Tuesday, July 31, 2007

If you go down to the woods today ...

... you'd better go in disguise, preferably with a bucket on your head. And leave it there for the next month or two.

Because for about a week now, and again this morning, I have been hearing a lot of the audible golden syrup that is the call of the magpie, both from out in the street and down in the bushland lite that is my back yard. Apparently ThirdCat's mister got swooped some time ago already, though I can't now find the place where she tells that story.

I can remember my cousins in the country riding their bikes down the hill to the township to get to school, and every magpie nesting season they'd have to steer with one hand and hold their school cases over their heads with the other. They got very good at it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Howard Government not sorry. (Again.)

'What do you expect them to do? Fall on the ground and grovel? Eat dirt? I mean -- get real.'

These were the sensitive and diplomatic words of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer when asked on the teeve tonight about the possibility of an apology to Dr Mohamed Haneef. He did not add, but might as well have, 'I hold the rule of law, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the Australian judiciary, and the whole notion of justice, natural or otherwise, in complete contempt.'

The contrast with the gentle dignity of Dr Haneef could not have been more jarring.

We all know that there's a certain kind of person who would rather be carried out in a straitjacket on a stretcher, babbling and frothing, than utter the words 'I made a mistake', 'I'm sorry', or 'I was wrong.' The question is, are these the people we want in charge of the country?

When -- and why -- did the ancient concepts of reparation, reconciliation and redemption become nothing more than a contemptible sign of weakness? They are, after all, at the basis of Christianity, of the greatest classical tragedies, and of most of Shakespeare -- all things that this government would have us believe they value, and that they feel must be saved from The Evil Postmodernists at any cost. If it were not so soul-destroying it would be very funny.

Never mind bird flu ...

I've caught the most aggressive virus I've ever had in my whole life: not a nasty little invisible body-invading parasite, but rather the mammoth time sink that is Facebook.

Of course I immediately began to speculate about what the attraction is. Here are my conclusions to date:

1) Facebook allows for the irresistible, if disgusting, self-indulgence of talking about oneself ...

2) ... without actually having to produce a sequence of thought at any point, because it's all framed for you already. (Intellectually and aesthetically speaking, the difference between blogging and Facebook is the same as the difference between an exam requiring you to write an essay-type answer and an exam involving multiple choice.)

3) Facebook has lots and lots and lots of toys. OOOHHHH, SHINY!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

More Bracks: television at its best and worst

Thanks to Darlene Taylor's heads-up at Larvatus Prodeo yesterday morning as the Bracks news broke, I was able to rush out to the telly to watch events unfold. I flicked through the channels and found a live cross at Nine, where an excited young reporter was standing in the street telling the story. Bracks had made his announcement to his Cabinet and was expected to arrive at any moment for the press conference.

Not being any kind of daytime TV watcher as a rule, I had no idea what it was a live cross from until they crossed back to the studio to reveal Kerri-Anne Kennerley, framed against the backdrop of an oddly funereal floral arrangement and looking (Kerri-Anne, not the flowers) suspiciously paralysed about the mouth and eyes. The director then cut to her guest: none other than Sir Ian McKellen, still gazing intently at the monitor and clearly enjoying this little bit of unexpected drama.

When he realised the camera was on him, he sat up and spoke directly to it. 'And people ask me why I do Shakespeare!' he exclaimed, in a flawless segue from the interruption back into his conversation with Kerri-Anne. Currently in Australia playing King Lear, McKellen picked up the breaking Bracks news and ran with it, talking about Lear and family dramas and the abdication of power, and pointing out, quite rightly, that Shakespeare's plays are basically about things that we all see happening around us every day.

It was an amazing impromptu performance and it was perfectly tailored to Kerri-Anne's audience: conversational, interesting, charming, clearly expressed, and a brilliant bit of incorporation. And it was immediately followed, daytime television being what it is, by an excruciatingly protracted infomercial full of hyper-nasal, brain-damaged Valley Girl voices extolling the virtues of a miracle cure for acne.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Normal services resumed chez Bronte

The Brontë Sisters are home from their holidays.

Oscar, conductor of souls

I've been meaning all day to write about Oscar (see also previous post), but people keep doing extraordinary things and getting in the news, and by now Oscar is so famous that some hardened souls are already sick of him.

For the seven people who don't know this yet, Oscar is the resident cat at a Rhode Island nursing home whose attention to dying patients has accurately predicted 25 deaths in the last 12 months. Oscar does his daily rounds, checks on everyone, and if he senses a patient is not long for this world will leap up onto the bed, curl up next to the patient and stay until he or she has died. The nursing home now gets on the phone quick smart to the family if staff see Oscar curled up on someone's bed, and it has ensured that a lot of people have made it in time to say goodbye.

One little boy who asked why the cat was there was told by his (very sensible) mother that Oscar was there to help Grandma get to heaven, which immediately made me think of a word I adore but can rarely find an excuse to use: psychopomp.

There's something very comforting about the idea of a bit of help and guidance at the most mysterious moment of one's life. And if it turns out I have to go somewhere else after this life, I can't think of any guide -- either upwards or downwards -- I'd rather see leading the way than the steady, sturdy, purposeful padding of a moggy, serenely waving a feathery tail.

Best Lolcat evah

Oscar, the death-predictin' cat.

Haneef charges dropped -- now, where's the apology?

And in yet another front-page-above-the-fold item on this white-hot news day, the charges against Dr Mohamed Haneef have, as predicted earlier, been dropped.

Heck, and it's still only 3.16 pm (CST). Who knows what could still happen before dark, eh?

Bracks #2

Just watched Bracks' rather lovely speech to the press.

He looks together, cheerful, energetic, relieved and uncrumpled. He is the opposite of ashen or shaken. He can hardly stop smiling.

He says that 'the events of recent weeks' have only confirmed, rather than caused, his decision to resign. And by the look of him, this is true.

So here's my theory: he has watched Blair (his almost-contemporary); he has watched Howard; and he has thought Hmmm, who's looking better, in every possible way?

Can it be that we've finally reached an era in which politicians do not grimly cling onto power at any cost but go in an orderly fashion, leaving their constituencies and their parties in good shape and their own psyches intact or even rejuvenated?

I'm guessing that male journalists and politicans over about 55 will find this incomprehensible, and will keep insisting that there's some other reason Bracks isn't telling us about. But probably nobody else will.

Bracks gone

I spend a great deal too much time in the blogosphere but one thing it means is that I know about events in the news practically the moment they happen, so when Darlene Taylor posed a comment at LP just then saying 'Steve Bracks is about to resign' I went straight to the Age's website to discover that he had indeed resigned, about two minutes earlier.

None of the online sites seem to give a specific reason but suggestions are that it's a combination of the pressure over the Murray-Darling Basin agreement and pressure over the drink-driving son.

If it's the drink-driving son then they should both be on their way to family therapy right now. Imagine being that kid.

If it's the river then he's been an idiot about it -- this Victoria First mentality in 2007 is even more ridiculous than it was all the way through the 20th century. Yes, Howard's agreement has all sorts of things wrong with it, but speaking as an Adelaidean who knows that one could live on the tap water here for at least three weeks, rich source of protein that it is, and who knows that Adelaideans will be left standing when all about us have succumbed to superbugs because our immune systems have been being toughened by the water for so long that natural selection has started to kick in -- speaking as a swill-drinking Adelaidean I'd just like to say gently that the river belongs to the country, not to bloody Victoria, and that the only place it can be saved is at federal level.

