Friday, 9 October 2015

The verdict on Nine's The Verdict is in: it's a flop

I have to be honest to start with and say that I only watched about 20 minutes of the program before switching off and going to bed to read a book. I was tired and the program was frankly a disappointment, a conclusion others also came to: this from Fairfax and this from the Guardian echo my own feelings. It was basically a shout-fest with lots of ranty bits from promised loudmouths Mark Latham and Jacqui Lambie.

The only coherent participant seemed to be Anne Aly from Curtin University - who was recently also in the news talking about the #freekaren episode - as she is an expert on extremism generally. Watching her being mansplained by Latham was just painful. No participant was given free air to enable them to make their points and all had to fight for space in the broadcast against the most vocal members of the panel. Karl Stefanovic had none of Tony Jones' gravitas and was signally unable to stop people being talked over.

What the ABC did with #qanda of course was to build their program slowly from a low base into a successful franchise. The ABC are able to do this with new show ideas because they don't have the same commercial imperatives making decisions about which shows get to air. So they let things ride and slowly gain traction with the community and tweak the variables until they arrive at something solid. Channel Nine has apparently tried to fast-track this process because they can't afford to run something on the channel that doesn't have enough viewers. The result is this dog's breakfast.

The ABC has fine-tuned its program #qanda over years to the point where they can change small variables - such as switching panel members, or inviting a certain kind of question from the audience, or letting a certain kind of tweet onto the screen during the broadcast - in order to create substantial effects in viewer reaction. Their careful strategy and their use of panel moderation - so different from what resulted in Channel Nine's shouty ranting - has resulted in a program that people can trust. It seems that you can't easily replicate this kind of experience because The Verdict is a complete failure on all levels.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

To maintain a free media you have to pay for news

It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck: you can see the disaster coming but there's nothing you can do to stop it. The forces are inexorable. On the one hand you have the tendency for corruption and illegality in society - even in government and in trusted institutions - and on the other hand you have the liberalising force of the internet, making information free and easy to copy. In the middle sit the mainstream media; those stalwart bodies that break stories on a regular basis and so make society better, safer, and more productive.

Actually there's another actor in the equation that I missed out on above: it's you, the reader. As Jonathan Holmes - who used to do the ABC's Media Watch program, but who now writes about the media for the two main Fairfax broadsheets - wrote yesterday, most people say they won't pay for news. So it might end up being that the only news outlet protecting us from the forces of criminality and venality in the community is the ABC (who yesterday told us that three of the Australia Post contractors who had been underpaying employees were let go; this story was originally broken by the ABC).

Now the media as an industry has many issues that might be best addressed and rectified but overall it does essential work. The media has preceded democracy in every country where that system of government has appeared. In fact, a free media is a precondition of democracy. Along with freedom comes responsibility but in general it is the same thing that corrupts the media - the forces of capital - as causes so many other problems in society. In order to keep both capital and government in line, the media plays an essential role. You would not like to live in a country that does not have a free media, believe me.

Soon this blog too will have a paywall, mainly because I am a bit fed up. I put up the 'donate' button over two years ago and not one person used it to send money my way. So now there will be a stronger incentive to pay. Either you don't give me some money, or you won't be able to read the site. Obviously it's your choice, but I am quite prepared to see the pageview statistics take a fall in the interests of a bit of lucre. I like having readers but I also think that my work has value and therefore should be compensated for. Dear reader, it's your choice. And don't forget: a free media comes with a cost.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Let's tell realistic stories about mental illness

Last night's ABC program Changing Minds showed parts of the personal stories of a number of inpatients at a psychiatric ward in a hospital in Sydney, including 20-year-old Taileah, pictured here. It is an ambitious task the broadcaster has set itself, as for most people the idea of a psychiatric ward is a kind of chamber of horrors where people go when they are beyond practical help. Yes, the stigma persists, but the program might go some way toward alleviating its power.

The rendering of mental illness in popular culture has long been exemplified for me by the cruel demise of Trip in Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). The young man gains the trust and affection of Lux, one of the Lisbon sisters at the centre of the film's plot. From Wikipedia:
Trip comes over one night to the Lisbon residence to watch television and persuades Mr. Lisbon to allow him to take Lux to the upcoming Homecoming Dance by promising to provide dates for the other sisters, to go as a group. After winning Homecoming king and queen, Trip persuades Lux to ditch the group and have sex on the school's football field. Afterwards, Lux falls asleep and Trip, becoming disenchanted by Lux, abandons her. At dawn, Lux wakes up alone and has to take a taxi home. 
When next we see Trip he is in a psychiatric ward, about to take his medications. The austere and sanitised surroundings of the place reflect badly on him and his apparent mental collapse is rendered in the film as a moral failure. We are invited to view Trip's changed circumstances as a kind of poetic justice in favour of the departed Lux, whom he betrayed. So nothing can be worse than the inside of one of these facilities, in the colourful judgement of popular culture.

But things are changing. In Bernard Keane's recent novel Surveillance one of the characters hears voices in her head, and she must deal with this intrusion on a daily basis while negotiating the stresses and pressures of a full-time job. Emma Thomas is central to the plot but her mental issues require constant monitoring, and she frequently resorts to various medications in an effort to treat them. Emma is a sympathetic character who lives in meaningful symbiosis with her mental illness, and receives a kind of reprieve at the end of the story when her job prospects materially improve. More poetic justice, but of a kind that is signally different to the punishment meted out to poor Trip.

In my case ending up in a mental institution was a bit different because it happened when I was living overseas, in Japan. I remember the staff to all have been unfailingly kind and supportive. I played catch with one of the pretty nurses once, and on another occasion I played ping-pong with another inpatient, a young man who had succumbed to illness as a result of the use of narcotics. We ate our meals in the dining room three times a day. I remember having trouble getting to sleep in the men's ward area because the beds were all set up in one large room with only curtains separating them from each other. The doctors liked me because I was well-behaved and let me back out into the community after six weeks.

The thing is that a mental institution can quite easily be a mere waystation on the individual's journey from victim to a life of useful integration in the broader community. The thing to keep in mind is that mental illness can strike anyone at any time, and in any event - because people are living longer nowadays - most people end up living with Alzheimer's disease, a mental illness, anyway. One-in-five people over 80 will get dementia, and the ratio narrows to one-in-two by the age of 85. Rather than being exceptional, occasional mental problems are a routine part of life for the majority. It's time we started to tell more realistic stories about it.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Barangaroo is being overdeveloped

Yesterday I took a walk around Darling Harbour toward the top end of the CBD in an effort to visit Barangaroo Headland Park but I found that it takes an absolute age to get there. You find yourself in a set of new streets just up past the Macquarie Bank building, and then the fresh black macadam takes you to the right back to Hickson Road (what was once called "the Hungry Mile" during the Depression because this is where hopeful workers would congregate in the mornings in an effort to get employment at the docks during those terrible years).

Once you arrive at Hickson Road you have to turn left and walk for a good half kilometre past a series of fabric hoardings and chain-link fences. Behind these structures is empty land that in future is going to be filled with construction sites as the next phases of Barangaroo are built. At the present moment only the three office buildings for the south part of the overall site are being built. To come are buildings that include a new casino, which Sydney needs like a jogger needs hemorrhoids.

After walking for a good twenty minutes from your stating point in Darling Harbour you get to the park. All the good land to the south of the park is taken up with just more ugly development to come. It is a real letdown. The state government should be ashamed of itself to allow good useful parkland to be taken up by useless developments like the new Packer casino. Noone wants it and it should be scrapped. It's a complete joke. The people of Sydney deserve more, but their short-sighted politicians only see the dollar sign when it comes to the use of public land near the city. I came away from my little walk disappointed and angry at the scale of this lost opportunity.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Movie review: The Martian, dir Ridley Scott (2015)

A movie with a directorial assignment like that you'd have to be rooting for. Ridley Scott's filmography reads like a Who's Who of brilliance, including as it does the first Alien film (1979) and the classic sci-fi dystopian thriller Blade Runner (1982). He is obviously a genius and so for the man to pick up tools once more to do something useful for humanity you're not surprised that it's a movie that celebrates pure competence above every other consideration.

