Published!

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It happened at last. I am no longer just a self-publisher of e-books, but a published author in the true sense. And it happened at warp speed, which is most unusual in the world of books.

This is how it went…

Last month I heard about a competition being run by a new publishing house based in my home town of Adelaide. It was only two days before the deadline for entries, so I quickly formatted my unpublished novel ‘Bobby Shafter’ in accordance with the competition rules and emailed it off. Within what seemed like a heartbeat I had an email telling me that I had won!

The prize, of course, was publication. So on 31 August (Did I mention ‘warp speed’?) ‘Bobby Shafter’ will be launched along with the publishing house itself: Elephant House Press. Appropriately, the launch will take place at The Elephant British Pub.

The film rights are still up for grabs, so if you’re in the movie business…

Musings from Bangkok

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That’s not a very informative title, but I’m posting about two separate things and I happen to be in a transit lounge in Bangkok with a lot of time to spare.

I just came off a flight where I watched a film I’d vaguely heard about and a documentary about the Cassini mission to Saturn. Both affected me to the extent that I want to share.

The film was ‘Downsizing’, starring Matt Damon. It has been described as sci-fi satire but I don’t think that does it justice. The title relates to a scientific breakthrough that reduces people to 1/14 their height, and consequently 1/2744 their volume and mass. The aim is to reduce humankind’s environmental footprint before we destroy our habitat, but it has the side effect of allowing the ‘small people’ to use their savings to buy huge mansions in special resort-like communities and live lives of leisure and luxury.

I want you to see the film, so I won’t say any more – except to laud the actress who was for me the de facto star (see photo). Her name is Hong Chau, born in Thailand of Vietnamese refugee parents and now living in the USA. She plays a Vietnamese activist and amputee and she is superb.

The Cassini documentary starred the gallant little spacecraft itself, which was sacrificed at the end of a spectacularly successful mission. It was vaporised in a fireball in Saturn’s atmosphere, with eerie echoes of ancestral sacrifices to uncaring gods. This sacrifice was necessary to avoid the danger of terrestrial contamination of an environment where life already exists or one day may.

I found myself tearing up, not because of Cassini’s death, but because the whole enterprise showed what our species can do and be at our very very best. NASA had a huge team of specialists, men and women, young and old, from many nationalities. They had a common goal to know, a dedication to science, and no malign intent.

The NASA team’s goodness contrasted starkly with the recent horror in Indonesia where a whole family, young children included, wiped itself out in coordinated murderous attacks. This was a team effort too, but instead of being enthused by science their minds were infected by a perverted ideology that thrives only on ignorance and superstition. This was our species as its very very worst.

Selective Schools

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This is a very short post. I just want to give you a link to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author is Yan Zhai, a Year 12 student, pictured alongside. She writes with elegance and clarity, and persuasively I think.

I confess to being a fan of selective education. Comprehensive schools are wonderful and egalitarian, and I know that Finland has them and always tops the rankings in educational achievement. But we need an elite trained for leadership. That requires a superior moral as well as technical education.

Anyone disagree . . . ?

 

 

Sevangi of Bangalore

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It is not often that I am moved to poetry by a session with a call centre, but it happened today . . .

My heart has an open door
For Sevangi of Bangalore;
When my mouse wouldn’t work
She discovered a lurk*
That made my spirits soar!

On Friday my USB optical mouse stopped working. “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s quite old, I’ll buy a new one for A$4 at Officeworks.” I did, and that didn’t work either. So I did the things that any mildly tech-savvy layman does in such circumstance – turning my laptop on and off, shouting “#&$@” at the screen, smashing my forefinger down on random keys – to no avail.

I complained to the manufacturer’s website of course. Then, when I discovered that the old and new mice both worked perfectly when plugged into my old computer, I turned my wrath on Hewlett Packard.

My first live-chat session with HP Tech Support ended in my PIN being invalidated, leaving me unable to access my own computer until a secret code had been emailed to my wife. My second and third ended when the people at the other end found out I was in Australia. “We only support customers in USA and Canada,” they said as they flicked me lint-like off their sleeves.

Today I ’phoned a local HP retailer in hope of help, only to find that the call went through to an office in another state and, anyway, they just sell stuff. So in desperation I gave HP Tech Support another go. I groaned as I went through the same rigmarole with the same robot and waited to hear a human voice.

