.

It’s interesting that the carmakers didn’t attach a voice notification feature to it; doing so would have added another layer of information to an already crowded field – you get notice of school zones and speed cameras at least every two minutes, when driving in the city suburbs – and would have made it too hard for the driver to concentrate on the important things already being beamed to him or her. Making visual-only the concurrence of signs – on the instrument panel and on the roadside – allowed the carmakers to reduce the importance of this information to a layer below that reserved for school zones.

In New South Wales school zones operate to slow down traffic to 40km per hour at specific times (a morning slot and an afternoon slot, when kids are going to school or going home) so a school zone will, depending on the time of day, sometimes form an alert for the driver of a 2020 RAV4 in two, distinct ways. Regardless of the time of day the instrument panel shows the limit 40km/hr school zones and there’s also the voice alert that is audible (even if the radio is on).

I’ll talk about maps later on, but the car’s warning system for critical traffic details like school zones is indicative of something that will also determine how useful the satnav system is. This is that you cannot 100 percent rely on the car to tell you about the reality that surrounds you. Just as you might feel that a street sign is more accurate than what the onboard computer is telling you about which road to take, the warning system is only useful if you are also watching carefully what is going on around you. Notification of the fact that you are driving into a school zone is also useful and can, under certain circumstances – for example when driving on unfamiliar streets – help you to be safe and legal. But you cannot replace awareness of your surroundings with information received from the car’s computer.

The car tells you when someone comes too close to the front or the rear. When this happens you automatically see on the centre console a camera view of in front or behind. This vision replaces whatever had previously been displayed on the screen. The display also launches a notice to be aware of your surroundings, and this feature can be especially useful for people with small children who might be in the habit of playing in the driveway at home.

--------------------

The mechanics of a 2020 RAV4 are elegant, and though they take a bit of getting used to – about a week – once you know what you’re doing you’ll wonder what all the fiddling around with keys and remote controls was about.

To start the car, get in and sit down in the driver’s seat. Then put your foot on the brake pedal, and resolutely press and briefly hold the “start” button to the left near the steering column. This button is tucked away down in an inaccessible region of the dashboard where you won’t accidentally bump it, and the car won’t start without your foot on the brake. On starting there’s no sound but, to acknowledge your action, the instrument panel (which is entirely digital) lights up and the centre console shows the maker’s logo followed by a cautionary message you can dismiss after a few seconds. The home screen thereupon displays, by default, a map.

The instrument panel is a busy zone with a series of digital displays (including menus for safety features) you can toggle through with a button on the steering wheel but that, at most times, are invisible. The salesman set up the features in the showroom and I’ve not used any of these menus since. This area also displays navigation detail on occasion.

From the standpoint of performance, a RAV4 Cruiser is responsive enough for city traffic. I don’t feel underpowered, even though the engine is smaller than what I had before. The engine of the Aurion AT-X is is 3.5 litres (213.6 cubic inches) and the RAV4 Cruiser’s is 2.5 litres (152.5 cubic inches), but for a driver the two cars don’t feel all that different. The RAV4 is as smooth and effective as the old car was, even uphill on busy roads, but on the motorway uphill it strains a bit harder than the Aurion did, though possibly you notice such engine noise more because, at other times, the car is totally silent.

If, while driving, you’re curious about the powertrain there’s an information screen you can easily pull up on the centre console – press three buttons, one physical and two virtual – that shows you, in real time, how energy flows, red being used to illustrate power transmitted by the petrol engine when it’s running, with two shades of green for electricity. A blue green shows the feed of electricity due to running the engine, which starts up automatically when needed. Electricity also feeds the battery due to the braking effect or from braking using the brake pedal. On the display the battery is light blue in colour, with separate sections filled to show how much charge the battery currently holds. Then there’s a light yellow-green that shows the charge flowing from the battery to the motors on the wheels. The diagram is elegant and easy to understand, having channels like corridors in a building that are drawn with lines that light up – like the old-fashioned displays governments made to show how energy in an industrial process flowed – to serve as indicators of power usage.

