Nothing to write home about?

3

Have been watching a series of Alan Bennett plays on DVD (“Alan Bennett at the BBC”).

I’ve always felt kindly disposed towards Bennett. He seems like a nice fellow from his books, and I suppose his experiences, ideas, personality, are something like mine might have been had my family stayed in northern England and I been born there instead of in Australia. Or perhaps not.

Have always thought of his plays as being great works in some sense. The stage and tv equivalent of the 1950s-1960s working class English novels I admired when young. Had only seen a few of them, and settled back to watch the whole sequence with great expectations.

Only to suffer a right disappointment.

Look, don’t get me wrong. His excellent qualities are on full display here. He’s had a lifetime of using ears finely attuned to words and tone of voice; of eyes finely focused on facial expression and body movements; of empathetic neurones able to imagine himself in all kinds of other pairs of shoes. It is as if you are there with him on the top of the bus looking down on the street, or at the seaside on holiday, or in a hotel, remarking on the passing human parade.

But, and I’m afraid it’s a big BUT, seeing them all at once like this reveals them to be very thin gruel indeed. Great plays, like great novels, poems, films, need to do more than just present a slice of finely observed life. They need to show us something, teach us something about the meaning of life that is more than just “41”. There need to be deep and meaningful ideas about the meaning of life that arise from the fine observations, the latter, for an artist, never being an end in themselves.

What do we get from Alan, one play at a time? The First World War killed a lot of people who had been living in a Golden Age; retirement is a challenge after a working life; a spiteful person can wreck your life; an unpleasant person who thinks they are popular often isn’t; a disabled child can put strain on a marriage; Guy Burgess loved Englishness; Franz Kafka got his ideas from his place of employment; Marcel Proust was isolated by his housekeeper; discovering Anthony Blunt was a spy was like working on a painting. And so on, so little. Each of those is the only “insight”, from all those plays, one per play, about either life in general or some historical figure. And the latter unconvincing. Slim pickings eh?

My idea of a good play is not just the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; but one which will tell me a number of things about life, the universe, and everything that I hadn’t thought of before.

But I guess I am mistaken, it seems that is not a good play, that is the best. And Alan Bennett’s plays, sadly, are merely good.

Plus ca change, plus ca change

9

* The more CO2 in the air the more coal, oil, gas we dig and drill.
*The more the oceans are ruined the more fish we catch.
*The more frequent and disastrous are marine oil spills the more rapid the development of offshore oil drilling.
*The more the forests are degraded the more clearing, logging, shooting, grazing we introduce.
*The more the Great Barrier Reef begins to collapse the more shipping we send through it.
*The more species head towards extinction, the more habitat destruction, hunting, poaching.
*The more concern about pests and weeds the more introductions of GMO.
*The less farmland available the more mining is approved in it.
*The more cancer rates rise the more carcinogenic chemicals we pump into our homes, air, food.
*As energy use strangles the planet more and more energy guzzling devices are invented and sold.
*The more the rivers dry up the more the irrigators take from them.
*The more fire damages the environment the more it is introduced into the environment.
*The more the world drowns in waste the more plastic crap is produced and wrapped in excessive packaging.
*The more obvious the dangers of nuclear power become the louder the cries for its greater use.
*The greater the need for environmental protection and regulation the faster the removal of existing protections.
*The clearer the coming planetary catastrophe the greater the refusal to accept the evidence for it.

It’s almost as if we were hell-bent on wrecking the joint.

O Tannenbaum

13

I was going to write something really original about Xmas but just as I began there was a knock at the door and some fellow (was his name Mr Porlock or something, I forget) interrupted my train of thought and… Well, suffice it to say you’ll have to wait for Xmas 2013 for my festive season originality.

