Sunday, June 14, 2009

“Born to be wild”(mild) or….the times they are a changin’ (Part 2)

With the economic downturn there is the news that a host of US industry icons will go under. Already Chrysler and GM are caught up in bankruptcy and chapter 11 proceedings. It is yet another sign of the changing face of the US economy. First of all the sprawl of the malls (and Walmarts in particular) put paid to the main streets of all of the mid size and small US towns. Now there is the news that a significant number of corporate entities will not see the end of the year and there will be wholesale closures of certain franchise brands. The empty tumbleweed mainstreets of middle America will be played out again, to a degree, in the huge malls that cover the nation. While I doubt that anyone will have shed any tears for the demise of Lehman Brothers or Bear-Stearns Investment houses the job losses for the firms in other sectors other sectors will be huge. It is tipped, for instance, that Borders, Avis, Gap, Crocs, Eddie Bauer (think a HUGE Paddy Palin outlet) will all pass. Of course the demise of AIG is really a just a slick, weasely re-branding. The company it will just resurface in a new guise as AIU, which is such a transparent effort at corporate re-invention as to represent an affront to the American nation that has bailed them out.

Beyond the impact of the jobs there is also the news that a number of iconic car brands – like the Pontiac – will disappear forever. This has not a whit of bearing upon Australia of course, but think what it will mean for songwriters the world over. If Bruce Springsteen can’t sing about Thunderbirds or Chevrolets or Pontiacs what will he be left with? It seems hard to think of any driving rock song – or even melancholy ballad – being written against the backdrop of driving around in a hybrid Prius. Admittedly the recent Chrysler models have not inspired any musos to come up with homages to their creations (think the Saturn, Cruiser or Sebring). In short the transition to economical, hybrid sensible cars is at odds with the whole ethos of rock and roll. Muscle cars like the Mustangs, Valiant Chargers or the Falcon 500 (alright I confess, I had to google to find their names!) are the dinosaurs of the new millennium and their demise leaves me with mixed emotions. While the journalist PJ O’Rourke has recently published a paean to the passing of the muscle-car era (see the link below) I admit, upfront, that I was never really into cars. While the other kids are high school were reading car magazines (or hunting magazines, or war comics) I was into music magazines, science fiction, football (soccer) and super-heroes (at different times, on some occasions over-lapping and some to this day). My history of car ownership is singularly “un-musclecar-ish”…comprising VWs, Charades, Toranas and Astras. So the news of the demise of Pontiac and, more recently, the dramatic down-turn of the fortunes of Harley Davidson, leaves me with mixed emotions. Clearly Harleys are not just the vehicle of choice of outlaw biker gangs alone. That much strikes you when you drive on any pleasant Sunday afternoon along the highways of California. They are clearly the recreational vehicle of choice of a vast number of baby-boomers. A recent article tracing the downturn in Harley Davidson’s fortunes noted that the average owner was now 49 and the average income of owners was $89000. The signs are clear too that the demise of the baby-boomers has not been matched by an uptake amongst riders from the younger generations, who are going across to BMW, Honda and Yamaha.

I have to declare at the outset (no doubt to the horror of my nephews who love bikes) that the most powerful motorbike I have ever ridden was a 125cc farm bike on a block outside Robinvale. It was a singularly unimpressive beginning, with Graeme Payne finally stopping me and begging me to try and change up the gears so I didn’t thrash the bike in first. I never really graduated beyond that one humiliating experience. Which makes me a bit like the character in the Lemonheads song “The Outdoor Type”. Evan Dando certainly nailed it when he sang about the character who:

… lied about being the outdoor type
Ive never owned a sleeping bag let alone a mountain bike

I cant go away with you on a rock climbing weekend
What if somethings on tv and its never shown again
Its just as well Im not invited Im afraid of heights
I lied about being the outdoor type

Never learned to swim cant grow a beard or even fight
I lied about being the outdoor type

I would, in my defence, argue that I am a tad more of the outdoor type than the character in the song. I mean I do own a sleeping bag and I can swim but I have only attempted to grow a board and well, going rock-climbing or …riding a motor-bike or fixing a car!!! In short I have to admit to being an absolute abject failure in cars and bikes. But the Harley and muscle cars are both symbolic of so many things and the signs of their passing bring on a wave of nostalgia in me (despite having never owned and having no desire to own either, well perhaps I have secretly coveted a 1967 mustang convertible). It is questionable whether Harleys will even survive as the ultimate symbol (along with the red sports convertible) of a mid-life crisis, which was so cringingly lampooned in the movie “Wild Hogs” with John Travolta, William H Macy, Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence. One wonders if that will leave the Harley Davidson driving off into the sun-set as a distant memory, like a scene from Easy Rider. In very un-Springsteen fashion I am left to ponder whether, as Joni puts it, “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”. Perhaps I had better slip down to the Harley dealer before its too late!