I might sound overly Romantic in this assessment but this movie describes a world I want to live in. It is a world where superpowers unite in a concerted effort to resolve insurmountable problems, where women are treated as equally able to lead as men, and where it is brains - rather than brawn or a narrow type of physical courage alone - that shines when things turn pear-shaped. A movie that ends with the classic camp anthem 'I Will Survive' (1979) by Gloria Gaynor, that also featured in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1992), another film about a trip on a red planet.

So if you come out of the movie thinking that this was just a slick piece of mental chewing gum, I tell you that I enjoyed the heck out of it. The casting was superb, the timing of the songs was magnificent - especially when David Bowie's 'Starman', from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), and ABBA's 'Waterloo' (1974) kick in - and the overall triumph in the story of the nerds was unsurpassably delicious, especially in our age where the technocrats are in the ascendant on account of the pervasive influence of the internet.

The story is remarkably simple yet effective. The plot is pushed along by the intellect and passions of a group of men and women following the fortunes of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a biologist with a Mars mission who gets left for dead when a severe storm strikes his expedition and the rest of the crew embark for earth. Using his unique scientific knowledge, Watney works out how to extend his meagre rations for the time left until the next Mars mission is due to arrive on the red planet by parlaying a vacuum-packed bag of potatoes into a workable crop of potato plants. Back on earth, a NASA team led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discover by accident that the abandoned Watney is still alive. Using equipment they have to take out of storage, equipment dating back to the first unmanned Mars missions, they establish communications with Watney and work with him to help him overcome his difficulties.

When the rocket launching the relief payload NASA has prepared to extend Watney's rations explodes during take-off, however, things take a distinctly negative turn until a young physicist named Rich Purness (Donald Glover) at an affiliated agency comes up with a plan to slingshot the returning Hermes spaceship - the craft carrying the rest of the mission crew, which is captained by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), back to earth - around the earth and back to Mars, and the head of China's space agency Guo Ming (Eddy Ko) decides to step in to help.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Island Press 45 year celebration at the Harold Park Hotel

On stage, from left: Martin Langford, Les Wicks,
Philip Hammial, Roberta Lowing.
This was a pretty unusual event in the Sydney culture calendar but it gave people like me who enjoy poetry as a unique form of cultural expression an opportunity to touch base with peers. The email notification for the event was from Roberta Lowing, who had previously been responsible for organising reading nights at Sappho Books in Glebe (although she doesn't do that job anymore).

Island Press is also a pretty unusual institution in Australian poetry. Established in 1970, at the time and for decades into the future it gave local poets an outlet who might not match the publishing criteria of poetry stalwarts Oxford University Press or Angus & Robertson, then the only two houses putting out poetry (I learned at the event). In 1979 the founding editor Philip Roberts returned to his native Canada and handed operations to Philip Hammial (see pic). The press went on to become a stalwart itself in the Australian poetry scene, publishing early works by some of our most renowned poets.

For me the location of the event at the Harold Park Hotel had added significance as there had been many evenings of readings by poets and others in my early days in the 1980s at this place. On Saturday the crowd who turned out for the Island Press event tended in general toward the senior end of the age spectrum but there were younger people present as well.

During the afternoon's program I spoke at length with a woman who turned out to be the mother of Roberta Lowing (see pic). Early in the proceedings Roberta read from a new book of her poetry that has been published by Island Press. Her mother Pat was originally from Queensland and in her youth attended the University of Queensland.

Two other meetings on the day were notable for me. I met Adam Aitken and Richard James Allen, who are both well-known Sydney poets but who also used to work with me on the young poetry magazine Neos during the early-to-mid-80s. The doyen of that venture was Neil Whitfield, then a Sydney secondary school teacher but who is now retired. Neil unfortunately was not at the Island Press event yesterday. It was nice to meet up with these old friends again after such a long period spent doing other things apart from nurturing poetry. As I mentioned to Pat, we all undertook the entire range of tasks required to bring out a magazine, from selection of the poems to publish, to editing and typesetting and layout, through to distribution in bookshops.

It was a grand adventure. And from listening to the current editors of Island Press, who were seated during the afternoon on the stage, the same can be said for that imprint as well. As someone said during the proceedings, you get involved in this type of activity for no other reason than that you have a passion for it. There is no other word adequate to describe what it means to publish poetry in contemporary Australia.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

News about mum is there's nothing much that's new

This is what often happens when I go up to see mum in the nursing home. We will normally make a FaceTime call to my brother in the US and then after that is finished we will get ready to go outside. We'll go for a walk in the park today when I go up to the nursing home because the weather is rather good.

In the park we'll sit and watch the dogs. People bring their dogs to the sports field inside the park because it is a designated leash-off place, where they can let their dogs run around and sniff things, in the way dogs like to do. We sit on a park bench and watch the walkers and their dogs make rounds of the oval. The dogs may go running off to retrieve a ball, or else cavort happily as one dog greets the dog belonging to another master.

Once we return inside though we might have 30 minutes before lunch is scheduled to be served, so we'll go back to mum's room and she will then lie down on the bed and zizz off. The bed or the chair, she doesn't mind. She has no trouble catching a few zeds wherever she find herself.

On the health front, we went to an imaging lab not long ago to check her heart function and as the GP suspected she has heart failure, which must then be added to the list of other major health problems mum faces. Those are the myelodysplastic syndrome and the Alzheimer's disease. With all these things to deal with it's good that I managed to get mum into a good nursing home. She often says to me, "I think you did very well to find this place" or else "I don't mind staying here, we don't need to move" and I just nod quietly, happy that mum is not bothered by her surroundings. She has been in permanent aged care since December.

One thing that had bothered me was mum's relationship with her friend in the nursing home who I have elsewhere referred to as H. In my mind H is rather sharp in the mouth. She often says things that obviously trouble mum, or that might wound her, but mum usually responds to these barbs with silence. Other than that they seem to get along well. When I arrive at the nursing home on one of my visiting days I might find mum sitting on her wheeled walker inside H's room. It appears that they sit and talk and keep each other company for long stretches of time.

I have decided to keep my mouth closed about my concerns with H when it comes to the nursing home staff, although from things they have said over the months it is clear that they know what kind of person H is. She is a bossy person, and can be a bit of a bully. She tends to call out to the nursing staff from her room by yelling "Nursey, nursey!" from where she is sitting in her chair. This can be caused by any manner of concern, and even by nothing at all, it seems. She just needs to be fussed over and looked after. Sometimes when I am there she will call out like this a few times and then she will switch to calling out "Jude, Jude!" in an effort to attract my mother's attention. Mum will often just continue to sit in her chair, unfussed. I think in many ways she has become accustomed to H and her habits.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Twitter to introduce curated news feed option

Jay Rosen wrote a blogpost on LinkedIn yesterday east-coast-US time about the proposed curated feed feature Twitter currently has in the pipeline. This is in addition to other news today that Twitter will allow tweets longer than 140 characters. So a big day for Twitter news.

Rosen's blogpost contains a video where he is shown interviewing two Twitter employees - Adam Sharp, head of news, government and elections, and Niketa Patel, news partnerships manager - and it's when Patel starts talking closer to the end of the video that you start to get an idea about what kind of curation they plan to do. They want to aggregate the "best" tweets around a given topic, Patel said. And later in the blogpost Rosen himself hones in on this word.
[N]otice these terms: “the best of…” “the best tweets from that conversation.” We understand what he’s saying but there’s any number of ways to judge “best.” Which is yours, Twitter? “Pick the best” doesn’t say anything: on purpose. (A group of my graduate students were there and they all reacted harshly to this part.)
I think that it's useful to start with to say that curated tweets - if the topic is followed by the user - will be included in the user's regular news feed. So that's how the curation will occur. I also think it's quite interesting to notice that both Rosen and I focused on the same word used by Twitter to explain their philosophy in these early stages.

