Wed, Jun. 24th, 2015, 07:25 pm
Grandparents' world trip photos - 1970s

Collected here is a compilation of photos taken by my paternal grandparents on their two world trips in 1970-1 and 1976-7. These are just a fraction of the total in existence, but unlike most I don't believe in just dumping hundreds of pics on people for them to ignore. All of these have been carefully chosen because they either A) say something about the time period they were taken in, or B) are technically excellent. Left out are almost all of the "touristy" shots they took, because if you want to know what Buckingham Palace looks like then just Google it, and places like Paris haven't really changed that much in 40 years. A final word on the quality presented here, all these were originally slides that were scanned by my mother without the aid of professional equipment and in certain instances some colour correction has been done in order to try and replicate the original appearance. Please keep in mind that any time you transfer analogue media to digital some losses are bound to occur.

1970s PhotosCollapse )

There's also quite a few taken by my parents in a similar era and of similar subjects, maybe if the interest is there I could post some of these. Anyway, hopefully this was edifying.

Sun, May. 17th, 2015, 10:40 pm
Some thoughts on The Wheel of Time

It was in late January 2000 that I embarked upon Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World – a millennial beginning to a millennial epic – and I finished the concluding volume, A Memory of Light, this February. This means that the 14 books have taken me almost exactly 15 years to read, literally half a lifetime in my case, and therefore I believe some reflecting is due. After this long I feel I have earned the right, and as tribute to Mr Jordan I'm setting out upon this essay only having a vague idea of how I'm going to get to my conclusion and I'll probably end up waffling on for far longer than I should and testing your patience, but hey, all Wheel of Time fans should be accustomed to such things by now.

The series begins, as these sort of tales almost always do, with The Hero's Journey ™. Having over the past few years upgraded myself to almost full time reading of literary fiction, this particular trope of contemporary epic fantasy is probably the one I miss least. You know how it goes, a boy or young man (occasionally a girl, but not often) grows up in obscurity (wretched poverty and abusive childhoods are also options), usually unaware of his real parentage. He is then found by a wise older person who becomes his mentor, this mentor then reveals that he is the chosen one who must save the world or galaxy. Through training he learns heretofore unknown great powers, and along with his trustworthy companions survives many trials and much suffering which may or may not include dying and being reborn. Eventually he will have to confront and defeat the evil one or evil forces threatening to overwhelm everyone he loves, and there's usually a wedding to some sort of princess thrown in somewhere. Naturally, you're already thinking, “Hey, that sounds like the plot of The Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Harry Potter/The Matrix etc” and you would be correct.

RJ claimed that he deliberately crafted the opening to The Eye of the World to be reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but to myself, and many other readers, some of those homages look more like knock-offs. To wit: at the end of the Third Age as a dark lord regains his strength, a wizard-like character brings four young people from their rural idyl famed for its production of tobacco into a dangerous world of beastmen bred during a long ago war by perverted science, an un-hasty race of nature loving giants and a mysterious creature that stalks them on their quest. Said quest involves travels through exotic lands, a breaking of the fellowship after some of its members are kidnapped plus, of course, the obligatory underground journey. Not saying it's terrible, just derivative (although a charge that is by no means unique to Jordan).

Thankfully, follow up, The Great Hunt is a marked improvement. More characters' perspectives are added, most of the obvious Tolkien parallels are dropped and the Aes Sedai training passages are some of my favourites in the series. Perhaps The Wheel of Time's greatest strength as a work of imaginative fiction is its magic system; in most other fantasy series the magic often feels perfunctory, something the author chucks in more because they feel they have to rather than because they have a new spin on it. Rather than being unbelievably “magical”, Jordan's One Power seems a tangible force in the universe, almost scientific rather than ritualistic or religious in its rules and application, yet still undeniably numinous.

After the bridging volume, The Dragon Reborn (which exists mostly to set up the next phase of the story), the subsequent three books, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos form both the middle section of the series and also contain its strongest writing. The journey through the Aiel Waste reveals much more of the history of the world, Mat becomes a character of significance, and in general shit gets real, especially at Cairhien and Dumai's Wells. Yes, the books are longer than ever (Lord of Chaos is over 1000 pages in paperback), but things happen in them, interesting things to people you have come to care about.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the next FIVE volumes. Now I must clarify that I am not axiomatically opposed to either long novels/series nor large casts. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has more than a thousand named characters with still two books to go, but Martin has more skill at manipulating all these plot lines into a propulsive narrative (although even he seems to be struggling over the course of the latest two volumes). From A Crown of Swords onwards the action almost seizes up as story threads wander through multiple books without ever seeming to be advancing towards any sort of conclusion. Characters are stuck in Ebou Dar talking to boring people, lurking in Salidar grimacing at those holed up in Tar Valon and vice versa, or spending far too long being held prisoner or in a bloody travelling circus doing high wire acts. The occasional moment of real action no longer makes up for the thousands of pages where nothing of any real consequence is occurring. Even consulting summaries of The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart in order to write this has me recalling only a handful of incidents, the rest was just a blur of repetition, snow and soporific Aes Sedai squabbling.

This is not to imply that my issues with The Wheel of Time begin only at volume 7. In addition to adhering all too closely to the hero's journey archetype, one cannot overlook Jordan's tedious but ever-present gender politics. While occasionally he hits upon something original, such as in the obvious yet unique sexual allegory that is the male/female division and use of the One Power, for the most part this consists of an endless and immature “Men are from Seanchan, women are from Shara” battle of the sexes sniping, and from almost every damn character! Which leads to another complaint of mine: the very thin characterisation on display. Even the principal actors in the series often seem more a collection of catchphrases and mannerisms than believable people, and their emotional development is minimal to zero. I realise that most of the main characters are quite young, but they should be changed far more by their amazing (and often traumatic) experiences.

Speaking of the Seanchan, many consider them both irritating and superfluous to the greater story, but I actually don't mind them. I find the geostrategic threat they pose to the nations of Randland and the Aiel intriguing, as different ways of political and cultural thinking causing friction is a problem that bedevils real world leaders, and there are often no easy answers, only messy compromises. Also the Seanchan culture, while heavily inspired by imperial China and feudal Japan, is more interesting than the all-too-familiar Wardour Street version of the Middle Ages that is the standard currency in most fantasy novels. Jordan's decision to add to this an almost Victorian era-esq culture and morality along with a greater level of female empowerment has potential, but as mentioned above, his characters' mostly interchangeable dialogue and monologue rapidly have you wishing for something, anything else.

Anyway, back to the summary. After the series reached its nadir with the interminable and inert Crossroads of Twilight, even Robert Jordan finally recovered from his narrative torpor, and in Knife of Dreams things started to get going again, albeit still far too slowly. However while working on was to be the twelfth and final volume in 2007, Mr Jordan passed away, leaving some completed scenes, descriptive notes and dictations of what was to become the conclusion to his life's major work. Enter fellow fantasy author and replacement, Brandon Sanderson, who, while actually managing to finish the thing, regrettably bought with him his own weaknesses.

While the story itself was in dire need of an immediate adrenalin injection followed by narrative triage, Sanderson's greatest challenge was actually the writing. Unlike films or TV series which, even if credited to a single creator, are always collaborative efforts, a novel remains, even with editorial assistants and proofreaders, an individual's personal vision written in their singular voice. For all my complaints about the singular voice of RJ, unfortunately the quality of writing in the last three books fell below even this standard. There was a dulled sense of emotion, major events just didn't resonate the way they should have, and some characters behaved in a manner at odds with how they had previously. For all the streamlining and pace Sanderson brought, at times his prose felt more like Wheel of Time fan fiction than WWRJD. Perhaps this was inevitable and I'm being too harsh, but given his status as an über-fan of the series, a published author in his own right and operating under the tutelage of Jordan's editorial team, I guess I expected better. He stated explicitly that he wasn't trying to ape RJ's style, but in so many cases did just that, however as my dad always says, “consistency, thou art a jewel”.

And while we're on the language kick, long term Wheel of Time readers became resigned to Jordan's weird repetitions, what with all those woolheaded men exclaiming “Light!” while the women sniffed and crossed their arms beneath their breasts as Nynaeve tugged on her braid.... Sanderson carried on this way too as well as with far too many instances of boring cliches like “his face hardened” or “her expression darkened”. BS also contributed some regrettable modern phrases that jarred with the fantasy world, words such as “crazy” and “doctor” instead of, say, “mad” and “healer”. Also, being a younger citizen of the United States, he doesn't seem to realise everyone else doesn't speak American, so can't seem to understand why words like “twister” and “stomped” do not work in a fantasy context. US writers from a pervious generation, such as Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin do, which is why their work is mostly free of such stylistic infidelities, but with Sanderson you're always half expecting to run across sentences like: “And Perrin said, 'Awesome!'”.

I'm now going to discuss in some detail the final books, so the spoiler phaser that has previously been set on “stun” is now redlined all the way to “kill with fire” for the next six paragraphs, so consider yeselves warned. The Gathering Storm resolved several long and tedious plot strands including Faile's capture, Lews Therin's less than positive influence on Rand's psyche and the split in the White Tower/Black Ajah conspiracy, and about time too. The series always laboured under its somewhat awkward structure whereby the ending was foretold at the beginning; from the first book it's obvious that Rand is the Dragon Reborn and will fight the Dark One at Tarmon Gai'don, therefore the quality of the read becomes greatly dependent on unforeseen plot developments and twists before the inevitable conclusion. Verin being revealed as Black Ajah was one of the increasingly rare surprises.

Having wrapped up most of the loose ends, Towers of Midnight began setting up the big finish we were promised oh so many years and books ago. Rand's quasi-apotheosis has him become a mixture of Jesus and Shiva Destroyer of Worlds, while Moraine makes a not entirely welcome re-entrance (another annoying trope of fantasy and science fiction is that hardly anyone ever really dies, and with the possibility of resurrection ever-present the stakes are lowered whenever characters become imperilled). As this then segues into the final volume, A Memory of Light, we also get quite a bit of Asha'man politics, more Darkfriends, and yet more not particularly interesting characters. After being mostly off page, the Black Tower arc comes too late and too thickly for my taste, and it happening just when all the equivalent White Tower shenanigans was winding up makes it especially difficult to warm to. I like Logain as a character and Taim is a quality villain, but feel that after volume 6 the whole Black Tower sub-plot wasn't given the time and space it deserved.

Elsewhere in the final book, having said I appreciated another political angle, the Seanchan, I must now counter that with by saying that the Dragon Reborn's plan of setting up his version of the United Nations of Randland with the Aiel acting as peacekeepers makes no sense, and in fact suggests either lazy writing or that the combined efforts Lews Therin and the Dark One's taint on Saidar may have eroded crucial parts of Rand's mind. It comes across like a hypothetical some ignorant novice from the backwoods of Tear angling for a career in the Grey Ajah would invent. The concept of a supranational body with authority that, in certain instances, usurps sovereign control and through which inter-state conflicts are adjudicated is too great a stretch for most denizens of THIS world, let alone a fantasy one where the natives seem even more prone to argument than human nature (already a prickly creature) would otherwise suggest. Just look at the opposition to the UN/EU/IMF etc.

Tarmon Gai'don itself is, for the most part, deftly handled, even if we never got our three heroes from Emond's Field standing together and fighting as one which most long term fans of the series sort of expected would feature in its conclusion. The cutting between the points of view was well balanced, it was nice to see all the familiar faces one last time, and while there probably should have been some more deaths of major characters, the ones who do snuff it mostly go out in style. That being said, there are still problems. Tuon's prevaricating is even more annoying than she usually is because it's obvious that Mat, not Elayne, will eventually be directing The Last Battle, and so it proves, making the delay so stupidly pointless that you feel Peter Jackson must have somehow been involved. The fact that Perrin spent most of said battle in bed after playing hide and seek with Slayer was also disappointing and Rand's personal struggle with the Shai'tan underwhelmed. The time dilation was a useful plot device, but their caps lock shouting match and competitive speculative fiction scenarios didn't quite add up to the age-ending Ragnarök we'd anticipated.

I'm also not happy about the sudden introduction of the Sharans. Having read The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time I was familiar with them and had been hoping they'd show up, but can't help wondering why, even despite their famous hostility to outsiders, neither the White or Black Tower sent emissaries there (or perhaps a bit of the old ta'veren action could have brought them round?) even when it was known the Last Battle was in the offing. And is Shara ignorant of the prophecies of the Dragon Reborn that every other culture in the world seems to possess, yet they have their own wacky one which Demandread can exploit, or was “Bao the Wyld” supposed to mean Rand? Even if there are good answer to these questions, why weren't they in the book? Don't say there wasn't space because there totally was, it was just wasted with other guff.

