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Thursday, 31 December 2009

Review: Bangkok Dangerous, dir Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang (2008)

To label this film pure schlock would be dishonest, and would also give pure schlock a bad name. Cage's career as an action player takes a dive in this cliche-ridden extravaganza, which feeds off all the stereotypes of Thailand that we've ever seen.

It doesn't give anything back, however.

You've got a hitman who takes assignments from a flabby thug with a blonde sidekick. There's a gormless local who the Cage character 'adopts' and trains. There's the nightclub dancer who is the contact between hitman and crime boss. There's even a pharmacy assistant who can't speak that the Cage character falls in love with.

And there's lots of elephants.

Hails of bullets, motorcycle chases, whistful longings by the Cage character - becoming sick of his life of violence - there's a lot of good stuff here for the action afficionado. Trouble is, it's stuck together with double-sided tape and displayed without an atom of flair.

Definitely one to miss.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Review: Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

Going by reports of box office in Australia, few people will have missed seeing the movie by now, a few days after its launch. It's not surprising, what with terrific special effects, decent acting by Sam Worthington, and a story that seems to have been designed to spark debate as the world moves into 2010 with one eye fixed on the climate and the other on its collective wallet.

The story is simple and, like that other Sigourney Weaver vehicle, Alien, it's about a globalised universe - or, perhaps more accurately, a universalised globe.

Humans have discovered a relatively haibitable planet, Pandora, that harbours an expensive mineral. The Na'vi are native humanoids and are resisting occupation and exploitation of their environment. Alongside military efforts to counter this resistance, the humans have put in place a program using avatars - Na'vi bodies controlled by sleeping humans - to find a diplomatic solution.

But the bosses and the generals are impatient, leading to the scientists taking sides. The resulting battle of Na'vi against humans is spectacular. But perhaps more interesting is the love story between the Na'vi controlled by the Worthington character - Jake Scully - and a Na'vi female.

It's a Pocohontas storyline, with the woman's love and loyalty remaining after almost everything else has been lost.

Weaver's character is important but secondary. The main action is between the avatar controlled by Scully and the Na'vi female played by Zoe Saldana.

Cameron has gone to great lengths to create a viable world in the best traditions of classic sci-fi authors like Philip Jose Farmer and Isaac Azimov - the writers he (and I) read in youth. In a sense, this is the first great sci-fi movie to emerge after Star Wars - with possible exceptions being Alien and Terminator.

Recommended viewing. Makes for great post-screening conversation.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Review: Faraway Hill, H A Lindsay (1963)

Written by a 'bit of a character', the novel is a paean to the Howard battler. The author, Harold Arthur Lindsay, is a misogynistic xenophobe whose main interest in life is the getting of filthy lucre. But it's a good read.

Beginning in the early 1920s, just after the end of WWI, we meet Leslie Farrant and his new wife, Doris. They're on their way to the irrigation projects on the Murray River, where thousands of people are labouring to force the land to submit to industry, creating jobs for returned soldiers.

While life in the camps is hard, Leslie turns his hand to carpentry. When he's retrenched due to lack of funding, he moves to the city and finds employment in an auto factory. Leslie and Doris buy a house, but the life of the wage slave is not satisfying, and the young man decides to sell everything and invest in bee hives, a trade he'd dabbled in earlier in his life.

They leave the city and head for the hills, staking a claim on the property of an old, curmudgeonly cocky. They barely survive, and Leslie buys a new truck and starts doing courier work to supplement the income of the bees. When the old landowner dies, the couple - with young daughter Jean in tow - move elsewhere.

Here they meet Peter Menzies, a returned soldier and bee-keeper with a realistic outlook on life, who takes a shine to Les. He helps him set up his hives, and warns him away from the dreaded local rabble-rousers, the Hirosseks.

"Wait a bit -- there'll be a catch in it. You'll stike really bad trouble there. Down here we've got a crowd of toughs who give beekeepers a bad name. On the site I'll show you tomorrow you'll be only two miles from one of their apiaries -- and they'll be down on you in no time."
  "What'll they do?"
  "Play every damned trick you can think of -- and a few you've never heard of. If anyone puts bees within miles of them, they give him such a hot time he's glad to shift away. Knock holes in his honey tanks; tip his hives over; start a scrub fire to burn him out; put bent nails on the track he uses to puncture his tyres ... "
  "Good God," Leslie protested. "I'd have to clear out myself."
  "I haven't finished, Les. They've got most of the landowners here bluffed. If a man won't give them permission to put bees on his land, they take out a box of matches and remind him of how dry it's been lately. We dread bushfires down here. When one gets going properly in the scrub, you can't do much except pray for rain or a change of wind."
  Leslie sat staring at Menzies as the words sank in. You read about things like this in magazines or saw them in films; you didn't expect to run up against them in real life.
  "Only two groups of families are responsible," Menzies went on. "The Barodies and the Hirosseks. The Barodie brothers -- there's six of them -- are just plain crooks. Sneak thieves, sheep stealers and so on. The Hirosseks are the real wild men. Their father -- dead now, and a good job too -- was some sort of Russian. Big, nasty-looking brute with slanty eyes. Their mother -- still alive, worst luck! -- is a mixture of Gipsy and Negress. they raised the four lovely blokes you'll be up against."

Naturally, with Menzies' help, Les catches the Hirossek brothers in the act of poisoning his bees. Les works hard, brings on an enterprising young helper who finds a fruitful run of trees, and goes from strength to strength.

Soon, he's bought a property, Faraway Hill. With the Depression in full swing, the house and land sell cheaply. Nevertheless, it takes all of Les' money to buy in. But Peter Menzies has a trick up his sleeve, introducing a hardy form of clover he'd brought back as seed from the Middle East. The clover turns the poor land fertile, and Menzies and Les reap more gain when the seed sells.

Meanwhile, Bethea Musgrave joins the intrepid crew. Bethea grew up in Faraway Hill but her feckless brothers lost the property by frittering it away on expensive horses and trips to Melbourne. The enterprising woman had run a private school but the bad economic times forced her to shut down.

She asks if she can buy into the property. Doris, smitten by the old-money charm of the tall, competent Bethea, tells Les to take the offer. Musgrave is the keystone to the happiness of Les and Doris. Without the cachet of the ancient regime - the early pioneers who cleared the land of Aborigines and removed the 'scrub' of native forest - our frugal couple could not truly enjoy the fruits of their labours.

The novel ends with the advent of WWII, when Les is 38.

Lindsay's achievement is to write swiftly. But the boy's-own character of the novel flattens out any art, making each character two-dimensional and thin. He's got a world view and will do anything possible to promote it. It's a world view rooted in classical themes of pioneer ingenuity and thrift, married to a love of the Old Country and the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon people.

Some people would get angry at the book. I did, in places. But I found it interesting to read.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

The above was sent to me in an email from a friend; these are not my words.

Cambridge University research shows that only the first and last letters need to be in the correct position for words to be understood by 55 percent of those surveyed.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Review: Brokeback Mountain, dir Ang Lee (2005)

Cleanly inverting the classical stereotype of the tough cowboy, the movie presents a series of anguished moments as two gay cowboys negotiate the hostility of a narrow-minded world. When the final tragedy strikes, it's so unexpected it must have been inevitable.

So much has been written about this movie over the years, and so many other productions have found their inspiration in it, that it is almost impossible to be original. Everything you say will be read through a myriad of filters set up by others. Yet it is a good movie.

Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar is almost too good. Ledger captures the stoic taciturnity of the cowboy who is faced with an image of himself at odds with his world. Growing up as a gay boy in the boondocks must be one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. The movie makes you want to sing the praises of cities everywhere, which allow for anonymity and seclusion.

As he ages, del Mar doesn't lose his appeal. If anything, he gains kudos for being so forbearing in the face of a cruel existence. Separated from his wife, who witnesses a passionate kiss given to Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), del Mar survives in a succession of run-down abodes, each less than the one that came before it.

Twist marries into money, but remains his own obnoxious self throughout the movie.

The laurel must go to Ledger for creating an unforgettable character.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dir Julian Schnabel (2007)

A successful journalist is suddenly afflicted by a severe stroke one day while driving his son in his new car. When he wakes up in the hospital, he finds the only part of his body he can move is his left eyelid, which he proceeds to use to write a memoir.

