Saturday, September 27, 2014

Not a technophobe, but...

I only bought my first ‘smart’ phone at the beginning of 2013, and even now, almost into the last quarter of 2014, I still often forget to switch it on until well into the day. I rarely use it, even as a phone. I only bought it because of all the great things people told me I would be able to do if I had one. Apparently none of these great things appeal to me... greatly. I sometimes feel obliged to invent some usefulness for this monthly expense. The impulse rarely lasts long. I am still waiting for this gadget to miraculously transform my life.

It is, therefore, with some amusement that I observe the excitement in people’s eyes as they await the release of the xth version of some company or other’s new model. I am thrilled to hear that it now does something—something I have never had any need for—much more quickly than it did before; or that it now does two quite unnecessary tasks simultaneously; or that it now does something entirely new that I have never wanted (and am never likely to want) to do.

I am not a technophobe. I love my computer. I am hardly ever away from it. I love my Kindle, and hardly ever read a physical book. I can see the point of navigator-thingummies, although I can manage perfectly well without one. I am probably a gimmick-o-phobe or gadget-o-phobe. I am also a creating-a-market-for-something-which-is-entirely-unnecessary-o-phobe. (Okay, I admit that didn’t exactly flow off the tongue.) Someone once tried to convince me of the value of their smart phone by explaining that they could write their shopping list on it. Well, folks, I remain convinced that it’s a damn sight easier to jot it down on a piece of paper. Perhaps I will invent the notebook (the kind with paper and spiral binding). Oh wait, that’s been done.

‘But I would lose the piece of paper,’ my friend objected.

‘But I would forget to take my phone,’ I decided not to reply.

This friend would have no framework for understanding this concept. ‘Forgetting my phone’ would have no more meaning for them than ‘forgetting to breathe’.

I love technology, but I hate being made to think I need something that I actually don’t. This goes far beyond technology, of course. I hate being made to think I need twenty-seven types of insurance. I hate being made to think we need ‘tougher security laws’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against wanting things either. I don’t need chocolate, but I surely do want it. Perhaps even worse than being persuaded that I need something is being persuaded that I want something. Well, I don’t want twenty-seven types of insurance or tougher security laws. I don’t really want a smart phone either. To my shame I did let myself be persuaded that I just might need it. I don’t, but I’m stuck with it for a while, maybe forever. I’m not sure I even actually need a mobile phone of any kind. I know I need a computer, and I want it. I know I want my Kindle, and I can see some obvious benefits—no need to carry books around or clutter the house with them; cheaper ebooks. I have no need or desire for a tablet of any kind. So far nothing has persuaded me that I either need or want one of those.

The fact that someone will queue for days to be the first to buy the new model of... something. Well, that’s a little sad, don’t you think?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

No law could ever prevent this...

There is so much hyperbole, propaganda and hysteria being tossed around about ISIL and the threat of terrorism in Australia, that I suspect many of us are simply switching off our TVs and radios. Very complex issues are being reduced to two- and three-word slogans. Everything that happens is being used to bolster one side of the argument or the other.

A couple of nights ago, a young eighteen-year-old Islamic man stabbed two Australian police officers and was shot dead. Today that event is being used by our Attorney-General, George Brandis, to justify the introduction of tougher anti-terror legislation. The Victorian police have something of a history of shooting and killing young men, often young men with a mental illness. Police have been attacked in this country before. What makes this attack a ‘terrorist’ attack? The fact that the perpetrator was a Muslim? Even if it was a terrorist attack, what makes this kind of attack any worse than any other attack upon the police, or any citizen? Why are laws against murder, conspiracy to murder and attempted murder not sufficient for dealing with such a crime?

There is now the suspicion being raised that this young man may not have been acting alone. He may, for instance, have ‘spoken’ to people before going to the police station. He may even have been driven to the police station by someone else. It is important that this event be painted as part of a conspiracy, and not just the actions of a lone individual. This would justify the tougher legislation, because we would then be able to detect such a conspiracy. Assuming, of course, that the conspirators were stupid enough to discuss this over the phone, or via emails and social media, rather than over a Sunday afternoon BBQ.

