Monday, June 30, 2014

The Changing World Map

I was talking to someone the other day who made a passing remark which struck me as interesting. ‘America [meaning the USA] is obviously past its peak,’ he said. This was not in the context of an argument or debate. As I recall, we were discussing ‘the state of the world’. I remember having made a remark about the trend in the world today for countries to fragment. I was thinking of China, and the assumption we usually make that it will continue to strengthen its position in the world. Perhaps it will. But it, like so many countries, has its ethnic minorities, seeking to become independent. There are separatist movements everywhere. Larger countries are fragmenting. Russia, India, Indonesia, African nations, even the UK... all have their separatist movements. Rarely, if ever, do we see small countries coming together to form larger units, as happened, for example, with the USA and the USSR. The European Union may appear to be an exception to this trend, but how stable is that union? There are more and more anti-union representatives being elected to the European Parliament. So, the overwhelming trend is towards smaller, self-governing units. Whether these units can be economically self-sustaining remains to be seen. Perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a clear distinction between political and economic entities.

So what about the USA? My friend made his remark casually, in passing, as though it were a self-evident truth. Has the USA passed its peak with respect to its economic and political power? Has its influence on the world stage maxed out? It’s not a ridiculous idea, although I’m sure it would be vigorously contested by the citizens of that nation. However, I don’t think the citizens of the USA are in the best position to judge this. They will, understandably, struggle to be objective. There are many in (Great) Britain who have yet to come to terms with (or even acknowledge) the fact that the British Empire is no more. Self-perceptions are slow to change, entangled as they so often are with jingoistic clichés.

Is the USA itself immune to the forces (whatever they are) which are leading to the fragmentation of nations? It’s perhaps not difficult to imagine meaningful secessionist movements growing in the US, if, for example, there were any attempt to introduce strong gun control laws across the nation, or if a federal government pursued unpopular environmental measures. There are already secessionist movements in Texas and no doubt other states. At the moment, I doubt that these are taken very seriously, but this could change with the right triggers.

Is Australia immune to this trend? Perhaps, largely, it is, since there was never really a coming together of very different political entities in the first place. Having said that, states are always asserting their rights, and the shape of our federalism is about to come under review. There have been (half-joking) suggestions that Queensland could secede—a move that the rest of the nation might (half-jokingly) applaud.

My main point is that I would not be brave enough to predict the economic, political and social shape of the world in 100 or 200 years time. Someone from even as short a time ago as 1990 could not have predicted the changes we have seen on the world map during the past twenty-four years. Those changes have far from run their course. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: Sailors Take Warning by Malcolm Torres

The USS Nimitz is involved in trialling a new, top secret cloaking device. While spending long months at sea, a host things begin to go awry: sabotage and other criminal activities; disappearing bodies; devil worship; psychotic killers; a tropical disease threatening to become an epidemic.  At first, this novel reads like a mystery/thriller, but gradually shifts into something with a more supernatural/horror feel.

The writing is of a reasonably high quality, and the story is peppered with a wide range of interesting characters. The story itself is at times a little chaotic, and not entirely coherent. Quite what is going on and why never becomes entirely clear. I had the feeling that the author had lots of great ideas, but hadn’t quite been able to string them together into a single, cohesive plot. It may have helped if some of the side plots had been jettisoned in the editing process. I think particularly of a BDSM relationship that develops between an officer and his young, enlisted assistant. This serves no purpose in the overall plot and is left unsatisfactorily resolved. The reader is led to believe that the strange rash affecting several members of the crew has something to do with whatever is going on, but in the end appears not to.

One of the main problems I have with this story is that there are no main characters, just a host of characters who do their bit here and there. To that extent the blurb on the Amazon page for this book is misleading. The story opens with a young naval officer, Kate. The opening is well-paced, and I settled down to enjoy her story. The blurb (and this opening chapter) leads the reader to believe that Kate will be our protagonist. She isn’t. ‘Kate takes drastic action on her own,’ asserts the blurb. She doesn’t. Kate disappears after the first chapter, popping up briefly here and there, but does nothing of any importance. She only becomes important again towards the end of the novel, but still not really taking ‘drastic action’. Terrence McDaniels, Kate’s love interest, is another potential protagonist, but he too comes and goes, and doesn’t really play a key role in events. In fact, my overall sense was that nobody does. In the end, perhaps the most ‘central’ character is Danny Jenks, a devil worshipping, psychotic killer. But he too could vanish from the story for long periods. The problem here is that the reader never really has a chance to identify with any of the characters. Any with whom the reader does begin to forge a bond (Nikki, for instance, the young girl involved in the BDSM relationship) are likely to disappear suddenly with no reference to their subsequent fate. While a character such as Captain Brandt (the other participant in the BDSM relationship) is quite well-drawn, we have no sense of his history, of why he is the way he is. Who he is at this present time is presented to us in a vacuum.

