Ignoring the inevitable

Titanic

If Donald Trump had been captain of the Titanic when it hit the iceberg, he would have locked himself in his cabin and refused to go down with the ship.

But then, under a Donald Trump Presidency, that is unlikely to happen because there will be no icebergs. They will all have melted.

The same man who made a heartfelt speech about the Sarin gas attack in Syria (“Babies! Little babies!”) is prepared to condemn generations of babies to death from the effects of CFC gas, just so that he can keep a campaign promise that he should never have made in the first place.

So let us make America great again, by turning the clock back and supporting industries that the rest of the world is leaving behind, while steadfastly ignoring the 21st Century equivalent of the opportunities that made America great in the first place. Nice work Mr President.

On democracy

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Let me say from the outset that I believe in democracy; and I agree with Abraham Lincoln when he exhorted the audience at Gettysburg to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What I’m saying here is that, in my opinion, a democratic system of government is the closest we’ve come thus far to creating a process that can deliver the principles Lincoln then advocated. But while democracy might be the best system we’ve got, it is nevertheless imperfect; and as such, we have to be very careful with how we handle it.

For a start, democracy is predicated on the dubious premise that the majority of voters know what is best for their country. That is simply not true. If you think about it seriously, the majority of voters in any country actually know little about what it takes to run a major western-style democracy. What percentage of them has actually done it? Running the local bowling club, or a pub raffle or a betting syndicate is not the same. Running a small business or a branch of a bank or a medical practice is not the same. In fact, running a publicly listed company with branches right across the country or even a multi-national corporation earning billions before tax is not the same. Maybe the argument would be valid if the political system we were comparing these enterprises to were a dictatorship where the CEO makes decisions, and issues commands, and his or her subordinates execute those commands without question; but we are talking about democracy here; and running a democracy as our forebears intended is unlike any challenge that the business or public sector can throw up. It takes a special kind of person, with a broad range of very specific skills to effectively run a democracy. But many, if not most, voters wouldn’t actually know what those skills are, much less how to decide if any given candidate possesses them.

Voters often make up their minds who to vote for based on a few simple criteria: (a) personality, (b) personal affinity and/or (c) persuasive rhetoric. Some people are more likely to vote for a candidate with charisma than one who is dull and boring. This decision might be based on the candidate’s innate personal charisma, or charisma derived from the fact that the he or she had been a movie star or a sporting hero in a previous role. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a person having charisma; and having previously been a movie star or a sporting hero should not disqualify anyone from offering themselves as a candidate for public office. Indeed, having a certain amount of charisma is essential for a diplomat whose responsibilities include persuading others to adopt their point of view. The first requirement of a leader, after all, is to persuade people to follow him or her. But if charisma is all the candidate has to offer, it is not enough to handle the complex and often competing demands of a socially developed and multilaterally diverse constituency. A candidate with bags of charisma but with no other skills or talents to back it up is like one of those Hollywood  movie sets, all front but no substance; and when the campaigning is over and the time comes to get down to the business of running the country, charisma alone won’t create jobs, redress social imbalances, ensure that people can go about their lawful business in safety and security, ensure that the young are taught, that the sick are healed, that the old are cared for, that the homeless are given shelter, that the poor are provided for and the capable are given the opportunities they need to develop their capabilities. Bright eyes and a big smile alone don’t get that done.

Affinity comes in two varieties: (i) ideological, and (ii) behavioural. Ideological affinity is a good thing. It means that you have found a candidate who is prepared to fight for what you believe in. But during election campaigns, candidates sometimes get carried away with the euphoria of the contest and start telling people what they think they want to hear instead of what they are actually prepared to fight for once the election is over and they hold office. Nor can you assume that a candidate who claims to have ideological affinity with you has articulated their policies clearly and unambiguously and with absolute integrity; so it is vitally important for voters to scrutinise the speeches, to challenge and question and dig into the prior record of each candidate to reassure themselves that he or she means what he or she says and is the kind of person who will carry through those promises faithfully if elected to office. I hired many people during my professional career and never, ever, would I accept a résumé or a spoken or written claim at face value. I’d always check it out. But how many voters, when asked to hire people to run their country, go to that trouble? The two-minute sound bite on the TV news is not enough to understand the real essence of a candidate; is not enough information on which to base such an important decision as the one the voter has to make.

