Saturday, 31 August 2013

We don't need Romantic heroes any more

News arriving on my social graph that Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died gives me pause because poetry is such a neglected artform, and people talking today about Heaney with such poignancy surely ignore the ones who have come after him and who write the poetry that he will never see. One person even posted an item about the poet many talk about when talking about Heaney, W.B. Yeats, which chronicles a public spat between the poet (who died in 1939) and conservative social stalwarts of the time (1913) who opposed establishing a public art gallery showing Impressionist works. The visionary versus the penny-pinching philistine.

As if poetry had a specific, utilitarian function, like a sewerage works or a piece of wetlands or a packet of dental floss.

It reminds me of a scrapbook my Communist grandfather kept filled with poetry he clipped from newspapers of the Left throughout his life, and which my mother gave to me. Useful poetry dedicated to the great cause.

But poetry is usually something entirely invisible, like sunshine at a picnic: you don't even notice it but if it wasn't there you would complain. The irony is that those who regret the passing of Heaney couldn't name the next rank of aspiring big names of poetry if you used hot iron on them. Where are these people? Because, surely, someone out there is still writing poetry. They want to be published and read. They want to make you cry and weep. They are ignored studiously by a cultural nexus fascinated by the minutiae of movie stars and singers of popular music. They practice an almost-dead artform in societies where capital dominates cultural production just as it dominates the provision of services (insurance, telecommunications) or the production of manufactured goods (cars, washing machines).

The thing that struck me reading the article about the Yeats disagreement was how little necessary Romantic figures are in today's world. Romantic figures are always associated with struggle, bloodshed, war and cataclysm. But where poetry figures today is in the quiet rooms of comfortable houses - the houses of the children of the capitalists Yeats lambasts (don't forget the children) - that are situated in quiet, comfortable suburbs on peaceful, silent streets. I'm reminded of the opening scenes of the new film about Steve Jobs where we see Apple Computer housed in the garage of an ordinary-looking suburban bungalow somewhere in California.

We don't need Romantic heroes anymore. In countries full of strife they have plenty of them and what have they actually got? Economies run down to the nub because civil strife chases away the vital overseas investment needed to build the industries that can - eventually - lead to the establishment of quiet, comfortable suburbs where the children of the capitalists can go about their business in peace, and build something new on the back of the old, dead things.

In one of those houses perhaps there is a young poet writing her verses and hoping to get published so that she can make everyone cry hot tears of desire and longing, the most beautiful words ever to be written down in any language. After all, Shakespeare's father made gloves for a living. Gotta hand it to him.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Growth of the secret state a global problem

It appears that US authorities were given a heads-up about the UK's planned detention of David Miranda as he was passing through Britain's Heathrow Airport last week. Now, European media have complained to the UK's prime minister, David Cameron, about this unreasonable use of anti-terrorism legislation, being to target journalists. In related news from the Guardian, it appears that the police watchdog has been trying to get information from UK police about its use of the legal instrument in question, schedule 7 of the UK's 2000 anti-terrorism law.

Legal means remain an avenue for the IPCC to take as the police continue to procrastinate and refuse to hand over the relevant information.

The story also mentions measures being considered by the Internet Engineering Task Force, a body that makes internet standards, to use encryption on internet transactions, thus making it harder for entities such as the National Security Agency to snoop on people's internet use. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has passed information to Miranda's partner, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, used to work for the NSA.

Elsewhere, it turns out that the NSA is the US's second-largest employer, with 850,000 on its payroll, placing it just behind retailer Walmart in importance nationally. It's hard to see how the NSA can continue to operate given the size of its workforce, which must function as an inbuilt weak-spot in its system of information control, given that individuals with a conscience, such as Snowden, are likely to continue to emerge in its ranks.

US president Barack Obama has disappointed many supporters because of his record of working against the interests of whistleblowers, a group of people who continue to perform an essential function in democracies worldwide, and also, no doubt, in countries where due to historical precedent or due to adverse contingencies, democracy does not exist. Many have rightly criticised the US president for failing to acknowledge the importance of the actions of individuals who possess a conscience in the effective operation of democracy, given the increase in covert government activity since 9/11.