Links to some of the stories I mentioned above

Harley Davidson decline article from the New York Times

P J O’Rourke article on why Americans fell out of love with cars

Mall closures in the US

Disappearing brands

Monday, May 18, 2009

When new technology scares the crap out of you…there’s an app for that

Based upon previous blogs you could be excused for thinking that I am something of a Luddite, railing against the march of technology. Which could not be further from the truth. I confess I have an ambivalent relationship with mobile (aka cell) phones and have always remained at least two generations behind everyone else with regards to the models and the different capabilities. But I am endlessly intrigued by the possibilities of the iphone and all of the wonderful “apps”. By all accounts you can write an app and if it is successful it can make you very, very rich. Given that my level of computer literacy has never really progressed beyond the equivalent of the John and Betty reader that is clearly not an avenue that will ever be remotely relevant to me. But I am drawn to a phone that can seem to do so much! I am not sure if the capabilities are as comprehensive in Oz, but here in the US I love the ads. I watch the Iphone ad that tells me that if I want to make sure that wall-shelving is straight…there’s an app for that, want to split the check five ways (including the tip), there’s an app for that and my favourite; you want to find a place to eat so you shake the iphone and it brings up some choices in your neighbourhood. There is a seemingly endless array of apps that are just so intriguing and sort of relevant; want to buy a textbook, there is an app that searches for prices, when you need to find an apartment there is an app for that. Most, if not all, of the apps are obviously designed for someone far more computer savvy than me, and there is any number of lists (back to the lists) of the coolest apps.

In reality I suppose it is little more than the shift of all of your computer’s functions across to a phone. It does leave me feeling that I want those apps so badly…irrespective of the fact that they are not really anything that I truly need. I can recall the same sort of pining when I used to read American comics and they had all manner of wonderful items for sale – which of course were unavailable in Australia. So the x-ray specs, or the sea-monkeys and even your own little Polaris submarine were projected as phantasmic objects of desire. I am glad that I never sought to send away for any of the items – in later years I could cope with the fact that sea monkeys were just brine shrimps that bore no resemblance to the beaming anthromorphic beings in the ads but it would have been crushing for a nine-year old.

So, I suspect, it is with the Iphones and the apps that by and large (if you go to the website) are personal finance management tools, news feeds or games that were previously to be found on playstation or your computer. Granted that the new iphone apps probably do deliver on the promise of the technology in a way that would have been impossible for the polaris nuclear sub (at a time before I even comprehended what a nuclear sub was and was content to dream how cool it would be to take it out to Lake Benanee and explore its murky depths).

While I feel drawn to the endless possibilities of useless iphone apps that have no relevance to my life (I remain convinced, for example, that I could find some use for the card counting app that is banned in Las Vegas) there is another new technology that leaves me totally cold. I am referring to the recently released models of electronic books – the Kindle from Amazon and the Sony version, its Reader. As with the iphone the allure of the technology is strong – the prospect of being able to download books via wireless, without even needing a computer. An average book can take about 60 seconds to download and the capacity of these e-readers is being improved so that they can also download newspapers. They don’t come cheap (around $350US) but the attraction for someone who is constantly shipping books from one place to another, or having to pay excess baggage for books I carry (and inevitably only use a few times). A kindle can hold up to 1500 books and there are reportedly over a quarter of a million books in the appropriate format for downloading. The Kindle and Sony Reader also have a “text to speech” capacity, which allows the gadget to read the text aloud. The technology is not without its glitches, however, with it being noted that the Kindle currently has a problem in the text recognition of two words – that inconveniently comprise the first and surname of the current US President. An item at noted:

The Kindle is a marvel of modern technology but apparently “voice” of the Amazon Kindle mispronounces two key words that appear frequently in the pages of many newspapers - “Barack” (the Amazon Kindle rhymes it with “black”) and “Obama” (the pronunciation sounds like “Alabama”).

In response to this revelation the wags at Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me noted that the Kindle gives you the option of entering an appropriate sounding of a word that it does not have programmed correctly. This led them to reflect that the Republicans could program their Kindles for reading of newspapers to speak “He Who Must Not be Named” whenever the Obama appeared in the text, while the Democrats could program it to simply have a chorus of angels singing.

The reality of e-books is such that there is already debate and dispute between readers and publishing houses as to the appropriate pricing for the downloadable version of “books”. The market seems to be settling at a price of around $9.95 US – which is not all that much cheaper than the conventional paperback version. There is already an animated cyber-space discussion on different blogs (surprise, surprise!) as to the appropriate pricing of ebooks

For example there is this one:

Such a debate clearly accepts as given the fact that ebooks are here to stay and that they will gradually displace the traditional form of books as the normal mode of publishing. It is in this presumption that I feel my hackles rise. To make books available as electronic files – no matter how true the screen display might be to the original printed format – is an abomination, pure and simple. There is so much more to buying and owning a book than just the computer download. An old book is a thing of beauty – its smell, the feeling of its dustjacket, even the lurid covers of the old paperbacks. How much of the joy of buying books is that browsing (particularly in second hand book stores) amongst the strangely musty smelling stacks for the old, out of print editions of obscure titles? Books open up conversations, tell you about the people who are reading them. They can be, admittedly, props or affectations. So you have the young student poring over a well-thumbed copy of Kerouac or Sartre or Camus and it sends out the clear message – I am young, rebellious and serious. Similarly the Kindle will make it harder to “read” people because their books will no longer be on display in bookshelves. Leaving aside the books that are best-sellers and that no-one ever reads (think A Brief History of Time) it is always an instinctive move when you go to someone’s house to check out what they are reading (or maybe it is just me). Leaving aside these flip observations, however, I think it an irrefutable truth that we will (as individuals and a society) be the poorer for the move towards the sterile, digitized versions of books.

