Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Taking the - erm - cake

Today from comes this link to a post at Blogebrity, asking 'Can anyone help explain female bloggers' obsession with baking and eating cupcakes?'

Love the 'all women are the same' rhetoric there. I'd retaliate with some comparable observation about male bloggers but I am too nice. I've never had a cupcake obsession myself, but this post has me intrigued. They conclude that it must be all about sex, because cupcakes look like breasts.

Earth to blokes: it's not women who are obsessed with breasts. (Well, not usually. And it's my understanding that those women who do like breasts prefer them to be attached to a person of some sort.)

The only cupcakes I ever found interesting were the ones called butterfly cakes, one of my mother's specialities circa 1959. This involves delicately cutting out a little cone of cake from the top of a plain cupcake, filling the hole with cream, cutting the removed cone of cake in half and sticking each half upside down into the cream at the angles of ten and two o'clock, so that they look like wings, and yes, I'm fully aware that I'm not explaining this very well. But if cupcakes really are all about breasts, then my preference for butterfly cakes makes me a complete sicko.

The torrent of memory being unleashed as I describe butterfly cakes is making me think I really ought to christen the special tray for making madeleines that I bought years ago from the Gabriel Gaté shop and have never once used, so maybe the blokes at Blogebrity are right and every woman really is just a fool for a petit four. I'll have a go at the madeleines and get back to you, but in the meantime it's really just an excuse to quote Proust (who wasn't interested, BTW, in breasts at all), writing famously on the mysteries of the senses as triggers of memory:

'... one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines', which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell.

... I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses ...

I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and begins to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. ...

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciouness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being?'

Sigh. They don't make sentences like that any more -- and that's just the translation.

(There are, of course, no prizes for guessing what this piece of writing is really about. Blogebrity is clearly onto something.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gravatar's rainbow

The blogospheric phenomenon of the gravatar, or Globally Recognised Avatar, continues to enchant. In an attempt to explain the concept of the gravatar to my family last night over dinner I found myself horridly entangled, not for the first time, in avatars and atavism. The fact that these two concepts overlap a little (the gods/spirits/ancestors nexus) didn't help. Nor did the fact that I have slight consonant dyslexia and am still coming to grips with the recent discovery that it's 'remuneration' as in munificence and not 'renumeration' as in counting the money again. If I'm not careful I'll end up saying things like nucular and advocado and not even noticing.

Resorting to the dictionary, we found that an avatar is the embodiment of an incorporeal being, particularly a god who appears in human or otherwise manifest form. Hence those little photos, caricatures, sketches and symbols that follow one's cyberpersona about. I want one -- but over at they appear to be having a bit of strife, so I will just have to be patient.

In the meantime, the power of the sorts of images people choose to represent themselves is making me think very hard about what sort of image I'd want to go with. As with the aliases they choose, most people's gravatars reveal far more about them than I think they intended to say.

And the reading for today is ...

'A Hanging', George Orwell, 1931

Monday, November 28, 2005


Adelaide in summer is one of the great beauties of the world. Even on the breathtakingly hottest days, there's a sort of crackling blue and gold shimmer, as in those medieval Florentine paintings of angels.

That weather will be on us in a matter of weeks, so it's all the harder to imagine how things are in the two places hardest and most recently hit by natural disasters: Louisiana and Pakistan. Because in both of those places, of course, winter is closing in.

Operation Eden was one of the first blogs I ever had a proper look at, and remains one of the best I've seen. It was begun as a way of managing desperation, the day that photographer Clayton Cubitt heard in New York that his mother and his little brother had gone missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and from there it has developed into an astonishingly moving photo gallery and journal; the guy is a born writer as well as a superb photographer. His most recent post describes a re-housing project being hurried along before winter sets in.

Across the world in Islamabad, aid workers from various agencies are trying to co-ordinate efforts to get supplies and shelter materials to remote villagers in the wildest mountain regions before the snow sets in and those regions become completely inaccessible. A friend working on the relief effort there e-mailed this morning to say the weather had broken: 'Heavy rain and snow on the homeless.'

Pick me, pick me!

Over at the amazingly lively Larvatus Prodeo there has been the most almighty dust-up over the topics of rape in particular and violence against women in general.