Despite these criticisms, there is enough here to make for interesting reading. I did want to know where the story was going, and what was going to happen to some of the characters. The fact that, in the end, I’m still not sure where the story went and why, and that some of the characters were forgotten along the way, left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. I think it would have worked better if the author had adhered more closely to a central plotline. Side plots needed to feed into this central plot in some way. Giving more ‘screen time’ to only three or four main characters would also have given the reader a greater investment in the outcome of events.

The quality of the writing lifts this novel a little, as do the fertile ideas with which it is peppered. I give it 3.5 stars, rounding that to 4 stars where necessary.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Outrunning the Beast

Does anyone else, like me, feel that somewhere in our short human history we have taken a wrong turn? Some might argue that the rise of agriculture marks that point. It was at this point in time that the land was transformed in such a way that it could produce surplus food, which resulted in a population explosion. It also became impossible to return to the earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

At every stage in human history we have witnessed breakthroughs and technological advances that have made it impossible to wind back the clock. Clearly such advances have brought with them enormous benefits to the human race. Few of us would want to return to an earlier way of being, except, perhaps, during occasional attacks of nostalgia. Nevertheless, many of these advances have also brought with them unintended and undesirable consequences. Would we, with hindsight, now go back and choose a different path? I doubt it.

Our innovations quickly have a way of transforming themselves from interesting novelties, the play things of the wealthy, to everyday necessities. A few years ago, no one had a mobile phone. Somehow, society functioned without them. Today, I doubt it would. We quickly become dependent on these new innovations, to the extent that to take a step back, to press the undo button, becomes impossible. The genie out of the bottle; closing the stable door... We even have firmly established clichés to describe this situation.

As much as we sometimes dream idly of a past golden age, and long for a return to ‘simpler days’, going backwards seems impossible. We are obliged to surge ever forwards, hoping—sometimes with little basis in reality—that we will finally come through the other end into a ‘Star Trek’ universe. Do you, like me, sometimes feel that we are riding the rapids towards a waterfall? Does some of the anxiety with which our society is afflicted stem from the fact that we sense that somewhere, somewhen, somehow, we have lost control? No one seems to be steering or rowing this boat. Certainly not our political leaders.

I am not of the opinion that we can continue to outrun the beast that is about to devour us (to change the metaphor). So far we’ve been lucky (some of us, anyway). But at some point our luck will run out; our ingenuity will fail us. When? I have no idea. What will happen when the moment arrives? I have no crystal ball. In any case, crystal balls have never worked in the past, whether used by seers, priests or economists. I suspect, though, at some point we are going to have to find a different way of being in this world. Or it will be forced upon us. Or else, in the science fiction fantasy future, we will escape the confines of this planet. And take our problems with us out into the galaxy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why bother with the 'extra mile'?

The Australian Government, under Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is really struggling to persuade the Australian people that its most recent budget is fair and reasonable. Few except those in the government (and not even all of them) believe it is. Whenever this government is in trouble it always plays its favourite and most popular card: asylum seekers. I quote here from an article on the ABC website reporting the announcement by the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, of legislation to overhaul the way the claims of asylum seekers are processed in this country. Now, these laws do not apply only to ‘illegal’ asylum seekers, but also to those who follow the ‘correct channels’:
The bill ... raises the risk threshold for sending arrivals in Australia back to another country.
Currently, people will not be returned to the country they came from if there's a 10 per cent chance they will suffer significant harm there.
The Government will now raise that risk threshold to 50 per cent. Mr Morrison says the higher threshold is the Government's interpretation of its international obligations.
"It is the Government's position that the threshold applicable to the non-refoulement obligations under the [United Nation's] Convention against Torture and the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political rights) is more likely than not," he said.
"More likely than not means that there would be a 50 per cent chance that a person would suffer significant harm in the country they are returned to.
"Now this is an acceptable position which is open to Australia under international law and reflects the Government's interpretation of Australia's obligations."

Let’s be clear about this. Under the new legislation, before it is considered unacceptable to return an asylum seeker to their country of origin, they will have to prove that there would be a fifty percent chance of suffering significant harm. I imagine this usually means death, imprisonment and/or torture. (No doubt at some point this government will also attempt to redefine what it considers ‘significant’ harm.) You have to face a 1/2 risk of significant harm, otherwise you can be sent back where you came from. I don’t fancy those odds myself. Do you? Would I get in my car today if I thought there was a (say) forty percent chance of having a serious accident? Would I be obliged to work on a building site if there were ‘only’ a forty percent chance of suffering serious injury?