Discovered this during the week (ignore the commentary, some of which is wrong, a better description is here). A remarkable and touching series of photos of a German couple from 1900 to 1945, recording their every Xmas together from just married to the death of the wife. Taken in the same room, with Xmas tree, and their presents to each other, every Xmas through those tumultuous German years, outside the room, and their own aging. The complete series sadly seems not to be online, only in a book published some years ago, but the eight available give a very good feel for a life evolving.

As Draaisma observes – “Each of the photographs has been taken on the same day of the year. But against the unvarying background, you notice the changing seasons in a human life all the more clearly. You see how gradual the changes are, though they can also be abrupt, life the first true day of spring every year or the morning when winter seems to have arrived. By moving forward exactly one year with each click of the self-timer, the Wagners demonstrate clearly that the aging process does not follow the even rhythm of the calendar.”

I guess Xmas in general does that for all of us, a series of fixed points at which we can picture ourselves in times past, growing up, then our children in turn, then our grandchildren. And conversely our parents and grandparents, seeing our youthful excitement will have been thinking back through their own lives, to their own childhoods. And so all the way back, through the mediaeval celebrations and legends of “St Nicolas”, through Roman “Saturnalia” and the like, to the various Solstice/mid-Winter pagan festivals which early christianity copied.

No point in being all Christmas carolly about Xmas. The photos of the Wagners show as much sadness as happiness. And all of us can probably remember Xmas events where the ambience was a little strained. You can after all choose friends for your New Year’s Eve guests, but you can’t choose your Xmas family members.

Anyway, apologies again for writing a Xmas post as original as a pair of socks for a present. Thank you all for sticking with this blog, and me, through another year with less than ideal ambience. And thank you all for the support you have shown me – a series of very welcome presents.

I hope the latest in your Xmas series is a good one. Picture Richard Wagner taking your photo.

And smile for the camera.

Happy Christmas!

Gunna go now

7

An update. After two cycles of this new round of chemotherapy I have lost all my hair (which didn’t happen last year) and am getting nasty side effects on bone and muscle. I feel like my status has subtly changed, from being an ordinary person who just happened to be having cancer treatment, to being a fully unfledged cancer patient. Apparently though I still “look well” so that’s ok then.

Anyway, while the sainthood (aka oncology doctors and nurses) were working away, saving lives, making people more comfortable, CARING (in both senses); elsewhere in the world, arseholes with guns were slaughtering health workers in Pakistan and schoolchildren in America. And uber-arsehole, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Arseholes, was proposing ever more guns to stop the gun carnage. Tell you what Wayne, there are no guns in oncology wards.

As always the rest of the world watches the behaviour of the American and Pakistan branches of the Taliban in stunned incomprehension. I am currently, briefly, reading the latest Janet Evanovich [look, I know, I know right. It's the literary equivalent of fairy floss- sugary, sickly and all the same. I can't imagine anyone, anywhere, having a complete set of Evanovich. But, in my defence, it is something my brain can currently cope with, and, more importantly, it was only $3 in a book remainder shop]. Something that struck me once more, especially in the week of Newtown, is that in this fairy floss book of “fun”, guns are on almost every page. Lovingly described, carried as if it was most natural thing in world, a part of every household, every outfit. Nowhere else in the world could such a treatment of guns in such a context be written. And nowhere else except in Pakistan could people not only slaughter women health workers, working hard to inject children to save them from the scourge of Polio, but proudly boast about having done so.

Anyway. Those are my thoughts on a Saturday morning. Since it is Saturnalia time, my next post may be seasons greetings, or I may finish my substantive post on guns first. Who can foretell the future (as the Mayans might say)? Gunna go now. See you later.

Budge it on Budget

7

You may remember a year or so ago, enormous pressure on the Australian government, by the Opposition, with the full support of a baying pack of reporters, to “get the budget into surplus”. Failure to do this, it was said, no matter the economic circumstances, would brand the government as hopeless economic managers, spendthrifts, in contrast to the wise money managers of the Liberal Party. A failure to slash everything in sight (but certainly not increase revenue, any hint of which, like a super profit tax on miners, being blocked by Opposition, and howled down by the Media). It was clear the campaign of denigration would carry on and on.