If it's just the kid and the river, he's bonkers. He should have kept his job, which he seemed to be doing very well, sent the kid to be re-educated, and done the deal about the river.

But it may be something else.

Now I'll go and watch the morning TV news.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Time to put that 'My Other Car is a Broom' sticker on the bumper

You Are Midnight

You are more than a little eccentric, and you're apt to keep very unusual habits.
Whether you're a nightowl, living in a commune, or taking a vow of silence - you like to experiment with your lifestyle.
Expressing your individuality is important to you, and you often lie awake in bed thinking about the world and your place in it.
You enjoy staying home, but that doesn't mean you're a hermit. You also appreciate quality time with family and close friends.

Via Meggie at Life's Free Treats.

More from Professor Trelawny

Further to Zoe's lovely bit of prophetic Potterblogging at crazybrave on Tuesday, I have another bit of apparent prophecy to offer from the pen of J.K. Rowling, this time from Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Voldemort is back; the newly-deposed Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is visiting the Muggle Prime Minister for what is by no means the first time; and the Muggle Prime Minister notices that Fudge has changed since the last time he saw him:

'Furthermore, Fudge was looking distinctly careworn. He was thinner, balder and greyer, and his face had a crumpled look. The Prime Minister had seen that kind of look in politicians before, and it never boded well.'

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Live by the feelings, die by the feelings

Christan Kerr nails it today at crikey.com.au:

"The PM doesn’t seem to get it. Elections often have nothing to do with "the truth", but about how people feel. It’s ironic, given the way he’s used fears of terrorists, foreign others and interest rates to keep fearful battlers by his side at elections past. And his plays on feelings may have set up the circumstances that could defeat him."

I've also lately remembered something Paul Keating said when Labor lost the 1996 election after thirteen years in power. 'We weren't asking for three years, we were asking for sixteen.' Howard may also have been giving this excellent point some thought in recent weeks.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Can't help wondering whether millions of people all reading the same book at the same time might exert some kind of gravitational pull

Not even the punters who had thoughtfully pre-ordered their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from Borders could escape the Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test of standing in a long queue on a cold morning,

except by saving their $29.95 receipts for later (anyone who paid $50 was seriously ripped off) and rocking on further down the mall to the shop known in some literary circles as Anguish & Robbery: hundreds of copies, no waiting, and witches giving away pumpkin juice and Butterbeer at the door.

Some, having attained their prize, walked only as far as the nearest bench before giving way to the desire to start reading immediately,

and others didn't even get as far as that.

By the time I arrived at one of our regular Saturday morning cafes at 9.30 am, the Aerospace Engineering student and her mother the lawyer had picked up their copies, settled down in a sunny corner with their lattes, and were already up to page 60. They didn't see me come in.

Harry Potter and the Micro-History of English Literature

There is no end, it seems, to the inventiveness of J.K. Rowling when it comes to naming her characters, and sometimes you think she's doing it as a private joke, for her own amusement and for that of any adult reader who might happen to catch the reference.

Many of her characters are named for, or have names alluding to, characters from the history of literature. Argus Filch's cat Mrs Norris is named after the truly dreadful sniffy mean-spirited aunt in Austen's Mansfield Park. Professor McGonagall is named after the poet widely known as the worst poet evah, a Scot called William McGonagall who had no ear and no sense of metaphor but was extraordinarily prolific and remains loved by the Scots (including Billy Connolly) for the hilariousness of the sheer awfulness of his verse, 'so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius'.

But for sheer obscurity and light-relief game-playing in the now very dark Potter story, Rowling has raised her own bar once more with the extremely minor character called Reg Cattermole who turns up in the new book. 'Reg' and 'Cattermole' are the given name and surname respectively of a couple of unfortunate undergraduates who eventually get together romantically in one of the more minor sub-plots of Dorothy L. Sayers' masterpiece* Gaudy Night**.

* Well, I think it is.

** A book that Tolkien hated. Which is telling in itself, really.

Friday, July 20, 2007



And as we count down to only one more sleep, today's issue of crikey.com.au offers an assortment of hypotheses on how the Harry Potter series might wind up. Here is my favourite:

Neville Longbottom manages to convince Voldemort and Harry that they should detain Parvati Patil without charge. This has unforeseen consequences.

In a not unrelated conversation, I was telling My Friend the Lawyer a week or two ago all about my plans for a photo-essay en blog recording the scenes tomorrow morning in Border's when I will be jostling with a lot of ferocious nine-year-olds (plus Ampersand Duck's BB, in spirit if not in fact) to pick up my copy of the final volume.

I had planned to amuse myself by taking pix of the hundreds of junior Snapes, Hagrids, Hermiones and other assorted Hogwarts alumni who abound in the early-morning streets of Adders (and every other city in the Anglophone world, I'm sure) every time a new Potter comes out.

My Friend the Lawyer, scornful still of blogs, looked at me sternly for a moment. 'Uh huh,' she said. 'Do give me a call from the station after the nice policeman has grabbed you by the elbow and said "Excuse me, Madam, what are you planning to do with those photographs of strange children that you're taking in a public place?" and you've answered "Well, Officer, I'm going to put them on the Internet."'

Thursday, July 19, 2007


multiple deadlines and other work commitments
new bathroom basin & taps (urgent)
meaning of life
termite check OMG
too cold to go outside
new printer (urgent)
outrageous behaviour of federal government (endemic)
no time to blog
call electrician (urgent)
no food in house (some might say this was a good thing)
house looks like bomb hit it (need nameplate for house: Chez Cat Hair)
5 x close friends with life issues that make this smalltime stress look completely laughable
meaning of life (reprise)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Olive and her Blob

Some time in the last half-hour since the daily crikey.com.au email arrived, many fellow-subscribers who hadn't heard about it already will, like me, have made their way to the blog run by 107-year-old Olive from 'near Sydney', with help from her helper and scribe, Mike "It's a blog, Ollie, not a blob" Rubbo.

I am so blobrolling this. Go and have a read.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On anniversaries

Yesterday was my dear friend Stephanie's first blogiversary, or rather that of her blog, humanities researcher.

And looking at the date on it, I realised with a jolt that it's ten years today since I made the decision to resign from the very 'ancient and ramshackle' department she describes, and did so, three days later. At the time, it was more to do with feeling ancient and ramshackle myself, and knowing that I had to put a bomb under my life sharpish, or something very bad would happen.

Resigning from a tenured academic job was and no doubt still is practically unheard of, so everyone thought I had gone mad, and universities do not, alas, give you a package when you are a reasonably productive 44-year-old woman, ie someone they would rather keep than lose, so I cut myself loose with only my own savings and what was accessible of my super.

Looking back, I'm astonished that over those ten years I have somehow continued to scramble a living (usually well less than half of what I'd earned as an academic) out of freelance writing and teaching and have not at any point been absolutely obliged to get a Real Job -- though at one point I did lose my nerve and apply for one, which I didn't get. Fortunately this brought me to my senses.