In Russia, the secret state has already taken over operation of many parts of the state apparatus, giving rise to egregious abuses of power by state actors, corruption on a wide scale, and unreasonable targeting of individuals who show an unwillingness to cooperate with the secret state. The secret state continues to grow in other jurisdictions. Operating partly as the NSA in the US, the secret state has emerged as a severe burden that actively works against the interests of individuals, and that is working to subvert traditional systems for the check of authoritarian power, such as the media.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Cars are a dead proposition, clean-tech is a winner

In an interesting interview, BMW's Australia head predicts the death of Holden's local manufacturing operations. This year, Ford announced that it would stop making cars here in 2016 and that the "iconic" Falcon brand would be scrapped. The picture accompanying this blogpost shows a detail of Holden's new "VF" Commodore, another major Aussie brand, but it will probably be the last Commodore to emerge considering the Coalition looks set to win the September election.

Which can only be a good thing as these brands are cornerstones of Aussie cultural chauvinism, a phenomenon that has enjoyed a distinct resurgence in our apolitical (though possibly not uncritical) age - Gallipoli anyone? - and so rev-heads in this country will be forced to find points of reference for their intellectual nihilism in products made elsewhere. Falcon and Commodore will no longer battle it out on the Supercar track because these models will not exist. Instead, there will be some unrealistic box of tricks-on-wheels imported from Korea, perhaps, or Indonesia to entice the mouth-breathers and the whacked-out tradies to strip off their shirts and stand around drinking stubbies all afternoon in the sun. (You know you love it!)

Kevin Rudd's campaign ad - the one where he's standing on the verandah of a multi-million-dollar inner-urban standalone bungalow - makes it clear he wants manufacturing to survive in Australia: "I want Australia to make things people want." But making cars is not that thing, and Labor's attempt to prop up the failing car-making industry in Aus is so far misguided as to verge on the irresponsible. You want to use my taxes to pay people to make things noone wants? No thanks, Kev.

What Rudd and Abbott should be looking to promote are green manufacturing companies, who can - and do - make things noone else makes, here in Australia, and whose products can be exported to countries (like China) where official displeasure with set emissions targets goes hand in hand with proactive policies on the ground designed to reduce carbon emissions. The whole world is looking for technologies that Australian manufacturing companies already make. What they need - this is especially for your benefit, Tones - is an incentive to grow. An emissions trading scheme is the thing they need, not a "Green army" (what even is that?) running around planting trees on nature strips like a horde of shorn Costas.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Paintings of the Danish 'Modern Impressionism' movement

Mum's aunt's husband Elmer Johansen had these paintings. Although he was Danish - and she was Australian - they lived in New Zealand where Elmer was a ferry-boat captain transporting people between the North Island and the South Island. They had no children. Madge predeceased Elmer and when Elmer died the paintings passed to mum's brother, who died about five years ago. His son passed the paintings to me and I had them cleaned and reframed. I also had a valuation made through Art Valuation Services Australasia, which is based in Sydney.

Madge Dean met Elmer on a Pacific island where she was working as a teacher and he worked as a stevedore. It seems that Elmer received a painting of his father's done by an artist named Fritz Kraul. On the back of the painting someone has written in explanation:
Fritz Kraul lived in Koge, a small fishing village, 18 miles south of Copenhagen. There was a Battle of Koge Bay in the 17th century. He was a member of the Academy of Art. He specialised in tree paintings. This was painted in 1912. Elmer’s father did not like the figure of a lady, and had it repainted …
The rest of the explanation has been peeled off, so I can't read it. According to the market valuation report Kraul was best known for his many illustrations of children's books, almanacs and Christmas books. "Kraul adopts a traditional, naturalistic style, and mainly features landscapes, cityscapes, interiors and the still life." More important from my point of view is the fact that Elmer seems to have gained an appetite for acquiring paintings from his father.

It's almost impossible at this point in time to say which painting Elmer acquired next, but I presume it was this one by Elias Petersen, dated 1921, which shows a maritime scene with sailboats and a steamer, and waves rolling into the foreground.

When I received the paintings they were in a sad state and had acquired a heavy coat of grime from exposure to the domestic environment over many decades, so I had them cleaned. This small work by Petersen was in addition quite badly warped on its stretcher and the art restorer restretched it so that it sits true and tight.

The market valuation report notes that the pictures belong to the 'Danish Modern Impressionist' movement which, it says, "is not deemed as important historically compared to other Danish movements from the same period". It also says that the painters of this movement are not well-known outside Denmark and "received their greatest acclaim in the 1920-30s" when "the Modern Impressionist artists flourished the most". Most of the artists represented in the group attended the Academy of Arts of Copenhagen at the end of the 1880s.

