Monday, 20 March 2017

Book Notes: "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's difficult not to like Raymond Chandler's work. This is only the second of his novels I have read, but this time, because I doubted Hollywood would replicate the pornography ring in detail, and it was a wet and windy Saturday night, I watched the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was sufficiently different to the book not to affect my enjoyment of the story, and, I must say, it was good to watch a crisp black and white movie on my television. I watched it on Youtube, but the rented, rather than the pirated, version of the film. I am now off in search of African Queen and other Bogart classics and will follow these up with the novels, too. But The Big Sleep was an excellent read. I am struck by the complexity of Philip Marlowe's character that eludes the Bogart version. Because there is no real love story, as in the Hollywood version, there is much more to explore, and no need to find excuses for Lauren Bacall to appear so frequently. Marlowe reminds me of the Protestant ethic. It is OK to be a booze-hound and to smoke yourself to death, as long as you don't do reefers and you are admirable in your smuttiness towards the upper classes. Chandler's prose is brilliant, and it would appear, for now at least, that this novel is considered his best because it is his best. Not so many wise-cracks and heavy similes as Farewell, My Lovely, but, all the same, a cracker of a story, a likeable character, and a paddock full of fertilizer for the imagination in a mere 250 pages, and a one-page conclusion that brings multiple stories to a neat and satisfying finish.

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Friday, 17 March 2017

Book Notes: "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (A Hercule Poirot Mystery)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Agatha Christie novel. Strange, I know, but as a teenager, I really didn't care whodunit. However, I have been a fan of David Suchet in Agatha Christie's Poirot in recent years, and I have seen the movie Murder on the Orient Express several times. So as I was reading the original novel, I noted the absence of the film's dark, religious undertones, and Poirot's struggle with the ideas of justice and the rule of law, and all that distinguishes humans from animals and how this was all exuded by Poirot's noble character. The novel, of course, exhibits none of these themes, and ends abruptly with Poirot more like Philip Marlowe in his pragmatic application of the finer elements of his vocation, albeit in a dandified manner rather than Bogart-esque grungy suaveness. How I would react to the novel had I not seen the film, one can never know, but I cannot help feel a little disappointed, while at the same time pleased with the obvious improvements introduced by the film. Christie is clearly an excellent story-teller, and I will now have to read one of her stories that is not familiar to know for sure. But there is something about the prose that captures and holds the reader. I call this being a "storyteller", and I immediately think of Somerset Maugham in the same vein. Nevertheless, the comparison ends there, as Christie is not in the same class as Maugham, and had it not been for the film, I would find it hard to think of this novel as little more than a story well told; a Commando comic type of novel, a short, quick spot of entertainment while taking a train (well, maybe not a train!) or a bus to work, but one that cannot be taken seriously. It does, however, raise for me the issue of how a good screenwriter can do wonders with a story. I immediately think of James Clavell, who was also an excellent storyteller, but who had the ability to write for the screen (such as The Great Escape and 633 Squadron. By the way, Clavell's main character was Peter Marlowe, echoing Raymond Chandler, and Clavell was Australian born). This little exploration led me to look at the works of the screenwriter for Orient Express, Stewart Harcourt. I could not find a novel written by him. This also led me to look at that other brilliant screenwriter, Woody Allen. I did not know but Allen has written many books and I must read some! So, what have I learnt from Agatha Christie? Well, and without being so conceited as to put down her work, I feel I didn't miss much by seeing the screen versions rather than reading her stories. Still, it is strange that it has taken me nearly half a century to get to her novels. To put the story in the context of her times, one must acknowledge Christie's talent. One must acknowledge, too, that, apparently, Christie now leads William Shakespeare on the best selling author's of all time list, and, I understand, second only to God and His Holy Bible. That's not a bad innings as an author.

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Notes: "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham

TheatreTheatre by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maugham's work is easy to read, not because it is simple, but that he is a story teller. Many subtle nuances permeate the prose, and topics including art, poetry, politics, and sexuality, amid class consciousness, are as near or far as the reader wishes them to be. A few themes that resonate with me recently include the notion of solitude. I often think of the 2007 film La Vie en Rose and how Édith Piaf's character at the end says words to the effect of "we all die alone". When I tried to find the precise quote, I stumbled upon a review of the movie in The Guardian from 2007 that indicates the movie was "empty". Yet for me, I had shuddered at the prospect of dying alone until some time after I "unDisneyfied" myself in my forties. In the review, a quote from Olivier Dahan reads that the movie provides "the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art". Julia Lambert, Maugham's protagonist, occupies exactly this same space. Although this book can be considered either a tragedy or a comedy, depending on how you look at it (is this even possible?), there is a strong theme of solitude, as in being alone with one's thoughts while being part of society but remaining autonomous from family and friends - as if there is no bond beyond mere convention (Marxist maybe?). Out of the entire cast, Julia Lambert's son emerges as the one intelligent being among a crowd of self-seeking and emotionally greedy individualists who by the end are all likeable but rather annoying (think of Agatha Christie's Poirot and how even she tired of his conceited dandyism - he was a bore). In some ways, an alternative title might even be How to be or not be a Bore. Not that the book is boring, but the characters and their mutual disregard for each other certainly make one think about one's own level of boringness as highlighted by these characters. I think that while audience sympathy for Piaf makes all the difference in the movie, Lambert's rich life of high culture doesn't allow the same leniency. But what is clear is that we live and die alone, whether we think so or not. Theatre leaves me wondering to what extent I bore those around me, live selfishly without noticing, and think I am better than everyone else. To err is human, and Maugham points out that our propensity for being boring, selfish, and judgemental mean that we can only ever err in this regard. Lambert shows us how far we can push it in the guise of blurring life and art. There are a couple of quotes that I find brilliant. First, on acting and poetry: "You had to have had the emotions, but you could only play them when you had got over them. She remembered that Charles had once said to her that the origin of poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. She did't know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting" (p. 290). Second, when Lambert's son is telling her how he perceives her: "When I've seen you go into an empty room I've sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I've been afraid to in case I found nobody there" (p. 261). The former is true in my experience, but I have never said it so elegantly. The latter is what concerns me more now than dying alone. I can accept that as a future fact, but if I were to be, as Lambert's son does to his mother, peeled back like an onion, would there be anything of substance? In Poetics, Aristotle makes clear distinctions between tragedy and comedy. It seems an absurdity that a story could be both. But I think that is what Maugham achieves. That he does this in a book called Theatre in a story that focuses on actors makes it possible, and, like I said, you could read this story as a comedy and think "those crazy artist types", or, you could read this as a tragedy and think "do I do that with my life?" In either mode, Maugham displays his genius.