My feeling regarding this new legislation is: Here we go again. It perfectly encapsulates the attitude of this government on just about every issue. It will do only the barest minimum under its international obligations with regard to asylum seekers. It will provide as little in foreign aid as it possibly can. It will do only the barest minimum to assist its most vulnerable citizens. It will do only the barest minimum to address the environmental issues this planet faces. Does this accurately reflect the generosity of spirit of which this country is so proud? What happened to ‘going the extra mile’? If we let this government continue to erode our values, can we continue to regard ourselves as a generous nation? I suspect most of the world today would scoff at such a claim already.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Lost in Translation

I am currently reading Anna Karenina in a French translation. Since my Russian is limited pretty much to samovar and troika I obviously have to read a translation, so why not French? I already read an English translation many years ago. I generally don’t like reading translations, although it is clearly a necessity in most cases. So much is lost, I’m sure, in translation.

Translation is always more than just translation; it inevitably involves interpretation. Consider a very simple example. French (like many languages) has two forms of address, the formal and the informal. I would address strangers and older people as vous, but close friends, family and younger people as tu. There is even a verb in French, tutoyer, which means to address with tu (and its counterpart, vouvoyer). If I were translating a book from English to French, I would have to decide whether the formal or informal mode of address should be used in each case. To a French reader, the use of tu between people would indicate a closer relationship than the use of vous. The translator is required to judge the closeness of these relationships. On the other hand, how does someone translating from French to English indicate the use of tu as opposed to vous? In a conversation between a man and a woman, a change of usage might indicate a change in their relationship. Using tu inappropriately might indicate disrespect; whereas using vous when tu might be expected could indicate a certain coldness in the relationship. In Les Miserables Javert uses tu to address Jean Valjean to indicate his lower status—until almost the end of the book, when he switches to vous, unwittingly showing his respect. English lacks such subtleties—‘you’ (formal) and ‘thou’ (informal) just don’t cut it these days. The translator has to find some other way to indicate this change in the relationship.

This is just one very obvious example of the difficulties of translating literature from one language to another. In this respect, the French translation of Anna Karenina follows the Russian more closely than does the English, since Russian also has a formal and informal mode of address.

I can’t imagine how you would even begin to translate a poem, when rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and so on can be so important! Imagine, also, translating between languages which have very little in common historically: Chinese to English (and vice versa) for example.

Language reflects an entire culture, and even between similar languages, idiomatic expressions are difficult to translate. Consider the French expression: ‘Avoir du chien’. Literally translated this would be, ‘To have the dog.’ I am informed that when referring to a woman it means, ‘Être séduisante, avoir un charme provoquant,’ the English translation of which should be clear. When translating from the French it is impossible to use a literal translation for a phrase like this. So does the translator, instead, translate the more literal French version, and thereby lose the idiomatic feel? Or does the translator look for a corresponding idiomatic phrase in English? How about this one: ‘Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours’. Literally translated this is, ‘The little Jesus in velvet underwear’; which apparently means, ‘To go down smoothly.’ It’s difficult to think of a similarly colourful English expression to use in its place. On the other hand, how would you translate into French the expression ‘Dead as a doornail’, or ‘Pay through the nose’?

I would love to be able to read French, German, Russian, Spanish, Chinese... In the meantime, I have to content myself with a French translation of the Russian, in which at least tu and vous correspond to their equivalents in the original Russian.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Review: Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu

This cypberpunk offering from Peter Tieryas Liu takes us into a near-future world in which something (unspecified) has caused everyone to lose all their body hair. I found myself wondering whether such an event would actually lead to the kind of societal upheaval depicted here, but was prepared to suspend my disbelief. The author does a good job of creating this new world order and new society, with innovative technologies, particularly in transport, communication and gaming. It is this aspect that I feel entitles me to label this book ‘cyberpunk’, although such labels are not always useful or informative. I was vaguely aware of a certain dissonance between the upheaval through which the world had apparently passed, including (as is mentioned in passing) nuclear warfare, and the enormous technological advances that seem to have occurred in a relatively short time.

I suppose the title and the concept had led me to expect something slightly more light-hearted, comical and satirical than I actual found. There is humour here, certainly, but it is not quite the Naked Gun or Hot Shots of the cyberpunk genre that I expected.

I won’t go into the details of the story here. Suffice it to say that there are mystery, intrigue, conspiracy and evil-doers in abundance. Our hero, Nicholas Guan, former military, now occasional cinematographer, finds himself in a range of dangerous situations where he is shot at, blown up, tortured and variously given a hard time. There is some back story concerning a former marriage, which sheds light on Nick’s current situation. Nick gradually unravels a mystery involving his best friend Larry and rival, multi-national wig manufacturers. It ought to be a send-up, right?