Behavioural affinity is what you have with a candidate who comes across as having been cut from the same cloth as you – a surrogate who will run the country in your stead, doing all the things that you would have done had you stood for office and been elected. This effectively means that you believe you would be capable of running the country yourself if you had the time or inclination to accept the office. Think about it. You are the fan on the terrace at a ballgame who thinks he can do a better job than the professional player out on the field: with no training, no practice and no experience. But deep down, if you are being brutally honest with yourself, you know that you would be ill-prepared and ill-equipped to do the job. So, if you know that you yourself are not fit to run the country, why would you vote for someone who is just like you and therefore just as unfit as you are? Behavioural affinity alone, without proven executive capability, is a good reason NOT to vote for someone. What you’re country requires you to do is elect someone who is better than you; who is capable of doing a job that, right now, you can’t even begin to comprehend.

Rhetoric. We hear so much rhetoric during election campaigns that many of us tire of listening while others wearily acquiesce, accepting what they hear as truth. Politicians know this. They know that if you make an assertion often enough, with passion and conviction, people will start to believe and accept it. In election campaigns, rhetoric is the tool of the vacuous: those with nothing more substantial to say. Voters who decide their allegiance based on rhetoric alone are abrogating their solemn responsibility to elect a candidate capable of putting words into action and effecting necessary change that will make the country a better place for all its citizens and a more responsible member of the global community; because the rhetorician’s arguments are invariably based on words rather than deeds. The responsibility of voters to elect the best possible government for their country is a serious one. Rather than simply accept the candidates’ rhetoric at face value, the democratic process places an onus on the voting public to question everything that is said and written by the candidates in pursuit of office, dig deeply into it, challenge it if it doesn’t ring true and never allow the candidates to believe that the voters can be so easily fooled as to blindly accept their rhetoric because once that channel is opened up, there will be no end to the BS that gets flushed down it. An election is like a job interview and as the interviewers, voters should demand that each candidate substantiate his or her claims and allegations with independently verifiable facts rather than accept the same hollow rhetoric repeated ad nauseam by candidates who have no substantive ideas in their arsenal to expound. And voters who are not prepared to take this responsibility seriously and put in the effort commensurate with the importance of the task they are being asked to perform should, I my opinion, abstain for voting (if their particular variant of the voting system allows it) rather than cast an ill-considered and potentially damaging vote.

The second major fallacy in democracy is that it allows eligible constituents to determine who will lead their country and act on their behalf in the legislative arena. In principle, this is true; but one can only vote for candidates who put themselves forward for election; and while, in some democracies, it is possible for an ordinary citizen from a modest background to rise to political office, in others, that path is only open to those with (a) enough personal wealth to independently fund their campaign or (b) access to someone else’s war chest. For those who are not independently wealthy – and that means becoming increasingly wealthy as the candidate climbs towards pinnacle of the governing hierarchy – the candidate’s choice is (a) to align him or herself with a political party – i.e. a puppet-master who will effectively control the successful candidate while he or she is in office – or (b) seek funding from wealthy supporters who,  in return for electoral support, will inevitably expect favourable treatment from the candidate once elected. In my professional life, if I really believed that no suitable candidate had presented for a role advertised, I had the option of re-advertising the position, broadening the scope of the search, doing whatever was in my power to ensure that I filled the position with someone with the right skills, experience and mindset to fulfill the responsibilities of the role and realise whatever opportunities the role might present. In government, this is not possible. When an election is held, one of the standing candidates will be elected, even if none of them can convince a majority of voters that they are capable of doing the job adequately. This is how democracy works.