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Monday, 13 March 2017

My comments on the latest Akamai report on Australia's broadband

Anchorites versus Thoreauvian Solitude: Or, Could I please unlearn this historical fact?

On reading parts of Thoreau and Emerson, and to some extent Walt Whitman, I have learnt to have moments of deliberate solitude and find the practice quite soothing. Aside from a handful of ecstatic moments experienced in solitude in the scrub at night or in thunderstorms, especially on the Cape York Peninsula, this is a recent development in my personality. But there are limits, and Dr Green just slammed these in my face.

Until I was in my late thirties, I found it rather difficult to be alone. Now, I wait patiently for those periods where I can do my own thing for as long as I choose. But after reading the essay "Solitary Refinement" by Dr Matthew Green in The Idler magazine (Issue 50, Autumn 2016, pp. 57-63), it is clear that balance is crucial.

It turns out that some Middle Age celebrities were known as "Anchorites". Think of them as extreme hermits, or even caged oracles. Now, I read Cave in the Snow not long after it was first published, and I remember shuddering at the thought of so lonely an existence and for so long. But more recently, watching Bill Murray in the 1984 film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge reminded me of Vicki Mackenzie, and I thought that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Then along came anchorites.

So an anchorite gave up their freedom to be walled in to a prison cell. Forever. They were not prisoners, but more or less volunteers who were built into a closed cell with a barred opening covered with a dark cloth. The opening served as a portal for the passing back and forth of food and waste, while the anchorite gave their life to be "close to God".

Green says there were actually long waiting lists for "anchorholds" in London. Being an anchorite (or indeed, anchoress) "was a way of being someone". In the 13th century, there were even handbooks for anchoresses. Many were driven by fame.

I recently wrote about the uncanny valley, and how the mannequins in the Old Melbourne Gaol introduced me to the uncanny valley. I wonder if the uncanny valley was amplified by the prison cell. The idea of being locked in forever is enough to make me physically ill, and I am certain I would die within days.

But many anchorites lived in a room, some even had a garden area, like a gilded forever-prison. But what about this from Green?
An anchorhold survives in London today, at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in East Ham, measuring just three feet by two feet, and six feet high.
I cannot stop shuddering.

Here I was thinking Green's essay would be about monks and how the scholarly life was a solitary process yet it was fulfilling and so on. But this "extreme hermit" gig makes me want to go for a long walk and talk to and embrace everybody I meet.

Once again, it would seem that balance is key. Thank you, Dr Green, but the anchorite level of idleness is not for me!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Putting the "Goulburn" back into Miles Franklin

Jennifer Lamb at the Goulburn Mulwaree Library, 12 March 2017
I travelled to Goulburn today to hear Jennifer Lamb, resident Miles Franklin researcher, give an illustrated talk on the author and the city of her day. Franklin is regarded as one of Australia's literary greats for her novel, My Brilliant Career, published at the time of Federation in 1901.

Ms Lamb became an avid Franklin researcher after "rediscovering" the author many years ago. At the time, there was little awareness of the important link between Goulburn and Franklin's novel, but there are many interesting back stories to the novel's protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, that mirror events in Franklin's own early life and society. 

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954) lived at Stillwater, a property near Goulburn, from 1891 to 1903. Franklin wrote her most famous novel at age 18 while residing there. Her novel caused a bit of a stir at the time because of the many parallels between fiction and real life.

Ms Lamb's presentation included many interesting photographs and links to Goulburn. For example, in the novel, Sybylla tells how she loved the organ music in either of the two cathedrals, and would often attend church just to hear the music. 

These same cathedrals still stand in Goulburn today, as does the store where the novel was first sold, and the house where Franklin was mentored by Thomas Hebblewhite, editor of the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, a newspaper that is still in circulation. Franklin's teacher, Mary Gillespie, provided early encouragement for the young writer, who was described by Ms Lamb as "a strident firebrand".

About fifty people attended the talk, followed by a pleasant afternoon tea. There were many questions from the audience and a keen interest in the obstacles Franklin faced trying to publish as a young woman and the circumstances around the support offered by Henry Lawson. 

The talk highlighted the past avoidance of Australian literature in our education system. Indeed, one audience member had read Australian literature at his school in England decades ago while many Australians are only now discovering what should otherwise be a strong local literary tradition.

