Thursday, April 17, 2003

Maybe, Maybe Not

When I was 14 years old, my father would sometimes drive me home from school. He drove an EH station wagon. He always had the radio on: there was Mitch Miller and Doris Day and Connie Francis. And I would sit there wishing it was The Beatles and The Stones and The Who. Then one day, I heard a woman speaking softly against a low accompaniment say:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement ...

As she spoke, I was drawn into her story, although I thought it was a little strange: this couldn't be a song. Then she reached the chorus and I realised that, yes, it was a song. And though I resisted - this was not the sort of music that I was supposed to like - I came to like it. After a few weeks, it wasn't getting played and I forgot about it. I never made the mistake of mentioning it to my friends, in case they thought me daggy.

Years later I fell in love, head over heels in love, with the most wonderful girl in the world. While there were no long walks by the river, there were times when we would sit for hours gazing into each other's eyes. It ended just as it did in the song - she went away and I thought I would die, but I didn't. I did go out and buy an album of Peggy Lee's greatest hits; not intentionally, it was there in the record store when I went in to buy something else. I picked it up anyway. That night I played that one song over and over for hours, until the guy in the flat below started banging on his ceiling, to let me know that it was now his turn to piss me off by playing Help Me Rhonda ad nauseam.

I know what you must be saying to yourselves: this piece isn't going anywhere, why doesn't he just end it now?

In the Red Purple

I'm starting to go off waking up to AM in the morning. Especially after this report on the HIH Royal Comission by finance reporter Stephen Long. Here's a potted version:

At times the hearings into HIH's collapse became an unseemly squabble between the culprits to apportion blame. Some claim the purchase of FAI from Rodney Adler was the straw that broke the camel's back. Rodney Adler said: "It's got nothing to do with me."


Justice Neville Owen's report tells a story of a company killed slowly by ineptitude as it shambled towards oblivion. ...

But the latest sale of FAI's profitable insurance lines to the German company Allianz was the "harbinger of doom".

The report says Ray Williams ran the company like a personal fiefdom, unchallenged by an incompetent board.


Justice Owen says HIH was not a place where wholesale fraud and embezzlement abounded but as it slowly disintegrated, key executives stand accused of lying to paper over the cracks.


Still others looted the ship as it sank.


Like Julius Caesar, HIH toppled on the Ides of March, March 15th, 2001, and also like Caesar, the regulator APRA failed to heed the warning signs.


But the victims could still be left wondering why so few criminal charges? Their careers may be over but it seems few, if any, of the culprits will go to jail.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Finance Correspondent Stephen Long.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Am I reading too much into John Ray's post WHY REDS ARE PREFERRED TO NAZIS, or did someone lose a bet recently?

Corrigendum: in the post below, please read "debris" for "rubble" throughout.

Where's My Rubble? There's Supposed to Be Rubble!

It looks like the ABC's Media Watch got it wrong, yet again. And Tim Blair has the evidence. Makes you wonder why they bother:

ON MONDAY night, Media Watch host David Marr casually dismissed the whole "Pentagon flag on Saddam's statue" story as bogus ...

Tim has found a lot of other media which lend credence to the Daily Telly's claim that:

The Stars and Stripes used by US Marine Corporal Ed Chin to cover the statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square was under the debris at the Pentagon following the September 11 al-Qaeda terrorist attack.

Or do they? Here's the Associated Press version of how Lt. Tim McLaughlin got that flag:

"Tim actually went back into the Pentagon and assisted after the attack occurred. He was given a flag that day and has kept it with him ever since," [Lt. McLaughlin's father Phil McLaughlin] "In fact, I saw him pack it when I was out to see him in 29 Palms Marine Base in January." [my emphasis].

No mention of the rubble there. The same wording appears in Lt McLaughlin's home-town newspaper: again, without the rubble. No rubble in Tim's corroborating detail from The Irish Times either:

"That flag came from the Pentagon on 9/11," Sgt Lambert said with something like awe in his voice. "Lt Tim McGloughlan [a colleague] was there on the day. We brought it all the way from 29 Palms. We drove our tanks all the way from Kuwait City with the flag in a plastic bag."