The action and more violent scenes are well-written and involve the reader closely. Nick is a likeable and believable character. The other characters around him are also quite interesting, even when they are extreme (like the leader of a religious sect that holds Nick captive for a while). The plot became complex at some points at the political/conspiracy level, and I couldn’t always quite keep track of who did what and why. That could just be me. As I was reading the scenes where Nick was held captive by the religious sect, I found myself wondering whether the story might not be working at an allegorical level. But, again, that may just be me. I remain somewhat curious about this scene. Of all the difficult situations Nick could have found himself in, why did it take precisely this form? This scene could almost be omitted without affecting the story, although I wouldn’t necessarily advocate this.

I had a sense that the author hurried somewhat towards the denouement in the last chapter or two. While I enjoyed the fast action pace of some of it, I thought there were times when the author should have slowed down, given the reader time to grasp what was going on, and given the hero more time to contemplate his decisions. Some of the interactions with other characters could have been made more personal and intimate; instead they remained at a factual/information-exchange level. I think this would have lent more impact to the moments of revelation and given more weight to the hero’s decisions. This sense of being rushed was augmented by the fact that the quality of the writing deteriorated a little here, and more errors crept in.
Overall, I thought this was an interesting and well-paced contribution to the genre. I enjoyed the concept and the world the author created. However, these did not overshadow the story or the characterisation. The writing was of a fairly high standard, except where noted. Four stars from me.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ethical Reflections

Take a deep breath before reading on. It may be heavy going.

It’s my birthday today. Fifty-seven and born in 1957. It feels as though this should have some kind of ‘mystical significance’. I’m not looking for congratulations. Far from it. For the most part, it’s just another day. If anything, I feel a little embarrassed when people make any kind of fuss. Why is that? Perhaps because, most of the time, I feel like a fraud. I’m conscious that what I have achieved during those fifty-seven years doesn’t amount to much. I’m not sure I deserve to be congratulated for anything. Others have made a far better fist of this whole ‘life’ thing than I have.

Still, birthdays are, I suppose, a time for reflection. What has been the value of my life, so far? I say ‘so far’ because, odds are, there’s a little way to go in the race yet.

How would I measure the worth of my life? In truth, I probably couldn’t. I’m not exactly well-placed to be objective in the matter. But, theoretically, how would one measure, in the end, the worth of anyone’s life? I suppose one could ask whether, on balance, the world is a better place or a worse place for that person having lived. But that is an extraordinarily complex and difficult thing to measure. It involves comparing realities with ‘what-ifs’. The world is a complex interaction of causes and effects: take out even one little cause and things might change dramatically (the butterfly effect). Take out even what we perceive as a ‘bad’ thing, and this might have disastrous consequences. I’m not using this to justify an ‘anything goes’ type of morality. This is an argument sometimes used by theists to explain evil in the world: Anything goes for ‘God’, though not for human beings. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, something we perceive as ‘evil’ serves a greater ‘good’. If we could see the whole picture… This effectively makes moral judgements impossible from our mere human perspective. No, I’m not arguing this. Nor would I argue that if something good ultimately arises out of something evil that this justifies that evil. It does not, retroactively, transform that evil into something good. I think it is possible to judge an event and its consequences independently, which is why I am not a pure utilitarian.

So, what would it even mean to argue that the sum of a person’s life was positive rather than negative? Would I choose a utilitarian measure for this (the balance of the outcomes), or some kind of intrinsic measure of the person’s worth? Could they yield different results? I suspect, without being able to prove it, that this might be the case. The actions of an intrinsically ‘good’ person might lead to disastrous consequences; but this would not render them intrinsically less good. On the other hand, the actions of a ‘bad’ person might lead to good consequences; and this would not render that person intrinsically and retroactively good. There has to be included something here about intentions and ‘meaning well’—although the phrase ‘he meant well’ always sounds like something of a put down. Despite these slightly negative (or paternalistic) overtones, ‘meaning well’ is important, because of the bewildering complexity of cause and effect in the world. We can never know the full ramifications of our actions in the world. ‘Meaning well’, therefore, has to count for something. This is at least part of what I would mean by the intrinsic worth (as opposed to the utilitarian value) of an action, or, indeed, of an entire life.