This seems like an opportunity for some heavy sentimentalising, but Schnabel eschews such an approach, focusing instead on the humour available in the situation. Jean-Dominique Bauby, erstwhile editor of Elle magazine, is no saint. In fact, he's something of a womaniser, and a bit vain to boot.

His immobilised fantasies about the speech therapist, the physiotherapist and the stenographer from the publishing company tickle your funny bone. Then there's the estranged wife with her smooth thighs. Everything that's feminine within the scope of his gaze is ripe for a laugh.

Writing a book one letter at a time might seem an impossibility. But when you think about it, we all waste a lot of time each day. Just writing a page a day would be fair going for any writer. And this is what he's able to accomplish.

Except for Sundays, when the hopspital practically shuts down.

He has plenty of time to dream - and day-dream - in his newly-immobile state. We're taken on a trip by a few flash-backs, and on occasion into a fantasy involving women and/or food.

But these are the least satisfying parts of the movie.

The best bits involve Bauby's wry monologues. These are interior conversations that nobody but the audience can hear. They're brief but to-the-point, and generally include a joke at the expense of whoever is currently within his orbit.

This may be a member of the hospital staff, a visiting friend, or an occasional workman come to install a phone. Whoever is on the receiving end of these grumbled barbs has usually done something insincere or oafish. We're enriched by Bauby's unsentimental gaze.

Overall, a satisfying film, although the pace is a bit uneven. Some scenes just don't fit - such as when he takes a mistress to Lourdes. The anti-religious jokes are just not cruel enough to be funny.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Review: Lust, Caution, Ang Lee (2007)

Small details matter in this adaptation of Eileen Chang's brilliant short story. It's not just the perfectly-rendered Hong Kong and Shanghai of the 1930s that impress us. Lee takes pains with small gestures - like the look of sudden fear that sweeps across Mr Yee's face as he sits in the jeweller's with Mak Taitai - so that we are completely engrossed in this story of love and subterfuge.

The story is simple. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is a young student in China's south when war between the Kuomintang and the Japanese breaks out. Invited to participate in a theatrical troupe, she accepts. Later, the ringleader, Kuang Yu Ming (Lee-Hom Wang) orchestrates a change of pace for the troupe by inspiring them to participate in a sting designed to kill a notorious collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

Mr Yee is a stiff, autocratic character not given to sudden outbursts of emotion. He walks with a straight back, talks softly, and tolerates his wife. Wong is a true believer. In the beginning we see her - in close-up - acting on stage in a patriotic drama. She doesn't need to cry - the audience is too far away to see her tears. But we can see them.

Wong becomes the bait, in the guise of 'Mr Mak''s wife. She is to seduce Mr Yee and draw her to the house one of the troupe has secured - it is owned by his father - so that the young people can finish him off with guns. She fails. Mr Yee is sent back to Shanghai. Wong resumes her student life.

Three years later, Wong is again approached to operate as a spy, this time for the Communists. Again, Kuang is there to convince her of the plot's virtue. As a house guest, this time, in Mr Yee's domicile, Wong becomes like a member of the family. Mr Yee is quick to take advantage of the opportunity, and organises trysts during which he and Wong grapple passionately.

We're never sure if Wong is taking to her task with more than requisite abandon.

It's this uncertainty about Wong's true feelings that energises the movie. The crunch comes when she lures him to a jewellery shop where Mr Yee has bought her a large stone, and paid for it to be set. Even at this point - minutes from the end of the movie - we don't know if Wong loves Mr Yee.

But it is positive proof from Mr Yee that he loves her, that saves his own life.

For Wong and the gang - initially just earnest students committed to serving and preserving China against an alien invader - the story ends badly. For the viewer, even the final scene - an unmade bed shot with moody lighting - plays its part in the shadowy drama that has unfolded over the course of the film.

Ang Lee is a master, and this film a fitting reminder that great cinema is always possible.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Review: City of God, dir Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund (2002)

If you've ever been sick of watching Pulp Fiction and wondered what influence it has had on cinema, this film is a good place to look for the jaded movie buff. In fact, it improves on its predecessor by a long mile. At three hours it should have been a stretch on my patience, but the pace never lets up; the story is interesting; and the message is delivered with a driness to flatter Oscar Wilde's dead soul.

Starting in the 1960s, the film chronicles the rise and eventual implosion of a crime gange established by Li'l Dice, a hanger-on to a gang of three hoodlums who prey on the population of an outlying suburb of Rio de Janeiro called City of God.

After earning his stripes and quitting his hometown after murdering a number of people, Li'l Dice morphs into Li'l Ze, and slowly begins to take over the drug distribution racket in the area, a lucrative business.

Eventually he goes too far with his megalomaniacal posturing and makes an enemy out of Knockout Ned, who falls in with Li'l Ze's arch nemesis, drug dealer Carrot.

Meanwhile, Rocket has been struggling to find a peaceful way to escape poverty. In time, he sets his sights on becoming a press photographer - the story is based on a true account - and it's his final triumph in capturing the death of Li'l Ze on camera that cements our allegiance to him. The hero, in the end, is the one who passed up offers of wealth and glory on the streets, and who finds absolution for the crime of being poor in a respectable profession.

The film is sometimes horrifically brutal, so it's not suitable for children. But anyone else who desires an introduction to excellent cinema should watch. The film also provides a good introduction to the slums of South America.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

As talk hots up in Copenhagen for the UN's COP-15 gabfest, a number of interesting animations are appearing that illustrate the way climate change has altered our perception of human industrial activity. A month ago, Canadian artists Dale Hayward adn Silvie Trouve posted a video dubbed 'H2Oil' on Vimeo showing how the Alberta tar sands project is likely to play out as reserves of oil dwindle globally.

Hayward says in comments that the project took five months, this year, and they worked on a very low budget.

H2Oil is also the name of a documentary shot in Canada about the evils of the oil industry. Parts of Canada are major centres of oil development.

Monday, 7 December 2009

It's difficult to blame the media when things like this happen. Here's a story about an Indonesian soldier admitting that the journalists from Channel Nine and Channel Seven who were killed at Balibo in 1979 were killed on purpose. It had three readers when I read it.

Then there's a story about Keira Knightley, the British movie star, and how women are jealous of her. The story, by glamorous UK columnist Celia Waldren (pic), had 39 readers when I read it.

Both stories featured prominently on the web page. Admittedly the Knightley story had a picture.

It's really hard to criticise news outlets for giving in to the entertainment lobby when you see this kind of reader reaction.

Then again, it's not right for websites to be endlessly chasing clicks, is it? I mean, if we ascribed equal importance to each click, there would be no higher learning, and no hope of acquiring obstruse knowledge. But if newspapers only see how sex sells faster than human rights, there's no hope for human rights.

Let's hope the ABC's new opinion site, The Drum, lives up to our high expectations. Admittedly, it seems as though there's a bit too much emphasis on in-house writers. I prefer the format of Fairfax's National Times, where occasional writers get given a fair amount of prominence.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Putting the fox among the chickens? Will Barnaby Joyce - slated to join the shadow cabinet - be given the energy portfolio?

The announcement begs the question, just as it begs the question whether Joyce is being bought off by patronage. A silent Joyce is a harmless National Party, as the saying goes.

Ironically, on the same page of The Australian where this announcement appeared, there's a prominent ad by Shell Oil spruiking its green credentials. You can click through to watch any of four short video animations - with voice-over - to find out how Shell is "helping to prepare for the new energy future".

The one on CO2 management includes an earnest exhortation to support the legistation of measures to encourage energy producers to invest in "costly carbon capture and storage".

The colours used in this animation are mainly brown. But there's a green-themed animation that talks about 'energy diversity' - in this case the manufacture of fuels using sources other than crude oil. The light blue one is about 'energy security' and it gives a few choice details about exploration deeper under the sea and in colder conditions, as though these technological measures are meritorious, and to be applauded.

Then there's the dark blue one, which is about "changing behaviour" as part of an 'energy efficiency' drive by the company. And what is Shell doing to help people use less fuel? They are always trying to increase the energy efficiency of their plants - as though this were not an economic measure, but a moral one.

They also - apparently - "encourage customers to use more efficient fuels and lubricants". But, hang on, are lubricants actually 'fuels'? Well, no, but this is only a short animation - it's not a policy statement.

And then there's the Shell Eco Marathon that aims to "encourage teams from universities around the world to explore ideas that push fuel economy to the extreme".

