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Friday, 31 December 2010

I've never understood the story of Lot's Wife who, fleeing Sodom, turned back to reflect on the destruction meted out by God on the mortal inhabitants of that fabled place, or that of Eurydice who, saved from Hades by Orpheus, her husband, is returned to that place when he looks back at her face before they reach the upper world again. These travel stories seem to tell us to merely obey, or to avoid counting chickens until they're hatched, or to be humble in success. Or something. But all of these surmisings are highly proscriptive and unsuited to the era of enquiry in which we now live. Inquisitiveness is a virtue, right? So, then, reflection must also be favoured by the gods. Some evidently think it is, especially at this time of year when the media is filled with lists of the "ten best" and nods in the direction of fulfilled destinies - the past - whence we have ventured like the lost souls we possibly are.

It's funny, too, that in all these old stories from antiquity and from Christian writings it's the woman who is chastised by the gods for transgressing. We all know that women have better memories than men, just as we know that men have a better spatial sense (a better sense of direction in the physical world). Is a woman who remembers a past slight a Harpie to be judged with a stern lens, turned into stone, returned to the infernal realm? And what about Pandora's box? Always, it seems, men have written the script for all of us to act out. Women have been demonised for centuries. Is it now time for them to take the their place in the front rank? Perhaps.

One woman who came out of left field to take a place of prominence - in the field of sport - this year was Jessica Watson who, at 17, became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe unassisted and without making landfall in a sailing boat. Another woman who made headlines this year in Australia was Julia Gillard, whose superior negotiating skills came to the fore when she successfully convinced unaligned members of parliament who had been given a secondary franchise after the August election, which returned a hung parliament, to side with Labor in preference to the other side of politics. There are no doubt other stories available in which women came out ahead in the mainstream lists, reorganising, at least partially, our concept of the world we live in. But regardless, we know that men still earn more than women for identical work and that women are underrepresented on corporate boards. The die are still loaded.

They're falling in propitious arrangements for me, albeit with an unassuming shift. This is a conclusion I could come to if I were to look back on the past year, during which I published about 30 stories commercially having taken the plunge and gone freelance. Many of the editors I have dealt with over the year have been women, and they're certainly not retiring when it comes to giving an opinion. But the two editors who take most of my work currently are both men.

So, it's been a year of goals reached and expectations rewarded by some tokens of general regard (including the baseline reward of money) despite the fact that I have limited myself to stories of a certain nature (it's necessary to do this as a freelancer in order to conserve one's focus; a too-broad net, if cast, can leave you exhausted and confused) that place me to one side of the mainstream. It's impossible to avoid locating yourself somewhere along the ideological spectrum; the mere fact of your topic choices does this for you.

I don't know what awaits me in the new year arriving but to prepare I took some time off at the end of this one: a couple of weeks during which I put other parts of my life in a better state of order than they had been in before. Banzai!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Review: The Sixties, Jenny Diski (2009)

This articulate and thoughtful little primer on the historical period reaching from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s contains more dress label names and album covers than dates and the names of important people. But it's easy to read. It's not comprehensive (it doesn't pretend to be). It's more of a sketch than a compendium, but it's no less satisfying for that.

Diski, a writer born in 1947, muses on the reason for the rise of alternative lifestylers in the 60s. The war had ended but the world was in more trouble than ever with a frightening Cold War in train, unrelenting economic hardship in many countries, and then the debacle of Vietnam. The state, in the UK, had decided to provide the means of support in the form of generous social security payments so that young people didn't have to work if they didn't want to. There was money and there was the occasion; it was practically inevitable after the optimistic 1950s and amid the post-war economic boom.

Relying on the method of memoir more than history, Diski attempts to describe what it was like being part of the new generation who dropped out, tuned in and turned on. Her personal journey included involvement in protest rallies, stints in mental institutions to treat depression, and then a reaching out into the field of teaching in an attempt to find a way to really change the way people thought about their lives and so change the very structure of society. By addressing the problems of youth, Diski thought, a real change was possible for the future. So in a sense this is a fairly personal account of the period, but I see no reason why that makes it any less cogent for a contemporary reader.

Diski also spends quite a lot of time reflecting on "what went wrong". Specifically, why did the Thatcher era of rampant materialism and individualism result from the 60s. Here, she asks many questions but does not come up with a solid answer. The reason might be that the impetus to reform became entrenched and made its way into the modus operandi of those on the conservative side of politics, thus leading to neoliberalism. But Diski leaves the question unanswered, for now.

This book is refreshing, modest, anecdotal and thought-provoking, and so comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Review: Collapse, Jared Diamond (2005)

This book has been available for a number of years. I first heard about it while travelling in the Sydney CBD: it must have been on the car radio in 2006, an interview with the author perhaps. A few years later I decided to change careers and become a journalist and I have concentrated on a small number of subjects including the environment. So it was natural for me to buy and read this book. Many people have done the same thing. But I was surprised at how impressed I was once I started.

Briefly, Diamond sets out to expose the reasons behind a series of societal collapses that have occurred at various times in history beginning with the Easter Island society. They cut down all the trees and their culture imploded. He then moves on to the Norse settlement of Greenland which collapsed for similar reasons. No trees equals loss of topsoil which leads to crop failure and starvation. There are other cases including the Maya and the Anasazi, a culture that prospered in the south-eastern United States a thousand years ago. They all collapsed for the same reason: no trees equals starvation.

So far so good. The best parts of the book enable you to look in detail at how these untoward events occurred. Surprising, too, is the number of insights Diamond gives into how our own society is faring on planet Earth. We, too, are chopping down trees at a great rate. Are we doomed to societal collapse, too? That remains to be seen. There is no doubt, however, that generalised changes in society's thinking since the 1980s especially in the area of environmentalism have begun to throw out promising tendencies. It remains our challenge to promote them so that we may cope with the significant challenges that lie ahead in the current century.

What seems likely is that Diamond's book will continue to attract attention from commentators of the left who will use it as a warning against complacency and greed. Short-sightedness in the face of looming catastrophe was a characteristic of former civilisations that ultimately failed and so we should be wary of falling into a similar trap. Rather than merely taking into account the economic advantages of a proposal - be it a government policy or a new enterprise - it seems that we need to also take into account its impact on biodiversity. That's why Diamond's book seems to endorse such initiatives as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN initiative, which is currently attempting to bring into public focus biodiversity as a valuable resource. Without it we might just follow the societies Diamond chronicles and stop functioning. Chaos is the only likely result.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Northern Mexico is the locus of a modern media echo chamber where global press outlets constantly practice their synchronised routines in condemning drug-connected violence as, almost daily it seems, another slaughter occurs under the noses of local civil authorities. Remarkable this October was news that a 20-year-old student named Marisol Valles was the only candidate willing to take up the position of police chief in the town of Praxedis. But the war on drugs is simply not working.

Back in 2009, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Washington DC, released a report it had comissioned on Portugal's decriminalisation of drug use. Several press outlets covered the paper but there was little traction in the broadsheets, let alone the ghastly tabloids.

In 2011 I think it's time to take another look at the options available, keeping in mind that, in Portugal, the nightmare scenarios predicted by the chorus of conservative doom-sayers just did not eventuate. Switzerland and Holland also have liberal laws regarding drug use. In the US, the standard-bearer for the War on Drugs, live 25 percent of the world's criminals, despite the fact that the country only has five percent of the world's population. Trillions of dollars have been spent in the battle for supremacy against the drug barons, but there has been precious little to show for all the expense. And a lot of dead bodies. It's time to take the trade away from dealers and put it into the hands of corporations.

This is a sight further than even Portugal has ventured but it is, I believe, the only way to stop the carnage, the jailings and the pain. Drugs are certainly not to be recommended: rational speech is. (There are other, better ways to minimise the pain of living.) By continuing to allow dealers to run the trade, the authorities are merely pushing the money underground. People will always want to find a way to reduce existential pain. So let's remove the stigma attached to drugs and talk rationally about the problem. Our children will thank us.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Whatever else the end of the year has in store for residents of south-east Queensland there's one thing for sure: it's going to keep on raining for the forseeable future.This picture shows the Bureau of Meteorology's map of the country for today, and they predict it will continue to rain until Thursday. Friday is New Year's Eve so it might get fine before the end of the year, but going by the current charts that outcome seems doubtful right at the moment. More likely, we'll see continued rain into the beginning of January.