As with Moraine's non-death, the final ending is, to me, something of a sellout. I know that Jordan apparently wrote it while still alive, but the fact Rand doesn't die lowers the stakes of his sacrifice to practically nothing. It just seems like a cop out in order not to disappoint his three sister-wives (I bet they'd love that concept in Utah) and their offspring. Plus, with no real explanation, he can no longer channel but seems to be able to effortlessly manipulate the Pattern to his will. What is he now, a wizard? The Creator's only son sent down to redeem mankind by dying and being reborn after 3 days? I know Jordan was an Episcopalian, but like all quality fantasy authors he'd worked out that the spiritual never really lies comfortably alongside the magical, so sacrificed the former for the convenience of the latter. Well, I mean he tried to have some sort of spirituality, but put it this way; throughout the series the Whitecloaks were the bad guys, and if the Pattern of the Wheel wove Rand as the reincarnation of Lews Therin then the Creator didn't do shit.

Were Birgitte here she would no doubt admonish me for preaching like a Tovan Councillor, but you don't spend 15 years with something without forming a few opinions on it, so you're welcome. Any battle-hardened veterans who have made it through both The Wheel of Time and this essay/rant (I now have the ending written, I promise!) will most likely share my strongly mixed feelings about the series as a whole. A powerful work of the imagination, it very much improved upon the David Eddings/Raymond E. Feist model of post-Tolkein, post-AD&D modern epic fantasy, laying the groundwork, in a sense, for other, deeper works, such as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, that followed. I think I've made, what I consider, the major failings of the series pretty obvious by now, so to add any more would only be belabouring the point. I don't consider the time I invested in reading and talking about Jordan's world wasted, but I still believe much of that time could have been better spent or not cashed at all.

So, aside from the forthcoming companion volume that will mostly be a reference guide based on the books with a few additional notes of Mr Jordan's, this is very much farewell to The Wheel of Time. The two other prequels he was planning to write after New Spring (which I quite enjoyed, coming as it did during the series' lowest ebb and reminding readers that RJ could indeed tell a concise tale and filling in some of the backstory in a very satisfying manner) will never eventuate. More than once I have been asked for my opinion on The Wheel of Time and to state it as emphatically as I can, the latter books stop me recommending the series, as it is somewhere between 4 and 7 books too long depending on to what extent each reader thinks the red pen should have been wielded. The Wheel may turn, but I don't believe I will come around again to reading this series, so from Shayol Ghul I wander away, my destination unknown, but most likely never to return, in this age or the next.

Sat, May. 16th, 2015, 04:19 am
Six Easy Pieces on Australian Politics from Malcolm Fraser

Last year I had the pleasure and the privilege to talk with former Prime Minster, Malcolm Fraser for a couple of hours thanks to taking a subject coordinated by former federal MP and Fraser's former chief of staff, Petro Georgio. Fraser served as the Member for Wannon for 28 years and was prime minister of Australia between 1975 and 1983. He sadly passed away earlier this year, and when discussing this day recently, my friend Tom urged me to publish my account of Fraser's views and experience so others could, perhaps, benefit in some small way from the wisdom he imparted. How he has seen parliamentary and prime ministerial power and behaviour shifting in the decades since he left parliament in 1983 may be of interest to some. What follows is from my notes (cleaned up and systematised with the occasional flourish), and while some of this might seem fairly obvious, the degraded state of contemporary Australian politics attests to the fact that such fundamentals are no longer being adhered to.

The temperament of a Prime Minister:

The problem with John Gorton (in office from 1968 to 1971, and in whose downfall Fraser played a prominent role) was that while he was popular with the public he was also lazy and incapable of thinking about multiple things at once (Fraser's words). Many politicians can be smooth media operators and give a rousing speech, but at the same time lack the temperament for the real work of governing. Look at Kevin Rudd, great with selfies and lightweight breakfast television, less brilliant at decision making and keeping his cool. According to Fraser, both Rudd and Gorton also played games for advantage within the party rather than being straight with their colleagues, and this contributed to both of them losing the top job at the hands of those same colleagues rather than being voted out by the public.

The relationship with cabinet:

Basically, do the opposite of what Rudd did with Alastair Jordan and Abbott is doing with Peta Credlin, these dominating chief staffers. One unelected advisor trying to keep track of and control everything is both impossible and counter-productive to even attempt. In order to function, Ministers must be allowed to actually do their jobs, and continual oversight by the prime minister's office signals that the PM has no real confidence in the ministers or the departments they lead. If the prime minister does not trust these people to manage their own portfolio, why make them ministers? Also, any debates about policy should be had within cabinet rather than outside or conducted through the media; cabinet must work as a team to function as cabinet government is the very essence of the Westminster system.

The relationship with the party room:

Fraser stated they he always felt he could carry the party room with good policy and good arguments. A dictatorial attitude will create divisions, and such a hostile environment is not conducive to the advancement of a policy agenda, this will also lead to the creation and sharpening of so many knives later to be aimed at the party leader. Pliant MPs toeing the line because they fear a lack of promotion, demotion or retribution and unable to speak their mind creates bad policy and bad governments. Finally, no leader should try and be the conscience of their party, the prime minister is the first among equals and should try and remember this.

The role of the public service:

Bashing public servants as a corps of lazy, entitled bureaucrats lolling around at their desks throwing paper planes and taking long holidays all on the taxpayer's back is a common trope on the political right, whereas in reality most public servants are hardworking and, compared with their equivalents in much of the private sector, quite modestly remunerated for their labours. This attitude has unfortunately filtered through to the political classes, so since the Howard government most department heads are now contracted rather than tenured. This, Fraser called an “absolute bloody disaster”. Consultants are not as accountable as public servants, and as contracts make people too easy to sack, this instability has flow-on effects. For example, a department head concerned about what being fired would do for their future career prospects might be less honest with a PM in order to keep their job, weakening both their performance and opportunities for meaningful policy implementation and reform. Right-wing talking points might make for big talkback radio ratings, but it's no way to run a public service for all Australians where honest advice from departments to relevant ministers is essential.

The makeup of parliament:

Fraser hypothesised that the decline in parliamentary quality was directly related to the increasing homogeneity of the chamber. Back in his day, MPs had previously been doctors, farmers, soldiers and teachers etc, whereas nowadays it's almost exclusively lawyers and former political staffers with the odd unionist thrown in. Put simply, the political class is now made up almost exclusively of the political class and no longer represents the broader community in the way it used to. He cited the example of the seat of Higgins where after the retirement of Peter Costello the seat was won in a by-election by Kelly O'Dwyer, Costello's former chief of staff and the only candidate. Fraser stated that in his day this would not have been permitted, the preselection would have been postponed until more candidates were found, and the act of trying to nominate a successor would have counted against the retiring MP's choice rather than be an endorsement of it as happens today.

The attitude of MPs:

Fraser believed that independently successful people who did not owe their entire career to a political party are more confident in standing up to a prime minister to argue for their constituents or their department rather than running in fear of the PM's press secretary. (Fraser also alleged that ASIO has pressured some MPs to cover up their mistakes, but of course such charges cannot be substantiated by myself.) He tied this into to the decline of respect evidenced in recent “debates” and associated media sniping; the internecine squabbling of people who mostly coming from the same background has dramatically lowered the tone of Australian politics. Fraser suggested that MPs should be allowed to cross the floor on issues important to their electorates after consultation with their party leader as, after all, members are in public not to represent their parties but their constituents. And it has been our voices that have been sorely missing from the floor of our parliament, and we need to bring them back.

Sun, Sep. 1st, 2013, 03:24 am
The state of Australia 2013

The commandments laying out how the 43rd Parliament of Australia would function were etched upon a stone tablet in the afternoon of September 7, 2010. This was when the ghastly blank of limbo that the inconclusive election result of August 21 produced ended. No sooner had Rob Oakeshott's epic and yawn-inducing speech finally lumbered to the (by then) inevitable conclusion that he, along with fellow independents Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie and The Greens' Adam Bandt, would support the Labor government on confidence and supply, than a decision of almost equal importance was made in a nearby room.

It was made by Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, who, having almost sniffed the soon-to-be-removed asbestos of The Lodge, had been spurned by these now most important of men. The reasons he failed to close the deal with them were many (his policies, personality and fiscal imprudence to name but three of the more prominent ones), but these weaknesses were not acknowledged in his subsequent decision. Rather, being denied what he rightfully saw as his probably confirmed to him that what he was doing was the correct course of action to take. In effect he swore that conventional opposition politics would be defenestrated, and that by foul means and fouler, he would make Australia rue its indecision until the country gave him what he thought he deserved.

This meant that he would do everything in his power to portray the Gillard government not as having a limited mandate in a minority parliament, but as being totally illegitimate to the extent that any action taken to hasten its demise would be not only justifiable, but necessary and urgent. Standing Orders would be challenged continually, Question Time would be shut down, votes of no-confidence would mooted in almost every sitting day, and personal insults would replace political rhetoric. The full arsenal of the right wing media artillery would be trained on Julia Gillard, and nothing, from her gender to her past relationships and jobs to her late father, would be off limits. This was total fucking war.

And in this he has two crucial allies. The above-mentioned media, already mostly in the tank for the conservative side of politics, let rip with joyous abandon. It has ever been the nature of the press to go mad at the sight of political blood, and this feeding frenzy was a nauseating sight to behold. When most of Australia's media landscape is sculpted by the Murdoch press and the feeble rage of impotent and incontinent old men wheezing into Sydney AM microphones, it's not surprising that the particulars of minority government, a situation not experienced in Australia since 1943, were not adequately explained to the voting public. Gillard's policy retreats and limited ability to legislate were explained not as the inevitable result of having to work with other parties and independents in order to get majority support, but as failure both political and personal.

A hostile opposition functioning more like a radical insurgency than a proper political party run by adults and a shrill right-wing noise machine would be more than enough for anyone to contend with, but the Gillard government had a third force working against them; the ghost of leadership past. The method of her ascension to the top job was not remarkable in the least in our Westminster system, but the deposing of St Kevin of Rudd rankled many of the less informed, and once again the media was only to happy to continue attacking rather than pausing to enlighten. The only people who "voted for Kevin Rudd" were the 43,957 voters in his division of Griffith who put the ALP as their first preference in 2007, and the only people who "elected Kevin Rudd prime minister" were the 88 Labor caucus members who in 2006 chose him over Kim Beazley in a party room ballot. Once again though, thanks to the media and politicians like Rudd who base campaigns solely around the party leader, many of the public were deluded into thinking that Australia functions as some kind of presidential system where the removal of a leader was somehow a crime against democracy rather than the conventional political manoeuvre it was.

Rudd himself shared this view that he had been stabbed in the back Brutus-style, and from the moment the last tear dried after his nauseating farewell press conference he set about plotting his revenge. While it appears the 2013 campaign will surpass the depths of banality and farce plumbed in 2010, what is missing this time is a devastating series of leaks from Gillard and her supporters, the way Rudd and his backers undermined their own party's electoral chances out of pettiness and spite last time around. Even after the ALP scraped home and formed government, Rudd's appointment as Foreign Minister did not soothe the raging demon of his wounded pride. This continual cycle of challenges and white-anting eventually took its toll, and support for Julia Gillard both within the party and the community collapsed. Rudd stood triumphant upon the ruins of a political movement he had helped build, embraced once again by his only true friends, the media, who temporarily laid down their own sledgehammers to once again swoon over the only man who ever truly loved them.

Because a few years ago, the media decided that reporting on politics was far too dull and decided to no longer bother. They correctly guessed that an overwhelming majority of the Australian public doesn't really give a shit about politics as long as interest rates remain low and those pesky Indonesians don't lock up too many of our youngest and dimmest mind-altering substance enthusiasts. Far more fun to concentrate on Kevin Rudd's wife, Tony Abbott's daughters and Julia Gillard's counter-intuitively heterosexual ex-hairdresser partner. The only part of the political process the media still relished was the gripping drama of a leadership spill, and unfortunately their suppliers in Canberra had dished out too many of these intoxicants, and it all rather went to their heads.

Brendan Nelson in 2007, Malcolm Turnbull in 2008, Tony Abbott in 2010 (strangely he didn't seem to think knifing one's way to the top is a problem when the Liberal Party do it) and the endless Labor soap opera meant that the revolving door of leadership prove all too much for the journalists who started seeing challenges in every shadow. And this perceived instability added to the conservative media and the Abbott-led opposition's demolition campaign to make both the government and the parliament look enfeebled and incapable of governing. The only solution was to have another election, and this time the Australian public must go back and return the only correct result, the one they failed to give in 2010. Because of our intransigence our punishment has been both the last three years and, it is more than likely, the next three to come.

The final verdict is yet to be written on Kevin Rudd; until the election the nation is holding its collective breath. Should the government defy both the polls and conventional wisdom and retain office, Rudd will be a Labor hero. Should the government fall, his name will rank down there with Billy Hughes as Labor rats who condemned the party to the wilderness of opposition. Consider the situation in early 2010, Tony Abbott had only just replaced Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader and the Coalition were a divided shambles. Labor were riding high in the polls with Kevin Rudd on a 70% approval as Prime Minister. It was this moment, after the emissions trading legislation had been defeated in the Senate for a second time providing the necessary trigger for a double-dissolution election, that was Rudd’s to seize. He should have announced that the platform that Labor had been swept into office to enact was being stymied at every turn. Then he could have asked for, and would have received, the double-dissolution and Labor would have been returned, perhaps even picking up seats in the house, along with a more compliant Senate.