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Review: Quarry Vision, Quarterly Essay issue 33 2009, Guy Pearse 

This no-nonsense appraisal of the state of government carbon trading at the beginning of 2009 is not only timely, it is a good read. Pearse's experience as a Liberal Party speach-writer, industry lobbyist and PR consultant places him at the nexus of right-wing government, commercial companies, and NGOs. In the era of Rudd and the Labor Party, says Pearse, the call for action from the Left needs to be just as loud.

He says that, under Rudd, nothing has changed from the Howard years. The coal industry is just as active in petitioning government via countless think tanks and industry groups, consulting firms and lobbyists, as it has ever been.

This force in society is pressing for special treatment, which Pearce says the Rudd government is delivering in the form of free carbon credits that average people will have to pay for. He also says that the targets set by Rudd are not much of an improvement over those offered by Howard.

In effect, Labor claims of "11 years of government inaction" can easily be countered with accusations of soft-pedalling on coal. New mines are announced regularly, new exploration leases are granted, new coal-loading terminals are built.

The only thing that would be really new would be to dispense with coal altogether.

Pearse says that, despite what people think, the demise of the coal industry would not damage the Australian economy all that much. Not only are most of the major players overseas-owned anyway - meaning profits get shipped elsewhere - but the fact that Australia could be perceived in the international community as a country committed to clean energy would lead to additional investment.

Not clean coal which, says Pearse, is a pipe-dream.

And it's not just the lobbyists who are putting pressure on the politicians. Howard-era bureaucrats remain in place, says Pearce, making change difficult. Like the lobbyists, these men and women are dedicated to extending the effective life of an industry - coal - which some of them helped to bolster in the 90s under previous Labor governments.

Too much human capital has been invested in the industry, Pearse says, for it to be abandoned now. Yet it must be abandoned, he says, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The coal shipped to China and India will not be burnt 'cleanly' and so Australia is acting like asbestos makers, he says, by supplying unethical operators with a product that will irretrievably damage the global environment within a few decades.

As the Copenhagen climate summit sponsored by the United Nations looms over the next couple of weeks, this Quarterly Essay makes for timely reading. We can only hope that Rudd's anemic emissions trading legislation will be dragged toward the top of its proposed reduction scale, of between five and 25 percent by 2020.

Anything else will be far too little, far too late.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Things change. What can seem an advantage one day turns out, the next, to be a liability. This is certainly the case in terms of high-speed rail technology, an area being targeted by the US government. But with the country so long enjoying cheap oil, it seems that underlying technologies required to build a HSR network can be sourced from overseas only.

Even China, usually seen as the recipient of advanced technologies developed elsewhere, is now talking with US companies about tech transfers.

This seems to be the plan for at least one U.S. company. According to Greenwire, General Electric Co.'s transportation division, GE Transportation, recently announced a new high-speed partnership with China's Ministry of Railways in an effort to "catch up to the rest of the high-speed world." The plan would help GE gain technical competency in high-speed rail technology while giving China a foothold in the U.S. market.

It's likely that those technologies originated in Japan or Europe. Japanese companies have won Chinese contracts to build HSR lines and stock them with cars, and German company Siemens is a major player in China's underground rail system.

Korean companies will undoubtedly have begun their HSR tech development efforts on the back of imported Japanese designs.

Why has Japan got such a lead in green technology? Because for so long it had to import all its oil. There are no oil fields in Japan or in its domestic waters, so all supplies came by sea, mainly from the Gulf states.

As a result of this need to constantly battle high energy costs, Japan has emerged as a major player in green technology.

And advances in anti-pollution technology that were legislated into use by the government following several high-profile cases of toxic poisoning, such as Minamata's mercury poisoning scandal, combined with energy-consciousness to propel Japan to the forefront of green tech over a period of a few decades.

When I worked there, in fact, we were constantly writing stories for the company's internal magazine that highlighted green credentials of clients.

We even coined a term - 'Enviramation' - and designed a new brochure displaying all of the company's green-tech installations in vivid colour, accompanied by short stories with details of how environmental savings had been made in Japan and overseas. The project fell through - this was in 1996 or so, before eco-tech became a matter for headlines - but the point had been made.

I'm sure the company continues to use its green credentials to get contracts. I haven't worked there for many years and there has been a lot of organisational change in the meantime.

But one thing is certain: Japan's green legacy was built on adversity.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch stated in a very positive manner that all of News Corp's websites would charge for access, as announced in The Australian.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that News Corp - Murdoch's flagship company - was in talks with Microsoft about switching all of its content to Bing, Microsoft's new search engine. Giving Bing exclusive access to News Corp content would deflate Google's boast of universal reach and unrivalled access to web information.

Now, Google has announced on its official blog that the number of free clicks by a single user accessing news from Google News would be limited to five.

If you're a Google user, this means that you may start to see a registration page after you've clicked through to more than five articles on the website of a publisher using First Click Free in a day.

In the past, a loophole existed whereby users could access paid-for content free if they clicked through from Google News. This loophole has now been closed, although publishers might argue that five clicks from Google News to a single news website is tantamount to allowing unlimited access. In future, Google's "five clicks" policy might change to "two clicks" or even less. We'll see.

At the talk given at a Federal Trade Commission workshop Murdoch also slapped down ideas about government subsidies.

"Good journalism is an expensive commodity," he said. He also said that the idea of government intervention "ought to be chilling to anyone who cares about free speech". It's bad enough for commercial publishers that Australians and Britishers can access free news via government-funded news sites. The last thing they want to see is a US government-funded option appearing.

Meanwhile, newspaper publishers gathered at The World Newspaper Conference in Hyderabad, India, have voiced dismay at the drop in their revenues, asking for "fair share, fair search",

meaning that content providers should be compensated even for very short strings of content and the search results should not be manipulated unfairly against the original content providers.

News publishers have also put a figure on the amount of news that is unlawfully "stolen" by other sites, who take the full article and apply advertising to it.

This is an extreme case, and far different from the Hyderabad publishers' contention that "providers should be compensated even for very short strings of content".

It brings up the assertion made by Murdoch (during a Sky News TV interview), and others (including APN News & Media Ltd chief executive Brendan Hopkins at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association conference held in Sydney), that bloggers excerpting information under 'fair use' legal rules could also - given new realities - be considered to be acting unlawfully.

If this view gained currency, then this blog would definitely be affected.

I can see how a blog post made here that excerpted content from, say, two or three paid-for websites, might be looked upon with a jaundiced eye by wary publishers.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Review: The Secret War, Jonathan Richards (2008) 

This "true history of Queensland's Native Police" chillingly reminds us of the cost of progress in the colonial era. Operating alongside the regular police force in Australia's north-east state, the Native Police were a paramilitary arm of government policy tasked with facilitating - at all costs to the despised Aboriginal population of the continent - the agrarian project of frontier expansion.

If you read the book, you will always look askance at golden memories of hardy settlers striving against the odds to tame the land. The land, the book reminds us, was already occupied.

The 1992 Mabo native title case and the 1996 Wik case on land subject to pastoral leases embody the concept of prior ownership. But how many had to die in the interim? Thousands of Aborigines were slaughtered, this book tells us, in the name of progress.

The book details recruitment of Aborigines to the Native Police as well as giving us an in-depth look at the kind of colonial corps heads - sub-inspectors - were recruited to lead them.

These men operated under trying conditions, as they were often forced to proceed in their forays on foot in tropical areas. Their main task was to "disperse" "Wild Blacks" - in other words to carry out reprisals against Aborigines who attacked either settlers or their stock, which was very valuable to them.

The lives of Aborigines were held very cheap indeed. Officially, every 'subject' of the realm had an equal right to peaceful enjoyment of the land, and was due equal protection under the law. In practice, the Native Police would exact retribution for aggression by riding into the camps of sleeping Aborigines at sunrise and shooting everyone they could see.

Then they burned the bodies. This final act was commensurate with the secrecy with which the activities of the Native Police were carried out - at all levels of the force. Even the euphemism "dispersal" carries inside it thousands of untold tales of pure horror and gross inhumanity.

The most common misdemeanour that was aimed at inspectors from the higher ranks was misuse of funds. When it came to killings, it was a case of 'don't say, don't tell'.

The force operated until the end of WWI. It was modelled on similar organisations operating in New South Wales and Victoria. Colonial authorities used locally-recruited police in all of the places where England held power during the 19th century. Local police forces were often particularly feared due to the thoroughness with which they carried out tasks.