If I can lend an even more sinister note to the move to move the written word to the electronic format there is also the news that Google is planning to digitize every book in the world. It has started with the so-called “orphan” books that are out of print and over which copyright no longer applies. On the one hand it would appear a praiseworthy venture. Rescuing books from obscurity and making all the books of the world available – the latter day Library of Alexandria if you like. There is also the economic reality that the cost of books and journals now means that they can only be made accessible to the general population if a more economic mode of distribution can be found. But there are grounds to be concerned. The plan to ultimately digitize all books troubles me not only for the inexorable shift towards digital format for books – but also for the prospect of Google one day owning the rights for all the books of the world. It seems far-fetched, but in its most dastardly form it conjures up the scenario of an Orwellian dystopia - where access to all information is controlled. Not for any ideological purpose I hasten to add, but access would be based around the monopoly enjoyed by Google. Books would then cease to be indispensable elements of culture and become, instead, the property of one global corporation. It leaves me wondering if this is a more insidious and devious way of implementing the society that Ray Bradbury warned against in Fahrenheit 451? A conspiracy theory of sorts…but then living in California does makes one more disposed to such flights of alternative reality.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Times they are a changin' (Part one)

Over the last few months I have been reading about the closure of a number of local newspapers around the USA. I had never read the Rocky Mountain News or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer but it gave me pause for thought. It was ironic that I had actually read the news about the closure of the papers on the internet. For me the weekends have always involved the pleasure of spreading out all the newspapers (three on Saturday and two on Sunday) and tossing the various sections to the four corners of the room. Part of the pleasure of the weekend papers when at home in Robinvale is the communal sense as we rummage to find the part that we find, hoping it is not too smeared by vegemite or coffee or porridge stains. There is something pleasingly finite about taking the paper sections that you want and reclining on a couch with a coffee. The attraction of the newspaper is certainly not a sensory experience like, for example, an old book. The newsprint stains your hand, smudges on clothes and furniture coverings and there is that chemical odour to the paper that is distinctly unappealing. Notwithstanding the drawbacks of reading the paper it was something I missed when I came to San Diego. With all due respect to the San Diego Tribune it wasn’t a paper that had any news I felt I wanted to read. Then we discovered that we could have the New York Times delivered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and I was in heaven! I’ll leave aside the weekly battle to find out why I can regularly have the paper delivered two out of the three days, but for some inexplicable reason they can’t get their act together for the Sunday delivery. The people in Sales in New York must dread my call each week complaining. But leaving my grouching about the delivery aside, it is nice to unfold the paper again, like I have done for so many years in Robinvale, Melbourne and Yandoit.
Lest it be thought that this blog is merely another Luddite rant against the new technologies (though I do so enjoy them) I have to confess that I am torn over the question of newspapers. My morning ritual has been changed forevermore with the advent of the internet, so much that I now find myself taking my coffee to the computer and spending the next half hour (well okay, hour or more) scanning the on-line editions of newspapers. First I click on the Melbourne papers, the Age and cross over to the Herald-Sun to see the football news. Then it is across to the UK where I check on the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC world news site, the Times and, if there is football in the news, I may even end up on the website of the Telegraph. To the US then and I look at the NY Times and then the “local” paper in the LA Times. Which is all confirmation of the fact that many of you knew – academics have far too much time on their hands. If there is a breaking political story I will then trip across to the Huffington Post for the myriad of blogs and who knows where that might take me. It is like going on a Magical Mystery Tour – I might start out reading about the British politicians who have been rorting the system by claiming from the British public the cost of upkeep for the moats around their country residence but, rest assured, I will deviate and detour down any number of newspaper by-ways and side-ways. It is suddenly essential to know (courtesy of the New York Times) about the resurgence of absinthe or (from the Independent) why Fred Perry was a working class boy who was never accepted by the upper class toffs at Wimbledon or, well I could go on, but you get my drift. It is like wandering down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole and never knowing where you will turn up. I can spend literally hours trawling the internet for work-related articles and news and, to work the metaphor further, like a North Sea trawler you will inevitably catch in your net decidedly un-academic items that are just too juicy to pass up. So I confess to loitering in the entertainment pages of the Huffington Post or even …yahoo news! After all we do have a right, nay a need, to know about Madonna marrying her 22 year old boy-toy or Kiefer Sutherland’s latest public melt-down and arrest.
Having access to such a comprehensive and omnipresent source of information would, you would think, lead me to overcome any nostalgic attachment to the old print format newspapers. But recent events have got me to thinking whether it is a good thing. You can argue that it will save trees I suppose, but then there is the question of the thousands of jobs that will be lost. The US government has already made it clear that a bail-out of newspapers does not rank with the banks or even the car makers so it would appear that there is a bleak future for newspapers. It will come as no surprise to learn that even as Rupert Murdoch intimates that newspapers will fold, he is also flagging the inevitability of pay-for-view online newspapers. So I feel a tad miffed that my free newspaper grazing days might come to an end – it is a bit like the way they seduced us to the joys of FM radio with commercial free EON FM back in the day (circa 1980 from memory- with the very cool Jo Jo Zep station identifier) before lurching into the corporate behemoth that it is today.
But it is not just the demise of the national papers that I am thinking about – it is more about the impact of the closure of the middling and little papers (like the Rocky Mountain Herald). There is research that indicates that the papers like the RMH has a pronounced impact upon the level of community engagement within local politics, with less people standing for office and voting. It is also argued that some of the local news that is covered would not be covered in the broadcast media because they do not have as large a reporting staff. Paradoxically it seems that the closure of newspapers in the very small towns has not had such a profound impact upon what they might term “civic engagement”. It is also argued that the small town papers might actually survive because they don’t provide news that is available on the internet and that they have not been dependent upon classified ads in the same way that the major dailies have. The survival of local papers has also be attributed to the different demographic of the small towns (often rural) where the median age is higher than the metropolitan centre and the absence of internet service listings in rural areas (the infamous craigslist in the US for example).
The imminent (or not) demise of newspapers did set me thinking about what it would mean if the Robinvale Sentinel were to close in my old home town. Or for that matter the Riv Herald in Echuca, or the Warrnambool Standard, the Wangaratta Chronicle, the Sunraysia Daily, the LaTrobe Valley Express or the Ballarat Courier. I can’t speak for all these papers from towns which friends have hailed from (or still reside) but I have to say in respect of the Robinvale Sentinel, in the nicest possible way, that is not that much that passes for real reportage. The Sentinel’s photos are usually grainy and badly shot and it all too often prints verbatim the reports made available by local public authorities. With a circulation of 1,200 it is not a paper that has the resources to undertake indepth investigative reporting. There is not that much news of the 6 o’clock broadcast media type that happens. But this is not to say that these papers don’t serve a very useful purpose. They are the once weekly (or more) service that binds together a rural community and advises on meeting times. It is also that which can bring the family together around the table and disrupt the solitary rumination over the daily newspaper The items in the newspaper; be it the reporting of an “incident” in town, or the announcement of a birth, wedding or death or even the local sports news, all serve as a departure point to talking about the real story. There will be an account of a brawl, which the police attended, and then we will hear from my niece or nephews the other side of the story. We will hear other narratives (all hearsay of course) from people who were there. The real reason(s) for the brawl and the aftermath will all be laid out on the table like a deck of cards being dealt for a hand of poker. That is why it saddens me to think of the future demise of the newspaper. Admittedly we will connect more expansively, directly and, arguably, comprehensively through the internet and Facebook and twitter. But there will be something missing and I suspect we will be all the poorer for it.

