31 December, 2009

Why I write about American politics

I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t come up here more often, but a question I’ve been asked off and on for years is,
Why do you always talk about American politics?  You’re not American.  What does it matter to you?

There are several ways I could approach this.  I could talk about how I am going to become an American-in-law and therefore what happens there affects me more than your average auslander, but that would simply be an argument of convenience.

The first answer is that it’s just so bloody interesting.  Travellers will say that there are certain places that have colours you don’t see anywhere else.  Similarly, in politics, the US will give time of day to arguments that would be laughed at in other parts of the world.  By schoolchildren.  And I find it fascinating.  Infuriating, but fascinating.  When people give serious airtime to the notion that public health cover is both a communist and a fascist policy, how can you not slow down and take a look?

The more serious answer is this:
If I were to use the expression, “The leader of the free world,” who would you think I was referring to?
If your answer was the president of the United States, then you just proved my point.

The last time I checked, I live in the free world, but I didn’t vote for him.  More importantly, I didn’t get a chance to vote against him.  It would seem to me that if the US were serious about leading the world, and about democracy, it should open its elections up to all regions that it expects to influence.

Okay, so that’s the abstract, debating-society argument.  But how do the actions of the US really affect me?  Well, you might have heard a bit about this global financial crisis that’s been going around.  Every government loves to call it a “global” crisis, since that means no-one really has to take responsibility for it.  Where did this crisis begin?  It wasn’t in Brussels.  It wasn’t in London or Hong Kong.  No, the credit meltdown happened as a direct result of US economic policy, which was based on the assumption that if government just got out of the way and allowed the market to do as it pleased, people would naturally act in their own best interest and everyone would be happy.  We know now, how that turned out.  Because of the interdependence of national economies, the ripple effects of the Wall Street meltdown spread around the world with devastating speed.  Other countries may have been aware that self-regulation is a contradiction in terms, but nothing they could do with their own markets was going to stop the domino effect started in the US.  Where is the recourse?  Where is the accountability?  Naturally, the US government has the right to conduct its own affairs as it sees fit, but when those affairs impact on the affairs of others who have no say in US policy, we at least have the right to comment.  If taxation without representation is tyranny, what do you call plunging half the world into recession without representation? 

Then there is the current brouhaha over health insurance in the US.  That’s a purely domestic issue.  Why should I have an opinion on that?  Well, granted, it’s no skin off my nose if America chooses to regard health care as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a fundamental human right as most of the rest of the free world does.  It’s nothing to do with me.  Not unless you count the friend who, despite being fully insured, is being forced to wait up to three months to have the kind of procedure that I would expect to be able to get in my GP’s office on the first consultation.  And not if you count the other friends who live in the grey area where they earn too much to qualify to Medicare but not enough to be able to afford insurance.  But if you don’t count caring about friends, then I don’t have a horse in that race. 

What I do have, is a pretty low tolerance for bullshit – and some of the bullshit that has been coming out of this debate is trophy size.  And it does involve my country because some of the opponents of “socialised medicine” try to use the Australian system as an example of why it doesn’t work.  Australia has had universal public health care since 1975 and the current system has been in place since 1983.  I have friends and family who have gone through heart attacks and brain tumours and received sterling treatment with no out-of-pocket expenses or private insurance.  And if people would prefer to buy private insurance, you can do that too.  It’s a free country after all.  Do we pay extra tax for this?  Of course we do.  But it’s nothing compared to the cost of private insurance.  You will hear Australians complain that we are taxed too highly.  Here’s a news flash for you: Everyone thinks they’re taxed too highly.  You could have a tax rate of one dollar per year and there would still be people who say, “What, every year?”  So let’s just accept that people moaning about taxation is as inevitable as taxation itself.  But whatever the system, you get what you pay for.  We pay tax and in return we get services, like police, fire brigades, schools and hospitals.  As a Twitter comment defending the British NHS put it, “We have social health care because we are a society. God knows what the yanks are.”  So if our system is going to be used as an example of the tyrannical nature of looking after citizens, I’m going to have something to say about that.  It’s not that outsiders don’t have the right to comment on our system, just so long as it’s informed comment.

Let me put it this way: even if you’ve never agreed with a word I’ve said on politics, I think most people would agree that I’m a reasonably savvy customer when it comes to how we are governed.  So here’s my question:  If I had been living in a nightmarish socialist dystopia for the last 26 years.... don’t you think I would have noticed?

The final reason that I, and many others who might not initially appear to have an interest, express an opinion on US politics is because so much of the world’s news comes out of America now.  Of course, it’s not the US government’s fault that so many networks (mostly commercial ones, James!) have chosen to shut down their international bureaus in favour of getting it all on a feed out of Atlanta, but they should at least be aware that they are presenting themselves to the world. The whole world, not just the bits of it that play in the World Series.  And the more people hear a story, the more likely they are to form an opinion on something, whether it concerns them or not.  For example, there have been many and varied opinions expressed in recent weeks about how a golfer’s wife should best deal with his infidelity.  I don’t know what this has to do with anyone outside their family, but it’s all been reported and so everyone has an opinion on it. 

This is also the reason why Americans don’t comment on Australian politics as much.  (I only choose Australian politics because I am Australian.  It could just as easily be any other country, with a couple of exceptions)  They just don’t hear about it as much.  I welcome all views on how we run ourselves.  I might agree or I might disagree but I won’t pull out the “you don’t live here, what’s it to you?” argument.  Then again, if foreigners don’t have the right to comment on how other countries conduct themselves, maybe America doesn’t have the right to talk about how Iran, or Venezuela, or North Korea behave.  If America wants to hold itself up as an example to the world, that invites closer scrutiny.  What some people in the US should realise is that just because the actions of other governments don’t affect them doesn’t mean the actions of their government don’t affect others.  When they do, people are going to have things to say about it.

30 December, 2009

Headlines from Next Year

Why wait for the tragically predictable?

Apple drops the price of new iTablet by 25%, angering those who spent a week camped outside malls a month earlier in order to be the first to own them.

Sean Hannity demands DNA sample from Barack Obama to prove that he is human. Also questions whether the president is really over 35 and from planet Earth.

Microsoft assures users that upcoming release of SP1 will correct most issues with Windows 7.

Footballer placed on good behaviour bond for urinating in public says, “I just want to put it behind me and get on with my life."

Obama insists that despite the initial delay, Guantanamo Bay will be closed by January 2011.

Sarah Palin supporters blame “personal attacks by the TV ratings system” for the cancellation of her Fox News talk show.

The word “hashtag” added to Oxford English Dictionary.

CNN launches new flagship program, “Stuff we found on the internet.”

Owners of BitTorrent website abunchofthieves.com tell court “Who us? Steal? Never!”

Dick Cheney claims that thinking critical thoughts about him will cause the ground to open and swallow you up.

New social networking site moodring.com allows users to express themselves purely by colour.

Rock band says they hope to tour Australia “possibly next year.”

New Sacha Baron Cohen film to feature outrageous character who confuses unsuspecting Americans.

Administration backpedals on Iraq withdrawal date.

Speculation mounts about Abbott’s future as Liberal leader.

New online game Third Life allows socially awkward Second Life avatars to live out their fantasies.

Accusations of bribery and corruption in Olympic bidding process.