Ms Lamb's talk also introduced the work of Brent of Bin Bin, especially the book Cockatoos, which encompasses my home town of Gunning, just west of Goulburn. It turns out that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin's pseudonym, allowing her to write stories inspired by the people and places of her youth while shielded by anonymity.

Ms Lamb continues to educate audiences about Miles Franklin, which over the years includes involvement in a play in 2013 and an art exhibition showcasing the life of Miles Franklin in Goulburn in 2001. The talk was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon and to learn more about this fascinating part of Australia.

Today's even was hosted by the Goulburn Mulwaree Library as part of Goulburn's "Our Living History" program.

Defending the Enlightenment with the Knowledge Illusion: Or, Why our desire for parsimony ensures we know diddly

What do we know? Photo by Linda Tanner CC BY 2.0
There are many statements about new knowledge and how, if you cannot explain something in so many words or less, then you do not understand the thing at hand. Or when senior executives want complex issues reduced to dot points to reduce their reading time.  Here I begin a critical examination of the opinion essay entitled "The Enlightenment's legacy is under siege. Defend it." by Damon Linker from The Week.

It would appear that our understanding of things, based on the academic desire for parsimony in developing new knowledge, has created an extreme that is ripe for the plucking by those who only think they know. If you are asking "Please explain?", then allow me to do so. But if you want my answer in so many words or less, then just go off and live your life as you please. It won't bother me.

What I want to do here is to not only critically examine Linker's essay, but to cross-examine the piece by superimposing a review, appearing in the April 2017 edition of Psychology Today, of the book The Knowledge Illusion, which is due for release soon. Obviously I cannot have read the book, but I will draw on the information provided in the review which touches on some key issues I wish to explore in the near future.

But first, let us begin with "Occams' Razor". Occam's Razor refers to the principle of parsimony in scientific research. In effect, if you are looking at two competing hypotheses, then the simplest is deemed the most likely. But we might also consider the hypotheses on a spectrum, with Occam's Razor on one extreme, and a Sherlock Holmes-style balance of probabilities on the other. Tania Lombrozo explains this far better than me. But apparently, Occam's Razor + Sherlock Holmes = Clever Kid.

Eyeball razor blade scene from Luis Buñuel's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou
When I read Linker's essay, I see Occam's Razor in action (a term which, incidentally, gives me the image of Luis Buñuel's eyeball razor blade in Un Chien Andalou). As I have not read Linker's other work, I can only examine the evidence presented, but, if I am to believe what is written about one of his major works, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, then he is not simply all for science and against everything else.

Nevertheless, Linker divides society into those for the Enlightenment, in a liberal arts or liberal democratic sense, and those who rejected Enlightenment thinking and have now come back to instigate Brexit, Trump, and here in Australia we rolled over the dead horse and flogged the other side of that other red-headed clown

No middle ground and a belief that "you're either with us or against us". Parsimonious, easy to put into dot point format, but oversimplified and wrong.

It may well be a case of heuristics, where the rule of thumb in Australia remains Labor = unionist, Liberal = silver-tail, and Greens = professional protestor who looks forward to state-led socialism. Of course, this is sometimes true but too simplistic to be useful in developing policy.

It is the same with Enlightenment versus counter-Enlightenment thinking. In The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is running rife in politics. Put simply, the effect explains "how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments".

And so it is with Linker's essay. Not Linker, but the people "out there" he is writing about. If we look at the issues of globalisation, free trade, immigration, and so on, it is not the theory that has been disproven, but the way it has been done. Here are two of my favourite anti-globalisation cartoons:

The cartoon on the left shows the worst kind of tourist. People who go to other cultures like they would to a zoo. And on the right shows the worst kind of trade, where multinationals drive out choice by driving efficiencies.

None of this is new. The Greek and Roman Empires did the same, be it democracy or administration, as did the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British and so on. But in the grand scheme of things, it is a misnomer to equate globalisation with Americanisation, or to think that the American Empire will somehow outlive history. 
Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten through the lapse of Time (Aristotle's Physics, 221a).
I doubt the momentum of globalisation will be easily reversed. Nationalism cannot be the solution to all future problems. Brexit will not create jobs for underemployed Britons, Trump will not help the US economy by removing the ten or so million illegal workers who do all the dirty work without ever claiming social security benefits or receiving a tax refund.

Yet Linker draws on Heidegger and Nazis and tries to put Rousseau back in his illiberal box. I notice too that Linker has written a book entitled Theocons, so I suspect he is clinging to a New Right view of the world. Dare I say Orientalist.

So what is my point? The division of people into Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment camps is problematic because it relies on a two-dimensional divide. It also hides behind a thick veil of the Dunning-Kruger effect based on cultural competence. 

Which is why I say that you cannot just review one article and forget about bringing other things in for the sake of parsimony. The world is far more complex, and complexity is best fought with complexity. The graph below indicates that the less you know, the more competent you think you are, and the more likely that you have an opinion on climate change based on the principle of parsimony but you had to look up the meaning of parsimony.
Indeed, Gary Drevitch's review (Psychology Today, April 2017: 44-5) of The Knowledge Illusion uses climate change as one of the major examples of confident incompetence presently in vogue. So is it possible that Linker's view is not that of an "indifferent spectator"?

Adam Smith, the Father of Capitalism, used the concept of the "indifferent spectator" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to arrive at the conclusion that our "social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason". I suspect that Linker is not indifferent at all but also doesn't know that is the case.