The BBC's report comes close to corroborating the Daily Telly's version, if you're prepared to accept hearsay:

Marines say that the US flag draped over Saddam Hussein's statue was the flag that was flying over the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

Oops - what was it doing at the top of the flagpole? Wasn't it supposed to be in the rubble? Never mind there's always this report from the UK Daily Telegraph:

The US flag used to cover Saddam's head was recovered from the Pentagon after the September 11 attack and carried to Baghdad by Marines.

There's that missing rubble again. Not looking good is it?

Monday, April 14, 2003

More Second Thoughts

I think I may have been a little harsh on Uncle Hugh : he may have been onto something in his article in the Saturday Age after all. It looks like the Federal Government's head union kicker Tony Abbott has adopted the approach to life Hugh says a lot of ordinary Australians are taking; forget the world situation and concentrate on the things you can control. In Tony's case that means the building unions:

The Federal Government has stepped up its campaign against the powerful Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, declaring unacceptable deals between the union and two big construction companies.

Australia Post will call for fresh tenders for a new mail screening facility at Melbourne Airport because the two preferred tenderers have breached federal industrial relations standards.

The $20 million facility, which will be part of the anti-terrorism fight as well as protecting against exotic diseases and illegal drugs coming into the country, was to be completed by the end of this year. It is now likely to be delayed at least several months.
[My emphasis]

I don't intend to spend a lot of time on criticising Abbott's actions. Not today, anyway. And I'm certainly not going to criticise it on the grounds that it shows that the Government is more serious about fighting the building unions than terrorism, exotic diseases or illegal drugs. Abbott is setting an admirable example of how to be alert, but not alarmed. Of course it's going to be interesting to hear what he has to say when the Parliamentary debate on the ASIO Bill is resumed. Assuming that he does have anything to say of course.

Just Who Did Discover the Cook Strait?

I keep coming across the name of David Stove in various places especially here but he's also scored a mention in book reviews where the author is described as being an admirer of the "obscure Sydney philosopher" David Stove. Since reading some of Stove's work, such as Helps to Young Authors, I've decided that this admiration comes from the same sort of intellectual curiosity seeking which, if left unchecked, could easily develop into a morbid fascination with the life and works of Aleister Crowley.

Helps to Young Authors is my favourite piece of Stove's writings, for several reasons. It's freely available on-line and, as the cost of hard-drive capacity is likely to keep falling, it will probably remain so. It's mercifully short. Finally, I like to think that it represents Stove's intellect and wit at their sharpest because, if my assessment is correct, I can spare myself the tedium of wading through the rest of his writing.

In Helps to Young Authors, Stove attempts to take the piss out of the way Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Emmanuel Lakatos neutralise success-words. What Stove is referring to (part of what he dislikes in the work of Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos) is that they put "scare quotes" around words like "discover". I'm not quite sure how it's possible to wet your own trousers while trying to take the piss out of others but Stove manages to do it. Take for example, Stove's parody of Kuhn:

It would of course be a gross anachronism to call the flat-earth paradigm in geography mistaken. It is simply incommensurable with later paradigms: as is evident from the fact that, for example, problems of antipodean geography could not even be posed under it. Under the Magellanic paradigm, however, one of the problems posed, and solved in the negative, was that of whether New Zealand is a single land mass. That this problem was solved by Cook is, however, a vulgar error of whig historians, utterly discredited by recent historiography. Discovery of the Strait would have been impossible, or at least would not have been science, but for the presence of the Royal Society on board, in the person of Sir Joseph Banks. Much more research by my graduate students into the current sociology of the geographical profession will be needed, however, before it will be known whether, under present paradigms, the problem of the existence of Cook Strait remains solved, or has become unsolved again, or an un-problem.


Although it's a passable parody of Kuhn's style there's a small problem. Stove has chosen a poor example: there are a couple of very good reasons for thinking that the claim that Cook discovered Cook Strait is inflated.

