Monday, 27 June 2016

Book Notes: 'Don Fernando' by W. Somerset Maugham

Don FernandoDon Fernando by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must admit to feeling I read this book out of order. Although the cover blurb suggests that this is Maugham's greatest work, it would seem that Don Fernando was a sketch of the research Maugham did for what would later become Catalina. It has the feel of a travel book, somewhat similar in intent to On a Chinese Screen, but held together by a personal story relating to Don Fernando and an historical book he insisted Maugham should have. I kept waiting to hear more about Don Fernando but instead found myself enthralled in a treatise on Spanish art, literature, and architecture amid life during the Counter-Reformation, and the artists and mystics who made it all happen. I am often impressed by the depth of historical knowledge of the literary greats. Indeed, Maugham claims to have read some three hundred books as research for a planned novel that had not happened by the time Don Fernando was published. It is clear that one doesn't write true 'literature' without a hefty amount of research. The trouble with reading such scholarly work is the reminder that great works do not come easy, and my ability to absorb literature vociferously is limited by my work and the professional reading I must continue to do. I recall an interview in the Paris Review where an author spoke of the limited time for reading that remained in his life, and the need to be strategic about what one reads after age fifty. Sadly, Don Fernando reminds me of that fast-approaching fact, and there is so much in Maugham's work here that deserves further investigation. I am afraid I will have to abandon the details and enjoy the ephemeral sensation of my newly gained yet thin knowledge.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Book Notes: 'For the Term of His Natural Life' by Marcus Clarke

For the Term of His Natural LifeFor the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This classic Australian novel is based on a good deal of historical research. This particular version includes an appendix outlining the references for the historical information in each chapter. The story is rather gripping and although the coming together of the main characters at the climax is rather unlikely, it serves to render a sound plot. The conclusion wraps up a sad story with a paradisiacal ending that is satisfying if not happy. That Clarke died at age 35 serves as a reminder that such genius is routinely short-lived. Despite the numerous abridged versions and part-stories I have experienced of this novel in film and television, this is my first full reading and it was long overdue.

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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Book Notes: "The White Peacock" by D.H. Lawrence

The White PeacockThe White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is always interesting to read a major author's last works first, and then delve into their first novel. I found myself spiralling down from a Love Among the Haystacks quaintness, to a period Enid Blyton curiosity, and finally to a period piece of young adult (YA) fiction. That is, until towards the end when the major characters are approaching middle age. This is where the back cover's "strange genius" is evident. The tone moves with the age of the characters. It is always difficult to limit the affect of introductions and other readings in how one interprets a novel, but I think here the back cover's "strange genius" is right. The botanical and ornithological details provided by the first-person narrator irritatingly reminded me of Jean M. Auel's endless treatise on herbalism in the Clan of the Cave Bear series, rather than being the fine poetry promised by the back cover. Nevertheless, if my view that Lawrence begins the novel with a teenage knowledge of the world and ends with an educated, middle age view of the world is correct, the flora and fauna provide the one constant theme, in the form of the knowledge of a hobbyist that is untouched by formal or social training or experience, that otherwise comes to bear as the characters age. The conclusion left me with a physical shudder. I think it is the ordinariness of the story that makes it so powerful. This is not a fanciful tale but a story that any one of us could, and in fact do, live out, and this is clearly the novel's great strength.

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Thursday, 9 June 2016

NBN: Australia still behind Canada despite policy effort

The latest Akamai State of the Internet report provides more evidence of Australia lagging behind Canada, despite almost a decade of policy effort. I have argued for a long time that this is a result of the inefficacy of Australia's centrally-controlled telecommunications policy regime.

This means that the NBN's lack of impact has little to do with good versus bad NBN models. I have stated previously that government control of the industry is the problem, not the solution, This view was guided by my research to explain why Canada had better broadband than Australia back in 2005.

My research compared telecommunications technology outcomes from the time of the telegraph to the present in Canada and Australia. The findings suggested that the problem lies with Australia's telecommunications policy framework. It was never a case of a lack of government interest or funding, but something fundamentally flawed in the centrally-controlled system that would make it a perpetual political football.

As Canada and Australia are well-suited to the 'most-similar' comparative approach, I adopted Mill's method of difference to explain why these two very similar countries had very different institutional arrangements with very different outcomes. All accepted methods of inferring causality.