And surely Adam Smith, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, is using counter-Enlightenment thinking by arguing for a social psychology over reason in matters of morality? Linker has no answer to this problem.

I see this same hardheadedness in the I Fucking Love Science crew I regularly see on Facebook. Sure, science is great, but please don't pretend that science has all the answers or that, if you looked hard enough, you couldn't find a photograph of a relative who received blood-letting as a medical treatment. You may fucking love science but the knowledge illusion is still very real.

How do we overcome this? I think we need to revisit the principle of parsimony. I don't think it helps with complex problems. And, like reviewing one thing at a time for an orderly review, it does not illuminate biases or enable a triangulation or cross-examination of the issues at hand.

This has been an interesting activity. Linker points to many areas I am under-read in, and Psychology Today is proving to be, pardon the pun, an enlightening magazine. But complexity needs complexity, and binary solutions to systemic problems are not the answer, either in practice, or in our thinking.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Nothing to see in Gunning. No inspiration here, just keep moving right along...

Nothing to see in Gunning, just keep moving along. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
As many Canberrans who happen to be ex-Queenslanders will know, you do not tell family members that Canberra is actually a great place to live. Whenever somebody says "Too bloody cold to live down there!" I always say "Too bloody right!" agreeably, knowing that my sanctuary is safe from intruders.
Hume and Hovell Obelisk, Fish River. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
But that was before I moved to Gunning. This is the second best thing I've ever done after fooling my wife into marrying me. And now it is Canberrans I am afraid of - it's sheep country, lots of flies, everything closed, nothing to see in Gunning.
What are you looking at? Photo by Michael de Percy, Cullerin NSW 11 March 2017
I've finally had time to play around with my camera. I am hoping to have time to pre-record some shows for The Rebel Chorus; Folk with a political edge on 2XX 98.3 FM, too. I haven't had a chance to do this since moving to Gunning. I also intend to produce a few podcasts and vlogs, and use these here on my blog. Today, I needed a dash of inspiration.
Councils insisting on COLORBOND® has nothing to do with aesthetics. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
So trusting that nobody reads the text other than the bits that appear in the Facebook feed, I thought I would add some of the best photographs from today's trip around the region with my father, and my trusty mini-fox terrier and best mate, Pablo.
Pablo near Mutmutbilly. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
So what's special about Gunning? Fish River, just east of Gunning, marks the spot where Hume and Hovell commenced their overland journey to Port Phillip.
St Brigid's Catholic Cemetery, Mutmutbilly. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
Today is a perfect day. It is warm and one needs a hat and sunscreen, but not so hot that you wish it would snow. It is as perfect as it gets. Such perfect weather heralds the lighting of wood fires and marvelling at chimney smoke rising in the cool, crisp morning air. Blissfully in the present.
Old Hume Highway near Breadalbane. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
I had been told that Breadalbane, formerly known as Mutmutbilly, was originally on the northern side of the Old Hume Highway. Today I found the Old South Road turnoff and drove the big loop through Mutmutbilly and Cullerin. Part of it is gravel road, but it is fairly hard at the moment. Don't take your Ferrari through there, but any conventional car should cope.
Farm Ruins at Cullerin. Photo by Michael de Percy.
The region is also known to be a trainspotter's paradise, and I can see why. A short trip along the Old Hume Highway between Gunning and Breadalbane has interesting bridges and viewing spots with easy access.
A Trainspotter's Paradise. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
While a bit dry at the moment, the countryside is still breathtaking, and there are interesting ruins and other features that proved a source of inspiration for me today.
St Brigid's Catholic Church, Mutmutbilly (built 1865). Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.
But take it from me. There's nothing to see in Gunning, so just keep moving right along.
Steam-era Water Tank at Fish River, circa 1875. Photo by Michael de Percy 11 March 2017.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Book Notes: "The Flapper Wife" by Beatrice Burton

The Flapper WifeThe Flapper Wife by Beatrice Burton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I purchased this book because our 1923 Beale Pianola came with a roll, The Flapper Wife, a foxtrot from the 1920s. Our house dates to this period, and the 'twenties have always fascinated me through the works of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and many others. Two things I must record. First, the novel mentions the term "Mrs Grundy", which is defined as "A person with very conventional standards of propriety", and is used to describe how a prude might view a particular attitude or behaviour. Second, the book mentions the song being whistled by one of the characters. Given that Gloria, the protagonist, is mentioned in the song, I found this a little bizarre. But it appears that the words were written by our very own Beatrice Burton, and the music was composed by Carl Rupp, and recorded in 1925. It may well have been a clever package deal. If you are interested in a commentary of the plot, Mary Miley says it much better than me. But this was a real gem, and its long train wreck of a trajectory ends with an abrupt climax that, deep down, I (am I a long lost descendant of Mrs Grundy, I wonder?) wanted to happen (even though part of me wanted more of a Fitzgerald real-life ending). For its historical snapshot, this is a great read. As far as literature goes, that a train wreck can drag on for so long and keep me captivated, it is a real marvel. So the next time I play The Flapper Wife on our pianola, I will be "all over it like a tent" (as Ms Burton might say).

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Thursday, 9 March 2017

George Saunders On Writing: Author of New York Times best seller tells all

Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Jeff Kubina [CC BY-SA 2.0]
At the time of writing, George Saunders' novel Lincoln in the Bardo is in its second week on the New York Times' bestseller list. After reading Colson Whitehead's review, I have the novel on my Book Depository wishlist. In an essay in The Guardian last week, Saunders discusses the creative process he adopts when writing. There are a number of small but helpful approaches and I record here the parts that struck a chord with me.