It becomes very complicated, though, doesn’t it? Might I (or a supreme being of some description) justify an evil action if I am seeking to bring about a ‘greater good’? Don’t I ‘mean well’? So perhaps actions also have some kind of intrinsic value, independent of their intended outcomes. We now have three components to take into account when considering a person’s life or actions: 1. The actual consequences of those actions, which we would judge (according to some standard) as beneficial or detrimental; 2. The intentions of the person: did they mean to do well or to do harm; and (3) the intrinsic value of the action itself. Add to all that a fourth factor, which is the scale against which we measure these things: what do we actually mean by such terms as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘beneficial’ and ‘detrimental’ (and for whom)? These may be absolute and invariable for you, or they vary depending on the circumstances. But we still aren’t finished, because individuals do not make decisions or take action in a vacuum. There are a host of factors that enter into a person’s life and decisions that, in legal terms, diminish a person’s responsibility to a greater or lesser degree. People are effects, as well as causes. Here we enter upon that very tricky area of free will.

For each of us, each of these factors will carry different weight as we (inevitably) judge people and actions. Some of us will be more forgiving of a less successful life, because we give more weight to mitigating circumstances. Some of us will place greater emphasis on intentions. Others will give more weight to actual outcomes, because these things seem more tangible and more measurable (although they probably aren’t). Finally, others among us will condemn (or approve) an action or person as evil (or good) because they measure (or fail to measure) up to some external, objective standard. Intentions, mitigating circumstances and even outcomes count for nothing. We will all be somewhere in this complicated, multi-dimensional ethical framework, whether we know it or not.

So, I suppose, in the end, this means that my own life will ultimately be judged in a multitude of different ways by different people. Having begun by saying that I am not well-placed to judge my own life perhaps, in the end, mine is the only judgement that counts. How do I measure up according to where I stand in this complex, multi-dimensional ethical space? Probably not that well, so far.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Swearing (and, yes, this post contains some)

What constitutes a swear word, or foul language, in society obviously changes over time. Swear words are meant to be offensive. Interestingly, though, what is considered offensive probably tells us a great deal about the society of the day.

Once upon a time, expressions such as ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘God Almighty’ and ‘Damn’ would have been considered highly offensive. Perhaps in some societies, or some corners of some societies, they still are today. ‘Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ is one of the first three of the ten commandments.—It is worth a slightly lengthy aside here to point out that it is far from clear what precisely constitutes these ‘ten commandments’, to which people refer so freely. There are several versions and formulations of them. It is also worth pointing out that when people claim that ‘keeping the ten commandments’ is somehow at the heart of Christian (or contemporary secular) morality, they almost always disregard the first three or four, of which the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain is generally considered to be one.—A society in which religious (in this case usually Christian) belief is taken seriously will certainly consider such language offensive, if not blasphemous. The fact that our society scarcely even regards ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Godammit’ as swearing tells us a great deal. To become offensive these days one probably has to say ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ’, or something similar… Which brings us neatly to what modern Australian society does consider to be swearing.

It’s not a coincidence, surely, that most contemporary swear words and phrases contain a reference to one of four things: (1) human genitalia; (2) human sexual intercourse; (3) the act of excreting waste; or (4) the bodily parts from which such excretion occurs. Words related to these things become our swear words. These are the words we use when we want to shock or offend, or to express most strongly our anger, pain or distress. In this we are, surely, still expressing our Christian heritage which, despite modern protestations to the contrary, has generally regarded ‘the body’ as something base and fallen; and bodily functions such as the act of excretion and the act of sex as expressions of our fallenness and corruption. These things are still considered in our society, at least at an unconscious level, as slightly ‘dirty’ or, at best, ‘naughty’ or ‘rude’. Even quite respectable words for body parts, such as ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’, will still elicit a giggle among our children—and not only our children. Our embarrassment about these aspects of being human, when it is not expressed via swearing, comes out in humour. Fart jokes, after all these years, still get a laugh.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we found things other than our bodily parts and bodily functions offensive or embarrassing. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, when I wanted to curse you, instead of inviting you to partake in a sexual activity, I condemned you to poverty. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, when I wanted to insult you, instead of comparing you to a bodily part, I compared you to, say, a gun. Calling someone a ‘young gun’ would then become the highest form of insult. Instead of saying, ‘Get fucked, you dick’, I might instead say, ‘Go hungry, you pistol’. Should the day arrive when this was so, it might indicate that what our society really found offensive was starvation and dangerous weapons, rather than the sex act and the sex organ.

Can’t see that day coming soon, though.

Monday, June 16, 2014

When Being Right is Wrong

What is it about right wing politics that seems to attract such abrasive, self-righteous, know-it-all personalities? I’m not saying that everyone on the right of politics fits this description. Nor am I claiming that you won’t find this type of personality on the left of politics. Nevertheless, there seems to be a disproportionate number of prominent people with this personality type on the right of politics, at least in Australia.

