August 31, 2004

Proud To Be American

"I'm proud to be American": how can you be proud of something you played no part in creating, or that's an accident of birth or entirely beyond your control?

It's like being proud to be green-eyed or 180cm tall.

August 29, 2004

Scots, Wha Hae...

Ferguson's "Empire" contains the throwaway comment early in his Introduction that "[to] the Scots, the [British] Empire stood for bright sunlight." Is it even possible to do a history of Scotland and the Scots without making the Empire -- and slavery and colonialism -- a central theme for the past two or three centuries? Scots, and Scotland, are heavily implicated in the building, the running, and the peopling of the Empire. Yet something like Arthur Herman's ludicrous bit of hagiographic Scottishry, "How The Scots Invented the Modern World", barely mentions the topic, despite the way the Scottish Enlightenment made the collaboration in Empire almost inevitable, supplying a lot of its religious and political justification along with the human resources, both literate and illiterate.

(Like Ferguson, I'm a classic product of the Scottish middle class's flight to the sunlight.)

August 27, 2004

Tractor Pull At The Old Cow Palace

My first taste of US cable TV, mid-1980's. A whole unsuspected universe of alternative realities (far more alternative and weird than anything Berkeley would later throw in my direction).

If you can't make a decent novel or film out of a title like that...

(Part of California).

August 25, 2004

Lantana

Lantana: the deftly-woven improbabilities, the Australian faces, the lushness, the recognizable landscapes...

(The name, one of those strongly evocative untranslatable things, that sharp embrace..).

August 22, 2004

Transparency

There's one simple thing that keeps getting lost in all the fuss about electronic voting, in all the concerns about tampering, or tracing, etc. -- it's that transparency is the most important thing. That is, can the average voter look at the voting process and associated machines, rules, etc., and actually understand and verify every step? Can that average voter watch or monitor an actual election and confirm for themselves that -- on the election day, not just during a dry run or system test -- the system is fair and reasonably error-free, at least as far as he or she can see? Or does that average voter have to rely on certification by experts for the system -- is any step effectively a black box because of the level of detailed technical knowledge needed to understand and authenticate it?

Everything else is secondary. If the system -- or any component of it -- does not pass that test, it should not be used for important elections in any democracy.

With most -- probably all -- electronic voting systems now in use, this transparency is not even possible in principle. The older hand-tallying or card systems are cumbersome, slow, inefficient, wildly-irritating, expensive, etc., but they're much more transparent. You can see the votes being tallied (it's dead boring, believe me...), you can see the physical ballots being moved from location to the tally room, you can demand a recount with the phycial ballots, and you can have some sort of faith that you understand how the results came to be. You even have a fighting chance of catching a ballot-stuffer red-handed.

It's one thing to tally physical votes electronically -- they can always be recounted by hand -- it's another to do away with that physical record completely, and bury the process in something akin to witchcraft as far as most voters are probably concerned.

August 21, 2004

Wonderful Monkeys

Lutyens on Simla, my father's birthplace: "If one was told that the monkeys had built it all one could only say [would be]: 'What wonderful monkeys -- they must be shot in case they do it again'" (quoted in Ferguson's "Empire").

August 20, 2004

A Sense Of Place

Nothing about my life as a kid in Woy Woy -- or the area itself -- was particularly special, unusual, or interesting. Few who lived there thought of Woy Woy as either the greatest or the worst place on earth; life there was unexciting, uneventful, unexpectant. The trains ran mostly on time; I don't recall any murders or scandals, but there was a lot of petty crime; and there was the usual sense of Progress towards a future of bigger houses, bricks instead of fibro, more cars, real hospitals, local radio stations, telephones in every house, and properly-paved roads. On the other hand, I don't think of that time as having any narrative towards anything for me personally; it’s more a series of memories that came to an end when I was sent to boarding school in Canberra at the age of twelve (and entered another world entirely...).

There was a sense of place to Woy Woy and the surrounding areas that seemed to manifest itself mostly on the small scale -- this place has always been a bike shop, that a fish shop, this a butcher's (with sawdust floors, curved glass-topped counter displays, bone saws, and waist-high polished stainless steel package shelf) -- but not in the sort of strong loyalty, wistfullness, nostalgia or homesickness that a sense of place for (say) Berkeley or Brooklyn might imply. Woy Woy was the sort of place people came from; but you didn’t so much escape from it (that would imply something unpleasant about the place) as just find yourself somewhere else or drift to the cities. There's little to distinguish a childhood at that time in Woy Woy from one in (say) Bankstown, except for the ocean and the beaches.

(The funny thing was -- and still is -- that Woy Woy was well-known to both the rest of Australia and to large numbers of Britons because it was the butt of so many affectionate Spike Milligan jokes (more on him later...). Woy Woy never self-identified much with this -- it seemed to barely know about its image -- but if you ever said you were from Woy Woy, even in London, someone would smile and recall a few anecdotes they'd read in Punch or Private Eye... Even in Australia the name was considered a bit odd or funny; and, in the same way that Australia gets used as an abstract metaphor, or shorthand for remoteness, by people like Dickens or Tarkovsky, Australian writers (like Mandy Sayer) or humourists used Woy Woy as a shorthand destination (or lack of it?)).

August 17, 2004

Failure Is Not An Option

That fatuous slogan, "failure is not an option". Failure is a virtual certainty; it's how you deal with it that matters...

August 08, 2004

The Smell of Failure

One of the strongest memories I have from the dot com era is the omnipresent smell of cooked garlic in the backstreets of San Francisco's downtown and South Of Market districts. Garlic, that over-used failure of culinary imagination...

August 06, 2004

Cousin Jacks

"Cousin Jacks" music store in Mariposa: we stroll in on the way home from Yosemite, idly looking for a small guitar for Jan’s niece, but I'm entranced by the dobros (even a big bass dobro), odd-looking banjos, and the mandolins. Jack's the character you’d expect -- old, bearded, cranky, garrulous, insisting that he feels insulted when people say he doesn’t look his age (67, the same age as his car) because he feels his age (he says he's lived his 67 years...) -- and can't stop showing me everything from an old ukulele favourite of his to a set of new dobro cassettes just in, to the photos of his car and dolls. I seem to have brightened his day by mentioning both Bill Monroe and Leon McAuliffe in the same sentence, and for bantering with him about Tiny Tim (he greeted us by bounding out of the back of his shop saying out of the blue "Tiny Tim’s gone, you know. There'll never be a better ukulele player.") I feel guilty about leaving.... [December 1996]

August 01, 2004

The Triumph Of Therapy

In California, therapy so often seems to be confused with the Triumph Of The Will.

(Part of California).


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