Probably the next painting in the group was this one by Ole Wolhardt Stampe Due, who died in 1925. Due has nine works displayed in Danish museums.

I assume that the next painting in the collection was this one by Poul Friis Nybo, who died in 1929.

The valuation report notes that Nybo has two works in Danish museums: Den Gamle By and the Skagens Museum. It also says that the artist "is highly sought after for his interior scenes".

The next one I think is this one by Elias Petersen, which is dated 1930, and shows a sand dune running down to a beach and a bay.

Then comes a painting dated 1932 by Theodore Bernard Dahl showing a farmhouse and a large tree.

The last painting in the group is by an unkown artist whose name ends with 'ensen', so it could be Jensen or Hohensen. It's quite a richly-coloured piece showing a large tree with deer grazing on grass in the forest in the background.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

'Does this guy ever shut up?' asks Tony Abbott

In last night's leaders' debate opposition leader Tony Abbott briefly reverted to his thuggish type when, referring to the prime minister, he asked the audience - many of whom laughed, guffawed and applauded - ''Does this guy ever shut up?'' thus appealing to all the wife-beaters, the cashed-up bogan ice-smoking tradies, the dumb-as-fuck Anglo troglodites, the whacked-out mouth-breathing NRL fans, the narcissistic entitled middle-aged white grandfathers, and the closet pedophiles. By reverting to type, Abbott briefly showed us what he really is: an over-educated goon with zero imagination and absolutely no respect for the office to which he aspires. But we shouldn't be surprised. What's more surprising is that Abbott's minders have managed to keep him on-message and out of trouble for so long. But every now and then - like last night - Abbott slips up and lowers the tone of social discourse to a level with which he - a father of three daughters! - is happiest with: the after-game fly-off-the-rails barbarism of the teenage shoolboy. He's a disgrace to Australia.

You can also read a sequel to this by Billablog.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Targeting Greenwald and Poitras shows the US is in looneyville

After I read the story of how Edward Snowden's releases of information about the US National Security Agency occurred with the help of video-maker Laura Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald, I wasn't surprised to read today that Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was stopped and questioned by British authorities as he travelled home to Brazil from Europe.

Not surprised, but still deeply offended.

Barack Obama is turning out to be a total looney when it comes to whistleblowers, ignoring the right to free speech cemented in the US Constitution, which protects the media from unwarranted actions by government authorities. Obama's record on whistleblowers is dismal. It got worse with the court case against Bradley Manning. With whistleblower Edward Snowden, Obama's administration has hit new levels of sleaze.

From the point of view of any right-thinking citizen, the actions of Manning and Snowden can only be viewed as impressive. The US government has entered looneyville by continuing to target and harrass journalists - and even their friends - in much the same way the Chinese government targets the families of human rights campaigners and democracy proponents in that country. Truly, the US government has jumped the shark, and has ended up somewhere over on the dark side where people die in secret in dark and unhealthy conditions, far from the people they love and absent recourse to any legal assistance. This is the territory frequented by Argentinian death squads and tin-pot dictators who have flourished - often with the help of the US government - in many countries around the world over the past 40 years.

Obama risks being viewed by good citizens as a zombie-politician, someone who survives by eating the brains of careless travellers and small animals. The detention and questioning of David Miranda means that absolutely noone is safe from the predations of this megalomaniac president and his legions of spooks, whose tentacles can reach into any home and even into the pockets of friends of reporters who dare to expose the criminal activities of a government gone mad with impotent rage as the contours of the world shift inexorably following the great wave of nationalism sparked by WWII. The US is behaving like a surly teenager who throws a tantrum when people stop listening to his blatant fabrications. Obama does not see that the fourth amendment was designed to protect people from just such a leader as he is turning out to be.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Mainstreaming marriage equality needed to erase gay stigma

It's with relief that I find this morning a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by writer Paul Paech that echoes what I've been telling people for years. Paech correctly attributes to discrimination embedded in Australia's marriage laws an affirmation for bigots - who are frequently violent, even today - who target homosexuals for special treatment. Violence of this kind is something I have always known even though I am not gay. In the 1980s living in Sydney's inner suburban liberal heartland - I lived in Glebe, Newtown, Paddington, Centennial Park, Bondi and Woollahra at different times - I frequently came across the kind of threats that gays in those days - we learn this year in a Fairfax expose of gay bashings and murders of gay men in Sydney's eastern suburbs - experienced all too often.