In Queensland, Aborigines were often recruited from the southern states so that there would be no conflict of interest when it came to carrying out their savage duties.

Abuses included rape and kidnapping of children for domestic use and sexual slavery. Both Aboriginal recruits and White inspectors were complicit in these crimes.

The corps was issued with state-of-the-art weapons and trained in their use. They were not shy about employing them. Native Police also operated in South Australia (which included, at that time, the Northern Territory) and Western Australia. In Tasmania, the carnage led to the extinction of the Aboriginal occupants of the island.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Review: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt W Beyer (2009)

As one of the inventors of computer programming, Grace Hopper stood with her feet firmly placed on the surfboard of futurity that was riding the new wave of information processing. The book opens in 1944 when, immediately after Pearl Harbor, Hopper volunteered to join the military. A trained mathematician, she found herself in the Navy, looking after a giant, mechanical computer that used electromagnetic contacts to process information.

The building-sized behemoth was tasked with running calculations for the Manhattan Project. Hopper helped run the machine. With an academic background, she started to look for ways to improve its functioning and thus the first 'programs' were born.

After the war, she had a choice of companies and chose one that soon ran into management problems. It was bought by the Rand Corporation. But the new name didn't change Hopper's concerns and interests. As the machines we now know as computers became more and more popular, the need arose for more programmers. Hopper took up the baton and wrote compiler software, which she called 'automatic programming'.

The idea was to enable people without mathematical knowledge to program computers.

Her natural-language compiler was popular within her own company, and was used by customers who bought Sperry Rand computers, but International Busienss Machines (IBM) was soon the biggest manufacturer.

(Beyer puts this success down to IBM's winning a critical Department of Defence contract to build machines to process calculations for a huge, Cold War missile defense system. IBM was, in the 50s, just one of many manufacturers. The DoD contract helped it to quickly become the dominant provider.)

IBM and other manufacturers of computers, such as Honeywell, were busy making their own computer languages. Hopper saw that programming was becoming a major financial drain on customers and suggested setting up working groups to decide on a single, portable language for all computers.

COBOL, as the language was called, was based on the compiler language Hopper herself had developed while working at Sperry Rand.

Hopper fought against resistance from two parties. On the one hand, expert programmers said that the language wasn't elegant enough. It produced code that contained redundancies, and the compiling process took too much time.

On the other hand, she fought against rival manufacturers, who had spent money developing programming languages that looked to be superceded by COBOL.

Hopper's success, Beyer says, came from her strong links in the industry. She was able to convince key stakeholders - especially those in major customer groups, such as the military - that a natural-language compiler was essential as it would allow newbies to quickly become expert programmers. Especially within Defense, which relied on a rotation system for personnel assignment, ease-of-use was key.

She also got other programmers on-side. Having worked in a highly collaborative fashion for decades, Hopper was held in high esteem by the programming fraternity (and sorority). In a sense, then, she 'curated' the development of the first platform-agnostic programming language by marshalling the minds of hundreds of experts, customers, managers, and salespeople.

Even today, 80 percent of computer code is written in COBOL. The quality of the language is, says Beyer, a testament to Hopper's skill in diplomacy, and her hard work over many years establishing a high profile in a male-dominated industry.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

I wonder if I feel sorry for newspapers. Here we have online editors busting a gut to push out stories that people will want to click on, and all the while those same people are clicking on a hundred - or a dozen - different websites as they negotiate their way around the web. The agony of chasing clicks, while browsing readers simply follow their interests. It's a sad tale.

But I have little sympathy for newspaper owners who use dishonest language in their effort to combat the revenue losses. In the case of one newspaper owner, who is very vocal in the debate about eyeballs, the hypocrisy is jarring. Search engines "encourage promiscuity" rather than facilitate broad-ranging interests. Search engines are "stealing" from newspapers by profiting from the way people use the web to find things they care about.

In the case of this news proprietor, who is a political conservative, the irony is thick. That's because the conservative side of politics in Australia has secured ownership of the notion of "choice" through repeated use over a period of many years.

So while I sympathise with online editors who are trying very hard to make their front pages attractive and compelling, I do not like the way that this particular proprietor is trying to fight against 'choice' by complaining that his stable of newspapers has missed the boat.

Nobody told him to put news up for free, in the first place.

But freedom of information - in the economic, as well as the legal, sense - has always been part of the technology paradigm.

I'm reading a book right now - between bouts of social networking - about the pioneers of computing in the US. The book focuses specifically on the major players in the art of computer programming. It takes us back to the days - before the microprocessor - when computers filled entire buildings. But the underlying principles were the same.

It was an era of excitement and discovery. People like Grace Hopper, who was one of the first computer programmers ever, were not impressed by notions of property and commercial-in-confidence, as we learn by reading what author Kurt W. Beyer writes on page 238 of his biography:

The fact that Hopper wholeheartedly welcomed non-UNIVAC personnel to learn about the A-2 compiler sheds some light on her beliefs concerning intellectual property. Hopper did not view software as a commodity to be patented and sold. Rather, she took her cue from the mathematics community. Like most other academics, mathematicians shared information universally, in order to advance knowledge. Though individual efforts were acknowledged by colleagues, advancement in the field was contingent on a communal view of information, community validation, and evolutionary advancement based on previous work. In the same way, software, according to Hopper, was a public good to be shared freely among all users. Complicating software development with secrecy would only inhibit innovation. Learning from the Harvard Computation Laboratory's tendency to isolate itself from other computer developments, Hopper came to realise that a distributed network on inventors, each with his or her particular technical perspective, could sustain a faster rate of innovation in the long term compared to an individual inventor or even an isolated team of inventors.

Beyer takes his understanding of the historical record - gleaned by studying Grace Hopper and her colleagues in detail over a long period - to the next step, as we read next.

The freeware and open source movements of the present day preserve this doctrine. The roots, however, go back to Hopper and her team of distributed inventors.

Likewise, in an online emporium of distributed news-makers, each person circulating - using their web browser - on the complex grid, has opportunities to learn that our forebears never did. This raises certain ontological questions, such as the nature of the modern consciousness.

If we're all connected to this grid, and if we read broadly, what sort of citizens does that make us? Rather than sticking to one outlet, one newspaper with its ingrained viewpoints and biases, we're able to surf along the top of the swell of news. We end up back at the beach, of course, but we've had possibly a better ride.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

A new poet! Emma Jones is a poet to watch, we're advised by Peter Wilson writing in The Australian. A few things stack up to make the claim credible, the most important of which is that she's had a book published by the legendary British press for poets, Faber.

It's called The Striped World, and it's available now if you can tear your eyes away from the wide-screen in the lounge room and its images of Tiger Woods swinging his clubs. Didn't you know? The world's No. 1 golfer has had a minor traffic accident in Florida.

And don't get distracted by reports from the rugby field that the coach of the Wallabies is to front the board of the Australian Rugby Union to justify himself in the light of the team's poor on-field performance.

Don't get distracted by the myriad foibles and glories of professional sport, because Emma Jones - from Sydney's grimy inner west, no less - has nabbed the privilege of spending a few months sojourning in a cottage not far from where the king of Romantic poetry, William Wordsworth, lived and wrote 200 years ago. Yes, she has been "chosen ahead of 30 other applicants as this year's writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere in the Lake District", writes Wilson.

Are we up-to-date on poetry? Are we awake to the dynamic of the regular reading circuit in Sydney and Melbourne? Are we aware that Jones won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2005?

Do we care that she has now won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award as well as Britain's top award for debut poets, the Felix Dennis Prize?

While we're kept informed of the minutiae of professional athletes - their groin injuries, sex pecadillos, drunken car crashes, DUI charges, and marital troubles - the poets beaver away in complete obscurity until one day they are brought to light.

Hopefully, at this point, they don't just fade into the ink-stained background of the struggling publishing sector in Australia. No wonder Germaine Greer was acerbic when asked about Jones. Greer knows that Australians care not a fig for high culture, or the accolades those hoity-toity poms heap on our best and brightest.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull was confronted yesterday by the mass defection of frontbenchers protesting his soft line on carbon trading. He presented a strong persona during an ad-hoc press conference held at 7pm.

Journalists are sceptical he can survive.

In the heat of the moment, a string of frontbenchers resigned their portfolios. Barnaby Joyce, seasoned climate denier, appeared on Sky TV to slam Turnbull and the “massive new tax” that would eventuate if a carbon trading scheme were introduced.