If he is a lone individual, it is difficult to see how he would be different from any other lone individual who bore a grudge against the police, and decided to act on it. Or anyone with a mental illness who chose to act out on his or her delusional beliefs. How is the threat actually different? And how can any form of legislation ever, EVER, prevent an individual from deciding to act in this way, from whatever motivation?

While I recognise the danger that police face in our society from dangerous and sometimes unbalanced individuals, I don’t think we should overreact to this particular event. I think the police on this occasion probably acted appropriately. They had every right to defend themselves against this attack. The nature of their job obviously places them at higher risk than the average citizen, and they should be appropriately trained and equipped to deal with this. However, I don’t think this attack should be used to justify any kind of tougher law. Tougher laws would never be able to prevent acts like these anyway, although they just might provoke more individuals into attempting them.

In the meantime, let’s not forget that there is a family out there which has lost a son. The family may have lost him before he was killed, if he had, indeed, become radicalised. I can’t imagine what it would be like living with that fear. Or are we perhaps assuming that they, too, are necessarily to blame at some level, just because they are Muslims, and therefore not worthy of our empathy?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Review: Miss Hyde, by Imogen Bold

I’d like to begin by saying that I quite enjoyed this book. It was a pleasant, easy read, founded upon an interesting concept.

Miss Marion Jekyll is the daughter of that famous London doctor created by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1885. (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was first published in 1886). She knows nothing about her father’s research. He died when she was very young. The story takes place when Marion is nineteen years old and staying in Vienna with her guardian, Mr Utterson, and chaperone, Miss Krummacker. We learn very early on that Marion is required to take medication to control what is described as her ‘epilepsy’. While in Vienna, she encounters a young man, Andor, who mistakes her for someone else, his sweetheart Irina, daughter of the Count and Countess von der Heide. (Note the not-so-subtle family name.) Marion soon discovers that she has a doppelganger living in Vienna, and becomes involved in a world of espionage, conspiracy and assassination.

At the same time, she begins to discover that her ‘epilepsy’ is, in fact, something else, and she struggles to contain/control the ‘Miss Hyde’ that she discovers within.

The story is set in 1873, but in an alternative Vienna, in which there are to be found unusual technologies which place this book within the ‘steampunk’ genre.  This Vienna is part of the Austro-Magyarian Empire, rather than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For those readers who may not be aware, the Magyars are a people primarily associated with Hungary and whose language is Hungarian. So this is a nice way to set this reality apart, while retaining links to our own history. This alternative reality allows the author to mess with history if she so wishes. I wasn’t really convinced by the steampunk elements of the story. I felt the story would have worked perfectly without them, and that they were, therefore, a little gimmicky. They may play a more integral role in the sequels that are obviously on the way.

The story is narrated from the first person point of view of Marion. Her character is well-developed and she has an interesting voice, which is perhaps more modern than the 1873 setting might suggest. I didn’t mind this, and thought it would facilitate the reader’s identification with her. The ‘Miss Hyde’ character is not fully explored here, but probably will be in later volumes. There is an obvious sense in which she has to slowly emerge.

I found most of the minor characters interesting and multi-dimensional, although I thought the Crown Prince was perhaps a caricature. The main male character, Andor, who also inevitably becomes Marion’s love interest, I found rather shallow and uninteresting.

There were elements of the plot, especially around the romance, and concerning the identity of the real villain, which were rather too conventional. There were also some minor plot points which I thought were a little too contrived. There were hints within the story of the dirtier, grittier underbelly of this society which I would have liked to have seen developed further. Perhaps this will come in later volumes.

While this book has obvious shortcomings, it was quite enjoyable and interesting. It is also more competently written than many of the self-published books I have been reading recently. I give this four stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Notorious Trolley Thief

People are odd. You may have noticed this yourself from time to time. I sometimes wonder how we have managed to be so successful in the evolutionary stakes.

Not long ago I was participating in a local writers’ festival. A temporary bookshop was being set up in one of the function rooms of the hotel where the festival was being held. I had several boxes of books that I wanted to make available for sale. About half of them were my own publications, and half were the latest anthology produced by my writers’ group, and which I had edited. All in all, there were just over two hundred books, in boxes of various sizes.