This observation is brought on by the episode of Q&A on the ABC last night. On the panel last night there was a particularly obnoxious man, professor of something, somewhere or other. He happened to be Canadian, although an Australian citizen as far as I could tell. Arrogant, loud, opinionated and humourless—all the characteristics to which I am referring. Naturally, he represented the right wing of the political spectrum.

The type to which I am referring includes, in Australia, the ‘shock jocks’, such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, whom I have no hesitation in naming, as well of a bunch of others, slightly less well known, but who aspire to similar ‘importance’ and notoriety. Are there any such prominent media personalities with this same abrasive personality on the left of the spectrum in Australia? Possibly there are, but I struggle to name them. Most of the more obviously left-leaning people I can think of tend to have one thing that is sorely lacking in these abrasive people: a sense of humour.

Any claim or generalisation of the kind I am making here is, of course, open to dispute. I want to re-iterate that I am by no means suggesting that all people on the right of politics exhibit this personality trait, or that these traits are absent among people on the left of politics. Nevertheless, at least anecdotally, many of the noisiest, best known and more popular right wing spokespersons do fit the profile. And, conversely, many of the most abrasive personalities among political commentators are found on the right of politics.

I am wondering if this has its origins in the Social Darwinism in which right wing politics has its roots. Social Darwinism transfers (inappropriately some would argue) biological Darwinism’s notion of the survival of the fittest in the natural world to the human social world. Can we not hear this in recent right wing rhetoric in Australia: talk about the ‘leaners’ and ‘lifters’, about pulling one’s weight and sharing the burden; in popular talk about lazy dole-bludgers; is it not present in the ‘American Dream’ that anyone can rise to the top? The right wing of politics is all about competition (both economic and social), about victory and ‘the cream’ rising to the top; all of which (in some unexplained way) is supposed to benefit society. The left wing of politics, it seems to me, is more about fairness, about helping those who are down, and not apportioning blame to those who are struggling. Whereas the right wing of politics is about the effort of the individual, who seems to be omnipotent in this model, the left wing recognises that we are social animals, in this together; that circumstances can, and often do, stand in the way of the American (or Australian) dream; that not everyone has the same opportunities; and, perhaps most importantly, that this is not their fault. It is not because of weakness or lack of effort on their part; and if there is weakness and lack of effort, this is in part, at least, due to circumstances that are beyond the purview of the individual.

Perhaps the arrogance and aggression that I see on the right wing of politics arises out of this. Perhaps it is because the right wing of politics sees life in society as a competition, if not a war. A war requires soldiers, it demands aggression, it abhors weakness. A war also requires an authoritative hierarchy that ‘knows best’, that sees the ‘big picture’. A war divides people into leaders and (blind) followers. Leaders in this war are proud of their boldness in making the ‘tough decisions’; they are willing to accept collateral damage. Perhaps it is also because some of these abrasive, arrogant and aggressive personalities already see themselves as the victors, and as the fittest, in evolutionary terms. They are the cream.

People like Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Professor something-or-other on Q&A last night represent the logical extreme of right wing thinking. What, I wonder, would be the logical extreme of left-wing thinking? Would it be a bunch of stoned hippies, hugging trees and living in communes? Which of these extremes, do you suppose, is capable of the most harm? I know which I would prefer to know (and to be).

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Fleischerhaus by Melissa Bowersock

Julia, a young woman recently divorced, goes to spend the summer with a friend and her husband, Maggie and Denis Rothermal, in Bavaria. While there, she undergoes a disturbing experience during a visit to an old concentration camp. She becomes convinced that, in a past life, she was a prisoner in that camp, and that she was raped and murdered by another inmate. She also meets the handsome and charming Dr Theo Seiler, with whom (predictably enough) she begins a romance. In the ensuing story, the questions are: How far will she go in exploring this possible past life? How far will she go in her relationship with Theo?

The story is told almost exclusively from the third person, intimate point of view of Julia. The other characters, and particularly Theo, are not drawn with any great depth. Theo’s lines, in particular, sound like just that, lines. I never had any sense of a real person beneath the rather superficial exterior. He seemed designed to represent the idealised, sensitive man. There is no trace of anger or any negative emotion. The romance that ensues is starry-eyed and idealistic. As the basis for an exciting, post-divorce, holiday fling, this might work; but as the basis for a serious, long-term relationship, I doubt it. This may be a ‘guy’ thing. Perhaps this kind of unrealistic, idealised romance is exactly what people are looking for in a romance novel. The brief episode during which Julia’s ex-husband turned up on the doorstep was merely an irritating distraction, unless he were going to play a role in subsequent events.