 It is my earnest conviction that those of us fortunate enough to live in a parliamentary democracy are uniquely privileged to do so; but with privilege comes responsibility. Our forebears called upon their knowledge and experience, their ideas of justice, equality and human dignity, to forge a system in which ordinary people could determine their own destiny through the offices of their chosen representatives. Millions have fought and many of those have died over the subsequent years to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But it is precisely because democracy is flawed that we must all be vigilant, we must all play our part to ensure that the system is not subverted, or corrupted, or diverted from its true purpose as enshrined in Lincoln’s words. Democracy is not our right, granted gratis. Each generation must re-earn that right by using the privilege of suffrage as our forebears intended it to be used. And those who fail to take their responsibility seriously, who trivialise it by voting for the candidate with the winningest smile or the deepest pockets, make mockery of the efforts and intentions of those who bequeathed this privilege to us, and those who subsequently fought and died to preserve it.

Democracy might be the best political system we have, but its frailties and shortcomings render it fragile and vulnerable to subversion. It is an electoral system in which no one gets exactly what they want, but the majority of people get what they deserve. So if you have to vote any time soon, and are of a mind to do so, think seriously about what you are doing: delve deep into the minds of the candidates, apply logic and reason to your deliberations, don’t allow fear to cloud your judgement, don’t let emotion sway your decision; and make the effort to ensure that whoever you vote for will deliver what you feel you deserve, what you believe your country deserves; because if you don’t, you might wind up electing a candidate who will deliver what they who didn’t take their responsibility seriously deserve.

When Alice met Jerry

Back in August, while travelling in North America, I hoped to meet an Internet friend and namesake, Heather Munro, during a changeover at Minneapolis Airport – but she couldn’t make it. So, I went to a bookshop in the airport and bought a book of short stories by another namesake, Alice Munro, instead. I had flown to Minneapolis en route from Vancouver, Canada to Kansas City, Missouri and while in Vancouver, I’d spent a couple of days across the bay in Victoria. Had I known then what I know now I would have bought the same book in Munro’s Bookshop in Victoria which was established by Jim Munro and his first wife Alice – yes, the same Alice – in 1963. But coming out of Bastion Square onto Government Street, I turned left towards the intriguingly named Trounce Alley and inadvertently away from the bookshop which was only a few doors down on the right.

At the time, I was going through a period of serious self-doubt. Not so much about my writing itself – because I’m well aware of my limitations – but about the wisdom of spending so much time writing stuff that hardly anyone will read and even fewer will enjoy. The whole endeavour appeared increasingly pointless; and yet I could conceive of no other way I’d rather spend my time. So I bought a volume of Alice Munro’s short stories in the hope that they would inspire me and teach me and enable me to derive more satisfaction from what I was doing.

Part of the problem, too, was that I had been reading books about writing in the hope that if I could master the craft of writing I would derive more satisfaction from what I produced. But the more I read the more complex and unfathomable the process of creating fiction seemed to become. Before long, and without realising it, I had amassed a litany of reasons for NOT writing; these taking the form of all the faux pas that incompetent writers commit in their stumbling attempts at writing fiction. And before long I had reached a point where, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited by all the rules I had read about and the many more rules I felt were out there, waiting to entrap me. The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination.

I had bought the book of short stories by Alice Munro, hoping that I could learn, by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of short story writing from one who is regarded as a modern master of the medium. Inside the cover, however, I found a citation from the Washington Post, from which I now quote: “The stories of Dear Life violate a host of creative writing rules (my italics), but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and the mastery of the short story form.” In other words, the rules I had been struggling to master, the Master breaks with abandon and impunity.