I located the room where the bookshop was being set up. People were zipping around the room, busy being busy. I dared to catch the attention of the woman in charge and ask if a trolley was available.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You will have to use one of the trolleys used by hotel staff to take baggage up to people’s rooms.’

Okay. I could deal with that. I returned to the lobby of the hotel, but there were no trolleys around, and no staff of whom to make enquiries. The staff at the check-in desk were all very busy. I wandered back to the bookshop, musing about a possible plan B. Would I have to carry the boxes in, one by one? I would probably have no choice.

Then, in the bookstore, I spotted an empty, unused trolley along one wall. I shrugged and made a beeline for it. I could see no reason not to use it.

As I left the room, someone shouted. I turned to see the woman in charge chasing after me.
‘You can use that,’ she conceded graciously, ‘but bring it back!’

Darn it! My plan to steal this trolley and add it to the secret stash I was accumulating in my garage had been foiled at the last minute! It had been my plan to whisk it away, then return with seven heavy boxes of books balanced on my head. I wanted to say something to the woman. Several things. Such as, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this trolley was available?’ Instead, I gave her what may have been a smile and said, ‘Of course.’

Several things went through my head as I loaded the trolley and returned to the bookshop. Why had she said no trolley was available, when clearly there was? Were there rules about trolley use of which I was unaware? Was there, perhaps, a weekend course on trolley use that I should first have attended? Perhaps only those holding a special licence could operate this trolley.

Then, why would anyone want to steal a trolley? Was this, I wondered, some special, new design in trolleys that she did not want copied. Did it have special features. Anti-gravity, for instance? Was there a secret compartment hiding top secret government documents?

And, further, why did this woman think that I might want to steal her trolley? Did I have a reputation, unbeknownst to me, as a closet trolley thief? Or, just a thief?

Thanks to this woman, I shall now be on high alert for trolley thieves, as this is obviously a much more widespread problem in our society than I had hitherto imagined.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Real and Present Danger?

I’ve been hesitant to write about this because there is a feeling abroad that if you raise questions about this, you are somehow being un-Australian, not a team player... Not part of ‘Team Australia’ to repeat one of our Prime Minister’s endless slogans. At the very worst you are being naïve.

I am talking about the sudden supposed increase in the terrorist threat, here in Australia and in other countries throughout the world. And, very specifically, about the uncovering of the alleged plot by a group of ‘members’ of ISIL here in Australia to capture a random civilian off the streets and behead them. (As an aside, how does one become a ‘member’ of ISIL? ISIL claims to be a nation state. It would be rather as though I were suddenly to declare myself a ‘member’ of the USA.)

Now this is undoubtedly a terrible thing. No one wants this to happen. It may be appropriate to ask questions about whether such a large force of police was necessary to counter this threat. I certainly think we should weigh carefully the evidence supporting this claim when it comes before the court, and the people charged have a right to a fair trial. But clearly, preventing such an atrocity is to be applauded.

But the point of such a murder is to create a mood of fear within the community. It doesn’t require the carrying out of the deed to create that fear. Those who plotted this act—if indeed they did—have already achieved their goal. With, I might say, the help of the media and the government. But I am not unduly afraid. Yes, I could be seized and murdered by a terrorist. But before this threat was paraded before my eyes, a few days ago, I was in danger of being murdered in the street by a non-terrorist. I was in danger of an accidental death from a whole range of causes. The level of threat to me, and to each of us as individuals, is only greater today than it was a week ago by a minuscule quantity, if at all.

It is not my intention to play down how callous and inhuman such an act would be. Like most of us, I find it difficult to comprehend how one human being could even consider committing such an act against another human being. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I do not now feel under any greater personal threat today than I did last week, or ten years ago. The danger to me and to each one of us is not significantly greater.

So, to those who seek to strike terror into my heart by plotting or carrying out such a heinous act, or any similar act, with respect to me, you have failed completely. On I go, living my life exactly as before, with scarcely a passing thought for you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Life in ’Strahlia

Someone recently asked me via LinkedIn what it was like to live in ’Strahlia, er, Australia. This is a very difficult question to answer. It’s ‘like’ one thing for me, but ‘like’ something else for someone else. It is undoubtedly different living in Melbourne or Sydney than it is living in Cairns. It is different living here, than living one suburb over. There is no single way of living in Australia that sets it off from other parts of the world.