The first photo below shows the petrol engine charging the battery and powering the front wheels. You can see the two motors in the car, illustrated by cylinders; one on the front wheels and one on the back wheels. In this image you can also see the engine charging the battery. You get this image when you are accelerating and when electric power alone is not enough for that purpose.


The second photo (below) shows the battery powering the motor on the front wheels. At other times it powers both motors. At low speeds, only the battery is needed, but if you want to accelerate, the petrol engine usually kicks in.


For example, as shown in the third photo (below). This photo shows the engine feeding the battery and powering the front wheels. (This gets confusing, I know …)


The fourth photo (below) shows the effect of braking, where the four wheels charge the battery. The same effect occurs when you coast to a stop, which is when the natural breaking ability of the engine kicks in to slow the car down gradually.


I can’t really comment with any authority on fuel efficiency because I’m terrible at maths, but on Sunday when the odometer was at 356km (it had read 6km when I picked it up from the dealers’) I put in petrol for the first time. It was unleaded priced at just over $25 (at $1.25 per litre). By my reckoning it comes out at 17.45km per litre, which is pretty good compared to the Aurion.

-----------------------

The satnav is easier to use. Upon starting the car, if you tap on the map that comes up on the centre console by default, you touch the little “pinpoint” icon then use the screens that appear to punch in a suburb, street, and street number. Alternatively, you can use a different button to select a suburb (in case you don’t have a specific street address to set as a destination). Once you have punched in your destination, the computer usually asks you to confirm it and then, as you drive off, a map with a thick blue line – to indicate your route – appears on the centre console. The computer’s voice starts narrating your route.

To test the system, on one day, while house hunting, I punched in an address about 20km (12.4 miles) from my home in an area I don’t know well and then, when halfway there, deliberately took a wrong turn. The car’s computer knew where I was and quickly recalibrated itself to accommodate the new state of affairs. It then offered me a new route, but I guessed that, if I took it, I’d have to stand waiting to turn right (in Australia we drive on the left) across traffic flowing on a busy street, so kept ignoring the satnav until I came to a place I thought there would be traffic lights. Then I followed the satnav, turned left, and then right. 

The satnav was by turns efficient and accurate, and inaccurate and (on one occasion) plain wrong. Most often it accurately tells you what’s coming up about half a kilometre ahead (for US readers, that’s about 500 yards) so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming, but I did have trouble with the route when coming to an area I don’t know at all. The satnav told me to turn right when it should have told me to turn left, and I had to drive down a busy street, turn right into a side street, do a three-point turn, and come back and approach the target street again afresh. In fact, for this trip (from Rockdale to Gordon) the device should have told me to go over the Harbour Bridge rather than up Roberts Road. The following photo shows the car on a Rockdale street.


Possibly, for this trip, it decided to allow me to avoid tolls. More dramas ensued while returning to my place in Pyrmont because the system wouldn’t accept that I wanted to go in the Lane Cove Tunnel and then over the Harbour Bridge, and kept asking me to turn, first left and then right. On the expressway it even asked me to attempt a U-turn! 

The way the satnav deals with roundabouts (which are uncommon in the US but commonplace in Australia) is sometimes different from Google’s satnav program (and sometimes the same), but it’s not hard to understand. In fact, the RAV4’s satnav is, in this respect, an improvement.

The computer on occasion tells you about traffic, but the warnings I got on two different days were not founded in reality; there were, in fact, no traffic jams to deal with. On one occasion, furthermore, it told me there’d be a traffic jam 300m ahead at the precise moment actually I met traffic and got caught up in it.

Like the speed limit indicator, the satnav can best be used as an adjunct to other information, not as a replacement for knowledge or research. I’ll probably, in many cases, do what I have always done before a trip: capture screenshots from Google Maps and print them out on paper to carry with me in the car as reference. In other cases I’ll rely on the satnav. I’ll just have to learn what works and what doesn’t. So far I’ve had mixed results with the system but it’s a comfort just to have it available to use if necessary and you can see its utility. 