The first ought to be familiar from the controversy over whether we can really claim that Columbus discovered America when America already had a native population when the Nino, the Pinta and the Santa Maria fetched up on the shores of one of the Carribean islands (which island is still in dispute). This same argument applies to Cook's discovery of the Cook Strait unless you accept that the Maoris snuck int oNew Zealand quietly while Cook's back was turned. Assuming that they were already there, it's hard to imagine how they could remain unaware that they were living on two islands separated by a mere 20 kilometers or so at their closest points. If they were laboring under the delusion that New Zealand was a single land mass, they would have learnt otherwise as soon as they tried to walk from the North Island to the South or vice versa. Or lacking the frigates and brigantines of the Royal Navy, they didn't appreciate the significance of Cook Strait to the European science of navigation.

One way out of this difficulty and restore Cook's legitimate claim to the discovery of Cook Strait isn't too far from the post-modernist "one history, many truths" approach. We might say that, while it is true from the Maori point of view that Cook didn't discover Cook Strait, Cook can lay claim to the discovery as the first European to navigate and chart the strait. It's important that we be precise about the nature of Cook's cognitive achievement here: if his claim to discovery rested in having been the first European to sail through the strait, we'd have to call it Cook and the Crew of the Endeavour Strait unless, perhaps, he ran out to the end of the bowsprit when the crow's nest look-out cried out "Strait on the starboard bow!" It's the sort of thing I can imagine as part of the Royal Navy tradition: a friendly foot-race from the quarterdeck to the very front of the boat every time a strait was up for discovery. Just the sort of thing to win the love of the crew, tempering the austerity of Navy discipline by showing them that their officers had a playful side too. Finally, it's obvious that we can't claim that Cook discovered Cook Strait (at least from a European perspective) on the basis that he was the first European to see the strait: that honour would rightfully belong to the crow's nest look-out which would make it Able Seaman Smith Strait or something similar. But only a Marxist historian would say anything like that.


As the World Turns

Ken Parish has given us a couple of interesting glimpses into life as he lives it recently. I'm not sure that Ken has been completely happy with some of the comment he's been getting. The first comment on this post is pretty idiotic and I think Ken might be entitled to throw down the gauntlet and demand that its author (who I have good reason to suspect is a serial forgetter of anniversaries) share some of his own brilliant insights into human relationships. Either that or improve his impulse control.

Now that the vicarious irrascibility is out of the way, I'd like to turn to this article by Allan Fels in Friday's Age.

Mental illness is a subject that sometimes comes a bit close to the bone for me. It did on Friday because, on Thursday, I learnt that my ex-sister-in-law, Bea, had been admitted to the psychiatric ward of one of our major hospitals. Bea has had problems for years and they've caused her family a lot of distress. Learning that Bea had been hospitalised was still a bit of a shock but nowhere near the shock I got the first time that I learnt that a friend had been confined to the cuckoo's nest. If I had the statistics, I could probably work out, based on the observed rates of psychiatric disorders in the population, how many of your friends you can expect to go completely ga-ga during your life. It might cure my grumbling suspicion that I haven't found my fair share of sane, normal friends.


The first of my friends to prove a certifiable loon was admitted to Royal Park hospital years ago and I find it difficult to look back on. It was a crisis for Jo's family and her wide circle of friends. As we know, crisis often brings out the best in people but some arrive at their best through very circuitous routes. I still remember the considerate friend (hereafter Mr X), by his own reckoning closer to Jo's family than I, who phoned to tell me that I was in very bad odour because, on the weekend that she went missing from the family home, she was staying at my place with me and the ex-wife.

It hadn't been a pleasant weekend for us. It was obvious that Jo was deranged (we later learned that she was in the manic phase of bipolar disorder). She was also too paranoid about her family to be persuaded that the best thing she could do was to go back to them. We had enough of her trust that she was prepared to stay the night with us - the alternative was to let her leave and she was obviously in no state to fend for herself. The only reason we hadn't contacted Jo's family was that we didn't know their telephone number, nor did anyone else we rang to try to find it out (unless that's a confabulation to gloss over a glaring and embarassing lapse of reason). I don't think it was a listed number either.

I think that it was also through the idiotic Mr X that I learnt that Jo's family didn't want any of her friends - especially me - visiting her while she was in hospital. At least not until we had their say so. As I write this, I find that I'm doing that silly bloke thing where you get really infuriated about a slight that happened years ago and angry at yourself for not dealing with it better at the time. If I'd told Mr X then just how insulting his remarks were, we might have sorted it out and the friendship wouldn't have gone into a long slow decline.