It has not been an easy ten years, and some of it has been terrifying. But a year or two ago I read an article which listed -- though who knows where people get these stats from -- the top ten things that people most want to do before they die. At the top of the list: 'Be my own boss.'

Well, yes.

I read the other day that Melbourne University, in its shift to the US model, plans to get rid of a quarter of its Arts Faculty staff. Had one stayed on another ten years, one could no doubt have got a great deal of money out of Melbourne University in exchange for one's quiet departure, and I hope a lot of my friends and former colleagues do exactly that. But there's no amount of money that I would swap for the decade that finished today.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Festival of Ideas: You cannot be serious! The boundary between reality and satire

I got all Festivalled out for a while there and also had to meet my Wednesday deadline, but there are two more sessions I want to write about before I move on. This satire discussion and the one the previous day on whistle-blowing were my picks for the two best sessions I went to. In the case of the whistle-blowing session it was partly about the calibre of every speaker and partly about the gripping nature and the grave seriousness of the content, more of which, as they used to say, in my next.

What made the satire session so extraordinary was something quite different: the stellar quality of Phillip Adams' moderation. My admiration for Adams has always been heartfelt but heavily qualified and the one direct encounter I've had with him, a brief spot on LNL chatting about a book I'd edited, did not endear him to me (I don't think it endeared me to him, either), but I'd never seen him onstage moderating a discussion before, and the job he did keeping the quality of discussion high and lively and the three potentially self-indulgent, not to say feral, speakers on some kind of interesting track was really quite remarkable.

The three other people on the stage were two of the Chaser boys, Julian Morrow and Charles Firth, plus Private Eye deputy editor and Karl Marx biographer Francis Wheen, an old-school Brit wit and sort of a sober Christopher Hitchens (for whom my admiration has also always been heartfelt but only became heavily qualified when he Turned) without the gravitas, the spleen or the contrarian-conservative politics, if you can imagine such a thing. Which I doubt. You had to be there.

There were no individual presentations; rather, via gentle steering and occasional quiet interventions, Adams orchestrated and conducted a conversation that stayed, as I think it was meant to, mostly fairly light-hearted and very funny but, thanks to Adams, was repeatedly elevated to another plane about what satire is, where it comes from, what it's for, and where (if anywhere) its lines are, or ought to be, drawn. The next time I find myself in one of those onstage chairing situations at a conference or festival I am going to remember and draw on as much as I can of what I saw Adams do, and copy it as well as I can.

The content itself, however, consisted mostly of funny stories and one-liners, beginning with a hilarious story told by Francis Wheen. Wheen is (or appears to be, when sitting down) a man slightly below middle height, with a cherubic face topped by the kind of baldness that involves bare pink skin on top and a couple of thick white tufts of hair like koala ears sprouting from the sides of his head. He had been walking down to North Terrace earlier in the week, he said, when while crossing at the lights he became aware that a truck driver stopped at the lights was shouting at him in a violent and hostile manner. 'It took me a while to work out what he was saying,' said Wheen, 'but I finally realised that he had mistaken me for your Prime Minister.'

A swell of laughter grew as we looked at him and it dawned on us that this was not only entirely credible but all too likely. Then he very slowly and deliberately took his glasses out of his breast pocket and put them on. The resemblance sharpened. The audience roared. Then he started doing things with his eyebrows and his teeth and the audience howled. It was slapstick, not satire, but it was an excellent start.

Since it was a real conversation and therefore meandered and digressed all over the place like Fair Isle knitting, the best way to report it is probably just to quote the lines I thought were good enough to write down. So here they are.


Julian Morrow: 'Observers of satire tend to project onto it a lot more power than it actually has.'


Phillip Adams: ' I've got a new audience of much younger people because of the [podcasting] technology.'

Charles Firth: 'Capitalism doesn't reform itself just because technology changes the way they all do the same thing.'


Julian Morrow on Gerard Henderson: 'You can't win, with Gerard. But you can't lose, because it's Gerard.'

Francis Wheen on Margaret Thatcher and Edna Everage: 'I think Edna is now more Thatcher-like than Thatcher herself -- who's now a bit of a busted flush, poor girl.'

Julian Morrow on Paul Keating: 'If you're going to be put down by Paul Keating, you want it to be gloriously eviscerating.'

Francis Wheen on Rupert Murdoch: 'Murdoch never rises to it. One of the thousands of things that are irritating about Rupert Murdoch is that he doesn't give a toss.'

Julian Morrow on Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating: 'There'd be a role in Rudd: The Musical for a former PM, where he comes in just before the election and f*cks everything up.'

One more for Cliff Hardy

Semaphore, SA, 14/07/07

My local beach and shopping strip.

Gosh, so that's what footy's really about

Overheard an hour or two ago in ABC radio's commentary on Geelong v Collingwood: "And they just can't seem to impregnate the 50-metre line."

I think he meant either 'penetrate' or 'impinge on'.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trying to think of a thesis topic? Take up blogging!

I first took up blogging after an Honours thesis I was examining blew the top of my head off with its brilliant and groundbreaking interdisciplinary analysis of 'infertility blogs' and their posts and comments. The student had used a mixture of narrative, psychoanalytic, new media, feminist and life-writing theory, plus material from the fields of anatomy, psychiatry, sociology and ob/gyn, to put together a brilliant analysis of the content of these blogs and of their democratic and therapeutic nature (including a few incisive remarks in passing about the relationship between democracy and therapy), and to formulate a set of propositions about future possibilities for the medium.

Blogging opens up a whole new field for analysis and it certainly lends itself to interdisciplinary approaches, one of which would be some kind of sociological/psychoanalytic/general-discourse-analysis study of how people behave at computers and what they put into search engines. The terms that turn up on one's own stat counter reflect both the nature of the blog and a cross-section of who's out there Googling and Yahooing, and it's quite an amazing reflection on human nature: on the things people want to find out about, the ways in which people use language, and the ways in which their language then gets crunched by the search engines.

In the course of this experiment in Ideas-Festivalblogging, I've had occasion to check the stats-counter information a lot more often than usual in order to get an idea of how many people have come to the blog directly from the Festival website or from searches about it. And I've not been able to help noticing -- as you do -- what some of the more exotic searches have been that have brought people here. Many of those people will have been bitterly disappointed; others will have found exactly what they were looking for, particularly in the case of the frilled shark.

So before I get on with the last two posts from the Festival of Ideas, here for your amusement is my version from the last 100 posts of the time-honoured Search Meme: here are some of the things people search for that bring them, sometimes kicking and screaming, to Pavlov's Cat. Yet again, I don't seem to have scored any of the real bottom-feeder dreck, for which I can only be grateful. And even just my last hundred visitors have thrown up a number of definite, and predictable, themes.


'ideas to build a cat pen'

'magnificat cat'

'picture cat stuck in fridge'

'cat drama' (a tautology, surely)


'pauls brandy custard'

'frog cake'

'cherry puree+jelly recipe'

(Do you see a theme emerging here?)