----------------

Getting other people’s message notifications while driving is something I’m not so sure I understand the utility of, however. On seeing a message you risk making a call to that number – I did this a couple of times not understanding that I’d received a message rather than a phone call – and hence taking your eyes off the road. If, while driving, you decide to hear a message you risk taking your attention off the road. On one occasion when I got a message while driving, the centre console told me that it wouldn’t display it because I was moving, but then I touched a few other buttons and the car read the message out to me as I moved through traffic. 

All of this activity takes your eyes off the road which, even if it’s just for a couple of seconds, can be disastrous safety-wise. The audio system is, also, a bit too detailed to be used while driving at speed in traffic, but it’s easy for a passenger to use.

To make phone calls you can use a finger to operate the controls on the centre console, or you can (to be more conservative) use the smartphone call button on the steering wheel. Press it and say “Call Joe Blogs” and the car will make a call to your friend. 

To link the car with your iPhone you have to turn on Bluetooth in the phone, then select the phone from the list displayed on the centre console. The car sends a code to your phone – it displays there straight away – and asks you if what you see in your hand matches what is displayed on the car’s screen. If so, you tap “Pair” on your phone and the two devices connect. The pairing applies regardless of how many times you leave the car and reenter it, but you can only pair with one phone at a time. 

If you want to display on the centre console messages that people send to your phone you must turn on notifications in your iPhone at “Settings > Bluetooth”. Just tap on the “i” in the little circle and turn on “Show Notifications”.

Wi-Fi setup is a little different and, for my phone, requires a cable; there’s a USB socket in the car’s phone charging bay under the aircon controls. On your iPhone go to “Settings > General > CarPlay” and find your car in the list. If you want to be able to control your phone through the car by voice you must have Siri running. 

I had to set up Siri, as I’d never used it before. To do this, go to “Settings > Siri & Search” and use the controls there. If this is the first time you’ve used Siri, you’ll have to train your phone to recognise your voice, a process that takes about a minute even if (like me) you’ve no idea what you’re doing.

You probably want to use the shortest USB cable available, as a long cable might get in the way of the gear stick. This device has a button on the far side that you press to shift the stick. When you want to drive off, press the button with your fingers and drag the stick back to “D”. When you want to park, press the button and shift the stick forward to “P”. Once this is done, the car will automatically engage the handbrake. If it goes on, a red light appears on the handbrake button and a beep sounds in the cabin to notify you of the new state.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-five

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

16 April

Dreamt I was working. It wasn’t certain if it was in the public service or in a private company. I was involved in coming up with new ways to offer services to students. I had an idea to build and install on-campus machines to allow people to lock away their belongings (for example, a watch or a book) by paying a small fee using a credit card. My thinking was that sometimes people must bring to campus things that they don’t want to carry around with them while they are there. A watch might have secondary significations that could get in the way during a meeting the student might have organised to hold with someone. A certain book might likewise send the wrong signal, so the ability to safely ditch such an object somewhere could have broad appeal.

The machine would have a graphic display and a touchscreen and be enabled for transactions much in the way as is an EFTPOS terminal in a shop. We could (I told my manager) earn money this way at the same time as offering a useful service to our customers. People already pay for their car parking using a credit card, I thought, so why not for other things?

Then I was away on a business trip with my manager, a woman (in real life I had women managers seven times, in five different organisations.) The two of us were sitting in a stream and fish were swimming around us as we talked with the people we had come to meet. One of the fish was shaped like a perch and it was very friendly, coming in close and jumping out of the water in high spirits. It was kind of gold in colour and about a foot long.

Eventually, we all got out of the stream and walked around the interior of a round, Brutalist building. The fabric of the structure was crumbling even though, aloud, I admired the design of the place. I saw chunks of a black substance on the floor, and I picked one of them up to bring it to my nose so that I could see if it smelled of tar (it looked to me like solid tar). Also lying around were heavy, deep tiles that had come off the surface of the interior and that had been left on the floor (though, presumably, someone regularly cleaned the lobby of the hotel we were in). I picked up one of the tiles, which was shaped, in profile, roughly like a star.