There are, of course, images from TV and cinema. I haven’t watched Home and Away since my children were quite young, but the fact that it is set in ‘Summer Bay’, and that in fact it always seems to be summer there, is bound to give a somewhat skewed impression to the rest of the world. Not everyone, young or old, spends every available moment at the beach, surfing. Personally, I hate the beach. It’s one of the last places I would ever want to be.

Then there are the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (Paul Hogan) and ‘Croc Hunter’ (Steve Irwin) caricatures that seem to have such broad appeal overseas. I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that Steve and Bindy Irwin are far more popular overseas than here in Australia. Just to set the record straight, most of us don’t go around wrestling crocodiles or capturing highly venomous snakes.

Another image of Australia is that we are heavy drinkers, and perhaps we are. But so are people in many other western nations. According to World Health Organisation data, based on per capita drinking Australia is ranked eighteenth in the world, although we are ranked well above other countries that might be considered culturally similar to us, such as the UK, New Zealand, the USA and Canada.

Another image is of our sporting prowess. I think it is probably fair to say that in many sports we rank much higher than our population would predict. Our medal tally at the Olympics (let’s pretend the 2012 Olympics didn’t happen) is usually disproportionately high. So yes, sport has a very important place in our culture.

In other areas we have been very fortunate in the past—areas such as health care, education, personal freedom, economic prosperity, national security. My impression is, though, that in many of these areas we are rapidly falling back towards the field. While many other nations may continue to look with envy on Australia, I think overseas perceptions are lagging somewhat behind the reality. Perhaps our own perceptions too. A nation often clings desperately to its own self-image, long after that image has ceased to be reflected in reality.

Most of the time day to day life—even in Tropical Cairns, nestled between World Heritage Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef—is pretty much the same as in most other western nations. Most of us live in cities or suburbs. We work, we eat, we sleep and then we work again. Despite ‘Summer Bay’, life here is not a perpetual holiday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Capitalising on Capitals

As a writer you are probably often wondering: to capitalise or not to capitalise? Clearly there are some areas of confusion, as well as some grey areas. I would suggest looking at one of the major style guides for directions on this, but I will highlight a few common issues here.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (and their variants, as well as similar terms) are among those that writers often get wrong. Do we use upper case here, or not? Always, or only sometimes? There is a fairly simple rule or guidelines here. If ‘Mum’ is used in the place of the person’s name, use upper case; if it is used generically, use lower case. A good way of testing this is to substitute the name. Consider this example: ‘The other day I went with Dad to the zoo.’ My dad’s name is ‘George’, so: ‘The other day I went with George to the zoo.’ Clearly ‘Dad’ here takes the place of the name ‘George’. But consider this: ‘The other day I went with my dad to the zoo.’ If we substitute the name: ‘The other day I went with my George to the zoo.’ Clearly this doesn’t work. (Note: there are a few places, particularly in the UK, where people do sometimes speak about ‘our George’, or ‘my George’; but this is not the norm.)

This rule also holds for other titles, such as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. It starts to get a little grey when we think of other titles or terms of endearment. For example: ‘Are you ready for bed, sweetheart.’ Should this be ‘Sweetheart’? It is, after all, used in place of the person’s name. But we are unlikely to say, ‘I went to the shops with sweetheart,’ unless this is actually used as a nickname. We would almost certainly say: ‘I went to the shops with my sweetheart.’ So, as a general guideline, I would suggest not using upper case for these kinds of endearments or titles (this includes ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’).

A similar rule applies to official titles. When used in conjunction with the name, the title should be capitalised. Thus: ‘I went with Captain [or Doctor] Smith to the zoo.’ It should also be capitalised when used as a form of address: ‘How are you, Captain [Doctor]?’ But it should not be capitalised when used generically. ‘After Captain [Doctor] Smith and I went to the zoo, the captain [doctor] had to rush back to the base.’ There are some grey areas where we are not entirely sure whether a word represents an official title. For example, is ‘postman’ a title? Should it be capitalised in a sentence like this: ‘I went with Postman Pat to the zoo.’ (Yes, I know you must be thinking I spend a great deal of time at the zoo.) If so, then what about ‘milkman’? Perhaps to avoid ambiguity we might find a way to reword cases such as these: ‘I went to the zoo with the postman, Pat.’