I was driving in the rain today because I decided to get in the car and shoot out into the hinterland to visit Maleny, a small alpine town set in the Blackall Ranges about 45 minutes' drive south west of my home. There was a big traffic jam on the Bruce Highway due to a fatal crash on the road south of Beerwah. I negotiated the heavy traffic off the highway and headed west where I was surprised by the steady stream of traffic advancing in the opposite direction. These were northward-bound cars that had been diverted off the highway by the police to bypass the crash site.

Once you pass Lansborough, you start going up a steep hill into the ranges and the fog sets in. I was a little dismayed by the limited visibility as the fog closed in, especially when the terrain close to the car told me I was driving around the side of a steep incline with precipices on either side of the road. I slowed down well below the speed limit and took it carefully all the way through the upland pastures and up and down a series of small hills that lead you into the township, which is modern, cosy and compact. I had a sandwich and a cup of coffee in a cafe near where I parked then got back in the wet car and headed home.

The streets around my place are largely deserted due to the continued rain that has lashed the landscape for over a week. Picnickers are staying away from the parks and beaches. So I took out a video and plan to spend a quiet evening at home, having eaten some leftovers from Christmas lunch washed down with a glass of inexpensive white wine. It may be wet, but it's still warm and dry inside the house. My thoughts are often occupied by images of homeless people left to cope with Christmas at shelters and in doss-houses. For them, I give a small prayer as I change my bedsheets or place a new towel on the rack in my bathroom. May I always have such small, domestic things to do on rainy summer evenings.

Friday, 24 December 2010

It's the time of the year called Christmas time and we're all spending a lot of it with family and with friends. No? Actually, that's right. Many people have noone to spend time with over the end-of-year season - supposed by the majority and by those in charge of advertising and the media to be the "festive" season - and, of those who do, not a few find that those days spent together are less than complete. In fact, I've heard that the divorce rate goes up in January. It's a bit unfortunate, don't you think?

Possibly not as sad as the Christmas tree I bought for this year's celebrations: a tiny Norfolk Island pine, an araucaria. It's so slender the decorations make the branches dip. I was contemplating my tree today and the thought sprung up in my brain that its branches look like little arms and hands. It looked, to me as I sat on the couch, that the tree was doing a special Christmas dance, known only to infant araucarias worldwide.

Our meal finally cooked, we sat down at about 4pm to eat.

So this post is to wish those of you who read this blog a very happy festive season, hoping that you have the opportunity to spend it with people who care about you enough to make your end-of-year special. "Special" can mean "interesting" and "interesting" can mean many things, but my wish is that you can get through this time of transition with your self-esteem unscathed and your future prospects undamaged. Here's to a season of engaging connections to those around you, and to a useful and prosperous 2011. I will post again before the end of this year. Until then, Ciao.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Normally a new online service announces itself via a news story when the service achieves a remarkable uptake level. Another service might advertise on frequented sites. But you don't often see a new service from Google being advertised via spam. That's what happened in my case, and I must admit to being puzzled. Here's what I received in an email from a stange-looking domain. When I tried to respond to the address I got a failure notice. There's no doubt about it: this is spam. But why?
Hello my name is Julia
I send you this email to tell you important news about Google.

Google will soon launch a great reading platform called YouMagzi a site like YouTube.
Magazines, books, newspapers, comics,brochures ... free or paid ,all in one site.
This site was Created by a French teenager 20 years ,unknown for now. He copied the YouTube site entirely, and also logo. may be the next Mark Zuckerberg of the silicon valley,I don't know...
Google's contacted the young french , 1 month ago, because the idea of French, is enormous !
This site would aim to dethrone Facebook and twitter.
There was also a mysterious-sounding close:
A friend working at Google told me, Please don't said who you say this. I don't want problems !
I await more news and I tell you more soon
So I naturally googled YouMagzi only to find that the service had launched earlier this year. But it was one I had not heard about. Of course, it doesn't look as though it would "dethrone Facebook and Twitter" as my mystery correspondent augured in her cryptic email. What was the point? To tell me that a French national had invented the new service? How could I imagine that the spam had any point - it was sent to my website email address, and I'm a journalist. Were they looking to give me a scoop? It's been online for almost a year. Were they trying to drum up interest? Surely Google couldn't be behind the spam scam.

I remain puzzled. Any suggestions?

Monday, 20 December 2010

Now that we all know that Julian Assange, founder of whistleblower website WikiLeaks, is a "high-tech terrorist", he should be condemned by all right-thinking individuals in whichever country they live in. Joe Biden will thank you. He's the one who placed that hard label on Assange, as The Australian reported today. But, then again, you may be a person who does not agree with this uncompromising suggestion.

In fact, you might think that Biden is attempting to generate negative pre-trial sentiment in the community - even before a charge has been laid. It's true! They have no idea yet which way they'll turn in order to stifle Assange and his wicked henchmen, but they're working hard to create the groundswell of animosity that seems to be requisite for a successful legal campaign. Don't worry, Joe Biden isn't trying to influence the court process (even before a charge has been laid, mind you). He's just giving his honest opinion, in the same way that any other individual franchise-holder is entitled to. Slander? C'mon, don't be rash.

If you think that the American vice president is right to pre-judge Julian Assange, who is currently on bail pending an appeal by Swedish authorities keen to extradite him to their country to face marginally-credible allegations of a sexual nature, then say nothing. Do nothing. Believe that it will all just go away. But remember the precedents, like David Hicks and Mohammed Hanif. Remember that governments will do anything to get what they want, even distort legal process if necessary. Just as long as they get the desired outcome.

In the case of WikiLeaks, governments globally have a lot to worry about. The whistleblower website has deeply embarrassed the US government by placing in clear sight the divergence of public announcements from the realities of back-stage machinations perpetrated by diplomats charged with protecting "national interests". Lost in all of these deals and quiet conversations are the interests of private individuals, however. The people have no voice. Of course! The people need to be protected from truths they cannot handle. Right?

Or do the people need to tell governments they pay for that they are not to be taken for granted.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

US President Barack Obama must be quietly pleased today. He said in a statement reported by the Guardian:
"By ending 'don't ask, don't tell' no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love."
Another election promise down, on top of the mammoth, marathon contest the health care reforms turned out to be. Despite losing control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term election. Despite a fiercely partisan right wing in the US that is incredibly quick to attack Obama's government because they fear its intrusion into their lives.

But what is government? "When you change the government, you change the country," said former Australian prime minister Paul Keating. If that's true then the patriots seeking smaller government, less taxes, and more focus on individual rights as opposed to progressivism are merely annoyed by the path that's being taken. It's not smaller government they're challenged by, it's the liberal cast it's taking on as the months slide by and the 2012 election approaches.

Those who support equality of opportunity for all people despite race, religion, sexual orientation and any other point of distinction that we conventionally raise in describing people should be pleased with the way the US Senate has voted today. It's an admission that sexual orientation is not chosen but genetically conditioned. It's a major setback for the conservative elements in the US. And it will be hotly debated in that country in succeeding weeks.

All the way up to the next election, two years away.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

In the public sphere trust is a commodity and we pay for it, either with actual money or with our attention. The media is deeply involved in this market of trust, and newspapers try to project an image of themselves as trusted sources of information. But there are other important actors, too. Politicians attempt to project a trustworthy persona in the public sphere. The media, for its part, bolsters its claim on our credulity by using experts such as university researchers and teachers in the articles it publishes. There are other experts, as well, including people who work at non-profit organisations and think tanks.

Then there's WikiLeaks, a new actor in the public sphere and one whose trustworthyness is currently being tested. Since the release of classified US military information earlier this year, the authorities there have been trying to erode the quantum of credibility WikiLeaks possesses in the public sphere. The Swedish "rape" claim - it's not a charge yet - may be beside the point, technically, but by throwing at least a modicum of opprobrium at WikiLeaks, Swedish authorities have achieved what the US government has so far been unable to achieve: create a compelling spectacle in which WikiLeaks is forced to defend itself against a threat to its credibility.