P.S. Just after I posted this I noticed a news item that Saturday was the last edition of the Tucson Citizen after 138 years. Inside today's New York Times there is also an advertisement for the face of the paper's online version in pdf under the heading of "Welcome to the Future" at It's only a matter of time I fear before the hardcopy newspaper is a thing of the past.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The new Arizona State University theme song?

I think I have chanced upon Arizona State University’s theme song. With apologies to Edwin Starr it goes something like this:

O-ba-ma…huh…what is he good for? Absolutely nothing…sing it again..

You get my drift, which is to say that I was gob-smacked (increasingly my default expression here in the US) at the decision of the Arizona State to invite Obama to give the commencement address to the students. Let me explain further, it is not the invitation that which left me gaping in askance. Rather it was the decision not to honour Obama at the commencement speech by granting him an honorary degree. It is fairly common practice to give out honorary doctorates to the luminaries who grace such occasions. I certainly have no issue with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney or Muhammad Ali receiving honorary degrees from various institutions (the Universities of St Andrews, Yale and Princeton respectively) and I have even raised a smile at the revelation that Stephen Colbert (satirist extraordinaire from the Colbert Report) received a doctorate in fine arts from Knox College (yes, I know, where?) Some of the awardees I did find a tad dubious though. I mean Steven Tyler? (Berklee College of Music, Boston) But leaving that aside, we are confronted by the decision of the ASU trustees not to award an honorary doctorate to Obama. The rationale, according to the mindless University bureaucrats who scrambled into damage control once the fire-storm (quite rightly) descended on their heads, is that according to a spokesperson:
”honorary degrees are given “for an achievement of eminence” and that Obama was not considered for an honorary degree because his body of achievements, at this time, does not fit within that criteria”

Well I suppose his c.v. is a tad light; first African-American editor of the Harvard law review while a student, constitutional law professor at Harvard, Chicago Senator and the first African-American president (but only, you might hastily add, for just over 130 days!)

The disingenuous response from ASU is revealed in all its tawdry glory by the knowledge that there have been awards given to Barry Goldwater in 1961 (three years before he even ran unsuccessfully for President), Sandra Day O’Connor (after three years into her term on the bench of the Supreme Court) and the former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who received her award in 2005 although she was only in the office for 140 something days in 1993 before being voted out (what a difference those ten days make!!). Leaving aside these awards which would appear to contradict the ASU dictum that they are waiting to “judge his body of work”, Sam Stein of the Huffington Post has ascertained that Obama could fast-track his path towards that coveted ASU honorary degree if he were only to donate a piddling $50 million to the University, as has been the case with William P Carey, whose firm has global holdings of global and commercial properties.
(For the Sam Stein article go to:

And of course he may well feel compelled to dip into his pockets and shell out the fifty million to be able to claim that association with such a venerable institution as Arizona State. It offers a range of um…globally recognized courses in…sports management. I have to concede that UCSD can hardly adopt the intellectual high ground on this point, however, given that the University proudly proclaims on its website that it was once again voted the best campus for surfing in the US!
(see it here:

But, returning to the increasingly dubious claims of ASU to intellectual credibility, it should not be forgotten that the campus was after all, listed as the number 1 party-school by Playboy magazine in 2005. A less desirable spin on this aspect of ASU came to light when it also was dubbed “The Harvard of Date Rape” by a reporter on the Daily Show, which was no doubt a reference to a 2004 settlement made by to a student by ASU after she was raped in her own dorm. In another inglorious footnote it was also ASU that, twenty years ago, refused to acknowledge the Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative holiday.