Local council attempts to create physical space inspired by online networking models. Working title for the project is “a park.”

29 December, 2009

Strawberry Fields Radio - Episode 75

After a week off work, I've felt the creative energy rushing back and it was nice to be able to do an end-of-year show.

28 December, 2009

GIMME SOME TRUTH, The Making of John Lennon's Imagine Album (1986/2000)

We can be grateful that John Lennon filmed just about everything he did. With very little in the way of narration, this fly-on-the-wall program is a fascinating insight into the birth of a classic.

It's hard to tell whether the film is shown chronologically or if it has been recut. What's clear is that there is an olive branch to Paul in the way the film has been edited. There is bitterness and derision towards Paul before and during the recording of How Do You Sleep? but immediately afterwards, they show John explaining to a bewildered fan who wandered onto the property that Carry That Weight was actually Paul's song, “but he was talking about all of us.”

We also get an interesting look into how Yoko earned her producer's credit. Her suggestions range from the insipid (“let's try and give them the right one”) to quite perceptive. She says, quite rightly, that there is too much improvisation in the early takes of How Do You Sleep? and that it should be a steady groove.

The music is remixed in Dolby 5.1 and while the film has plenty of music, it does make you long for a full length surround mix of the album – especially I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier and Gimme Some Truth.

With lots of mumbling and crosstalk, the subtitles become very handy – although there are times when even they give up and just say, “unintelligible.”

The bonus feature is the complete interview given to a journalist by John and Yoko about young people and sexuality. It's relevant to the documentary because it was the interview was done at the same time and excepts from it are used in the main feature. There's also a complete discography.

Highlight: John and George doing a take of Oh My Love.
Feature: * * * * *
Extras: * * *
Audio: Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1

26 December, 2009

Thinking of Linking

Around the time I started this 'blog, I created accounts at Digg and StumbleUpon too and over the year, I've alternated between whichever was the least annoying to use at the time. There are now about 200 of these 'social bookmarking' services.  I don't get what's social about it, unless they were expecting people to say, "Hey! You liked that wedding video too? Let's be buddies!" but I haven't seen that happen.  I've used them mainly for pages I want to put aside to read later since I often use three different computers in a day.  Some of them I've only just come back to now, but I thought I'd post them there to give you an idea of some of the things I've been reading over the year.  I could have just linked to my Digg and StumbleUpon profiles, but the interfaces of both are so annoying that I wouldn't wish them on you, and I find it handier to have them all here in one spot anyway.

If anyone is thinking they can build up a profile from this list, good luck with that!  Don't go thinking, "Aha! He visited Huffington Post!  I knew he was a screaming leftie!"  Most of them came from RSS feeds.  I don't necessarily endorse or support all of the views on this list.  They're simply some articles I found interesting during the year.  You might find them interesting too.  If not, I won't be doing it again for another year.

News and Politics - Australia:
Sam the Koala
Turnbull’s stimulus suicide
Is it wrong to want fame?
Blokes make cars, women make clothes … guess who wins
Neo-Liberal Meltdown
Jetstar fined $148k for breaking airport curfew
Code of silence: the murky mix of stars, sex and sports writers
Film and TV legend Charles 'Bud' Tingwell dies
Murdoch slams BBC dominance  
(Are you shitting me?)
A few words on diplomacy with China
Dust storm from space
Father Bob fighting forced retirement
Robes of office not in Costello’s size
Why AFACT v iiNet is important
Get off yr lzy butt, stupid gvt. Yr interfering w/ AWSMNESS!
Malcolm Turnbull talks straight on climate change
Balibo killings were 'rational', says former Indonesian army colonel
Is it time to cut and run from Afghanistan?
Bernard Keane’s guide to writing to Ministers
The 2009 Crikey Arsehat Awards
Father Bob on Mary MacKillop

News and Politics - US:
Who's Keeping Burger King Workers Below the Poverty Line?
CNBC Editor: The People Are Revolting!
Rick Santelli's Offensive Rant Against the Housing Bailout
The death-penalty debate needs more information
Billionaires for Teabagging!
Cringely: How to End the Recession
Will Obama back 'truth commission' to probe Bush practices?
It's Patriotic To Criticize: How our generals got so mediocre.
Rick Santelli's rant was a preplanned right-wing scam to torpedo Obama's economic agenda
RNC's Steele attacks Rush. Apology forthcoming....   
(they were right!)
Limbaugh's Dirty Little Secret of Radio "Success"
No happy ending yet, 30 years after mom set baby on fire
Teabagging Michelle Malkin
America's poor are its most generous givers
Aaron Sorkin Conjures a Meeting of Obama and Bartlet
Commentary: What’s up with Dick Cheney?
Barack Obama: he’s bringing dignity back
What Cheney knew — and why it’s a test for Obama
Harry Shearer: Why the Birthers?
Republican Death Trip
In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition - Birthers, Town Hall Hecklers and the Return of Right-Wing Rage 
Those crazy ole Republicans aren’t funny anymore 
Racist? Me?... But, I Was Only Joking 
d r i f t g l a s s: Like A Virgin 
Harolds Left: 9-12s Underbelly 
Dear Time Magazine: About that subscription renewal ... 
Caroline Myss: Republicans and the Art of Racism 
Fear was no excuse to condone torture
How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon
Obama predicts execution for 9/11 suspect  
(We're going to try him, convict him and kill him. Does that sound like a fair trial?)
Leaving the Right - The Daily Dish

News and Politics - World:
Taleban announce Swat ceasefire
Russian advice: More troops won't help in Afghanistan
Witnesses to Moscow's Afghan war
Iraq Shoe-Thrower Jailed for 3 Years Tibetan monk 'shot' while on fire
This is what real media bias looks like
President of Guinea-Bissau assassinated
Bob Ellis: The economic consequences of George, Gordon and Milton
Bob Ellis: Massacre of the innocents
Slumdog stars 'to get new homes'  
(Great! Now what about everyone else?)
Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election
Row over Afghan wife-starving law
Gauguin 'cut off Van Gogh's ear'
Chinese massacre film stirs debate
Brussels, home of Tintin and the EU
Challenge: Why did Arafat Receive a Nobel Prize, and Not Reagan?
Top 25 Censored Stories for 2010
The False US Friends of the “Iranian People” (An Open Letter to Charles Krauthammer)

Science and Technology:
Why Google’s Software Update Tool Is Evil
Why I hate Facebook
Dark Energy to Erase Big Bang's Fading Signal
Understanding Depression
Is Crowdsourcing Evil? The Design Community Weighs In
How to Make a Presentation Like Al Gore
April 1, 2004: Gmail Hits Webmail G-Spot
7 (Crazy) Civilian Uses for Nuclear Bombs
Hit save before dot-com becomes dot-gone
A Mac user's take on the Windows 7 user interface
Going bananas for energy in Africa
The Hidden Cost of a Solar Power Plant
Gold nanotubes boost DVD storage
The high costs of running YouTube.
Google Blog: Money scams
How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live
iPhone Jailbreaking Could Crash Cellphone Towers, Apple Claims
Unsung heroes save net from chaos
Earth's Climate Outside 'Safe Operating Space'
Electric Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels
Death knell looms for southern bell frog   
(How quickly things can change)
Better the broken Windows than life with the Mac monks
Create a Virtual Machine of your Existing Computer
Oct. 28, 1793: Whitney’s Cotton Gin Patent Not Worth Much
Defending some “fancy pants arguments”
Microsoft may help News Corp. delist sites  
(The worst news source removed from the best search engine? I call that they best of both worlds)
10 Years After Y2K -- Stories From the IT Battlegrounds
Climate Change for Idiots
Fast is best for Band-Aid removal: scientists  
(Surely a candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize)
Why there's no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails

