Community

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About 30 years ago I was listening to the radio and heard an alarming news item. Mental hospitals were to be closed and the patients were to be cared for in the community. “Holy cow!” I thought. “Mrs SG and I have no training in caring for mentally ill people, nor inclination to do so! And anyway, since the boys have their own bedrooms we don’t have room for any!”

I was really expected someone with a clipboard to come to the door and ask how many deranged people we’d like, and what sort. Then it dawned on me, after hearing the issue dealt with in interviews and chat shows, that being cared for in the community just meant putting people in suburban houses and flats, procured for the purpose, and having professionals look after them there. ‘In the community’ didn’t mean ‘by members of the community.’

But it made me think: What is a community nowadays? The word ‘community’ suggests to me a group of people who have some kind of affinity, some interest in one another’s welfare, even some sense of responsibility for one another. Just living in proximity to someone is surely not enough.

There are places where geographical proximity and affinity do go together. My sister has lived for 35 years in a 13th century Italian village called Anguillara Sabazia. She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and when anything happens to anyone it is a subject of conversation in the streets, shops and cafés. An old lady died while I was visiting my sister. A poster advertised news of her death and details of her funeral, and the buzz was all about who would look after her cat and who would give her cleaner a job.

Newsreaders often say things like “A community is in shock following the death of a Bungaroo fisherman at sea yesterday,” or “Leaders of the Muslim community affirm their opposition to extremism.” They conjure up images of people coming onto the streets to share their feelings, huddling over beers and coffees or feverishly texting one another in an echo-chamber of agreement.

But it’s not like that where Mrs SG and I live. Is it like that where you live? Do you belong to a community? Does it have a physical boundary or is it a reality only in cyberspace? Do share.

Trump’s 100 Days

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I’ve commented on ‘roundism’ before – our tendency to assign special importance to round numbers. Why is a 40th birthday such a big deal? Why do we delight in seeing a car’s odometer click over to 100,000? Why do we bring out the brass bands and bunting for centenaries?

Well, the first 100 days of a political leader’s being in power holds the same magic for us. Donald Trump has just attained this milestone, which he himself declared would mark a period of tremendous achievement.

It’s certainly been a period of tremendous excitement – a roller-coaster ride for the President’s friends and foes alike, and especially for people like President Putin who started as a friend and has now been re-categorised.

I don’t intend to add to the great wave of commentary triggered by the 100-day milestone, but I’d like to relay a pithy comment from my old friend Ron Allan when the Trump presidency was a mere 74 days old:

“I’m pondering what will happen when his frustration level builds. He has his list of things to do. So far the record is this:    

  • What he has authority to do on his own, the supreme court is blocking.
  • What he has to do through the legislature, the legislature is blocking (in spite of both houses and the presidency being of the same stripe).

“If this keeps going, he could resign in frustration. “America does not deserve to have me. I’m not wasting my time any more. etc etc.”

“It is hard to see him lasting. He got the job with the megalomaniac notion that only he can (and will) drain the swamp. If he fails he will not stay. So it’s a race. Which comes first, Resignation or Impeachment? I think the risk of Assassination is receding.”

They Know Everything About You!

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Or do they? Here is a listing of the junk mail I received today, as filtered by Hotmail:

I have never expressed, in thought word or deed, online or offline, the slightest interest in building a boat, gardening, extreme dieting, getting pregnant, learning the piano or keeping chickens (whether for fun, for profit or for deviant sexual purposes).

If that’s an indication of what Big Brother’s algorithms have worked out about my life, I am relieved.

On the other hand, since I am relying on those algorithms to steer people who are interested in robots, artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial colonisation towards my books (The Eeks Trilogy published in a single e-volume ‘Goldiloxians’), I am distressed. Are my potential readers being directed to cricketers’ autobiographies and railway timetables?! Rather more efficient invasion of privacy is called for, I think.

White Australia Policy

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We’ve had a rash of news stories about employees being paid less than the legal minimum wage. In the most extreme cases it has not been an oversight or a one-off try-on, but a business model that works like this:

  • A small-time businessperson buys a franchise from a big company, such as Seven-Eleven.
  • The cost and conditions of the franchise make it impossible to pay legal wages and make a profit.
  • So the franchisee employs foreign students and pays them a fraction of the legal wage. The big company (the franchisor) may give a nod and a wink, or even informally explain how to do it.
  • People on a student visa are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week to help finance their studies, but they are induced to work 40 or more hours per week for 20 hours’ pay. How are they able to do this and study effectively as well? The likely answer is, “They can’t.”.
  • Timesheets are falsified to make the books look right, and the students don’t complain because they are as culpable as their employers: they are breaking the terms of their visas and could be deported.