'bachelard nests and memories'

'retromingent metaphorical meaning'


'wardrobe fall on top'

'wire in the blood sexual tension' (another tautology)

'prehistoric shark-half eel' (see above)

'cuckold tramp stamp'

I particularly love that last one. Observe the mix of the quaint outdated concept of the cuckold with the very contemporary 'tramp stamp', which is a tattoo on one's lower back or upper bum, depending on which school you went to, and for which the most usual synonym is 'arse antlers'. Poetry at its finest.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- What to Eat: Personal Responsibility vs Social Responsibility

The Saturday afternoon session featuring nutritionist Professor Marion Nestle -- one of her more singular titles is '2004 Time Obesity Warrior', and indeed she is a mere slip of a thing herself, a practised public speaker with those lovely soft American good manners -- began very well when I recognised the man stepping up to the mic to introduce her: SA Minister for Health, John Hill. This is a bit of a feature of living in Adelaide; the SA pollies get out and about in non-ministerial mode quite a lot, so you'll often see Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith at the opera, Treasurer Kevin Foley at the theatre, or Premier and Arts Minister Mike Rann chairing sessions at Writers' Week.

Hill is one of the most liked, admired and trusted of the SA ministers; he's the friend of friends who have nothing but good to say about his integrity and intelligence, so I think there's a good chance he researched and wrote his detailed, charming introduction himself, putting the contemporary First World 'lifestyle disease' epidemic in its long historical context. By the end of his intro, Nestle was looking quite startled. 'It's a pleasure to be introduced by a Minister for Health who's actually interested in public health,' she said to the audience as she arrived at the lectern. 'He's really rare, so treasure him.'

Nestle was using a PowerPoint presentation, which could easily have been excruciating but wasn't; it was a tad too distracting, but she had put the images together cleverly (and it was, thank God, mostly graphics) and spoke to them with practised ease. Some of them were very funny, like the 'Shape of Things to Come' cartoon, a mocked-up parody of that 'evolution of primates' diagram that begins with a chimp on the left-hand end and moves through several 'Ascent of Man' type images to modern Homo Erectus -- except that there was a new figure on the right-hand end: a spherical, waddling slob clutching a burger in one hand and a shake in the other.

Nestle's topic was the contemporary obesity 'epidemic' and its origins, which she traced back to the 1980s. First, she said, a change in US farm policy in the 1970s saw production restrictions lifted and by the early 80s 'food became too cheap and too plentiful' (this had an absurd ring to me; I get the economic logic and the health consequences, but it still sounds a bit too much like the scene in The Grapes of Wrath where they're dumping and poisoning oranges while people with starving children watch them do it). In the early 1980s came the 'shareholder value movement' that saw pressure applied to food companies to show a profit, in this new buyers' market, every 90 days.

Other causes apart from the lower prices and the advertising push, she said, included the rise in consumption of food outside the home (at retail outlets there are almost always more calories and bigger portions); a rise in serving sizes (at this point we saw an alarming graphic of a gigantic paper cup called the Double Gulp, which apparently holds 800 calories' worth of non-diet soda; I don't know what this is in kilojoules but in my youth it was the daily calorie allowance that doctors put women on for a medical weight-loss diet, though not any more); and the new ubiquity of food, now commonly consumed at any time and in any place: 'When did it become okay to eat in bookstores?'

Her particular objection as far as the food companies are concerned is the way they market to children: 'You can argue "personal responsibilty" to adults about their food choices, but not to children.' On this topic she talked us briskly through 'brand loyalty' and the 'pester factor' before arriving at a phenomenon nobody can have failed to notice lately: selling food via cartoon or other cult figures, most recently the saturation exposure of the Shrek the Third 'brand' tie-in on practically half the food products currently available on supermarket shelves. 'Tell your kids that if they eat all the things that Shrek promotes they're going to end up looking exactly like him.'

Nestle listed a number of proposed antidotes, counter-movements and possible solutions to all this: the Slow Food movement; the organic revolution; the mainstreaming of animal welfare, leading to reform in farming practices (and if you think this one hasn't started working yet, go to a supermarket at the end of the day and look at the stacks of cage eggs left and the huge gaps where the free-range variety are all long gone from the shelves); the rise of local agriculture movements, manifest in things like the increasingly popular farmers' markets; a push for change in public health policy. 'I'm a firm believer in regulation,' she said. 'Government's role is to balance the needs of corporations against the needs of the population.'

Several commentators, including fellow-blogger Stu at Le Rayon Vert (who was there; see his recommended list of podcasts), have observed that the audience demographic at the Festival skewed 'old', but -- quite apart from being bloody annoying when it's meant as a putdown, though on the whole people over 50 think it's hilarious when people under 50 think "old" is an insult (and it's to Stu's credit that he doesn't) -- this isn't quite accurate in any case. Naturally the audiences at the Friday sessions tended to be older, because a lot of working-age people were at, um, work. The audience for the session the Chaser boys had all to themselves was, on the other hand, predictably very young. But on the whole there was a pleasing heterogeneity among the festival audiences in all kinds of ways, and one noticeable thing about Nestle's audience was the very large number of people in their teens and twenties -- many of whom, as became clear at question time, were apparently vegetarians or vegans.

There was also the bloke who asked the final question of the session, a fit and ferocious thirtysomething Nordic chap who addressed his question to the Health Minister. He worked in a hospice, he said, and he wanted to know if and when the Minister was going to do anything about some of the appallingly unhealthy food that gets sold in hospital cafeterias and canteens. Hill's reply kind of summed up the contemporary dilemma and the intractability of the problem. 'We're trying,' he said ruefully. 'We asked the people at the children's hospital in Melbourne why they don't get rid of their McDonald's, and they said it was because the parents had begged them not to. They say a trip to Macca's is one of the few things that will cheer their sick kids up.'

Monday, July 09, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- 'Digital Ink: the future of journalism', concluded

... continued from here ...

So it was left to Paul Chadwick, just as I had given up hope of hearing anyone say anything that was both knowledgeable and interesting about traditional journalism and possible online futures, to restore my faith. Walkley winner, former Victorian Privacy Commissioner and recently-appointed inaugural Director of Editorial Policies at the ABC, Chadwick is obviously an extraordinary person as well as an extraordinary speaker.

His background is in law and it is very easy to imagine him in court: he is one of those lucky few with a gift of speaking on his feet in complex whole sentences full of good grammar, audible punctuation, skilful rhetoric and lyrical speech rhythms, and he appears to be composing these remarkable sentences as he delivers them, in one smooth integrated action. He also appears to be not so much a 'Glass Half Full' type as a 'Glass Overflowing With Veuve Clicquot and Here, Have Another One, Why Do You Think God Gave You Two Hands?' sort of bloke.

Like Marion Nestle the following day, except without the PowerPoint, Chadwick had thought in detail about the structure of what he wanted to say, knowing (as do all lecturers and ex-lecturers) that information can be more easily delivered, and more of it retained, if it's presented in dot points, with headings, in a logical order. This he did. It isn't possible if all you have to say is waffle, so when someone does do it you can be sure that they are actually telling you something.

His three headings, or 'angles', were (1) History, (2) A Romance, (3) Opportunity, but before he embarked on any of them he gave his answer to the question implied in the title of the session: 'Has journalism a future? Yes. It is an essential service.'