(My friend D, she of Sunday brunch (see below), majored in Latin, so I knew that if anyone could translate their name for me, it would be she. After she had assured me that my own guess, 'Caterpillars for God', was almost certainly not right, she told me a lot of stuff about second and fourth declensions but fell at the hurdle of what 'larvatus' actually means so I had to Google it later. I can now reveal that 'Larvatus prodeo' means 'I present myself masked', which is of course practically the definition of a blog, and is something originally said by Descartes which explains why I didn't recognise it, having hated Descartes with a passion and failed Philosophy 1 on the strength of him.)

The fights over violence against women -- one of which went over 300 posts and got very heated indeed -- have resulted in the banning from the site of one blogger, one of those right-wingers who can't resist playing with the lefties. His posts were irrational, ill-informed and unfunny as well as very nasty; a truly bleeding heart would have banned him for his own good, to protect him from his own reckless self-exposure. But now there's a debate going on over whether he should have been banned at all.

What madness is this? The blog was set up and is maintained by a handful of people and it's their right to allow or disallow posts from anyone they please. It's a good example of the way a highly-thought-of forum is regarded as public property no matter who actually runs it and pays for it.

The real issue is the playground one about group identification. The banned blogger should ask himself why he wants so badly to play with this particular gang.

Of course the irony of this situation is that the RWDBs themselves wouldn't agonise for a nanosecond about whether someone ought to have been banned from their sites or not. Wouldn't enter their heads.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The dinosaurs are coming

As I said to my friend D over Sunday brunch this morning (and we got the whole Advertiser Crossquiz filled in, too, unless you count the one we sort of made up for the name of some Irish legend's father, whom we dubbed Usribagh, pronounced 'Dave, mate'), D, I said, I fear the future. I have seen the future and it is unutterably horrible. Bird flu, crazed terrorists, relations with every single country to our immediate north-north-west comprehensively stuffed, halfwits and warmongers running the world, and we as late Boomers (as it were) despised by the coming generation who have said frankly that they blame us for everything and expect us to hand over our houses and jobs but they're not then going to look after us when we're jobless and homeless and our joints don't work.

Our joints don't work now, she said.

I was reminded by this conversation of the sleepy lizard I saw the other day in my back yard (and not only because his, her or its joints weren't looking too flash either; that's just how lizards walk). I was on the phone about some work thing or other when out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement outside on the pavers through the screen door.

It was the lizard I know lives out there but usually keeps its distance and its head well down. However, there she, he or it was in full view, stumping along in the sun over the hot pavers and heading purposefully straight for the back door.

And for a moment I saw it through an ant's-eye lens. This gigantic prehistoric alien was about to come blundering into my house, knocking things over, thoughtlessly eating me and the cats, and generally wreaking destruction and havoc like T Rex.

My pragmatic sisters would say that if this was a sign, then it was a sign that the back yard needs mowing and the chooks next door had better look to their eggs. But I know better. I think it was a vision of the future.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Kittypix alert: look away now

Cats in Window: for Auntie Elsewhere.

Cat haters please note: these two have been desexed and microchipped and live permanently inside. The Eastern Barred Bandicoot and all its fragile ilk are safe from me and mine. Now leave me alone. Thank you.

Further reflections on the death penalty

I've seen a number of bloggers and MSM journos make the point that Van Nguyen is after all a convicted drug trafficker, and that the anti-capital punishment people are distorting the situation by trying to portray him as an innocent victim and sacrificial hero.

As so often, there are more than two possible points of view here. One of the best books ever written about a murder trial in this country is Ken Inglis's The Stuart Case, about the trial and conviction of the Aboriginal labourer Rupert Max Stuart for rape and murder in rural SA in the late 1950s. After the movie about the case, Black and White, was released a couple of years ago, a new edition came out with an 80-page update by Inglis. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of race relations, Adelaide, or Australian law.

Inglis takes pains to point out that most of the people who campaigned (successfully, eventually) to save Stuart from being hanged thought that he was probably guilty. They were campaigning against the death penalty, not trying to prove Stuart's innocence. The case was further complicated by the fact that Stuart had been mistreated and evidence contaminated from the moment he was arrested. Two of the people actively involved in the campaign to save his life were the young Don Dunstan and the young Rupert Murdoch. Go figure.