But he didn’t. Because he is a coward without principles, he decided to dump one of the key policies that brought Labor to office and move onto something else, hoping everyone would be so wowed by some tinkering with health funding and a new mining tax that we’d forget about all that depressing climate stuff. But we didn’t, and that craven retreat sealed his doom, everything since has been delaying tactics only. The philosopher Joseph de Maistre said that every nation gets the government it deserves, but in this instance it is not we, the Australian people, that truly deserve Tony Abbott's wrecking crew, only the Labor caucus and the nation's media should suffer so. For it is they that have brought us to this lowest of points, and the future from here looks bleak.

Thu, May. 23rd, 2013, 01:12 am
Echoes of the Cold War

This article originally appeared in issue 2 of The Young Pioneer, an online magazine. Republished here as this issue has now been archived.

In July of 1976, radio listeners from Europe to North America tuning in to their regular programmes suddenly found them almost totally overwhelmed by a strong new signal of unknown origin. These frequencies now were home to a harsh and repetitive tapping noise that, after its confirmation as being broadcast from the Soviet Union, became known as the “Russian Woodpecker”. Initial wild speculation that this transmission was intended to control the weather or people's thoughts gave way to the understanding that the “Woodpecker” was actually an incredibly powerful type of tracking radar known as over-the-horizon radar. As the name suggests, such a device can identify moving targets thousands of kilometres away, and this particular installation, named Duga-3, was designed to provide early warning of a nuclear missile attack on the USSR from the United States or Western Europe, hence the signal's intrusion into the homes of people in the West.

Still standing in what is now Ukraine, just a few kilometres from the doomed Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the Duga-3 complex is massive; the antenna structure is a wall of steel lattice that reaches into the sky like a fortress bulwark – which in a way it was – 150 metres in height and 900 metres in length. Even after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, Duga-3 continued to operate, despite being within the exclusion zone where radioactive fallout from the accident was highest and habitation is highly restricted. Eventually though it was not a nuclear catastrophe but a political one that silenced the Woodpecker. In December 1989, with European communism in retreat, Duga-3 was shut down as the threat of nuclear war diminished. The doomsday clock moved back from midnight and peace returned to the dial.

The Duga-3 transmitter near Chernobyl as it appears today.

However anyone with a shortwave radio who takes the time to carefully move up and down that dial will find many things stranger than the Russian Woodpecker. Today the shortwave bands are mostly ignored by commercial radio stations in favour of AM/FM or satellite and the internet, leaving little but government services and propaganda broadcasts to be found there. But amongst the static of these public airwaves one can still find audio ghosts of the Cold War and many other strange broadcasts that, unlike those of Duga-3, remain unexplained. A large percentage of these mysterious transmissions fall under the category of numbers stations.

Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations that broadcast nothing but machine-generated voices repeating strings of seemingly meaningless letters and numbers at set intervals or on a continuous loop, often broken up with simple tunes or other sounds. Numbers stations never identify themselves beyond their incomprehensible broadcasts and do not register legal call signs, meaning the identity of whoever is keeping them on the air cannot be traced. It is also not known who the intended audience for these strangest of broadcasts are, although there is a widely held, if unconfirmed, consensus on this as described below.

Due to their secretive nature, the exact history of numbers stations lies mostly in darkest shadow. A single personal recollection from World War 1 describes something like a numbers station, and during World War 2 the BBC was known to have sent coded messages to special agents operating in occupied Europe. But it was during the Cold War that numbers stations proliferated, and while many from that era have disappeared along with the regimes that transmitted them, some stations first identified over 40 years ago remain on the air.

Numbers stations come in may different forms. A well known one thought to belong to N.A.T.O. has a computer voice reading out an identifier in the phonetic alphabet (in this case: Y for yankee, H for hotel and F for foxtrot) before other letters that, presumably, constitute some form of communication follow. Communist East Germany sent out a nauseatingly warped recording of bells followed by the numbers, while for decades the British broadcast from an army base on Cyprus a numbers station that was nicknamed The Lincolnshire Poacher after the folk tune that plays before the the coded message was read out in what can only be described as a posh accent. There were also numbers stations in Czech, Russian, and a well-known Spanish one transmitted from Cuba (its location discovered via a technical error whereby Radio Havana was accidentally broadcast simultaneously on the same frequency), the latter can still be heard over most of North America.

The exact purpose of numbers stations is not known as it has never been confirmed and unrelenting official silence on the question suggests this position is unlikely to change. However by universal assent, all who have looked into this phenomenon agree that numbers stations exist to send covert messages to spies and agents in the field from their governments of origin. This is accomplished through a complex bit of cryptography called a one-time pad that, used correctly, is a form of encryption that is impossible to crack.

For this, two identical sets of random numbers are generated, one copy is kept by the sender and the other given to the recipient of the message. A message or key then sent via a numbers station is received and written down by the recipient who then uses this key to interpret specific blocks of these random numbers to decode the previously hidden message. The term “pad” comes from the format the codes were printed in, usually a multipage booklet. Soviet agents were equipped with miniature pads that were easily concealed, sometimes even printed on highly flammable nitrocellulose in case incriminating evidence of espionage needed to be quickly destroyed, and even if the pads were discovered, without knowing the encryption key and which block of numbers it matches (revealed by the numbers station message), the code can never be broken.

The advantage to using number stations and a one-time pad to communicate with spies are many. For example, unlike a letter, email, text message or mobile phone call, it is impossible to track who is listening to a radio broadcast. Also, the possession of a radio would not automatically arouse suspicion in remote or dangerous parts of the world where a laptop or satellite phone may still turn heads.

Part of an actual one-time pad, used by Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Soviet Foreign Ministry employee who was imprisoned for spying for the C.I.A.

Other transmissions that can found on the shortwave bands make numbers stations look straightforward. What to make of the transmission known as The Backwards Music Station, a truly disturbing cacophony that sounds like whale song being played on a warped LP on a broken record player at the wrong speed? There is also a station that broadcasts nothing but the time (usually Moscow time although this can vary) in morse code, and another that sounds like an old bicycle with a broken wheel being pushed through a an empty submarine. As with numbers stations, these broadcasts were either on the air for years or still are, meaning that someone, somewhere is making an effort to, and paying money for these signals to be transmitted, but for no discernible reason.

The most famous of these mystery stations is the one that actually has a call sign: UVB-76. First reported in 1982, the station consists of nothing but a intermittent buzzing tone; the pitch and length of the tone has varied over the years, but the station itself has been a constant. While transmitting almost nothing but monotonous buzzes for decades, suddenly in late August of 2010, UVB-76 came alive. These messages sound almost like those of a numbers station as they are just a series of phonetic letters and digits, however several factors make UVB-76 unlike a numbers station. Firstly, the station announces its call sign. Secondly, such broadcasts are irregular; to be useful to an agent in the field, a numbers station has to be predictable in its schedule, only the message itself varies. Thirdly, the voice speaking is a human rather than machine-generated one – both men and women have been heard reading out the coded messages and they sometimes make mistakes and have to start over again. Finally, other sounds have been picked up while people have been listening into UVB-76 including telephone calls, casual conversations and even a recording of Swan Lake being played.

All this has led people to the conclusion that UVB-76 is not an automated numbers station, but rather a live microphone inside a room next to a speaker that's generating the buzzing sound. Theories as to the purpose of UVB-76 usually revolve around it being a military communication channel – a holding frequency for other more important transmissions, or even part of the anti-ballistic missile defence of first the Soviet Union and now Russia. This last option may sound fantastical, but upon closer inspection is actually not out of the realms of possibility.

In 1984 the Soviet leadership was in a deeply worried state of mind. Newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, Konstantin Chernenko was seventy two years old and stricken with emphysema. He had ascended to the top job in the Kremlin upon the death of his equally elderly and frail predecessor, Yuri Andropov who had himself been in the position for less than two years, having succeeded the shuffling and cadaverous Leonid Brezhnev. This succession of feeble old men with their shaking fingers on the button of the world's largest nuclear arsenal caused the Soviet military leadership to wonder amongst themselves that if word of a nuclear strike on the USSR came, would those unsteady hands and minds be able to think clearly and decide on a course of action in the precious few minutes where a decision to retaliate must be made?

In thinking about a backup plan in case those quivering digits faltered, what the generals had to work with was code-named “Perimeter”. This was a defence system that would control the USSR's nuclear arsenal in the instance of the top leadership in the Kremlin being wiped out or otherwise unable to respond to a direct attack. Perimeter consisted of a series of robot-like command missiles that could, at the touch of a button, be launched and fly across the Soviet Union at the onset of a sudden nuclear war. Instead of a warhead, these missiles contained a nosecone of electronics and would broadcast a message to all the remaining nuclear missiles in their silos to launch themselves at pre-determined targets in the West. Perimeter was in place by the early 1980s, however what was added to this was a terrifying function known as “The Dead Hand”. This was designed as an automated response to a situation were the Soviet leadership was decapitated, computers were programmed to analyse all the early warning and attack data and once the assault was over, launch a full retaliation. This computer system would become the final arbiter of humanity's fate. Many believe a version of The Dead Hand to still be active in Russia, and some believe that UVB-76 a link in this command and communication chain.

The Embassy of the People's Republic of China in London during the Cold War. Was the oversized antenna on the roof for broadcasting or receiving the broadcasts from a numbers station?

No government has ever publicly commented on the purpose or even existence of numbers stations, despite the fact anyone with a shortwave radio can tune into them. They are perhaps the best definition of an “open secret” there is. The closest the world has come to official confirmation of their purpose was in 1998 when The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesman for the United Kingdom Department of Trade and Industry (a body responsible for regulating the airwaves in the U.K.) as saying, “These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn’t be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption.” There is also a passing reference to the C.I.A. operating numbers stations during the Cold War in book by a former agent and several suspected spies have been arrested after receiving one-way communications via radio, but that's pretty much it.

What separates students of numbers stations from the Area 51 kooks or JFK assassination conspiracy theorists is the unanimous agreement on what numbers stations are for and who is responsible for them. Governments will openly scorn the notion they are hiding the existence of alien life, however their silence on the question of numbers stations when (very rarely) asked is telling. Suggestions that numbers stations are simply pranks made by people with access to transmission equipment or that the broadcasts are made by criminals such a drug smugglers in order to coordinate deals simply do not make sense. The power of the transmissions put them beyond the reach of all but governments or large organisations, and why would perpetrators of short term criminal activity or pranksters feel the need need to broadcast continually for decades? Transmitters that have a global reach also require very large masts, and when numbers stations have been tracked by their signal strength, the point of origin often seems to be on military bases, again confirming that they are government projects.

No explanation but that of state-controlled espionage could justify the ongoing existence of numbers stations. Their very low-tech nature is thought to be the key to their ongoing success; as mentioned above, unlike with phone or internet-based communication, listeners to radio cannot be individually traced, and accessing a radio is generally possible anywhere in the world. That numbers stations have outlasted the Cold War demonstrates their usefulness to someone, and while their purpose remains unclear, it is extremely likely that these and the other unexplained broadcasts are also the work of governments. The Cold War may be over, but its legacy of obsessive state secrecy and mutual suspicion amongst nation-states continues, and for clear evidence of this you do not need attractive, redheaded spies embedded in suburban neighbourhoods, all you need is access to a radio.

Mon, Jun. 11th, 2012, 10:59 pm
North Korea Photos – April 2012

As the least open, least visited and least understood country in the world, North Korea is bound to generate many misconceptions, however it seems the most pervasive one is that you can’t actually go there. In reality nothing could be further from the truth. All you do is fill out a visa application, send them some money, and providing you’re not a journalist or a Christian missionary, you’re in. Actual numbers are impossible to gauge but one of our guides from the fantastic Young Pioneer Tours who we went with, estimated that non-Chinese visitor numbers to North Korea at around 2000 per annum. For comparison the single town of Banff in Canada receives over 6 million tourists per year, so we’re talking very, very low numbers here. The timing of our visit coincided with the nation-wide celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea and, even though he died in 1994, still its “eternal president”. Finally, after years in the planning, my fellow traveller, Ash and myself would enter the Hermit Kingdom.