'History' turned out to be exactly that: a quick, focused, potted history of journalism that laid the foundation for what was to come. He took us through a few precursors of modern journalism as we know it -- the names he mentioned were Defoe, Paine and Hazlitt, who were, he suggested, early prototypes of bloggers -- and through the relationship between technological innovation and changes in the nature of journalism, pointing out that the practice of 'journalism' changed dramatically in the 19thC with the invention of newspapers -- 'great lumps of paper with ink on them' -- as we know them.

He then drew a direct parallel between the historical moment around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries when the combination of a rise in mass literacy with progress in mass print technology enabled the evolution of modern journalism, and the historical moment we're currently in, 200 years later. Both, he argued, were a matter of 'technology enabling growth'; contemporary computer-literacy he called 'a different, parallel literacy ... a literacy assisting journalism in its new incarnation.' The internet, he said, was 'a tool for mass disclosure' that was available to everyone.

The 'Romance' turned out to be a rather dodgy love story about a recent bit of nepotism between lovers in high places that was immediately pounced on, exposed and torn to bits by bloggers in the US. This Chadwick used as an example of the 'new transparency' provided by the blogosphere.

A disconnect has developed, he argued, between the previously reliable Fourth Estate and its previously trusting audience; while people these days expect to be lied to by the newspapers, the emergence of blogging has enabled if not ensured the rapid investigation, exposure and exhaustive analysis of most such lies. Bloggers, he said, can and do quickly raise questions about conflicts of interest (both personal and business) in the MSM, 'and if you think Media Watch is tough ...!' There is, he said, 'a new transparency now abroad in old media, imposed upon it by new media.'

He enlarged on this point later in general discussion when he was talking about contemporary journalists' loss of confidence, not only because 'the economic model has been shaken by the new technology' but also because of this new online scrutiny: what bloggers are doing, he reiterated, is analysing and exposing journalism itself -- 'doing to journalists themselves what journalists, as a privileged caste, have been doing for 200 years.' This kind of change, he said, is quite frightening to those who have been used to controlling information: 'It's really hard, to lose that power.'

Under the heading 'Opportunities', Chadwick described what he saw as another vital role for the blogosphere: the support and augmentation of news-gathering and primary content delivery, a point on which Colleen Ryan, in the general discussion, later agreed: 'Bloggers provide such a fabulous resource,' she said. 'Some bloggers have amazing expertise.'

Chadwick's example of the kind of journalistic support he could see the blogosphere providing was the sifting and analysis, done very quickly because done by so many, of news as it broke -- the release, say, of a substantial government report that the MSM was expected to respond to overnight if not sooner. A 'critical mass of bloggers', he argued, can quickly process this kind of information, 'sifting and ordering the haystack' in such a way as to make it a great deal easier for frontline journalists to find the needle. 'What we're seeing in the digital world is an augmentation of journalism, potentially to its and our benefit.'

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.

In chronological order, here are the earlier posts on the Ideas Fest: June 7, July 1, July 5, July 6, July 6 again, July 7, July 8 and July 8 again.

And more to come.

No, it doesn't look like Adelaide to me either

Looking east down Gouger Street, Adelaide: 8 pm, 8/7/07

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- 'Digital Ink: the Future of Journalism', continued

Chairing this session on Friday, the editor of The Monthly, Sally Warhaft, was grace under pressure personified as what I presume was a late replacement for National Indigenous Times founding editor Chris Graham, who had been named instead of Warhaft in the program and whom I'd been looking forward to hearing. Warhaft chaired a three-person panel discussion featuring Colleen Ryan, Francis Wheen and Paul Chadwick.

(A digression: I should say before I go on that I don't subscribe myself to the notion that bloggers get to call themselves journalists simply by virtue of having a blog and writing about the things in the news -- any more than journalists get to call themselves bloggers simply by putting their columns online and opening up a comments facility, a lesson that most journos attempting to venture into the blogosphere have not yet learned.

A few bloggers are indeed much better journalists than a lot of the people you read in the papers, but most are not. Many bloggers have excellent writing skills but far fewer have the discipline, the formal training or the gifts for clarity and structure that make a good piece of journalism compelling, and that tend to come with the hard training of observation (including of things that don't interest you at all), followed by reportage to deadline, followed by standing by watching helplessly as your copy gets hacked up beyond recognition if not actually spiked.

I think the premature and extravagant claim for blogging as the 'new journalism' has muddied these waters possibly beyond clearing, as it has led to the energies of the old guard all being directed into the scornful refutations of these claims, rather than looking at the possibilities and the positives of online information delivery.

But (a) almost no bloggers have the resources financial or otherwise to take on a true investagtive role; (b) to accept finance from anywhere else is immediately to compromise the independence that most bloggers prize above rubies; and in any case (c) a blog is really no more than a vector and blogging itself a far more inchoate activity, endlessly pliable and therefore used to all sorts of different ends. I think an increasing number of us, myself certainly included, would echo the words of much-admired Adelaide blogger ThirdCat: 'Blogging isn't the new anything. It's blogging.' But all of that is, for the moment, by the way.)

The first speaker at this session was Colleen Ryan from the Financial Review, who perhaps sensibly focused on one particular aspect of the topic: the question of how journalism -- particularly investigative journalism -- would be paid for if it were to make the transition online. She argued a particular and very clear case about 'quality' journalism, by which she presumably meant the Fourth Estate ideal: that kind of of journalism, she argued, will only survive online if it uses the subscription model, unless higher-quality (and therefore, presumably, more lucrative) advertising was developed to finance it. Clearly she was also thinking wholly within the 'established mainstream media organisation goes online' model and gave no indication of what she knew or thought about the alternatives.

I'm not sure she's right about the subscription/advertising point, but I don't know enough about what kind of money some people make through online advertising to argue the point and neither, I suspect, does she. As I suppose befits a finance journalist, and it is certainly a pertinent question, Ryan's concern was exclusively with how the journalism 'product' would be paid for.

Then British journalist, editor and author Francis Wheen, biographer of Karl Marx, deputy editor of Private Eye and old-school Brit through and through, got up and opened with a bunch of cheap yuk-yuk anti-blog jokes uttered in sonorous and ultra-British baritone orotundities, a combination that got my back up right from the beginning. Yes, 'blog', 'blogging' and 'blogosphere' are indeed already inherently and self-referentially comic words and that is indeed the point of them, something we've all known for some years now. Talk to the hand.

All of which was a pity, because he did of course have a number of intriguing, knowledgeable and original things to say: 'Do newspapers have a long-term future? I suspect probably not. Which brings us to ... Does journalism have a future?' He went on to argue that the decline of news-gathering pre-dates the Internet and can rather be blamed largely on Rupert "After all, we are in the entertainment business" Murdoch and his concentration on what it is that actually sells papers. (This point was reprised yesterday by Norman Swan in the best session I've been to so far, but more of that later.) News-gathering, Wheen argued, is expensive and does not pay its way.

Sounding like a man in late middle age sighing about the cheap values of the young, which was almost as annoying as the easy sniggering about blogging that he kept getting out of the audience, he also mourned an alleged decline in the motivations of young trainee journalists and students of journalism, and told two stories to illustrate his point. Thirty years ago he asked a cadet journalist why he wanted to be in the profession and the cadet replied that he wanted to be like Woodward and Bernstein. Asking a journalism student the same question very recently, he got the reply: 'Because journalists get to meet famous people and celebrities.' If he'd asked different students on different days I'm sure he would have been able to find a shallow one 30 years ago and a dedicated one today, but that would not have suited his line of nostalgic lamentation for a lost golden age.