Another area of interest is brand names. Official brand names and trademarks should always be capitalised, unless... And here it becomes a little grey again. In some cases, brand names have assumed a generic character. In the USA (I believe) people often refer to any vacuum cleaner as a ‘hoover’, even though ‘Hoover’ is actually a brand name. In fact, ‘to hoover’ is now a verb. In such a case, the capital can probably be dropped, unless quite specifically referring to that brand. When this transition occurs is where all that greyness creeps in, and perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. In Australia, we refer to pretty much any container in which to keep things cool as an ‘esky’, even though this is, in fact, a brand name. We similarly refer to a bottle in which to keep things warm as a ‘thermos’—again a brand name. Perhaps these should be capitalised. Or perhaps we could use a different term: ‘cooler’, instead of ‘esky’, for instance. ‘Coke’ is one I come across quite often. It is often used generically to refer to any similar cola drink. I think, however, that the Coca Cola Company still very much regard this as their trademark. ‘Coke’, I would suggest, should be capitalised if it is referring to that particular brand of cola, while ‘cola’ can be used as a generic term.

What about animal names? This also causes people headaches. Should I capitalise ‘woodpecker’? Not unless I am also going to capitalise ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘tiger’ and every other noun referring to a type of animal. These are generic terms, and should not be capitalised. The same holds for breeds of dog and cat, etc. It is ‘cocker spaniel’, not ‘Cocker Spaniel’. The exception to this is if one of the words is a word we would otherwise normally capitalise, such as a place name. Thus it is ‘German shepherd’, rather than ‘german shepherd’ (or ‘German Shepherd’). The dictionary can often help here. For the more scientifically minded among my readers, the scientific name of an animal (or plant or bacteria, and so on) should be written in italics, giving the first word (the genus) an initial capital, but not the second word (the species). (Sometimes there are also subspecies names, but let’s not get too technical.) Thus a tiger is Panthera tigris.

I sense that some of the writers whose work I have edited have given up on this, and have opted for a more random approach. Hang in there! There are rules and guidelines which can help you through this maze. And in those grey areas I will leave you with two words: be consistent.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Review: Shadow of Worlds by JD Lovil

This is quite an ambitious undertaking in many respects. The idea of shifting between parallel worlds (loosely based on ideas from Quantum Mechanics) is not a new one; but the epic style in which this book is written is something new, at least to me.

Although written as a first person narrative, from the point of view of Rafe, a ‘walker’ (who can travel between worlds), the narrative is more often in the style of a mythological epic. The story moves from one strange world to another; the characters are themselves epic (many being ‘gods’) and the events, particularly those of the finale, occur on a meta-cosmic scale. The scenes are often painted with very broad brushstrokes, with little detail. Occasionally there are ‘closeups’, so to speak, of Rafe, and his interactions with his fellow travellers and others. But even many of these have a larger than life feel to them.

The story itself is somewhat conventional: the world or, in this case, the worlds are threatened by some nasty kind of something from the outer edges of reality, which is doing something a bit nasty to the more human-like bits of reality, and will probably end in the destruction of everything. The details are left vague. The good guys are summoned together to confront this threat. There are a few interesting little glimpses of other worlds and some of the characters’ back stories along the way, but these are subsumed beneath the larger narrative.

For the most part, the other worlds through which the main group of travellers pass—the more or less human (and lupine) contingent—are very sketchily outlined. Too much detail of too many such worlds would have become tedious, and no doubt cracks would have shown in the natural, political and social laws of these worlds with too much scrutiny. This is, therefore, quite a wise decision on the part of the author. Nevertheless, something on a smaller time/place scale would have been welcome. Because everything is so epic, and the story moves so quickly towards the denouement, the characters never become very real. This includes the narrator. I had no sense of connection with them. They were never placed in any jeopardy that made sense on a simply human scale. The destruction of everything everywhere for all time is not the kind of threat that I, as a human being stuck in one reality, can really identify with. I didn’t really much care whether the good guys won or lost. I would have cared more if I had known two or three of them more intimately, and they had faced a more intimate and personal threat along the way.