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On the train out, Richie asked me if my perceptions of North Korea had changed given everything we had experienced over the last few days. I found this question hard to answer at the time, and even having thought about it at great length since getting back, still find it difficult. On one level as someone who considers himself as well informed about North Korea as it’s possible to be (which is not very much really, but I take solace from the fact that the US State Department is equally in the dark when it comes to most matters relating to the Hermit Kingdom. Even though he’d actually passed away several days previously, the first hint that the American government got about the death of Kim Jong-il was when it was announced on North Korean state television. Don’t be fooled by shows like 24 and the Bourne films, they really have no idea what’s going on in the DPRK, the most wilfully opaque country on the planet), I went in to the trip with eyes open, I knew that everything we would be shown was only what KITC, acting as an agency of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, wanted us to see. Many of the stops such as the Grand People’s Study House and the Children’s Palace were totally phoney experiences put on just for tourists, whereas many other small moments when we got to talk to the Korean people were far more special. The despotic regime in Pyongyang is rightful condemned in the Western media, but of course people are not their governments, they’re just people, and even the Americans on our tour felt as welcome in North Korea as anyone else on a human level. Given the strict rules that govern visitors I was impressed at how much (relative) freedom we had to walk around and interact with the locals, credit must go to the Young Pioneer team for giving us a experience that was not quite as stiflingly oppressive as it could have been. But no one goes to North Korea for a holiday in a traditional sense; I asked many of the other people on our bus why there were there, and the answer was almost universally “morbid curiosity”. People want to see the last outpost of the Cold War and to see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of communism in Europe, or as the Chinese co-worker of someone put it upon hearing this person was travelling to the DPRK, “Why would you want to go there? It’s like how China was 30 years ago”. Exactly. That’s why we all went, and I’m incredibly glad that I did. An unforgettable experience.

Tue, May. 15th, 2012, 08:35 pm
China Photos – April 2012

For the longest time my mate aske and I have been talking about visiting the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. When the opportunity to go arrived we duly booked our trip there, however pretty much the only way into North Korea is via their old communist ally, the People’s Republic of China. That being the case bookending our visit to the DPRK with extra time in China made sense, so this entry will cover just our time there; with a subsequent post detailing the North Korean part of the tour. Being somewhat pressed for time due to university and work commitments we only really saw Beijing and a little of its surrounds which I realise is not really representative of China as a whole, but none the less I can say I enjoyed Beijing perhaps more than I expected to, as the following should hopefully demonstrate.

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My only other experience in “China” had been Joanne and I’s 2009 visit to Hong Kong, and it goes without saying that mainland China is a vastly different country due to language, culture, but most importantly history. Hong Kong, despite formally severing ties with the UK in 1997, remains strongly influenced by British culture and societal structure, whereas Beijing pulsates with feral hypercapitalism overlaid atop a quite traditional Chinese society, while communist thought, values and imagery slowly fade from brilliant red to blackness, almost unnoticed and unmentioned. Beijing has the crowds and bustle of any large Asian city, but there does seem to be an extra sort of dog-eat-dog jostling for position in the rat race; in today’s China you have to strive just to keep up with the rapid pace of development and change. Initially I found this a bit off-putting, however after the sort of dejected listlessness that prevails in North Korea, I found the Chinese attitude towards commerce and life invigorating. This visit was instructive as being a student of international affairs you tend to think in terms of governments, armies and treaties, but getting a feel for life on the ground in these two crucial countries gave a fresh perspective on the debates in government and academia over these two semi-allies role in Asia and the world. We’re continue to hear plenty more about China and North Korea in the years ahead, so all I can say is book your trip now.

Sat, Feb. 11th, 2012, 04:17 am
Saithkar’s Top Five Overlooked 1990s Norwegian Black Metal Classics.

We all know the conventional arc of iconic Norwegian black metal that starts with Mayhem and runs through Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, Immortal and so on. No one is disputing the classics and they have been rightly lauded throughout the years, however as I have mentioned to many people over time, there is more to this epic saga. So that being the case I thought I’d take time out to celebrate some of the more overlooked albums that emerged from that 1990s scene. That and I really want to write more about music but with one thing and another I haven't gotten around to any of that. Anyway, on to my selections:

Solefald – “The Linear Scaffold” (1997)

Arguably Solefald’s only black metal album, 15 years on this daring cocktail of blasting metal, poetry, progressive rock and philosophy still stands head and shoulders above so much other guff with the prefix “post” attached to it. While there is no shortage of tremolo-picking over blast beats accompanied by thunderous orchestral keys, it’s how these moments are played off against quirky clean guitar melodies, time changes and seamless segues into moments of quiet reflection that make this record such a compelling listen. You really never know what’s coming next, with each track more of a journey than a song. Cornelius’ tortured, throat-shredding shrieks have never sounded better and these intertwined with Lazare’s maudlin, gothic droning create a vocal variety that few other bands – even those with many more members - can match. Picking highlights is nigh on impossible but I would have to nominate Countryside Bohemians which through evocative storytelling builds up from acoustic strumming to a powerful and dramatic climax, and ‘When the Moon is on the Wave’ which features lyrics from a poem by Lord Byron that Cornelius’ anguished croak wrings every last millilitre of emotion from. Virtuosic, idiosyncratic and utterly essential, “The Linear Scaffold” has a deserved place in all thinking people’s record collections.

Dødheimsgard – “666 International” (1999)

An almost wilfully impenetrable album that veers from Norsecore onslaughts to shuddering, grinding industrial, all broken up with modern piano interludes, “666 International” is a tough nut to crack, but rewarding for those who persevere. Being released as it was within 18 months of Satyricon’s “Rebel Extravegana” and Thorns’ self-titled album, people began to talk of a new sound known as “Moonfoggery” because of the shared label, yet I believe neither of those other two releases - excellent though they are - come close to attaining the forward-looking vision on display here. As soon as you press play you’re confronted with the same piano melody that constituted the outro ‘Wrapped in Plastic’ from the preceding “Satanic Art” EP, but after 4 seconds this is almost overwhelmed by a blizzard of guitars and drums showing that this will be a very different beast. Yet before you’ve had a chance to bang your head this fades away into a bass-heavy beat which is embellished by some jarring melodies and Aldrahn’s dramatic narration, and that’s just the first minute of nine! ‘Ion Storm’ starts with a deceptively simple riff before exploding into a maelstrom of howling noises, in the midst of which emerges another angular piano piece like the calm in the eye of the storm while destruction rages all around. Final Conquest shows how groove can be incorporated into metal properly as power-chords and keyboards push things further outwards and onwards and it’s all you can do to keep up. Carl-Michael Eide complained that his drums on this album were processed to such an extent people don’t realise it was playing and not programming, but taking the whole package into consideration the production works perfectly, it’s digital, cold and hateful, just like your future.

Fleurety – “Min Tid Skal Komme” (1995)
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Quite possibly one of the boldest albums to ever come out of the metal scene period, and quite definitely one of my favourite records of all time. A band so heterodox even at the demo stage they were physically attacked be more orthodox elements within the Norwegian black metal scene for their so called “crimes” against the prevailing trends. One listen to the opening track, Fragmenter Av En Fortid will either delight or disgust, as the light guitar strumming and female vocals (quite a novelty in 1995 one must recall) seem a million leagues away from the relentlessly grim aesthetic of the Norwegian scene at the time. However the patient listener will be rewarded if they persevere, and thereafter will find some of the most evocative guitar work found in black metal. The attentive listener will also wonder how Fleurety managed to mate such a straightforward BM guitar tone with the rich, warm, analogue sounds of the shuffling, drums and prominent bass, and all this in just the first track, from there on in the experimentation only gets wilder and whole work becomes impossible to pigeonhole or even describe. Fleurety's regard subsequently grew; since it's release many bands have ripped off musical motifs from this album, and such was guitarist Alexander Norgaren's standing that a few years after subsequently he was asked to play live for Mayhem. However it is this album is yet to be topped as a masterpiece of truly sophisticated black metal art. If you want to understand a large part of what makes me tick musically, much of it can be found within the space of “Min Tid Skal Komme”

Manes – “Under ein Blodraud Maane” (1999)

One of the most criminally underrated black metal acts of all time, Manes may only have released one proper metal album (their third full length contained trip-hop with lyrics in French, still worth a listen though) but that in no way reduces the power of this album to inspire all these years later. A crawl beneath the blood-red moon of the title, this slow burning work worms its way inside your mind without you noticing. “That” guitar tone and the “that” production appeal to the frostbitten soul within us, but Manes weren't afraid to branch out - hauntingly beautiful melodies emerge out of the fog to seduce you thoroughly before the harshness of the guitars and vocals once again return. Consider the simply stunning guitar solo which materialises from the almost Burzumic Uten Liv Ligger Landet Øde, anyone who is not moved by the plaintive wailing and keening of this needs to forfeit their rock credentials and leave the hall. And every other track on the album contains similarly inspired moments. “Under ein Blodraud Maane” demonstrates most of what made 1990s Norwegian Black Metal the artistic and aesthetic revolution it was, and while many other bands and records went on to claim their place in black metal history, if you want to connect once again with the very heart of this scene, I can recommend no finer launching place.

Limbonic Art – “Ad Noctum Dynasty of Death” (1999)

I think it is no coincidence that the mind-blowing Darkspace formed in the same year this album was released, and although the masters would later go on to be eclipsed by the apprentices, this album showed the way forward to some of the most inhuman music yet created. Coming in as less like music and more like the last transmission from a dying galaxy, this wall of sound conjurers up many astral visions, yet none of two guys jamming in a studio. The mechanics are quite simple, take furious and almost unrelenting black metal guitars, layer this over the metronomic mechanical pulse of 350 bpm drum programming, drape with spaced out keyboards and finally add Daemon's laryx-shredding screams. However what makes Limbonic Art so special is their ability to mate all this to proper songwriting, a quality that eludes many studio-based projects. The title track, Dynasty of Death demonstrates everything that's sublime about this album, containing all of the above elements, but structured like a journey through the darkest places in the universe. Limbonic Art's other albums have much to recommend in them, however they never before, or since, have reached this level of perfection.

Fri, Dec. 30th, 2011, 11:54 pm
Thoughts on the fall of communism, two decades on.

This December marks 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of European and Central Asian communism and the final end to the Cold War, an anniversary that has passed almost without mention in the media. This monumental upheaval changed the face of geopolitics in a way unmatched since the end of the Second World War over 40 years previously. In many ways we are still living with the consequences and echoes of these events now two decades past, and reverberations will continue to be felt for many years to come. The legacy of division between East and West in Europe endures, and the post-Soviet states have a poor-to-dismal record when it comes to making the transition to multi-party democracies. Meanwhile around the world, other allegedly communist states such as China, Vietnam and now Cuba are striking a new path whereby a feral free market is overlaid atop the archaic power-structure of the one party state; Porsches, pornography and politburos, learning to live together, if not in harmony, then certainly in a marriage of convenience. However the reason for this particular little essay and thought exercise is to make the argument that the collapse of European communism was by no means pre-determined, and that given an only slightly different sequence of events, the Soviet Union would still be in place and the world we live in would be a very different place. In the process I would also like to disabuse the reader of a couple of preconceptions they may have on this subject, for as with most events in history, things are not always what you have been lead to believe.

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My contention is that there was nothing inevitable about the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite what the best predictions and the worst realities of it's ineffective leadership, stagnant economy and demoralised citizenry would suggest, it could have continued. Yes it's demise had been predicted for years, but such pronouncements constituted more wishful thinking than informed assessments, as the following anecdote amply illustrates. On June 12 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan was in West Berlin making a speech on airline deregulation, hardly the stuff history is wrought from one would be correct in thinking. However while droning through his prepared remarks, Reagan suddenly requested, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!". This throwaway line was never a “defining moment of the Cold War” in fact the president's aides urged him to leave it out. Here is a more typical passage from the speech in question: “And I invite Mr. Gorbachev: Let us work to bring the Eastern and Western parts of the city closer together, so that all the inhabitants of all Berlin can enjoy the benefits that come with life in one of the great cities of the world. To open Berlin still further to all Europe, East and West, let us expand the vital air access to this city, finding ways of making commercial air service to Berlin more convenient, more comfortable, and more economical. We look to the day when West Berlin can become one of the chief aviation hubs in all central Europe.” This stirring call to arms rated a small mention on page 3 of the next day's New York Times and that would have been the end of the matter had Reagan's legion of hagiographers not spent years combing through all the great man's utterances, picked out one sound byte, played it out of context and then oversold the outcome ceaselessly for 2 decades until the tale had seeped into the America national conciousness. In the Republican right's telling of the tale, Reagan threw down the gauntlet to Moscow and several years later under a different United States president lo and behold, the walls of new Jericho fell!

Sadly that is not the end of “Reagan ended the cold war” mythos so another posthumously-awarded feather in the old fool's cap must be retroactively retrieved. It's argued that Ronnie Raygun's ridiculous Strategic Defense Initiative AKA "star wars" that was announced in 1983 bankrupted the Soviets via an arms race they could not afford and thus America won the Cold War. However once again the facts get in the way of this neat little fable. By the late 1980s Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was cutting the Soviet Union's military budget and trying to bring it back down to 1980 levels, while the Pentagon was increasing its drain on the US treasury by around 8% a year. As a total percentage of GDP military spending in the USSR remained higher than in the USA, however this had been the case for decades, so declaring that panic overspending on defence as a reaction “star wars” (Reagan claimed he hated that moniker, however when announcing the program lamely quipped “May the force be with you”) sent the Soviet Union packing is errant nonsense. So too are the claims that the previous pope's Polish background was instrumental in the fall of communism. When years later Gorbachev said that “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II” he was pandering, a touchy-feely meeting with the pontiff and church support for the Solidarity movement in Gdansk does not equate to Catholicism triumphing over communism.