OK, said the government, you want a surplus, we’ll give you a surplus, somehow. If we are not permitted to tax the rich a little more then we need to slash programs, and, as economic conditions worsen overseas, slash some more. Outrage from Coalition, media, interest groups. How dare you cut this, that, the other program? What’s wrong with you? The Coalition never specified an actual program it would cut, merely said it would cut “waste”, and the media accepted this unquestioningly.

Meantime, as the damage austerity programs were doing elsewhere in world became more obvious, economists began saying to the government, hey, you don’t need a surplus, really, a surplus is surplus to requirements, take it easy, go for a reduced deficit by all means, but a “surplus” is not only meaningless but would be economically damaging. Immediately media joined in, yes, what are you aiming for a surplus for? Just a “political” move, not an economic one. Silly incompetent government chasing a surplus, what useless economic managers they are. But, a mere hint from the government that, yes indeed, surplus chasing was as irrational as UFO chasing, an instant chorus from media and Opposition, see, we knew you couldn’t get a surplus you hopeless economic managers.

Finally, faced with the inescapable reality of world economic doldrums, falling resource prices, and coalition premiers sacking thousands of workers, government says, you know, you are right, chasing a surplus was an albatross around our budget necks. All the economists agree, silly to go on with it. Maybe next year if things improve. Okay? Immediate baying for blood from Coalition and media. Broken promise. Bad economic managers. Hopeless government. Can’t even get a surplus. Throw them out.

And so it goes.

The Three and a Half

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The Canberra Press Gallery has always been, necessarily, close to its subjects of study. Not a unique situation perhaps, if we think of, say, the worlds of Music, Sport, Art, Agriculture, Finance, but very different from those of say Science, Medicine, Law.

In recent times the linkages, the shared workplace, the chumminess, the personal partnerships, the commonality of interests, the sense of being not observed and objective observer but politicomedia gang members, seems much greater than ever before.

The proprietors of the media have moved to the Right and taken their staff with them. As a result, these days journalists have a much closer sense of common beliefs, goals, tactics, teamwork, with the conservative parties of the Coalition and the more conservative members of the government. Which in turn has led to even more team bonding and confusion of roles.

The Press Gallery now see themselves not as objective, arms length reporters of their subjects and subject matter, but, rather like those embedded with army units, as part of the regiment. Sharing objectives, helping their team defeat the enemy (the government), capture the Hill, plant the Conservative flag firmly on the House flagpole.

Conversely the politicians see their role more as a media one – packaging press releases, delivering sound bites, performing photogenic stunts. At best these things are content-free, most are partial or total lies, at worst they are vicious smears. They are not designed to withstand any kind of rational analysis, they are designed to provide a tv news image, a radio shock jock talking point, a tabloid headline.

They will receive no rational analysis. Because journalists and politicians are so close, working together, socialising together, eating meals together, perhaps on occasion sleeping together, the fodder of the press event seems completely unremarkable to journalists. They will consist of words, phrases, sneers they will have heard, may indeed have contributed to, in a hundred late night conversations in rooms, corridors, restaurants, bars, as they socialised with their friends. It would be no more appropriate to analyse, dissect, criticise, such conversations, than it would be to do that to discussions with family and friends.

Having sleep-walked into this tender trap the journalists, being professionals, would surely welcome wake-up calls from outside observers, consumers of the media? Well, if you think that your knowledge of human nature is a little lacking. Just as criticism of, say, the behaviour of a policeman has the police cars forming a protective circle, so do journalists protect their brothers and sisters from the non-professionals. Indeed, criticism of the politicians, also their brothers and sisters-arms, will be treated in the same way.