A Future Cup Of Urine How much are you willing to pay for a cup of piss?
'Intimidation' behind Oasis split  
(I think Noel had been carrying him for too long anyway)
Bruce Cockburn gets a rocket launcher
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick on Abbey Road
My $62.47 Royalty Statement: How Major Labels Cook the Books with Digital Downloads

Like a pig in...  
Brutality in Egyptian pig cull 
Racehorse's health restored 1 year after hellish descent
Chimp-Made Toolkit Most Complex Ever Found
Chimps stand silent to mourn friend

Humour and Satire:
Calvin explains the economic crisis
Chance of people believing an outrageous statement
Rush Limbaugh: Voice of the People
Too Big to Fail
Political Correctness
60-Year-Old Hippie Pitied By 40-Year-Old Punk
The best London Underground Tube map pastiches
Yamaha CEO Pleased With Current Production Of Jet Skis, Alto Saxophones, Snowmobiles, Power Generators, Scooters, Golf Carts
A Retort to Carly Simon Regarding Her Charges of Vanity.
Easter Island
Cat Congress Mired In Sunbeam
Ode To Party-First Republicans
O Capn,my Capn
Dogbert tweets
Also explains climate-change 'sceptics'
The sky is falling ... oh wait. It's just an apocalyptic asteriod
Beatles 3000
Climate Summit

The Saddest Bear of All
The full fonty: why type nerds went mental over IKEA
The mechanics of tipping in the USA
Why Nice Guys Should Finish First — but Don't
Lack of computer skills foils many job-seekers
"I could care less" vs. "I couldn't care less" The Question Ends Here  
(Everyone should know this)
Soda Bread
A Walk Through Time

24 December, 2009

A disclosure:

Over the next couple of days, I will be editing all links that pertain to music or DVDs and changing them to  Amazon links.  Previously, I had used a mix of various online stores that I’ve had good experiences with, usually going with whichever one had the best price or the clearest picture.  My reason for changing them is because I have just signed up with Amazon Associates.  I am not supposed to announce this, so instead, I am quietly disclosing it.  I know I could probably go ahead and do this without anyone noticing, but I’d notice and I wouldn’t want to be keeping anything from you. 

Basically, how it works is that if anyone clicks on an Amazon link from this site and that same session results in a sale, I get a small percentage in kickback.  That being the case, I will be amazed if I make more than 50 cents out of this, but in the unlikely event that I do generate traffic and sales, then I might as well wet my beak.

I will not be posting links any more or less than I always have.  I’ve only ever posted them for the reader’s information.  If I ever start blatantly suggesting that you go on over to the good folks at Amazon, then you will know I have turned and you should delete me from your bookmarks.  I could also put search boxes and promotions in the sidebar, but that’s not my style.  Having said that, I’ve never had anything against ads on ’blogs.  Google ads are pretty unobtrusive and if I enjoy a ’blog that has ads, I usually click on them no matter what they are.  It’s easy to open the links in a new tab, let them load, then close them a minute or so later.  It costs nothing and if it puts a couple of cents in the pocket of a ’blogger I like, then I’m happy to do it.

In fact, here’s a trick you can use: whenever I find an ad objectionable, I’m always sure to click it.  It costs the advertiser money, they think they’ve gained some new interest when they haven’t, and it generates a little income for the site I do like, so everyone’s happy.  I have considered having Google ads here and so far, decided against it but I don’t think it compromises a ’blog.

So if – and only if – you find yourself wanting any kind of item referenced here, following the links posted will mean I get a modest cut if you end up making a purchase.  And if you find a better deal elsewhere, then by all means take it.  If I had my druthers, I’d never shop online.  I can’t adequately describe how satisfying it was in 2007 when, after 14 years of special orders and imports, I was able to walk into my local record shop, pull the new World Party release out of the rack, slap it down on the counter and give the assistant a knowing look as if to say, “Why yes, I am buying the new World Party album!  Nice of you to notice.  Oh, you didn’t?  Never mind.”  I’d love to get everything from my local but since I can’t be sure of getting the edition that I want at a reasonable price, then I have to find alternatives.  For those of you in the same situation, here’s another alternative.

If anyone objects to this arrangement, please let me know.

22 December, 2009

LENNON LEGEND – John Lennon (2003)

The CD of the same name was really just The John Lennon Collection repackaged for the Britpop generation, now rendered doubly redundant by the recent two-disc compilation. But there is much to recommend the DVD version. It's primarily a collection of video clips for all John's singles, with audio very tastefully remixed for 5.1. Many of the songs never had film clips when released, but John was such an avid home movie maker that there was ample footage to assemble clips from for the video world. Many have been made especially for this DVD.

Extras include a couple of live performances, some more home movie footage and animations of John's drawings. Great menus too!

Highlight: Mind Games
Feature: * * * *
Extras: * * *
Audio: LPCM Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

19 December, 2009

GOOD EVENING NEW YORK CITY – Paul McCartney (2009)

This review is based on the MP4 download. I'll post an update on the DVD features after my physical copy arrives.

Good Evening New York City is Paul's fifth live album of his career and fourth live DVD since he resumed touring in 2002. While it may seem a bit like overkill on the latter count, the real question is, Has Paul finally made a decent concert film? I'm delighted to report that the answer is a resounding Yes!

The fact that these shows marked the opening of CitiField, the replacement for Shea Stadium, left the door wide open for yet another rehash of Beatlemania but they resist that tempation. Apart from a 60-second introduction, they leave the historical references to Paul's between-song anecdotes, some of which, we haven't even heard before. This is, finally, a complete two and a half hour concert featuring the music, all the music and nothing but the music. And too many shots of the audience too, but I guess you can't have everything. However, even these are mercifully brief compared to previous efforts. They appear to have been shot by fans and are probably part of bonus features on the DVD.

Also, given the setting, it would have been so easy to simply make it a Beatles show but the setlist in the first half is a good mix of Beatles, Wings, solo and even two Fireman songs. Come the second half, it's wall-to-wall Beatles with the one exception of Live and Let Die, but that's perfectly understandable for this particular show. Although this is the first live DVD to include Mrs Vandebilt and A Day in the Life, we've seen them on YouTube so much over the last year that the freshness they should have is gone. That's not so for Day Tripper, which by rights should always have been a live favourite but has had no post-Beatles performances until now.

It's a bit surprising to note that Paul's live band has now been together with the same lineup longer than any other band he has toured with. It certainly shows. They are completely relaxed and confident, not starstruck as they were on the earlier tours. Billy Joel shows up in the first encore to join in on I Saw Her Standing There, as Paul did at Billy's final show at Shea Stadium last year.

The presentation as a whole has the feel of a live television broadcast more than polished concert film. This is a good thing and actually adds to the live feel. The only place where things go a little awry is during I'm Down, where they try to cut back and forth between the 2009 show and the Beatles' shambolic but brilliant performance at Shea. If you're wondering if Wix plays the keyboard with his elbow, you'll just have to find out for yourself.