The first thing that I would say in regard to this curation idea is that curation already happens in Twitter and it's through the use by users of hashtags. You can set up in TweetDeck a column for a given hashtag with no trouble. What suggests itself for me when I think about these features - hashtags were a user-driven innovation, it should be kept in mind, where users just started using them autonomously with no input from the company itself - is that there's a possibility that curation of the news in Twitter will result in a sanitised news experience.

The thing about hashtags is that they contain everything - warts and all - just like Facebook's news feed used to (but does not now because the company some time ago started filtering individual feeds using algorithms). And I think that this filtering was something that users generally did not support. The danger with Twitter is that down the track they might get the same urge to meddle with the pure feed of tweets from people you follow, creating a hybrid that might suit the company's purposes but that might detract from the Twitter experience for the user.

Getting back to the editorial task Twitter is proposing to perform, you get the feeling that some of the mongrel will be taken out of the news with this new curation regime. Let's see. You have educated young Americans sitting in a room somewhere in Silicon Valley curating tweets produced halfway round the world by thousands of different people, with differing styles and differing educational levels. I suspect that the tweets that get selected will be the better-written and better constructed ones, leaving people who don't have such a good education to be excluded. This could create an artificial impression of the news event, and potentially exclude some important voices from the news feeds of other users. It is also kind of discriminatory.

The main thing then becomes the ability for the user to choose. As long as users can choose either the hashtag or the curated feed, then it will be ok. Experienced users who prefer an unfiltered news experience will simply ignore the curated feed option, and go for the hashtag instead.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Theatre review: This Is Not A Love Story, Kathryn Koromilas

Performance part of Script-in-Hand at World Bar in Bayswater Road, Kings Cross, 28 September 2015. Script-in-Hand is produced by Actors Anonymous, a non-profit association.

Metafiction or the self-conscious narrative is hardly new. Writers have been incorporating their own personas into their texts for as long as vernacular writing has existed, the most famous probably being Dante's Commedia (1320) where the author Dante is a character in the work; amusingly perhaps he is escorted into the world after death by Virgil, the famous Classical poet and another authorial invention.

In what historians call the Modern age you have signs of metafiction appearing in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1602), where the play-within-the-play is used to reveal to the criminals that their crime is known. Then of course you have the even-more-famous Don Quixote (1605) by the Spanish war veteran Cervantes, where the mediative tendency of popular fiction is a major plot device; the disordered don treats reality as though it were all part of a novel, with hilarious consequences. Later, in the era of lending libraries and knee breeches you get Tristram Shandy (1759) by the distinctly odd Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne. Sterne's disordering of the printed text is quite extraordinary for the age in which it appears. He privileges the writerliness of the text in a way that would not be equaled until the 20th century.

This exegesis is all just to underline that self-conscious fiction should hold no major novelty for a contemporary audience watching a play of this kind, and so when you come across it you should merely ask why it is the method used to convey meaning in the case.

In the case of Koromilas' drama it is used in order to do a number of things, I propose, not the least among them the task of showing how mediated have become our emotions in the postmodern age. In this way, the play reminded me of another love story, Australian novelist Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway (2012), which involves the actions of two people in the late afternoon and evening of one weekday in inner-western Sydney. In a similar way, Koromilas' play offers us a single moment: when a woman tells a man that she is not happy with their relationship. In the play the man (simply 'Man', played by Michael Faustmann) is the husband of the woman ('Woman', played by Sally Williams). It is an existential crisis for the woman, this perception of failed love, because it might lead to separation, and even divorce. Traumatic events for any couple.

In Macris' book there is also an emotional crisis at the end that, you suppose, might lead to a workable solution. In Koromilas' play you get at the end the possibility of a workable solution (as well as a good solid laugh in the hilarious final line; this play is really fun).

I deliberately used the phrase "workable solution" to point here to the matter of teamwork. I wanted to take a phrase out of the lexicon of the program manager. In this vein, the stage is minimally furnished in a Beckettian way with just two chairs - one for Man and one Woman - and a desk that Author and Novelist buzz around like a couple of well-read blowflies.

The cast clockwise from top left: Hong, Duncan, St John, Faustmann, Williams.

The intellectual Author (Edric Hong) and the rather more sensual Novelist (Jay Duncan) he ropes into the task of creating meaning are accompanied in the play by the flamboyant Director (Eliza St John) who mediates their creation for the audience. (The presence of the audience is made even more palpable due to scripted interjections from the Director, who sits in the front row, in front of the stage where the drama is playing out.) Koromilas herself, as program-manager-ex-machina, made a short appearance at the front of proceedings on the night to introduce her creation to us.

With so many actors involved in the production of meaning you get an interrupted forward movement in the play that sort of resembles driving a car in heavy traffic. It is a familiar experience for people living in today's world. You constantly accelerate and break in alternation. The play consequently has a chaotic and unhinged feel that the actors played off effectively.

But I think that in general the presence of so many meta-fictional personae in the play points also to the way that work is often performed in contemporary society. Koromilas scripts (program-manages) the play in a way that brings to mind the way teams are deployed in corporations and other organisations in order to perform work. (Everyone has seen those phrases in employment ads, as for example "Must be a team player, and be able to work unsupervised".)

There is something so modern about this conception of the dramatic production in the play, quite resembling a world where disciplines are so fractured and divided that nobody actually makes anything wholly any more. All "work" is atomised to such a degree that we only each perform minute parts of the effort required to produce something complete. In a services economy like Australia's, furthermore, a "product" might just as well be a message or a piece of text (like a play, for example) that is released into the mediated public sphere in order to achieve a specific goal.

But Koromilas' play manages to do more than just convey ideas about the nature of work in modern society. There are interesting truths here about the nature of love. A traditional locus of meaning generation for fiction and popular culture more broadly, love is something like an essential human activity, and is common to all of us. Which is why it is necessary - you might venture - for Koromilas to make visible the various actors involved in the process of mediation of meaning that goes on all the time in society. What does "falling in love" mean in this context? And what about "falling out of love"? Koromilas takes us on a thrilling ride as she explores these popular tropes in this knowing drama.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Unions are essential in a migrant society

The ideologically-motivated royal commission established by the previous Coalition government with the purpose of investigating corruption in Australian unions remains on the table but what the government should actually be turning its mind to are the tens of thousands of people working in Australia who are not paid correctly. The fact is that despite how terrible it is that a number of 7-Eleven outlets have chosen to underpay workers, that case represents merely the tip of the iceberg. I suspect that there are two elements to the problem.

One is lack of unionisation among Australian residents who do not know what they are entitled to be paid or, for that matter, do not know what their overall entitlements are in the workforce. These people might be recent migrants who have been forced to accept incorrect wages and are too afraid of losing their jobs to say anything about it to anyone. Such people are exactly the kinds of workers that unions are designed to protect but many will be falling through the cracks. Even approaching a union might get their employer's back up, and they will be asking themselves if it's worth the risk.

The other group of people who are being paid incorrectly by exploitative employers are international students. Even less well-integrated into the community, such people have very little understanding of what their rights are, and no confidence to seek help from the appropriate bodies that exist in the Australian community, a pace where they anyway feel like strangers. Accustomed to exploitative employment ecosystems in their home countries they just put up with similar kinds of exploitation here. This is where the 7-Eleven workers fit in.