In revelations of this law-breaking on TV most of the students and most of the franchisees appear to be of South Asian origin. None (that I have seen) appear to be of Anglo-Celtic origin. This observation sent me to my bookshelves to find an old publication called ‘Australia: Official Handbook’. It is dated January 1945 and it was sent by the Repatriation Commission to a new immigrant. The following passage is interesting:

“At the outset it may clear away misconceptions to give a brief outline of the immigration policy that is generally known as the “White Australia” policy.

“To the principle of “White Australia” all political parties in the Commonwealth subscribe, for the economic reason that the white man’s standard of living would be endangered by the introduction of coloured labourers who would be prepared to accept wages and to work and live under conditions that are not acceptable to a white workman.”

I share this without editorial comment.

The New Opium War

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There are episodes in British history that we’d all rather forget. The two great nineteenth century assaults on Chinese sovereignty are on that list. Dubbed the Opium Wars, their purpose was to open China up to foreign trade – especially with the British and especially for opium imports from British India.

The First Opium War (1839-42) went well for the British – they got Hong Kong for example – so, flushed with the success of the Crimean War, they went back for seconds in 1856.

Nowadays we are appalled at the idea of a powerful state forcing a weaker one to allow it free rein to lure people into lives of wretched addiction, but at that time it was just a matter of free trade. And foreigners didn’t count for much anyway.

I’m struck by (and stroppy about) a modern parallel. An Australian casino company called Crown has built big glittery casinos in Macau and Australia, and at the centre of its business model is the luring of rich Chinese to its tables. They are variously called ‘whales’ and ‘VIPs’. Gambling in mainland China is illegal, as is soliciting custom on behalf of gambling enterprises. So Crown operates behind a façade:

“Selling gambling?! Perish the thought! We’re just selling nice holidays at luxurious resorts whose many attractions happen to include a little casino or two.”

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are neither stupid nor infinitely patient. They know exactly what’s going on, including the use of offshore casinos by corrupt officials and businesspeople to launder dirty money. They fired warning shots which included the rounding up of some smaller fry from South Korea – a device known in China as ‘killing the chicken in front of the monkey’ – and then decided they’d had enough. A bunch of Crown employees, Chinese and Australian, were arrested.

Good on you, Xi Jinping, I say. I still disapprove of your lawless actions in the South China Sea and your suppression of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and on the mainland, but you can hammer Crown all you like.

Elegy

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I lay me down, inviting sleep,
Then close my eyes and quietly weep;
And, weeping, I compose an elegy
To all who haven’t read my trilogy.
Oh what joy when, with contrition,
They rectify this sore omission!
Enlightenment and laughter will
Fill their souls and overspill!

Critic   Oi, poet bloke. That don’t rhyme.

Poet    What?!

Critic   “Elegy, trilogy.” That don’t rhyme. Won’t do.

Poet    Well, it very nearly rhymes.

Critic   Not good enough.

Poet    It’s assonance, for God’s sake.

Critic   Asinine, more like.

Poet    Assonance! It’s a perfectly legitimate poetic device. Look it up.

Critic   Wouldn’t have done for John bloody Betjeman and he was Poet Laureate.

Poet    Well it did for Philip bloody Larkin and he was Poet Laureate too!

Critic   Phil who?

Poet    Philip Larkin! Half the time he didn’t bother with rhymes at all, and when he did it was half-baked. “Clothes, those.” “If, life.” “Back, dark.” See?

Critic   S’pose you stand a chance then. Next Poet Laureate?

Poet    It’s… not impossible.

Sapiens

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It shows great generosity of spirit when one author recommends the work of another. This I now do.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari, and I urge you to read it too. And give it to your friends and relatives, or at least recommend it to them. It’s subtitled ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, and although there may not be much there that you don’t already know, he puts it together in a way that makes one think about it differently. At least, that’s how I felt.

Best of all, Dr Harari ends by speculating about what will happen next in Homo sapiens’ journey, when our powers to create and control will truly make us godlike and the next step in our evolution will be of our own making.

It put me in mind of my own modest work: The Eeks Trilogy, available from all good e-book retailers in a single volume entitled ‘Goldiloxians’, which speculates about our future dealings with intelligent robots. But do read ‘Sapiens’ too.