31 August, 2009

Nothing natural about this disaster

There are at least some places where the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has not passed without comment - and one of the most misleading comments is that New Orleans was struck by a "natural disaster." It was not. New Orleans weathered the hurricane pretty well. The disaster was caused by the flooding and the flooding was as a direct result of substandard levees, and a knock-on effect of degraded wetlands. Both are man-made problems. The term, "natural disaster," carries an inference that no-one is to blame and it couldn't have been avoided.

I have no special insight. Most of what I know, I have learnt from the brilliant Harry Shearer, another satirist who puts the 'serious' media to shame by doing their job better. I can do little more than 're-tweet' some of his comments below.

This isn't to say that Katrina was not a devastating natural disaster. There are whole towns in Mississippi that ain't dere no more because of Katrina. They were completely blown away, with only a few, seemingly incongruous slabs of concrete to suggest there was ever a town there. They are the victims of the natural disaster. What followed in New Orleans was something different.

At the beginning of Mardi Gras 2006, Harry said that New Orleans is back, and it's on its back, and explained how the two statements can both be true. Equally, New Orleans is both the forgotten disaster and the squeaky wheel - because whenever people talk about Hurricane Katrina, they mean New Orleans, even though the disaster they describe had little to do with the Hurricane, and Mississippi is forgotten. Perhaps it's time to stop using the K word when referring to the catastrophe that struck New Orleans in 2005. It makes it too easy to conflate the Hurricane with the levee failure.

Anyone can make a few cheap shots about maintaining a city below sea level, but the reality is that there are 28 states in the US that rely on similar levee systems, with many of those levees in similar states of disrepair. If the old-Europe cheesesmiths in the Netherlands can work out a way to manage things without human tragedy and international embarrassment, one wonders why the World's Only Superpower® finds it such a challenge.

Harry Shearer: Does Obama care about New Orleans?
Playing the Inside Game -- A Cautionary Tale

29 August, 2009

An own-goal on reducing violence?

The violence on Melbourne streets is a major problem and I fully support the efforts to have a higher police presence, but I found an attempt at activism held today rather bizarre. ABC News reported that a number of off-duty police were at today's Hawthorn vs Essendon game at the MCG asking people to sign petitions calling for more police. Nothing wrong with that. The bizarre bit is the fact that were using football fans as an example of how people can go out and have fun without being violent. To me, this is a load of toss.

The only reason football goers aren't violent themselves is because they get all their violent tendencies out by proxy on the ground. Let's be honest - regardless of whether it's on a footy oval or outside a King St nightclub, for every punch that's thrown, there are dozens of others getting their rocks off over the act and egging it all on. Football does nothing to reduce the culture of violence. If anything, it promotes it.

At the very same game that the petitioners were campaigning outside, one player was knocked unconscious, which led to an all-in melee (which is politically correct AFL-speak for brawl). And this is the place they chose as an example of well-behaved crowds? I bet nobody left the game in disgust.

Don't get me wrong, I'm for harm minimisation. People have violent tendencies. We're never going to eradicate that, so we might as well manage it. If it helps people get it out of their systems by going to a stadium and watching a few dozen blokes who chose to be in that situation going at it, then that's fine by me. Better that, then hospitalising some poor bugger who accidentally spilt your drink. Just don't tell me that football crowds are in it for good clean fun, because I don't believe it.

Check out these highlights and lowlights from today's game and see if you think it encourages people to reject violence. Such scenes are not atypical of any AFL match.

Don’t Look Back in Anger

Today is the day that Noel Gallagher announced that he can no longer work with Liam and is therefore quitting Oasis.

Or, as most people call it for short - Saturday.

21 August, 2009

What are you afraid of?

I don’t understand the notion that Democrats are wimps. Can anyone imagine Dick Cheney hanging around a meeting if he knew there were people outside packing heat?

