Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hobart bound

Ari is off to Tassie today for a four day adventure at the Australian Adult Debating Tournament. Should be a fun couple of days away. Any Tasweigans who want to get in touch, drop me an email. (And before you all ask, no, I don't need a map - schoolboy snigger, schoolboy snigger).

Carr to go Federal?

Catching some by surprise, NSW Premier Bob Carr has called it quits... for now. Strangely, the media have been remarkably coy about speculating on Carr's true motivation, naively taking the man on his word that he is keen to "spend more of (his) time in a nice way". Normally a euphemism like this would be pounced on by the media, and held up to the ridicule that it deserves. Not this time around.

Speaking purely from educated speculation, it seems clear that Carr is keen to be the next Labor Prime Minister. Carr is 58 this year, so still has plenty of good years ahead of him. He has a national profile, a high approval rating, and plenty of achievements under his political belt. Carr would be an ideal member of the Federal Labor team, clearing away some of the dead wood and injecting some ideas and passion into an otherwise moribund front bench.

Consider the timing: the next Federal election is a little over two years away, and Labor preselections will take place early next year. There are a fair few possible vacancies in seats nearby to his cushy Maroubra electorate. In Banks, Daryl Melham has probably had his day, whilst in Blaxland Michael Hatton has done little since replacing Keating in 1996. Both would surely face tremendous pressure to move aside for Carr.

For Carr, this is not the end, just the end of the beginning. Give him six months enjoying the Bondi surf and then he'll be back hungrier than ever.

Watch this space.

It's Bob Carr and The Wiggles!!
Bob Carr and The Wiggles - another possible career move?

UPDATE, 1/8, 11:50am: A few people have posted comments correctly explaining that Carr's personal approval rating amongst NSW voters is very low. They are absolutely correct, but miss the point that if he is to be a federal minister, his national approval figures are the one's the matter (provided he can find a safe-ish seat in his home state). Although it's unlikely that national approval ratings are tested for state Premiers, I suspect that he would rate very highly, particularly amongst Victorians, WA and SA voters who see him compare favourably with their own Premiers. Also, these voters are spared the drudgery of travelling on Sydney trains and experiencing the crime of Sydney streets, two of the factors which are supposedly hurting Carr locally. Though he might be tarnished slightly in his home state, this is far from irredeemable, and he is well liked and respected nationally. Bat on, Bob.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Melbourne Uni: stuck in a rut?

Being the university nerd that I am, last Thursday I headed to Parkville to hear from the Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis (a person I knew remarkably little about beforehand, including but not only the pronunciation of his first name). VC Davis - I don't think he refers to me as UG Sharp, but he might one day - was speaking about the Melbourne Agenda, a grand document which spells out what most organisations would all a "Corporate Plan". The original was a twenty year plan launched in 1996, and the current round of consultations is part of the half-way review. This latest round has been given the rather grand title: "Growing Esteem: Choices for the University of Melbourne". Whatever. For more info on that stuff, head this way.

Say cheese

Anyhow, last Thursday the VC was speaking about the discussion paper for the review, and said plenty of things worth noting. Sadly, it was a room filled with ageing academics, and there were few of the undergraduate students who constitute the lifeblood of campus life there to offer their perspective. A few observations from one who did bother turning up:

- The University's achievements in undergraduate teaching leaves plenty to be desired. Whilst boasting a decent student:staff ratio of 18-1 (compared to 33-1 at Charles Sturt, 35-1 at Central Queensland Uni and 1000-1 on Collingwood for the flag), quality of teaching is consistantly rated poorly by students. Indeed, Melbourne University is well below the average in this area. Interestingly, the University manages to produce high quality graduates, leading to the obvious conclusion that university takes the best and brightest, improves them only marginally, and find them just as good and bright at the other end.

- A still shot was shown of a learning space at an interstate university, and it compared extremely favourably with the chalk-and-talk spaces in abundance in Parkville. The still showed clusters of seats around specially designed pods, with projection screens dropping from the ceiling at multiple points in the room. Whilst it's highly debatable whether technology leads to better learning, you can't help but wonder whether the predominantly passive learning in a tutorial has had its day.

- At the other end of the university community, Melbourne University boasts the only four Nobel Prize winners currently working in Australia. Yippee. It is, however, struggling to retain junior level staff. According to Davis, 20% of junior academic staff are leaving the university before their first contract is completed, a comparatively high figure. Many of these academics, it seems, are not seeing a future for themselves at Melbourne, perhaps because the pay and conditions are weighted toward much more senior staff.

- Surprisingly, the VC bemoaned the casualisation of the teaching staff. Given that he has significant power to alter the universities approach, this might be a sign of things to come. Many tutors are now casuals, and have little sentimental connection to the university. They see limited chances to further their academic career, and so drift frequently between different universities without gaining tenure. Whilst this might give the university short-term cost savings and 'flexability;, as Davis explained it means there are a lack of suitable academics to fill the void when the current generation of tenured academics retire.