But back to why the prophets were wrong even when they turned out to be accidentally correct. By the 1980s the economy of the USSR was flatlining and the average age of a politburo member was over 70, however neither of these wounds in the body politic ensured that the patient was beyond resuscitation. The resilience of nation states with extraordinarily weak fundamentals can be shown in the way that the pathetic, crippled zombie of North Korea lurches onward despite having stopped growing by any meaningful metric since the 1970s, and having been essentially insolvent since the USSR's implosion in the early 1990s deprived it of it's major trading partner/benefactor. The DPRK is that rare combination of iron-fisted rule along with complete economic failure, usually failed states have weak or non-existent governments, and authoritarian governments are typically capable of cultivating at least some growth, but North of the 38th parallel even natural resources are going unexploited. And yet it endures. Had the centrally-owned oil resources of the Soviet Union been better maintained then it could have turned itself into an even greater energy-powerhouse than Russia is today. Consider what Russian oil-giant Gazprom would look like if it controlled energy-rich Azerbaijan and you start to get the picture. Consider also miserable kleptocracies in Africa such as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which demonstrate how the black gold can lubricate the inner-workings of the zombie-nation and push it onwards, and these are failed states with small populations and little or no other industry, nothing like the former USSR. We are all aware of dangers of the “resource curse”, but this too is not a terminal condition. Before the discovery of oil, Iran's main exports were pistachio nuts and persian carpets, nowadays aside from oil it's only other main exports remain pistachio nuts and persian carpets, and still another group of clueless old men remain in charge, however no one is predicting the imminent internal failure of the Islamic state. Mismanagement or lack of diversity within the economy can hurt a country, but many nations in a far more parlous state endure, so it was not economic factors that killed this beast.

A stagnant and inflexible political system? See the above and add to that list any other ill-governed country you care to name. Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Somalia or maybe the recent stars of TV news broadcasts, currently undergoing the delayed revolutions of they didn't realise they could of, and should of, had decades ago. Many or all of these countries are as badly governed as the former Soviet Union was or worse, yet they continue while it is but a memory, why? The answer to this is both obvious to those who look, and difficult in the way that history almost always seems inevitable when viewed retrospectively. That is to say that once something has occurred, it can be difficult to conceptualise events playing out in other ways to produce different outcomes. The classic example is: what would have happened if Hitler had maintained his pact with Stalin and concentrated on smashing Britain and solidifying his hold over Western Europe rather than engaging in wasteful, and in the end fatal, campaigns on the Russian front and in North Africa? When you start to think along these lines it becomes easier to sketch out an alternative history of the 20th Century, and by tweaking just a handful of small variables one can watch vastly different results materialise. As the beating of the butterfly's wings in one part of the world causes a tornado in another, so too did the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller result in the downfall of the Gaddaffi and Mubarak regimes in North Africa and the continuing violence in Syria, Yemen and maybe one day again soon, Iran.

As with all classic tragedies, the mortal wounds which slew this great bear were self-inflicted. In the case of the Soviet Union, these came in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev's reform agenda of Perestroika and Glasnost implemented after he came to power in the mid 1980s, as well as a hesitation to use the power he had at his disposal when he could have. Often doing nothing can be the most decisive action one can make, and nothing demonstrates this principle more than two similar events in 1989 that began with the same aim but ended up with radically different outcomes. However before we get to that, some brief definitions. Perestroika, literally “restructuring”, was a bold attempt to overhaul the moribund planned economy of the USSR and make it more competitive globally in the new world of the 1980s when Japan was nipping at the United State's heels and the latter country was full of the sort of hand-wringing talk of decline that seems so familiar a quarter of a century later. The second was Glasnost, literally “openness”, another bold concept in the fundamentally and almost proudly opaque Soviet Union where secrecy had always been Tsar. In different ways both of the polices failed dismally, and in the process opened up cracks in the Iron Curtain that dissidents would later flee Westwards through.

In both Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, uprisings similar to those of 1989 were brutally put down by Moscow, but under his watch Gorbachev did what no one ever thought he would do – he effectively repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine which stipulated that once a country was socialist any attempts to move towards capitalism or liberalism was a threat not only to that country's socialism, but international socialism as a whole. Brezhnev had used this as his justification for Moscow's military role in the abortive Prague Spring, and even after Brezhnev finally shuffled off this mortal coil in 1982 none of the sharpest policy minds in Europe of Washington ever dreamed that any head of the CPSU would allow a Warsaw Pact country to drift out of the socialist orbit without putting up a serious fight. Yet Gorbachev's reform agenda was one of the main reasons why this unexpected chain of events ended up happening. Glasnost, rather than allowing corruption to be identified as was it's original purpose, instead opened up a torrent or criticism of the state (and some decent rock bands), especially in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Perestroika meanwhile failed to bring about the improvements Gorbachev hoped for as he wanted to reform Leninism rather than overhaul it, which meant no capitalisation and no open markets. Glasnost then in turn publicly demonstrated all of Perestroika's failings to an increasingly cynical and disillusioned public, many of whom by then were already looking back fondly on the era of Stalin.

These twin notions of hopeless economic stagnation as well as that the state could be openly defied filtered throughout the Warsaw Pact countries. In the late 1980s a series of protests and governmental thaws in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia lead to what became arguably the defining moment of the decade, widespread protests against the communist government East Germany. After a series of miscommunications and cock-ups by the ruling SED party, almost by accident, on November 9, 1989 (the original 9/11) the Berlin Wall was opened and East Germans poured through it, and began attacking it, actions which are considered the beginning of the end of the Cold War. While all this was happening confusion reigned, no one in Berlin or Moscow seemed to want to order in the troops and restore order, the moment to act quickly slipped away and the East German regime’s days were numbered. Buoyed by what was happening in Germany, uprisings began in all the Warsaw Pact countries. Technically Poland had been first cab off the rank with the first elections in decades occurring earlier in 1989, however in retrospect Berlin was the symbolic straw that broke the leviathan's back. On the 22nd of December that year, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauscescu fled the advancing mob by helicopter but was soon captured, put before a kangaroo court and summarily executed. And throughout all of this Moscow remained silent, had Gorbachev been willing to accept the blood that would have been spilled, all of this was preventable, yet he did nothing, and in doing so signed the death warrant of the international socialism movement he had dedicated his entire life to.

Meanwhile we all (outside of mainland China that is) know what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and it needs no retelling here other than to point out that when confronted with a potentially regime-changing uprising, the Chinese Communist leadership, unlike their European comrades, ordered in the troops. No one knows for sure how many died on June 4 1989, estimates range from a few hundred to thousands. In a way though it doesn't matter, as no matter their number, for the time at least, their deaths were in vain. Today Chinese leaders are feted around the world and treated with the respect their economy's size deserves, and because we all love buying cheap Chinese crap so much we're polite enough not to mention Tiananmen in their presence. Instead we ask only that our leaders make the most perfunctory gestures and voice mealy mouthed words on the subject of human rights when in Beijing while being feted by the murders of yesterday and the oppressors of today. When push came to shove in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Premier of the time Li Peng pushed back, in similar circumstances two years later with protests and calls for democracy growing, Gorbachev folded. As I hope I have demonstrated, what happened twenty-odd years ago was not a consequence the long march of history, it was not political or economic weaknesses and it was neither Reagan nor Pope John Paul II that finally finished off the mighty Soviet Union, it was the staying of hands, rather than the drawing of swords.

Ever since Tiananmen, the Communist Party of China has engaged in an unspoken, but clearly understood Faustian pact with the citizens of the People's Republic; it states, in as blunt terms as possible: “We will allow you to grow rich, but in return you will never again rise up in opposition to our rule”. Perestroika, but no glasnost. And for the last two decades this has been the reality in China. From a bit-player in world affairs to the world's second-largest economy and superpower within a few years, China's rise has been built on the back of this new form of the social contract, Plato not Locke being the guiding light. And it has worked, all those who thinks anything but a minority in China are yearning to throw of the shackles of the CCP and embrace liberal democracy are kidding themselves, too many people have done far too well out of the present situation and many more don't know or care about the alternatives. There is no reason to imagine that short of an sharp economic contraction that this situation will change in next few years, but then the entire world (including Ronald Reagan) no doubt thought the same true of European communism at the end of 1988. However what is undeniable is the fact that when he had the chance to save the his communist state Gorbachev did not pull the trigger, Beijing did, and there's no reason to think they would not do the same thing again if it meant the difference between life and death. That is why today the hammer and sickle still flies proudly over Tiananmen Square but not Red Square. He who hesitates is lost.

Mon, Nov. 21st, 2011, 03:06 am
Germany/Netherlands photos - November 2010

Once again I must confess that university (and now work) commitments have kept me very busy these last few months, but hopefully this entry will have been worth the wait. Over a year has passed since Joanne and I jetted off for Europe and where has the time gone? Seems like only yesterday we were there… I must be getting old. Anyway, to pick up where we left off it was only a short drive from Prague across the German border, past the city of Dresden that was almost bombed out of existence in the Second World War and into Berlin.

Germany/Netherlands PhotosCollapse )

And that was it for our trip of a life time (so far). Of course Joanne and I had another week in England and we met up with Rodger and Christie who we’d met on the tour for an enjoyable day out at Camden. It’s exactly one year ago from today that we were in Germany and so clear is it in my mind that it seems only the other week. It’s been most enjoyable to relive my experiences again in writing these entries but it is now time to end this chapter and move on to the next. I very much want to return to Europe but cannot say when that will happen, until then I have only these most pleasant of memories.

Mon, Jun. 20th, 2011, 12:55 am
Austria/Czech Republic photos – November 2010

Part the fourth of the ongoing saga. By the time we reached Italy it already felt like we had been on this trip longer than a few days, and by the time we left the rest of our lives had faded away and we became immersed in the bubble of travel, where the remarkable becomes routine, and every day really is a new adventure. People who had been strangers a week ago were now old friends thanks to shared experiences, and being continually on the move was the new normal. That being said though, after so much frenetic activity some of us did need a breather, and in Austria we kicked back a bit rather than rushing around Vienna trying to see everything, so initially this entry will involve a bit less history but more beer drinking and hanging out.

Austria/Czech Republic PhotosCollapse )

While we hadn’t been exactly overwhelmed with sunshine thus far, once we crossed back over the Alps that separate Italy from Austria the winter cold really set in. We knew what we were getting ourselves in for travelling in November but thankfully from Austria onwards there always seemed to be mulled wine available wherever we went plus the 400 crowns I splashed out on a rabbit-fur Russian hat in Prague became money well spent.

Thu, Apr. 14th, 2011, 12:44 am
Italy photos – November 2010

Firstly to explain the long gap between entries, I have been very busy settling in to university life so haven’t had much time to do any writing of my own, sadly. Anyway, picking up from where we left off previously, we left the mountains of Switzerland and headed through the dreary semi-industrial areas of Northern Italy. This part of the country around Milan and Turin is responsible for around 54% of the Italian economy, but the Amalfi Coast it ain’t. The tedium of the scenery was matched only by the tedium of having to watch National Lampoon’s European Vacation on the coach, sorry Susan, it’s a rubbish film, we know your taste in cinema is better than this. Italy was the country we spent the longest in aside from the UK, we were there for seven nights whereas some other countries we only stayed for two, hence the larger number of pictures to follow:

Italy PhotosCollapse )

As the tour progressed Joanne and I began to get to know the other people on the tour and spend more and more time with them. While everyone was most aimable and there were no out-and-out dickbags, we did become especially friendly with Rodger, Christie, Terri, Kylie, Glen, Dianne and Vay, thus you will be seeing more of these fine people in future entries (which I hope to get to sooner rather than later).

Sat, Jan. 8th, 2011, 02:55 am
France/Switzerland photos - Novermber 2010

Happy New Year, all; may 2011 bring you good fortune and be as free of fuckwits as possible. Picking up where we left off, on the morning of November 5 2010 we caught the train down from St Albans to St Pancras International to meet up with some of our travelling companions (others would join in Paris or later on in the tour) and we then caught the 300 km/h Eurostar to Paris, arriving 2 hours and 15 minutes later. There we met our tour leader, the friendly and resourceful Susan; and our coach driver, the highly competent Kevin (enduring what passes for a coach driver in Italy on Kevin’s European Commission-mandated day off made us appreciate his skills all the more, unlike most Italians Kevin doesn’t consider changing lanes, talking on the phone and flipping off other motorists at the same time acceptable behaviour behind the wheel).

France/Switzerland photosCollapse )

Just while we’re on the subject of Paris I thought I’d share a famous short film that some of you may not be aware of. Called C'était un rendez-vous (or “It was a Date” in English) it depicts filmmaker Claude Lelouch’s madcap drive through Paris at 5:30 in the morning during August of 1976. Even people who are uninterested in cars find this film brilliant in it’s both it’s dangerous, law-breaking driving and because of it’s stark minimalism. Well worth watching and more information on the film and how it was made can be found here.