On Tuesday, The Daily Show did and excellent contrast between the tolerance shown towards people showing up to town hall meetings on health cover reform carrying loaded guns, and the hypersensitivity to criticism shown by Bush administration, who had people removed for wearing critical t-shirts.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gun Show - Barrel Fever
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

While I maintain that Jon Stewart is the most astute political commentator in America today, I think he is reading this one wrong.

Here's what I take from the contrast:

Republicans are scared of public health insurance and t-shirts,
Democrats aren't scared of crazy people with guns.

A clear and present danger

Exercising a constitutional right

18 August, 2009

Their Generation

I’m starting to get a bit bored with 40th anniversaries. Last month was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing which is certainly something worth recognising. The year began with the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ rooftop recording session at Apple, which I suppose is significant for being their final public appearance together. Then the week before last, they had the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ Abbey Road crossing. Now, I will champion the Beatles’ importance at every turn, and Abbey Road would probably be my favourite of all their albums, but geez, it was just an album cover. Apparently though, it was still important enough to block off traffic (always a popular move in London) and have a re-enactment, complete with some tribute band standing in for the real thing.

And this week, we’ve had anyone who remembers reminding us that last weekend was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. And that made me think I might post a song I wrote in the 90s as an answer to baby boomers’ constant overstating of their achievements and importance.

The day after I finished writing this, I read that Allen Ginsberg had died. That made me feel a little bit guilty for a moment about some of the things I’d said until I realised that the song really isn’t about people like him. It’s about the ones who sold out their values, if indeed, they ever had any.

The thing that insulted me most about the whole baby-boomer attitude is the way they sneered and looked down upon the next generation as being inferior in just about every way –the exact same thing they moaned about in their parents’ generation. I don’t begrudge them growing up and getting jobs. I begrudge the hypocrisy of not wanting the next generation to have their own voice the way they did. They took the best of everything and whatever they couldn’t blame on the previous generation, they blame on the next.

My general disagreement is mainly to do with selfishness and lack of perspective. And I’ll admit to having a distaste for some attitudes in the younger generation as well. Every time I hear someone under 25 start moaning about the “crippling debt” their generation has been lumbered with in order to drag us out of the GFC™, I want to slap them and say,

Listen, you smarmy little shit, my parents’ generation paid off World War II! They got by. They survived. So what the hell are you worried about?
While debt should be avoided where-ever possible, sometimes you do have to spend your way out of trouble. And if it means you’re going to have to wait a few more months before you get that new iPhone, or a few more years before you build that McMansion in Fountain Lakes, then that’s just tough titties! If that's the biggest sacrifice you're ever called upon to make for your country, then it's a charmed life.

See? I can do “old fart” too.
But I disgress....

So yes, this song is less about people like Allen Ginsberg and more about the ones who went on to be insurance agents. Less about the ones who genuinely changed their minds, and more about the ones who kept taking all the world had to give and more, while still affecting the tone of moral and intellectual superiority to all who came before and after.

By the way, Woodstock was originally supposed to be a charity concert – the Farm Aid of its day – but so many broke in that eventually the organisers gave up and declared it a free show.
Read into that what you will.


They say if you remember, then you weren’t really there
You danced and sang and made love, you lived without a care
Your generation....
Now your kids are grown up, and living without hope
Still you wonder why they only care about MTV and dope
Your generation
Talkin’ ’bout your generation
Your generation got old
Your generation’s gone cold

You tell us of psychedelia, and boast of your free love
Then you tell us we should just say no, and always wear a glove
You fear the carnage on the streets as the cartels ply their trade
But they’re just doing business in a market that you made
Your generation
Talkin’ ’bout your generation
Your generation got old
Your generation’s gone cold

By the time we got to Woodstock, Pepsi ruled the world
Our playground was Nintendo, and we went to war for oil
Some values die quicker than others, but the truth doesn’t change
If peace was a good idea back then, well why not so today?
Your generation
Talkin’ ’bout your generation
Your generation got old
Your generation sold its soul

