What I’ve been reading

I’ve decided to do a pre-announcement review of the candidates for the 2005 Hugo Award for best novel. I’ll post a draft before too long, I hope.

But one vision of the future disturbs me. I was reading Charles Stross’ Iron Sunrise (a strong contender, but I liked his Singularity Sky better), set in the 24th century, and he introduces a character who had inherited the masthead of The Times and announced his profession as “warblogger”.

I don’t really suppose our little virtual community is going to last a thousand years, or even 300, but just in case, can’t we find some way to agree on a better name than “blogger”?

Credit where it’s due

Via Harry’s Place, it appears that the US is going to be evicted from its base in Uzbekistan. Although no reason has been given, it’s reasonable to assume that the Karimov dictatorship objects to US pressure for an investigation into the Andijan massacre.

This is unequivocally good news, and the Bush Administration should be given due credit for not backing down. There’s no mention of the policy of extraordinary renditions (shipping suspects to Karimov’s torture chambers for interrogation), but now that his regime is openly hostile, it is to be hoped that this dreadful practice will cease also.

Cultural criticism

My review of Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss was in yesterday’s Fin (subscription only). Thanks to all who commented on the earlier draft.

One point that attracts a strong reaction whenever I make it refers to

the vigorous hostile reaction to arguments of this kind. Although this reaction is often phrased in terms of attacks on ‘paternalism’ or (switching genders) the ‘Nanny State’ it is notable that policy proposals for differential taxes on luxury goods attract far less hostility than do purely cultural critiques of excessive consumption. The former threaten only the hip pocket of luxury consumers, while the latter threatens their sense of self-worth.

The response is typically along the lines of “My self worth is fine: I just object to people giving me unsolicited advice to change my lifestyle.”

Well, let’s see. In the time it took me to, read the book, write this review and get it published, I’d say I received at least thirty phone calls from people suggesting that I needed their services in relation to mortgage refinancing, negatively geared investments, telephone plans and so on. I was presented with hundreds of advertisements on TV and the Internet suggesting that I should consume more of just about everything. Even walking down the street, I’m presented with billboards, direct solicitations and so on, all with the same message. And, then, of course, there’s spam. Yet half the blogosphere seems to be upset by the mere existence of a book suggesting they are spending too much.

I don’t object to the TV ads: if I want to watch AFL on TV, it has to be paid for, and the ads are part of the deal. And as long as I don’t get hit with sneaky pop-ups and so on, the same is pretty much true for Internet ads, though I tend to avoid ad-heavy sites, and only run into them by mistake. But if I accept TV and Internet ads a straightforward commercial transaction – my attention as long as the ads can hold it, in return for the content it’s bundled with – then the billboards, spammers and phone pests aren’t just annoyances, they’re thieves, trying to take my valuable attention without paying me for it.

With the exception of spammers and phone pests[1], I don’t have a strong objection to advertising in general, though some examples annoy me. Still, when I see people complaining about the coercive nature of Clive Hamilton’s arguments, I have to wonder if they’re living in the same country as I am.

fn1. I’ve signed up for the ADMA “Do not call” list, but this is purely voluntary, and doesn’t include most of the worst examples.

Dr Who as a blogger

Apparently Dr Who returns to Cardiff (what is it with Cardiff?) tonight, to confront a surviving bodysnatcher from an earlier episode in this series. I think I’ll watch the footy instead. But Series 2 (of the New edition) looks more promising, with a return of the Cybermen and (at least so I’ve heard) the Daleks.

Nick Barlow advises that the Doctor will be played by
David Tennant dressed to resemble either Jarvis Cocker or the stereotypical image of a member of Crooked Timber.

The Ribena test (Crossposted at CT)

In the July edition of Prospect Erik Tarloff reviews What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Tarloff’s critique (subscription-only link I think, but give it a try) is summed up in the write-off

If I prefer Ribena to Château Lafite, does that make me a fool? No. It’s just a matter of taste—as it is for art. That is John Carey’s thesis, and it’s wrong

I haven’t read Carey’s book yet, but as far as I’m concerned, Tarloff is wrong. Not having read the book, I won’t assert that Carey is right, but he is certainly raising the right questions.