He couldn’t see how introducing the “new tax” would help to reduce carbon emissions, and pooh-poohed Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong, labelling them “omniscient” – with a practiced sneer – for wanting to ‘do something, anything’ in advance of the COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen.

“This is about the future of our planet,” said Turnbull in the press conference.
By the end of the conference, Turnbull seemed confident that the amended climate change bill would pass in parliament. If he could retain the leadership, that is.

“My leadership was confirmed only yesterday,” he said. He tried to diminish the importance of what had happened in the Liberal Party room until a few minutes before the press conference began.

“We have to have a reshuffle anyway. What I’m going to do is assess all of that after the parliament rises, and I’ll let you know in due course.”

He came out punching at the beginning of his appearance, his trademark smile intact. He defended his position with the full weight of his native eloquence.

Turnbull said that he was asked to improve the CPRS, and he did. “We achieved enormous concessions from the government,” he said. “Many of you were surprised that the government made the concessions that they did.”

“Then the shadow cabinet endorsed that deal, the party room endorsed that deal.”

“We must maintain our credibility; we cannot be seen as climate sceptics.”

Turnbull admitted that it is a difficult issue for Australians, even those who only doubt the science. But the emissions trading bill is a matter of risk management, he said. He quoted Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch on risk management. Murdoch had said that we have to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.

“Australians expect their political leaders to act responsibly on climate change, to safeguard the future of our planet for our children. Anything else is irresponsible.”

Pundits and journalists dissecting events in the aftermath of the press conference speculated as to which would happen first: passing of the climate change bill or a change in the Liberal leadership.

Turnbull was asked by a journalist about the chance of another leadership spill motion.

“I came here to make Australia a better place,” he said. “And one of those issues is action on climate change. I am committed to real reform. You guys write about the numbers, I’m focused on the policy, I’m focused on our future.”

We’ll see what happens today. It’s unlikely it will be one of Turnbull’s best days.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

I wonder how Bill Hauritz, executive director of Queensland Folk Festivals, is taking to the news that the Splendour in the Grass music festival is moving from Byron Bay to Woodford, in the Sunshine Coast hinterlands.

Woodford is home to the annual Woodford Folk Festival, which this time runs from 27 December to 1 January. 'Splendour' runs for three days from July 30. So although there's no overlap, large crowds will come for both events.

While some Byron residents must be jubilant the massive event has located elsewhere - at least for two years - Bill must be uneasy. A recent report that ran on Queensland ABC News showed Bill walking unhappily around the venue complaining about roads, swereage, and other amenities.

"To just simply build electricity, roads, that I've talked about, has been a cost that's forced our debt levels up," says Hauritz. The festival raises $300,000 each year in profits, but maintenance costs are double that, organisers say.

Organisers have asked the public to pledge money to a fund for amenities investments, including a sewerage treatment plant. They want to raise $1 million.

"That's out there a bit, and hopeful," says Hauritz, "but we've always been an optimistic crew."

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Gavin Larkin, an advertising executive with Sydney-based marketing agency The Brand Shop, has turned to promotion to raise awareness about suicide - the great taboo. On opinion website The Punch, Larkin states that he wants to "directly address the 'taboo' and get people to confront and talk about suicide".

Elsewhere, on the website of digital marketing company Alpha Salmon, Larkin reiterates his message in a 24 November news release.

“Suicide is such a massive issue, but no-one talks about it. It’s a taboo subject. The irony is that to tackle it, we need to talk about it – that’s the idea of the campaign."

But I fear that Larkin is going to find entrenched views about the reporting of suicide in the media, where it is believed to be a no-no.

It's great that Larkin has decided to launch the R U OK website, which contains stories from people who have experienced suicide - everyone will come up against it at some point in their life.

But without the media on board, I can't see this initiative really 'taking off'. Every time there's a suicide, why don't we hear about it? Larkin personally spent time researching the problem, and this is what he found:

Every year it kills almost twice the amount of people than die on the roads. It has no prejudice - old, young, male female, rich, poor, city, country, black, white, Christian, Muslim, mentally ill, sane. It touches everyone.

But the stat that really pisses me off - which I find the most abhorrent for a place that can rightly claim to be the “Lucky Country”- is that for every person who takes their own life it is estimated between 10 to 15 try.

I remember when I was a young man, helping to put together a poetry magazine around the traps in Glebe, Sydney. There were a dozen or so of us, lead by a school teacher with a love of writing. We met above bookstores and in the first - as far as I know - combined bookstore/cafe. We edited, replied to correspondence, applied for funding, talked, wrote, distributed, organised printing, and completed layout in the days before computers arrived to automate the process.

It was a fun time. Nevertheless, one of the young men in our group killed himself. There was a sweet sadness around the ways as this piece of information was communicated to everyone who knew him. But did we ever talk about why? Were there stories in the local press to explain what had happened?

Nothing at all.

Changing this mindset would require something like proof that more information can help. I wonder if Larkin's push for greater transparency will contain enough momentum to shunt out of the way the accumulated prejudices of hundreds of reporters, editors, and publishers.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

An ambitious astroturf campaign by the American Petroleum Institute (API) was uncovered by Greenpeace in August during a Congressional recess. A front group called 'Energy Citizens', which has the same street address as the API, was manufactured by API using a widely-circulated memo to its membership.

The Energy Citizens website lists 285 organisations, including companies and peak bodies, that received the memo and decided to participate in rallies across the US. In the memo, the API promises to pay for transportation so that individuals representing members can minimise their up-front costs.

To be clear, API will provide the up-front resources to ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups.

The events management company would also provide public relations services, "providing a field coordinator in each state, conducting a comprehensive communications and advocacy activation plan for each state."

Company heads are encouraged to support employee participation.

What does the website say about this concerted, back-room effort to stimulate the fight against climate change legislation? Nothing. It provides a piece of predictable spin:

Energy Citizens is a nationwide alliance of organizations and individuals formed to bring together people across America to remind Congress that energy is the backbone of our nation’s economy and our way of life.

When Greenpeace got hold of a copy of the memo, it wrote a letter to the API asking for clarification and explanation. Of particular interest here is its request for help in understanding how its members had sought to support the Waxman-Markey Bill, while actively working to subvert it.

Naturally, large companies that have come out in favour of Waxman-Markey, such as Shell, BP America, ConocoPhillips, General Electric and Siemens, are not listed as participants. Greenpeace notes, however, that they are members of the US Chamber of Commerce, which is listed on the website.

The Spinwatch website has also posted on the subject, announcing the Angry Mermaid award, "set up to recognise the perverse role of corporate lobbyists".

The winner of the award will be announced in Copenhagen during the UN climate talks.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Review: Samson & Delilah, dir Warwick Thornton (2009) 

The film builds pace slowly and there is little dialogue to alleviate our puzzlement as Samson (Rowan MacNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) negotiate to secure a private space in a hostile world. Samson, especially, seems almost pre-verbal in his capacity to communicate with those around him.

People are poor not just because of how little they earn but because they are discriminated against and deprived, because they live in insecurity and are marginalised and excluded, and because their voices are not heard.

So says Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, addressing the National Press Club in Canberra last week.

Khan's piece is published online for those wanting to read it in its entirety.

In the film, Samson and Delilah are a young man and a young woman living in an outback settlement, in poverty. They are forced out of the settlement by adversity, in Delilah's case due to no failing of her own. They hit the road and land under a bridge in Alice Springs.

Samson, at one point is asked his name by a vagrant they cohabit the place with. "Sa ... sa ... sn" he says, forcing out the words against their will. Cut off from his community, he is rendered mute.

When walking down a street, a car stops and Delilah is accosted by two men, who force her into the car. His mind muddled by the petrol he sniffs as he walks, Samson doesn't hear a thing. In any case, Delilah doesn't cry out. Cut off from her community she, too, is rendered mute.

The two young people love each other but do not verbalise their feelings in a way that enables us to latch onto them, and share them, easily and readily. We are filled with unease, and we are perhaps not yet ready to face the implications of the problems the film presents to us.

It is only through glances, brief moments of physical contact, and the sobbing we hear as Samson sits, alone, beneath the concrete, that we appreciate the strength of feeling present in the relationship.