Wed, Dec. 22nd, 2010, 01:05 am
England photos – October – December 2010

I’m back, and for once I’ll actually be talking about myself, Joanne and the fun we’ve had rather than the diabolical machinations of various world leaders and other despised figures. There’ll be plenty of time for that later, but before then the first of several photo entries covering our roughly 5 week holiday in Europe. We flew to England and spent a week around London before departing on a 21 day tour of continental Europe. We then returned to the UK for another week before flying home. This entry will cover our time in England with others to follow in the near future.

England photosCollapse )

Of course what we experienced was light snow in comparison to what most of Europe is shivering under at the moment - the UK more closely resembles the icy kingdom of Blashyrkh than Blighty as we know it. But unless there is another ice age and I am otherwise distracted, please stay tuned for Europe photos in the days and weeks to come.

Thu, Aug. 19th, 2010, 01:35 am
Saithkar's 2010 Australian election prediction.

I intended to write more about this election but so bland are the party leaders and so dismal has been the standard of debate that I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm. Anyway, when it comes to political shit-stirring none of us, professional or amateur, can hold candle to rouge former Labor leader and amateur journalist Mark Latham, so I’ve been contenting myself to commenting elsewhere online and on the letters page of The Age. Anyway, firstly and most importantly, I beseech everyone who can not to waste their senate vote by writing one number above the line, but rather to exercise their full democratic rights and vote correctly below the line. I realise that for some folks writing out 60 numbers can be exhausting, but consider that there are people in other countries willing to give up their lives for the opportunity to participate in the sort of free and fair elections we enjoy here in Australia. Therefore I believe it’s entirely reasonable to me to state that anyone who votes above the line is a communist and/or a traitor. Seriously though, want to send a message to the political parties about how woeful their candidates and policies are? Make your own mind up, don’t piss away the opportunity by donkey voting. Also this way you can wreck the parties’ carefully worked out preference flows that they hashed out in a series of shady backroom deals. There, now that democracy has been saved we can move on….

We now get to the part where I make a grand prediction of how I think things will turn out on Saturday. Undeterred by my recent abject failure in correctly predicting the outcome of the last UK general election, I’ve decided to double down (as our American cousins like to say) and go all out in predicting the results of every seat in the country using my usual unscientific rough averages of different polls along with large dollops of unquantifiable intuition. Hey, I’m up for a challenge. If you are easily bored by pedantic dissections of vote shifts in marginal seats I’d advise skipping this next section altogether. Just quickly, all seats not mentioned below I believe will stay with their current parties, and no changes are predicted in any seats in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the ACT.

Since outdated seat projectionsCollapse )

All of the above results in 79 seats for Labor out of 150, a net loss of 4 over the 2007 election, and 67 seats for the federal Coalition, a net gain of 2 seats with The Greens winning Melbourne and the three independents, (Bob Katter in Kennedy in Queensland as well as New South Welshmen Rob Oakeshott in Lyne and Tony Windsor in New England) all retaining their seats. Despite the seemingly small shift in totals this does involve 14 seats changing hands, but quite a way off the 27 seats that moved last election. Also because of redistributions, the numbers actually run Labor – 9, Lib/Nat +8, however several of those were only nominal Labor-held seats as they still had sitting Coalition MPs, like most things in Australia politics, it’s complicated. If only our politicians had the depth of our electoral system. So a narrow win for Labor, but not one anyone can take any real joy in. Still, as long as we are spared Tony Abbott as prime minister I guess I can live with this result.

Normally I relish elections and look forward to them intensely, however this time I honestly cannot wait for this whole sordid process to be over with. All the worst facets of modern elections have been on show, and new depths of banality and farce are plumbed daily. Poll-driven politicians repeating focus group-approved slogans until you want to puncture your ear drums with a screwdriver rather than hear those same words again. Endless photo opportunities with kids while the parents sit on the sidelines and clap rather than demand that a sustainable future be built for those children to grow up in. Relentless attention from the useless media on the leaders’ physical appearance and personal lives rather than on the quality of their ideas. Constant focus on what US academic Jay Rosen calls “horse race journalism” where we are told daily who’s in front and who might win, but we never hear which party has the best vision for the country. I realise these are worldwide problems and not unique to Australia, however aside from a new political party bursting on to the scene and shaking up the place I don’t see anything changing this. Australia seems to be going the way of all established democracies where the entrenched interests win every time and whichever major party gets in they’re all in the pocket of the same lobbyists. That’s why it’s important to vote for minor parties - especially in the Senate - as all the major ones are well and truly fucked.

UPDATE - 22/08/10

Well for the first time since 1940 the voters of Australia have delivered a hung parliament. Like in the last UK election, the only way to correctly read this result is that everyone lost, no party won. The only real victors are Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor, the three independents who will decide who forms the next government. Tony Abbott and other Liberals are trumpeting their failure to get across the line a massive vote confidence for them, and are pretending that an advantage of .06% in the two party preferred vote over Labor is somehow a ringing endorsement of their platform. Not that they really ever had a platform, and that one of the main reasons they didn’t seal the deal. Yes, the Coalition ran a tighter campaign than Labor, there were none of the policy backflips and damaging leaks that have characterised Julia Gillard’s (thus far) short stint as Prime Minister. But while free of major fuck ups, there was also fuck all substance to their campaign, and it revolved entirely around three trite catch-phrases that suggested simple solutions to problems that either didn’t exist or were unsolvable by the government of Australia. The electorate did not sweep the Coalition into office, so while this vote was definitely a protest against Labor (pissy whining in the case of the Queensland backlash), it was also a vote against the two party status quo. Already it looks like the Greens have around 11.3% of the primary vote, a huge jump from the 7.8% they received in 2007. What the public really asked for was a new direction, more progressive policies and a more progressive politics.

Still, when you drill right down to it, the reason Labor failed to secure an outright second mandate was not because of fear over the mining tax, it was not because of Julia Gillard’s messy ascension to the top job, it was Kevin Rudd’s gutlessness through and through. Cast your minds back to the start of this year, Tony Abbott had only just replaced Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader a few months prior, the Liberals were a shambles, still riven over Turnbull’s ETS deal with Labor that almost got through, and Labor were riding high in the polls with Kevin Rudd on a 70% approval as Prime Minister. It was this moment - after their emissions trading legislation had been defeated in the Senate for a second time providing the necessary trigger for a double-dissolution election - that was Rudd’s to seize. He should have stood up in front of the Australian people and announced that he could no longer work with this conservative-dominated Senate, and that the platform that Labor had been swept into office to enact was being stymied at every turn. He should have stated that while he recognised that he had pledged to serve a full term and not call an early election, he hoped Australians would prefer to have a government that works and can pass the legislation they, the voters, approved of at the ballot box. Then he could have asked for and would have received the double-dissolution and Labor would have been returned, perhaps even picking up seats in the house, along with a much better Senate, free of that fuckwit Fielding and other right wing obstructionists. But he didn’t. Because he is a coward without principles, he decided to dump one of the key policies that bought Labor to office and move onto something else, hoping everyone would be so wowed by some tinkering with health funding and a new mining tax that we’d forget about all that depressing climate stuff. But we didn’t, and that craven retreat sealed his doom, and possibly that of the Labor government. We still don’t know the final seat totals, however don’t let anyone tell you that the result of this election was anyone’s fault other than Kevin Rudd's. May this be the stone around his neck that weighs him down for all of time.

UPDATE - 09/09/10

Well we’re finally out of purgatory, the ghastly blank of limbo has been replaced by an inchoate apparition of a government, but whether this is heaven or hell remains to be seen. As we saw, Labor failed to retain its majority, the Coalition failed to gain a majority and the independents managed do disappoint all and sundry for various reasons, first with their procrastination, then their eventual decisions, and finally with Bob Katter’s eccentricities and Rob Oakeshott’s endless windbaggery. Especially ironic coming from Oakeshott, a man who champions reform of question time so as to curtail lengthy answers and off-topic bloviating. So in the end Labor under Julia Gillard will return to government with the absolute minimum majority of one seat – good luck with that, you’ll need it. How this situation will work when it comes to corralling all the disparate entities into voting for legislation remains to be seen, and as much as I rue it, this outcome really does mandate the wheeling out of that wearisome “heading cats” cliché. The other thing that will of course be wheeled out is the good old pork barrel, and the distribution of cured porcine flesh has already gotten underway, which you’d have to agree is a large part of the reason three of the four independents signed up with the ALP. I guess with that $11 billion hole in the Coalition’s costings, unlike Labor they couldn’t really afford to offer that many sweets. Some may say that their budgetary chicanery and prevarication during the campaign was an attempt to hide their ineptitude from the voters before election day, but what cannot be argued is that this incompetence helped get the government over the line when it came to arguments over who best could manage the economy and the country as a whole. Add to that the issues of broadband and a carbon price, and while Labor’s campaign may have been inferior, their policies were head and shoulders above the opposition's, no matter how badly they were articulated. Tony Abbott was a far more effective opposition leader than his two predecessors, but opposing a government is one thing, convincing the public you deserve to replace them is another. I don’t think Abbott understands this. The other thing he doesn’t get is that the public is not raring for another election, he’s made it very plain he wants to bring down the new government at the first opportunity, but somehow I doubt the Australian public would thank him for this.

The final vote totals won’t be known for another week or so, but in the end Labor won 72 seats, the Coalition (including all associated entities) 73 seats with 4 independents and a single Greens member. Compared with the 2007 result this equals -11 seats for Labor, +8 for the Coalition (including the WA Nationals member Tony Crook who despite his prostrations of independence I predict will be reliable conservative vote) with a single independent and Green gain. While I was correct that there would be a swing to Labor in Victoria and was right about every seat there, I was totally off in SA and the tiny swing there didn’t result in any seat movements at all. The expected NSW bloodbath never emerged, with Labor hanging on to several seats on already slim majorities, only dropping Macquarie and Bennelong. I didn’t see the Tasmanian seat of Dennison falling to an independent although I was correct about Labor losing Hasluck in Western Australia. But in this election - like the last one - it was really all about Queensland, and boy did I under-estimate the anti-Labor backlash up there. For their rat-fucking of Kevin Rudd, the mining tax and various other perceived sins, they ended up losing 7 seats, including Longman to a callow youth of but 20. Fucking kids, get off the lawn and the backbench! They’re a tempestuous lot up north, seemingly now in Queensland anyone on less than a 15% majority should consider themselves in a marginal seat.

Personally I’m quite pleased with this result, no party has been given a mandate and our democratically elected officials are going to have to re-learn what democracy really means by convincing a wide selection of individuals (rather than just pliant party men) of the merits of their policies. If the party-political theatre we've been enduring for the last few year is replaced by honest open debate then I’d call such a parliament well hung. Just thought I'd throw in a dick-joke to reward those who've made it this far, cheers. For years social demographers in the United States have talked about the “Southernisation” of US politics whereby the values and attitudes of the Bible Belt became mainstream as the South remained key to electoral success. Well hopefully this result will cease the creeping “Western Sydneyisation” of Australian politics that began under John Howard and his beloved battlers. These battlers, aspirationals or whatever you want to call them, with their huge mortgages and miniscule knowledge of economics and foreign affairs have driven the national debate for the past 15 years, much to the country’s detriment. If this result means all, or at the very least more, of Australia is listened to by Canberra then I think we should be grateful that no party won a clear majority. Of course everything could fall apart in a month and we could all be back at the polls before we know it. If so, I’ll see you then!

Tue, Jul. 20th, 2010, 12:09 am
Saithkar's federal election campaign preview 2010.

So, as everyone has no doubt heard by now, Australia has a new Prime Minister, and now an election. A quick note first up to congratulate Julia Gillard on becoming the nation’s first female prime minister as well as for sparing us any more of that toxic bore Kevin Rudd and his "working families". Never seeing him and his wife emerging hand-in-hand from a church again - to me - made the whole leadership spill worthwhile.

So, it's going to be either Julia Gillard or the Mad Monk himself, Tony Abbott, not quite Hobson's choice but I guess we’ll just have to make the best out of a bad lot. Anyway, moving forward....

Ahem, picking up our exciting story where we left off, once Rudd was rolled (Rick Astley may have been involved on some level, I don’t know, I wasn’t there) the new PM was left with three crucial policy areas which had to be attended to post-haste. These were the three that bought down Kevin Rudd through a combination of opposition attacks and bad polling, both of which were the direct result of his inability to communicate. If only some of these had involved detailed programmatic specificity....