I remember myself one day queueing at a fast-food outlet in Bondi Junction. I was still at school and I felt the menace of the boy standing in the line behind me who, with his mates, was giving me the eye and making remarks under his breath. Was I dressed wrongly? I asked myself. What was it about me that had attracted the unwanted attention of this tough? I trembled and stayed silent; got my food and got out as soon as possible.

Another time as I was walking back to my Glebe apartment a carful of young men drove past and one of them leaned out the passenger-side front window. As the car went by he verbalised the sound "poof" while making an exploding gesture with his hand: fingers releasing outward as he move his hand upwards. What could I do? I lived in Glebe and went to university; of course I was fair game along with any other fashionable-looking young man in that area. At least for the bogans driving past in their Torana.

I graduated in 1985. One of the jobs I got after that was in a Paddington cafe situated right next-door to a well-known gay pub (it's now something else but the art deco exterior still stands). After work I would go down the road to an Oxford Street disco and there I met several people who were homosexuals - they still are as far as I know, if they're still around - and I'd sometimes go to the home of one of these men, who was kind and funny. In those years I did have some homosexual experiences but it was not serious; I was just a lonely young man looking for companionship and took it where I found it.

Because of these experiences it is not surprising that, in 1989, I took my camera to Oxford Street to chronicle an anti-gay march that was organised by religious conservatives living in Sydney. The following photographs show some of the people who attended, on both sides. First, here are the young, trendy people (the words we used in those days instead of "hipster") who supported gay rights. In the first five photos here you can see their good fashion sense, their sense of fun, their outgoing temperaments.

The next five photos show the people on the other side of the equation: the religious conservatives. They are badly dressed, earnest, combative and sometimes show hatred openly.

It's not remarkable that I identified strongly with the first group and completely failed then - as I do now - to understand the way of thinking of the second group. Later, in 1991, just before my marriage to a young woman, I staged my buck's night in that same art deco Paddington pub I had frequented years before. Now, with two adult children, it is even easier for me than it was then - in my creative and confusing years of youthful discovery - to pronounce on the one hand and censure on the other. It's second nature for me. It's the way I am. It's me, so get used to it. Tony Abbott's comments on marriage equality are so abhorrent to me that it makes me physically ill to even read his words in the media. People like Paul Paech are the ones I identify with. Some things - good things - often never change.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Hard to sympathise with Morsi in light of Egypt's recent history

Egypt's new round of bloodshed is drawing condemnation from many people but it's hard to sympathise with Morsi, the elected president since removed from power by the army. His supporters have been protesting on the streets and it's their blood that is now darkening pavements in Egypt as live ammunition is being used in addition to tear gas by the armed forces.

Egyptian democracy seems to belong to the streets. Back in December I wrote about new protests by the country's liberals against measures taken by Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, in an effort to mold Egypt's polity in their own image. Those protests were repeated six months later, in June, which led the army to remove the president from office on 3 July. Instead of regular elections, Egypt has had regular street protests, with the army fulfilling the functions of the head of state and the ballot counters, combined.

In December Egypt's liberals - and no doubt many of its Christians - were complaining about special powers the president had abrogated for himself in order to place himself in a position of immunity with regards to the country's judiciary. That move was in the context of the drafting of the country's constitution, which Morsi had delegated to a panel of individuals dominated by Islamists. Protests therefore focused on the inclusion of words considered too close to sharia.

It's therefore hard to sympathise with Morsi, even though some Western liberals are now doing so - the same people who probably complained about Morsi's actions late last year. The fact is that Morsi has had plenty of time to listen to the views of regular Egyptians. Each time those views were heard Morsi ignored them, preferring to steamroller through the obstacle rather than find a point of consensus that all could agree on. It has been this tendency from Morsi's political party - to crash or crash through - that removes so much of the potential pathos from their current plight in the face of military fiat, and the use of live ammunition to break up street protests. On whose hands is the blood being spilled now?