What happened to the revolution? Where did you go wrong?
Did you think you’d make it happen just by singing protest songs?
Do you really think that Woodstock made the world a better place?
Just a hundred thousand muddy hippies getting off their face!
And you have the gall to tell us that our music has no worth
Should we let your surrealistic pillow smother all the earth?
Your generation
You still talk about your generation
Well, your generation got old
Your generation’s gone cold

So don’t you try to put us down and tell us what to do
As if you wouldn’t do it just the same if it were you
’Cause the selfish generation is still alive and strong
Your ignore it when your children show you how you got it wrong
If you think today’s youth culture is your vision of hell
Then I guess you understand now, just how your parents felt.
Your generation
Talkin’ ’bout your generation
Your generation got old
Your generation sold its soul

Your generation
Is gonna fade away
gonna fade away

HWS April 1997

If anyone is interested in hearing the song, I played it on Strawberry Fields Radio last year. You can play or download the show HERE.
If you would like a higher quality, stand-alone copy, then I accept cash, paypal and women’s underwear.

14 August, 2009

Les Paul - 1915-2009

There is absolutely nothing I can say about this giant of music that hasn’t been said a hundred times better and a thousand times over. Even more so than the Beatles, if anyone thinks they haven’t been influenced by Les Paul, then they just don’t know anything about music.

In the rush to oversimplify things, reports will undoubtedly refer to him as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. Leo Fender would take umbrage at such a title, surely as much as Les Paul would if it were given to Leo. I have no interest in Fender vs. Gibson or Les vs. Leo. The truth is that solid-body electrics were pioneered in parallel by several innovators at the same time, not unlike television or the automobile, with no single inventor.

What’s undeniable is that Les Paul was the first guitarist to play a solid-body guitar. His prototype “log” was a Gibson neck bolted to a solid piece of timber. He added guitar bouts for comfort and aesthetics but they contributed nothing to the tone.

The Les Paul “Log”

Although Gibson laughed at him, the Les Paul log would form the basis of the design of the ES 335 which looks like it has a hollow sound chamber but is in fact solid up the middle.

The Gibson ES355

Insane as it may seem now, the Gibson Les Paul Standard was actually discontinued in 1960. It wasn’t until Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page started playing them late in that decade that interest increased enough for Gibson to consider making them again. Still, many guitarists believe that there is something special about the ones made between 1958 and 1960, which is why those models attract valuations that look more like ’phone numbers and many are locked in bank vaults as investments.

While Les Paul himself played a Gibson Les Paul, the instruments he played were vastly different to the production models. The body was familiar but the electronics were all his own design and never available on production models. The production model he played the most was the Les Paul Recording.

Les Paul's Les Paul

However, guitars were only half the story. The multi-layer recording techniques that we have taken for granted since the mid ’60s were pioneered by Les Paul – only he did it the hard way. His early techniques of disabling the erase head and bouncing between tape machines meant that he and Mary Ford had to get every part right first time, otherwise the whole recording would be ruined. There was no multitrack or mixing. The record was mixed as it was being made.

For the 40th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper, the BBC invited a bunch of current bands to try and record Beatles songs using only equipment that was available to the Beatles at the time. Several had to pull out because they just couldn’t do it. But by Les Paul’s standards, the Beatles had it piss easy. Far from being the cheat’s way, Les Paul’s recordings required him to be a master musician. That brilliant musicianship is often overshadowed by his technical innovations.

I expect a majority of those eulogising him don’t even own a Les Paul record. I must confess that I don’t. But that’s not really the point. You don’t have to have ever read or seen Shakespeare’s work to use words and expressions that he created, whether you realise it or not. Similarly, anyone who has had so much as a passing interest in music in the last sixty years, owes something to Les Paul.

12 August, 2009

The Rules: Hygiene

All men and, by association, most women are familiar with the old rhyme that describes our daily rituals,
No matter how you shake and dance,
The last two drops go down your pants.
The rule?
Gents, we’re allowed to use toilet paper too!

Avoid embarrassing stains with an amazing new invention!

08 August, 2009

What is it with women and shoes?