The mining tax: Without getting in the minutiae of this and why it failed, I will just highlight one point I believe has been neglected by the media. The resources super-profits tax (RSPT) which Rudd seized on, was just one out of a total of 138 recommendations handed down by the Henry Tax Review which the government commissioned. Had Rudd had the balls to take up some of the more radical (read: common sense) recommendations from that report, people would have seen the RSPT in context as one part of a larger overhaul of taxation in Australia. Instead, because he was a gutless turd and only picked a handful of the recommendations, the RSPT stood out like a Hawaiian shirt at a Cradle of Filth gig. So Gillard retreated and we now have a tax on only the most profitable miners instead of all of them, but while losing a fight to business is not a good look for the government we’ll still get billions of extra taxes that we wouldn’t have got otherwise, and Clive Palmer has vanished from our airwaves. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Asylum seekers: This question too needs to be considered in a wider context. It was unfortunate timing for Kevin Rudd that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat increased at the same time as he stated his enthusiasm for a “big Australia” with a population of 36 million or more people. Combining these two previously smaller issues into one big one produced a result not unlike that which comes from the combination of the separately harmless substances sodium and water. This is important as in a time of drought, job scarceness and exploding property prices, Australians are very sensitive about the population, and while admittedly not in huge numbers, the steady stream of boat arrivals feeds into this anxiety. And while it might be a brand new issue to the media, some of us have been concerned about unchecked population growth for some time. So Labor’s new policy of regional processing may be a work in progress, but interestingly former prime minister and ex-Liberal Malcolm Fraser supports the Gillard plan, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young (she really shits me).

Climate change: No announcement on this yet, but it would be hard to cock things up as badly as Kevin Rudd did. Personally, I hope Gillard adopts The Greens suggestion of a $20+ a ton carbon tax along with an emissions trading scheme, because if 2008 taught us nothing else (apart from how little qualifications you need to be elected governor of Alaska), it’s that you can’t trust the market to correctly price anything. I don’t expect much more than tokenism in this area to be announced though, as it seems that for most in politics and those in the business community, returning the budget to surplus is more important than saving the planet.

We’re only up to day three of the campaign so there is little of excitement to report at this time. It was galling however to hear the lilly-livered wonder Peter Costello laying into Gillard and even providing an unfunny imitation of her accent at the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (total annual trade between the two countries, fifty bucks, or more if they’re selling Australian passports to the highest bidder) business lunch with Abbott today. Never mind Rudd, this guy could write the book on being a gutless turd. Also, his record as treasurer has been greatly exaggerated by those on the right and distortions of history piss me off even more than Captain Smirk himself. Everyone knows that when it comes to economic reform in Australia, the real heavy lifting was undertaken by the Hawke/Keating Labor government, and in the immortal words of Paul Keating, when Costello took over the reins he found himself "hit in the arse with a rainbow". While there were some important economic reforms made in the late 90s, once the post 2000 mining boom really kicked in (matching China’s rise) instead of investing the huge amounts of money the Coalition government suddenly had on it’s hands in building the Australia of the 21st Century, it pissed most of it away in endless rounds of tax cuts and huge slabs of middle (and even upper) class welfare, culminating in the baby bonus – arguably the worst piece of legislation passed in this country since the White Australia policy. That’s your great economic record, Pete, wasting Australia’s once in a lifetime mining boom, pat yourself on the back, preferably with a morning star.

Finally, to expand upon the excellent summary given by boh_thrashsody, a quick civics lesson - for the ignorant cretins in the media and on the street who have been wailing that "Julia Gillard wasn't elected Prime Minister". As we all know, in the Westminster system we vote for Members of Parliament from single member constituencies based on which party we wish to form the next government. While there may be instances when someone votes based solely on the personal appeal of a particular candidate, the fact remains they are voting for their MP only, and by extension his or her party. It is then up to that party to choose its’ leader. The individual voters have no say in this, they trusted the party with their vote and the party then makes the decisions from there on in until the next election when they can be judged on their performance. The only people who "voted for Kevin Rudd" were the 43,957 voters in his division of Griffith who put the ALP as their first preference last election, and the only people who "elected Kevin Rudd Prime Minister" were the 88 Labor caucus members who in 2006 elected him party leader heading into the 2007 ballot. And unless you were a member of the 115 Labor caucus members who voted to replace Rudd with Gillard, you have no right to complain so shut the fuck up and do some research.

Sun, Jun. 20th, 2010, 05:19 am
Awesome non-metal 1990s music videos.

Most metal music videos suck. You know how it goes, band plays in either an abandoned warehouse or a forest while something unidentifiable but vaguely “dark” happens, with fast cutting, crazy angles and/or strobe lighting all trying desperately to disguise the fact the label couldn’t afford any decent FX. Add to this random shots of gratuitous female flesh, and then zoom into the guitar player’s fretting hand during the solo. Repeat ad infinitum et nauseum. There is a definite art to a good music video, and to celebrate this medium I thought I would highlight a few of my favourite video clips from the alternative scene of the 1990s. Yes, there was a time when non-underground music did not suck - most of these are from the late 90s which - not coincidentally - was when I was in high school and was listening to Triple J (this will not mean anything to those outside of Australia) as with little money and no internets this radio station was the best source of finding new music. I have selected the following clips for two reasons; one, I actually like the song in question, and two, they either follow an interesting narrative or are imaginatively shot. So without further ado, onto the videos:

Death In Vegas featuring Iggy Pop – “Aisha” (1999)

With Iggy Pop’s doleful and sinister narration over twisting melodies and a driving beat, the video only adds to the sense of paranoia and dread suffusing this track.

Prodigy – “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997)

It might have been Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video that brought ex-Bathory drummer Jonas Akerlund’s directing talents to the world, but his finest moment still remains this incredible recreation of a night to remember. So controversial upon its’ release, MTV refused to air this and my original VHS release of this single is rated R. If you need a final recommendation, the US National Organization for Women campaigned against this video, ‘nuff said.

Refused – “New Noise” (1998)

One of the few punk bands to realise that you can’t rebel by conforming, this song is simply exploding with creative energy and aggression. 12 years later the punk scene is still the stagnant wasteland that Refused were crusading against and their music still sounds cutting edge.

Leftfield – “Afrika Shox” (1999)

Directed by legendary music video director Chris Cunningham, I’m not sure of the deeper meaning behind this clip, but its’ haunting urban starkness shows a highly refined aesthetic. Leftfield were a hit and miss group, capable of both brilliance (see their song “Open Up” featuring John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.) and mediocrity, but here the beats, siren-like keening and the best ever used of vocodered vocals add up to a eerily-memorable song.

VAST – “Pretty When You Cry” (1998)

VAST (Visual Audio Sensory Theater) are one of my favourite bands. Mostly known only for his radio hit “Touched”, Jon Crosby has released several excellent records although he has yet to top the alternative rock meets world music swirl of his debut album. Anyone not creeped out by this video needs their head examined.

Hybrid – “If I Survive” (1999)

If you think this sounds richer and fuller than your average progressive house/breaks band that is because they actually recruited a proper orchestra for the strings rather than the tired keyboard samples most Euro-cheese makes do with. This is case of the action in the video perfectly matching the lyrics of the song.

Primal Scream – “Swastika Eyes” (1999)

Another one where you will have to draw your own conclusions as to the deeper meaning and significance of this video. I have noticed a trend in that all of these clips tend to be both oblique and bleak, which says something about my taste in music….

KLF – “America: What Time is Love” (1992)

Once you get past the self-consciously grandiose and pompous intro you’ll be greeted with one of the best sights ever – Vikings rocking out to Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” riff mixed with a barely recognisable version of the KLF’s previous hit single “What Time is Love” (compare with the original version). There is no space here to fully describe the culture-jamming brilliance of the KLF, from their live performance of one of their dance hits at the BRIT awards by death/grind band Extreme Noise Terror complete with onstage gunfire and their subsequent dumping of a sheep’s carcass outside the event, to their videotaped burning of one million pounds cash of profits they made from their novelty single Doctorin' The Tardis released under the alias "The Timelords”. People thinking Lady Gaga is shocking and controversial just shows how bad things have gotten over the last decade, bring back the 1990s…..

Fri, May. 7th, 2010, 12:27 am
Saithkar's 2010 UK election prediction.

While this entry will probably only be of interest to a few of you, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about the upcoming United Kingdom general election. I realise I’m a tad late to the party (polls will be closing in about 8 hours as of when I’m typing this), but I’ve held off because I wanted to get the very latest polling information before making my prediction, but more on that below. It must be stated that unlike the 2008 US presidential election (to which I devoted two lengthy posts), this election won’t have much bearing on me or anyone else outside the UK and her remaining colonies. That being said, it’s still of academic interest and a great deal of fun for those of us who consider other countries’ elections a spectator sport.

We all know the background, after thirteen years in power a centre-left party finds itself flagging in the polls after a popular prime minister had been forced into retirement by his deputy - a technocratic, uncharismatic finance minister. A series of expense and kickback scandals tarnished the government's reputation and more than anything, the people want something new. The opposition conservatives stand to gain from the government's stumbles, but their path to power is stymied by a strong performance by a forward-looking, centre-left, third party, and lingering support for regional parties. No wait, that was Canada in 2006; isn’t it funny how history repeats? Kudos to the team at for pointing out the parallels, and Conservative leader David Cameron can only hope he can emulate his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, in not only beating the dithering incumbent PM, but by forming a successful minority government. Still, it will take more than the UK public’s dislike of Gordon Brown and his Labour government to hand Cameron the keys to 10 Downing St, and the main obstacle in his path is Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg.

If you Googled “Cleggmania” two weeks ago you would have turned up only 100,000-odd results, now there are over 270,000. Not that Google is the preeminent arbiter of importance, consider that typing in the name of world-famous scientist and the founder of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, gives you only 5,730,000 results, while if you Google “Obama girl”, you get over 46 million hits. That being said though, this serves as an illustration of how quickly a previously obscure Westminster politician has become a global household name. And it was thanks to the first of the three televised leaders debates that Nick Clegg has been able to steal not only David Cameron’s thunder as the agent of change, but he’s also turned this election into the first genuine three way race in the post-World War 2 UK political landscape. Brown and Cameron must be kicking themselves for giving the Liberal Democrats equal billing in these debates and Clegg a free platform from which to rubbish the two main parties as two sides of a dirty, low-denomination coin while promising a brighter future free of scandal and compromise. Of course it helps that he’s young, personable and looks good on television. Then again, coming out victorious in a charisma contest with Gordon Brown is like winning a boxing match against Stephen Hawking.

So David Cameron’s hope to be Barack Obama with an Eton accent went out the window as the coveted “agent of change” mantle was half-inched, and as his party's numbers went South he’s been scrabbling around for an angle ever since. Eventually he settled on the old conservative standby – fear, always a politician’s best friend when they’re in a tight spot. This time it’s fear of the unknown (who knows what a Liberal Democrat government might do, join the Euro, dissolve the monarchy, replace the Union Jack with a hammer and sickle....), fear of the Liberal Democrats supporting Labour thus condemning the country to 5 more years of Gordon Brown, or fear of confusion in the instance of a hung parliament. Of course since the last hung parliament was in 1974 most people have forgotten what it was like (in that instance, useless, and another election was called a few months later electing a narrow Labour majority). So basically Cameron has been running around the country begging people to give the Tories a chance to govern in their own right, but it appears unlikely he has convinced enough people to agree with him. After the abject failures of his two predecessors, Cameron has smartly moved his party back to the centre, talking about climate change, financial reform and advising his shadow ministers to leave their Jaguars in the garage and be seen in public driving hybrids. Still, despite the unpopularity of the moribund Labour government, it’s not as great a feat of memory for a lot of people to remember the lean Thatcher/Major years, and with the UK’s current deficit, there looks to be more lean years ahead.

Of course all the parties are tying not to talk about the deficit, and who can blame them? It’s both boring AND depressing, a rare combination in a world where bad news is often the only news. So like most campaigns, discussion about the real issues has taken a back seat to the usual rounds of “who looks better on television, who has the best catch phrase and who has the dishiest wife?” that typify 21st century election campaigns. Of course this all suits the Tories who are hoping to sneak into office on the back of anti-Brown feelings in the community as well as the “it’s time for change” sentiment that overwhelms any 10+ year-old government. I guess it’s asking too much for an election campaign to be a sober debate about the future of a country, far better to have a nationally televised “So You Think You Can Govern?” reality TV series with one winner and the losers voted out of parliament. Britain may have invented modern democracy, but they are not immune to the same pressures to be shallow and image-focused that have beset once-proud institutions and traditions the world over. Wow, this is getting even more depressing than the deficit, so let’s move on to my prediction of how things will look 24 hours from now:

Since outdated seat projectionsCollapse )

UPDATE – 11/05/10.