The first and probably the most important lesson is to keep the reader in mind. This should be no surprise, as I tell my students the same thing. But Saunders seems to assess each sentence using a P (positive) and N (negative) meter that he uses like a metaphorical head-up display as he writes. 

As Saunders writes, he asks himself "Where’s the needle?" and accepts:
...the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone". Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts.
The point is that through incrementalism, the story adjusts and the characters are allowed to develop, rather than writing to a strict plan. The essay includes a quaint anecdote from Gerald Stern about writing and producing a story to a plan. It refers to a story of two dogs.

But the respect for the reader is paramount. One has to give the reader what is expected. Not in terms of a predictable plot. That would be silly. But in terms of the process:
A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.
Saunders uses the example of Romeo pursuing Juliet, rather than deciding it's all too hard and skiving off to Spain (or wherever). Why throw pins in the air if they aren't going to land?

And then when the writer runs into an obstacle, rather than seeing these as a roadblock, see them as an opportunity. Remember to keep the audience in mind as you go through this process:
The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment.
I have read works (or bits of works) on writing to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, and Cormac McCarthy, and this piece by George Saunders adds another string to the bow.

A key lesson is that letting the process take you where it goes is a good thing. I know this, having experienced it with my PhD thesis. Others just wanted it done. Write a plan, stick to the plan, produce the planned thesis. But is this a product of passion, art, and labour? Not at all. Letting the process happen is key.

Saunders sums this one up best:
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be – almost surely is – a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system.
Creation of an abstract mural. Photo by LaurMG [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Derrida versus the rationalists, and why I might be more postmodern than I thought

Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). Photograph by Matthew Mendoza/CC-BY-SA 2.0
When Jackson Pollock adopted his "action painting" technique, he challenged the dominance of the easel and the brush in Western art. When I was searching for a picture for this post, I found an article by Carl Raschke that linked the ideas of Derrida to Pollock and I liked it. Given that Blue Poles, the most famous (and notorious) piece at the National Gallery of Australia, was, according to the conservative minority who tend to dominate public opinion here, "painted by barefoot drunks", the Raschke's connection between Derrida and Pollock is rather clever.

When looking into the ideas of critical theory recently, I stumbled upon an essay in the New Humanist by Peter Salmon. Tonight I read it for the second time and, as is now my practice, I decided to write up my "essay notes". The main concept is that of deconstruction.

The essay, entitled "Derrida versus the rationalists", tells the story of Derrida's rise from relative obscurity after giving the lecture "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. Salmon says Derrida wanted to "bury" structuralism, and, apparently, it worked. When asked where he was going with this, Derrida replied:
I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point where I do not know any longer where I am going.
If I go back to my notes from a recent seminar on ontology and epistemology, and rather than try to explain deconstruction (which I grasp only incompletely), what strikes me is that Derrida argues that we may not be able to know everything. 

The advance of science suggests that as we improve our methods over time, we, as in humans, can know everything. Sure, this might be an eternal quest, like counting the grains of sand on a beach. But if we were to suspend the sand content of a beach at a particular point in time, then, we could, plausibly at least, count all of the grains of sand.

But Derrida asks, in effect, what if we cannot know everything? The essay cites Derrida using terms such as "the structurality of structure" to point out that a structure is "contradictorily coherent" because it "rests on the notion that there is a centre or an organising principle behind it", such as "essence, being, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man" - in effect, some remnant of intelligent design whether we call it God or some such "metaphor".

Now I am intrigued. So to learn a bit more about Derrida, I turn to Alain de Botton's "School of Life":

As I read and write, I like to listen to my favourite composer, John Adams. I learned of Adams from the soundtrack of the game Civilization III. I have since watched Adams conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House for the 2013 premiere of his Saxophone Concerto, and I listen to his works most days.

But in the spirit of new discoveries, I deferred to a colleague's recommendation of Ryuichi Sakamoto. As I perused my music streaming service, I discovered that Sakamoto had written the score for the documentary Derrida. This puzzled me, as there is not meant to be a God (or metaphor or organising principle)! I promptly bought the DVD.

As with Pollock, Sakamoto's work is regarded as deconstructionist. This prompted me to look at Derrida's influence on art, and introduced me to yet another rabbit hole. Drawing on Paul Cézanne's claim to tell Emile Bernard the truth about painting, Derrida wrote The Truth in Painting. Marvellous. 

On the way past the rabbit hole, I noticed Art History Unstuffed, a website created by Jeanne Willette. There is an interesting article about Derrida and The Truth in Painting on the site. I shall return!

Before I decided to buy the DVD of the Derrida documentary, I started to watch a bit of it on Youtube.  In the introduction, Derrida makes the following distinction between "the future" and "l'avenir":
In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” [the ‘to come]. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.
I realise I know nothing. And I don't mean entirely in the sense of a Socratic paradox. I mean I really feel the inadequacy. I have so many books and have read so many but it means nothing. 

It's counting all those newly-discovered parts of atoms in grains of sand in an ever-expanding universe of beaches. It is implausible that I could ever have the time or ability to know.

It is a personalised experience of Derrida - not only can I not know everything, which is no shock at all, but I cannot even know everything I want to know in the time I have left (even if that happened to be until 2070). This has consequences for so many things.

For instance, my research philosophy or my reading program. What is it I want to know, and how do I prioritise such things? The young Benjamin Franklin was able to devise a plan for his own conduct. Indeed, I am now well into his 13 week program devised in the eighteenth century. But how do we create our own individual plan and purpose? 