The other big surprise of Good Evening New York City comes as the credits roll. The concert film was directed by Paul himself. That makes it all the more curious that Paul spent most of the decade commissioning fawning fanboy pieces when he was perfectly capable of producing a great film on his own. For sure, it's a fairly no-frills production for such a big show, but that's what makes it so great. When you've got the man and his music, you don't need anything else. If you want a McCartney live DVD that really is a live concert, this is the one to get.

Highlight: Sing the Changes, Day Tripper
Feature: * * * * ½
Extras: TBC
Audio: TBC

My Old Guitar Amp

This post is prompted by a cartoon from the rather excellent xkcd.

My main amp these days is a nice little HiWatt combo, but I've always hung onto this old valve amp that I picked up for $40 at an auction some twenty years ago.

If you click to see the larger picture, you might notice a couple of things about it. One is that it comes from a bygone era when Australia had an electronics industry. But take a closer look at the dials.

Sorry Nigel!

18 December, 2009

Why Y2K Mattered ....and still does

I was flicking through a book called History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them and there’s a chapter in the back of it called The Y2K That Never Came. Ten years later seems like a good time to talk about a problem that is even more misunderstood now that it was then.

To recap, when computers were in their infancy, any amount of data processing that could be simplified was of great benefit, so when it came to dates, the year was abbreviated to the last two digits, as has always been common practice when writing dates. They knew even in the 50s, that this would cause problems come the turn of the century but assumed that by then computers would be so advanced that it wouldn’t matter. The problem with leaving things up to the future is that eventually, the future arrives. Computers were of course advanced enough by then but the software they were running was often built on top of decades of older versions that still expressed the year as two digits. In the mid 90s, programmers realised that they had better start taking the problem seriously.

And it was a very serious problem – not just one of having to recalculate the interest on millions of bank accounts. When a computer is programmed to assume the year is 19xx, that would mean that when the clock ticked over at the end of 1999, computers would think it was 1900. If a computer finds it is finishing an operation 100 years before it started, that’s an illogical instruction - like dividing by zero - and illogical instructions can cause crashes. That is where the danger lay. It wasn’t that people would get parking tickets for -100 years, it was that computers that controlled vital services may suddenly lock up. Anyone capable of reading this knows that when your computer crashes, it’s usually caused by something fairly trivial but you still lose everything else you were doing. So while your last crash may have been caused by that Cool Web Search toolbar that you didn’t realise you’d installed, that also caused you to lose the essay you were writing at the time, the email you were reading and the card game you were playing. Likewise, an illogical instruction caused by the absence of two little digits had the potential for knock-on effects that could have been disastrous in some cases.

As we all know, none of the predicted doom came to pass. That’s not because the threat was overstated. It’s because we dealt with it. Yes, pat yourself on the back humanity! For once, we actually saw a crisis coming and managed to avert it without mass devastation.

And because we managed to avoid disaster, the conventional wisdom is that there was never a threat to begin with and we were all worried about nothing. That’s the premise of the chapter in History’s Worst Decisions, because the decision it’s talking about is not the decision to leave the two digits out but the decision to do something about it. It lists the motivation as ‘greed,’ the culprit as ‘most of the western world,’ and the damage done as ‘hundreds of billions of pounds in wasted effort and stress.’ I don’t know where the authors get that absurdly round figure from but you can’t say the effort was wasted when it clearly worked. It’s one case where the experts are victims of their own success. Perhaps if we’d had a bit more chaos, people would be satisfied that there was a serious problem to be dealt with.

Much of the rest of the article focuses on the alarmist book, Time Bomb 2000 by Edward and Jennifer Yourden – a pretty easy target. Of course it’s true that there was some ridiculous hype over Y2K, with people preparing to go back to the pre-industrial age, but that doesn’t mean the threat was non-existent. The reality is that there’s a small minority of the population that secretly relishes the idea of stockpiling ten years’ worth of tinned food and bullets and taking to the hills. For them, any excuse will do, whether it’s nuclear war, Y2K or a Democratic president. The only thing they haven’t used as a pretext for indulging their survivalist fetish is climate change, which I find curious because it’s the kind of thing that should be right up their alley.

Whether the Yourdens’ book was an honest warning or shameless profiteering from hype, it’s right to look upon it as a quaint and amusing relic these days. But it should also be recognised that the absence of any calamities due to Y2K shows what can be done when we listen to the science, free from political and business agendas. In the increasingly unlikely event that we manage to avoid serious upheaval from climate change, “sceptics” will point to that success as evidence that that threat never existed either. No good deed goes unpunished.

Update: I'm happy to learn that not everyone has adopted the assumption that there was nothing to Y2K and that those who warned of it are getting due recognition. I received an email this morning with the following link:

16 December, 2009

Talking Points (repost)

The following is prompted by an interesting post and discussion at Mia's 'blog on the same subject. I wrote this a few years ago so the examples are horridly out of date. I could have rewritten it giving current examples but frankly, I couldn't be bothered and you'll all get the point anyway.
Interestingly, I was criticised when I first posted it for giving two examples that apparently make Republicans look bad. Personally, I think both examples are equally insulting to the intelligence, but see what you think. I have never bought into the idea that if you say a Republican said something stupid, you have to "balance" it by saying a Democrat said something stupid too. If someone says the world is round, do you have to "balance" that by speaking to someone who says it's flat?

The war on talking points

It’s about time we had one. Like mixed metaphors, misused phrases and other forms of poor expression, parroted talking points are now so common in the news media that we hardly notice what a blight they are on public discourse any more. It’s worst in America, but where America goes, others follow and I certainly don’t want to go there.

Watching, reading or listening to the US news media today, it’s increasingly hard to tell the party talking points from the actual analysis – if, indeed, there even is any analysis any more. These days, the party machine sends out the hymn books, and the commentators dutifully sing from them.

Let’s look at a few “issues” that have originated at party headquarters and ended up masquerading as news analysis:

The talking point:
Media reporting of bad news from Iraq is damaging the war effort, endangering the soldiers and deliberately ignores the good news.

The reality check:

This very popular talking point from the Republicans is designed to blame the messenger for bad news and also foster the idea that ignorance is patriotic. But it fails to recognize a few basic truths about news. The fact is that news, by its nature, is bad. If good news rated, then it would be reported. The responsibility for that lies with the viewer.

Scenario 1: Let’s say there’s a multi-vehicle pileup on a major freeway. One person is killed, seven more are injured, two seriously. It’s the third such accident on that stretch of road this year. Is the news report obliged to “balance” the story by stating that everyone else got home safely? Are they also obliged to state that it’s no reflection on the state of the road or traffic management, despite the regularity of such accidents?

Scenario 2: A new school opens in a disadvantaged area of, let’s say, Baltimore. It has places for 700 students and creates 90 full-time jobs plus ancillary staff. On the same day, there is a bank robbery in, let’s say, Cincinnati. Things go wrong. Shots are fired. By the time anyone figures out what has happened, two bank customers are dead and the bandits have escaped with $150,000. Which of these two events is going to be higher up on the news? More to the point, which are you more likely to tune in for? How many people can honestly say they would be thinking “Never mind about the shooting, tell us more about the school!”?