Thornton has done an extraordinary thing in making such a silent pair appealing. He has given a voice to those who are so marginalised as to be almost invisible, except in the form of disturbing headlines. It is time that we come to terms with this entrenched marginality. The movie can only help us to do this.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Review: Scoop, dir Woody Allen (2006) 

Set in a privileged version of London, the film successfully marries a crime thriller with classic Allen stand-up comedy, this time with the added boost of Scarlett Johansson doing excellent stand-up against Hugh Jackman's straight guy. The romantic drama between Sondra Pransky (Johansson) and Peter Lyman (Jackman) is a necessary device to propel the crime thriller, and helps to produce a lot of good gags that play on the rich-guy-dates-eager-ingenue trope, complete with expensive bauble and champagne between the sheets.

Johansson is surprisingly good in the role of the earnest student reporter, Pransky, who meets up with dead investigative reporter Joe Strombel (played with comic brilliance by a handsome, if slightly gnarled, Ian McShane). Strombel has met up with the ex-secretary of Lyman on a boat crossing the River Styx in the afterlife, and she has given him a potential scoop. While waiting inside the magic booth of The Great Splendini (Allen), Pransky meets Strombel's ghost - the dead journo is stubbornly "cheating death" in order to make the scoop real - and is given a few details about what could turn out to be a big story.

Pransky and Splendini (whose real name is Sid Waterman) kick into gear, with Waterman pretending to be Pransky's dad while they con Lyman into inviting Pransky (who adopts the name Jade Spence) to his country estate. A romance develops between hunky Lyman - who Strombel believes is a notorious killer called 'The Tarot Card Killer' - and Pransky/Spence.

It's a Shakespearean plot, with extra nuts and a generous dose of Allen's best whacky-syrup. The comedy is excellent from both Allen and Johansson.

All the pretending and false relationships makes you think, inevitably, of Allen's own saga, relating to his wife Soon-Yi.

There's further interest in his treating journalism as though it were some form of magic act. Waterman's inevitable schtick of sincere gratitude toward his audience - played out in the same way each time and at every opportunity - sits uneasily against the business of reporting. It's as though journalists are some sort of performers who never play to their audience without injecting a solid dose of flattery.

Allen has had a lot of experiece with journalists, so I assume that his 'take' on the profession - as expressed in this movie - contains more than a grain of truth. It should be noted that the worker's union that covers journalists, in Australia, also caters to clowns and prostitutes.

Enough said about THAT!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Bringing attention to an unpleasant fact can make you unpopular. In this case, the unpleasant fact is discrimination faced daily by Egyptian Nubians, as we discover by reading a story from The Guardian published on the website of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe has included racist lyrics in a song, Where Is Daddy?, we are told by the Egyptian Nubian Association for Law, which has brought an action against the release.

Where is my teddy bear and the Nubian monkey?

Her dismay and a denial "has not stopped a group of Nubian lawyers submitting an official complaint to Egypt's public prosecutor and calling for the song to be banned".

She says that 'Nubian monkey' is the name of a children's game in Lebanon.

People on the street claim that the song has meant their children are fearful of attending school as they will be called "monkeys".

But the problem does not lie with the attractive singer. According to Jack Shenker, who wrote the story, Nubians are not portrayed positively in popular culture. They "remain largely invisible on television and film, except as lampooned stereotypes".

Egypt's government, he says, "has traditionally promoted a monolithic brand of nationalism, sometimes to the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities".

So a beautiful singer from a foreign country (where 'Nubian monkey' is the name of a children's game, she says) is attacked by minority rights activitsts because the minority they represent is routinely denigrated in their country of birth.

They are throwing rocks at a mirage, ignoring the atmosphere that is its real cause.

Friday, 20 November 2009

While federal Labor takes credit for Australia’s stellar economic performance compared to other OECD countries, the government continues to rubber-stamp development of the coal mines that are responsible for the country’s economic strength.

A week ago, Environment Minister Peter Garrett said ‘No’ to the Traveston Dam, due to be constructed in SE Queensland against solid opposition from locals. But The Australian reports today that:

THE resources industry has shrugged off the world downturn, increasing the value of committed resource projects to a record $112.5 billion.

And there is a big increase in the number of new projects undergoing feasibility testing.

The story on page 6 details new coal developments, including the Kevin’s Corner thermal coal project, in Queensland.

Despite the global focus on climate change, coal developments dominated the new listings, with 18 new projects announced.

Big projects designed to ease the bottlenecks that choked exports during the boom are close to commissioning, including a new $1.1bn coal terminal and the $456m expansion of an existing terminal at the Port of Newcastle.

The $818m expansion of the coal loader at Dalrymple Bay in Queensland will be completed in 2011.

On the same page another story, ‘Mining boom spills into rents’, tells us that rents in the NSW country town of Gunnedah have risen by $50 a week since last year. The influx of engineers is due to the size of a coal seam in the Gunnedah Basin.

The basin has one of the world’s largest underground coal seams and is regarded as being on par with Australia’s largest offshore find, the $50 billion Gorgon gasfields off Western Australia.

It’s a pity that these stories are located in page 6. Placing them on page one would seem an ideal way for the conservative broadsheet to attack federal Labor in a sensitive spot.

Even more ironic, perhaps, is that a third story on the same page talks about the Victorian government’s successful public-private partnership capital raising exercise, which closed recently. The refinancing of Victoria’s desalination plant was the largest PPP in the world since the GFC started last year.

As a result of federal Labor stopping the Traveston Dam development in Queensland, it seems likely that the Queensland government will move to build two desalination plants. Sunshine Coast residents are already planning a counteroffensive. I wonder if the federal minister will stop them going ahead.

It seems unlikely since the successful construction of a desal plant in Sydney last year.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The good news about news and the bad news about news continue to emerge. While media academic Dan Gillmor ponders a new Hawaii news startup backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, we hear that New York has lost nearly 60,000 communication jobs since 2000.

In that year, communications employment peaked. Then the Internet dragon started to bite. Elsewhere, we learn that newspaper ad spend dropped by 50 per cent from 2000 to 2009.

No wonder News Corp is upset. The Sydney Morning Herald reports today that "web users [of The Times of London] will have access to the newspaper's website as part of their general subscription fee or pay a fee to download as many stories as they like during a 24-hour period".

The paper's editor is quick to express reservations about the scheme, possibly in an effort to head off expected criticism.

''You have to be very careful with article-only economics. You will find yourself writing a lot more about Britney Spears and a lot less about Tamils in northern Sri Lanka,'' Mr Harding was quoted in The Guardian as telling an industry conference in England.

Fear of tablodisation is hardly something that News Corp watchers would expect to hear expressed, but we remember that The Times, after all, is a quality broadsheet. We'd expect the editor of such a vehicle to be sensitive to reader concerns.

News Corp is leading old media's sallies against the Internet's gradual erosion of profitability. The announcement represents hard evidence of what is in store. But fear among publishers of further erosion even of slim web advertising revenues means they are likely to tread gingerly.

The New York city comptroller's report about job losses also points to similar declines in other US cities.

On the positive side of the viability equation, the Hawaii-based Peer News has yet to announce concrete moves.

Peer News will operate in the leanest possible way compatible with doing solid journalism and community information. It will involve social media in a big way as well. (The Omidyar Network, the investing and charitable arm of Pierre and his wife, Pam, has been deep into socially valuable media for a long time. Count on them bringing what they've learned into Peer News.)

Plainly, the Hawaii launch is a test bed, in part. If it works, expect more local versions in other places.

Laid-off US journalists will greet such developments with sceptical interest, I'm sure.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

My mother has given me a set of cutlery that she doesn't want any more. The design is heavy in the handle. I noticed the difference when I had lunch at her place today, during which we used a new, slim style set of knives and forks.

Mum is 80 this year and has severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine). It's pushing her organs out of alignment and in the past week or so has started to cause her pain in the shoulder. She takes pain killers daily to combat the unease it generates. It's hard to sleep with chronic pain.

But she still visits dad in the nursing home, where he was placed a few months ago due to advanced Alzheimer's disease. She prefers to go there in the morning, as sometimes he gets a bit nasty after lunch is over and the afternoon has started to wear on.

Mum has started to plan her first solo voyage, but she's talking with her best mate, Georgette. They would go together. The idea is to take a cruise liner to Western Australia and travel back by train.

I'm not sure when she plans to do this, but I'm already planning what to do over the quiet time around Xmas and the New Year. Dad's memoir, titled 'Growing', is dated 2002. Tonight I picked up a selection of CD-ROMs mum had stored away. Each has a version in it. It's my plan to compare them to find the most recent version, and offer it to a publisher.