I thought I knew, but I most often seem to go against my nature. But wait - what if Derrida is right? What if we cannot ever know, regardless of time or ability? What if my nature is simply my contradictorily coherent organising principle that stops me from seeing the truth?

Whoa. This is getting a bit Stoic. Cato the Elder guides me: What if I embraced fate? The concept of "my fate" is difficult to define. It cannot be true that my fate will happen regardless of what I do. But if by fate I mean all of the external events and things that I cannot control? 

If... God is time, and if my fate is what God wills, then... if I love God I must also love my fate. Or [insert metaphor here] as Derrida might have suggested.

An approach that I keep deferring to is to go where things lead. Today, the whole Derrida train has gone from Jackson Pollock to Ryuichi Sakamoto and back to a documentary on Derrida, and back to Stoicism (where it started this morning). This morning, I wrote:
I need to put more thought into my day.
Yet if I had planned this journey, today's felicity would have escaped me. But did I not put more thought into my day, today? And how can I know?

The New Humanist article closes with a quote from Derrida that sums up today's journey:
For not only am I not sure, as I never am, of being right in taking this step, I am not sure in all clarity what led me to do so. Perhaps because I was beginning to know all too well not indeed where I was going, but where I had not so much arrived as simply stopped.
I might be more postmodern than I thought.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness": Amate dolce far niente? (Do you love doing nothing?), and why you find it hard to do

Dolce far Niente (The Sweetness of Doing Nothing) by John William Godward, 1904 (Public Domain)

Essay Notes: "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell

Dolce far Niente: The sweetness of doing nothing, or, The Italian art of piddling about. Why is it so hard for Anglophones? Bertrand Russell provides some of the answers but there is a long history of academic thought to ensure that nobody, especially poor people, can simply do nothing. Think Malthus, Ricardo, Spencer, and the Fair Work Commission.

At first glance, such false consciousness all seems a bit stupid. But John Williams Godward, the artist whose painting adorns the top of this page, killed himself because the world was not large enough for both Pablo Picasso and himself. It would appear, then, that even people who revere the art of piddling about can also be really, really stupid.

Take, for instance, my boss back when I was doing a government traineeship in warehousing at age 18. I worked in hydraulic spare parts. One day, business was slow. I had reordered all the stock, sold everything I could, even worked on the bench to get a few smaller jobs out of the way for the tradesmen. I was bored.

So I got out the mop and bucket. A hydraulics workshop is quite oily, so kerosene is the cleaner of choice. I mopped the entire workshop, re-stacked and re-organised everything. At last, there was nothing to do, and I sat at my desk and twiddled my thumbs and waited for the telephone to ring

So my boss walks over to me and says:
I know you have worked really hard, and I know that you have tried to find everything possible to do, and I know there is nothing else for you to do. But I cannot bear the thought of having to pay for you to sit there and do nothing, so I want you to shuffle papers or something and look busy so I can feel OK about it.
No joke, he actually said that. And in those words, I was awakened to the absolute stupidity of work in its modern guise.

I recalled how everyone around me was judged by how they worked: "He's a good worker". I remember being praised that way myself, and my stupid ego would have me feeling chuffed as I worked harder still.

And then I remember hearing employers say "Give 'em an extra five cents an hour and call 'em a manager, and they'll do the work of three people".

Still, many people work hard their entire lives, but in the few years before they are eligible for the pension, and their body breaks down, they are treated like bludgers as they grovel for the disability pension. It is all beyond comprehension.

Apparently, there is "evidence" that reducing wages for weekend workers will increase jobs. Because teenagers (who work in retail on weekends) getting paid too much is a major driver of unemployment. Never mind false consciousness, this is fake consciousness. Russell picks up on this false economy.

But the big question is, what are we working for? Work has even cornered happiness, so it can't be for that!

Russell echoes Adam Smith in the parable of the pin makers, and Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (which I am reading at the moment), and of course Karl Marx in opposition to Max Weber and the Protestant work ethic. I lived under this cloud in Queensland.

Then I left conservative Queensland in the late 1990s and moved to Canberra. It was a worker's paradise. No longer was my work based on presenteeism, or simply being at work, but on what I produced and the outcomes I achieved. I love Canberra for giving me the opportunity to escape the conservative stranglehold I had felt since birth.

Recently, however, I have questioned how far this might go, and how we might achieve our own ends only at the expense of others. Clearly, much of the issues Russell mentions is class-related. Yes, Australia has a class system, but unlike the United Kingdom, Australia vehemently pretends that it doesn't have a class system. But there are different global tiers of classes, too.

When I first learnt of Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Workweek, I read critiques of his ideas about outsourcing mundane tasks to poorly paid workers in the developing world. This is indeed a conundrum.  If you are certain that not giving someone in the developing world a job is a good way to reduce global poverty, then fill your boots. Nonetheless, Ferriss' ideas are not necessarily about using other people to achieve our aims in a heartless manner.

The message I hear in Ferriss' work, class issues and the internationale aside, is that we do not need to work so much. There is actually no need for it.

Think of meetings. When I served as an army officer, orders groups (O groups) served an important purpose, and good operators could get important messages through the chain of command quickly, covering all bases.

These days, contemporary organisations see meetings as work. People spend all day in meetings, meetings which take up at least and most often more time than allocated, and then the attendees forget to pass on any of the decisions to the people who actually do the work. Yet those attending the meetings derive some absurd feeling of status and prowess that makes it feel like work.