Answer the questions to these two scenarios honestly, and you’ll answer every question about whether the war in Iraq is being reported responsibly. If people in Britain had simply been told Don’t worry, be happy, in World War 2, then perhaps they wouldn’t have sent all those boats to Dunkirk to bring their soldiers to safety. If Australian troops had “stayed the course” at Gallipoli, we might still be there. Just in case anyone has forgotten, we went on to win both those wars, despite the “negativity” of withdrawing from an unworkable situation.

But don’t let any of this make you think that the intellectual fairy floss of talking points is an exclusively Republican thing. The Democrats love their talking points just as much and they are just as insulting to people’s intelligence. Check out their opening salvo for 2006,

The talking point:
George W Bush is living in a bubble, out of touch with the real world. *

The reality check:
Let me get this straight. This is a man who had an ultra-privileged upbringing, who never had to try hard for anything. He bankrupted every business he ever managed, but that still didn’t hurt him because there were always some nice Arabs around to bail him out. So he has never had to suffer the consequences of his actions. And now he is one of the most protected people on the planet with all his information filtered by his minders. And you’re telling me that he might be out of touch with real life? Tell me something I don’t know!

The Bush-bubble talking point should have won the annual No-shit-Sherlock! award but Democrat-leaning hosts, commentators and bloggers dutifully picked it up and repeated it as if it was something that had only just been brought to their attention. And perhaps it had. Perhaps they have become so used to getting their talking points on a feed from the parties that they have forgotten a time when they ever had to make up their own minds.

Any other professional would be insulted if they got emails from people outside the industry suggesting how they should do their jobs today. But the American news media laps it up. It’s so much easier than having to do research or analysis. But if there are daily things that the parties want discussed, then obviously there are things that they don’t want discussed. Surely those are the things that people need to know about. What might those things be? We never find out because the editors have it so easy on their drip feeds of talking points that they’ve forgotten how to do things like ask questions.

The news media is not biased – just criminally lazy.

Originally posted at Strawberry Fields, 18 June, 2006

* 2009 Update: It surely won't be long before Republicans trot this talking point out regarding Obama. And they will be right of course. For at least the next three years (and probably the next seven, the way the Republicans are behaving) he will never have to put his hand in his pocket for anything, never have to drive his own car or dial his own phone. Naturally, this will result in some detachment from ordinary people. It goes with the job. Most leaders rely on their staff to keep them in touch with average folk and those staff are probably just as out of touch as their boss, living in the same political bubble and writing some of these very talking points. So when the right wing inevitably uses the bubble talking point, it will be just as true as it was in 2006, just as obvious, and just as pointless.
Balanced enough for ya?

Christmas albums

No, not albums of Christmas songs, but the rush of releases for the Christmas market. Which ones are you hoping for?

Please Take Me Seriously Again
- George Michael

We Are Like So Sticking It to the Man
- Pearl Jam

Mention the War

- Roger Waters

Veem, Blashh, Flibble Flibble Flibble (Anatomy of Agony)

- Radiohead

You Know the Album I had a Hit With Last Year? Here's the Same Thing Again, Vol. 2

- Rod Stewart

The Very Best of Elton John plus One Track from the Last Album

- Elton John

Coldplay Would be Nothing Without Us. Nothing!

- Travis

What's Cool This Year? Make Me Sound Like That

- Madonna

Back By Popular Demand.... okay, would you believe Glenn Wheatley?

- John Farnham

Greatest Hits and one song from the Last Record

- David Bowie

How to be Incredibly Kickable and Still Get Away With It

- U2

All Time Greatest Hits and the best Track on the Last Album

- Billy Joel

The Best of Iggy Pop
- Jet

What exactly is it that we do again?

- Sugababes

Keep it on Your Shelf to Impress Your Friends

- Leonard Cohen

Statistically, It Had to Happen Soon

- Jack White & Dave Grohl

Look At Me! I'm Strange!
- Lady GaGa

08 December, 2009

Everything New is Old Again.... again

Tony Abbott’s announcement of his new shadow cabinet today proves more than I ever dared imagine just how much he wants to lead the party that used to be in government – specifically, the party that was turfed out the last time. If he really thinks this marks the change from a government in exile to being a true opposition, he’s half right. He is bringing back as much as he can of the Howard cabinet which really does make them an exiled government, but an opposition is all they will ever be with this front bench.

Climate change deniers (I refuse to call them sceptics – to be a sceptic, you have to have some evidence or lack of evidence on your side, not just say, “I don’t think so,” and deride those who accept the science) Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce have been given the portfolios of Resources and Energy and Finance respectively. This move is an unmistakable signal that the Abbott Liberal Party’s position on climate change is one that would make the Howard government look positively.... well, liberal. Former leader Malcolm Turnbull has already labelled Abbott’s position as “bullshit.”

And the Shadow Minister for Seniors is Bronwyn Bishop, who crashed and burned in the similar portfolio of Aged Care over the kerosene baths affair. Abbott says they are going to give the government the fright of its life. An unnamed Labor MP was quoted as saying, “Now I know how the Libs felt when we elected Mark Latham as leader!”

It’s always been claimed that there are no factions in the Liberal party and Tony Abbott repeated that claim today. That’s clearly bullshit too. There are just no official factions. Rumour is that many moderate Liberals are annoyed with this pull to the right. It suggests that if a spill were moved this week (and why not? They had two in as many weeks), Abbott could lose. It would only take one changed vote.

Of course, part of the opposition’s job is to provide an alternative and there’s no denying that this is an alternative. Continuing to smoke is an alternative to giving up too. What’s needed is a desirable alternative. Abbott’s opportunistic appeal to hard right elements in the party who think the Libs had gone wishy-washy is not going to win the party any votes that they wouldn’t have gotten anyway.

The Rules: Facts

FACT: Prefacing a statment with the word ‘Fact,’ does not automatically make it a fact.

05 December, 2009


For some curious reason, baby magpies tend to remind me of Liam Gallagher.

And if anyone is wondering.... yes, these two posts together are a social experiment.

Surge in General

Obama’s direction on Afghanistan really shouldn’t surprise anyone. He spent twelve months on the campaign saying that the Afghanistan operations were badly under-resourced. And he’s playing the game they all play of listening to the generals. Taking advice from the generals is admirable of course, but there’s an old saying that when you’re holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Generals make a career out of planning military operations. It’s what they live for. McChrystal was hardly going to tell Obama that they had done all they can militarily and it’s now time to concentrate on economics and infrastructure, was he? Ask a teacher what they solution is, and he’ll say education. Ask an economist, and he’ll say tax cuts. Ask a soldier and he’ll say more troops. I’m not suggesting that more troops are not needed, just pointing out that everyone sees the situation through their own prism.

I know it’s embarrassingly fashionable to link to Andrew Sullivan but I think his analysis is pretty well spot on. The operation deserves one last chance at victory, however slim (given the experiences of every other military power that has ever tried to control Afghanistan) that victory might be. And an Obama administration at least has the credibility to try. If nothing else, they have the credibility of not having stuffed it up before. The Bush administration, with their fatal combination of arrogance, ignorance and wishful thinking, had been so wrong, so often and in so many ways on the handling of both Afghanistan and Iraq that even if they came up with a winning strategy, no sane person would trust them. If you engage a builder put an extension on your house and it falls down four times, are you going to believe him when he says he’s got it right this time? No, you give him the benefit of the doubt the first time, and after that you get another builder. If this new builder suggests the same thing as the previous guy wanted to do on his fifth attempt, that tells you there might just be something to it after all, and maybe this one has the nous to do it properly. Or it may be a lost cause. But Obama and his generals and their troops deserve the chance to succeed where Bush failed.

