September 26, 2004

Flying Cars

Today's NYT Magazine has a slightly-bemused article on the promise of flying cars. In several pages of article, there's not a single sentence on one of the biggest problems with the concept: energy efficiency. It's not the 1960's anymore, you know. You can't just conjure up a huge fleet of flying cars and not wonder where the fuel for it will come from. It costs energy to make something fly rather than roll -- and in a world of unstable energy sources, that can't always be a good thing.

(This is the same problem that James Fallows's book "Free Flight" had -- Americans by and large don't seem to understand the link between unrestricted personal mobility and energy usage. You can't sustain the current levels of personal mobility and overall energy usage without coming up with new energy sources (which probably won't work with something like personal airplanes) or without restricting the types of mobility.

September 24, 2004

Get Carter

Get Carter (the original, with Michael Caine): the use of foreground / background shots, the way so much important action is visually and sonically uncentred, indirect, eccentrically-framed, seen through foreground obstructions or over someone’s shoulder, or heard from off-screen or through a haze of voices and noise; the endless use of tunnels, stairwells, alleys, corridors; the dead light and dreary landscapes of England; the dead eyes and faces of the English; the river, the grey sea... the sense of place (Newcastle -- but how did they get from the Tyne bridges to the seaside so quickly on foot in the last scenes?! And the occasional wobbly accent..).

Astonishing. Not what I expected at all. Noir in subdued colours...

September 17, 2004

A Fortunate Life

Rereading Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life: being pulled up short by what I hadn’t remembered, the precise, stringent, powerful “there is no God” paragraph towards the end of the book. The certainty, the difference in tone from most of the rest of the book, the rage so many readers must have felt that after all his suffering, all his stoic travels through life, that he didn’t Believe like they probably assumed he must....

And what’s specifically Australian about the book? The obvious — the words, the setting, the laconic and stoic tone — but what else? Is it a powerfully Australian story in the sense that it could not have happened anywhere else, or that it reflects a unique Australian vision or national meta-narrative? It resonates powerfully with me, but I can’t help thinking large parts of it, even most of the narrative itself, could have been written by (or happened to) a contemporary American. Even the union (small “s”) socialism could come from America’s well-hidden past; is it just a story that happened in Australia?

(Nonetheless, it’s a great story, truly bloody moving; stands up there in my Australian Greats with Stan Arneil’s book on Changi and the railway...).

September 14, 2004

Dense Pessimisms (Take 1)

Democracy as we know it can't survive technology's relentless democratisation of access to the technologies of destruction. In other words, you can't have all four of US-style democracy, open access to technology, individual security, and privacy. At least one (and probably two) of them has to go for the others to survive.

The "best" result is likely to be a form of consensual tyranny of total openness, a totalitarianism of the masses in the name of democracy -- a transparent totalitarian democracy. With no individual, corporate, or government privacy at all. The alternatives range along the usual spectrum of Orwellian nightmares and lethal anarchies.

The future's so bright I have to wear shades....

September 12, 2004


California's the capital of Self. California's version of the hyphenated-American thing ("Italian-American", "African-American", etc.) would be more along the lines of Self-Absorbed, Self-Important, Self-Righteous, Self-Centered, Self-Aggrandised, etc. (the Self must come first, of course).

(Part of California).

September 10, 2004

An American Tragedy

In today’s NYT, “The [Vietnam] war, ... became an American tragedy.” What’s missing here? What’s always missing when Americans think of or write about the Vietnam war?... The war was a Vietnamese tragedy, with a walk-on (and incredibly destructive) role for America late in the day; a role as an oblivious leviathan striking out around it blindly in all directions.... [14/4/96]

September 08, 2004

True Belief

Few things puzzle me more than Belief. Not just belief, but True Belief -- that mental state where a set of strongly-held fundamental beliefs rule one's life, and where those beliefs are largely impervious to outside logic or evidence, and are typically come to by personal revelation, and where certainty is infinitely more important than curiosity.

I'm not any sort of believer, let alone a True Believer. I have a lot of strong opinions, but very few strong Beliefs. Opinions change, and aren't in any sense terribly fundamental to most lives. Curiosity and experience tend to overrule or shape opinions in a way that doesn't happen with true beliefs.

Where I come from, that's quite normal, and barely worth noting. But Belief rules everyday life here in the US in ways that are utterly alien to most Australians or Britons of my age. Until I came to this country, religion -- Belief -- just wasn't something I had to deal with on a daily basis. Religion played almost no part in public or private life in the two main countries I'd lived in before coming here. I knew virtually no one who went to church, or at least more than twice a year. Any politician who used religion to further their political goals (or vice versa) was usually shunned or ostracised -- often enough, by religious people themselves.

The supposedly religious divides back home were basically cultural (and not so strong in any case where I grew up) -- like the whole Proddies vs The Tikes thing, where the rivalry was mostly on the football field or for entrance to better universities (I doubt any of us then could have articulated much in the way of theological differences between, say, Canberra Grammar's liberal Anglicanism and, say, St Iggy's somewhat liberal Catholicism. But hey, they could usually thrash us at football, and we could sometimes thrash them at rowing (very telling, that), and we were always neck-and-neck academically. And we all knew each other quite well anyway.

The only Believers I knew were, inevitably for that time and place, the Trots and Stalinists and their like on the totalitarian left. Absolutely impervious to counter evidence, used to ending internal arguments by rote-learned appeal to Authority (Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, whomever...), able to short-circuit curiosity and sap vitality with a single bound of dialectics, glorying in the sort of personality cult that they vilified in others -- these guys were Believers (and, like Believers everywhere, totally dedicated to killing -- or at least oppressing -- anyone who didn't share their particular Beliefs).

As a kid in University, it was a radical notion that Marxism could be successfully analysed as a religion -- but it became an obvious idea, one to be kept quiet in the company of people you didn't know too well. Over the years I started to believe that the important dimensions aren't so much particular belief vs. particular belief, but Believer vs. non-Believer. The average Fundamentalist Christian shares more with a True Trotskyist in his or her outlook on life than with a non-Believer like me. Believers can't generally see this -- there's something there that diverts this thought -- but in real life, it's Believers vs. the rest.

What matters most is not so much religion, as Belief. You can be religious and still not be a Believer (which is probably the case for most religious people). I suspect it's one of the defining marks of a True Believer that they can't conceive of people (like me) having no beliefs -- I've actually been told several times out here that I must be lying when I say I just don't have strong beliefs. It's a mindset...

September 07, 2004


Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills: what the word "elliptical" was invented for.... I spend much of the day trying to (re)construct various fictional landscapes behind the ellipses. I need to read it again; it took less than five hours yesterday from start to finish....

September 02, 2004

Four Ecologies

"Los Angeles: The Architecture Of Four Ecologies": The flip side of Reyner Banham’s freedom of mobility is the necessity of mobility. Such a dated but seductive book, yet nothing in it gives you much idea of what it’s like to actually live in L.A.; there’s little about the actual life of the ecologies. Frothy eulogies to Watts Towers can’t hide the fact that for most of the last three decades few foreign tourists could have got there alive; the thrill of the freeway now seems so much like a duty or sentence; the ecology of the ecologies now seems so much clearer in its destructiveness....

Banham’s updated ecologies might now include “Violence” and “The Ghetto”....

(Part of California).

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