Neither Van Nguyen nor Stuart is anything like as clear-cut a candidate as the subject of the last legal execution that I remember thinking about: US rapist and serial killer Ted Bundy was put to death in the late 1980s. Now THERE was a case to make a good soft-left pro-choice feminist wimp sit down with the Scotch bottle and spend a hard couple of hours keeping vigil and trying to work out what she really thought.

And I did.

It's wrong.

And at the hour of our death

Over at The View from Elsewhere there's a post on Van Nguyen, with a salutary reminder that there is something epic about this story of twins: one who stuffs up, and the other who pays for it with his life. What it keeps reminding me of is the Greek tragedy of Antigone, who will risk anything to make sure that her dead brother is properly buried, and in the end sacrifices her life to this cause.

What it also keeps reminding me of is the tragic turning of Christopher Hitchens, who used to be my hero. There's a story that Joan Didion used to sit for hours with the essays of Ernest Hemingway, typing them out as a way of trying to work out how he did it, as part of her own self-education as a writer. I used to feel (no, damn it, still do feel) that way about Hitchens. I can remember as clearly as anything the first time I laid eyes on one of his paragraphs. I came over all shivery and queer-like. That, I thought, is how to write.

It said:

'If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. ... With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where information technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favor of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza.'

Hitchens, having campaigned tirelessly and noisily for the abolition of the death penalty in the US, went off a few years ago to witness a State execution for himself, on the grounds that having banged on about it so much he thought he'd better see it for himself.

The essay he wrote about this experience for Vanity Fair was a chilled, subdued, slightly shellshocked affair. He was as undramatic about it as possible. The experience made him feel small and dirty.

I thought of this essay the night I saw Dead Man Walking, the opera not the movie, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Remember that joke about the definition of opera -- 'It's when the guy gets stabbed at the end, and instead of dying, he sings'? Dead Man Walking wasn't like that. At the end he didn't sing, he just died.

What I'm wondering is this. What happens to the belief system of someone who, for whatever reason, suddenly lurches to the Right? Do they automatically take up all the correct RWDB positions, after the fashion of a dramatic religious conversion? I know someone to whom this happened a few years ago, and I mourn the loss of his friendship still; what I admired about him most of all was his independence of mind, a commodity of which he now has none left.

I wonder what Hitchens thinks about the death penalty these days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On the population of the blogosphere

As I trundle wide-eyed around the blogosphere in search of an education, occasionally dipping a tentative paw into a discussion and more often than not discovering too late that what I thought was a goldfish has turned out to be a piranha, I ruminate from time to time on the various species and subspecies to be found frolicking and lurking, sometimes both at once, in the blogosystem.

There are a lot of people like me: punters of fundamental if not wholly reliable goodwill who are complete mugs for any form of communication. We are the ones who cannot let a phone go unanswered, a letter go unopened or an email program go unchecked. We risk Blackberry Thumb from too much texting and brain cancer from too much time on the phone.

But there's another, disproportionately large, tribe who seem to be basically just bastards. Lurking around the Comments section of various blogs that I've been told about or have found for myself, I'm struck, and I don't mean that in a nice way, by the number of people who seem utterly incapable of positive comment. Instead, they vent: everything from sneering and whining through libel and slander to outright vicious personal attack and sometimes downright threats.

And the worst of it is there's not even much honest pain or outrage involved. Most of the time I'd swear that they're just doing it to show everybody else how superior and cool they are.

Does the blogosphere hold peculiar attraction for these mean, twisted, stunted, evil or otherwise tragic creatures? Or is it just that being an unmitigated arseh*le is the new black?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fiennes runs away with HP4

Senior New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis says the high point of the new Harry Potter movie is a transcendent performance by Ralph Fiennes as uber-baddie Lord Voldemort.

Dargis argues that the dishy Fiennes is actually at his best playing evil psychos, and anyone who saw him as the mad killer in Red Dragon (the second filming of Thomas Harris' novel of the same name, the one that first introduced Hannibal Lecter; the first movie was 1986's Manhunter, also very good) is unlikely to disagree.