Sally Warhaft in her otherwise excellent post-panel questions to the speakers, in a skilfully conducted discussion, nonetheless showed no interest in the digital at all except for a few mild passing swipes in the middle of questions about something else. Her final comment -- 'People will always want something to put in their bag and take with them on the train' -- was revealing in that it suggested that she had bought the specious argument of aggro early bloggers that online content would sweep all before it and that hard copy of anything was doomed to the trash heap, which it's quite clear to me is actually unlikely to happen (thanks largely to J. K. Rowling, and no, I am not joking) until bags, trains and quite possibly people are all themselves obsolete. And, of course, there are an awful lot of people now putting their lightweight streamlined wireless laptops in their bags and taking them on the train.

(The attitudes expressed by these three people had reminded me anew of something I've fully realised only since I took up blogging: most people seem either unwilling or unable to go beyond the paradigm of the dichotomy. Maybe it's a hangover from being picked for competing teams in primary school. Whatever it is, I'm thinking of having the words 'It's not a matter of either/or' tattooed on my forehead.)

So it was left to Paul Chadwick, just as I had given up hope of hearing anyone say anything that was both knowledgeable and interesting about both traditional journalism and possible online futures, to restore my faith.

... to be continued, again ...

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.

Liveblogging a nice idea but beyond me: at the Festival of Ideas

The 'blogging the festival of ideas' experiment is having all kinds of interesting effects including, it seems, people who were previously unfamiliar with blogging now sticking a toe in the water and coming here -- and presumably also to Gary Sauer-Thompson's Public Opinion and Tim Dunlop's Blogocracy -- to read. While few are leaving comments, the stats counter is through the roof, with all of the extra readers coming directly from links at the Festival website or at Tim's and Gary's and most of them staying on here for quite a long time.

Of the three of us, only Gary has tirelessly kept up his terrific almost-on-the-spot reporting, complete with some great photos (also at Junk For Code); Tim plans to post reports on the festival through the coming week, which strikes me as eminently sensible but which, if I do it, will put me hopelessly behind with work.

I've just been working on a very long and still not finished post on the 'Digital Ink: the future of journalism' session, which took place nearly two days ago now. Part of the problem is of course that one does not want to miss most of the sessions because one is too busy blogging. There is also the question of having a life: seeing one's mates, changing the cat litter, checking up on one's Aged Parent and making sure there are clean socks.

But my biggest problem, and I'm formulating it as I go along because this is the first chance I've had to think about it, has been the one of trying to blog in such a way as to highlight the differences between blogging and hard-copy reportage, for otherwise why do it at all? Ironically, though we all argue (usually correctly) that instantaneousness is of the bloggy essence, I'm finding that at the moment the Adelaide Advertiser is ahead of me in this time race.

Here's the reason: unlike a newspaper article, a blog post is as long as a piece of string. I want to do the sessions some real justice in a permanent record -- far more than would ever be done to them in the mainstream media -- and that means detailed reportage and some half-decently digested reflections on what was said and on the implications of what was said. This has left me with some very long paragraphs in an unfinished piece on the Digital Ink session, and I have yet to catch up with posts on two sessions from yesterday before I get in there this afternoon and hurl myself back into the cattle-car crowds in the hall foyers.

For the usually celestial Adders weather is at the moment highly changeable and intermittently vicious, and yesterday there were some nasty, dangerous crowd moments as people pushed up the stairs at the Elder Hall entrance, desperate to get shelter from the icy bullets pelting down out of the sky. They pushed to get in while the previous audience pushed to get out, and a number of fragile folk suffered: squashed in the rush, poked in the eye by a rogue umbrella, or suffocated by the pungent smell of wet wool. For a minute I almost thought I was back at the Melbourne Writers' Festival.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Adelaide Festival of Ideas: 'Digital Ink: the Future of Journalism': Prelude

I'm sorry to report that my brilliant career as a roving, erm, reporter of the Festival took a bit of a beating this afternoon when not only was I late arriving at the 'Digital Ink' session, but realised only after I was seated, in Adelaide University's very, very beautiful Bonython Hall, where at one point a shaft of afternoon light came arrowing in like a golden beam from the eye of God through a high window (and I don't even believe in the eye of God as a rule) -- and as if that were not enough, I was sitting in what was quite possibly the same seat in which my late Ma sat in at my graduation ceremony in 1976; this revisiting of old haunts is certainly unleashing an avalanche of tumbling rocks of memory, some of them very muddy, and heavy, not to say crushing -- anyway, I realised much too late that I had misread the program and that the 'Digital Ink' session was in fact concurrent with Jay Griffiths' 'Wild Mind: A manifesto for the essential wildness of the human spirit', which up until that moment I had confidently assumed I would be going to after 'Digital Ink' was finished.

(On reflection, I should have gone up to the audience mic in Question Time and asked what the panel thought of the proposition that the truly great beauty of blogging is that you can say whatever you like, and people can either read it or not read it, as they see fit: no corrupting cash nexus, which had been one of the things under discussion, and no harm done to anyone.)

I really did want to hear Jay Griffiths, despite a niggling scepticism about the phrase 'the essential wildness of the human spirit', which thirty years ago, or even twenty, though probably not ten, would have made all the hair on the back of my neck stand up, thereby demonstrating the essential wildness etc. But these days it has to me a ring of 'Women Who Run With the Wolves', and though I have indeed been known in the past to run with a wolf or two, I am these days much more of a Woman Who Potters With the Tortoiseshells and therefore inclined to look on such titles with a jaded eye.

So perhaps my misreading of the program was a Freudian slip. The design of the Festival program schedule is actually a bit hard to work out this year.

To be continued ...

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.

Friday, July 06, 2007

From Alexander McCall Smith's latest book

‘For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.’

Adelaide Festival of Ideas: The Elephant and the Dragon

Last night's opening session of the Festival featured a panel of five speakers discussing the economic (and, to a lesser extent, other) futures of India and China. There was broad general consensus that neither country is going to sweep ahead into world domination the way some people are predicting, and that, to paraphrase the Federal Leader of the Opposition, everybody needs to take a cold shower.

The general view, agreed on in particular by the calm and softly spoken Joseph Cheng and the ebullient Ramachandra Guha, was that in terms of global power and superpower there will be no shift to a different unipolar (or bipolar, as during the Cold War) world but rather an expansion into a multipolar one, with different kinds of power -- economic and other -- distributed across a number of different countries and regions.

Though the point was made several times that 'China and India don't get on' and that therefore talk of some future 'Chindia' alliance probably wasn't to be taken seriously, Cheng and Guha (as representatives of their respective countries) weren't letting this get in the way of a visible mutual respect that clearly deepened as the session progressed and turned into one of the little things that make these occasions so memorable: watching some kind of developing interaction on the stage that doesn't have anything directly to do with scheduled program but, in a small human way, brings the whole thing to life.