Don't get me wrong, meetings are a necessary evil, but there is a reason I ask people the question "How many meetings did you achieve today?"

I'd often thought it was a lack of discipline in conducting O groups, but it seems it is more a case of the conundrum of finding things to do with our time that we can classify as work. The coal face is a lonely space these days. There used to be kids and everyone down there.

Children working in coal mines in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Janet Lindenmuth CC BY-SA 2.0
If you live the unexamined life, then work is more important than leisure. As Gary Gutting says:
The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.
If you are doing life the wrong way around, it hasn't necessarily been your fault. But once you have read In Praise of Idleness, from then on it is your fault.

Bertrand Russell's essay is an important reminder of how far we have come, without really going anywhere. The trick for most workers is to fight fake consciousness and fake work with fake busy-ness. At least until the Great Leap Forward comes along. But good luck with that - you'd be better off just doing nothing. Dolce far Niente!

Book Notes: "Lady Rose's Daughter" by Mrs Humphrey Ward

Lady Rose's DaughterLady Rose's Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book because it was mentioned in an article on page 2 of the Goulburn Herald on 22 May 1903. I blogged about the article, which features my home town of Gunning, in October last year. It was the number one novel in the Publishers Weekly bestseller list in the United States for 1903. I understand that Mrs Humphrey Ward, as her use of her husband's name suggests, was an anti-suffragette. That the novel smacks of all things conservative does not take away from the brilliance of her work. I had some concerns over anachronisms in the novel, the plot clearly takes place after 1859, but is still regarded as being in the mid-nineteenth century by the characters, yet electric lights appeared in several scenes. Clearly the railway was a going concern. But after some research, I found that Punch magazine, which gets a number of guernseys in the novel, features the use of electric lights in London houses from as early as 1848 (Punch 1848, Vol. 15, p. 239), not to mention a satirical critique of electric lights (written by "a gas contractor"). Other reviewers have referred to Mrs Ward's "cardboard characters", and that may be true if one views the work as clichéd. However, one must remember that the book was written in 1903, over one hundred years before Downton Abbey, so Mrs Ward may be forgiven for being at the forefront of the re-imagining of Jane Austen in a mid-nineteenth century setting. If I am to take the background of the author into account, the novel is a victory for women who achieve success - when defined as social status and wealth - through their husbands, while at the same time winning a moral victory over the Sins of the Mother (a re-imagining of the proverbial). The pace of the novel was quite brisk, and I was captivated until the final forty or so pages, when the plot unfolds "like a long, slow accident" (Something for Kate's Stunt Show played over and over in my head as I read this part). The conclusion moved me and left me rather perplexed. It made be glad not to be a woman (in the Victorian sense of the word). And Mrs Humphrey Ward, brilliant as I find her work, in my imagination smiles smugly like a Liberal party member passing a lump of coal around parliament as history not only passes her by but would make her look silly if anyone else remembered her. But do read it - it is an excellent novel, even if the entire package serves as a caution for those who suffer from smug assuredness.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Festival of Steam, Thirlmere, NSW, 5th March 2017

Locomotive 3642, built 1926. Preparing for the Thirlmere to Sydney trip, 5 March 2017.
I joined Transport Heritage NSW after a steam train came through Gunning last winter. We headed off this morning without umbrellas after looking at the 11% rain prediction on Google Weather. And then it began to pour.

By the time we got to Thirlmere, the rain had settled in. It was a bit of a walk from where we parked to the entrance. But we were lucky enough to buy reasonably priced umbrellas at the markets and, once I was sure my camera and my bag were all fine, the atmosphere of the festival started to work its magic on me.

The weather was a real downer. It was horrible. We wanted to visit the potter on the main stretch of the festival, but the footpath was a flowing creek that was impassable. Had the weather been fine, this would have been one of the best festivals I have been to in regional Australia. Hopefully next year it will be better, because I will be going back.

We had planned on driving to Picton for lunch, but the rain threw a spanner in the works. The festival was in full swing despite the rain, and we treated ourselves to a "Spartan Yiros", a Greek sandwich, from one of the many food stalls. It was delicious. Food included Korean, Turkish, Danish, and Asian, and there were stores selling model trains and clothes and all sorts of things.

There was a real vibe. Despite the rain, quite a few people turned out in their steam-punk finery. And the sound of steam engines and whistles amid old-timey music kept our spirits up as we headed towards the displays.

At the entrance, the Blues Preachers were playing. These guys didn't stop the whole time we were there and they were great. I love old-timey mountain music and they have the look and sound down pat. I bought two of their albums, Dead Catz Can Bounce and Dry So Long. The Blues Preachers completed a weekend of great music for us. We listened to it all the way home in the car.

As we entered the pavilion at Trainworks, we were greeted by a display of "steam train art". I bought a couple of postcards depicting steam trains in historical Australian settings. There were reasonably priced prints and some original oil paintings for sale. Check out if this style of art is your thing. I particularly liked the fly-fishing scenes.

Locomotive 2705 at Thirlmere Station
The highlight of the trip was the steam train ride to Buxton. Locomotive 2705 did the honours to Buxton (about 9km away), and the trailing diesel electric brought us back. The carriages were period six seaters in all their faded glory.

It took about 40 minutes or so for the round trip, but nobody really noticed. Despite the rain, every train trip at the festival was sold out. Spectators lined the track all the way along the route to take photos and wave as the lucky passengers rolled on by.

Click play below to hear the 2705's steam whistle.