From the outset, US authorities have tried to call into question the very premise and platform WikiLeaks uses to justify its existence. So far, there are those who support WikiLeaks on principle - which includes a large proportion of people working in the media (WikiLeaks has gifted them a slew of interesting stories) - and then there are those who are on-principle against WikiLeaks. This latter camp includes politicians everywhere. Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was forced to explain her comments on WikiLeaks (she had said that Julian Assange's actions were "illegal") yesterday in a media conference slated to deal with a separate issue. Her solution to the dilemma raised by being paired off against the whistleblower clearinghouse was to say that the initial event (the taking of diplomatic cables from the source) was illegal. She said she was "not a fan" (as though those who support WikiLeaks are mere 'fans' of the site). And she resuscitated the old chestnut about the possibility that third parties mentioned in the cables could be endangered by the WikiLeaks release. This has been the US government's line from the beginning. So far, there is no evidence that anyone has faced a threat due to the release.

Public players such as the Australian prime minister and the US government are fighting not only against WikiLeaks but also against the entrenched distrust they face all the time in the public sphere. Trust is not easily earned. Trust is a commodity that these players cannot simply buy by repeating their condemnations against WikiLeaks because each time they condemn it they are drawing down on their "capital reserves", as it were. In Julia Gillard's case - she came to power in August - there is a fair bit in reserve yet, one would imagine. The US government is in a more tenuous position because it's precisely this unelected complex of departments, managers, policies, and tenured positions that is being questioned by WikiLeaks. In short, it's a bloodbath.

Which explains why these guys are hammering away at WikiLeaks' credibility tooth-and-nail. So far, there has been no attempt on the part of the authorities to discuss the leaked cables. The only way that has been used so far has been to attack WikiLeaks itself. The authorities know that they lost a certain segment of the population a long time ago. Those people are not their audience in the current fracas. The real audience is the uncommitted majority who continue to place trust in, for example, the media. For the most part, the people who are best placed to question the media are already on the side of WikiLeaks. The ones who didn't do a master's degree in international studies or whatever - they're the ones still in play.

The notion of trust in the public sphere is an old one. Jurgen Habermas' seminal book, where the term "public sphere" was coined (as Ben Eltham reminds us - thanks Ben) came out in English in 1962. But in 1961 there was another publishing event relevant to the current post. It was the publication of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land, a science fiction novel about the return to Earth of a young man raised on Mars in an atlernative civilisation. Heinlein invented a class of player in the public sphere of his novel called a "Fair Witness". From Wikipedia: "Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe." They are favoured people in the society, and they are trusted for their objectivity. The fact that they're in a science fiction novel should tell us a lot about the way Heinlein viewed the media. It's still a problem today, and WikiLeaks will continue to enjoy privileged status for many observers of this international drama. The longer they continue, the more trust they will generate in the public sphere.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Review: Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski (1994)

Most of the writing by Kapuscinski that I've read to this point has been about Africa, a continent full of countries so foreign to the author that his mind might be thought of, as it were, as a kind of blank slate. The difference with the current case is marked. As a Pole, Kapuscinski comes to the table with preconceptions and biases - the first piece in this collection involves scenes from the point of view of the young Ryszard coping with the Soviet take-over of his city - and so the temperature of the book is markedly different from the outset. In fact, it's nearly a failure early on: the contrast between stories about the authoritarian Russian and the imperfect, nascent Azerbaijiani, for example, is not really instructive or all that interesting. In a sense, then, Kapuscinski's clarity of vision is almost his downfall. It would be nice to say that "anything by Kapuscinski is worth reading" but in fact it's not the case. He can be boring. At the start of this book, in the section headed 'First Encounters (1939 - 1967)', he is.

It's in the book's second section ('From A Bird's-Eye View (1989 - 1991)') that things start to look up for the reader. We welcome back the Kapuscinski who is able to set aside - if only temporarily - his long-held views and who is, consequently, able to be at least somewhat objective. By the end of the book, we are in a mood to welcome the summation, the analysis that has been able to emerge from Kapuscinski's extraordinary brain - one so deeply educated and experienced - over the years he's been a Russia-watcher. Most of his conclusions have, in fact, played out in reality in the intervening years.

After finishing this book, I went to the bookstore and placed an order for his The Soccer Wars, and I also plan now to read his other books. I have a real appetite for Kapuscinski's honest, hard-graft, feet-on-the-ground journalism with its subtelties and side-glances into eternity. I was initially disappointed with Imperium, but found that it grew on me as I began to engage with his more mature writing. It seems that at some point the idea for the book gelled in his mind and he decided to spend a significant portion of his time examining the newly-emerged Russian nation. Perhaps not with innocent eyes, but certainly with a bit more compassion and understanding than we initially find in this book.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

I've been trying to think of a way to write a review of Salt (dir Phillip Noyce, 2010) without giving away the ending but it's just not possible so it's probably best not to click to read this post until you've seen the movie yourself. On the other hand, it's such a fun film to watch that you might be interested in knowing how the magic works. There are a number of peculiarities that make this spy thriller different from what's come before. The main thing is that the principal character is a woman. The second thing is that she's not trying to save the world (although she does that, too). She's trying to save her husband. I'll let others come to their own conclusions about this twist and write about how Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt has helped to redraw the rules of the action flic. There is probably something deep to say at this point, but that's not what I want to do.

In the beginning, Salt is about to leave work in a CIA building that has a petroleum company as a front when she's called back to duty: a defector has appeared and he has a message to deliver. His message is that Salt is a Russian spy tasked with killing the Russian president who is to visit New York to attend the funeral of the US vice president. Although alarms go off inside the heads of Salt's colleagues around the interrogation chamber, there's not much they can do when she escapes from the secure room and decamps to the second floor, an unoccupied area. A squad of armed men is sent up but Salt manages to flee barefoot. She runs to a cab which takes her home. Her husband, Mike (August Diehl), is not there. She fears the worst, grabs her panic bag, leaves her dog with a neighbour and rushes off. The flight sequence on the expressways of Washington that unfolds at this point is exceptional. Salt jumps from a bridge onto a cargo truck, from the cargo truck onto a chemical tanker, and from the chemical tanker onto a moving van. Then she grabs a motorcycle and shoots off into the night, heading for New York.

The kill at the church is just as easy for the thorough Salt, but she uses spider venom instead of a lethal bullet to immobilise the Russian president - a fact that will take a day or so to emerge into the public sphere. After the kill, she disappears onto the waterways, finishing up at a scrap yard where she makes contact with her boss, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski). Here, she finds her husband but they shoot him dead: it's part of the total dedication demanded of her cohort of Russian spies. (As a girl, she had been indoctrinated by the spy-master and switched for the daughter of an American couple that had a car accident in Moscow. This is how she gets back to the US.) So she kills all of them on the barge and leaves to meet up with the fixer of her next job, which is to kill the American president.

The pair manage to infiltrate the White House but the Secret Service bundle the Big Guy into the elevator leading to the vault under the building. Undaunted, Salt descends via the empty elevator shaft. Once inside the chamber, she discovers that her CIA colleague, Ted (Liev Schreiber), is also a Russian plant. In the ensuing gunfight, Salt is able to survive and cancel the strike order Ted has orchestrated (targets: Mecca and Tehran) but everyone thinks she's the killer and she's bundled off into a helicopter to be removed for interrogation elsewhere. Over the Potomac, she jumps from the chopper and swims ashore. Cue credits.

There's a mesmerising volume of fast action in this film and it's instructive that Salt's motivation is purely selfless. She's a true heroin in many senses, and it would be nice to think that, if the world were given over to be run by more women, you would find more altruistic activity playing out in the media. Sadly, that's not what seems to happen, but you've gotta hand it to Noyce for putting together a compelling and interesting piece of high-tech theatre that is surely slated for long remembrance in the annals of action thrillers and cinematic geopolitical plotting.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Do you want to see Jennifer Lopez invent a bunch of new ways of getting into a cab while wearing a too-tight dress? The Back-up Plan (dir Alan Poul, 2010) is where you can do this. But the movie is more than a romantic comedy as it looks at ways that distrust and fear can undermine even the most promising vision of the future. In a sense, it's quite a serious film and Lopez, who plays Zoe, is up to the challenge of doing both comedy and drama supported by sensitive hunk Alex O'Loughlin as Stan the student goat farmer.

From the outset the focus is on making babies. The movie opens in a fertility clinic where Zoe is about to undergo insemination. After the procedure is finished, she leaves the building but it's raining so she flags a cab. Once inside, she's suprised to find another occupant: it's Stan. They bicker in the back seat and then Zoe gives up the field and exits but Stan follows her down the street as she makes her way home. In this way their romance is concieved. It flourishes after they meet again at a farmer's market where Stan is manning a stall where the cheeses he makes are on display. Then Stan visits Zoe's pet store, Zoe drives out to visit Stan on his farm, and they're well on the way to marital bliss until Stan finds out that Zoe is pregnant with someone else's child.