Judicial murder

It's official: as punishment for a one-off, amateurish, doomed attempt to help his twin brother, Nguyen Tuong Van is to be hanged on December 2.

And has anybody seen that fearless crusader for everyone's right to life, Tony Abbott, lift a finger so far to help him?

No, neither have I.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Save the planet: hang out your knickers

Climate-change guru and distinguished Adelaide local Tim Flannery appears in a new TV ad, backed by the South Australian government, giving a few chilling stats and making a few suggestions for thinking globally and acting locally. I saw this ad for the first time last night and it kicked in this morning when I was scooping a handful of underwear out of the washing machine prior to hurling it into the dryer and getting on with the next task.

Or so I thought. I got as far as the scooping part when the ad replayed itself in my mind. It's a beautiful sunny day today and there was absolutely no excuse not to spend five minutes hanging up a bunch of knickers. 'I don't have time for this,' I thought fretfully as I scooped the peg-bag off its hook and headed for the clothesline.

Hanging up knickers not being all that intellectually demanding, I had space to reflect that what I'd actually meant by 'I don't have time' was 'This doesn't have priority.' So I gave it priority, and will continue to do so. I might even go back to my local pharmacy and buy that cute shower-timer I saw on their bargain table yesterday.

I note that a new word for Flannery and his eco-aware ilk has crept into neocon rhetoric: "catastrophist". They really do seem to think that denial is enough to make something go away. Maybe they're right: Howard's method for dealing with anything he doesn't like is to dig his heels in, stick his bottom lip out and say 'I refute that,' or 'That's just wrong,' or 'No.' Seems to be working for him so far.

In the meantime, though, my peg bag itself is a monument to the principle of recycling. This stout little pale-green cotton bag with my initials appliqued onto it in bunny-patterned braid was made by my mum, 40 years before her death in 1999, as a book bag for me to hang on the hook at the side of my desk, the day I started school.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Beazley orotundities revisited

Subscriber Jean Burton is quoted today in the 'Comments, C*ck-Ups and Clarifications' section of 'I couldn't resist passing on my four-year-old's comment after he heard Kim Beazley on the radio from the Day of Action Rally – he said, "That man sounds like Admiral Boom from Mary Poppins."'

The death of Nadia Anjuman

Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, who under the Taliban regime was involved in the 'Sewing Circles of Herat' when not yet out of her teens, was beaten to death last week at the age of 25.

Two people have been arrested over her death: her husband -- and her mother.

She leaves a six-month-old daughter and her first and only completed book of poems, Gol-e-dodi, or Dark Red Flower.

'My wings are closed and I cannot fly.'

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Living in interesting times

The last week or two have been so filled with horror of various kinds in our hitherto tolerant, peaceful, laid-back country that somehow a pink-and-tortoiseshell blog doesn't seem a sufficiently solemn forum in which to mention it. Besides, the blogosphere is already ringing and buzzing with the shrill cries of the indignant or (far worse, of course) the triumphant. Some conservatives seem positively thrilled by the pre-terrorist bust, as though its whole point were to vindicate any government-endorsed violation of human rights you care to name.

It would be nice to try to be funny about all this, but it has all gone well beyond funny. This was brought home to me on Thursday, the night before the 30th anniversary of the Dismissal, when Kerry O'Brien dedicated a whole 7.30 Report to extended interviews first with Whitlam and then with Fraser. (See transcripts here.)

I found myself trying to remember -- not for the first time -- exactly what we thought about Fraser, and why, in the days of his Prime Ministership. I was a bolshie undergraduate and took a dim view of the discovery, coming at lunchtime out of the English 3 exam into a peaceful, sunny Adelaide afternoon, that Whitlam had been sacked. Some very funny sketches on the subject were rapidly whipped up for that year's university revue. Characters were assassinated. Unkind remarks were made.

But Fraser, in retrospect, was nowhere near as bad as this mob. He let a lot of Whitlam's reforms stand, especially in education and the arts. He has always been just as good -- better, alas, in many cases -- as any Labor leader on human rights, civil liberties and race.