I know what you’re thinking already. You’re thinking that this is written by a guy so it’s just going to be another blokey diatribe about what funny darn cattle these women are and why can’t they be more interested in football and cars like normal people. It’s nothing of the sort. In fact, I intend to answer the question.

I’ll answer a bit of it anyway. I can’t actually explain the attraction to shoes. This is not because I am a stereotypical male who takes no particular interest in fashion. The truth is, I’d rather go clothes shopping than watch football any day. But shoes remain my big blind spot. I have one pair of reasonably decent shoes, one pair of almost worn out shoes and one pair of completely worn out, why-haven’t-you-thrown-those-away? shoes which I wear for mowing and working around the yard. In my world, that’s plenty. So there is still a bit of blokiness in me in that I don’t get the specific attraction to shoes. The point is that I don’t have to.

Last month, my beloved and I were in Melbourne – a city which, she tells me, has a much wider availability of cute shoes than her home town. So while we were there, we made time to check out some cute shoe shops. I wanted to buy her some if we could find some she liked because.... well, I love her and I want to make her happy.

We were successful in finding some suitably cute shoes. I can’t really tell you what made them better than the others we looked at. They were black, patent leather, and I believe ribbon was involved but the shoes themselves were not particularly special to me. What was special to me was the smile. My beloved has a special voice that comes when she is talking about good food and, as I discovered that day, a special smile that comes from having cute shoes. That smile meant everything to me.

However much we may love someone, it’s so tempting to trivialise or deride a pleasure or pursuit that we don’t understand even if we know it gives a loved-one happiness. Sometimes we do it even because it gives a loved-one happiness. It can end up poisoning relationships and it’s totally unnecessary.

When it comes to physical intimacy, we accept that we can never truly understand what it is that our partner is feeling. But we do know enough to know that it gives them pleasure and it give us pleasure to be giving them that pleasure. It heightens the experience to have each partner’s pleasure linked the other’s. It’s such a shame that so many of us choose not to apply the same attitude to the other things that make our loved-ones happy. If we want our partner to be happy, surely it is a pleasure just to see them happy, regardless of whether we relate to the source of that happiness or not.

I am incredibly lucky to have someone who takes her own pleasure in seeing me happy or excited even when she doesn’t understand what it is I’m excited about. For her, it’s shoes; for me, it’s guitar effects pedals. She has often recalled her own joy at being with me when I bought a Line 6 Echo Park delay pedal (which knocks the Boss DD-5 for six) for half price. She will freely admit that she has no idea what’s so cool about this pedal. In fact, she barely knows what effects pedals are. Knowing what they are or do is irrelevant. She knows enough to know they give me pleasure and that alone is enough for her to share in my pleasure. Her pleasure comes from my joy.

When I go out to see bands, she asks me to call after the show is over, not because she wants to check up on me, but because she wants to hear the excitement in my voice that apparently comes from just having seen a great gig. I wish more people were like this. I wish more people took pleasure from their loved-one’s happiness rather than trying to coerce them into sharing one partner’s interests or abandoning another’s.

So I don’t really know what it is with women and shoes after all. I don’t know what made this particular pair of shoes cuter than the rest. I don’t know and I don’t care. I bought her those shoes just because I wanted to do something nice for her – but then next time I buy her shoes, it will be pure self-interest because I would do anything to see that smile again.

Both involve feet. Both give great pleasure to both partners.

06 August, 2009

The year of the Diamond Dogs

David Bowie's 1974 album Diamond Dogs was orginally intended to be a musical version of Nineteen Eighty-Four until George Orwell's estate said "Oh no you don't!" The more we go on, the more it shows that in many situations, the only thing Orwell was wrong about was the timing - and I'm not talking about the evil tyranny of socialised medicine.

By the way, lefties, if Orwell doesn't get blamed for all the ways right-wingers misunderstand and misprepresent his work, then give Ayn Rand the same break. It's not her fault if wingnuts miss the point and go thinking they're John Galt in the same way that 12-year-olds think they're Batman.