At this point I confess I am asking myself why in heaven’s name would Obama lower himself to be associated with a brand name that is so profoundly damaged (think along the lines of the academic version of AIG).

To prove that he is truly a glutton for punishment, however, the President is backing up the dubious honour of addressing ASU by giving the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. No problem with him receiving an honorary degree there. Tick. And it is also fairly noteworthy academic institution. Again, tick. But this address is probably even more controversial – with no less than 70 odd (and I use the term advisedly) Catholic bishops petitioning for the invitation to be revoked because of Obama’s stance on abortion and stem-cell research, which they view as contrary to church teachings. In addition there is now a web-site, titled “Notre Dame scandal”, which has attracted in excess of 350 000 signatures opposing Obama’s presence on campus. It is an interesting stand-off, given that Obama enjoys something like 53% support amongst American Catholics.

It is all a little sad, the manner in which an address to students can become so mired in partisan politics and intrigue. For me it reiterated the essential emptiness of the promise of freedom of speech and the role of academia that emerged at UCSD earlier this year when the Ethnic Studies department sought to convene a debate on the violence in the Gaza Strip. As with all things Obama has handled the minefield of religious and (I would argue) racial propagandizing with grace and aplomb. In response to the question as to whether he has done enough to warrant acknowledgment he responded, reportedly with a smile, that: "First of all, (first lady) Michelle (Obama) concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home." If I were Obama I would forgo suffering the interminable slings and arrows and spend the weekend mowing the lawn, clearing the gutters on the White House and maybe shooting some hoops. I think it would be a lot more fulfilling.

PS For the Jon Stewart Daily Show “investigative journalism” piece on ASU have a look here:

PPS Only hours after I posted this blog I saw a news item the confirmed that the University of Southern California had awarded Arnold Schwarzenegger an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for his "inspirational realization of the American dream." Significant that it comes from a private institution that is uber-rich, so much so that the USC is alternatively interpreted as the "University for Spoilt Children". At a time when the Californian public educational sector is taking massive budget cuts it seems some how perverse that the architect of this academic vandalism is lauded for its contribution to the "American dream". Which begs the questions, of course, of what/whose dream?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Along came Bo....

With the news item of these last few weeks one could be excused for thinking we had slipped down some worm-hole of time and landed in the Middle Ages. To borrow from the character of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction - things are taking a decidedly medieval turn. Think about it…what has monopolized the news in the US? It is all about, as De observed, pirates, torture and plague!! It has me nervously looking for signs of the four horseman of the apocalypse. Talk about the ending of days!

If it wasn’t bad enough with the constant coverage of the US going to war against the pirates (and the inevitable comparison between Obama’s response to the Somali hijacking of a US ship and Thomas Jefferson’s own diplomatic and military joustings with the Barbary pirates during the 1780s) but then the Obama administration released the legal advice that had been provided supporting the use of certain “interrogation” techniques. This of course sent the right wing commentators into a feeding frenzy of patriotic indignation. Dick “Darth Vadar” Cheney still steadfastly maintains that the use of the techniques such as waterboarding was not torture and that the US is now less safe because the Obama administration has made a stand that outlaws torture. Somehow they are trying to argue that the use of torture is now less effective, or as pin-head Carl Rove insists they are now “ruined”, because the rest of the world know about it…hmm. Let me figure this one out. If they know you torture…it won’t work. Sorry Carl, forewarning of the possibility of torture doesn’t render it ineffective. The best take (as ever) was provided by Jon Stewart, who made the observation on the prisoner that had been waterboarded 183 that you would have thought that after 90 or so episodes that the CIA would have realized that it wasn’t going to work.

Then you had the lunatics like Sean Hannity claiming that waterboarding is no big deal and offering to be subjected to it to prove the point. It is truly beyond bizarre. There have been signs that the united front of the conservative pundits on Fox news is breaking however, with the expletive riddled demand from Shep Smith that:


(see it here:

Only problem is…that they do! The whole “we don’t torture” debate was further elevated by the observation (by Senator Ted Kennedy, among others) that the US had executed Japanese war criminals in the aftermath of World War 2. Their crime was what is now categorized as “waterboarding”. So…if waterboarding is not torture now, then the Japanese soldiers who carried out the same technique on Allied soldiers were not torturing…so??? Why were they executed?

Which brings me to the final part of the trilogy – the pandemic. It is more than disconcerting that the swine flu is killing people in Mexico. Strange that it is the same virus that is sweeping across the US but it is not killing people.