But really, how could there BE criticism? Only the journalists are privy to the late night gossip sessions, only they know where the bodies are buried, where others will be buried. Only they know the buzz, the vibe, the context. There are no other stories, hell, there are no other ways of presenting the stories. Media and politicians are in perfect agreement as to what the narrative-du-jour will be, and how it will be sold to the world outside the politicomedia one. The journalists, hearing and reading criticism from, say, the upstart social media, are probably genuinely puzzled, indeed hurt, that they could be so misjudged for simply doing their job of repeating the indisputable. And seek ever more eagerly the warm embrace of their crowd of insiders.

Fourth Estate? Three and a Half Estate.

Political Gene-ius

3

I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive 
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)

When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.

My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.

He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.

But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?

What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].

The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours

Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).

Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.

But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?

Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.

Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.

Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.

A, B, C, D… E, F, G…

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Anyway, that’s another round of chemotherapy almost completed. Neither I nor my Oncologist sure whether the first round achieved much (but had left my Neutrophils worryingly low for the start of a new cycle, so I have to have a new injection this afternoon to deal with that), but we will review again in three weeks. Some unpleasant, and mysterious, body problems this week reminded me yet again that from the moment of first being diagnosed with cancer your mindset changes. You go from being comfortable in your own skin, to being uncomfortable. And you go from happily assuming that any health problems you have are readily explainable, treatable, and short-lived, to being able to assume nothing. Your body goes from being a Known Known to one full of Unknown Unknowns. Simple views about your personal health universe rapidly give way to complex ones.

You are caught, as I said to the Oncologist this week, in the world of the Three S’s. Anything you experience could be a Symptom (of the cancer itself), a Side Effect (of the cancer treatment), or Something Else (totally unrelated to either). Life, they say, wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor, in the case of cancer treatment, is there such a thing as a free lunch, everything comes at a cost.

Anyway, all this reminded me, eating my free lunch of soggy sandwiches in the Oncology chair, machine beeping and dripping (slowly, slowly) on my right, of the debate about education this week in Australia.

The country, in some survey, had apparently ranked way down the list, 25th in this, 26th in that, 27th in the other. Our children were apparently as poorly educated as those of poorly educated countries – couldn’t be misunderestimated, we were misundereducated.

Within moments of the survey appearing on the airwaves and interwebs, as if the barriers had been opened in the Melbourne Cup, those same airwaves and interweb tubes were full of answers from experts and anyone with an opinion (to the extent that they can be considered separate categories). It was the Labor government’s fault, teacher’s fault, a funding problem, lack of attention to the three R’s, not enough rote learning, the result of education not being the same as when the opinionator was educated, school autonomy, phonics, testing programs, private schooling, and so on.

Trouble was, every Opinionperson thought the right answer was THEIR answer. That if there was a problem in education then it was the result of a single cause and had a single solution. Sadly this is the kind of simplemindedness that has resulted in many educational dead ends. When we ask the rarely asked question “is our children learning?”, just like the question “why is my stomach sore?”, we need to be aware that there are no simple answers.

Let’s start at the beginning this time with the actual survey. It was conducted in 2010, a fact that escaped media attention, so that the answer “it’s all the Labor government’s fault” didn’t really ring true. There was no consideration of how the comparisons were made, nor whether they allowed for cultural and socio-economic differences (in just the way you need to with “IQ tests”) between different countries. Nor was any thought given to desirability of high rankings. If a country was doing well because (say) of rote learning of the Three R’s, and rigid discipline in class rooms, is this really the way you want Australia to go?

But even taking the rankings at face value, concentrating on one particular aspect of what goes on in the classroom is begging for a misdiagnosis. As well as the Three R’s we also need to know whether a particular child, or group of children, falling behind in something is the result of a symptom, a side effect, or something else entirely.

Much has changed in Australia since I was a child (to start at a very remote time indeed), all affecting education in some way.