To cut a long, long story short, after two false starts which ended with line drop-outs I found Sevangi. She instructed me, encouraged me and tried all sorts of tricks that I would not have thought of. After two hours she concluded that the problem lay in the operating system, and the only remedy would be to download it afresh. That would mean wiping all my programs and files off the hard-drive, so I’d better start backing them up. She promised to ’phone tomorrow to see if I’m ready for the operation.

It felt like being told I had cancer. That sounds silly, but it did. On my way to the gym I thought about all the programs I’d have to recover somehow: MS Office, Outlook, Norton, PDF995… how many more?!

Soon after I got home the ’phone rang. It was Sevangi. “I spoke to my superior,” she said, “and there may be another option that won’t mean losing all your files and apps.” She then guided me through a process using the DOS command prompt (ah, nostalgia!) and a long string of code… and it worked!

“I’ll ’phone you tomorrow anyway,” said Sevangi, confirming her place at the top of my list of favourite people, “to make sure everything is still working.”

So you’ll understand why I was moved to honour Sevangi in verse; and why, whenever I hear a negative comment about Indian call centres, I shall recount this story. I’ll probably buy another HP one day too.

* In Australian/NZ idiom a ‘lurk’ is clever scheme or dodge.

Affluenza: A Disease for Christmas

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I’m not in the habit of promoting other economists’ work, but Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss deserve a mention at Christmas time. Twelve years ago they wrote the seminal book ‘Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough’ which pilloried the scale and negative consequences of rampant consumerism. Richard has now published ‘Curing Affluenza’ and was interviewed about it on ABC Radio National two months ago. I was away and didn’t hear it, but luckily this is the holiday season so the ABC’s programming consists largely of repeats.

Richard talked about the idiocy of buying bottled water and throwing away the plastic bottle – an artefact that would have been considered wondrous and valuable throughout all but the last few years of human history – and the fact that the most widely cultivated crop in the USA is lawns.

But the thing that caught my attention was his response to Fran Kelly’s question about consumption being good for the economy – almost a civic duty. Richard pointed out that the nature of our consumption matters. At the moment, and especially at this time of year, people are exhorted to borrow money they haven’t got to buy imported stuff they can’t afford to give to people who don’t want it. In effect we dig up minerals, send them to China, and ship back container-loads of plastic stuff that we use once or twice and then bury in landfill.

In one way this may be seen as a neat circle: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Richard Denniss sees it as an insane waste of resources that could be put to much better use – and I agree with him.

“What about job-creation?” you may ask. Well, if we think it a worthwhile use of intelligent manpower to have people standing around in shops waiting for customers to wander in, or selling overpriced coffee to those same customers when they grow weary and need reviving for another bout of fruitlessly seeking fulfilment be means of material acquisition, then that’s a perfectly valid question. But even if that were a worthwhile use of human resources, seismic changes are under way in the retail sector making human beings as obsolete as milkmen’s horses. One thinks of online shopping, with delivery by drone from warehouses staffed by robots; or do-it-yourself supermarket check-outs.

So what should we be spending money on, if not useless imported gewgaws? Richard suggested care of the elderly: keeping old gits such as myself alive and happy for as long as possible, in an industry that is (for now) very labour-intensive. I say “for now” because, as readers of The Eeks Trilogy know, I expect intelligent robots to take over that kind of work quite soon.

No, I would prefer the Government of over-affluent nations to tax the surplus demand out of their economies and spend the money on their armed forces, specifically to target and destroy the creeping evil of militant religious extremism. Our wealth gives us the power to confront the closest thing to pure evil that we have seen since Hitler. Why choose to spend it on transient toys and tee-shirts?

Sexual Harassment

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A week ago I was in Kyiv watching CNN, and the big news story was Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misbehaviour. Now I’m in the UK, and the big news story is male parliamentarians’ sexual misbehaviour. Brexit gets a mention too, but as a news story it’s not as sexy as… well, sexual misbehaviour.

There are some kinds of misbehaviour that have always been unacceptable, but there is merit in the claim that the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable has shifted a long way in a short time. For example, when I was a lad:

  • Men were expected to be the active initiators of any romantic/sexual activity. Failure to live up to that expectation signalled either lack of interest or homosexual inclination.
  • A woman’s first “No” was generally taken to mean “Try harder.”
  • Stolen kisses were thought to be romantic.
  • A slapped face was the standard punishment for a man who went too far.