The second strand of the story, the past life scenario, is much more interesting. I was occasionally frustrated that it didn’t occupy more of centre stage. The denouement was quite interesting, but I felt that so much more could have been done with this story. I also found myself strangely detached from Julia and the events she was describing, even when those events were quite traumatic. I think some of the reason for this lies in the fairly conventional and entirely linear structure of the narrative. So much more could have been done with the plot; and so much more could have been done to involve the reader in the story.

There were a couple of minor points that were indicative much more of California than Bavaria, speaking in ‘miles’ rather than ‘kilometres’, for instance. Picking up coffee and donuts for breakfast may be something people do in southern California, but not, I think, in Bavaria.

I think this had the potential to be a much stronger, more confronting and more complicated story than it actually is. There could have been twists and turns here, moments of revelation and surprise. The reader—this reader, at least—could have been moved much more deeply. The romance should have taken up less of the reader’s time. It is far too superficial. Having said that, this is a pleasant, easy, light read, which will help many people pass a wet and boring Sunday afternoon. Three stars from me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Evils of Smoking

Let me get one thing out of the way immediately: I am not a smoker, have never been a smoker, and I detest everything about smoking. Maybe that’s three things. I detest the way smokers demonstrate a complete disregard for the people and the world around them. I sometimes have to sit here in this study while my neighbour pops outside for a smoke—mustn’t smoke in the house!—only to have his poison drift into this room and up my nostrils. I don’t want to smell his smoke any more than I want to smell his farts. I know when someone three doors down lights up a smoke.

But it’s not only the smoke. It’s the way smokers toss their butts on the ground. And unless you have never done this, or never smoked within ten metres of someone else, please don’t claim to be a ‘considerate’ smoker.

There. Now that’s off my chest.

Despite all this, I find it extremely odd the way that smoking has been singled out for attention by legislators, at least in this country. Smoking, after all, is not illegal. Yes it harms the health of the smoker. Yes it harms the health of others around. Yes it represents a great burden on the public health system. But so do junk food, gambling, our present government and, above all, alcohol. So why, then, do smokers and the tobacco industry come under what seems to be such a disproportionate amount of pressure?

I’m not sure I have the answer. The comparison with alcohol is the most obvious. Alcohol consumption is dangerous in both the short and long term. It is at the root of many fatal vehicle accidents; it is the cause of many associated risky behaviours; it is the basis for a great deal of violence in the home and on the streets. Not to mention the direct health effects and costs. Yet alcohol is still freely available. It is still advertised. Alcohol consumption continues to be regarded generally in society (as demonstrated by its actions if not its words) as ‘harmless fun’. Why this contrast with smoking? I don’t know.

This reminds me, in some ways, of the gun debate, and probably says a great deal about our society. It seems fairly clear that a large section of American (USA) society, regards gun ownership, not simply as a right, but as normal. As normal as owning a car or a dog. People have cars. People have guns. This is part of the American culture. Life without guns would seem odd, if not, somehow, incomplete and unsatisfying. I suspect something similar is true of Australian attitudes towards alcohol. The consumption of alcohol is completely integral to Australian society at almost every level. To attack alcohol is, in a very real way, to attack what it means to be Australian. Sound a bit like attacking gun ownership in the USA? I think so. I imagine people in Turkey, where it is probably considered antisocial (for a man, at least) not to smoke, would start a revolution if the government attempted, directly or indirectly, to restrict tobacco sales. Someone in a strict Islamic nation (at least in theory) would look in contempt at our consumption of alcohol. From their perspective, alcohol consumption here in Australia probably looks much like gun ownership in the USA looks to many of us: ‘What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they see the problems alcohol [substitute here, ‘guns’ or ‘tobacco’ according to your preference] causes?’

It seems that in each culture or society there are some obviously dangerous and harmful behaviours which that culture not only tolerates, but embraces. Societies appear, by and large, to be willing to pay the price that inevitably accompanies such activities. Why these but not others? Who knows? To each their own poison, I suppose.

Why tobacco has become the thing to hate in Australia remains unclear. I know why I hate it (he says, closing his window as the neighbour has another fix). But why society as a whole has so turned against it remains puzzling.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

'Good for the Economy'

What’s good for the economy? This seems to be the driving question behind every decision governments make. Lobby groups within society are forced to adopt this line of thinking if they are to have any influence on government policy. So, for instance, no environmental group can argue for the intrinsic value of taking care of the environment, let alone the obligation to do so. It is no longer possible to argue for ‘saving the tiger’ because it is the right thing to do. It is necessary to demonstrate, for instance, that tigers are a tourist attraction and, therefore, preserving them makes economic sense. We can’t argue for clean air because it is intrinsically more healthy and leads to healthy people; we have to add the argument that health care is expensive and that, therefore, preventative measures, such as removing pollution, make good economic sense.