Well it’s been 5 days since the election and the UK still doesn’t have a government. Thankfully the highs and lows of ongoing Greek bailout drama have distracted markets form obsessing too much about what the next British government will or won’t do, but eventually someone will be sworn in and will have to start taking the axe to the profligate spending that has built up over so many years. I’ll discuss the possible outcomes of the political horse-trading that is currently going on below, but firstly a quick word on the predictions above that you will be now realise were not very accurate. In fact they were way off, with the eventual result being as follows:

CON 307 + 109 seats
LAB 258 - 98 seats
LD 57 - 5 seats
Other 28 - 2 seats

Figures are as compared to seat totals in the 2005 General election - this is also assuming that the Conservatives will win the special election in Thirsk and Malton which was delayed for three weeks by the death of the UKIP candidate for that constituency. The seat has been reliably Tory for all of its existence, so it’s not a stretch to put this one in the Conservative column. As you can see while I got very close to picking the final total for the Tories, I was way off on the rest. Never mind, I’m in very good company there as this was a result that no one expected. did an analysis and it turns out everyone was wrong, both phone an internet pollsters overstated the Liberal Democrats support by at least three percent while most understated the Labour support by about one percent. This may seem like a small amount but as we saw, it translated into dozens of potential Liberal Democrat pickups either staying with Labour or instead being poached by the Conservatives.

Anyway, as former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown remarked after the election, “The people have spoken, we just don't know what they've said yet”. This confusion is still evident in the furious courting that is going on behind the scenes from the two biggest parities for the support of the Liberal Democrats, which they need to have a hope of forming a stable government. Like two suitors courting a comely maiden, they have been wooing Nick Clegg with promises of electoral reform and other planks of the Lib Dems platform, however as yet this has not resulted in any announced arrangement. While people have been talking about a Labour/Liberal alliance, while this would seem to be the easiest ideological fit, simple maths shows that the two parties’ combined seats are still 11 short of the 326 required for a majority. Also you would have to say the British public would not thank the Lib Dems for extending the life of the tired Labour government and even Gordon Brown stepping down as leader won’t change that.

What I still think is more likely is that the Liberal Democrats will support a conservative minority, where David Cameron becomes Prime Minister and forms a Conservative government, but has the votes of the Liberal Democrats to stop that government falling in a no confidence motion in the House of Commons. This way he could show that he is giving the UK the (temporary) stable government it needs, without whoring out his party and their principles for a few scraps from the Tory table. The Liberal Democrats electoral strength, I believe, comes from standing apart from the other two parties, and while electoral reform is important, I judge that Nick Clegg will not want to tarnish his party’s image for the brief but ultimately unsatisfying shot at government that joining a coalition with the Conservatives at this junction would deliver. This arrangement may last for a set time, say 6 or 12 months, or it could continue at Nick Clegg’s pleasure until he judges the moment ripe for another election. The pundits and I misread many things about this election, but the one thing we all got right is that Nick Clegg is the UK’s kingmaker, but he best get busy with the coronation as public are getting restless.

UPDATE – 12/05/10.

Well what a difference 36 hours makes. Contrary to all expectations the Liberal Democrats have formed a coalition government with the Conservatives with David Cameron as prime minister, Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister and four other Lib Dem MPs as cabinet ministers. I really should get out of this prediction game, it just hasn’t been working out. Actually it’s not just me; EVERYTHING about this election has defied all expectations and confounded all pundits. After years of ripping into each other, suddenly it’s backslaps all around, the two party leaders’ jocular first press conference was described as “The Nick and Dave show” so natural was their double-act, it seems like there’s plenty of chemistry and goodwill, but how long that will last no one knows. The UK hasn’t had a coalition government since 1945, so we’ll have to wait and see how things pan out; the question is whether party politics really can be suspended for the national interest and whether a left wing party and right wing party can find enough middle ground from which to govern. I’ll suspend cynicism for the moment and wish the two of them and their experimental government all the best; they’re going to need it.

Sat, Mar. 6th, 2010, 01:41 am
The Worst Generation

Baby Boomers are people born during the post-World War 2 population boom that ran from 1946 to 1964. They are fucking up the world and fucking up my life. Here’s why:

I can’t afford a house. Not a pleasant thought to contemplate but look at the statistics. The median house price in Melbourne is close to $550,000, that figure rose by $75,000 in just three months at the end of last year, and last week over $1 billion worth of real estate was sold in Melbourne, that's right, a billion in a week. More than half a million dollars for a house now, and who knows how much more by the end of this year? Is there an end? Not likely with an exploding population and the current owners squatting on all the best real estate and unlikely to die any time soon. But a growing population is important to the selfish generation, for after years of corporate downsizing and shifting jobs offshore they suddenly realised that someone will have to pay for their 25 year plus retirements, in pensions and health care costs, and they’re dammed if it’s going to be them. Never was a generation born into such privilege and while they’ve taken everything, they’ve given next to nothing of worth back. All the great industries were started by their parents and all the exciting ideas of tomorrow were thought up by their kids. They just sat in the middle, living off the fat of the land, using up the earth’s resources like locusts while inflicting their shitty music and worse politics on everyone and lecturing the rest of us on the value of hard work. They grew up in a time when jobs were plentiful, housing was cheap, resources were infinite and like all spoiled children, they’ve turned into monsters. And thanks to wonderful advances in health care, they’re going to be around for a long time yet. So let me highlight just a couple of other ways the worst generation are poisoning the earth.

Listen to any Boomer politician campaigning for office and after about 5 minutes some bullshit about “family values” will come up. That sounds nice, until you realise no generation has fucked up more families than theirs. In the US divorce rates have gone up 600% since 1968 because the Boomers are too lazy or selfish to make their marriages work, apparently that free love thing wasn’t working out so then they moved on but failed at something their parents managed to deal with. I know loveless marriages aren’t fun for anyone involved and I know in previous generations divorce was unheard of because women had next to no say in the matter, but weren’t these “liberated” boomer women who participated in the sexual revolution going to do better? No, they couldn’t make it work, so like pussies they quit, and it was their children that ended up paying the price. Children of divorced parents are more likely do use drugs and alcohol earlier in life, more likely to end up in prison and more likely to fail in their own marriages. Street crime, depression and higher prison populations are direct results of Baby Boomers not being able to stick out a marriage for the good of their kids. Speaking of drugs, while they dined out on a progression of pot, acid and coke, Boomers say no to dugs. Unless of course you are talking about the $286 billion odd that Americans spend on prescription drugs every year, but don’t think that’s all being spent on themselves, they have more than a million and half kids on Ritalin, then they can grow into teenagers hooked on Paxil and Zoloft. With parents this fucked up it is no wonder we’re depressed beyond tables.

And enough with this “classic rock” bullshit. While some music of 1960s didn’t suck, interestingly much of the good stuff (The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix etc) was made by people born during World War 2. Once they came of age the Baby Boomers gave the world disco, glam rock and new wave – thanks a fucking lot. Aren’t you getting a bit sick of being told that “rock ‘n’ roll died in 1974”? Aren’t you over being told that The Beatles/Led Zepplin/The Rolling Stones etc are the greatest band ever? Hey, we can make up our own minds you know, oh wait if it’s in Rolling Stone it must be true! If you pick up even the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine you practically have to blow the cobwebs off it’s so dated. Reading mainstream music press is like your dad trying to be cool, he doesn’t get these “new sounds” but because he wants to look hip in front of you and your mates he pretends he does, and only embarrasses himself in the process. And don’t get me started on those ultimate Baby Boomer self-righteous wankfests - benefit concerts. I had to laugh when it turned out that most of the money - a staggering $95 million - that was raised through the 1985 Live Aid concerts for Ethiopian famine victims was used by the rebels in Ethiopia to buy weapons. Of course Bob Geldof is spluttering that this isn’t true, but who do you believe; a birds-nest haired tosser and failed musician with a history of sanctimonious largesse with other people’s money, or the people who were actually on the ground in Ethiopia at the time? And fuck Bono too, or should that be Paul David Hewson, hypocrite-extraordinaire who when he’s not penning haughty op-eds denigrating the foreign aid contributions of governments around the world, he’s mincing about in faggoty sunglasses and funnelling the obscene profits from U2 tours through a series of tax minimising front companies. These are your idols, Boomers, gaze upon them and rejoice, as their selfishness and arrogance perfectly matches your own.

In Australia after its election win in 1972, the Whitlam Labor government made university education free. Of course this was reversed not to many years after, but it when it was introduced it was a genuinely progressive policy by a government mostly made up of what journalist Tom Browkaw calls “the greatest generation”, those born between 1901 and 1924. While they might have missed the horrors of World War 1, this generation had their childhoods or the starts of their working lives cruelly shattered by the Great Depression (while you might think the current unemployment rate is high, during the early 1930s in the US, Australia and Canada joblessness ran at around 25%). Then they were plunged into World War 2, most of the men going overseas to fight, tens of thousands of them never returning. When they returned from the slaughter, they worked hard building up a peaceful and prosperous world that their children would later piss on. The people who genuinely moved humanity forward in the decades after the war were not the young pot smokers and fornicators at Woodstock, they were not the bra and draft card burners on university campuses, they were The Man, the hated figure of authority, the squares. A few examples:

* Earl Warren – Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969. Some of his courts achievements included the desegregation of schools, expanding the right to privacy, contraception rights and the abolition of mandatory prayer and bible reading in schools.
* Lyndon B Johnson – President of the United States from 1963 to 1969. Aside from his most famous bills, the Civil Rights act and Voting Rights acts, he also created Medicare and Medicaid, introduced food stamps, created clean air and water legislation, expanded national parks, tightened gun control and increased funding for education and public broadcasting.
* Pierre Trudeau – Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984. Even when he was Minister for Justice in the Pearson government he overturned laws banning homosexuality and abortion (hello America in 2010!) then went on to among other things amend the Canadian constitution to introduce a whole new bill of rights.
* Gough Whitlam – Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975. In a whirlwind of change the Whitlam government pulled out of the Vietnam War, ended the draft, introduced Medicare, ended the racist White Australia policy, reduced the voting age to 18 and of course introduced free education in universities.

Think of our great Baby Boomer world leaders, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George Bush, Stephen Harper, Kevin Rudd, they don’t really stack up do they? Timid, bland conservatives in the pocket of special interests whose aims in life are election, re-election and then media grandstanding in retirement about how good they were in office while earning shitloads of cash sitting on corporate boards and giving tiresome speeches about how great they were in office. While there are many things to consider, no one can deny that the world did better in elections where Baby Boomers had little say in the matter of who won. The Boomers voted for Thatcher and Reagan, completely turning their back on the ideals they proclaimed in the 1960s and early 1970s - they cut their hair, put on suits, destroyed capitalism and left nothing but a few scraps on a scorched earth for their children. Then when they themselves got into power in the 1990s, unbelievably, things got worse. They sold everyone out for a quick buck, ripped down the laws that protected the working man from the greed of the corporate elite and replaced honest debate with partisan political theatre. Their toxic legacy will still be around even when the last of them is mercifully in the grave. Oh and in case you’re wondering, no, the same Boomers who revelled in the free university education on offer in Australia in the 1970s never re-introduced it when they themselves got into government years later. It was fine for them, but they decided future generations have to pay.

As a form of disclosure, my mother is a classic Baby Boomer; born in 1952 she left home at 18 to study, quickly got a job and with a few friends was able to rent a house. After meeting and later marrying my dad, they have been on multiple world trips, bought a house which they paid off easily and had children. The difference between her and the scum I’ve described above is that she despises most people of her generation and thoroughly approves of the above criticism. It goes without saying that I don’t hate ALL Baby Boomers and not all of them are responsible for all the above mentioned problems, however despite the odd diamond amongst the rough (Christopher Hitchens, Barack Obama, all the members of Iron Maiden etc), as a whole they have done more harm than good. They will not be missed and they will not be fondly remembered.

Some other amusing rants:

Thu, Jan. 7th, 2010, 01:04 am
Hong Kong photos – November 2009

First of all, happy new year! May 2010 bring you happiness in whatever form you most desire, and prosperity in the form of cold hard cash. This is the second of two entries about Joanne and I’s recent Asian holiday. We flew first from Melbourne to Bangkok via Singapore, then a few days later from Bangkok to Hong Kong where we stayed for 5 days (as you will see below), we then flew back to Thailand for the remainder of our time. The previous entry focused on our adventures in Thailand, so have a look there if you missed them the first time around.

Hong Kong photosCollapse )

Some general impressions of Hong Kong:

* Most things are very cheap
* Whole country is spotlessly clean
* Brilliantly efficient public transport
* English everywhere
* Scenic views everywhere (providing you like cityscapes)
* Best airport in the world

* Extremely crowded
* Bad air quality (mostly thanks to neighbouring Guangdong province)
* Rude mainlander tourists and too many Indians on Nathan Rd
* City is a constant building site
* Service charges on every bill

Unlike Thailand, I could actually see myself living in Hong Kong. I don’t think I could live in a non-English speaking country and nor could I live in a place where the climate guarantees almost constant swamparse every time you step outside. There is much to recommend about Hong Kong, and the positives outweigh the negatives. I know it’s such a fucking cliché, but it really is where “East meets West”, you get the exoticness of the east and a rich history and culture, plus all the conveniences of an English-speaking Western lifestyle. I know the crowds and pollution would get to you after a while, but Hong Kong is one of the most dynamic places on Earth and well worth a visit.

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