I referred to the telecommunications policy frameworks as the monolith (Australia) versus the mosaic (Canada - see Wilson 2000: 25). Neither system was necessarily a result of deliberate design. Indeed, Canada's superior outcomes were the result of serendipity, in that its telecommunications policy framework grew organically, locally, and, as a result, constitutionally; the telecommunications powers reside with the provinces rather than the national government.

The reverse is true in Australia, but telling people about it does not prove popular.

In Australia, the broadband 'crisis', leading to the advent of the NBN, was a case of history repeating. The federal government alone would solve the crisis. After careful examination of the historical record, it was apparent that the broadband 'crisis' was no different than the telegraph crisis, the telephone crisis, the radio crisis, the television crisis, and so on, each appearing in similar magnitude when compared with Canada over time.

The State of the Internet report demonstrates that the federal government's faith in its own abilities has (again) not been justified.

Akamai provides an interactive and customisable graphical report generator known as 'connectivity visualizations' (incorporated in this post). Compared with my many years of 'empirical rummaging' (Skocpol 1995: 104) to build a chronological database of telecommunications technology penetration in Canada and Australia, using the Akamai visualiser is a cake-walk.

The Akamai blog provides a useful explanation of the metrics used in these visualisations.

First, I will return to some of my earlier, painstakingly put-together 'visualisations'. Here is the state of broadband speed in Canada and Australia in 2008:

Australia-Canada Broadband Speeds by Household 2008 (constructed from Akamai 2009 data)
This trend is remarkable in that it has not changed over time, given the extent of political focus and taxpayer investment in NBN. The latest Akamai report shows average connection speeds from the period above to the end of 2015:

Australia-Canada Comparison of Average Connection Speed 2007-2015 (Akamai 2016)

Second, the measurement of broadband penetration has changed, in that it is now possible to distinguish between unique IP addresses. But here are the figures for broadband penetration by household from 2004-2007:

Australia-Canada Broadband Penetration 2004-2007 (constructed from OECD data)
Below the Akamai visualiser shows the same trend continuing (note this is by number, not by percentage of population, but you can see that the trend is consistent, if not levelling out:

Australia-Canada Unique IP Addresses Comparison (Akamai 2016)
Finally, the percentage of services 15mbps and above, the speed Akamai regards as the minimum for 4K (or full Ultra HD quality video streaming) services:

Australia-Canada Percentage of Broadband Connections above 15mbps (Akamai 2016)
This last visualisation is the clincher. Despite NBN in whatever form, despite the investment of taxpayer dollars, Canada is not only (still) ahead of Australia, but increasing its lead.

This is not the fault of Mr Turnbull's NBN-lite. This has nothing to do with policy differences between the two major parties. This is the result of historical processes where the first principles of Australian telecommunications policy lie buried. Some time ago, I wrote an article for the now-defunct The Punch (19 May 2011), where the title was edited to read 'The NBN’s the culmination of 150 years of cock ups'. In hindsight, the title was closer to the truth.

But it is difficult to change an institution, and the way telecommunications is done in Australia is just that. The retort "Don't confuse me with your facts" comes to mind. Even Professor Reginald Coutts thinks the evidence is my personal 'fantasy'.

To channel Professor Julius Sumner Miller (1975), "Why is it so?"

These are all the hallmarks of a policy regime, an entrenched way of 'doing' policy that is difficult to change. The use of policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy is part of the regime's self-reinforcement. And that is why Australia is still behind Canada in broadband.


Miller, J.S. (1975). Why is it so? Light and modern physics. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Skocpol, T. (1995). Why I Am an Historical Institutionalist. Polity 38: 103–106.

Wilson, K.G. (2000). Deregulating Telecommunications: U.S. and Canadian Telecommunications, 1840-1997. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Book Notes: "The Game" by Jack London

The GameThe Game by Jack London

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I purchased this novella in the village this morning and, once started, was unable to put it down. As I read, I recalled Jack London's lack of finesse in writing up a romance, then the blood boil of combat and wishing for younger days, then a thought of this obviously Boy's Own adventure and how much nonsense it all is once youth has gone and the reality of buck fighting days haunts one with arthritis and chronic pain. London keeps one on the edge of one's seat like a ne'er-travelled, mono-cultural cou rouge watching a patriotic war movie, only to send them down into a crisis of existentialism as well as any Hemingway could muster. Just like that.

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