While I admire the scope of this book, and the free run that it allows the author’s imagination, I would have preferred that the focus be on the non-epic, with the epic as the backdrop against which this more intimate story was told. The best SF and fantasy works precisely in this way. As regards the author’s imagination, in some ways the freedom he allows himself is excessive. He has created a setting in which pretty much anything goes. I would prefer a little more discipline and structure, within which his imagination could operate. It is also difficult to take seriously any potential threat to the main protagonist when he can (apparently) go anywhere, or shape reality in any way he chooses. The author runs the risk of making the characters and their circumstances so far removed from the lives and concerns of the readers that they have no interest in them and no way of identifying with them.

On a more technical note, there are places where the author loses control of his grammar, particularly in his use of the tenses of verbs, and when marrying verb with subject. I would recommend more thorough copy editing/proofreading in subsequent volumes in the series.

I give this three and a half stars, but round up to four for sites without half stars.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

‘Yes I can, yes I can.’ ‘No you can’t.’

‘Anything is possible.’
‘You can be anything you want to be.’

No it isn’t.
No you can’t.

With the best will in the world, parents, teachers and society in general have repeated these propositions down the years. Set your mind to it, work hard, and the world is your oyster. You can achieve anything. No you can’t. At least, most of us won’t and can’t.

Of course there are people in the world who do achieve great things, often from very small beginnings. We hear about these people. We admire them. We make them our role models. Of course we do. It’s right that we should. Unfortunately, what we don’t hear about are those who set their mind to it, work hard... and fail. For every inspirational success story there are probably 999 failure stories. Perhaps we should add a few nines to this. These stories don’t quite make the news.

Not everyone has the same opportunities, and not everyone has the same innate abilities. I am going to be better at some things than others. Part of the path to success is first of all to identify our available opportunities and to work within our limitations. This does not mean that we are stuck in some kind predetermined class or caste system. Many of us will break out. There will be opportunities to expand our opportunities. But, while the sky might not be the limit, there are limitations.

Unfortunately the pervading attitude that everything is possible has created four difficulties for people today. First, it has created unrealistic expectations. There is only so much room at the top. Jobs are a resource, and there are simply not enough of the ‘best’ jobs to go round. It would be an absurd world in which everyone strived to emulate Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, in which everyone wanted to be a ‘pop idol’ or a brain surgeon or a corporate lawyer. Then, within each of these ‘top’ professions, there is only limited room at the very top. The success of some at achieving this position will inevitably be on the back of the failure of many, many others to do so.

The second thing we have done is create an unrelenting burden of competition for these top positions within these top jobs. The economic world sees competition as an unqualified good. It isn’t. It borrows this concept from evolutionary theory, in which the fittest survive. Supposedly, competition produces the ‘best’ people for the job. This is nothing more than ideological claptrap. Were I inclined to be less polite I might invoke bovine excrement at this point. Unfortunately, those who fill the best positions in the best fields do not necessarily reach this position on merit. It would, perhaps, be rather cynical to suggest that they rarely do. In nature, competition is often avoided. While some animals fight, and fight to the death, most avoid such confrontations after a symbolic encounter. Let me see. As a lioness I can fight that lioness for her prey, or I can move over to the next patch of savannah. But there will never be many lionesses, in any case. There are always only a few positions available at the top of the food chain. And, in general, gazelles don’t aspire to become lionesses.

The third thing we have done is create this hierarchy of jobs in the first place. We have achieved this by both social and economic means. I can understand why jobs which require longer and more specialised training tend to result in a higher income, but I wonder if the income differentials that actually exist are justified. For some time I worked with people with disabilities. This was hard work, physically and psychologically. I was required to undertake some very unpleasant tasks... for the minimum wage. It would be hardly surprising if I were to be a little resentful of another profession which charges the minimum wage each thirty seconds or less. I think a strong social argument could be mounted to the effect that the work of a disability support worker is more valuable than that of most solicitors or CEOs. But our society shows little evidence of valuing such work, beyond the occasional word of praise: ‘Oh, I so admire you for the work you do. Here’s a ribbon for your contribution to society.’ We have made some jobs seem more important or more attractive than others, often with little justification.