- There was the usual whinge on a decrease in Federal funding, although this was accompanied by a candid remark that the current Education Minister Doctor Brendan's influence is so high that the "level of impact in the day to day running of the university is unprecedented". Hmmm, brave move, VC.

- The high number of Asia and Asian-Ausrtalian students at the university has left it with a dilemma to tackle: the university academics are overwhelmingly anglo. Whilst there has been a push in the past to encourage greater numbers of female academics in order to reflect more female undergrads, the same has not yet happened with regard to ethnicity. The VC was coy in spelling this one out, and though he didn't explicitly mention what particular demographic characteristic it was amongst students that was underrepresented amongst staff(perhaps it was blondes, or left-handers, or Volvo drivers), the implication was clear.

Don't expect anything too radical out of this project, but there are some interesting perspectives emerging. I'm toying with the idea of making a formal submission, since I doubt that many undergrads have the time or the inclination, though I've also been toying with the idea of riding around Tasmania on a unicycle and so far that hasn't got anywhere.

UPDATE 26/7 2:00pm: Whooops, just noticed that I'd accidentally disabled comments for this post. I've changed that now, so feel free to throw in your two cents on this post.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Pilger's racism

As another bomb scare hits London (no, not Glenn McGrath's five wickets in the last session), it's worth having a look at what that great Australian apologist for terror John Pilger has to say. Writing in The New Stateman this week, the activist who masquerades as a journalist writes:

Blair brought home to this country his and George W Bush's illegal, unprovoked and blood-soaked adventure in the Middle East. Were it not for his epic irresponsibility, the Londoners who died in the Tube and on the No 30 bus almost certainly would be alive today.

One thing that hasn't been examined (until now) and deserves plenty of attention is the anti-Muslim racism inherant in this oft-repeated arguement by Pilger et al. To justify the terror attacks of the past few years as the product of US/UK/Australian foreign policy is to suggest that those who carry out the attacks have a complete lack of responsibility for their own actions. It is based on the premise that Muslims are so deprived of self-control that we ought to excuse them the most heinous of excesses. Pilger's argument denies agency to an entire class of people. It is patronising in the extreme to suggest that Muslims are somehow incapable of taking part of civic debate over issues of importance, and instead cannot be expected to do anything better than turn themselves into human bombs.

To blame Blair for 7-7 (as it has become known) is to suggest that the four maniacs who caused so much carnage did so because they didn't know any better. It is to deny them agency over their own actions. I guess I can't be held accountable for my actions either if I chose to give Pilger an almighty nipple-cripple if I ever meet him. In true Pilger logic, I wouldn't be responsible for my actions if inspired by the idiocy my victim. Kinda tempting, actually

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

North Korea: book review and more

Gavan McCormack is a veteran Asia watcher from ANU, and his latest book is Target North Korea, a new and surprisingly generous take on North Korea and the nuclear issue. McCormack argues that North Korea's woes are largely the fault of the US, whom he argues has pushed the DPRK into a diplomatic and intellectual corner. Faced with humiliation at the hands of an arrogant US, the North has reacted as any other state would under the same pressure, and lashed out.

Some of the background provided by McCormack is illuminating to me as a relatively new Korea watcher. The account of the Korean War are interesting, and suggest that the truth lies somewhere part way between that told at the Korean War Museum in Seoul and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. From McCormack's account, the US was brutal in the long and fruitless war, with many of the most vicious acts all its own. Equally, the history of South Korea was checkered. Up until its 1987 "democratic revolution", South Korea appears to have been a thuggish state which used its conflict with the North to justify its constant clamp downs on democracy and its oppressive network of state spies.

Perhaps most provocative, though, is McCormack's take on the current nuclear conflict. Seemingly, the US can't do anything right, and the analysis represents the sort of desperate anti-Americanism which has become fashionable recently. From the selective evidence presented in the book, North Korea presents little threat to the rest of the world, and we are asked to take it on its word when it says that it poses no threat. Of course, this was writen prior to the North Korea's announcement in February this year that it did indeed possess The Bomb (a promise, we should, no doubt also believe according to McCormack's unfailing belief in the honesty of the word of KCNA). His solution to the nuclear threat seems to be to ignore that such a threat exists at all, and instead paint it as a product of the overactive imaginations of Washington's hawks.