This will not be like the troop surge in Iraq. Bush supporters like to say that it worked, but the other flank of that surge strategy was to pay the insurgents to switch sides. Unless they intend to employ a similar strategy in Afghanistan, then it’s going to be a harder slog. And even then, nothing is going to change the fact that the US is an invading force and will never be seen as liberators.

Don’t believe me? Imagine you’re an American – or perhaps you don’t have to imagine. If you’re a mad leftie, imagine Bush is still in office, if you’re a mad rightie you can just imagine it’s today. You really hate the president and everything he stands for. But even so, how would you feel about a foreign power – let’s say, the United Arab Emirates – “liberating” you from that tyrant? They have a different culture, a different religion, a different language but at least they don’t make you pay tax. Do you feel liberated? Do you wave signs saying thank you? Of course not! The president may be a son of a bitch but he’s your son of a bitch and you fight your own battles thank you very much! Well, now you know the boat that Afghans and Iraqis are in – stuck between corrupt locals and an invading force that claims to be benevolent but obviously has their own interests at heart.
(and if you think the scenario I’ve suggested is too outlandish to contemplate, then for pity’s sake STFU about “tyranny” or get a real problem)

George W Bush had a pretty good retort for those who criticised him for his arrogant swagger. He said, “In Texas, we call that ‘walking.’”
If Obama were to dignify accusations of dithering with a response, he might say, “We call that ‘thinking things through so that we don’t make a complete balls-up of it like the last mob did.’”
He who hesitates has probably thought of something others didn’t.

27 November, 2009

In Opposition, Everything New is Old Again

There are a few cycles in politics that apply regardless of party, ideology or sometimes even border. One, is that Australian voters at both a state and federal level, always tend to give governments one last chance. There are many examples of elections where the government seemingly should have been thrown out, but managed to scrape back in.

Another is that elections are generally lost, not won. Most election results are a rejection of the loser rather than an endorsement of the winner. One of the most obvious examples of this was when the Coalition, under the leadership of John Hewson, lost what was considered the unlosable election in 1993. The Melbourne Herald-Sun already had the front page printed: “Hewson In Cliffhanger.” The coalition’s “Fightback” package was one of the most detailed set of alternative policies ever put forward by an opposition. The incumbent Labor government was only too happy to make the Coalition’s policy the focus of the campaign rather than their own stewardship. Most people agree now that it all fell apart for Hewson’s campaign on A Current Affair when he couldn’t explain how much GST would be applied to a birthday cake. Three years later, with a reheated John Howard as leader, the Libs went to the election promising little more than that they weren’t Paul Keating and won comfortably. In fact, the most memorable thing John Howard promised in that campaign was that a GST would “never ever,” be a part of his policy. That turned out to be one of those “non-core” promises. Labor clearly knew that Keating was that year’s election issue when they ran ads saying, “You don't have to like him, but you've got to respect him.” They were probably hoping for a similar result to the 1990 election (the one-last-chance result for the Hawke government) when Bob Hawke went begging for second preferences from Green voters.

Of all the elections I’ve ever paid attention to, the only result I can think of that was actually an endorsement of the winner rather than a rejection of his opponent was Barack Obama’s win last year, and even then he had the advantage of widespread disgust with the incumbent and an opponent who seemed determined to abandon a lifetime in the sensible centre and appeal exclusively to bizarro-world.

Another of these political cycles is one I’ve only just begun to notice but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s true. All political parties spend their first term in opposition trying to be the same party they were during their last term in government and hoping that voter remorse will bring them back at the next election. It never works, but they all seem to do it. Whether it’s denial or a misguided loyalty for former leaders, I don’t know, but following each election, we hear members of the defeated party explaining that, “we didn’t get our message across well enough,” or, “people didn’t understand our plan.” It’s not until the second consecutive defeat that they realise that they did get their message across, the people did understand it and said No!

It happens everywhere. Following the US Congressional mid-term elections in 2006 where both the House and Senate went to the Democrats, some Republicans (well, Ann Coulter anyway) suggested that it was actually a good result for the Republicans because people would be reminded of how crap the Democrats were and the Republicans would stage a great comeback in 2008. We all know how that turned out.

However, something interesting is happening in the Liberal party this time around. An all-out war has broken out between those who seem to think the party was on the right track all along, and others who want the party to progress. Malcolm Turnbull is already the party’s second leader this term and despite having survived a spill motion on Wednesday, he may well not lead the party to the next election. At the heart of the matter is Turnbull’s broad support for the government’s emissions trading scheme, which has angered many of his coalition colleagues. They want him abandon that support but Turnbull has refused to adopt the ‘I am their leader, I must follow them,’ approach.

Despite being the most obvious choice of party leader, Turnbull was narrowly defeated in the 2007 leadership ballot by Brendan Nelson. That was probably fortunate for Turnbull. The first leader after the defeat was always going to be somewhat sacrificial. Turnbull was better off biding his time, but when Brendan Nelson called a leadership ballot in September 2008, Turnbull ran and won by a slim margin. It was perhaps typical of Malcolm Turnbull’s impatience that he ran as early as he did and upon winning, set about leading the party from the front and making the changes in the party that don’t usually come until the second term of opposition. As a result, his leadership is now being viciously attacked from within his own party.

Turnbull’s leadership has appeared shaky for a few months now, and during that time the heir apparent has been Joe Hockey. However, aside from time-filling media gossip, Hockey hasn’t been considered an immediate contender – more of a natural replacement for the current leader. But now it has been confirmed that there will be a leadership spill on Tuesday morning. That puts Hockey in a bind because although he is seen as a popular choice for the leadership, who would want it now? The answer is Tony Abbott who has announced he will be challenging. I really don’t see Abbott as a leader. He has always been the one diligently toeing the party line on Lateline or Q and A but not an actual policy maker. Then again, to those who want their leader to follow the party, I guess that makes him the natural choice.

I still think that Malcolm Turnbull is the most likely person to become the next Liberal prime minister but after this year, it might take a John Howard-like exile and resurrection before it happens. One thing is certain: the Libs have no hope of defeating Kevin Rudd while they put all their energies into defeating Malcolm Turnbull.

Chris Uhlmann has excellent analysis HERE.

25 November, 2009

A visitor

Meet my new friend. He was sitting on the rails outside my work this evening. Kookaburras aren't uncommon around here, but it's pretty rare for one to come as close as this. He's a pretty young one and was probably waiting for his mum.

Checking out the renovations.

A much more appropriate perch for the king of the bush.

18 November, 2009

The Bonus Discs - Paul McCartney

Many albums now come with bonus DVDs. But how special are the special editions? This sidebar looks at whether the bonus discs are worth paying extra for.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
The main program here is Between Chaos and Creation, a 30 minute doco about the making of the album which shows Macca and producer Nigel Godrich speaking frankly about some of the creative tensions that went into making the record and their determination to make a great album.
Extra bits are the video for Fine Line with 5.1 sound, a nice little clip for How Kind of You which will be fascinating to music nerds and perhaps a little boring to everyone else, and three rather pointless instrumental versions accompanied by animations of the line art from the album's booklet.