To name just a few relevant factors: The structure of suburbs and travel, play, and social opportunities for children are different; children are exposed to television and radio for hours each day as a primary source of entertainment, knowledge, and values; the values expressed in reality tv and quiz shows, for example, are much changed from my values; children are using computers in various forms for communication, games, learning; diets are much inferior to what they were; right-wing populist politicians and religious leaders have launched an attack on science and education in recent years; and on teachers themselves; and on curricula, with demands for including nonsense like creationism; money has been moved from public schools into private and fundamentalist religious schools; underfunding of preschool and kindergarten and loss of trained staff reduces the early educational possibilities; both parents working reduces the opportunities for learning at home; few homes these days seem to have books or encourage reading; peer pressure tends to put more value on the lowest common denominator of intellectual achievement; teacher are faced with larger class sizes, while at the same time having more bureaucracy to deal with, and demands that they teach more and more topics (driving cars for example, or coping with social media) that someone thinks is important; older teachers are retiring while younger ones have come through much the same social and cultural and educational milieu as their students; “National testing” has put emphasis on “learning for the test”, because schools that don’t do well in it will lose funding and students; some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics” and have some politician impose it on schools …

Enough, you get the idea, and I’m sure you could all add many more. And remember, before you can compare results for different countries, and come up with solutions, you would somehow, have to allow for all those variables being different between the countries.

Look, there is no doubt that Australian education would be a lot better if it followed the model of Finland, always top of these kinds of surveys, rather than America. Put more money into public education (and preschools), value teachers and education, try to get more education support in the home, and so on. But really, to make any improvements in educational performance we also have to seek changes to the way families and society are performing, to look at our media, and our social, cultural, political values, not just the Three R’s.

Easy, eh? Now, if you could just tell me why I have this ache in my shoulder, Doc…

A Lota Spam

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Every morning when I check my blog the first job is to delete the masses of spam “comments”, empty, meaningless phrases, that have accumulated in just a few hours and vastly outnumber genuine comments. The spammers are trying to sell me viagra, ugg boots, fake watches, handbags, and some are just full of inexplicable computer garbage aimed at damaging your computer. Hard to imagine anyone clicking on any of them even if they did get past the spam filter, but they are sent out in their millions by people unconcerned about the damage they could do to the lives of people fooled into clicking.

Same when checking my email inbox. Full of Nigerian bank accounts, United Nations’ lottery wins, unclaimed parcels, all promising untold riches if only I send my bank account details. Scattered in between are demands that I sort out problems with my bank, tax, web site, just click here and all your problems will disappear. Along with your money.

Different kind of spam spewing out of radios these days. Trash talk pretending to be entertainment. Same with newspapers hacking into the phones of people suffering some tragedy. No concern again for the damage done to the people treated badly. One a few days ago a couple of Australian radio presenters rang the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated.  The purpose, it has been forgotten in what followed, was to try to obtain confidential information about the patient, her treatment, and condition. To hell with her privacy.

They succeeded in getting through, fooling two nurses, being given the information. What a hoot eh? Except that one of the poor nurses concerned appears to have been so affected she committed she committed suicide. Uproar. Much defence of the radio presenters, who it was said, mainly by other media people, “couldn’t have predicted such a terrible outcome”. True enough, but the original intent was bad. And unintended consequences often flow from using people’s lives for entertainment.

Finally, as if influenced by the flood of spam all around them, political discourse has been turned into spam. Meaningless three word slogans, empty speeches, abusive descriptions of opponents, lies about policy, empty publicity stunts. Discourse full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (did Shakespeare anticipate the coming of an age of spam?). Discourse which must have Eisenhower and Kennedy, Churchill and Wilson, Menzies and Curtin, all spinning away in their graves.

And mindless as it is, this political spam also has consequences. Makes good policy development impossible. Forces good people out of politics. Gets rid of any thought about politics being about intellect and ideas. Intended consequences, for some, it seems.

We seem to be living in, drowning in, an age of spam. And unfortunately some of it can’t be just deleted with the click of a mouse button.