So we have plague, torture and pirates…but there has been one moment of levity, of light relief. Thank you, I say (to whatever divinity is still there) for Bo. By Bo I mean, of course, the Obama’s new dog – a gorgeous Portuguese water dog. After much hype, Bo finally arrived and the Washington press have been, I have to say, embarrassing in their excess. On the radio show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” they punned that Bo had tried to hump the President’s leg, to which the media corps protested that “That’s our job”. Michelle Obama has tried to take the heat off Bo by telling all and sundry by saying that Bo is “crazy” but, hey, if it is a choice between the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and Bo the crazy First Family Dog? Well me…I’ll take Bo every time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mr Obama goes to London and the Republicans go tea-bagging

The Obama administration is speeding towards the significant milestone of 100 days in office and so, taking a break from putting the Republican dinosaurs to the sword and saving the US economy, Emperor Barack decided to spread the love and visit Europe for the G 20 summit. While over there he also saw fit to drop by Buckingham Palace to have tea with Betty and Phil. It was interesting to see the Fleet Street piranhas going into paroxysms of outrage over the touchy-feely exchange that took place between the Queen and Michelle Obama. It was first reported that the First Lady had touched the Queen. This rapidly became a “hug” in the reports and every hack media pundit then took centre stage to debate whether there had been some breach of royal protocol. After repeated viewings of the video evidence, however, it was decided that the Queen had actually made the first move and put her arm on Michelle’s back and that it was only then that Michelle had responded in kind. It was all put into perspective for me by the wags on the NPR radio Show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” who observed that the Queen had said that there was nothing at all wrong with the contact, but that she was wondering why Michelle hadn’t called!!
It prompted me to think that this was a far cry from the moment some twenty years ago when PM Keating attempted to squire the Queen – prompting the press to dub him the “Lizard of Oz”. No such vitriol for the First Lady. Clearly there is still a lot of love for the First Couple over there in Europe. I am even willing to forgive the President for dissing on our very own Prime Minister’s choice of footwear (note to Kevin: simply wearing RM Williams to state functions does not turn you into the rakish character played by Hugh Jackman in the movie Australia and it is ludicrous to try and defend an appalling fashion faux pas by claiming that you are supporting Australian industry. Sorry Kev but I am with Barack on this one. I would suggest you check with Paul Keating for some fashion tips).
The US press, while bemused at the British concerns over the possible affront to the royal person, were not nearly as measured in their response to Barack’s meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. In greeting the King it was alleged that Barack had bowed, infuriating the conservative US commentators who frothed that the leader of the free world had no reason to be bowing to any other foreign dignitary.
While denouncing Barack for showing no leadership and grovelling before a foreign (and Arab to boot) dignitary the US conservatives then turned around and confirmed that they are profoundly mentally deficient, by charging that he was now …a despotic tyrant!!! No wonder the export of democracy is such a fragile enterprise, when there is such a tenuous grasp of the whole process!! I loved the take that Jon Stewart put it on the whole Republican frothing at the mouth when he told them they were confusing tyranny with losing the election and that “Now that you’re in the minority its supposed to taste like shit taco”. Not exactly eloquent but perhaps phrased in the only way that the Neanderthals from the Republican Party might understand. Alas it was not to be.
The lead up to the date for the filing of tax returns prompted those crazy funny guys from the Grand Ol’ Party to decide to protest against the oppressive tax regime of the Obama government by staging a re-enactment of the Boston Tea party. It was the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when the Americans dumped tea into the Potomac River in Boston (dressed as Native Americans) to protest at the oppressive excise levied by the British colonial government. By all accounts the protest, which was presented by the Fox propaganda machine as a “populist outpouring” of grassroots anger was actually a well synchronised media event. Originally the main protest was meant to involve the dumping of a million teabags into the Potomac River, this was changed because of concerns with environmental laws and the site was shifted to the dumping by tip truck of the teabags of Lafayette Park, but it didn’t eventuate because of an issue with permits. It did seem to me, I confess, to make a mockery of any sense of recapturing the revolutionary zeal of the original Tea Party protest – they might be mad as hell (or maybe just mad) but those conservatives are still law abiding citizens. Aside from the central protests that were to take place in Boston and Washington the “spontaneous” display of grassroots outrage at the Federal government was supposed to unfold across the nation in six hundred places. I think there was even going to be a protest here in San Diego! For coverage of the tea-bagging protests the Huffington Post site has some good pics (and I am not even to go there with the ribald innuendo that has followed from the ill-advised decision to shift from leaf tea to tea bags).

The point that seems to have been missed in all of this by the anti-government protestors is that none of the taxes have been levied by the Obama government or, for that matter, the bail-out is directly attributable to the Obama regime. He inherited the car wreck and all of it was concocted in the shadow of the last days of the Bush (mis)rule. Somehow however in the deluded minds of the conservatives the bail-out is an Obama plot to increase taxes while also extending the reach of the central government. The somewhat tenuous grasp of economic (and political) reality of the Republicans has been highlighted by the high jinks of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr who told a reporter from the Charlotte Observer newspaper that he had been so disconcerted by a briefing he had received on the state of the banks that he had rung his wife and told her that he would not be home for the weekend but that she go to the ATM and withdraw the maximum funds, and to go back on the following days to do the same. Given that the bank deposits have been federally guaranteed and the most that can be withdrawn from an ATM per day is $480 (and you could just walk into the bank and fill out a withdrawal slip to close your account) it sort of summed up the Republicans measured and strategic strategy to winning back office!! Brings to mind the Chicken Little/Henny Penny fable “the Sky is Falling” – they are running around screaming the “economy is failing, the banks are going under”. Sad when a child’s nursery tale is the best analogy for what passes for Republican Party policy. The one silver lining from these tales of idiocy from the GOP is that there might be a revival in at least one sector of the economy. I hear that shares in Liptons and Bushells have gone through the roof in the last few days.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"This town is coming like a ghost town": a trip to Boston, MA