So it's impossible to tell from this historical distance whether, as Whitlam hooted the other night 'He's improved' -- or whether it's just that, compared to the current crop of Coalition commandants, he looks really, really good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Beazley loses control of his vowels

Speaking as a feminist and lifelong Labor voter ...

Oh bloody hell, why bother going on? Everyone knows there's only one way this sentence could possibly end. Badly.

One night a few years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a mate of similar ideological persuasions who's also a professor of political science (and a woman, just in case there's anyone left alive who still automatically thinks 'man' on hearing a phrase like that), just before it looked as though the then federal Labor leader Simon Crean was about to be rolled in favour of Mark Latham -- which did in fact happen shortly afterwards, with the tragic yet ludicrous consequences we know.

My friend and I could not believe that even federal Labor at its most desperate would do anything as dumb as appoint Latham leader. Nor could we believe that federal Labor's values were still so dick-wavingly old-fashioned that they would think this was a good idea. Why in God's name could Labor not read the lipstick writing on the wall? 51% of voters have girly bits. I'm not flaming, I'm just sayin'.

My mate and I looked each other in the eye. 'If they elect Latham as leader,' we both said, more or less in unison, 'then I'm voting Liberal.'

We both then immediately broke out in an ugly rash, and ate something sweet till the feeling had passed. But it was clear to both of us that Latham would crash and burn, if only because no woman in the country would be able to bring herself to vote for him if it came to the crunch, which in the end it never quite did and just as well too. Indeed, the only thing that really seriously worries me now about Julia Gillard, apart from the motives of whichever so-called friend sent her to the hairdresser she's been going to lately, is her support for Latham.

For despite the huge self-preening fuss that he's been making about ACTUALLY LOOKING AFTER HIS OWN CHILDREN, he's anathema to most thinking women. Back when he was less well-known, he wrote (for Christopher Pearson; now there's an unholy alliance) some truly vicious pieces about feminism, pieces that make it clear he does not, at the most basic level, get it -- which for a man of his age with a tertiary education just does not cut it, even in private life.

His values are male-supremacist. He boasts about being a 'good hater'. He is proud of having broken the cab driver's arm. His election-eve handshake with Howard, despite the mitigating back-story, would have turned thousands and thousands of women off him -- even those who would dearly love to see Howard wrestled to the deck, just in a slightly more metaphorical way. But anybody dumb enough to allow that moment to be filmed ought to have been dumped that night.

Having made two spectacular leadership mistakes one after the other, anointing first Crean and then Latham, Labor took the 'running scared' option and recycled the affable Bomber. WHERE IS GILLARD? WHERE IS LAWRENCE? WHERE IS MCMULLAN? WHERE IS TANNER? No, scrap those first two. Labor in Australia, at both state and federal level, has a long-standing gender policy: give the women the poisoned chalices. Face the Future with a Woman on a Stick. Honour roll: Ryan. Kelly. Kirner. Kernot. Lawrence. I could go on.

Having spent some years now wondering why Beazley so often looks so desperately insincere despite his (probably deserved) reputation of being a fairly sincere sort of a bloke generally, I finally twigged today in the car, listening to RN.

It's his vowels.

When Beazley's just, like, chatting, he pronounces both the definite and the indefinite article the same way as the rest of us. He says 'thuh' for 'the' and 'uh' for 'a': that is, he uses thuh indefinite short-vowel sound that uh New Zealander would use in the word 'six'.

But when the Bomber goes into public-pronouncement-speak, his voice shifts into a register of portentous oratorical orotundity. And instead of saying 'uh' and 'thuh', he starts saying 'ay' and 'thee', as in 'Thee Prime Minster thinks that ay change in thee immigration policy would be ay good idea.'

Whenever the Bomber starts elongating his vowels, he immediately begins to sound insincere, even when (as is frequently the case) he really believes what he's saying. It's as sure and as instant a sign of heightened rhetorical self-consciousness as that incredibly annoying fashion started by Paul Keating for repeating particular phrases, repeating particular phrases, because he like the way they sounded. The way they sounded, Mr Speaker.

And it's an absolute dead giveaway. As with Keating, so with Beazley: he sounds as though he doesn't mean it. Even when he does.