But what does it mean to argue that something has intrinsic value? What does it mean to claim that an action is intrinsically right or wrong, and is not just to be measured in terms of its benefit to the economy (or, indeed, according to any other utilitarian criterion)? These are extraordinarily difficult questions to answer. Interestingly, a morality based on divine laws does not really allow for such intrinsic value. A thing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because divine law proclaims it so. An action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because a deity says so. Even to claim that the deity does so because the action or being has some intrinsic value is to deny the supremacy of that deity: it would imply some kind of external constraint upon that deity’s power. In theory, a supreme deity can pronounce that murder and rape are righteous acts, and they will become so. It doesn’t quite work, though, does it? We would (some of us, at least) remain unconvinced, being persuaded that there is something intrinsically unethical about those acts. This is not just random or arbitrary. I suspect that only a humanistic, rationally based system of ethics can really recognize intrinsic worth in actions and things, although it may not. It, too, can be based on utilitarian criteria. (Although, isn’t there something intrinsic underlying even such values? Choosing a path that causes the least harm to the smallest number of people, for instance, implies that to do so is intrinsically better than not to do so.)

It seems to me that economic (and other utilitarian) criteria have assumed a place in our thinking to which they are not entitled. To do the right thing only if it yields economic benefits or if, at worst, it is economically neutral, is pretty shabby ethics. There are, of course, spontaneous actions of bravery and altruism in human society: rushing in front of a bus to save a child, for instance, even at the risk of one’s own life. That action is okay, because it can be justified on economic grounds too. It makes good economic sense to risk the life of an older ‘economic unit’ to save a younger one, who potentially has many more years of productivity ahead of him or her. A twenty-year-old man rushing in front of a bus to save a ninety-year-old woman in a wheel chair, though? No. Definitely not a good economic decision. Fortunately, such spontaneous altruistic actions are not based on economic considerations.

It’s a pity that when we have time to actually think about things, this is rarely the case.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Shattering Halos by Sunniva Dee

In this new adult, paranormal novel involving angels, of both the fallen and non-fallen variety, we meet Gaia Samuelle, an eighteen-year-old girl who miraculously survives a vehicle accident in which her closest friends are killed. In the course of her recovery, she becomes aware of an angelic figure that only she, apparently, can see. This, it transpires, is Gabriel, her guardian angel, who rescued her from the accident, an action which was clearly in breach of the rules. In a further breach of the rules, he continues to reveal himself to her, and they fall in love. This will have cosmic consequences.

The story is told in the first person, largely from the point of view (POV) of Gaia. However, there are also sections written from the POV of Cassiel, another angel who is fallen. He spends his time seducing women and girls, and naturally has his eyes set on Gaia. Both Gabriel and Cassiel are interesting characters, with a blend of supernatural powers and human frailties. Although fallen, Cassiel appears as mischievous and self-indulgent, rather than evil. Gabriel, while not fallen, is smitten with Gaia. This surpasses his understanding. He is confused by the fact that he is not punished for his behaviour.

Gaia is not as interesting as she might have been. There are moments, particularly in her interactions with Cassiel, when there is a nice ambiguity about her character. She struggles against her attraction to him. When she is with Gabriel, she is reduced, at times, to a gibbering idiot. The thing that most disappointed me about Gaia is that she doesn’t really get to play any active role in the story. She is merely a passive observer of most of what unfolds around her. This is true throughout, but most especially in the final battle scenes. She is able to do little more than watch the conflict on the angelic equivalent of television. I would have liked to see her with a crucial role to play.

The minor characters are interesting, including several other angels and, most of all, Gaia’s feisty Italian friend, Marina. There is a nice scene when Marina’s uncle, a former Catholic seminarian, tries to have his wicked way with Gaia.

The plot is fairly unremarkable. Good versus evil, etc. etc.; a pivotal point in history when the future of heaven and earth is to be decided. The battle scene is quite well described. There are moments in the middle of the book, as the relationship between Gaia and Gabriel is developing, when the story becomes a little slow and gets bogged down. Huge issues are avoided, in particular, the question of how Gaia and Gabriel’s relationship can have any real future. The old ‘I will become mortal for a time and age with you’ motif might have been called upon, but wasn’t.

The sex scenes between Gaia and Gabriel (and the almost-sex scenes between Gaia and Cassiel) are sensual and erotic. Humour is often used well. However, in some of Cassiel’s first person POV scenes his nonchalance and pseudo-teenage voice is a little overdone.

There is enough here to lift this debut novel slightly above the level of ‘good’. I will give it 3.5 stars, rounding this up to 4 stars where half stars are unavailable.