Bowie's work was prescient in its own way too. There's a line in the title track,
"In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch"
I can't think of a better line to sum up 2009 so far.

Turnbull at a Gate

The admission this week by Godwin Grech, who had already revealed himself to be the Liberals’ man in treasury, that he was the author of the forged email at the centre of the “ute-gate” scandal probably didn’t surprise anyone except, perhaps Malcolm Turnbull.

It was a spectacular failure in terms of effective opposition because the government did have a case to answer, but Turnbull was so eager to go in for the kill that when the email he brandished as conclusive evidence turned out to be a forgery, it overshadowed any genuine concerns about the government’s role in the affair. Even if Rudd and Swan were guilty as charged of giving preferential treatment to a political donor, it was never going to warrant the resignation of the prime minister and treasurer as Turnbull demanded, and the allegation was already cheapened just by the fact that it was being made by former members of the Howard government. But Malcolm insisted on overplaying his hand and it ended up making him look like an idiot. After the email was found to be a fake, Turnbull insisted that it was being used as a distraction and that he wouldn’t be distracted from holding Rudd and Swan to account.
Okay, so you won’t be distracted from holding people to account by people trying to hold you to account?

We have seen his impetuousness and impatience before.
Malcolm Turnbull first came to national prominence as the leader of the Australian Republican Movement. Republicanism was put on the agenda by Paul Keating in the early 90s, usually as a distraction issue. John Howard didn’t want anything to do with it, but he was committed to seeing through what Keating (sort of) started and it meant he got to do it his way – that is, make it totally unworkable. The Republican model that was put to the people in the 1999 referendum, and supported by Turnbull’s ARM was the “minimalist model” which essentially meant replacing the governor general with a president who would be appointed by a two-thirds majority of parliament. Many republicans found this to be completely unacceptable since it effectively just changed the name of the governor general and ignored the fact that all the states would remain constitutional monarchies. Many in the ARM argued that this was our only chance to become a republic so it was better to just vote for the model being put up and we could work out the details later. Not bloody likely!

The republican referendum was defeated not by monarchists but by republicans who wanted a real change with a directly elected president. In his speech after the result was clear, Malcolm Turnbull said that John Howard would be remembered as the man who broke Australia’s heart.

When Turnbull entered Parliament in 2004 as the Liberal member for Wentworth, I was waiting for people pull that quote out to throw back at him but it never happened. When Brendan Nelson became the Liberal member for Bradford in 1996, he was mercilessly reminded of the speech he made as president of the AMA (which is a trade union by the way) where he said “I have never voted Liberal in my life!” The soundbyte was again dragged up when Nelson became leader of the Liberal party, only this time he claimed to have been lying. No wonder he didn’t last.
Then, when Turnbull was made John Howard’s parliamentary secretary in 2006 (presumably on the principle of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’) I was sure someone would bring up what Turnbull said about Howard in 1999, but still, nobody did. It’s as if it had been scrubbed from the record.

It’s unfortunate because with people having such short memories, it might have given us an idea of how Turnbull might perform as Liberal leader. Again, he took an idea with merit and said Never mind doing it well, just do it NOW.

I had been tempted to suggest that Turnbull imagined his referendum speech to be his “Well may we say....” moment but I really have no way of knowing that. Still, Whitlam and his government are another lesson in what can happen when you try to do things sooner rather than better.

Oh, and there’s a great recap of the whole, silly saga told completely in lolcats here.

02 August, 2009

Service you can bank on

There has been a lot of chatter recently about whether the Rudd government, as part of its response to the Global Financial Crisis™, ought to set up a “people’s bank” to provide genuine competition to the Big Four and secure a better deal for bank customers. I'm always amazed at how short people's memories are. The triteness of the term probably shows how much they have forgotten.