On top of these problems - problems that are part and parcel of a migrant society like Australia, where the participation of unions clearly continues to be essential, for the reasons outlined above - the government now wants to attack penalty rates paid to workers who choose to work on Sundays. This is a little obsession among parts of the libertarian right in Australia, and is designed to get us used to accepting a more unfair workplace generally, along the lines that have been pioneered in America, where low-wage workers earn less than half what they do in Australia.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Tribute for school head diagnosed with cancer

School principal Briony Scott, who is married to ABC managing director Mark Scott, was diagnosed recently with cancer but her students haven't left her to combat the disease alone having made a video with a musical soundtrack as a tribute. I recommend that you watch this as it is a moving gesture for someone who evidently has earned the affection of both students and staff at Wenona, the school she heads. The song that is used in the soundtrack of the video is 'Brave' by Sara Bareilles. It's infectious.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Researchers distance themselves from government brochure

While the rest of the country was attacking a brochure produced by the government to help schools identify young people who might be becoming radicalised, an Adelaide freelance journalist took his questions to the researchers whose work sits behind the offending literature.

Royce Kurmelovs today published in Vice magazine a story about the researchers behind the brochure, who are keen to distance themselves from it. Kurmelovs spoke with one of the researchers, Professor Luke Howie, deputy director of Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre. He also spoke with Dr Anne Aly from Curtin University, who also works in the field.

Howie told Kurmelovs: "When we talk about violent extremism, we're talking about people trying to kill people. I've never thought of someone like Karen in that way. I personally have never equated someone like Karen with extremism," he said. "If anyone took away from that report that environmental activism is in the same bucket as ISIS that would be a real problem."

And Aly told him: "History has told us that profiles don't work," she said. "The problem that I have with giving individual cases like that out of context is that I could give you 100 different cases and they'll all be different. There is no singular pathway to extremism. There is no model because they are all different. So having these case studies could backfire."

When I spoke to Kurmelovs on Twitter I suggested that the brochure appeared to be a bit of "sexing up" of the research for ideological purposes but he demurred. "I'm not so certain," he wrote. "If anything I feel it's a very conservative interpretation of many years of research.

"And I imagine in the eyes of the authors they made a real effort to balanced," Kurmelovs continued.

But the timing of the release was problematic. "[I]t came at a time just after Abbott attempted to declare [war] on green groups with the lawfare thing. Awkward context."

Awkward is the right word, I thought to myself. I said to Kurmelovs that the way the researchers and authors behind it were running for cover reminded me of David Kelly, the British weapons expert whose reports had been manipulated by the British government in order to justify going to war against Iraq. Kelly suicided in 2003.

"Judging by the hashtag most [people] have already made up their minds [about] the motives for the offending case study," I wrote.

"And rightly so, really," wrote Kurmelovs. "Putting any sort of profile out to the community like that is useless and potentially harmful."

Should you review a book if you don't like it?

I've been struggling with a book over the past few days. I might pick it up at bedtime and read it for five minutes or so, until I get to the end of another section, then put it down and turn off the light, happy to get some rest. At other times, for example during morning hours when I often read books in my living area, I won't even think about approaching it on my Kindle. At these times I'm happy following conversations on social media or writing blogposts about politics or the new public sphere. And the book languishes, even though I paid the dollar price for it and it is sitting there, waiting patiently - like some digital hound wanting to go for a walk - to be picked up.

With the book before this it was similar. I would read a bit before going to sleep but that's it. This is not the way you show appreciation for something that really engages you. If you like a book inordinately you will rush to open it as soon as you get a chance, and you will stay up reading it into the small hours of the morning in an effort to finish it. That's how I finished Bernard Keane's Surveillance, which I reviewed at the beginning of this month. Not all books get a good review, however.The issue at hand here is whether to do a hatchet job on something you don't really like, pointing out what you see as its flaws. In some cases, for example with Atule Gawande's Being Mortal, which I reviewed back in early August, the review will be negative.

In Gawande's case I went to the trouble of doing a review even though I didn't really like his book because he's a successful writer who probably doesn't need the accolades of an obscure Australian reviewer like me. Gawande has been a feature writer for the New Yorker for as long as I've been aware of him. He's also a practicing surgeon. So I guess that he won't really care what I think as he has plenty of other people to support his authorial practice in a way he has become accustomed to. For the two books I recently tried unsuccessfully to finish however the case is not quite the same.

The first of these books is a memoir by a famous entertainment figure in Australia. To start with I found the book betrayed a very ordinary imagination. There was no sign in it of a special intelligence that might shine out to illuminate my experience. Not only that but the writing itself has problems. In a memoir you often talk about family and it is easy to lose the reader as you are describing these blood ties in all the intricate detail that your memory demands. The problem in this book is that the reader just cannot keep up. After a while you don't know who "he" or "she" are. I put this failing down to more than just poor execution alone however, but also slate it home to inadequate editing. This is the sort of problem that the publishing company should be able to help the writer to correct.

The second of these books is a social study with a basic thesis that the author chooses to express in two words, which are both capitalised. The major problem with the book is that the underlying idea ostensibly encapsulated in those two words just is not clear. What is she talking about? What is the main gist of the book? What is its thesis? It's all very confusing, although you do get the idea that the author herself is able to string the ideas together into a solid formula. The writing is sometimes analytical and sometimes she uses the forms that we are all familiar with from reading journalism, especially the interviews. The underlying concept that is supposed to tie the book together was not properly articulated for me however so I put the book down and didn't pick it up again.

My problem is that in both of these cases I consider my opinion to have the potential to cause discomfort, so I don't feel right about writing the review to include the title of the book and the name of the author. I do not want to be the cause of pain to anyone and so I keep my own counsel. I do fear however that by behaving in this way I help to impoverish the Australian literary world, as I think that my opinions on books are valid and useful. A bit of temporary discomfort might result later in new ideas and different ways of approaching the task of writing, for the primary subjects, the authors involved. But I don't have the courage or the heart, and I fear that this is a failing of my own.

How social media can be a force for good

Yesterday morning when news of the anti-radicalisation kit the federal government had released into schools became public knowledge I had an idea for a blogpost but I had to go shopping for groceries and other things, so it wasn't until I had returned around midday that I got a chance to sit down to write it. By that time the #freekaren hashtag on Twitter had already started in a major way.

The hashtag trended all afternoon, becoming the number-one hashtag on Twitter in Australia for hour after hour as people across the country expressed their disbelief and frustration at the leadership of Tony Abbott, replaced just short of two weeks ago as prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull. It was extraordinary how ordinary people had taken a stand and the condemnation was almost universal. This is how social media can be a bulwark against government abuse. Against fascism. Against narrow partisan interests gaining excessive influence in society.

Some of the tweets were humorous, and some were outraged. Mostly they combined both tendencies, such as one by @sarahmiow who wrote "I've got a Joan Baez record in my Jane Goodall Foundation calico bag...I think I might BE Karen  #freekaren #auspol". Another, by @stellaspoons, went "I'm a Left-wing activist and alternative music fan for 30+ years. Married 24yrs, 2 kids, self-employed..I clearly need help! :-/ #FreeKaren" And then there was @dan_rowe12 who wrote "Listening to @triplej all day to accelerate my development as a violent extremist #freekaren #auspol" And then there were the memes, like this clever one from @joelrdodd:

There were also media analyses of the phenomenon of the government brochure being ripped into by the public on Twitter, such as this story by the Fairfax publication Daily Life. From overseas, the BBC got into the action with its own story on what was happening in Australia.

It was  a wonderful moment and I was deeply moved because proud of my fellow countrymen and -women. And my mind all on its own went back to the image of a recently-installed statue at the Sydney Cricket Ground rendering in bronze the figure of "Yabba", a famous heckler who had attended many matches at the ground. The statue is by Sydney artist Cathy Weiszmann. It represents something essential about Australians, who will not have their freedoms lightly taken away and who cannot abide pomposity or cant.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Conservative booklet is a cause for national shame

This one's easy. In a Guardian story posted online this morning we learn of a new brochure for distribution in schools (in an "anti-radicalisation kit") that the government thinks is going to help Australia remain free of "violent extremism" and "radicalisation". To be helpful, the brochure includes case studies including one on a person they call "Karen" who gets involved in a bit of environmental activism in preference to completing her university studies.