Zoe has problems with Stan, too. One day, he mentions to an old lover of his that the child evident in Zoe's silhouette is not his. Zoe flares up and promptly quits the relationship. Zoe has this complexity in her character that her mother died when she was a small child and her father left the family, unable to cope with the desperate situation. Ever since then, Zoe has found it hard to trust other people. So when Stan mentions the truth to his old flame, Zoe goes ballistic and walks out.

Through all these trials, Zoe's warmth and seriousness shine through. She's not only self-motivated but she's sensitive too. Lopez is up to the task of navigating both the difficult and the comic passages that fall out between Zoe and Stan, and O'Loughlin plays second fiddle with sensitivity and flair. In the end, though, it's really a girl's movie. It is in fact about what it takes for two people to set up a family: out of nothing more than dreams and wishes, it seems. But these turn out to be enough for these two and in the end it was with tears that I watched the closer approach. It's a comic scene and I won't spoil it but suffice to say that Lopez nails it, just as she does everything else in this excellent, fun film.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

WikiLeaks has adapted its modus operandi in recent weeks in order to maximise the impact of the information it holds in its database, and to shift the focus of the story away from WikiLeaks itself back onto the information it holds.

Back in July, when the "Afghan war logs" - around 70,000 pages of data from a US military source - appeared, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was clearly not pleased with the way the media had chosen to cover the case. Impelled by US civil and military denunciations, which had as their point of focus the safety of US collaborators and soldiers operating in the field, the media began to shift the story from the contents of the logs back onto WikiLeaks, the organisation, itself.

In the case of the "US embassy cables" which have recently begun to come to light, the release has been far more measured. We're told that there are about 250,000 pages of data. Only about 1000 pages of that was released to the regular, select group of media outlets favoured by WikiLeaks, including The Guardian and the New York Times. In addition, some pages have been given to the Fairfax mastheads, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This slow-release method is designed to ensure that the daily headline is pertinent to the information held by WikiLeaks.

But it's a close contest. The main story at the moment appears to be Julian Assange's incarceration on untested allegations in Sweden. A few days ago Assange presented himself at court in London in order to answer for himself. He is still being confined as his bail application was rejected.

So the new MO appears to have been advisedly adopted. So far, we've had stories about dozens of different things, from mining giant Rio Tinto's handling of the Stern Hu case in China to the behaviour of Shell in Nigeria. The drip feed is inexorable and the drama is compelling. Noone knows what story will appear tomorrow. Politicians are so scared that they've completely stopped commenting about WikiLeaks.

And supporters of WikiLeaks have come out in force. Several thousand people added a comment to an ABC story a couple of days ago in order to express their support for Assange. There have been protest rallies in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Respected members of the community have voiced their disagreement with the prime minister, Julia Gillard, who said WikiLeaks' activities were "illegal". And the Australian activist group Get Up! has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to buy advertising space in the New York Times in order to protest against American conservatives' calls for Assange's assassination.

In brief, WikiLeaks is the only story in town at the moment, with new headlines appearing every day. One notable story that hit the web yesterday focused on the promise of a new organisation, to be called OpenLeaks. This splinter group is being headed by disaffected members of WikiLeaks led by Daniel Domschelt-Berg (aka Daniel Schmidt). Even if WikiLeaks crashes and burns, there will be a phoenix to rise from the ashes and continue spreading information about things powerful people want to keep secret.

The heat goes on.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Review: Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein (2010)

Subtitled 'A Western Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan', this book begins with a threat from the yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto delivered to the veteran reporter in 2005. The story then backtracks some 12 years to when Adelstein won employment with Japan's biggest daily general newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, after sitting several competitive tests and passing a number of interviews. After this victory, it's down to business on the beat covering crime in the company's Saitama bureau.

Adelstein gets moved around a lot during the next 12 years. As a regular sei-shain, or full company employee, Adelstein pays the price - long hours, obligatory after-hours socialising with sources, minimal home life, fatigue, routine subjection of his individual judgement to the company line - but reaps the rewards: the status attached to being a sei-shain supports the spirit when times get tough, there's lifetime employment, the pay is decent, and the cameraderie is substantial.

This is a good book to read for those who are interested in contemporary Japanese culture and politics. Its hard-boiled style palls on occasion and it's been written at a rapid pace, but these things may in fact be endemic to reporters once they decide to go down the path to publishing a book. I've come across these failings before with this type of author. In Tokyo Vice, the rapid pace might have been a problem due to the large number of Japanese names involved in some of the cases Adelstein writes about, but it's not a fatal flaw. You generally get the idea of each twist in the plot. You are not left behind. But beware that you need to pay attention. Lazy reading will simply leave you floundering.

As a journalist covering crime, Adelstein is eventually a wake-up to the way Japan views different sectors of society, such as foreigners, yakuza, and politicians. A follow-up volume might focus on the way politicians are involved in the crime world. Now that would be interesting, and I'm certain that Adelstein merely touches on the surface of the pond of data that is available to him.

Once he becomes competent as a senior journalist Adelstein begins to make his own decisions about what stories to cover. He finally chooses two main themes for scrutiny. One is the issue of human trafficking: how young women from Eastern Europe are brought to Japan on promises of work as club hostesses and are then forced into prostitution by their yakuza facilitators. As in other cases Adelstein covers, the story comes to him through a tip-off from a long-time source. Adelstein follows up on the story and tries to get it published but he hits a number of barriers that display an unpleasant side to the Japanese psyche: Japanese people don't really care about foreigners and whether they are mistreated during their stays in Japan.

But the story runs. As a sideline to this thread, he discovers that a major yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto, traded secrets with the FBI in order to secure a visa to enable him to visit California for a liver transplant. There were several other yakuza who did the same thing, but Goto is Adelstein's main target and in the end his story, once published, leads to Goto being expelled from the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest yakuza group.

There is a price to be paid for all these editorial successes, however. Adelstein ends up burnt out and suffering personally due to the nature of the crimes he is investigating. A postscript might alert readers to how Adelstein's life changed once he finished covering crime in Japan. We know that he returns to the US - his home country - in order to start a new life. We don't know what job he's got now. By the time we finish his book, we want to know. This fact is a testament to the way Adelstein has been able to establish points of contact with his readers: simply, we care. Because he did. So many journalists seem not to.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Neighbours bugging you? At least I'm guessing they aren't trying to kill you. That's a better deal than the one dealt in the movie Killers (dir Robert Luketich, 2010) to Jen Kornfeldt (Katherine Heigl) who, having unwittingly married a spy, Spencer Aimes (Ashton Kutcher), must cope with finding out she's pregnant at the same time as she discovers that the entire neighbourhood wants to top her husband.

It's a fairly unusual situation to end up in. Naturally, it's his fault: lying to you, hiding his shady past, generally failing on the "I can protect you" front as your longtime family friend turns out to be a contract killer and your husband appears all at sea. The whole domestic-bliss thing comes tumbling down the morning after Spencer's surprise party when Henry (Rob Riggle), waking up from a drunken slumber on the family couch in the living room, tries to off Spencer with a kitchen knife. Having exhausted the pantry, Henry chases an unhappy Spencer and a terrified Jen through the streets in his car until they end up on a building site and Spencer solves the immediate problem by ramming Henry into a construction pit where the victimiser becomes the victim, impaled on a set of reinforcing rods.

It's a comedy-thriller so there's plenty of frustrated banter in the wrecked truck as the pair negotiate their way to a supermarket to buy a pregnancy test. Jen tears strips off Spencer - Spencer's real, long-term problem - while Spencer tries to simultaneously placate his furious wife and guard himself against unexpected attack from every conceivable direction. There's a lot of humour in these scenes. At this point there's also a quantity of suspence mixed with the banter. Where to go from here? First Spencer must find out what happened to his old boss, who has contacted him after three years of silence during which Spencer thought that he had outrun his old life and forged a new one with Jen. The guy's in his hotel room, shot dead. At this point the familiar faces multiply as does the number of guns being used against the two. Jen knuckles down and quickly learns how to shoot.