We went to visit Jo anyway, a couple of days after she was admitted. In the meantime, I had consulted some other friends about what was the best thing to do. As one put it, I was her friend and had every right to be concerned for her welfare as her family. Visiting friends in hospital - even psychiatric hospitals - was something that friends did. The best thing to do was to check what the hospital's policy was. When I did, I got the impression that they were all in favour of patients getting visits from friends as well as family. It certainly wasn't prohibited as a matter of general hospital policy.

Visiting was a sneaking, underhanded business at first. We were careful to pick times when we didn't expect any family members to be there and for the first couple of visits we were successful. At times Jo's condition was distressing and there were other times when we weren't allowed by the staff to see her at all because she was in the quiet room. The hospital itself was a pleasant place: even the (locked) John Cade ward where Jo stayed for most of her stay there. there were no obvious bars on the windows or doors: instead, the windows were mounted in frames that it would be impossible to squeeze a human body through and the doors into the ward were glazed with heavy perspex rather than wire reinforced glass. At least that's the way I remember it.

Royal Park hospital is closed now - its long-term patients were de-institutionalised during the Kennett years. I sometimes come across de-institutionalised patients or their traces on my weekend walks. A couple used to live rough in Royal Park itself: there's plenty of places there where someone who wants to hide themselves from the world can do it. Another time, it was bedding spread out to dry in the sun in a small park on the banks of the Merri Creek although there was no sign of the owner. Just a couple of institutional blankets and a bedsheet. There's a man who can sometimes be seen in Sydney Road fossicking in rubbish bins (although he usually does that after dark). Like Allan Fels' daughter Isabella, Bea was lucky: when she became suicidally depressed, there was a friend at hand to take care of her and get her into hospital. Jo was lucky too, give or take the ineptitude of a couple of her friends: she became ill when we still had a working mental health system.


By Public Demand

I suppose that it's time I put up the now obligatory "Lefty reviews the war and is forced to admit that he was totally wrong" post. Once it's out of the way, I might be able to get on with writing about the things that do interest me, rather than the things that others insist I should be interested in.

I didn't make too many public predictions about the war - I had the basic rat-cunning to keep most of them to myself, at least as far as the blogosphere is concerned. The one prediction I did make started from a totally false premise, even if I did arrive at the correct conclusion, so I'll have to forego any claim to an "I told you so". Pity about that.

Of course, like all the other Hanrahans of the left, I expected nothing to come of it but roonation but, at least in the short term, roonation hasn't arrived. Instead, the war was mercifully short and there were so few losses on our side that it has been described as a "cake walk". After reading this article from the NY Times (link via John Quiggin), I think that in time we may learn that it would be more accurate to call it a turkey shoot. But this does not mean roonation for us: Saddam Hussein has been deposed, Iraq has been liberated and a clear message has been sent to the rest of the world's rogue states. It's hardly surprising that so many on the pro-war side are calling on the Left to stop quibbling about the price of the postage stamp. I know that last metaphor is a little outdated - but much as I'd like to use the one about Iraq being spammed with high explosive, it doesn't fit the occasion.

So, although it's after the event, I'm going to say that I pretty much expected the triumphalism that has erupted since that statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down. Even though the war has been a short one, it seems that there's been enough time for another personal expectation to be realised - there's been enough time for the goal posts to be shifted far enough that a military victory can be counted as "success". Well not quite: as we all know, Donald Rumsfeld suggested last Thursday that the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam didn't use in defending his regime could have been spirited away to somewhere else. Such as Syria where there may also be high ranking Iraqi officials hiding out. Still, we shouldn't let ourselves be distracted from the US' achievement by worry-wart predictions that the US may embark on a global treasure hunt for Saddam's arsenal. Democracy has arrived in Iraq.


As Tony Parkinson said in Friday's Age, while the US' record for playing realpolitik (defending democracy at home by promoting tyranny overseas) may not do it much credit, we should look to the shining historical examples of countries where the US has fostered the democratic spirit:

Against this history, however, there are many success stories attesting to the US role as a benign power. Too often, these are forgotten. Postwar Japan. Postwar Germany. The Poland of Lech Walesa. Vaclav Havel's Czech Republic. South Korea. The modern-day Philippines. None of these nations could - or would - have emerged as free societies without the superpower playing a key role in fostering democratic instincts.