You can hear the jackboots approaching in this case study. This is what happens when governments that are violently extremist in their conservative ideology lose sight of the universal values that reflect the best of our civilisation. Things, they suggest, that are indelibly associated with the left of politics and which therefore cannot be trusted. You come across the same kind of illogical ranting when you watch Andrew Bolt's TV program on Channel Ten. The right just cannot make sense because, well, they are just freakish ideologues enamoured of the narrow set of special interests they like to push down the throats of the broader community.

The person responsible for the school brochure is Michael Keenan but presumably - considering the speed with which this toxic little production emerged following the Liberal party-room spill early last week - someone else was in charge of putting the document together. Someone in the Abbott government. Which is hardly a surprise.

What can you say? Should we be retrospectively classifying Rosa Parks - the American civil rights era activist - or Mary Lee - the Australian suffragette - as "violent extremists" and censuring them? Surely the problem is with radical Islam and not Greenpeace? I have friends in this organisation and I can heartily say that they are dedicated to doing good in the world, even if that means ruffling the feathers of a recalcitrant global corporation or two.

Shame on the Coalition for bringing this kind of poisonous, deranged and dangerous material into our schools. What kind of example does this set for children, let alone teachers - the case of the Texan schoolboy who brought a homemade clock into the classroom a few weeks ago comes to mind. This booklet should be recalled and pulped immediately. It has nothing to do with what Australians in every generation have fought and died for. Shame!

Turnbull's first policy announcement brings him back to the centre

The domestic violence policy announcement, it's impossible imagining Tony Abbott doing something like that. Abbott would have found the problem too touchy-feely, too human, too expensive (Turnbull has promised $100 million). But already on the same day as the announcement by Turnbull that he would tackle domestic violence head-on, Labor came out on TV in support of the move. The next day the Greens publicly said they agreed with it. It's amazing.

Millions of women in Australia will have breathed a sigh of relief. Already this year, 63 Australian women have been killed by their partners. And it's not an unusual statistic. Rather, it's the norm. Hence the pressing nature of the proposal to do something to make it easier for women to be free of the men who are making their lives miserable. Even under state law in New South Wales, for example, everyone is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.

It is such a relief to have Abbott gone. It has been almost two weeks now since the party-room spill but this is the first time I have said as much on this blog. The sensation of freedom, of an unaccountable burden removed, of a terrible curse on the fortunes of the country lifted. We shouldn't forget however that the reason why Abbott is gone is because so many of you said for so long that you wished it to be so. Turnbull wasn't making up figures when he said that Abbott had been behind in the opinion polls for 30 weeks. It is because of that sustained negative judgement by so many Australians that Abbott is now history. Everyone who helped should be proud of what they have done. It was a collective decision.

The domestic violence policy that Turnbull announced yesterday is his first major piece of policy since taking the leadership of the Liberal Party. As such, it should give heart to those who wanted Turnbull to be less extreme, less ideological, in short a lot less like Abbott. It looks as though this fellow might, after all, be a keeper. He is bringing the country together in a way that Abbott would have found incomprehensible. Turnbull is unifying us all behind good policy, and not dividing us using ideological measures designed to further the interests of a narrow base among the elites.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

ABC's Utopia riffs on audience engagement

I don't normally watch the ABC's comedy show Utopia but I did last night because it came on right after Gruen, which is sort of fun too. Utopia amusingly lambasts office politics in Australia and so it has a valid place in our esteem. What made me laugh last night though was particularly the way it riffed on the idea of audience engagement. It's unusual in my experience for an Australian TV show to use this topic as a theme (correct me if I'm wrong here folks) and because of this it reminded me of Bernard Keane's novel Surveillance, which I reviewed here earlier this month. I mentioned in the review that Keane's novel was an exception in the world of fiction publishing because of its focus on the use of social media in the public sphere.

In Utopia, Rhonda (Kitty Flanagan) comes back from a conference all fired up about social media and audience engagement. In a meeting with other staff in the office, she encourages a fellow manager, Nat (Celia Pacquola), to dedicate more resources to social media in an attempt to raise the authority's public profile. What results is amusing because while the authority is involved in building infrastructure there are many people in the broader community who object to what it does. Hugh (Luke McGregor) triumphantly declares that the authority's Twitter account has gone up to 15,000 followers as a result of the recent efforts of his team. Karsten (Toby Truslove) ferries that information to the rest of the office and accompanies his announcement with loud clapping, which starts everyone else clapping too.

This segment is funny enough but the best part of the show is when Nat finds that some people who reacted to the authority's tweet on Twitter were labelling her a "Nazi". She is duly chagrined but Hugh quickly reassures her, reminding her that the point is to elicit a response from the audience regardless whether that response is positive or negative. This kind of illogical thinking makes you think of social media experts - the kinds of people Rhonda has been listening to at her conferences - and how they spin the message of audience engagement when pitching their profiles to potential customers. It's a bit of fun in short, and for those like me who spend a lot of time on social media, it's cause to have a quiet giggle.

I'm aware that Utopia is a rather intellectual offering of course, just as I'm aware that Twitter does not really accurately represent the broader Australian community. But these are the ponds I swim in.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Greentech innovation can help Australia stay competitive

It was great to see Atlassian, the collaboration software maker based in Sydney, represented on ABC's Lateline program last night, and the message from entrepreneurs is clear. This is one of the companies that are going to provide the jobs of the future, and we need them desperately to succeed. Making the business environment conducive to helping the growth of startups is essential if Australia is going to remain competitive. So I was glad to see the prime minister's assistant minister for innovation, Wyatt Roy, talking about how the government plans to contribute to the growth effort.

Within this context, I wanted to return to a blogpost I made in March 2013 about the carbon price, which at the time was slated to be introduced under a Labor government. Of course that plan was made largely obsolete after the Liberal-National coalition won the general election six months later. But now that Tony Abbott - who famously rolled Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009 largely over the very issue of the Coalition's climate change policy - is out of the picture, I thought it appropriate to revisit the matter of greentech innovation. Here's a lengthy grab from the end of that blogpost. It seems to me to be relevant now.
[G]iven the right signals, Australian companies can achieve supremacy in specific niche areas. The carbon price can act as that signal, and work to ensure thousands of highly-paid jobs for Australian workers making things that are not economical to make in other countries. 
Fuel-from-algae processing plants is one of these areas. Look at tiny, Perth-based Algae.Tec, for example. This little battler of a company has pushed the boundaries. Its modular processing units are purchased by companies that emit carbon, attached to the emissions point, and the algae converts the carbon into biomass which is then chemically converted into fuel. Without a carbon price it's very difficult for Algae-Tec to sell its units to emitters. The company is listed in Australia and in Europe, has established partnerships and joint ventures, and is building plants right now in a number of countries. This could become a major exporter for Australia, and employ hundreds or even more people in this country. Abbott wants to stop this happening. 
Another company that is making a mark in green high-tech manufacturing is Silex Systems, a solar power plant maker. It's another little battler of a company and is using patented technologies developed in Australia. Its first solar power plant is under construction in Mildura and it has the capacity in Melbourne to manufacture more plants, if given the opportunity. Hundreds, even thousands, of workers receiving top salaries could be employed by Silex to make the state-of-the-art power plants that the whole world needs and wants. It's a success story waiting to happen but Abbott wants to strangle the pipeline of jobs and slow down the company's growth. 
Big business just yawns when the carbon price comes up but there are many small, green, high-tech businesses waiting for the opportunity to grow, and they will be watching very closely to see if Abbott succeeds in repealing the carbon price. Very closely indeed.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Book review: The New Front Page, Tim Dunlop (2013)

Chapter 5 of the book is titled 'The Rules of Engagement' and in it, Dunlop writes: "It was all about a belief in the importance of society having places where people could come together as equals and discuss matters of social and political importance." If a novel has a plot that drives the action, a book of non-fiction has something similar, which might be called a thesis, and which does the same thing. If this book has a basic thesis it's about bringing the audience to the front, right into the heart of the democratic process itself. A parallel thesis might be the problem of monetisation for the news.