Audio: LPCM Stereo throughout, Dolby 5.1 and DTS on Fine Line
Worth paying extra for? Yes

Memory Almost Full (2007)
A perfunctory selection from the "secret" show at the Electric Ballroom last June focusing on the new songs plus the opening number, Drive My car.
The presentation is excellent with mercifully few cuts to the audience.
Also includes the videos for Dance Tonight and Ever Present Past but curiously not Nod Your Head.

Audio: LPCM Stereo
Worth paying extra for? Yes, but not worth buying the album twice.


This is the mother lode. We can quibble over the few clips left off but there probably wasn't physically enough room on the discs for them all. The 5.1 remixes are exquisite and are only in DTS. The inferior Dolby format is only used for the audio commentaries while the music is in DTS for surround and uncompressed PCM for stereo.

There is the occasional head-scratching moment, like why they added a new video for Band on the Run that makes it look like the song is by the Beatles and not Wings. But there are also moments of explanation. One might wonder why they only included a handful of numbers from Rockshow instead of the whole film. The answer is revealed when watching those few tracks. Although great in its day, Rockshow just doesn't stand up well against modern concert films and while a few more songs might have been good, two hours' worth might not have been as involving. Do please give us the whole of Unplugged one day though! And ironically, since this disc isn't labelled as a concert film, they give us a complete, uninterrupted concert in the form of Glastonbury.

The bonus features are many and varied. A big highlight is Paul's commentaries on the clips. He makes no apologies for things that were a good idea at the time, like Say Say Say, nor does he make any excuses for things that were never a good idea, like London Town. Lovely song, pants clip. One feature that isn't advertised is the fact that Goodnight Tonight, Baby's Request and Fine Line are multi-angle clips that allow you to switch between two different versions of the same clip.

Highlight: Glastonbury
Feature: * * * * *
Extras: * * * * *
Audio: LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.1

12 November, 2009

WINGSPAN – Paul McCartney (2001)

Post-Beatles Anthology and post- Britpop, the time was right for a reappraisal of Wings. For too long, Paul's 70s band had been associated with much of the rest of the bad taste of that decade. Paul was as responsible as anyone else for this, with his Beatles-dominated live shows featuring just a very small handful of his 70s output.

This extended version of the TV documentary that accompanied the release of the Wingspan CD is a family affair. Paul is interviewed by daughter Mary in increasingly bizarre locations. The TV studio and kitchen table are fair enough, but later we have Paul chatting while strolling along a beach, driving along a country road, walking through a warehouse filled with flashguns, doing a painting and finally riding off into the sunset. The program is as much a eulogy of Linda as it is a history of Wings, but the official telling of the story doesn't mean it glosses over the embarrassing stuff. Paul speaks candidly of Wings' Spinal-Tap-like carelessness with drummers and guitarists (although there is no introspection as to possible reasons), the misguidedness of Hi Hi Hi and the infamous drug bust in Japan. There is a sly sense of humour as well. In listing Wings' achievements, the opening montage refers to “almost” eleven tours.

Wings music is used to great effect in embellishing the story, particularly Kreen-Akrore which has finally found a purpose thirty years later.

There is one glaring omission in Wingspan and his name is Denny Laine. The doco makes no secret of the fact that it is the Paul and Linda story, but the only member of Wings not named McCartney to stick it out from start to finish gets just two mentions in the entire show. Three, if you could the use of Time To Hide as incidental music. Even Henry McCullough gets more airtime. Whatever bad blood there may have been between Paul and Denny since the end of Wings, he deserves better than this.

Extras are out-takes from the interview, which include impromptu performances of Picasso's Last Words, Mrs Vanderbilt and Let Me Roll it, two live songs from Rockshow (please release the whole thing), the video for Rockestra Theme, Discography and photo gallery.

Highlight: Rare live footage
Feature: * * * *
Extras: * * * * *
Audio: LPCM Stereo

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET – Paul McCartney (1984/2004)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0001FR552?ie=UTF8&tag=billablog-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0001FR552Are we sitting comfortably boys and girls? Then I'll begin....

Paul is on his way to work one morning when he gets a call from his manager Bryan Brown. Paul had entrusted the master tapes of his new album to an ex-crim whom he was giving a second chance, and now they have both gone missing! And if they don't find the tapes by midnight, that leaves the way open for their company to be taken over by the nasty Wrath-Bone industries.
Paul tries to go about his normal day; recording Yesterday, making videos, rehearsing. But by the end of the day, the stress has got to him and he begins hallucinating. So he pops in on his old mate Ralph Richardson for tea and surrealism. But will he be able to save his tapes, his friend, his company and his faith in human nature before he wakes up and realises it was all a dream?
Oops, did I give away the ending? Never mind.

As a piece of cinema, Paul's grand folly of the 80s is abysmal, but if you regard it as a 100 minute video clip for an album that really isn't as bad as you've heard, then it's a perfectly entertaining piece of fluff. In fact, if he had handed it directly to MTV instead of attempting a cinema release, it would probably be remembered a lot more fondly. Occasionally veering into “so bad it's good” territory, you will marvel at some of the woeful performances by what, in any other movie, would have been a very good cast. Watch for some gloriously camp overacting by a sound engineer.

If there's one area where Broad Street doesn't disappoint, it's the camera work. The film is beautifully photographed and this double sided disc has both the wide-screen and the 4:3 full-screen versions. The sound is listed as Dolby 4.0. It's a curious mix. Basically it's stereo, with the lead vocal in the centre channel and very sparing use of the rear channel. Rather than doing two separate transfers of the movie, they might have been better off putting the extra effort into a proper 5.1 mix. Still, it does provide another level of misguided eightiesness to the whole thing.
Two trailers provide the extras.

Highlight: Wanderlust
Feature: * * ½
Extras: *
Audio: Dolby 4.0

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields.

11 November, 2009

Obama’s Own Twisted Logic

A comment in Barack Obama’s speech at the Fort Hood memorial shows that he can pander with the worst of them.
"It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy."
Damn right it’s hard to comprehend. We don’t even know what the true motive was yet so how can we possibly comment on the comprehensibility of it?
Then things got worse with the follow-up:
"But this much we do know -- no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice -- in this world, and the next."
Surely this is the kind of talk that prejudices trials. Not only do we have vague talk about “facing justice,” a comment deliberately designed to be whatever you want it to be, just as we had from W after the September 11th attacks, but we also have pre-emption of the Almighty’s view of the situation.

Obama certainly knows how to work to an audience and this was certainly not the place to talk about understanding what causes a man to snap. Be that as it may, it’s not much of a leap to interpret this comment as pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment. That’s bad enough on its own, but it’s doubly disappointing coming from a man who himself has faced prejudice because of his “Muslim name.”

All we know about Major Hassan’s motives is that we don’t know what they were. All further comment at this point is completely irresponsible. There was a lot of twisted logic that led to this tragedy. There is the twisted logic of victimising a man who volunteered to serve his country just because of his religion. There is the twisted logic of sending the same man to the front line after he had helped dozens, perhaps hundreds, of his comrades deal with post traumatic stress and would have inevitably taken on some of that trauma himself. There’s the twisted logic of assuming that only those in active combat are really fighting the war. And there’s the twisted logic of assuming that because a man has a certain name or belongs to a certain religion, then that must have motivated his crimes.