Then there's dad's old Toshiba laptop, which contains a bunch of files he used to work on until he became unable to concentrate on anything too demanding.

Mum is planning to ask a local computer guy to put the editable files onto CDs so that we can take stock of the computer's contents. Then we'll just put the old machine back in the garage.

It's full of stuff, plus mum's new Toyota. It's a silver Corolla and she seems to enjoy it. The pain makes enjoyment of anything problematic, however. Let's see what the publisher says, I tell her. We'll talk to them and decide how much editing we want to subject the manuscript to.

I think dad would be sorta chuffed to know that his words are destined for print. Tho he may have had something to say about wasting a perfectly good set of cutlery on a grown man; but that's another story.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Today was my first time to visit the University of Queensland and we arrived by car at about 9.30am. But we missed the activity that must have accompanied the drug raid that took place early in the morning.

In fact, we drove along Sir Fred Schonell Drive, where part of the raid occurred, to get to the campus.

Located at the tip of a promontory created by a typical bend in the Brisbane River, the University of Queensland is full of space and green swards. You go up and down a series of hills as you negotiate the roads running over the campus.

It's just odd that this raid should take place today. Odd in an eerie way, that is.

Monday, 16 November 2009

I got to thinking about non-profit journalism and its possible future impact on the profession recently. A number of elements combined to spur this train of thought, which is centred around resuscitating journalists' flagging reputation.

We all know that journalists are among the general population's least-favourite citizens. They consistently rank low on the popularity scale. In fact, last time I looked, they come in just above politicians, lawyers, and used-car salesmen.

Isn't it time something was done to address this dismal record?

Maybe now that Rupert Murdoch appears so concerned about the massive drop in his newspapers' profitability, we can anticipate a return to acclaim. But wasn't it ever thus, you say? Weren't hacks always reviled?

You can point with as much unrestrained pride, if you like, to the essential service that journalists provide in the community. After all, the freedom of the press is enshrined, in the US, in the constitution's first amendment. In Australia, legal recognition came later - as part of the high Court's 1997 ruling in the Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation case.

It was found that press freedom is implied in the constitution. Without press freedom to publish at any time, representative democracy cannot exist.

This is a negative affirmation of a right, but it is critical. Nevertheless, it seems that journalists have always been considered unethical, rapacious, over-eager, and prone to salivating over the prospect of a good story at the expense of everything else, including propriety.

News has been big business for a long time, but not as long as the press has been a public bug-bear. Ben Jonson's play, The Staple of News, was first performed in 1626. Even then, press people had a bad rep to fight.

But with the marriage of big business and the press came further cause of anger, as media bosses with an agenda to promote used their companies and their reporters to push a line. Nobody who reads The Australian today can be ignorant of this.

If business gets so bad that big media companies simply collapse due to lack of cashflow, will we be left with purely non-profit vehicles? Can this help to inject some much-needed credibility into the profession of journalist?

It remains to be seen. In any case, in Australia and the UK, we have viable - and respected - public media companies that will do anything to increase their share of the public's attention. It will be interesting to see if the reputation of the ABC takes a hit when its market-share increases.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Review: Mary and Max, dir Adam Elliot (2009)

"This is telling the real feelings of human beings. And those feelings in real life most of the time are unspoken," says my best mate. "I think everyone who watches the film will be touched by the sensitivity."

I tend to agree with her. It's not often that you both cry and laugh while watching a single film. But Elliot had me chortling, guffawing and snickering. He also had me tearing up and getting rheumy.

Elliot's subtle clay work is perfect for telling this tender story of loss and redemption. Everything is a bit off-centre, bent, twisted, and droopy. Even Barry Humphries' voice - the narrator is one of Australia's most famous comedians (even though, like a lot of famous Australians, he lives in the UK) - slides and rasps its way through the quirky script like an Emery board across the top of a ripe pumpkin.

Starting when Mary - a plain girl from Melbourne's suburbs - is eight years old and ending with the final exit of fat, clinically-unstable Max, the film gives you a lot of reasons to be content. Good art always does.

And this is definitely art, and not merely cinema.

Claymation is a demanding medium, I imagine. But Elliot makes it look easy. I think that he really enjoys his craft. I also think that he doesn't mind spending years on a single project.

Mary's life is full of dissatisfaction and reaching out to a middle-aged New Yorker gives her solace. She copes better becuse of her new friendship. Max, on the other hand, finds Mary's questions alarming. After getting out of hospital, he starts writing again, but Mary betrays their friendship by writing her thesis on Asperger's Syndrome - the condition Max is afflicted with - and then publishing it.

Mary's reaction to Max's anger is equally severe. She descends into a depressive state, loses her husband, and attempts suicide. Finally, she's saved by Max, who sends a large parcel filled with cartoon figurines, as an act of forgiveness.

When Mary visits New York with her baby strapped to her back and loaded down by two red suitcases, she finds that Max was a true friend. Poor, loyal Max has laminated all of Mary's letters and taped them to the ceiling of his apartment.

Mary even finds the bottle of tears she had sent Max once, when she discovered that he didn't have such an ability.

It's a poignant moment. On Max's yarmulke, the red pompom Mary had sent him as a pre-teen, still adheres.

Elliot won an Oscar for the film that preceded this one, and I hope that the world sends out a similar signal this time. The man deserves all the encouragement that we can give him. Hopefully, given enough time and money, Elliot will find inside him the will needed to create another wonderful film for us all to enjoy.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Review: State of Play, dir. Kevin Macdonald (2009)

Russell Crowe is excellent as the hard-boiled journo, Cal McAffrey, in this dark-coloured, brooding, slightly-grungy film that details illegal collusion between politicians and a giant, private defense contractor called PointCorp.

McAffrey's colleague and occasional side-kick in the drama is the perky, ironic Della Frye (played by Rachel McAdams), a society blogger who also works at the struggling masthead, The Washington Globe.

The paper is led by a frazzled-looking Helen Mirren playing Cameron Lynne, the editor-in-chief.

The action opens with an attempted double-murder, with a junkie causing mayhem as he runs to escape his pursuer. He thinks he has got away but takes two slugs. A passing cyclist is hospitalised.

The next morning, congressional researcher Sonia Baker falls under a train and is killed.

McAffrey swings into action trying to tie together the two cases in the face of heavy objections from Lynne, who is trying to hold off pressure from the newspaper's new owners to publish schlock.

The experienced journalist and the fresh, young writer spend a few scenes bouncing off one another as they take stock of their new relationship. In time, they pull together against the common foe: tabloid journalism. McAffrey is lucky; the first break coming when his bag is stolen by a drug-addict who leads him to a set of photos showing the dead researcher from the point of view of a stalker.

Congressman Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck) is an old friend of McAffrey's. The two of them settle into a routine of misunderstanding and recrimination as they try to uncover the truth.

Cracking a big story like the one we begin to sniff out as the story unfolds is a reporter's dream. Unfortunately, the characters are just a little too wooden and two-dimensional. Cagey congressman George Fergus (played by Jeff Daniels) doesn't hold enough menace, and the PointCorp executive (played by Tuck Milligan) is not sleazy enough.

The best of the bunch, in my view, is Dominic Foy (played by Jason Bateman), a washed-out PR flack who drives a big, black, shiny car but has no spine. The scenes with Foy and McAffrey in the seedy Americana Hotel are a high point.

It all unravels pretty fast once Foy starts to spill what he knows.

There's also a breathless, long scene in the garage of a large apartment building, with McAffrey struggling to evade a rogue militiaman, Robert Bingham (played by Michael Berresse). He is finally saved by a family of loquacious Chinese-Americans whose SUV's rear window is shattered by bullets as it careens out of the garage with McAffrey clinging stoicly to the window frame.

There's action and there's corruption. What else does a film about journalists need?

Well, there's McAffrey's essential humanity. Despite what he's told, McAffrey doesn't become jaded. He remains able to buy a can of soft drink for an indigent young woman and he seems to have friends all over the city.

He's clearly a man who likes people. It's a good model for a journalist.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Over at The Punch, the recently-launched opinion blogsite of News Ltd, there's a post by Robert Todd, "an Australian lawyer at Blake Dawson who (outside his engaging and challenging legal practice in media and IT disputes) is involved in the debate to improve press freedom in Australia".