Flying from LA to Boston took only a tad over five hours, but it was truly like going to another country. If the West and California has spectacular landscapes with the coast and desert and mountains, then the east coast is steeped in history. It is all the history that seems curiously absent from California. It is not that the buildings (or at least a sizable proportion of them) are grand. They are multi-leveled but they have not been made from granite or marble, but tend to be non-descript redbrick or clap-board. There is clearly a sense of history that is absent the San Diego housing (and particularly the condominiums and town houses) that look like the facades from the back lot of Universal Studios. The law conference we were attending was held at the Suffolk University Law School, which is located in the old, old part of town. It is a matter of hundred metres away from the Boston Common, which is of itself central to so much of the history of the city. It is strange that this space, which is not all that appealing in the manner of Central Park or even Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens (or San Diego’s Balboa Park if truth be told) is so central to the Boston identity. It is an undulating, bare stretch of ground that was probably not at its best coming out of winter. Still it is a hub of activity with Bostonians walking, running, hanging out.
The Law school is also located directly opposite an old Bostonian cemetery called “the Granary” that has the graves of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, the woman who came to be known as “Mother Goose” and Ben Franklin’s family (although not Ben himself). Given that it was the cradle of the American Revolution it is unsurprising that so much history confronts you at every turn. In fact De wryly observed that everything seemed to be (probably truthfully) “the oldest “of its type in the US. So there was the oldest statue in the US (of Benjamin Franklin), the oldest continuously operating tavern (the Bell in Hand tavern), the oldest restaurant in the Union Oyster House. And in fact the Parker House Hotel, where we stayed, claims to be the oldest in the USA – having opened in 1856. In the past it was home to Charles Dickens for stays of up to five months while he was on his US speaking tours (and it is rumoured that his ghost still roams the tenth floor of the hotel). In fact the hotel also claims a ghostly presence that causes the lift to travel to the third floor unsummoned and there are tales of guests being woken by the apparition of the hotel’s founder, Harvey Parker, and the appearance of strange orbs of light on the tenth floor. I didn’t sense any of the spectral comings and goings but if there were going to be ghosts it would be the place for them to frequent. Other notable historical personalities who have trod the carpets of the Parker House hotel include Ulysses S. Grant and Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in the month prior to his killing of the President. By all accounts it also had Ho Chi Minh working in the bakery of the hotel and Malcolm X was a bus boy in the time that Pearl Harbour was attacked. The hotels most famous period probably came in the 1850s when the so-called “Saturday club” would meet in the hotel on the last Saturday of each month for seven course feasts washed down with copious amounts of “elixirs” (as the hotel display puts it). The group included such literary luminaries as Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne and also Oliver Wendell Holmes. If that was the heyday of the hotel it continued to be a hub for politicians over the following years (JFK had his bachelor party there and announced his candidacy for Congress at the hotel). These days it is looking a little battered but the Hotel still has a great restaurant and numerous bars (“The Last Hurrah” was a favourite haunt for the conference crowds) and the most amazingly ornate elevator doors.
With all that history and the proximity of so many cemeteries it was hard to escape the sense of being surrounded by the ghosts of the past. This was particularly true of some of the sites on the Freedom Trail, which snakes its way through the old part of the city, and takes you on a trek through many significant sites of the American Revolution. . Interestingly the site of the Boston Massacre is marked by fluorescent orange paint in the middle of a traffic island. There was no other memorialisation that you think would mark such a significant site and it struck me as odd in a place that so fervently embraces its history. There are traces of the violent death everywhere in the city but strangely the local Native American tribes seem to be absent, save for one bronze bas relief sculpture on the Boston Common which has two groups of Pilgrims greeting each other with the Native Americans at the base of the grouping, totally removed from the central figures. It is as if the history of the US begins with the war of independence and the dispossession and killing of the Native Americans is glossed over totally. For all these reservations we followed the path of the “Freedom Trail” which led us past the Old State house where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and the home of Paul Revere where he lived with his wife and eleven children in a very non-descript (and cramped) double storey, four room house. The trail links to significant halls and churches that served as the rallying point for the patriots, through the fantastic Little Italy area, past the Copp Hill burial ground to the dock where the USS Constitution is moored (the oldest commissioned warship in the world…of course). The trail finishes at Bunker Hill where the first major battle of the American Revolution was fought against the British forces.
While Boston was significant for the ever-present sense of history, it has to be said it is almost as famous for its distinctive cuisine. For the duration of our stay I gorged myself on the seafood (lobster and clam chowder and oysters) but managed to restrain myself from gorging on the Boston Cream Pie (that was apparently created by the chef from the Parker House and is now named the official dessert of Massachusetts) or the other delicacy from the Hotel that is called “Boston Scrod” and is a phrase to describe any white-fleshed, fresh, young fish (a dish that also apparently came from the Parker House kitchens). The other notable Bostonian culinary contribution is Boston beans, but the choice between stuffing myself on the humble baked bean (however good) and having another serve of the local seafood was a no-contest. After all, I have to say I am rather dubious about beans in a recipe that also included mustard, brown sugar and molasses.
Then of course there is the tradition of brewing that is captured in Samuel Adams beer (not the second President as I once erroneously blogged, till De pointed out my error, but a signatory to the Declaration of Independence so pretty significant nonetheless). I had already tried Sam Adams and so the main brewery excursion for the Boston visit was to the local pub (actually that should read pubs) located (far too conveniently) between our hotel and the law school. In fact the nearby streets seemed to have any number of old pubs. It was nice to go to a pub that was a real pub and not one that was from a franchise type that was dressed up like a theme park. They were grungy, loud and local and it did the heart good. That is one thing that you don’t get in San Diego – the common or garden pub. Mind you there was at least one example of the dreaded “authentic” pub experience. The only difference was that it was not an “Irish” authentic but the hyper-reality of a television bar. Crossing over the Boston Common we found the external façade of the “Cheers” bar that was made famous by the television show. I was never really a devotee of the show but De is/was a fan and so we descended down the stairs to look inside. The interior was garish and commercial and not even a copy of the set that is used on the television show, with lots of bad pub food and any number of souvenirs. The lure of the Cheers show is such, however, that there is in fact a replica of the original pub (presumably for the overflowing tourist trade) located elsewhere in the city. A replica of an external façade of a pub used in a television show…I would expect that in California but it somehow seemed…un-Bostonian!! Then again there was the ubiquitous tour of the sights of Boston that had appeared in films. So we could have gone to see the park bench that Matt Damon sat on during Good Will Hunting and the numerous street locations from the films “Mystic River” and “The Departed”.
This brings me to the final thing that, for me, distinguished Boston from the other parts of the US that I have visited. It is the strange accent that I had never realised was from Boston (or Bahstun as it is spoken) and the distinction between the Irish descendants and the other residents from the city. Since the downtown area we were staying in is largely peopled by tourists I didn’t have a sense of the local accent until I saw two thick set, burly mousey haired guys dressed in Red Sox caps and bomber jackets and heard them order coffee in the local Starbucks. It was not just their accents that set them apart, but also a palpable tension in the conversation between the Red Sox hats and the staff there. It was only after I had asked a few friends who had lived in Boston for some time (Michelle spent fifteen years there and Patrick lived there for a year and a bit) that I gleaned some sense of the divide between the University types (from the north) and the working-class Irish of city’s southern suburbs. In the other small college towns around the US I was aware of the fact that a clear divide exists between university folk and the rest of the populace, but I thought Boston would be too big for such an observation. Not so! Both of my friends spoke of the clear rift that exists between what they termed “town” and “gown”. It does make sense when you think there are nearly twenty universities in Boston and the surrounding areas and probably even more Colleges. After mention was made of the town versus gown rivalry it brought to my mind a scene from the movie “Good Will Hunting” when Will (Matt Damon) and his friends go to a university bar in Cambridge to pass themselves off as students. A grad student called Clark, realising that they are faking it, sets out to impress some female undergrads by humiliating Chuckie, one of Will’s friends. After watching on for a while Will steps in and shows Clark for the poseur that he is…and then invites him outside to settle the matter. For those who haven’t seen the film it is worth watching for this scene alone.