The fourth difficulty we have created with our shallow platitudes is in failing to teach people how to deal with failure and disappointment. These are all but inevitable. It doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you sink into the abyss. It doesn’t even mean you have to settle for less; because we first have to unlearn the lesson that, if I don’t become the number one box office star and win two Oscars by the time I’m twenty-five, I’m settling for less. Becoming a teacher is ‘less’... How exactly? Becoming a carpenter, a sales assistant, a road sweeper... Who has convinced you and me that these are less? It really depends on the value system we adopt, doesn’t it? Is our current hierarchy of jobs the only one, or even the best one? I will fail at some things. I won’t be a very good sculptor or shepherd or disability support worker. I will probably fail at even more important things, such as being a good friend or a good partner or a good human being. Failure is a valuable part of life.

The important thing is whether, when I fail, I am willing to get up, dust myself off and try something else, perhaps even something ‘less’. Positive thinking and a positive attitude is not the sheer act of will power that some people seem to preach: ‘If you believe you will succeed, you will!’ If you don’t succeed it must be because you didn’t try hard enough or believe deeply enough. I smell manure again. Real positive thinking and a positive attitude means being able to accept my limitations and my failings, without being totally destroyed by them. It means being ready and willing to give something else a go.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Rule of Law

In Australia, we talk proudly of living under ‘the rule of law’, praise other countries for doing so, and condemn others for not doing so. So what is this ‘rule of law’?

The rule of law is the legal principle that decisions within a nation should be determined according to laws, statutes and legislation, rather than according to the whims of individual members of the government. All well and good. There are, however, a couple of issues that we need to keep in mind when extolling the virtues of the rule of law.

First of all, most politicians, when they use the term, have in mind a fairly specific approach to law: a western, democratic view of law, which takes into consideration such things as ‘universal’ human rights. The fact that a nation lives under the rule of law is not, in itself, any moral vindication of that country. Our Australian leaders would not, for example, regard very highly a nation living under Sharia Law. Australian leaders would (perhaps with justification) criticise a nation whose laws ignored the rights of minorities. These nations may be living under the rule of law, but they are not laws that we regard very highly.

The point is that ‘law’ is not the final arbiter here. There is something above and beyond law which (we seem to believe) gives us the right to pronounce a law good or bad. Law can also be used to strip people of rights which we might otherwise regard as fundamental. Among these are laws regarding national security.

Like many nations, since 2001 Australia has made, and continues to make, changes to laws concerning national security. These often give additional powers to police and to security agencies. It is always difficult to argue against these laws, and anyone who does so is accused of not taking seriously the threat to national security, or of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’. The odd thing about these laws is that they often gain the most support from those who talk loudest about individual liberty and small government. The problem is that these laws sometimes involve the sacrifice of certain freedoms and rights. Of course, compromise is always necessary in society. These laws could also be used in situations for which they were not originally intended; but, by and large, we in the West seem to trust our governments, police and security forces not to abuse them. Perhaps we are a little naïve.

There are laws in place since 2010 in Australia which include in the definition of national security any serious threat to Australia’s borders or national integrity. This sounds fair enough. Clearly an ‘invasion’ is a threat to national security. Recently, however, ASIO (Australia’s main security agency) identified an Australian citizen, currently living overseas, as a ‘people smuggler’. The 2010 legislation was used to revoke this person’s passport. Now, I don’t know if this person is a people smuggler or not, but two things concern me about this decision.

First, is people smuggling really a matter of national security? It is a crime, certainly. But does it involve national security? A grey area at best.

Second, by invoking this law, the government is, in fact, able to undermine the ‘rule of law’. If this person is a people smuggler he [or she] can be charged with a crime and extradition procedures can begin. The person can face trial. He or she can defend themselves against the charges—which would seem to be a fundamental right under our particular rule of law—and justice can be done, and be seen to be done.

Invoking national security legislation bypasses the rule of law (while using law to do so). It’s also probably quicker, easier and cheaper.

I am not here to defend an alleged people smuggler. But I am here to uphold their right under the rule of law to have the opportunity to defend themselves against charges, properly presented before a court of law.