Guha, when introduced, bounced up to the mic as though on springs and made an electrifying beginning by reminding the audience that 'In five weeks from now, the 15th of August, India will have spent 60 years as an independent country.' (Well, it electrified me; it may seem like 'history' to the young folks, but 1947 was the year my parents got married and the person I was sitting with, the admirable Morag Fraser -- a member of the Festival's Advisory Committe from its inception -- was already a toddler.)

He went on to read out various prophecies by mostly British journalists and historians that had been made over the decades since 1947, repeatedly predicting that India would fall apart into a failed state: 'For the first five decades of our independence, Indians were told that we were going down the tube ... The Indian elite is now wallowing in a sea of self-congratulation.'

Guha and Robin Jeffrey, a Canadian scholar from Canberra via Chandighar, Sussex and Melbourne, had what were for those of us who have never been to India some quite eye-opening things to say about the diversity of that country from state to state: India has twenty-something different languages, written in ten different scripts, which seemed to amply justify Guha's praise of the way the Indian government manages at a national level to hold the country's 'shambolic' federation together.

Guha and Jeffrey also both made the excellent point that in the face of this diversity, with holders of high office in the Indian government included Muslims, Catholics, Sikhs and at least one Untouchable Hindu, it was bemusing to see the Australian government's attempts via the proposed citizenship test to impose some kind of official monoculture.

The usual format of these panels is one speaker after another followed by audience questions, but Peter Mares introduced and then skilfully facilitated from the Chair an intermediate stage of conversation among the speakers that brought out some of the most interesting remarks of the evening. (All who ever take or aspire to take the chair at festivals and conferences, take note: this works, provided you're well-prepared.)

What emerged from this stage was the closest thing to a disagreement that the panel produced all evening: asked about China's environmental problems, which is Mares' own specialist area of expertise, Cheng replied that there was a new awareness at government level of this issue and of the necessity to do something about it urgently; it involved, he said, some revivification 'not so much of Confucian but of Taoist values', of living peacefully and in harmony with nature -- 'and this is an implict criticism of Maoism.' Colleen Ryan, the Australian Financial Review's China correspondent, politely disagreed: 'The pollution there is just tragic. They're killing their population.' (She may have been referring to this.)

Panelist Philippe Legrain had talked with a scepticism belying his 33 years about the imponderability of the future, concluding that 'Predictions about the future are a mug's game', which made me think of Emma Thompson's hysterical turn as the Hogwarts Professor of Divination, Sybil Trelawny (of which we will be seeing more within a week when the new movie comes out), and did seem, considering the theme of this year's Festival -- 'Which Way to the Future?' -- to be a bit of a cold shower in itself, albeit obviously true.

But the most cheering thing anyone said all night came from Joseph Cheng: 'Over the next 20 years China and India just want to have a peaceful environment in which to concentrate on domestic modernisation.' Amen to that, I thought.

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.

Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007

There was a rich concentration of ABC figures, not to mention some truly awesome catering, at the Festival's opening reception this evening at the State Library. The first person I spotted, mainly because he was one of the tallest people in the room, was Ian Henschke from the SA edition of Stateline, who is an extremely old mate from university days, and then that work-horse, war-horse and hardy perennial Phillip Adams -- who worked bloody hard this evening: as a longtime member of the Festival's Advisory Committee he'd fronted dutifully on opening night and then in the car on the way home I heard him conducting a brilliant, at times quite emotional, and apparently live interview with the luminous 26-year-old author and former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier.

Norman Swan was there, and some of the Chaser boys, and the elegant, watchful Peter Mares from The National Interest, who bears an extraordinary resemblance to Australian opera singer David Hobson and whose father Tim taught me 18th-century literature in 1974. (At this point I reflected on the rich layering and lamination of memory involved in attending this kind of cultural event in your home city: here I was at the opening of a Festival of Ideas in the same building in which I used to study after school, and we were about to move a few doors down North Terrace to the campus of my alma mater.)

Premier Mike Rann gave a really excellent speech (note to self: find out who wrote speech, and whether it was the Premier himself) in which he acknowledged the presence and role of the Festival Bloggers, at which Gary Sauer-Thompson, Tim Dunlop and I all looked a bit surprised by the fact that this seemed to elicit none of the usual anti-blog sniggering among the crowd -- so either the tide is turning, or Adelaide is, as usual, a bit ahead in the open-mindedness stakes. The Premier said the sight of the Chaser boys was making him extremely nervous as the last time he'd seen them it was at the ALP National Conference, where one of them had been dressed up as the ghost of Mark Latham and chased him up the Ladder of Opportunity.

We then moved on to Elder Hall, where the first thing that happened was a funny, moving, intricate Welcome to Country by four young Kaurna men who talked, sang, danced and magically conjured up ceremonial fire on the stage, which made me wonder nervously how much the Festival had budgeted for insurance given that Elder Hall is a nineteenth-century warren, very big on wooden staircases and panelling and full of expensive musical instruments.

Then Peter Mares introduced the man to whom this year's Festival is dedicated: Elliott Johnston AO, QC, the dedication 'in acknowledgement of the contribution that he has made in Australia to the pursuit of justice for all under the law, and to achieving equality for all before the law.'

Johnston, frail and elderly but obviously with a firm grip on the occasion, said that when first invited to speak on this opening night he had said he wouldn't, but that the Howard Government's latest intervention into Aboriginal affairs had made him change his mind; a former Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal deaths in custody and before that a colleague of Don Dunstan's in implementing sweeping law reform in South Australia including Aboriginal rights, Johnston performed a briskish fisking of the government's plans and then sat down.

Upon which Peter Mares introduced the five panelists who would be speaking on the subject of China and India and their projected futures, in the festival's first full session: 'The Elephant and the Dragon'. But that should get a proper post of its own. Tomorrow.

If you would like to post a comment on any of these Festival posts but aren't too familiar with blogs yet, just click on the word 'comments' at the end of this post. Choose the 'Anonymous' option, which will save you having to go through a confusing registration process, but it would be nice to sign your name at the end of the comment. Please keep comments civil, and not too long!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007

I'm sure most people experience the daily battle between the little devil sitting on one shoulder telling you what you'd like to eat and the little angel sitting on the other, telling you what you ought (and, of course, ought not) to eat. The moralising of food and its consumption is as old as the hills; Gluttony isn't one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing.

In an affluent post-industrial nation like this one, though, the stakes have changed a lot. There's now chemical input and genetic modification to consider as well; and the morality of international trade (such as the export of live sheep); and the treatment humane or otherwise of animals farmed for food and profit. The idea of what's "good" in the way we eat has become a lot more complex than it used to be.

Tomorrow's Festival of Ideas session 'Before You Eat' (Elder Hall, 11.15) features nutritionists Dr Peter Clifton of the CSIRO, Professor Marion Nestle from the USA (author of 2006's What to Eat) and Professor Kerin O'Dea from the University of Melbourne, with the redoubtable Dr Norman Swan as participating Chair. The program notes for this session end with the following list of things that 'we could afford to know more about':

-- The risks to health (real as opposed to imagined) from chemical inputs in the food chain

-- The costs and benefits to individual health of highly processed foods

-- ‘Food miles’ – the costs (nutritional as well as environmental) of having everything in season all the time

-- The further dietary implications of affluence that mean most people in the developed world can eat what would once have been luxury foodstuffs most of the time

-- The alleged ‘obesity epidemic’ and what we can do about it

-- The other risks of industrial-strength agriculture.