I wanted to ask if I could take some of the detritus away with me – our ride to elsewhere was about to arrive and we were making our way toward the building’s exit – but I stopped myself. I had shaken hands with a very short man (he looked to be about one metre in height) who was the second-in-charge at the local council we were visiting.

He had looked at my hand suspiciously as I held it out. Though he did, in the end, take it in one of his own, our handshake was anaemic and limp. After shaking hands with him I successfully interpreted his look, concluding that the virus had him a bit spooked. As soon as I had this thought I regretted my gesture, but I went on talking with him about Brutalism, the architectural style.

23 April

I had a nap after lunch and dreamt that I was at a cricket game tweeting about the Covid-19 virus. Some of the tweets I made were about the match and some were about my writing. I was offering people the opportunity to use my services to tidy up their copy while the virus was keeping everyone at home. At one point in the dream it was after lunch and I was tweeting about the cricket match, which had just started again after a break that had been taken so that the players could eat food.

Then I was tweeting using a pencil to press the post button. I would manipulate the pencil so that the lead could be used to mark the post button – in much the same way that people use a highlighter – and what I had written in the tweet space would be tweeted out to my followers. As time went on I got lazy and started to tweet things others had tweeted (this is called retweeting in real life). Then I was retweeting, with the pencil, things I had earlier tweeted, sometimes tweets of several days prior. Among the things that I retweeted were images that were mildly erotic, such as photos of semi-naked women or women in bikinis. 

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Book review: A Very English Deceit, Malcolm Balen (2002)

This book about the South Sea stock market bubble of the early 18th century is odd and while it is a work of popular nonfiction the author is evidently a well-read man who takes his job seriously. He’s a journalist. The curiosity inheres in the fact that while he has tied the book’s central theme to current events (the Dotcom bubble of the early noughts), there’s a contradiction at its heart.


For though it’s censorious regarding the events it chronicles – many people lost a lot of money, so the bursting of the bubble resulted in economic hardship – we’re invited to engage with the book – which is subtitled ‘The Secret History of the South Sea Bubble and the First Great Financial Scandal’ – on the basis that such a spectacle is entertaining. Which is somewhat like Netflix offering people the opportunity to view the Jeffrey Epstein docuseries: you’re simultaneously invited to take a prurient interest in the drama while being encouraged to take a dim view of the material it retails in.

I find this attitude toward afflicted people (in both cases) to be somewhat alarming, as though someone put up a sign next to the highway inviting people to rubberneck. It’s alarming for the same reason that causes people to want to suppress the dissemination of recorded footage of terrorist attacks. But then again people’s tendency to be entertained on account of another’s misfortune probably lies behind the continued popularity of the nightly news.

While the book manages to rise above the low tone it sets for itself, the difficult financial concepts it retails in defeated my understanding. For example:
The Sword Blade’s idea was to call in as many debentures as it could from the people who had lent the government money, by offering them what looked like a profitable exchange deal. The debentures stood at 85 on the stock market, and their holders were offered, in return, Sword Blade shares worth 100. How then could the company make a profit? The answer was that it had, effectively, rigged the market through what today would be called ‘insider trading’. It simply bought up as many debentures as cheaply as it could before announcing its plans, knowing that the scale of its share-swap scheme would cause their price to rise. By this method, the company made an estimated profit of around [25,000 pounds sterling]. The government, too, was satisfied. As well as buying land from it, the company lent it some [25,000 pounds] at a low level of interest as a ‘sweetener’ to facilitate the business between them. Through its financial adventures is became the Sword Blade Bank. It was a key moment in its history, the turning point in what became a growing, and corrupt, entanglement with affairs of state.
If you can understand this paragraph you are a wizard. I completely lost track of the thread with the words “announcing its plans”. I am in the dark as to why the company’s share price went up. On the one hand there’s some sort of corruption hinted at – though no names are mentioned, and the mechanism through which it is supposed to have worked remains opaque – on the other hand the company’s supposed to have conned investors, who were gullible enough to try to take advantage of a scheme where the hope of profit was based on nothing but rumour. If the size of people’s investments led them to guess its shares would be worth more than they actually were, then the consumer is at fault.