We need to be very wary of this slippery slope. And we are very foolish if we think there are not those within our society who will use such laws for their own ends, and to undermine the very rule of law of which they claim to be so proud.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bad Writing Habits

I thought it might be useful to highlight some common habits into which writers often fall. If possible, I suggest you catch yourself when you are doing it. That might save me some work if I am copy editing your manuscript!

Looked at

‘He looked at him...’, ‘He looked at him and said...’ There may be a reason why the author wants to emphasise this occasionally. But many writers repeat this formula over and over again. Most of the time it is completely unnecessary. Most of the time, particularly during a conversation, the reader can safely assume that the interlocutors are looking at each other.

Some add to this ‘turned’. ‘He turned and looked at him...’ More just wasted ink.

There are other variants on this, often involving movement: ‘He went to him and...’, ‘He walked to him and...’ For example, ‘He went to him and hugged him.’ Again, the reader will happily fill in this missing movement: if one person hugs another, it can be safely assumed that he or she first closed the distance between them.

To generalise, when writing, try to avoid a step by step description of each and every intermediate action. Or adding actions that are completely unnecessary. ‘He got in the car, turned on the ignition, backed out of the driveway, and drove into town...’ Or: ‘He drove into town.’ He couldn’t have done that without first having done all those other, preparatory actions.

Sometimes it will be important to pinpoint or highlight the smallest, apparently least significant actions. But usually not.

He said... She said...

This is one you have probably all heard before. During a long section of dialogue it is often useful to remind the reader who is saying what. Sometimes ‘he said’ is perfect for that. However, it can be tedious and repetitive. Often no speech attribution is necessary. On other occasions, ‘Mary went into the kitchen to make coffee...’, followed by a line of dialogue, tells the reader quite clearly who is speaking.

Suddenly (and other superfluous adverbs)

I am not an enemy of adverbs. Adverbs are very useful, and do not deserve the kind of irrational persecution to which they are sometimes subjected. Nevertheless, writers often seem to throw in adverbs, such as ‘suddenly’, ‘immediately’, ‘quickly’ etc. for no obvious reason at all. Often the action being described is none of these things. ‘...he said, suddenly’ in the middle of a conversation makes no sense. Often, when reading someone’s manuscript, I have no idea why they have ‘suddenly’ decided to use this word. That previous sentence is an example of how we might use such a word in speech. ‘I was reading a manuscript when suddenly I saw the word “suddenly”’.’ What is ‘sudden’ about that action? Why is seeing the word ‘suddenly’ different from seeing the words before and after it?

Perhaps this is a reflection of how we tend to speak, often using the most outrageous hyperbole. Again, unless this is the author’s specific intention, I would discourage this habit.


This is one you will probably have come across again and again. It is very common in speech to use expressions such as this: ‘It was like he was struck by lightning.’ The more correct form of this is: ‘It was as if [or: as though] he was struck by lightning.’ The simplest way to explain the correct usage is to quote directly from The Chicago Manual of Style:

Like is probably the least understood preposition. Its traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like is governed by a noun or a noun phrase {teens often see themselves as star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet}. As a preposition, like is followed by a noun or pronoun in the objective case {the person in that old portrait looks like me}. Increasingly (but loosely) today in ordinary speech, like displaces as or as if as a conjunction to connect clauses. For example, in it happened just like I said it would happen, like should read as; and in you’re looking around like you’ve misplaced something, like should read as if. Because as and as if are conjunctions, they are followed by nouns in the nominative case {Do you work too hard, as I do?}. Although like as a conjunction has been considered nonstandard since the seventeenth century, today it is common in dialectal and colloquial usage {he ran like he was really scared}. Consider context and tone when deciding whether to impose standard English, as in the examples above.

Attempting to eradicate this usage from direct speech is a lost cause. For that reason, I would not, as an editor, change this in dialogue. Nor would I necessarily change it in a first person narrative, which is virtually direct speech. However, I would encourage writers to avoid this in a third person narrative. I would also not expect to see it in the speech of every character.

There are other issues to which I could draw attention, such as the use of numbers, capitalisation, and abbreviations. I may return to these at a later date, but that is probably enough to go on with. Now, attack that manuscript with the delete key!