For what it's worth, here's my solution to the North Korea tensions (you listing George, Hu, Kim?): at the next round of Six Nation talks next week in Beijing, the other five states should do a deal with Kim Jong Il. Give him an absolute assurance that the world will not seek his removal, if - and only if - the DPRK shut down its nuclear plants and give open access to IAEA inspectors. To be sure that he'll do the deal, the quiet threat needs to be made by the Chinese that if Kim doesn't play ball, then the energy pipeline that keeps the fledgling North Korean economy functioning will be progressively shut down. Given the reliance Kim has on the Chinese, there's little doubt that he'll sign on. In the short term, this will ensure peace on the Korean peninsula. In the long run, wait until Kim goes to meet his father (with or without the aid of an assassin) and in the ensuing confusion, push for reunification. That's the tricky part.

Monday, July 18, 2005

A Devil Inside: Mechanics Institute, Brunswick

Economist John Maynard Keynes once said that “in the long run, we’re all dead,” and it was perhaps this saying that inspired lively American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire in his quirky comedy-drama A Devil Inside. Without giving away too much of the thrilling climax, at the end the lights go out with more than half the cast lying dead on stage. Thankfully, though, the murder and mayhem doesn’t seem forced or labourered at all, and seems like a natural conclusion to a hyper-bizarre series of coincidences.

This recent play from Lindsay-Abaire is being performed in Melbourne by Act-O-Matic 3000, a theatre group who have taken it upon themselves to bring to Australian audiences some innovative and cutting-edge plays. In the words of the program notes, A Devil Inside was a change of pace for the group, who have recognised the importance of a good laugh and aim “to share (this) with the gravitas-weary independent theatre goer.” Amen.

A Devil Inside is the ultimate ensemble performance. Not only does it require the cast of six to work closely together, but it also requires the other creative elements to play their part. The lighting, set design, up beat soundtrack and arty costume design all complement each other well. The set is a wonderful testament to the power of a creative set designer, who in this case has managed to transform the cramped confines of the Mechanics Institute stage into what seems like half the Lower East Side of New York. Sean Kingma (who also directed the play) and Adam Kennon are the two who deserve credit for this feat, which sees just a few carefully selected bits of carpentry, create half a dozen locations.

The play is very American, and the script appears to be unedited for an Australian audience. One consequence is that the Australian cast is forced to put on almost-but-not-quite Nu-Yorka accents, and the other is that a few of the subtler references (often gag punchlines) are lost on the local audience. A similar affliction fell upon the MTC’s Take Me Out last year, in part explaining that production’s lukewarm response. It seems possible that with a gentle rewrite A Devil Inside could be set locally, with the Yarra replacing the Hudson and Wilson’s Promontory substituting for the murderous Poconos Mountains. With just a bit of tweaking, this already strong play could resonate even more closely with a local audience.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Yes Men

For years Culture Jammers have taken a creative approach to the anti-corporate message. In the 1980s it was the clever defacement of cigarette advertisements, in the 1990s it was the era of the mass corproate protest, but what is it in the 2000s? If The Yes Men is any guide, the next step is sophisticated identity theft. The Yes Men is the latest in a growing collection of hip, streetwise, lefty documentaries, and even has the obligatory talking head of Michael Moore for no good reason other than the fact that his name on the poster sells tickets and give credibility (for some unknown reason) to any cause left of centre.

In this doco (or docu, to be more linguistically-correct), three spaced out young Americans travel around the world pretending to be representatives of the World Trade Organisation. The caper started out through a bogus website which was convincingly similar to the real one, and takes on a life of its own as our three protaganists head to conferences in Austria, Finland, the US and Australia. The film works well on one level - it takes the piss out of wanky Powerpoint inspired corporate presentations in a way that is highly perceptive and and some points downright hilarious. It's a challenge for anyone to sit through one particular sequence without sqirming - our chief "I can't believe it's not the WTO" speaker fronts a conference in Finland and starts by justifying slavery and ends in a very phallic gold lycra suit. Comic gold. Literally.

On another level, though, the film is monumentally frustrating. Hip and cool as our lycra-dressing corporate drop-out friends are, they seem to have an alarmingly superficial perspective on world trade. The trio spend the film speaking in vague generalities of the horrors of free trade, parodying those free-marketeers who might actually have some interest in trading with the third world. For our protaganists, the world is divided into the angellically good (those who wear skivvies and t-shirts) and the demonically bad (those who wear a neck-tie), and there's little ambiguity as to which side they believe we should be on. Am I being simplistic? Perhaps, but the 'what's around your neck' test is remarkably easy to apply is this film.

As a side note, this rather pedestrian documentary has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world. As a film, it lacks punch. The audio quality is so poor that at times subtitles are needed, despite running only 80 minutes it still manages to feel tedious, the film ends with a wimper rather than a bang. If it wasn't for the likeability of the three lead guys, the film would be a complete dud. Somehow, The Yes Men has managed to make the Official Selections at Sundance, the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals, as well as the US Comedy Arts Festival (I've never heard of it either). Much like the hyped response Farenheit 911 received at Cannes last year, this is further evidence of how the political sympathies of the judges have overriden artistic judgement. What a shame.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Africa: Trade or Aid?