Dunlop currently teaches at Melbourne University in the journalism department but it is his first-hand involvement with new media that makes this book so entertaining. And if, as he says toward the end of the book, only 12 percent of people are dedicated observers of politics - and the same people will likely be the most interested in matters to do with the media itself - then society has a problem. In a real way, his book is motivated by such concerns.

There are a number of things in Australia today he regrets, including the dismissive way the mainstream media deals with the new media including blogs and social media, the way the true elites in society try to reserve for themselves opportunities to be heard in the public sphere, and the multiplication of trivial stories in the media that attract views but that do not - in his view - add materially to the quality of public debate.

On this last point, I have to take issue with Dunlop because, as I have written in another blogpost, all news stories are proxies for larger debates. That post went up in May this year when comedian Rebel Wilson was caught being free with facts about her age. I find it hard to line my thinking up with the chestnut that some stories are more worthy than others, and near the end of the book Dunlop also tries to talk his way through this puzzle unsuccessfully. The fact is that older, better-educated white males will have a different set of things that cleave to their identities. For myself, it wasn't until I got back from Japan when I was almost 40 that I started watching every evening TV newscast serially, although Fairfax journalist Latika Bourke says in her book that she was doing the same thing in her 20s. There is another debate to have about peoples' identities and how they are catered to in the public sphere. Maybe the current process of turning the government leadership into a reality TV show can be part of the answer.

Dunlop talks about the disconnect between the media and its audience, of which a symptom is an inability of the media to adequately monetise its offerings. This disconnect has elsewhere been quantified in opinion polls that place journalists low in the approval rankings for the community generally, but oddly this very specific locus of meaning fails to consone easily with the willingness of people on social media to follow journalists' accounts. While the distance between a journalist and her readership may you would think constitute a barrier to creating a meaningful connection, it is the journalist's insider status, their ability to get close to centres of political influence, that has value in the eyes of the reader. This mismatch of realities constitutes something of a paradox.

Generally speaking, Dunlop talks more, in purely quantitative terms, about blogging than about social media. I was surprised later in the book to discover that Dunlop doesn't have a Facebook account, but he has his reasons for this. He talks about Twitter mostly in the context of the issue of "trolling", so-called, and has a chapter in the book dedicated to that topic. But probably because Twitter didn't come into its own until around 2009, by which time Dunlop had stopped blogging for News Corp (his stint there went from 2005 to 2008), he has less insight into its functioning. Maybe it's time for this veteran to do what Margo Kingston - who features in the first chapter of the book for her work writing for a Fairfax website - has done, and return to the fray.

To be brief in summary, this is a great book for that 12 percent who love politics and get involved in debates online with such enthusiasm they sometimes place an unreasonable strain on their grammatical capacities. (Joke.) People who do participate in social media and read the news will be fascinated to read about the early days of journalism in the age of the WWW. It's an accessible book that uses a language register anyone who reads a site like the ABC's The Drum will have no problem with, and it's also a worthy read. You can feel better informed after putting it down. As for answers, Dunlop voices the hope in the end that offerings such as his will help to stimulate debate so that better outcomes can be reached. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

Book review: From India With Love, Latika Bourke (2015)

This beguiling memoir offers a kind of tapestry formed over several different woofs - the long-ways threads that constitute part of the fabric of a woven creation such as a rug - through which the weave is threaded in order to make the body and pattern of the object. To start with there is the story of a baby adopted from India by Australian parents. There is the story of the headstrong and nerdy girl who wants to become a journalist and does. There is the story of the Australian confronted by the realities of a developing country. There is the story of someone who looks different and who strongly resents being classified. There is also the story of the child and the adult that emerges.

Then there is the strange epiphany that might make the central motif in the object's design. It begins with a chance viewing of a popular movie on DVD at a friend's house. When Bourke first watched Slumdog Millionaire - the 2008 film directed by Englishman Danny Boyle - she was convulsed with emotion. Her childhood distaste for anything Indian was at once overturned. Where once she had detested being associated with India - Bourke grew up in country NSW in a large Catholic family and never thought of herself as anything other than 100% Australian - now she wanted to find out more about the place. This conversion - for it seems to have been no less dramatic than a religious epiphany - happens midway through the book. The next step for the young journalist is to visit her birthplace.

Bourke's mother had kept all the old records detailing the child's adoption and so mother and daughter revisit the documents. With her partner, Bourke then plans a journey to Delhi and a small town in the province of Bihar - one of the poorest places in the country - where she had been first put up for adoption as an infant. Once overseas, Bourke finds herself again overwhelmed by what she discovers. Visiting the place where she had been left as a baby she even experiences a kind of spiritual reckoning, surrounded in the place by dutiful nuns working and living in their domestic environment.

Having settled outstanding debts to her origins, Bourke finds herself free to learn - the girly swot of old resurfaces and the inquisitive instincts of the trained journalist kick in - and the questions continue to materialise. Having had all the advantages of a normal Australian childhood, and having emerged successfully into independence along with adulthood, Bourke is free to develop any ideas she wants. And she does. Besides being an adoptee, of course, as well as a proud Australian, Bourke is a woman and this simple fact within the context of India - which she is happy to categorise as inspiring though chaotic - leads her to formulate her own thoughts on life as it is lived there.

Tying up the ends of a story is always a challenge for a journalist. Many practitioners swear by the maxim that you put the most important information at the top of the story, and let the end take care of itself. But my suspicion is that Bourke's account of India is not yet concluded. She has written her early story and in doing so has introduced us to a country and a personality. Both are interesting in their own right but as the author notes on more than one occasion, the visits to India will continue. There might even be an overseas posting there, if something can be arranged - you might presume - with a sympathetic employer. Given a sufficient quantity of will, things have a way, you suspect, of working themselves out. This fascinating and often moving book might constitute merely a first instalment. 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

"Aspirational" Turnbull has a ready answer to politics-as-usual

Today's reshuffle received a surprising level of support in my Twitter feed despite the fact that most of the people I follow are either journalists or progressives. Then again, as someone told me on Friday, Twitter is hardly representative of the broader Australian population, being a bit more intellectual than is the norm. But I was rather focused by what I read there and by what I heard on the TV, which is often on in the background at my place.

After running through the appointments (which you can read here in detail if you are inclined) the time for questions arose but when it came to push and shove Turnbull elected to avoid your routine politicking in favour of a bit of motivational speaking. He's waxed lyrical about the prospects for modern Australia before, of course, but the phenomenon has not yet been widely remarked upon. I think it's time to say what a lot of people have only suggested. Just to recap what I've noticed on social media, those on the right tend to label Turnbull as a closet ALPer and those on the left tend to either write him off as a toff or else they follow Bill Shorten's line, which is to paint him as just as compromised as the man he replaced.

What Turnbull said - and I have to admit I didn't record the last bit of his press conference this afternoon, and will look forward to reading a transcript if one appears - is that it's a great time to be an Australian. The country has to stay agile if it is to remain successful, he went on. Australia must look to the future for its guidance. Nothing about factions, or leaks, or the anxiety that some choose to warn will mark the fate of governments that depose sitting prime ministers.

Looking at the ministry just briefly you'd have to say that Turnbull is looking to bring some of that aspirational thinking into his government's conduct on a day-to-day basis. Appointing Christopher Pyne to his new ministry is a move that reflects Turnbull's values, and that also ensures that a politician capable of solid public performances is not wasted. There have been casualties, of course, but they are not numerous. Far more interesting are the positive moves, such as appointing Pyne minister for industry, innovation and science. Then there are the women, which I will leave for others to comment on.