There were other steam engines on display, including a model train setup with fully functioning, small-scale (shoebox size) steam engines, work trucks, showbags and show rides for children, in addition to the permanent collection at Trainworks.

There were a handful of classic work vehicles on display
If you missed the festival but are interested in what is happening in this space, there is an online exhibition from Transport Heritage NSW, and don't forget the National Film and Sound Archive's Public Transport online collection.

If the weather had been good, this would easily have been the best festival in regional Australia. I hope the effort for next year's festival remains undiminished, as I intend to be there again.

But book your ticket for the Festival of Steam early if you want to take a ride on the steam train. And if you are an enthusiast, support a worthy heritage project and join Transport Heritage NSW.

Part of the permanent collection at Thirlmere

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Travel Notes: Paris, 10-13 September 2007

Moulin Rouge, Pigalle
On a trip to Glasgow for a conference in 2007, we did a whirlwind tour of London and Paris. Using Wotif, we took a mystery package in London, but we were deliberate in choosing our hotel in Paris. 

Atlanta Frochet Hotel, Pigalle
We stayed at the Atlanta Frochot Hotel on 9 rue Frochot in Pigalle, just up the road from the Moulin Rouge.

It was not the best time to be in Paris. The Rubgy World Cup was on at the same time, and there was a huge football suspended in the middle of the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit like rocking up to see the Sydney Opera House for the first time and someone had wrapped it in a Best & Less flanny shirt.

The noise of rugby revelers was endless, and, at times, walking around Pigalle late at night was disappointing, as it was full of either zombie-like or aggressive drunks.

To put things in perspective, when we hired a boat on the lake in Hyde Park in London, a South African worker there noticed my accent and started talking about the rugby. When I told him I couldn't care less about rugby, he seemed deflated and said I was the only Australian he had ever met who didn't care about the rugby. So not the ideal time to be in Paris, but aside from the noise, we were focused on the other highlights.
Mona Lisa, smaller than I expected!

Arc de Triomphe
But the hotel was quaint, and suited our student budget. The hotel was renamed Le Pigalle recently. It appears to have gone all hipster but it was mostly quaint and old-worldly when we were there.

I have recreated parts of the journey from my scrapbook of receipts, museum maps, bus and train tickets, and business cards, because my diary stops abruptly on 4th September in Glasgow, misses London, and commences again on 12th September.

That's because, on arriving in Glasgow, we faced a spot of illness, some lost luggage, and then turned up at the conference about 5 minutes before my wife's unannounced but rescheduled presentation was to begin.

I pick up the diary notes from here.

L'église de la Madeleine, Paris
Paris, Monday 10th September 2007

Fly to Paris. Moulin Rouge [too expensive so we walked past it], pizza [from La Scuderia Del Mulino]  organised the open top, hop-on, hop-off bus, ate at a sidewalk cafe, did the yellow then green routes [bus sightseeing routes around Paris]. I recall a furphy that if you walked around late at night, the bouncers at the various seedy joints would force you into their club and then make you pay the cover charge. A bit like razor blades in the soap at high school. We never had any soap at high school, and I never saw any bouncers.

Paris, Tuesday 11th September 2007

Arc de Triomphe, Metro, boat trip [Seine], Notre-Dame. I am sure on this day we went to the Musee d'Orsay and saw From Cezanne to Picasso: Masterpieces from the Vollard Gallery. One exhibition included black and white film footage of the various artists (it may have been the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, but I recall we went to other smaller places, too.
Eiffel Tower, with football

Paris, Wednesday 12th September 2007

Visit Louvre. We woke with the alarm at 7am and after much consternation decided to visit the Louvre first. We entered with our Paris Museum Pass. For some reason, we walked all the way there (2.7km) - we were too early for the first bus at 0930. I had a pastry breakfast at the hotel. [My wife] waited until we found the bakery and had brioche and we both had a chocolate eclair. The perfect eclair remains elusive, but these were close - the chocolate custard seems to spoil it. Another boat trip, Musee de Orsay, coffee at Notre Dame, another bus trip, Arc de Triomphe. I bought MacDonalds. [My wife] had eaten goats cheese and crackers and then felt unwell. I watched BBC until falling asleep. The pillows were hopeless! At about 3am we woke to the sound of the Scottish [rugby fans] singing - it was later evident that they won something in the soccer as well as the rugby. A while later, we were woken by the sound of bagpipes again.

View from Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
Paris, Thursday 13th September 2007

Venus de Milo, Louvre
We woke after 0900 and spent time packing so we didn't have problems with the luggage again [like having clean underwear in one's carry-on]. The one bag rule was ludicrous - there needs to be consistency! [At the time, depending on the airline and the route, you could either have one large bag or two smaller bags, and changing airlines often messed up one's luggage]. We walked about after leaving our luggage at the hotel to find somewhere to eat. A while past the Moulin Rouge we saw a little bistro in a quiet street but the service was crap so we left the menus sitting on the table and found somewhere on the main road. This place was owned by a Christian Lebanese [man and] we were looked after well. We paid €50 (a tip of €5). We walked back to the hotel and ordered a taxi. My wife's bag had almost disintegrated and we were both too tired to walk. The taxi was going to cost €10-15, but [the Moroccan taxi driver] said he would take us [all the way] to the airport for €35... The aeroplane was delayed, what a f***ing surprise.
Eiffel Tower, Paris

The whole trip was a blur, but the diary doesn't show how much we saw or how much walking we did. But my scrapbook shows we went to the following:
Arc de Triomphe, Paris

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