In the general spirit of cheery optimism that we have been enjoined to adopt I'm willing to concede that Parkinson makes a very good point. So, for the next few months, I'm going to forget anything I read in Dog Years, Gunter Grass' {biting|caustic|savage|trenchant} satire on the de-nazification of post-war Germany, with its long dishonor roll of prominent members of the Nazi party who were allowed to resume business-as-usual because they occupied positions of authority in key industries. I'll also be ignoring that nagging feeling that something similar happened in Japan. I won't have much to say about Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos - especially not about the shoes or the Swiss Bank accounts. And obviously there's nothing of relevance to this subject to be said about Solidarity or the Prague uprising of 1968. It's thanks to this sort of carping historical quibble that there are so many bloggers who feel that the best use of their right of free speech is to tell the Left to shut up.

Since telling people to shut up is a legitimate exercise of free speech (as long as you accept that they have every right to ignore you and carry on wittering) I'm pretty much going to refrain from bitching about those demands too, however much I may be offended by the way the sentiment is expressed: if you put it offensively enough a few people might decide that you're just an intolerant dickhead. I don't have a problem with that.


Then Again ... and Then Again ...

After posting "Personally, I Blame the Parents", I had a few second thoughts which I decided to note down and try to shape into yet another post on this report in the SMH. While I was writing it, I started having third thoughts and for now I've put it aside for sometime between later maybe and probably never.

At the risk of firing off a second crossbow bolt in the general direction of a low-flying albatross, I'm having doubts about the story of US Army Private Nick Boggs. I think it may have outgrown its school uniform. And while it's an interesting basis for a post, I think it's largely a waste of time if the original story is bogus. If I go down that route, I might as well start writing a complete exegesis of Aesop's fables or semiotic analyses of Beatrix Potter.

Naturally, I will be embarassed if it turns out that, once again, my suspicions are unfounded. But if they're not I'm going to be very angry: I may have wasted a perfectly good Jehovah's Witnesses story that could have been used on a better occasion.


When it became implausible to portray England standing alone to save the world, Ian Fleming gave [James] Bond a powerful trusty American friend, Felix Leiter of the CIA. Recently, Leiter turned with excellent effect into Halle Berry. Tony Blair needs to keep in mind the priceless complementarities of the relationship with Felix Leiter. His apparent complaisance about the UN's playing a role in restructuring Iraq hints at an attempt to placate Europe for defying its anti-American zeitgeist.

Frank Devine in yesterday's Sunday Age, brilliantly combining cultural criticism with political commentary.

Snob Watch

I should have posted this last Friday, before blogging off for the weekend: by popular acclaim (a whole 3 votes), Friday's Snob of the Week was Christopher Pearson. This involves a little injustice to Imre Saluzinski's piece in Wednesday's Oz which covered similar ground to Pearson's article of Saturday, with equal facility.

Hugh MacKay leads off this week's contenders with his patronising column in Saturday's Age. I notice that Gareth Parker got a laugh out of it. By the time I post this, the ground will probably have been worked over by others too, but there's a rich vein of material here, starting with Hugh's opening:

It's been quite a six months, hasn't it? We've had to get used to the idea of international terrorism on our doorstep (and, thanks to our participation in the invasion of Iraq, likely to cross our threshold sometime soon); we're emerging, we hope, from one of the worst droughts on record; bushfires have ravaged many parts of the country; the sharemarket, and therefore our superannuation, is wobbly; there's persistent talk of an economic downturn; we are officially (if illegally) at war. As if that were not enough, each planeload of passengers arriving from overseas now carries the threat of infection from the SARS virus.

and here's Uncle Hugh's solution to dealing with the worry that these threats inevitably causes:

But threats like terrorism and SARS are by their nature unpredictable and therefore literally beyond our control. The best strategy for coping with them is not to keep confronting them by constant worry; rather, having taken whatever steps the relevant public authorities recommend, we need to focus on those aspects of our lives we can control; to do things that bring comfort and a sense of purpose.