For the moment I'll stay with Turnbull and his positive message for Australia, which is something that many on the left will respond well to despite hating the PM keeping Dutton in immigration and border protection. Some things can reasonably be kept unchanged, especially when we're talking about a conservative government. I think Turnbull has done a lot more good work in the past few days than many would have ever suspected was possible.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Meeting the Share Wars team

After blogging yesterday about a book I had just finished on how news is used in social media, 'All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News', which was published recently, I went along in mid-afternoon to be at a talk in Redfern organised by the MEAA, the journalists' union, where the three guys behind the book would appear.

To recap: the Share Wars project involved making a piece of bespoke software - the Likeable engine - to match the number of views of news stories published on English-language media websites against data about the use of the same news stories that is held by social media companies Facebook and Twitter. After analysing millions of instances, the team (in the pic, from left: Andrew Hunter, Hal Crawford and Domagoj Filipovic) defined a new taxonomy of social media use they called NIT, which stands for:
  • Newsbreaking
  • Inspiring
  • Teaming
The taxonomy describes the purposes for which people use news stories in social media. You can read my review in yesterday's blogpost. More detail on the taxonomy is available in the book; it includes a second level of categories - or sub-categories - in addition to those shown above.

It was useful for me to meet with the team because it helped me to build better insight into some of the points they wanted to make in the book. Dom Filipovic arrived a bit later than the other two men, so I didn't get a chance to talk with him.

One point that became clearer to me after listening to their talk was that teaming - the final category in the taxonomy - constitutes the biggest segment in the pie, with over 60 percent of stories in it. This means that most stories are shared on social media in order for the sharer to make a point, and build community among his or her followers, using the news story. "Are you with me or against me," as the Share Wars team succinctly put it.

Another point that was clearer after hearing them speak was that they wanted in the book after describing the taxonomy to interrogate the assertion they had made that the ubiquity of social media, and its emergence as one of the primary ways people receive their news, would result in an overall higher quality media effort in society. That social media would be good for the news. Hence the chapter on the business of fake news stories, for example.

And just to go back to the beginning for a minute, the team initially decided to create the Likeable engine because they had found that the taxonomies that had been already defined by other people did not adequately explain some of the behaviour they were seeing through the commercial analytical software they were using to examine the reception of their news stories at ninemsm (where Crawford is now editor-in-chief).

A further point is covered right at the end of the book, which is that the Likeable engine is currently being used by researchers at the University of Sydney to conduct even more detailed analysis of how news stories are used in social media. The three men in the Share Wars team, I also learned, own the copyright for the source code of the Likeable engine, which has its own website.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Book review: All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News, Hal Crawford, Domagoj Filipovic, Andrew Hunter (2015)

In July 2006 Hal Crawford was looking for work after having lost his job teaching journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne when he applied for a job with ninemsn, the news website. On the interview panel was a man named Andrew Hunter and Crawford got the job, so moved with his partner to Sydney.

The book traces its beginnings to this place because once they started working together Crawford and Hunter became interested in how the new attention economy worked. They leveraged this curiosity into what would become Share Wars, and the two men found a software developer named Filipovic to put together a piece of software that would be called the Likeable Engine. The software scraped the pages of the world's leading English-language news sites for stories and then matched that data against information about how those stories had been used and acknowledged in Facebook and Twitter, using the APIs of those two platforms.

The three men wanted to find out what it was about the stories that were shared and "liked" that made them so appealing. They thought that having this information would give their own website an edge in the race for popularity in Australia's media ecosystem. In the process, they drew up a taxonomy of social use that contained some surprises. When you analyse the characteristics of millions of news stories and how they are used in social media you are bound to unearth some surprises.

The Share Wars project came up with its own model of categories which the authors call NIT, which stands for the following. These are the reasons people share stories on social media, according to the book's authors:
  • Newsbreaking
  • Inspiring
  • Teaming
"Newsbreaking is essentially the broadcasting of news," writes Hunter in this chapter, titled 'When Sharing is Not Sharing'. "This is the sharer as town crier ..." The second category of share, "inspiring" is different, and it is one which Hunter calls "a more traditional notion of sharing: an altruistic, 'here's something special for you' type of distribution." The third category is probably the most interesting in terms of what discoveries the three men made. Stories in this category, writes Hunter, "are being shared by people invested in issues".
The audience is sharing to pass judgement, to take a stand and be seen to be taking a stand. Are you in favour of gay marriage or opposed? How do you feel about Anzac Day? Do you love or hate cyclists? This is sharing that shows what is socially acceptable; that separates wrong from right. This is sharing to define group identity and values. This is sharing that asks, 'Are you with me or against me?'
Later, in their epilogue, the authors take a step back from their achievement and ask what it all means. The conclusion they come to goes some way to contradict mainstream understanding of how the internet has impacted on the traditional media. Rather than simply take the "the media is dying" view, they are more optimistic about the future. "Our first pass showed us that positive, awe-inspiring stories were being highly shared."
With editors being incentivised by the analytical feedback loop to prefer these kinds of stories, we could see we were heading out of the traffic-chasing days typified by Britney Spears and her spectacular meltdown.
The authors suggest that the way news stories are used in the media ecosystem pushes editors to write better stories. For news providers the future remains tricky regardless, although this book might help managers to describe a base from which to take further action down the track. In this sense it's a valuable addition to our knowledge of the internet and of media, because the confluence of those two things constitutes one of the most profound changes in our recent history. I have written before about the relationship between the emergence of movable type in Europe and the Renaissance. I think the internet is the same kind of thing, only now things have been speeded up significantly.

The book is far more than just an analysis of a piece of software. It's not merely a set of findings, either. The book also contains many lyrical and beguiling passages, as the authors look into what is happening to the news in these latter days. The final chapter by Crawford, 'Arminland', is a fascinating quest for truth that took its author on a long journey of discovery. As a piece of writing it reminds you of what good journalism can be, and how it can pretty much beat any other kind of writing around, and so it's an entirely fitting way to end this worthwhile book.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The world can learn from Australia about leadership change

This was Tony Abbott on Monday announcing the party room ballot to decide the prime ministership. In his speech he notably said he believed "that our party is better than this, that our government is better than this and, by God, that our country is so much better than this", in order to show his regret at Malcolm Turnbull's challenge earlier in the day.

But what's there to regret? Back in February, when there was no challenge by Turnbull but only a motion to spill the leadership position coming from two Western Australian MPs, Abbott won the party room ballot. But he was warned. The party gave him six months to clean up his act. In the end he failed and so, seven months after that event, he was challenged by the most likely alternative for the leadership.

Abbott wasn't up to scratch and the party dealt with him appropriately as the people in it watched poor opinion polls come in week after week. Starting with the disastrous 2014 Budget Abbott's government suffered a series of failures in policy and in execution. And Abbott can hardly have blamed his party when they were the people who put him in the leadership position in the first place, in December 2009. At that time he won in the ballot by a margin of one, but he led as though he were born to be in the role.

The events of Monday themselves demonstrated a country totally in control of its destiny. When you compare this leadership transition to such abject failures as those in recent times in Egypt and Syria, you'd have to say that Australia really knows how to switch political leaders. We've got the art down pat. I spoke with a person from China on the day who was surprised at how orderly the transition turned out to be. Another person I spoke to, on Wednesday, said that in his country - Brazil - you could never have such a transition even though many people wanted something similar to happen. And on Facebook I saw someone from Malaysia admiring our polity for its sangfroid and rhetorically pointing his country's leaders to take note.