Will and Billy come forward, stand behind Chuckie.

All right, are we gonna have a problem?

There's no problem. I was just hoping
you could give me some insight into
the evolution of the market economy in
the early colonies. My contention is
that prior to the Revolutionary War
the economic modalities especially of
the southern colonies could most aptly
be characterized as agrarian pre-
capitalist and...

Will, who at this point has migrated to Chuckie's side and is
completely fed-up, includes himself in the conversation.

Of course that's your contention.
You're a first year grad student.
You just finished some Marxian
historian, Pete Garrison prob'ly, and
so naturally that's what you believe
until next month when you get to James
Lemon and get convinced that Virginia
and Pennsylvania were strongly
entrepreneurial and capitalist back in
1740. That'll last until sometime in
your second year, then you'll be in
here regurgitating Gordon Wood about
the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the
capital-forming effects of military

(taken aback)
Well, as a matter of fact, I won't,
because Wood drastically underestimates
the impact of--

--"Wood drastically underestimates the
impact of social distinctions predicated
upon wealth, especially inheriated
wealth..." You got that from "Work in
Essex County," Page 421, right? Do
you have any thoughts of your own on
the subject or were you just gonna
plagerize the whole book for me?

Clark is stunned.

Look, don't try to pass yourself off
as some kind of an intellect at the
expense of my friend just to impress
these girls.

Clark is lost now, searching for a graceful exit, any exit.

WILL (cont'd)
The sad thing is, in about 50 years
you might start doin' some thinkin' on
your own and by then you'll realize
there are only two certainties in life.

Yeah? What're those?

One, don't do that. Two-- you dropped
a hundred and fifty grand on an
education you coulda' picked up for a
dollar fifty in late charges at the
Public Library.

Will catches Skylar's eye.

But I will have a degree, and you'll
be serving my kids fries at a drive
through on our way to a skiing trip.

Maybe. But at least I won't be a prick.
And if you got a problem with that, I
guess we can step outside and deal
with it that way.

It seems to sum up the contradictions of the Boston experience – the intellectual life that is as old as the nation and the undercurrent of bawdy violence where disputes are settled with a call to “step outside”. So there you have it…Boston…the town of ghosts, literary traditions, the Boston Celtics and the Red Sox , lots of beer and good food and bubbling under it all is an ever present and unbridgeable geographic and class divide. But it is a place you feel strangely drawn to. We are definitely going to go back, and it is not just for the lobster and clam chowder.