Kutcher plays a solid comic line, adopting the persona of the henpecked husband trying to get his wife to ease off on the tongue-lashing but it's Heigl who owns this film. From the outset, during scenes where Jen falls in love with the hunky Spencer, she is refreshingly candid, normal even. She's you. She's that girl over there. She's everywoman. It's a movie for the girls from the start: a mysterious, attractive man appears out of nowhere in a hotel lift on the French Riviera, you find a dress that's too tight for you but which you chose from the rack to impress him, you drink an excessive quantity of champagne and it sends you to sleep. There's a ton of the routine paranoid paraphernalia of dating to squeeze into the early scenes of the film. Will she get the guy? Does he care that she fell asleep when he was talking to her? Will he be fazed by the fact that her mother is a lush? Does he care that she can't speak French?

Cut to the domestic idyll. It's a new subdivision and the house is handsome: neat and respectable, it nestles among a row of similar structures. Your husband's job is going fine. Your parents like him. You are doing well at your job. There are some annoyances during the party, such as the neighbour who touches your husband flirtatiously and of course there's the other one who always runs after you as you're driving your car down the street, talking at you non-stop through the driver's-side window. But all-in-all it's a happy life of domestic pleasures that easily aligns with your ultimate goal of starting a family. Then Henry starts trying to kill your husband. Then you get mad. Spencer lied to you and all of a sudden your solid, predictable life is in ruins and you're looking for someone to blame, and he's right next to you.

For all her conventional failings, Jen is firmly in charge of this movie and her rules will finally triumph over the forces of chaos that were unleashed when Henry came into the kitchen and grabbed a weapon from the bench. Jen's down-to-earth, funny, irrepressible femininity will conquer every adverse situation that comes before it. This film is, without doubt, one for the girls. And the guys will enjoy the car chases, martial arts, machine guns, and sudden explosions: everything, in other words, that is designed to thwart Jen's desires.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It's been a while since a science fiction movie was so complex. An idea can shape the world? That's no doubt true. To take the metaphor to its logical limit, Inception (dir Christopher Nolan, 2010) shows in extraordinary and exhausting detail how, in an alternate universe to ours, an idea can be implanted in a man's mind by others - through his dreams. Or other people's dreams, even. In the case of this movie, there are several dreams running concurrently. At each level in the dream architecture there's another task to achieve, another hurdle to surpass, another puzzle to unpick. Another fight to win.

The underlying concept that supports the plot is foreshadowed early on in the movie when Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is still trying to conscript Ariadne (Ellen Page) to become the architect of a set of worlds where Cobb will take Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a wealthy energy baron, in order to plant the idea that Fischer should dismantle his father's business empire. Cobb has been asked to do this by Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to ensure that the Fischer enterprise is kept in check so that it does not develop into an unmanageable monopoly with more power than civil society or the political apparatus can control.

Ariadne foreshadows the movie's plot concept by placing opposite one another two large mirrors, in which the reflections of each are repeated into infinity. What is real, is the implied question. Where does the dream end and reality begin?

The reward for Cobb, who must solve the puzzle of Fischer's dreams, is that he gets to reenter the United States, where his children live. His dead wife had implicated Cobb in her death by hiding her madness immediately prior to her suicide. How did that madness begin? The plot must progress a fair way before that secret is revealed. By that time, Cobb and his band of dream-deceivers have descended several levels into Fischer's subconscious, battling hostile "projections" at each step with wit and weaponry, as they attempt to plant the seed that will deliver Cobb into the arms of his children.

There are rules in dreamworlds, just as there is gravity in ours. They are interesting and necessary to understand in order to appreciate the drama the plot generates, but they are not otherwise profound. Time, for example, flows slower at each successive step down into the target's subconscious you travel. Events at the superior level can influence the environment in lower levels. Beyond these small details there is nothing, however, that too closely resembles art. There is nothing to overly disturb the viewer intent on enjoyment. The thing that comes closest to art is that Fischer's father dies in Sydney: shades of Murdoch, perhaps? It's a Disney film, after all.

This is a small-concept movie with a large budget and plenty of fast action for the young-at-heart. Its curious notions of time and space will no doubt make many people think, but the essential form of the movie is not all that interesting. If anything can be "taken away" from the film it is that we construct our own realities, and that our dreams are important. But the ultimately too-complicated mechanics of the screenplay militate against any more subtle suggestions that might move toward a greater purpose. It's a fun flic but also a pretty conventional one.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

An English costume drama-cum-thriller set among the relations between members of an upper-class family living through the tense days leading up to WWII is an unlikely place for suspense and deep messages, but that's what Glorious 39 (dir Stephen Poliakoff, 2009) delivers. It's Poliakoff's first feature-length film in 12 years. The 58-year-old director has also been involved in stage production and has worked on numerous TV dramas in recent years. There's plenty of the old noblesse oblige, stiff-upper-lip, maids-in-lace-aprons type of malarkey here but there's a lot more as well. In fact, it's a cracker of a film that deserves more acclaim than it has received in the media. It certainly didn't jump out at me from the shelves of my video store but I'm very glad I watched it.

Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) is gorgeous, glorious even. She's the adopted daughter of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), a member of parliament who owns an enormous country estate as well as a comfortable house in London. She lives with her brother and sister, Celia and Ralph (Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne), who are natural children that arrived after Anne. There are other children too but unfortunately the IMDb list ignores young Walter, a spooky character who looks a little like Pugsley in The Addams Family.

There's a fair amount of thrills and these add to the sense of impending danger that permeates the film, beginning with the death of a family friend, Hector Haldane MP (Doctor Who's David Tennant), apparently by suicide. Haldane is pro-war and wants to see Winston Churchill take over the government. The sinister Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) says nothing at the dinner party where these ideas are aired, but he's clearly watching. One day, Anne ventures into a barn where some government records are stored, and picks up a few recordings. Soon after, during a family picnic, she is alarmed when the baby carriage holding her baby brother disappears. Feeling responsible since the rest of the group had gone for a post-prandial walk, she is relieved to find the child at last. But her credibilty is compromised; noone else in the family believes her when she says the carriage just disappeared.

This sense of isolation from her loved ones escalates. She asks her fellow actor, Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville), to listen to the recordings, and he sends her a warning. Then he's found dead as well. Alarmingly, she hears Ralph's voice on one of the recordings, and so she feels there's noone in the family she can confide in. She trusts noone, not even her beloved father. Increasingly isolated, she eventually breaks down when she finds her lover, too, has been killed. Then she's locked up alone by her father.

The strange feeling of dissociation that grows around Anne is spooky but it's not unprecedented. In fact, it's a feeling that anyone can have if they feel as though they are being lied to and made to feel as though something is wrong with them, rather than there being a frank admission of guilt. There's no resolution to Anne's discomfort. As the lies compound around her, she retreats further into herself until she can only scream abuse at those who torment her. As if she were imagining the deaths. As if there were no tell-tale recordings. As if she were mad and they were really trying to help her. But it's not true: they are trying to isolate her from society in order to silence her. Finally, she breaks away forever.

It's an engrossing plot and the roles are uniformly well played, which suggests that the director (who also wrote the screenplay) has a strong vision for how the action should unfold. He uses a number of interesting camera angles and also effectively deploys set props such as lighting and makeup in order to heighten the feeling of danger Anne has. This is especially visible in the changing relationship between Anne and Celia.

This film is well worth watching.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Review: Inside Story, Peter Lloyd (2010)

The backstory for this memoir is pretty well-known and it's covered in detail in the book. ABC foreign correspondent Peter Lloyd was arrested in 2008 in Singapore on drug trafficking charges. "Trafficking" sounds pretty strong. It's Singaporese legal terminology and refers to an allegation that Lloyd sold a small quantity of methamphetamine to a person Lloyd says lied to protect the real source of the narcotics. In fact, the police didn't know anything apart from what they'd been told but Lloyd did, in fact, possess drugs in his apartment for his personal use and he took them there in all honesty. The sting worked and Lloyd was brought up on five separate charges including possession of drugs and implements for using drugs. He went to jail. This is the story of how he survived the ordeal.

It's also the story of how he overcame the post-traumatic stress disorder that had brought him to resort to illegal stimulants in the first place. This is another element of the backstory. There was a large number of overseas assignments that Lloyd covered as a TV journalist, including the Bali bombings in 2002 and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. These other-wordly events caused Lloyd to "dissasociate" - in effect to develop a kind of split personality - and to retreat into himself instead of talking out his problems with stress. In this state he found it easy to self-medicate and Lloyd says he could not remember many episodes, including ones which involved buying drugs. Withdrawal was easier than talking to his employer about problems caused by the continual rounds of reporting on violent deaths of thousands of people in Asia.