The sad thing is that Hugh has some sensible things to say, especially in the parts about fortifying the spirits by concentrating on the things you can control in your life, rather than confronting the danger international terrorism poses to the Sydney Opera House and the danger of contracting SARS from an overseas traveller with worry. I'm certainly finding that time spent watching goldfish mate is time well spent. I suspect some people might consider that a little perverse and regard the times I occasionally spend playing with a friend's dog "healthier". So would I, if I didn't occasionally suspect that some of her (the dog's) friendliness arises from hopes that can't be realised without breaking one or two laws and a few moral proscriptions. These questions don't arise with goldfish: one can pretend a purely scientific interest in the proceedings. At this point, I think it might be wise to end this digression.

What makes Hugh's advice unwelcome is that his quietly alarmist opening reinforces the very worries he advises us to simply avoid: especially his remark that international terrorism is likely to cross our threshhold very soon. Anyone who wants to remind Hugh of this stupid statement when he comes out with a column opposing the ASIO Bill won't get any disagreement from me.

A more productive alternative to Hugh's "Don't worry, fuck like minks, do the gardening, be happy" approach is to confront these big problems not with worry, but with reason. This is the approach advocated by Barry Glasner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (I haven't really read it - I heard him on the radio). It's a matter of asking the right questions, getting the facts and making a realistic assessment of the risk.

Dealing with all the concerns that arise from Mackay's article would take at least two posts, possibly of Den Bestean length and earnestness. As I'm trying not to do earnestness this week, I'll just finish by dealing with them quickly, in question and answer format.

Has our involvement in the war in Iraq increased the risk that terrorists will pick Australia as their next target?

On balance probably not, and not to a significant degree. For different reasons, both sides of politics have a vested interest in convincing you that it has, so don't expect either to provide an unbiased assessment of the risk.

What are my chances of catching SARS from an overseas traveller?

Damn small: most of the suspected SARS cases that have been found, in Victoria at least, have turned out to be something else. If you're really worried talk to your doctor about it. Find out what symptoms you need to watch for.

Is my suspicion that my friend's dog has a crush on me the sort of wishful thinking that shows that I'm a pathetic and rather desperate person?

Let's not go into that.

A Portrait of the Artist with His Socks Round His Ankles

I haven't been doing a lot of blogging on Saturdays and Sundays lately: it's good to get away from anything assoicated with computers for a couple of days and do other stuff, like taking walks along the Merri Creek, reading and indulging in other sundry amusements, like listening to Bach's famous Concerto for String Orchestra and the Neighbour's Idiot Friends Who Are Sitting Outside Her Door Singing "Smoke on the Water" A Capella Because They Didn't Have the Common Sense to Telephone Before They Came Visiting and Now the Inconsiderate Bastards Are There They're too Bloody Shiftless to Find Anything Better to Do. The listening pleasure rivals Herber von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and the Beach Boys performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The on-line sessions have usually been short, just a quick check on the comments threads here and a visit to one or two other blogs to see what's current. I try not to think too much about the blog on the weekends - taking the time off is important to maintaining a credible pretence that I'm a sane person. Any ideas that I might have usually go into a notebook (paper variety) for later.

This weekend was a bit of an exception - looking back on last week's blogging I decided that I wasn't too impressed. Much of it was of a pretty low standard, even for an avowed Bilgist. Too much of it was written in the mistaken belief that I couldn't really let something I'd read go by without saying something about it. There was also this venture into "Simon Crean" territory, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but really should have been better executed. Or just executed. As it is, it's there and in line with the general Potemkin policy of what's written is written, it will be staying on the web somewhere. After reading Robert Weaver's post Mmmmm, It's Good to Be Wrong, I finally looked down and realised that the elastic in my socks had worn out. I was well down the slippery slope that leads to unconscionable earnestness and, unless I lifted my game, I might have to ban myself from my own blog.

To start with, I got out the notebook so that I could check out those ideas that had been put aside for later; some might be turned to good use. This resulted in some enjoyable writing: instead of writing on the topics that I was supposed to care about, I was writing about things that I did care about. I'll be posting the results as I get them up to a postable standard, but don't be too alarmed if it looks like I'm putting in a really prolific day. I've been cheating.