Morsi had plenty of opportunities to find another way through the debate. The fact that he failed means that many people who would otherwise sympathise with him and his supporters will look on current events with disinterest. Many will be merely waiting for the machine to go through its motions - a bit like in the case of Thailand or Fiji - so that eventually a new government can be elected by popular vote. Let's hope that whoever wins office then has more sense than to completely ignore the views of their political opponents.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Obama's NSA debate redefines the term 'bizarre'

Public debate about US President Barack Obama's national security measures - including the recent revelations about the country's NSA communications analysis and monitoring, and drone strikes - is redefining the meaning of the term "bizarre" because of the thick cloak of secrecy that militates against transparency, making it utterly impossible to discern truth from official spin. The New York Times had a good go today with a story on its website ('Threats Test Obama’s Balancing Act on Surveillance') but the contrary forces at play result in some strange quotes, and this verbal throwing-up-of-hands from the newspaper's editors:
It is yet unknown who exactly was killed in Yemen during the past two weeks. Therefore, it is hard to judge the recent strikes against those standards the president laid out in May. Specifically, did the dozens of people reportedly killed all pose a “direct and imminent threat”? And, with American officials fearing that an attack could happen at any moment, just how much care was taken before each strike to determine that no civilians were in the missiles’ path?
Earlier in the story we have this quote from Obama:
“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.
But later in the same story we have this from the president:
“Let’s just put the whole elephant out there, and examine what’s working,” he said.
It's too strange. Admittedly, that first quote refers to drone strikes and the second quote refers to the NSA's activities - which have come under intense scrutiny in the press, making it incumbent on the president to at least appear to be open and transparent. But where even the existence of the NSA's colossal data mining activities were unknown until the Guardian's reporting Edward Snowden's disclosures, we're unlikely to get much satisfaction even from the top press vehicle in the country.

Hence the strange creature from a Medieval bestiary that accompanies this post: a combination of a rabbit and a snake; a creature like this seemed to me to be the only way to quickly illustrate the kind of fantasy-world of government spin and government obfuscation these issues produce. As the NY Times' headline shows, we're dealing with a trade-off between the legitimate public right to know and (what we're told is) an operational imperative to spy - on everyone, everywhere.

War always results in the reduction of the rights of the individual. The suspension of habeus corpus, for example, is a common outcome of war. Similarly, national constitutions globally are being ignored in order to "protect" people from (unknown, unknowable) threats by millions of people. Snowden was a rare man of conscience in a crowd of obedient functionaries. The strange kinds of official utterances and the odd stories appearing in the press are a product of the bizarre situation we find ourselves in, now, as the world changes shape inexorably. It seems that the first thing people do with new wealth is buy guns to protect their interests. The mere pursuit of wealth appears, in this context, rather anodyne. The urge to guard one's honour - and so prop up the basis of personal identity - seems to be rather unattractive, then. Let's hope there will arise institutions adequate to satisfying the (apparently) conflicting needs of people in all countries. War is a price too high to pay for repose.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Post mining investment boom needs new acronym: PMIB

There's a headline on the Sydney Morning Herald website today that just doesn't make sense: 'NSW to lead in post-mining boom', it says. The newspaper's subeditors aren't alone in being wrong on this point, of course. On the 7.30 program last night during her interview with the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, journalist Leigh Sales made the same mistake by pointing to a "post-mining boom" that she somehow linked to a "slowdown" in China to suggest that Australia's economy was due for a readjustment - and what was the government going to do about it?

Rudd quickly pointed out to Sales - correctly - that what is occurring in the mining industry is a slowdown in the amount of construction of capital works that has fuelled the shift of thousands of workers to fly-in-fly-out jobs in the outback. Mining itself, as Rudd also pointed out, is doing great guns. With all the new capacity that is coming online in Australia's vast hinterland added to continued strong demand for commodities like coal and iron ore - the raw materials for still-massive construction projects in places like China and India - Australia is set to enjoy a positive balance of trade going forward (both coal and iron ore are required to manufacture steel).

So the short conclusion is that we need a new acronym, something like PMIB ("post mining investment boom").

As for China, it's true that China's leaders are trying to rein in growth there in order to ensure that housing is not completely unaffordable for the millions of people who have moved to the country's cities over the past decades - and who will continue to make their homes there going down the track - but growth of seven percent per annum is still very strong indeed.

In short, there is no "post-mining boom" period to lament, now, in 2013 and going into 2014 and ensuing years. What we are now entering is a period where jobs in Australia dedicated to constructing mining infrastructure are tapering off; now it is the production phase we are entering. We see figures that allow us to understand this kind of thing all the time; the mooted casino for Townsville announced recently, for example, was announced in such terms: X number of jobs in the short term and Y number of jobs on a permanent basis. Let's get our terms right. It's so irritating to hear people like Sales - who otherwise does a competent job - muffing her lines so badly out of mere ignorance.