'What,' the notes conclude, 'are the desirable alternatives to the way we eat now?'

To me, the short answer to that question would be 'Produce as much of your own food as you can, eat it in season, and cook it yourself.' As a farmer's daughter of a certain age, I've got robust memories of childhood eating that make contemporary supermarkets -- much less fast-food joints -- look pretty lame.

Where I grew up, if you were hungry you went out and killed a sheep. Or, if it was a special occasion, a chook. Or you caught a fish, or shot a rabbit, or went yabbying down at the dam. In summer you ate tomatoes that your mother had grown, and in winter the gargantuan field mushrooms you'd picked yourself from up around the shearing-shed (no prizes for guessing the connection). You ate eggs that had been laid only hours before, with toast made from bread baked that morning before dawn in the big old ovens at the township bakery.

(Peace to vegetarians everywhere, but I don't apologise for the sheep, the chooks, the rabbits or the fish. I can attest as an eyewitness to their free, happy and well-looked-after lives, as I can to their quick and humane deaths; the worst thing that ever happened to most of them was getting bossed around by a Border Collie, which is a great deal more than can be claimed by most human beings.)

In the cities in 2007, most of us have lives that preclude the taking of time and trouble to maintain a close connection with the food we eat, which is why, although I still never eat fast food or even pre-prepared meat, I had never in my life grown a tomato until last summer. The astonished pride I felt when I picked my first three ripe Romas, brought them inside with some fresh basil cut from the pot growing on the back doorstep, did this with them

and then ate them is something I won't ever forget. It's not just that there's a powerful, primitive connection between producing food and then eating it; it's also that the process is beautiful and satisfying and will make you very happy.

No time to blog properly so here are two nice victimless jokes


You know how whenever you drop a piece of buttered bread, it always lands on the floor buttered side down?

And you know how cats always land on their feet?

So if you want to make a perpetual motion machine, strap a piece of buttered bread (butter side out) to the back of a cat and then toss the cat into the air.


2) A Buddhist walks into a pizza place and says to the bloke behind the counter: 'Make me one with everything.'


And if you're not careful, I'll tell you the one about the Barnum and Bailey's big brown bear in the Beef'n'Burgers Bar.

Monday, July 02, 2007

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

Just experimentin' with the no-flash thingy. Click on the picture to see what I could see, in my little old suburban street that is so ordinary and unthreatening by day. (UPDATE: there is no secret to be revealed in this picture. It just looks better bigger. The fact that I think this streetscape looks sinister may say more about me than it does about the street.)

What I (apparently) Believe

Further to the Crikey Bias-O-Meter thing, where I found this blog plotted on a left-right graph between Karl Marx and Maggie Thatcher and scoring five Marxes out of a possible ten, I went to this site as directed by some kind fellow blogger and took their really excellent, quite detailed test developed to counter the inadequacy of a one-dimensional left-right model for plotting political positions.

The Political Compass sets you a test and uses your answers to plot your position on a two-dimensional graph with a vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis as well as a horizontal left-right one. It's a detailed and quite long list of statements with four options for response from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree, without the usual Neutral or Couldn't Give a Rat's option. I guess someone sufficiently interested in quantifying individual ideology with that much finesse of calibration doesn't believe in anything as wussy as a Couldn't Give a Rat's option in the first place.

They don't (yet) make the results available in easily bloggable form, but I can report that my answers put me smack bang in the exact middle of the Libertarian Left quadrant, midway along the short diagonal line that joins Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama. Very chuffed-making, considering that some of the other plotted positions on their illustrative diagrams include those of Hitler, Stalin, Thatcher, Dubya and Robert Mugabe as well as, on their special (and very interesting) graph for composers, Wagner. I was pleased to note that Mozart and Beethoven are down there in the libertarian left corner with me.

I wonder how hard it would be to develop some comparably detailed (or even more detailed) position-plotting test for feminism. I also took the personality-identifying 'What's your ideal scent?' test provided as light weekend entertainment by Lauredhel over at Hoyden About Town, thus revealing a certain penchant for Third Wave fluffy feminist pinkitude that had hitherto not been apparent. Not to me, anyway. (NB the colour of this blog is merely camouflage.)

I am, it seems, a Vixen (who knew) and should be wearing something called Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb at $120 -- and for all I know, that is American dollars -- per 50 mils. Look up there in the sky! See the dear little flying piggies?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007

Back in the mists of time when I was doing what would now be called Year 11 but was then called Leaving and involved the second of three sets of end-of-year public exams (no pressure, then), I took a subject called 'Asian History' whose syllabus was, as I remember it, organised around two threes: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam; and India, China and Japan.

To this day the single thing I remember most clearly about that year of study is the cautionary tale of 1857's Sepoy Rebellion. Even at that time and at that age it was clear to us that the cultural insensitivity of the British Empire in expecting its Hindu and Moslem soldiers to use a new kind of cartridges that had to have their ends bitten off and had been greased with animal fat, both pork and beef -- the unclean pig, the sacred cow -- was a perfectly good reason to rise up and slay one's colonisers, and as might have been expected of a bunch of bolshie Australian schoolgirls, we were amused that it had surprised the British.

For reasons not far to seek, I spend quite a lot of time these days thinking about some of these things. But since then, what we call and think of as 'Asia' is barely recognisable in that subject, and the 'Asian history' that has happened since -- at least in terms of its relevance to Australia -- has largely happened elsewhere. So thinking about China and India as such, systematically, and for any length of time, is something I probably haven't done for more years than I care to contemplate.

But I expect a lot more of that long-forgotten chunk of my education to come flooding back on Thursday evening at the Festival of Ideas' opening session, 'The Elephant and the Dragon', where the discussion will focus on the economic futures of those two countries. Here are the official program notes:

Thursday 5th July, 8 pm: Elder Hall, University of Adelaide

The Elephant and the Dragon

Joseph Cheng
Ramachandra Guha
Robin Jeffrey
Philippe Legrain
Colleen Ryan

Chair: Peter Mares

India and China are major cultures, which Europeans (and particularly Australians) have had an insulting habit of ‘discovering’ routinely for decades, indeed centuries. What does the discovery mean this time? And on what sort of schedule does the West have to get used to the idea that it will cease to be the dominant global force in economic and cultural terms? Will we live long enough to be grateful for an Indian or Chinese ‘discovery’ of Australia or Europe, perhaps?

‘Everyone’ has been saying for years that these waking giants are the future for the world economy, but what will this mean in practice? Will it be globalization as usual with different addresses for central office? Or will there be more profound realignments of human cultures? White Australia has a 229-year history of paranoia about the threat of Asian domination. What, instead, are the regional opportunities of grasping the coming future? And what are the vectors (migration, trade, sport, education, etc) along which this transformation might best be sought?

It would also be good to have your views on how two such populous giants can move rapidly towards first-world levels of consumption without destroying the host-organism, the earth. Other panels in the Festival will address the science of global warming and other apocalyptic prospects. It’s the economics and cultural politics of controlling the environmental risk in China and the Sub-Continent that you could inform us about.

Go here to make bookings for this and the other three evening sessions, and to find out more about the festival.