While Lloyd's self-reliance contributed to the condition that delivered him into a most distressing predicament it served him well when the time came to prepare for incarceration once he was granted bail. It was not always plain sailing, and those around him, especially his partner, a Malay man, Mazlee, had to cope with sometimes erratic behavioural shifts. Part of his coping strategy involved seeing psychiatrists (and their testimony would later help to ensure a fairly lenient sentence). He also took up Pilates, an exercise regime that could be used in confined physical spaces like those he would encounter in prison. And he bought a lot of books; over the period of 200 days he spent in jail he would read 80 books.

Lloyd takes us into the prison where, at first, he is confined solitary. His circumstances changes as he was able to demonstrate his compliance with the unpleasant regime inside Tanah Merah Prison. Eventually, Lloyd would be given "cookie" status - as an unpaid prison labourer he collected laundry and parcelled out food to other inmates. As a cookie, he also got to spend time outside his cell in the company of other men. They watched TV programs that were prepared by the prison authorities. Lloyd says it was pretty bland fare, designed to accommodate the regulatory mindset in Singapore. Prisoners must not be disturbed, he was told. It is good for them to be calm. So Lloyd watches light entertainment on the communal TV set like David Attenborough nature programs.

Lloyd is scathing about the Singaporean regime, led by "minister mentor" Lee Kwan Yew. As a first-time offender, Lloyd believes that his six-month jail term was unnecessarily harsh especially given the extenuating circumstances. In prison he meets a number of people, such as prisoners Pung and Goh and Ismail. He finds there are plenty of them who resent the paternalistic, "win-at-all-costs" methods employed by the ruling People's Action Party. A disturbing number of prisoners are inside for trifling reasons but the ruling regime in Singapore takes an uncompromising position vis-a-vis its rules and the judiciary, which is tightly controlled from higher courts that are, in turn, controlled by the PAP, is unable to deviate from the statutes in any meaningful way.

At one point, Lloyd is granted access to a notebook and he uses it. This notebook will become a point of contention because he is warned that he should "make other arrangements" if he wants to take information away from the prison. He does so by making notes in the books he reads. Presumably a lot of the material he wrote during his prison term was taken away at the end as the memoir contains many directly-quoted conversations Lloyd had, both with guards and other prisoners.

It's an entertaining book and I found it hard to put down.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

You can take photos yourself at the Art Gallery of New South Wales' exhibition The First Emperor - as long as you don't use a flash; turn it off or else the attendants will immediately approach you and deliver a verbal warning. Probably better named 'The Terracotta Warriors' - because that's a label many will already recognise from their cultural wanderings - the exhibition features artefacts dating from about 500BCE many of which were accidentally discovered one day by some farmers in Gansu Province. That was in 1974. Since then, the vast burial mound of China's "first emperor", Qin Shihuang, was found to have been accompanied by a massive stony phalanx of armed soldiers, clearly designed to follow their leader into the afterlife where they could (presumably) enjoy the advantage of numbers in ghostly battles against other dead kings.

Gallery director Edmund Capon was involved in the historic discovery at an early stage - excavations are still ongoing and will probably take several more decades to complete - and has now secured for the temporary enjoyment of Sydney's chattering classes (and others: the clientele at the exhibition when I visited was fairly diverse in a socioeconomic sense; this is a marquee event after all) a small set of the baked clay figures and placed them on view in a number of the gallery's basement rooms.


Here's me standing in front of a few of the loaned 2500-year-old life-size figures from western China that are currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. In all, there are about a dozen figures on display.

There's more than the warriors, too. In an effort to illustrate for visitors how the powerful Qin managed to achieve his fabulous vision, curators have also brought out a collection of other artefacts: they are variously made of clay, bronze, and gold. These items serve to show the technological level available at the time and in that place. Qin conscripted thousands of artesans into his vast manufacturing project so that the frozen army would be ready by the time of his death.

The warriors' site was placed so that it faces east, probably considered an auspicious orientation due to that being where the sun rises. The emperor's burial site, which is located about 1 kilometre to the west of it, is still largely unexplored. There are some items that have been found in that site, including a number of gorgeous bronze birds that are on display. They were taken from a "retiring ground" where the dead emperor could go to rest from his unearthly labours.

In sum, the exhibition (which costs $20 on entry) is worthwhile viewing if you happen to be in the area. I went on a Thursday, which was probably a good idea as the viewing rooms are quite small and weekend crowds could impede enjoyment of the exhibits.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

This film charts the rise of Facebook from its inception in a Harvard dormitory room where, in the year 2004, a smart and ambitious IT student named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, pictured) spent a number of hours after being dumped by his girlfriend setting up a website that allowed students to rank the appearance of girls studying at the university. The site was called Face Mash and it was an instant hit that caused a college server to crash under the weight of the traffic generated. The girl whose words led to his emotional meltdown, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), came in for some criticism and the post containing it was also viewed by many. Having engaged so large a number of his peers, Mark enjoyed some celebrity. But he still didn't get the girl. And he still wasn't rich.

Helping Mark in his early experiments with social networks was another student who lived in the same dorm room, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose main contribution to their as-yet-embryonic plans was financial, although he also provided Mark with moral support. There were also three students who popped up on Mark's radar from another college, twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who sought Mark's help following the success of Face Mash to set up a social network site to be called Harvard Connect. The attention of the three young men intrigued Mark because they were part of a select club and represented the kind of social attainment that Mark thought would enhance his own happiness and future prosperity. But while they waited for him to begin coding for them, Mark was busy putting together his own site.

While the birth of Facebook is conveyed in such stories there are a large number of cutaways to future legal battles. Suing Mark are two different parties. On the one hand the Winklevoss twins and Narendra said that Mark stole their idea for a social network. On the other hand Eduardo sought compensation for the work that he contributed to the project, after he had been virtually divested of his shareholding following the initial success of Facebook.

A major point of contention between Eduardo and Mark, once the site had become popular within the universities where it had been released, was the issue of advertising. Eduardo felt that his job, as the CFO, was to make sure the site paid for itself. Mark, on the other hand, didn't want to endanger the future potential of the site (still called The Facebook at this stage) by cluttering it up with stuff he felt was not "cool". Advertising was definitely not cool. Not only would it destroy the "clean" look of the site, but it would slow down the pages, thus impeding the user's enjoyment of The Facebook. Mark also wanted to move West, to Silicon valley, and Eduardo did not want to quit university.

At this point of conflict another player entered the scene. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) first clapped eyes on The Facebook at the home of a female friend he had met at a party. He soon made contact with Mark. As a former founder of the wildly successful file-sharing site Napster, Sean had runs on the board and a knack for picking winners in the online space. Ignoring Eduardo's scepticism, Sean pushed Mark to realise his vision of a site where people would want to spend time. It was also a site that Sean thought would become a huge property in future. So Mark went West to where Sean lived.

The rest, in a sense that the whole movie is too, is history. It's a dialogue-heavy film that requires sustained attention from the viewer in order to follow the various stories and the legal fights across the table where the main players come together to resolve the matters of their contributions to something that had become a global phenomenon. In a sense, then, the movie is a type of reckoning. Why did Facebook start? Ambition for success. Why was it so successful? Other sites had failed in certain material respects and the people behind Facebook had seen those failures and learned from them. But Facebook was also successful because it gave people a type of agency that is absent in more commercial types of social interaction. You can see a movie produced by a large corporation and talk about it with your friends; you can even blog about it. But Facebook allowed people to talk about themselves. This new method of achieving agency caught on very fast. By 2008, when the legal scenes took place, the site was already certain to become a commercial hit. It's just that Mark and Sean wanted to make sure it had a critical mass before introducing paid advertising, which they would do slowly and in an unobtrusive fashion.

The film is necessarily vague about some details, I am sure. And it will have rendered some players in a less flattering light than was possibly justified. This economy is in the nature of storytelling. In the final analysis, it is a fun film to watch for anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter (which "spun out" of Facebook by taking one element of it - the status update - and turning it into the main element). Many films about people involved in information technology are burdened by the cliche of the IT expert as a lone outsider with problems interacting in mainstream society. The Social Network (dir David Fincher, 2010) recalibrates the gears, to a certain degree, and shows us how a group of variously motivated and skilled young people are able to create a new platform for individual agency out of the unresolved yearnings of their lives.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Just a week ago there was an open floor during a Journalism Education Association of Australia conference which was held at the University of Technology, Sydney. Questions were taken. One attendee, Jolyon Sykes, had a voice recorder switched 'on' and another, Julie Posetti, had her laptop open and running with her browser pointed at Twitter, and she was posting to it when an ex-News Corp journalist, Asa Wahlquist, who was not a marquee name for the event, began to speak within the confines of the room.