Australia in its politics in the age of radical transparency turns out to have a lot of things others can learn from. The bloodless coup was orchestrated and executed almost entirely within the public gaze. Noone got hurt. Reputations were damaged, sure, but lives were not ruined. Houses and businesses came out of the process without a mark on them. How much better than that can you get? And the next day people woke up to have a leader most had hated replaced by someone potentially much better. Leaders can come and go, but the institutions that make all of it possible, remain.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Don't patronise the little guy, he's the boss

"I'm not going to get caught up in Canberra gossip. I'm not going to play Canberra games". Spoken on Monday morning, these were among the last words Tony Abbott said as prime minister and although it is clear from listening to them - or reading them - that they constitute an attempt to divert attention from an unpalatable reality by demonising a more pressing one, they point to an ugly undercurrent in Australian politics.

Putting down the political process is hardly a new thing - see for example the successful effort in the 1930s to abolish the Senate in Queensland, or read any of the humourous books of Steele Rudd - but it's an ingenuous pretense if you live in a democracy to despise it because it is what delivers you your freedoms and your prosperity. Not only that, but in this world of radical transparency we are all getting better at understanding its rules and processes - as we should do - so that our tweets can be more interesting, more informative, and more often duplicated.

In a way, for a politician to go hard on the political process in this way is just insulting to the average Joe in the street, because it suggests that some things are outside his comprehension and competence. "Don't worry yourself about that," Abbott seems to be saying, "we'll handle it." But it's in everyone's interest to be acquainted with the political process because it helps us to understand why politicians say and do the things they say and do, when they say and do them.

In a world that's always "on" and where everyone is always immediately connected to everyone else, in that kind of world we don't want a politician to patronise us and say, "Don't worry your little head over that," as though we were some hopeless bimbo with fewer than two neurons to rub together. What we want is to understand what a "point of order" is or to grasp immediately the difference between "democracy" and "representative government". After all, that's what the media is for: to educate the electorate so that they can make better political choices. That's what the public school system is for, as well.

In the age of radical transparency, it will pay in many ways to be more informed about the political process. Not only will your tweets get more retweets - and you might even get more followers, and even become an influencer - but it will ensure that we are not hoodwinked again by bad politicians like Tony Abbott. Along with our friends in the media, the electorate can - and we will - work together to forge an even better polity. In this new world of honesty where money is spent on things that have real merit - and not in order to promote a narrow partisan agenda - everyone can have a vote on individual pieces of legislation. The question is: what will be the role of Parliament in this new political process. What is the future for political parties?

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A "febrile" media culture or radical transparency?

In his final speech as prime minister today, Tony Abbott ran through his party's accomplishments under his leadership and it was a short list. Some of the achievements are hardly ones you'd want to be crowing about in ten years' time, furthermore. But it was what he said about the media that struck me.

He was vitriolic. Via the proxy of the media Abbott attacked all of his detractors in the country - from Opposition politicians to heads of NGOs, from heads of statutory authorities to public figures generally, and from journalists to people living down the street from you minding their own business right now - by attacking the media. "Febrile" is an epithet that suggests that something is sick and diseased, and might in the blink of an eye be set in opposition to something else that is healthy and whole. Like Abbott's party itself, presumably.

Hardly. And attacking the media anyway is a bit pointless. The media publishes things that people want to read. In this connected world journalists and the managers who work in media companies know more accurately than ever before which stories people are reading, and which stories they want to read. A lot of a media companies' income, in addition, comes from mouseclicks and taps on portable devices. The more clicks, the more dollars the media company earns. This is the neoliberal world Abbott's supporters have devised to do business in, and this is the environment all politicians must survive in. Getting angry at the media, for a politician, is like the proverbial old man shouting at a cloud. A bad workman, as they say ...

But the thing is that the whole relationship between the public and politicians has changed due to the ever-on nature of the public sphere, enabled through social media. There is nowhere to hide any more once the soundbite has been launched into the ether. If there is any dissimulation, or plain treachery, or just day-to-day spin, you will be found out. That then will cause a wave of opinion to start in cyberspace and this will lead journalists to find ways to satisfy the appetite thus kindled. If there is a question asked anywhere in the country, even in the quietest bedroom behind the most securely locked door, everyone can now read it. And new influencers arise all the time to replace those who have served out their effective term in the public arena.

Tony Abbott belongs to a different time, and it will be interesting to see if Malcolm Turnbull, once he is sworn in as prime minister, will be better able to cope with the unique stresses and opportunities of this new media environment. Certainly, he seems to be well connected, the type of guy who might interrupt a press conference to answer an SMS on his smartphone. We'll see. In the meantime, it's still a year until the next election: more than enough time for Turnbull to hang himself several times over. Let the games begin ... 


It was efficient, almost bloodless. At around 4pm after having told the media that he was going to hold a press conference, the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, appeared before their cameras at Parliament House and announced that he would run for the Liberal Party leadership. He had spoken with the prime minister. Almost immediately, Twitter lit up like a barrage of fireworks being set off. Then the deputy party leader, Julie Bishop, announced via the media that she also had spoken with the prime minister, and had told him that she would be supporting Turnbull.

The #libspill hashtag on Twitter went into overdrive, spewing out tweets far faster than a fully-functional human could possibly read them. Another hashtag soon appeared, #libspill2 (to distinguish it from the aborted leadership challenge that took place in February, which functioned as a warning to the prime minister that the party did not have unlimited patience and that his performance would have to improve if he wanted to remain as leader). And then there was another, #putyouronionsout, which pointed back in time to a media appearance the prime minister had held earlier in his term eating a raw onion. Pictures appeared on Twitter of red string bags of onions hanging on doorknobs.

Over the next few hours the TV news took first position in the minds of the electorate. A series of Liberal Party elected representatives appeared on TV to discuss Turnbull's announcement, including the prime minister himself. Tony Abbott sounded angry, very angry. "We are not the Labor Party," he croaked out through clenched teeth, referring to the leadership challenges of the former government of Labor. In its two most recent terms, the Labor Party had changed leaders twice without a general election being held.

But Abbott still hasn't worked out how the electorate using social media has changed the very nature of the public sphere. Governments no longer have three years of "clean air" - that mythological desirable of all elected governments - in order to get through its platform of promised policies. They have much less than that. As we also saw in January with the demise after only one term of the Queensland state Liberal National government, you don't have any time to relax in office any more. How much time you actually do have is still being worked out, but the cold truth is that everything is different from how it was before. The electorate can make decisions about you faster than it has ever been able to, and you won't have any way to reverse its direction once it has made up its mind.

Soon the evening began to resolve itself into these sessions of talk on the TV news interspersed with suits appearing from time to time to discuss the contenders in the spill. Then it was announced that the ballot in the party room would take place at 9.15pm. A while later we started to see groups of politicians, and politicians alone, walking down the corridors of Parliament House toward the Party Room. Once they were all inside we waited. The talk on the TV became gradually more and more dislocated as the journalists talked through the obvious subjects and then searched around for things to say while in reality they were all waiting for the announcement of the result.

At about 9.40pm Scott Buchholz, the party room whip, emerged with a deputy and announced that Turnbull had won the ballot and would be the nation's next prime minister. Twitter started to spew out tweets on the #libspill hashtag even faster than it had done before as people congratulated each other on the favourable result. We didn't have to wait long before Turnbull appeared to talk with the media. He thanked the prime minister. He joked with assembled journalists. He turned on the charm. Then his newly-elected deputy, Julie Bishop, spoke. They went away. The TV news switched to a new program. People chatted away happily on Twitter and even on Facebook as the news filtered through the community.

By midnight the #libspill hashtag on Twitter had slowed to a comprehensible rate of display. The new prime minister would be sworn into office the following day. A change of leadership had been completed and everyone had watched. It is a kind of radical transparency which has worked its way into these events but also into the process of politics more generally. There is nowhere to hide anymore. You can't lie and endlessly manipulate messages as Abbott had done, and get away with it. People know. They are watching. You are under constant surveillance. Get used to it.