FaceSlap

  • On the silver screen (chief source of moral guidance in those days) a woman’s initial resistance always gave way to eager melting into the aggressor’s arms.
  • Almost every American TV sitcom included the occasional episode where a wife was turned over her husband’s knee for a spanking – well-deserved and for her own good.
  • While not condoned, wife-beating (as domestic violence was called) was considered a fact of life that some women just had to live with. I’m not sure if it was technically a crime, but in the popular mind it wasn’t.

Against that backdrop it’s not surprising that many people – women as well as men – cannot take seriously the recent redefinition of ‘sexual harassment’ to include the accidental overhearing of off-colour jokes.

According to pollsters YouGov (as reported in The Week) there are big generational differences in how women perceive ‘sexual harassment’. When they polled women in the age groups 18-24 (A) and 55+ (B) they found:

  • 64% in group A and 15% in group B think wolf-whistling is sexual harassment.
  • 28% in group A and 11% in group B think commenting on a woman’s attractiveness is sexual harassment.

“But,” you may say, “what about a rich, powerful old man taking advantage of a powerless young woman who aspires to a career (such as politics or show business) to which she thinks the man can help her get access? Surely that’s sexual harassment pure and simple!”

I may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but when a woman allows a man to have his way with her in the hope of pecuniary advantage it looks more like prostitution than victimhood. But I’m willing to hear contrary opinions.

National Poetry Day

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“It’s National Poetry Day,”

I heard a lady say

     On Radio 4, so

     Instead of my torso

I’m putting this verse on display.

 

Seriously, why do we have so many ‘Days’? Some are National, some are International; some, perhaps, are Solar Systemic or Galactic and we haven’t heard about them yet.

I’m sorry this is such a short blog, without a lot of intellectual meat. But I’ve been taking photos around Kyiv, each of which tells a story or at least implies something about this ancient, modern, busy, beautiful city. I’ll share them with you very soon. No, really, I will. It’s in my diary.

Design Bloopers

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A few months ago I had a go at bathroom designers. Now it’s the kitchen designers’ turn. Have a look at the three photographs below. They were taken in the kitchen of my otherwise elegant apartment in central Kyiv

The first time I opened the far-right cupboard and saw the band-aid solution (close-up in photo 3) I was reminded of a sketch on Spike Milligan’s TV show ‘Q8’ many years ago. Spike was playing the part of a do-it-yourself enthusiast painting vertical stripes on the wall in lieu of wallpaper. When he came to the light switch he painted the stripe around it.

I’m searching for words to compose a neat final paragraph but… well, words fail me.

Note: ‘Kyiv’ is the Latinised version of the Ukrainian spelling of what is more familiarly rendered as ‘Kiev’. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea and military support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, written Russian has almost disappeared from public places.

Sports Photography

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I have very little interest in sport and not much more in photography, but my eye was caught by this photograph in the Guardian Weekly.

The surfer is Macy Callaghan, who first hopped on a board when she was 3.  She is shown winning the World Surf League Qualifying Series at Boomerang Beach. The picture was taken by Jonny Weeks.

I’m sharing this because I think it’s the ultimate sports photo. The composition, the sense of movement, the juxtaposition of colours… there’s nothing one would want to change.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, they’d have to be very well-chosen words to replace this one.

Sorry for the muted colours: it’s a scan from a newspaper.
Click on Macy’s name above to see sharper, brighter pictures
.

Hunter Gatherers at Heart

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We have a tiny lemon tree in our garden – so tiny that it fits in a pot. Twelve lemons have been slowly growing on it for a very long time, turning a slightly yellower shade of green each day, and today I harvested the first one. On my way back to the house I found myself singing an old song under my breath:

To reap and sow
And plough and mow
To be a farmer’s bo-o-o-oy,
To be a farmer’s boy!

My family left the land five generations ago, but deep down I’m still a peasant. I think we all are. In Australia the atavistic memory has more to do with cattle-droving or sheep-shearing, among the white population anyway, but the difference is superficial.

Even deeper down we are hunter-gatherers still. Why else do we experience a thrill when we enter a supermarket? Why else do we stalk special offers through the undergrowth of overpriced junk food and boring staples? Why else do we mutter thanks to forgotten gods as we take the last “reduced” packet from the shelf? Why else do our eyes dart to the bottom of the receipt to see how much we’ve “saved”?

For two million years we’ve been honing skills that have served us so well that… well, we have survived. From ocean to savannah to jungle to supermarket aisle. Go, Humanity!