What Wahlquist said - that she became disheartened with her treatment by editors at The Australian while working for the paper as a science journalist because her stories about climate change were routinely changed to fit a politically-driven agenda oriented to the right wing, and that it was affecting her health - would explode into controversy when Posetti's post came to the attention of staff at the newspaper. Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell declared that he would sue Posetti, who promptly clammed up as the heat came on and the temperature dropped in the air surrounding the debate. She had probably even forgotten about her post when news of the threatened action broke.

Various staffers at the newspaper editorialised and reported, confirming for many Twitter users a suspicion that the newspaper had decided to launch a crusade against the micro-blogging service in much the same way that many thought it had launched one against, say, the federal political issues of the National Broadband Network or The Australian Greens.

Posetti dropped out of the online debate but a Facebook group was set up where supporters could register their mindset by 'liking' it. The level of chill that had come to predominate in the air around the debate even after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported - using the actual voice recording to compare against Posetti's posts - that she had been accurate in her online reporting during the session, was best summed up by a post by Posetti at this point:
I am so very limited in what I can say for a short time longer on #twitdef, but please spare a thought for Asa Wahlquist...
Many people on Twitter felt that The Australian, as a news organisation, was displaying a double standard, as its parent company, News Limited, has been vocal on numerous occasions in response to legal action taken against it or threatened, by individuals operating in the public sphere. To register their support for Posetti, a large number of Twitter users reposted her post. There were also a number of fairly triumphant posts from users who saw that Mitchell's case had been fatally wounded by the ABC's story and the public broadcaster's release online of the audio recording that had been made during the session. Despite its sometimes poor quality it caused a palpable stir in the ranks of supporters.

One or two of them pointed to an earlier event, tagged #groggate on Twitter, as they searched for a reason for the newspaper's apparent highly-confrontational stance vis-a-vis Twitter. Caught in the middle, Posetti remained silent. Wahlquist, meanwhile, has also been silent except to deny at one point to a reporter for The Australian that she said what was attributed to her. Like Mitchell, Wahlquist no doubt hardly suspected that a recorder was running during her speech last week. But such events are public, a fact Posetti underscored during the session when, addressing Wahlquist, she congratulated her for her forthright honesty and courage. It seems that that acknowledgement of a higher order of conduct was prescient. It sounds a deep knell, now, when you listen to those files.

But the issue of media bias remains unresolved. When a journalist is faced with answering a question about it on the TV, for example, the normal response seems to be "We don't want to get involved in self-reflection that viewers aren't interested in, let's stick to focusing on the real issues". I've heard this a number of times and it's frustrating. It is an interesting issue and it does need to be talked about. It might be the type of thing that the ABC's MediaWatch program could focus an episode on, to bring to light what is currently obscured in the constant churn of stories in the public sphere, and by the coy shrugs of reporters reluctant to reveal any embarrassing trade secrets. What the #twitdef case shows us is that there is a lot more going on under the varnished surface of the media than is easily acknowledged.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Review: Atlantic, Simon Winchester (2010)

I freely admit to buying this book as comfort reading having heard - on the radio, I think - a brief bit of verbal applause for it that caught my attention recently. To be brief, the book is a well-written and well-researched general guide to the Atlantic Ocean.

Winchester's background as a peripatetic journalist and science wonk held him in good stead for the writing of this book, which attempts to cover as many aspects of the subject as is possible within the confines of a big, fat volume. The best part in my mind is possibly where he looks in detail at the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery during the 1980s and 1990s. Winchester suggests that the world has learned little from the experience.

His review of the world's literature that touches on the Atlantic, however, is less successful, being for a start restricted to English-language writing. Indeed, it's pretty cursory, omitting such classics as Tennyson's The Kraken, which to my mind was evidently inspired by late-19th-Century deep-sea exploration in the Atlantic. Winchester also completely fails to understand the nature of Romantic literature generally, and ascribes its authors' fascination with the sea to the long availability of source material about the Atlantic Ocean, rather than grasping how the nature of the ocean itself - wild, untamed and inhospitable - was congenial to Romantic sensibilities.

However to be fair it was Winchester's book that allowed me to make the Tennyson connection. Winchester spends a good deal of time describing how, for example, the first telegraphic cables were laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. There's also a fair amount of description dedicated to the 19th-Century exploration vessel HMS Challenger, which forshadowed the many scientific vessels that have been sent out in the intervening years to map the ocean floors, wildlife and currents.

But thank god for journalists. And generalists. Winchester's accessible writing gives up a swathe of information and those who value travel writing and single-issue non-fiction generally will get a lot out of this competent book. For those who appreciate the romance of travel, especially travel by sea, there are many capable passages here that will provide insights into the secrets of diverse sectors of the broad Atlantic and into the people who have, over the millennia, attempted to traverse its solemn wastes.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

In Victoria's election yesterday there were a few definite winners: politicians from the right who won seats previously held by Labor, and several Labor politicians who won their ballots for the first time because a Labor incumbent had stepped down this time around. To listen to the customary post-poll speech by the Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu, you might be forgiven for thinking that his party won if you didn't listen too closely to what he said.

And if you take a look at the ABC's election results page you might get the same impression. The ABC has already given 45 seats to the Liberal-National Party coalition. To win a majority in a Victorian election the winning party needs 45 seats. But this is wrong. Baillieu did not say that his party had just won the poll, just as the incumbent, John Brumby, did not say his had lost. The Herald-Sun on the other hand is giving 44 seats to the Coalition and 42 to Labor, which is a closer match to reality. The Age has given up the field entirely and does not show a quick-count number for its readers, instead making them rely on its reports and editorials to grasp what happened in Victoria yesterday.

Overall, the quality of information given by all Victorian media outlets is pretty low, and especially disappointing is the ABC.

Normally, I watch the ABC's election coverage on their News 24 station because there are no adverts and because they have the useful Antony Green bringing up the numbers on his laptop throughout the evening. But the map the ABC used to show locations was abysmally ineffectual. Its low resolution was unchanged regardless of whether the commentators on the panel - which also included, as usual, a chap from Labor as well as one from the Liberals - were talking about a rural seat or a metropolitan Melbourne seat. So it was impossible to engage fully with the results as they came in from the Electoral Commission. The big, red dot that sprang up whenever a seat was a metropolitan one gave the viewer no indication at all about whether the seat was inner-urban or peripheral, north or west or east. It was appallingly concieved, and assumed (a) that the viewer was from Victoria (as if only a Victorian resident would take an interest in a Victorian election) and (b) that the viewer understood where on earth the seat of Narre Warren South was actually located. Seats do not always correspond to suburbs.

The ABC compounded this failure by starting to call a total of 45 won for the Coalition pretty early on during the coverage, despite what the Labor panelist (Health Minister Daniel Andrews) was reporting from the numbers he was receiving through text messages, phone calls, and elsewhere throughout the evening. Time and time again he corrected Green, anchor Virgiani Trioli and Liberal Senator David Davis, but the figure remains on the ABC's election website today, the day after the poll, and nobody has conceded defeat and nobody has called a winner (apart from Green).

This failure would not matter so much if there were a detailed alternative that showed by some easy means (colour, for example) which seats were conceded last night and which were still yet-to-be-conceded.

The most interesting element, for me, to come from what I could glean from the coverage was that The Greens improved their result (compared to the 2006 election) by only 0.7 percent. This means that the large swing to their side at the August federal election did not translate to a greater share of the votes on a state basis. People are discriminating between party offerings at the federal and state levels. This leads me to conclude that the strong Green result in the federal election was due to people's concerns about global warming.

Also of interest was the large number (549,000) of pre-polling votes this time around. This figure was double the amount received during the 2006 election, Andrews told us, and that was double the number received in the previous election. Another item to think about is the apparently large number of no-votes: people who just didn't turn up at a polling station on the day or who didn't register their vote in any other way.