I’d sincerely like to know more. This book offers a promise of easy consumption – but fails the reading test.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

TV review: The Expanse, season 1, Syfy (2015)

I watched almost seven episodes of this science fiction drama before giving up. I really tried to like it, and terminally failed during what was meant to be a sensual clinch involving two actors, a man and a woman.

The hardboiled noirish production values this movie exploits in order to keep the viewer engaged leads to wooden dialogue and mundane plotting. Stephen Strait as freighter crewmember Jim Holden and Thomas Jane as policeman Joe Miller are not good enough though Dominique Tipper as ship’s engineer Naomi Nagata and especially Jared Harris as asteroid belt independence fighter Anderson Dawes (he works for the Outer Planets Alliance, an informal body representing the people of the asteroid belt and the moons of some of the planets in the solar system) do good work. Harris acted in season 1 of ‘The Crown’, which I also watched. The biopic for Elizabeth II, where Harris played her father, George VI, rocks big time compared to this disappointing show, which I saw on Amazon Prime.

As usual with science fiction shows its reliance on technobabble to fill in the gaps between tonic events is irritating. A bit of esoteric geek-speak can work but too much and I switch off. In any case, at root this series is a police procedural with solar system geopolitics thrown in for colour.

The story hinges on longstanding friction between Earth and Mars, with the OPA caught in the middle. Some representatives of the major powers consider the OPA to be a terrorist organisation but many people who live in that liminal position in the solar system crave the right to self-determination, and the struggle for agency is a reliable story element in contemporary fiction in all formats, including TV.

You can see how this sort of thing could work but unfortunately, as with a good deal of science fiction, the writers thought that noir is, by definition, cool. William Gibson’s novel ‘Neuromancer’ (which I reviewed in 2018) suffers from the same malaise. So in ‘The Expanse’ you get some terrible characterisation as well as unnecessary violence masquerading as dramatic high points.

The first three seasons were made by a company called Syfy, which is owned by NBC and which operates a cable TV channel. A fourth season was commissioned by Amazon Prime (which is where I saw season 1) and a fifth season is planned. I don’t plan to watch any more of this show than I already have done.

Monday, 6 July 2020

New car report: RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD

Having had second thoughts about the Camry on which, the previous year, I had paid a $1000 deposit, I drove down to the Toyota dealership and had a look at an SUV called a “RAV4”, which can come with a hybrid petrol-electric powertrain.

I told the young salesman I wanted a car that would let me carry large things as my daughter and her boyfriend would be coming to Sydney in the middle of the year (though plans changed due to rona); for them I’d need to transport furniture and other things. A “steel blonde” Camry had already been allocated a slot in the Nagoya factory and was due to be manufactured in mid-February, so Ryan drifted off and phoned his manager to tell him about my idea, coming back to me a few minutes later to say there would be no problem making the switch to a different model. Using his computer Ryan changed my order details on the company’s database and I left after choosing a colour.

Navy blue, to match the restored, mounted and framed ensign that’s hanging on one of my living room’s walls. The thing had been among dad’s personal effects – actually in a sail bag – along with other things from our old life. A bunch of such stuff made its way to me after, 20 years ago, I returned from Japan, and I had preservation work done on the flag when I lived in Queensland.

On 6 January – the day I changed my choice of car from a sedan to an SUV – when I got back to my apartment I looked at reviews for the RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD, the model I was going to get, and then went to the maker’s website. All of this activity made me decide in favour of roof racks, so I called Ryan and added this option to the list, which included weather shields for the windows, as well as floor mats.

When I asked Ryan on 20 March about delivery I was told the car would be made in May with delivery in June, but on 18 May I was told manufacture might happen in June. On 18 June someone at the dealership phoned to say that the car would arrive in Sydney probably in the first week of July. She also wanted to confirm the options included in the order, and we straightened that out. I phoned back a bit later and left a message, intending to talk with someone about the payment method, and later spoke on the phone with Ryan about this important issue. Then on 20 June I sent $10 online to ascertain the accuracy of the account details I‘d been handed back in December. On the Monday morning I phoned Toyota and they confirmed the money went through.