It's about compassion and, specifically, a new initiative, Charter for Compassion, that seeks to inject a bit of loving-kindness into international debates. And, presumably, spur people everywhere to act in a more compassionate manner.

The blog post has so far attracted only two comments, one from Brian Giesen, who works at advertising outfit Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence.

The comment contains a link to a video the unit produced showing takes from interviews with various warm bodies. They're talking about compassion. Sometimes they mean empathy, which is different but related to its more warm-blooded confrere.

A number of the people interviewed are social media mavens and the unit, in any case, has as its raison-d'etre the development of online - specifically, social media - ties.

I didn't set out to test whether social media types are more compassionate or empathetic, but it happened that, as I took a lie-down this morning, a thought recurred which has been trying to imprint itself in my mind for a few weeks.

So I tweeted it.

I lie down in bed and my thoughts become moist with the spray of my dreams.

I guess it occurred to me that this sally might attract some censorious replies. I don't really remember. However, I wasn't surprised when I got two replies:

10:14am, Nov 13 from Tweetie ewwww ...

10:19am, Nov 13 from Web oooh, yuk!

I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed. This isn't empathy, I thought to myself as I hung out the washing to dry on the line at the back of my building. This is something else. It's something I read about recently but ... no, I don't recall the place.

People may behave online, in social media, in a way that does not accurately reflect their normal, day-to-day personas. Because it is all about persona: those simulacra of ourselves that we project - in this case - into the twitterverse or whichever social media platform we prefer.

What is this manner? How can we characterise it? Is it cruel? Is it unkind? Is it flippant and unthinking? Is it a sort of teen bumptiousness? I recall a DM I got recently.

7:14am, Nov 09 Sometimes social media reminds me of high school. Have to have a thick skin. Post, no one responds, u wonder if you're wasting time.

Going back to the new CFC initiative, we read:

In our globalized world, everybody has become our neighbor, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.

The 'golden rule' being, of course, that you treat others as you would have them treat you. I wonder if my recent interlocutors had this principle in mind when they disparaged my earnest tweet.

CFC was established by Karen Armstrong, a religion writer I've posted about on numerous occasions on this blog. She's normally in the news because they've banned one of her books in some second- or third-world country. It's nice to see her in the news for a positive, rather than a negative, reason. Let's hope that the CFC, which wants to "change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse", can also encourage people to be more empathetic.

It's not enough to believe strongly. You've also got to honestly test your approach against a yardstick, like compassion or empathy, to see if you're not just adding to the problem.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Facebook's 'Home' link is proving to be an enormous FAIL due to the horrendously inconvenient fact that, when clicked, it gives you the 'News Feed' instead of the 'Live Feed'. You don't know the difference? Well, here's the good oil direct from Facebook itself:

News Feed aggregates the most interesting content that your friends are posting, while Live Feed shows you all the actions your friends are making in real-time.

IOW, 'News Feed' is an algorithm-driven subset of the 'Live Feed'. It's what Facebook's mathematicians think is "most interesting" to you. As such, it is perfectly useless.

'News Feed' went out to users at the end of last month. However, I cannot recall experiencing the frustration that I'm subject to now, as a result of continually having to click 'View Live feed' after clicking 'Home'. I'm starting to feel as though I've contracted some sort of behavioural tic.

It's extremely annoying.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Jonathan Holmes said "pwned" (pron 'powned' as in 'Edgar Allan Poe') last night on Media Watch. It was a great moment in the history of convergence, a moment celebrating the point at which the audience comes to participate in the media process.

'Pwned' is a word many will be unfamiliar with. It comes from video gaming, and seems to have begun as a spelling mistake included by a software coder in a game's code. The word that was meant to go in was 'owned' (as in 'totally owned' or possessed, beaten, made subject). So gamers playing would see "pwned" resulting from a completed stage, in the event of victory.

That's my understanding, anyway.

Holmes' final program for 2009 finished with the utterance of this word, which pops up frequently in Twitter hashtag streams, where people dicsuss the program as it screens. I used to participate in the stream, but I find it a bit exhausting and distracting to do two things at once. So I stopped.

I did get the gist. The word "pwned" was also accompanied, frequently, by another hashtag, "pwnednudierun". It seems that the idea is that, if Holmes uses the word on-screen, participants in the hashtag stream promise to go into the street naked and run around the block.

So when Holmes used the word last night, that's exactly what happened. Here's an example: Scott Bridges on Groupthink. More pics at link.

Monday, 9 November 2009

I feel for Tom Tudehope, who has been implicated in a Downfall-spoof video that lampoons a Liberal Party factional battle in language that, frankly, most people would not understand.

It's full of 'in' jokes the meaning of which 99.99 percent of Australians would be oblivious to. Until it was pointed out to them in the Sydney Morning Herald article linked to above.

Tudehope's name emerged in the online world only recently, when Malcolm Turnbull gave it out during the Media140 conference held in Sydney last Thursday and Friday.

As editors handling a piece by Karl Quinn, The Age's entertainment editor, put it, "He who lives by the cutting-edge dies by the cutting edge".

The online world is liable to deliver shocks of this nature, because so much is on view all the time. There's no place here for those who don't stand by their words and actions. Gumption - or fortitude - is a base requirement.

Even for me, running a blog can be a liability. In fact, I've published things here that have come back to bite me. And sometimes it hurts.

This morning, for example, a post I made this year came back to haunt me because I was in the process of getting a piece published when my colloquitor came across it and decided to "hold off". I was shocked because the disagreement chronicled referred to a piece originally pitched to the website that was quite unrelated in subject, and the correspondent was even different.

So I know something of what Tudehope is feeling. The shock this kind of thing produces is physical, not only mental. It causes pain - and it's meant to. But blogging is fun and that's why people do it.

They don't do it to make enemies or to score points. Most bloggers do it because they care deeply about what they write about. It matters that debate be open and fair. It matters that the issues be more important than pride. It matters because - to paraphrase Jay Rosen, who spoke via videolink at the Media140 forum - you "think democratically".

That's why you want to be a journalist.

Maybe that's why Tudehope - who denies involvement in a "trail of emails" - or whoever made the Downfall-spoof, did it. They are passionately invested, personally involved, and committed to something they believe in.

Good luck, Tom, and don't forget to keep tweeting.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Olympus DSS Player is less contentious than sex education in secondary schools, which is the topic I had initially selected for today's blog post. It's a great tool for journalists who don't have shorthand, especially if you buy the model with the foot-pedal controller.

While I fulsomely agree with improving sex education in secondary schools, and deplore objections from Catholic schools head Dan White, I'm just so sick of the media's aggressive language and conflict-driven methodology for stories on social subjects. So instead of writing, at length, about how sick the whole debate makes me feel, I thought I'd try to say something positive.

After all, new ways to improve your worklife are uncontentious, though hopefully not unpreposessingly bland. The DSS Player has changed my life.

I was going to attend j-school for a few months to learn shorthand but then the move up here to Queesland scotched that. Instead, I found another way to alleviate the massive sensation of irritation I used to feel whenever it came to contemplating a large transcription job.

Getting words into a WP file is 100 times easier, now, with the foot-operated DSS Player.

To remove the recording from the VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder, I just plug it into a USB port. The Olympus Digital Wave Player opens automatically and the file gets transferred by the driver software into a folder that is created automatically for the purpose of holding the file. The folder is dated. The file on the recorder can now be automatically deleted - you must use a pre-set in the Wave Player interface.

Then you open up the DSS Player software and place the window on the screen near the Wave Player window. You just drag the file across to the DSS Player, which has several folders available for temporary file storage.

The foot pedal playback unit sits on the floor under my desk, and is connected to the back of the computer via a USB port. Once you highlight a file inside the DSS Player window, you just step on the right-hand pedal of the controller and playback starts.

So instead of twiddling with the tiny buttons of the VN-960PC Voice Recorder, I can use both hands to type while playing the recording using my feet on the control pedals.

There's a rewind pedal as well. In addition, the DSS Player interface shows with an indicator where you currently are located in the recording, so it's easy to move back and forwards. And it's easy to go back to a location you want to hear again.

After completing a transcription, I drag the file out of the DSS Player interface into a storage folder along with the other files for the story, so they're all stored together, for future reference. This way, if I ever need to find the file again, it's very easy to do so.

Recently, I transcribed about an hour's-worth of recordings in less than two hours. This facility lets me concentrate on writing immediately, instead of breaking off work and coming back to do the actual writing later. It's a huge efficiency.