I am not for a moment seeking to minimise what he did. Nothing excuses his crimes, but we can look at what might explain it. Obama the thinker surely knows this, but instead chose over-simplification. Twisted logic is everywhere.

09 November, 2009

The Honesty of Being Out of Office

Last May, Alexander Downer wrote a rather good op/ed piece, venting his frustrations over how, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, it became his job to take responsibility for every foolish Australian tourist who got themselves into trouble overseas. It was everything he could never have said in office and I don’t blame him one bit for letting it all out.

Now, his former boss, John Howard has got himself back in the news by way of an interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he criticises his successor as former PMs are wont to do a year out from the next election. Cutting through all the predictable self-justification, he does make one fair point:
"Mr Rudd will say he had the global financial crisis to handle. Well, courtesy of us he was well endowed with money in the bank.''
I’ll pay him that one. Although, according to the documentaries, The Howard Years and Liberal Rule, that surplus was probably due more to Treasurer Peter Costello, who was apparently quite annoyed that so much of the savings he had made went to fund Howard’s pork-barrelling. Costello’s skill in savings is the most likely reason Kevin Rudd invited him to be on the board of directors for the Future Fund, which probably also rankles with Howard considering there is really no love lost between him and Costello. It also should be recognised that Howard supported many of the free market assumptions that led to the financial crisis, but I certainly won’t deny that the surpluses of the Howard government left Australia better placed to handle the crisis than many other countries.

However, the thing Howard said that really leapt out at me was this:
"People knew where we stood. We didn't try and be all things to all men. ''
It echoes a talking point brought up by Joe Hockey on Q and A last week, and almost channels an utterly fatuous assertion made by John Bolton that President Bush’s first responsibility was to govern in the interests of those who voted for him rather than all citizens equally. Call me old fashioned, call me naive, but I thought it was a national leader’s job to lead the nation. The nation as a whole, not just the ones our elected officials have decided are right.

This is the paradox of representative democracy. It assumes that representatives will represent all their constituents. It raises the question of whether we truly have a democracy or just an elective, occasionally consultative dictatorship. Do we elect officials to represent us, or merely to enact their own policies on our behalf? Howard’s comment implies that he thinks it’s the latter and that he and Hockey believe that trying to please everyone as a government is something to be criticised.

What I don’t think Howard even realises, is that he has just contradicted what he said in every election victory speech except 2001.
The Australian people have given me the privilege of leading the Government of this country and I want to say it will be a government not only for the people who voted us but also for the people who voted against us. – 1996
The Government you have elected tonight will be a government for all Australians; the Government you have elected tonight will dedicate itself to the welfare of all Australian people. – 1998
We are happy, we are joyful that the verdict has been given by the Australian people but never forget the fact that governments are elected to govern not only for the people who voted for them, but also for the people who voted against them. – 2004
We all knew he wouldn’t, but he has now admitted that he didn’t even try, nor is he even kidding himself that he did try.

06 November, 2009

1001 Things

....to make you feel inadequate about your life.

I was browsing Amazon last night – I can’t even remember what for – and came across 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I find such lists distasteful on several levels. For a start, there’s the horridly morbid tone of “before you die,” which kind of implies that your life has been wasted if you don’t experience everything on the list. Then there’s the insistent tone of “must,” which to me, conjures up images of someone with over-dyed hair and heavy-rimmed glasses saying, “Dah-ling, you simply must see Paris in the spring-time,” or something similar, which only serves to turn me off the idea, no matter how pleasant it ought to be.

There are masses of these books now, 1001 Movies, 1001 Albums, 1001 Books.... I thought things started to get a bit ridiculous with 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die. Now I like a good garden as much as the next person but it seems to me that expecting any individual to deliberately visit 1001 specific ones is probably asking a bit much.

It’s at this point that my mind veers towards reductio ad absurdum and starts to think what other lists of 1001 things people might try to publish. I wondered about 1001 Wines, but sure enough, that had already been done, along with 1001 Foods, 1001 Buildings, 1001 Historic Sites and 1001 Natural Wonders. So what’s left? 1001 Cars You Must Drive Before You Die? (Edited by Jeremy Clarkson of course) 1001 Cafés You Must Visit Before You Die? Of course, it would all have to finish with 1001 Lists of 1001-Things-You-Must-Do-Before-You-Die You Must Read Before You Die. With all these thousands of things to do, most people will have a hard time finishing the books, let alone the challenges they set.

There are others with slightly more life-affirming premises. Browsing these books also brought up a similar series from Time Out of 1000 Songs (or books or films) to Change Your Life. Having one’s life changed is such an upheaval (even when it’s a positive change) that I’m not sure if I could cope with it even a dozen times, much less a thousand. Not unless they are talking about the more philosophical change, meaning that once you have heard this song, you will no longer not have heard it and therefore your life is no longer as it was before.

I admit I do own one such book. It is 1001 songs by Toby Creswell. I think it stands out from some of the other wanker-at-a-party books in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is written by one person, not compiled from dozens of critics’ lists. Secondly, it’s subtitled The Great Songs of All Time. Not the greatest and no obligation to hear them all lest your life be unfulfilled.

Thirdly, hearing 1001 songs seems reasonably doable. If we assume an average length of four minutes per song, that’s about 66 hours and 44 minutes. If you listened for 12 hours a day, you could get through them all in about five and a half days, which could be an interesting thing to do on your holidays. Also, in terms of cost, at $1.69 per song from iTunes, it would cost you $1690 – probably less since if you’re any kind of music enthusiast, you probably have a hundred or so of them already.

If you were to take on 1001 albums, that would be harder. If we assume an average of 45 minutes per album, that would be 750¾ hours of music and if you were to listen for 12 hours a day, it would take over two months. And unless you had a fast internet connection and no scruples about stealing music, it would cost you somewhere around twenty grand.

If you want to see all the movies on the list, you can double that time if we assume an average length of 90 minutes, but then there’s the logistics of actually seeing them. Music can at least be enjoyed while doing other things, but movies and books demand one’s complete attention. Should all these films be seen at the cinema to see them as originally intended, or will DVD suffice? If so, how will you source them all? There’s sure to be a whole lot of stuff that isn’t available through either your local Blockbuster or Netflix.

When it comes to books, the variables go through the roof. There are so many different lengths and different costs and everybody reads at different speeds so while it’s perfectly possible for people to read well over a thousand books in their lifetime, many others are never going to get close.

So if the logistics of seeing 1001 movies or reading 1001 books is daunting enough, the idea of recommending that anyone see 1001 particular historical sites or buildings or gardens, or all of the above is silly at best and cruel at worst.

Some things are worth experiencing just for the experience. My ever-sprawling record collection does include Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. And I even listened to it once. I own it because it’s an interesting milestone in pop music, not because a music journo looking to graduate from the inkies told me it’s important. The Sex Pistols, while not insignificant, are grossly overrated. I choose to own it because I am a collector and if the price is right, I’ll acquire pieces that are notable if not actually good. However, my life is no fuller for it and nor will yours be if you take these lists seriously. The experience is so much better when you discover it for yourself.