I've made it into print (well, pixels, really) promoting quite a radical free-market solution to poverty in Africa. Here's the conclusion:

There is plenty of evidence that an aid-based solution to African poverty does not work. For decades since the colonial powers slowly withdrew from the continent, there has been a trillion dollars (according to the BBC) spent on aid since 1950, there is little to show in terms of quality of life, infrastructure or democracy. Even if the G8 commitment to aid is fulfilled, this is likely to merely add to the pile of squandered aid. Instead, a trade-based solution is needed. Politically, it’s a tough message to sell, and Blair, Bush and Chirac will face plenty of opposition from the loud farm lobby in each of their countries. For the sake of genuine change in Africa, though, it's a battle worth fighting, and with the might of the G8 countries behind it, it’s a magic wand worth tapping.

Read the rest on Vibewire.

UPDATE, 13/7 6:10PM. Well done to those of you who spotted the sentence which isn't a grammatically-correct sentence, above. Those obsessed with syntax can feel free to edit the sentence as they see fit. Also, home internet has now been set up, so there are no more excuses for slack posting. IInet were the winners of an intensive bidding war, and have won my business. Thanks to those who posted some suggestions.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Second Helping: North Melbourne Town Hall

A veteran teacher and a young student teacher debate the ways of teaching Aboriginal history to students. The matronly teacher insists on teaching the classic textbook variety of history, with the notion of an ice bridge from Asia being the original path taken by the First People. Discontent with this take on events, the student teacher – an Aboriginal woman - instead defends her method of teaching Aboriginal history, which involves helping students using dance to understand the spirituality of the animal world. Reaching a stalemate in their dispute, the two combatants do the only sensible thing: stage an almighty bitchfight to the throbbing tunes of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, and assume ridiculous confrontational poses seen only in Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Alexandra Gardens during early morning Tai Chi. As you do.

This unusual non-sequitur represents the high point of bizarreness in this collection of sketches, Second Helping. Second Helping is a performance with an unorthodox ancestry. The show was conceived during a series of dinners hosted by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) which attempted to address the question of what reconciliation meant to ordinary people. From the fragments of stories, ideas and anecdotes which came up over dinner, the director John Harding saw the potential for a stageplay to bring these accounts to life.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Corby as Reality TV

The Schapelle Corby case is the ulimate in reality TV, according to Media Studies academic Dr Krishna Sen. Public interest in the case was boosted by the lack of alternative reality TV shows at the time, and the media's telling of the story has resembled its gameshow counterparts. The event has several 'episodes', whilst series one came to its climax with the verdict in late May, and series two is just now commencing as the appeal process commences. Keeping us all entertained in the meantime was Douglas Wood doing his best Houdini impersonation in a TV series of his own. It's a persuasive argument, and perhaps takes post-modernism to new heights (or perhaps depths) in the uncomfortable fusion between news and entertainment.

Dr Sen was the most lively and original speaker amongst a panel of three at an Asialink event today discussing depictions of Asia in Australia. The other two were Dr Tim Lindsey - who joked that he felt like a "Professor of Corby Studies" - and Rowan Callick - a Fin Review journalist who mentioned/let slip? that Fairfax was closing its Tokyo bureau.

If we accept, though, that the Corby case was a real-life drama, interpreted through the prism of TV drama, then how does that effect the participants. Sen put forward the painful suggestion that the judges may have been subconsciously influenced by the roles played by the other participants, and so assumed roles for themselves. Did the three judges feel the need to play a role, perhaps of hanging judges or anti-drug crusaders, not out of genuine sentiment, but out of a desire to not only play the part, but play the part well.

During the forum there was the usual - and well justified - hand-wringing over the ignorance toward Asia amongst Australians, and the lack of Asian Studies taking place in Australian schools and universities. This ignorance goes all the way to the top, and even those Australian journalists reporting on the region lack a proper understanding. Most prevalent is a language barrier, which means often Australian journalists fail dismally to capture the public mood in Asian countries.

Kind of ironic to see so few specialist Asian reporters working in the Australian media, whilst there are plenty of talented Australians working in the region for non-Australian media. Stan Grant covers Beijing for CNN, Eric Ellis works freelance, all whilst Australian media reporting on the area is pedestrian at best.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Time to get connected

It's been a busy week for Ari-on-the-web, making the big move from the family home into a comfy little apartment in the tres-chic South Yarra. Posts will be a little slow until we get the internet connection happening at the new place. Any suggestions on a cheap and reliable internet service (and if these requirements didn't already rule out Telstra, then I will now. No Telstra, thanks)?