So I started sending the remainder of the amount due. It would take several days to complete, but bit by bit I finished the task before the end of the month. Meanwhile, I phoned my insurance company to notify them of the pending purchase. I’d been told the car would probably be available to pick up on the 9th of July but, on the last Saturday in June, Ryan phoned me and told me it’d be ready to pick up on the 5th, the Sunday of the following week.

In Japanese “five” is “go”, a lucky number, so the date would be auspicious. I was surprised when Ryan SMS’d me the registration number on the 4th (I immediately SMS’d it to my insurer) because it also seemed lucky, having in it the number “5”. Using SMS, I made a date with Ryan to pick the car up at 10am, when the dealership opens, and in the evening I ordered a new tag for road tolls I would incur while driving it.

Yesterday morning I had breakfast and walked to Glebe through Wentworth Park, arriving at the dealership at two minutes past the hour. Ryan was busy in a meeting so I sat down in the reception area. When he joined me he was surprised by the coincidence regarding the number plate and expressed himself in a positive manner while he showed me all the car’s (seemingly innumerable) features, including the ability to answer and make calls on the iPhone without touching the device. Controls for phone calls are on the centre display and also on the steering wheel, a part of the car that is so loaded with functions that it felt, as Ryan walked me through them, as though I had suddenly been transported – via a TV screen with Netflix connected – to a parallel universe. “I feel like I have just swallowed a whale,” I quipped to Ryan as we were finalising the paperwork at his desk next to the showroom. Again, he laughed obligingly at my meagre humour.

It looks as though I’ll now have to upgrade my phone, as the RAV4’s automatic charging station – where you put your phone down in a bay under the A/C controls – only works on newer phones and mine was bought a few years ago.

Ryan showed me how to link it to the car using Bluetooth. Wi-Fi connection is also possible if you want to watch movies on the centre console; I told him I’d think about it for possible use at a later date. He also showed me how to set up the Toyota app on my phone. This lets you generate QR codes to use at service stations when buying petrol; discounts apply for select retailers and you can accrue points on your account. So far, he told, me, only Caltex has signed up.

As often happens, I silently thanked Steve Jobs. An appropriate reaction, as driving home I sort of felt like I was in a helicopter. The thing sits up off the road relative to the height of the Aurion, but I had no problem manoeuvring it into the parking garage under my building even with roof racks on (I’d checked the height earlier via SMS) and driving was intuitive. This was reassuring at first blush, although the overall feel is plush. Having, since September 2007, driven an Aurion AT-X (see photo below for the two cars lined up in my car spaces), there’s a bit to get used to now.


As Ryan explained on the day I picked up this Saturn blue RAV4, regeneration of the traction battery happens when the petrol engine starts up, and also when the driver brakes. By pressing a physical button on the console there’s a dedicated display showing the car’s drive mechanism which, in the model I bought (an all-wheel drive), includes representations in graphic form of the two electric engines (one on the front wheels and one on the rear wheels) as well as the battery. This display lets you see at a glance how much charge the battery has at any given time. The car has a special energy efficient setting you reach by pressing a button on the console that sits between the front seats, and three other power settings as well, including a “sport” setting which is less fuel efficient. 

Ryan told me you can easily get over 900km out of one tank of fuel, and his employer filled the tank for me. The car had six kilometres on the odometer when I picked it up. As he was showing me the ropes in the showroom Ryan told me, when I asked about the hum that could suddenly be heard, that the engine had started. 

You don’t press a button on a remote control to open the door – the correct remote’s proximity to the car, and a hand on the door handle (which contains two sensors), are enough to give you access to the cabin – but the last thing Ryan told me before I drove off in the traffic was not to leave the remote in the car. He also mentioned that to replace the device is very expensive but I got a spare with my purchase. 

A quick spin in the traffic through Leichhardt in the late afternoon revealed that the car is tightly sprung and heavier than the Aurion, but rides surprisingly smoothly. On the road you feel secure but I had, on getting back home, a dose of the heebie-jeebies, so watched Landline, then the news. It’d been a busy couple of weeks.