Sitting here at the wrong end of my thirties, I am old enough (perhaps only just) to remember when we had a people's bank. In fact, we had several. We had the Commonwealth Bank and the State Bank. Most other states had their own State Bank too. Then came the 80s and the new economic religion of deregulation and privatisation. In 1991, in order to dig itself out of a financial hole, the Kirner government sold the State Bank of Victoria. In order to maintain some kind of public ownership, it was sold to the Commonwealth Bank. Since many major towns had both State and Commonwealth Bank branches, this led to numerous branch closures and job losses. And the attempt to keep what remained of the State Bank in public hands was in vain anyway because in that same year, the Hawke/Keating government began a partial privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank by share float. In 1996, the Howard government sold the remaining 51%.

Now, less than twenty years after divesting ourselves of bank ownership, and after being treated like cattle by the banking corporations, people are again getting a taste for banking by the people, of the people for the people. It should not be treated as such an outlandish idea. It's been the natural order of things for most of our history. The last 20 years have been the aberration. It was theorised that profit motive alone would secure the best service for the most people. Now the jury is in.

The discussion is perhaps similar to the perennial debate in the US about public health care – or to be more accurate, public health cover. The care is not in question, only the method of payment. It's something that most civilised countries regard as a no-brainer yet it's greeted with suspicion by many Americans. There's no point in attempting to talk sense to those who claim it's an attempt to turn the US into a socialist dictatorship. Anyone who knows the first thing about either socialism or public health cover knows that's a complete Furphy. Australia has had national public health cover since 1975 and the current system has been in operation since 1984. Even that most zealous of free-market economic rationalists, John Howard knew it would be political suicide to try to dismantle it. Have we been overrun and enslaved by the godless communist hoards? No? QED.

The curious thing about the US debate is that among those who accept the system needs reform but oppose the public option, many of them blame the private health insurance funds for putting profits ahead of people.

Well, DUH!

That is what corporations do. It’s what they are for. They have no charter of public service; they are there to make as much money as they possibly can by any legal means. And after the orgy of deregulation through the 80s and 90s, the definition of legal means got a lot wider. So why is anyone surprised that they care more about profit than people? It’s not their job to care about people. That's what governments are for.

If you want an institution to care more about people than about profits, then it needs to be operated by those who answer to the people, not to the bottom line and the shareholders.

An interesting piece of trivia I like to trot out occasionally is that there has never been a famine in a democracy. (And please don't try to tell me that 19th century Ireland was a democracy) Just think about that. Regardless of natural events, there has never been a devastating famine in any country where the survival of the government depends on the satisfaction of a majority (even a simple majority) of the people. They only occur in countries where the stability of the government is not related to the welfare of its people.

I am sure the same principle applies to banking, health cover, transport and any essential service.

It's at this point that many start talking about government’s inability to run anything. But, as hard as it may be to accept, government really isn't as bad as anyone on any side of the political spectrum says it is. Take a look around you. Do you have roads to drive on? Footpaths to walk on? Ambulances to call if you are sick or injured? Police to call on if a crime is committed against you? These are not private services. And they are not profitable either. It's done because that's what governments do. It's not their business, it's their duty. And if they don't do it to our satisfaction, then we toss them out. If we trust governments to manage things as complex as national defence, infrastructure and diplomacy, then surely running a bank or an insurance system ought to be a walk in the park.

Then there is the argument that the profit motive drives directors of private companies to excel and government could never pay anyone enough to get such results. Well, in his last year, former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo was paid $13.4 million. The annual salary of a cabinet minister is $219,178. We could be really generous and double that, and I bet we would still get no less a mediocre performance if we had a Minister for Telstra.

And if they end up making a pig’s breakfast of everything, then that’s our fault for not electing better candidates. Contrary to claims made by opponents of nationally operated enterprises, the principle of individual choice and personal responsibility applies just as much to public systems because the public (all of them, not just shareholders) get to choose who is going to be in charge of it. Of course, democratising the way our essential services are delivered needn't necessarily mean them being run by government. We could have popular elections for the boards of management of banks and insurance companies the way the US has elections for judges and sheriffs and numerous other municipal offices. That would really keep the consumers involved and the companies accountable – but I'd be happy enough for government to do what we put it there to do and govern.