In the final analysis there are a handful of seats that are still too close to call either for the Coalition or for the Labor Party. Which ones are they? Bentleigh (an inner-southeast seat) is still hanging, as is Monbulk (a regional seat on the city's northeastern fringe). But that's all I can remember. We'll just have to wait and see what the pundits drag up out of the morass of data, this morning, that the major Victorian media outlets were too poorly-organised to order appropriately for viewers and readers on the night. Their performance disappoints me. If it's compared with what the New York Times presented viewers of its website during the recent mid-term US election, it must be given a 'Can do better' mark, and a 'C' for only 'adequate'.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

It's a highlight of Toy Story 3 (dir Lee Unkrich, 2010) when Buzz Lightyear has his program reset by Rex - whose tiny hands are small enough to fit into the recess where the reset button is located - and turns into a passionate Latino. It hadn't been their intention to do this to their friend, but the toys unfortunately hold down the button too long (Rex is as dim as always, in this sequel) with the consequence that Buzz starts speaking in Spanish and coming over pretty strong when he sees Jessie the cowgirl. It's a character twist that's sure to appeal to youngsters who watch the movie.

The basic story is simple. Andy is 17 years old now and is about to go away to college when his mother forces him to decide what to do with his toys. Sister Molly is to move into Andy's room and space must be cleared before he leaves home. Most of the toys he shoves into a black garbage bag which he leaves in the upstairs hallway near the entrance to the attic, the place where he intended to store them. But he gets sidetracked before he has time to put them away and his mother sees the black, plastic bag and, thinking that it's rubbish to be thrown out, puts it by the kerb outside. The toys manage to escape from the bag but end up inside a cardboard box of cast-offs destined for a daycare centre.

In the centre, the toys meet a collection of other toys who are used to the routine. Andy's toys are new to the centre so they are relegated to the room where the younger children play. The regimen is severe with these kids, and Andy's toys complain to Lotso, a large, soft, purple bear who is in charge of the toys in the centre. Lotso comes down hard on Andy's toys, and has them confined to cages at night, ordering his henchmen to patrol the building to prevent escapes.

Meanwhile, Woody ends up at the house belonging to Bonnie's parents. Bonnie's mother works at the daycare centre. Bonnie gets a lot of toys from that place, including Chuckles the clown who has a strange story to tell about Lotso. Woody doesn't linger there as he is determined to free his friends at the daycare centre. He is confident in his abilities to do so now that he has additional information about the toys who run the place. Needless to say, Andy's toys eventually overcome the odds and escape from their subjection.

But there's only one way out of the daycare centre: through the rubbish chute. The toys are about to achieve freedom when Lotso, who has been pushed into a dumpster, grabs Woody's foot and they all pile in trying to free him. Now they're on their way to the rubbish tip, a mechanised hell where items of garbage are shredded and burned. It looks as though Lotso might save the day for them all but he reverts to type and abandons Andy's toys to a desperate, fiery fate.

The flamenco shenanigans of Buzz are not the only novelties in the film. Andy's sister Molly's Barbie doll is also involved in a fair bit of action after she is discarded among the toys in the box Andy's mother takes to the daycare centre. Barbie meets with her Ken at the centre and it's love at first sight, initially at least. There's an hilarious scene where Ken, to impress Barbie, dresses up in a range of costumes he owns, and that are stored inside the huge, plastic house he inhabits in one of the daycare centre's rooms.

The unkind regime that Lotso has set up at the daycare centre is the centrepiece of the film. Ken is one of his strongmen at the centre, but there are other ruthless toys there too who willingly do Lotso's bidding. Lotso's at-first kind demeanour hides the ugly truth that he's a tyrant who keeps some toys in subjection in the room for the younger children while a select few live comfortably and in peace where the older kids play. Lotso's character is complex and interesting, and makes a fascinating addition to the original cast. His fate is eventually sealed when he is picked up at the tip by a fanciful worker and strapped to the front bumper bar of a garbage truck. It's poetic justice. Just because he smells like strawberries doesn't mean he'll end up in clover.

As for Andy's toys, including Woody, who had initially been set aside by Andy to take away with him to college, their destiny is far rosier. But the thrill of this well-executed movie is in the journey from danger to a satisfyingly peaceful resolution, and I won't spoil the ending for those who haven't seen it yet.

Friday, 26 November 2010

It's pretty clear that things need to change. At least according to Food, Inc. (dir Robert Kenner, 2008), a documentary that draws together many of the activist strands that have appeared in the public sphere over the past decade and presents the viewer with a damning set of cognates suitable for inspiring a bit of consumer behaviour change. Of course, it's not all new. But it doesn't have to be. It just has to be interesting.

And the movie turns out to be fascinating, despite the fact that some of the large corporations whose practices are documented in the movie declined to appear on camera. They include Smithfield, a major US meat processing company, and Monsanto, a chemical company which uses extremely aggressive tactics - if the movie's allegations are correct - in order to compel farmers to use their seed and pesticide combinations, such as the products they market for soy production. Keeping and cleaning seed is anathema, it seems, for the company. Farmers are fearful of appearing on camera, too, lest they be sued. Legal action is one way that large corporations involved in food production keep farmers compliant. It is easier, the movie tells us, for them to go along with the crowd than to fight against the tide. And cheaper too.

The movie makes a compelling case for purchasing organic products when you visit the supermarket - which is where most of us buy our food, naturally. Especially in Australia. In the US, organic food companies are starting to be taken seriously by large operators such as Wal-Mart. In the film we see two clean-cut Wal-Mart employees surveying an organic farm, and then stocking the organic product. The pragmatic retailer sees an opportunity for profit in holding lines that, even five years ago, would not have been found on the shelves of their stores.

In the end, the film reminds us, it is up to the individual to change the way the industry operates. It's not just about petitioning a congressman to make sure there's another vote on "Kevin's Law" - a piece of legislation Democrat members of Congress have been pushing to pass through the House for almost a decade and that would see more scrutiny of companies whose meat products had been proved to cause sickness. It's also about where you buy food, and what you buy. The choice, the filmmakers tell us, is ours. What we do on a daily basis can change the way the food industry operates. By changing the food industry, they say, we can enjoy better food, and healthier lives.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

It was a slow-news day yesterday in Australia with small comfort for newshounds in that the Vatican made some more noises about whether prophylactics could be used to combat sexually-transmitted diseases and North Korea lobbed a few live shells onto a small island located about 100km west of South Korea's capital city, Seoul.

On the home front, some of my friends made appreciative noises about the New South Wales Department of Education and its decision to run ethics classes for school students in lieu of religious instruction. The battle will continue in the media today as journalists anticipate that the state government will likely lose an election coming up soon. The Opposition conservative party says that it will not support the classes if it wins in March, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
''While the NSW Liberals and Nationals understand the importance of ethics we do not believe it should be positioned as an alternative to special religious education,'' the opposition education spokesman, Adrian Piccoli, said.
''We don't think that students should have to choose between special religious education … and ethics classes.''
A jaundiced eye might read this statement and think that the conservative Liberal Party sees ethics classes as the thin edge of another wedge designed to separate the state's unsuspecting residents from an active relationship with the God of the Christian scriptures. It's not a stretch. There is no doubt that the Libs have been moving to the right in recent years, with Labor following dutifully behind.

One Queensland resident and prominent blogger-in-residence at the Herald's stablemate the Brisbane Times called politicians like Piccoli "mouthbreathing fuckwits" in a public space (Facebook, in case you're even vaguely interested in this rather tawdry public spat, even if - as seems likely - it will inflate and so become a major NSW election issue). The fellow obviously belongs to the camp of cold, intellectual, inner-city elites which is responsible for Australia's cataclysmic (for the Libs) drift to the Dark Side as evidenced by the success of the Greens in the September federal elections. In Victoria, where residents go to the polls in less than a week, the Libs made their desires known by pulling the carpet out from underneath the Greens through the most efficient mechanism at their disposal: they have given their voting "preferences" to Labor.

The Greens achieved an historic result in the federal election - one Greens MP is now sitting in the Lower House - due to Liberal preferences going to the Greens instead of Labor. The electoral system used in most Australian constituencies is designed to give one party majority control over the lower house of whichever parliament is being contested, and so votes that are given to a losing party are subsequently "given" to an alternative party during vote counting "in preference" to any other party. Parties announce where their preferences will go before polling takes place. Tasmania is the only constituency in Australia that does not use this system, and there power is currently shared by a coalition of Labor and the Greens. The Greens originated in Tasmania, a large island located off the south-east coast of the continent.

Pic credit: Martin Schutt