The difference between ‘Art’ (I’ll defend the scare quotes later) and mass-produced cultural products is, in most respects, just like the difference between Château Lafite and Ribena. One takes a lot of skill and indefinable talent to produce, and an experienced palate to appreciate , and the other is cheaply produced in bulk and reliably appeals to basic tastes we all possess[1]

In fact, this comparison is too favorable to ‘Art’ since a lot of stuff produced under that banner, and accepted by its official representatives, has none of the merits of Château Lafite, while lots of things that don’t make into the canon are subtle and complex.
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Weekend reflections

An email from Paul Norton reminds me that it’s time, as usual for Weekend Reflections. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board. Paul kicks off with some polling data that does not support the idea (pushed from a variety of perspectives) that Australians are becoming more traditionalist on gender issues. Feel free to discuss this, or something completely different.

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue

That’s about the best I can say for the agreement on climate change announced today. It appears to offer nothing beyond an acknowledgement that the problem exists.

This supposedly represents the response of the US, China, India, Australia, Japan and North South Korea to the problem of climate change, but if so, the Americans don’t seem to have noticed. There’s a brief item in the NYT, but it doesn’t even appear in the International section of their website. Going directly to the White House website, there’s nothing on the front page, but digging a bit deeper produces an innocuous item headed President’s Statement on U.S. Joining New Asia-Pacific Partnership which I’ve reproduced over the fold.

If this is the Bush Administration’s answer to Kyoto, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it.
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A happy day

The release of the remaining children being held in detention brings an end to the worst single part of this sad and shameful chapter in our history. At the same time, the oppressive use of Temporary Protection Visas has been rejected by the Federal Court. I hope the government will not appeal against this decision, and that we can put the whole sorry episode behind us, and start the search for a more rational and humane solution to the problem of responding to asylum seekers.

Carr resigns

Bob Carr has resigned as Premier of NSW. Overall, his career looks pretty successful, but it would have looked much better if he’d quit a couple of years ago.

As always in NSW, the choice of successor is in the gift of the Right[1] faction. The big decision they have to make is whether to give it to one of their own or to an outsider. It seems obvious they will go for one of their own, but all the historical evidence suggests they should not. The favorite sons (and they’re nearly all sons) of the Right have been almost uniformly disastrous at the ballot box. Back in the 70s, Pat Hills couldn’t take a trick against the corrupt and not particularly competent Askin government, so they brought in the leftish Neville Wran and enjoyed a decade or more of electoral success. When Wran left, they put up their long-time leader Barrie Unsworth, who lost immediately to Nick Greiner. Carr, his replacement, was aligned with the Right, but was far too bookish and intellectual to be a real part of the Sussex Street machine.

In the decade or so since Carr took over, a string of rightwing apparatchiks has been put up as potential successors: Scully, Costa, Della Bosca and so on. Michael Lee’s failed run for Mayor of Sydney was most probably grooming for a run at State office. As far as I can see, all that is required of these candidates is that they should look OK in a suit and (optionally) be able to string together a coherent sentence together.

It seems to me the obvious choice for Carr’s replacement is his deputy Andrew Refshauge (who is, under the spoils system, necessarily a member of the Left). He’s held a fair number of portfolios, including hot potatoes like health, without incurring fatal damage, and comes across reasonably well on TV. If it weren’t for the absurd and anachronistic factional system, he’d probably be elected unopposed in circumstances like this.

But if elevating a hereditary enemy like Refshauge is too much, how about Frank Sartor? I haven’t liked everything he’s done since entering Parliament, but he’s tough, able and a good campaigner, which is more than you can say for anyone who’s come out of Sussex Street in the last fifty years or so.

fn1. This term once referred to political alignment, along with other equally obsolete factional identifiers like “socialist left”. Now I think it means that they have the “right” to run the party.

Reading the small print (crossposted at CT)

This morning’s email included one urging me to sign a statement headed “United Against Terror”. As the email said

The statement begins:

Terrorist attacks against Londoners on July 7th killed at least 54 people. The suicide bombers who struck in Netanya Israel on July 12 ended five lives including two 16 year old girls. And on July 13 in Iraq suicide bombers slaughtered 24 children. We stand in solidarity with all these strangers hand holding hand from London to Netanya to Baghdad: communities united against terror.

The statement ends:

We invite you to sign this statement as a small first step to building a global movement of citizens against terrorism.

Based on these extracts, I would have been happy to sign the statement, for what such gestures are worth. Having read the full statement, however, I decided not to, and concluded that the statement tended more towards disunity in the face of terrorism than unity. After reading some of the supporting statements on the website, I was very glad of this decision.
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