I did not finish the book; and that is all I am prepared to say about it, being far from qualified to pass judgement. But having reached that point, the future was looking even bleaker. Then I saw the documentary film: Salinger.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of three books that convinced me I wanted to be a writer. The other two were: Kerouac’s On the Road, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read them all when I was still young – they are books that ought to be read when one is young – and they combined to set the tone for much of the rest of my life. But until I saw the biopic, it was a mystery to me why Salinger had apparently abandoned writing after publishing his masterpiece.

Salinger wanted, above all else, to be a writer; and his measure of success was to be published in the New Yorker. Time after time his work was rejected; yet he persevered. In 1941, the New Yorker rejected seven of his stories and even when Slight Rebellion off Madison was accepted in December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbour rendered it “unpublishable”. The Fates seemed to be conspiring against him. But he was determined to succeed; and eventually, the New Yorker accepted and published his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.

Throughout the Forties, Salinger had been developing an idea based on the lead character in his short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison – Holden Caulfield. Now that he had finally been published in the New Yorker, an avenue for his novel opened up and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, spending 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Salinger had made it. But success, apparently, was not all that it was cracked up to be; and two years later he moved out of the spotlight of New York City to the seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.

Salinger had been notoriously protective of the integrity of his prose, even of his punctuation; and in his seclusion, he became even more determined to write what he wanted to write, rather than fashion stories that would appeal to editors and publishers. Some might argue that this self-indulgence would lead to a deterioration of his prose. But it suggests to me that Salinger had learned one of the most important lessons in life: one should not stake one’s happiness on something that is outside one’s control.

To most people, being a writer means being published, writing books that sell; it means being acclaimed; and ultimately, it means becoming a celebrity. Initially, Salinger seemed to strive for precisely this; but ultimately, he recognised the emptiness of such ambition. He realised that he didn’t want to be a writer after all. What he really wanted to do was to write.

Alice Munro has spent a lifetime writing the stories she wanted to write and today, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Congratulations Alice.

A Late Quartet

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The movie “A Late Quartet” (released in Australia as “Performance” to avoid confusion with Dustin Hoffman’s film called “Quartet” currently showing here; and to create confusion with the 1968 film also called “Performance” starring Mick Jagger) opened this week and I saw it last night. On leaving the theatre, I fell into conversation with another member of the audience who said: “I didn’t know Americans could make films like that.” A few days earlier I’d seen a European film called “Barbara” which was subtle and nuanced and very similar in tone to “A Late Quartet” but on that occasion, I did not meet anyone who said: I didn’t know Europeans could make films like that.

I don’t think “A Late Quartet” is ground-breaking cinema. But it is such a joy when all the elements of a film come together to create an unambiguous artistic message. The structure of the film is based on the form of a string quartet in which each of the main characters has a story and these stories weave in and around and through each other creating complex changing patterns of harmonies and dissonances that generate the emotional tone of the story. But one doesn’t need to be a musician or a musicologist to enjoy the film; although those who have at least attempted to express themselves creatively in some medium, not necessarily music, will  find it easier to empathise with some of the more arcane struggles of the characters.

As a member of the audience, I found that I had to listen very closely to the dialogue to appreciate the changing subtleties of the relationships between the characters. In fact, I found it best not to “attack” the film, searching for meaning, but rather to sit back and allow the story to seep into me. There’s always plenty of time for analysis once the final credits have stopped rolling. And I found this to be one of those films that sends its audience off with homework to do by not always answering the questions it raises.

I do know that Americans can make films like this. What remains to be answered is whether they will turn out in droves to watch them.

In it for the Money

Australian Open Badminton, Men's Singles Semi-Final
Sydney, 2012

My initial interest in the sport of badminton was motivated by Money. Elizabeth Money. Her dad was a minister of religion and his church ran a badminton club: every Saturday afternoon – just one court – so the chances of getting a game were fairly slim. But at the age of 13, the possibility of seeing Elizabeth leaping about in a short skirt was all the motivation I needed.

My interest in badminton grew from there and I played for my school. So did Elizabeth. Then my family moved to a different city and my new school didn’t have a club; so I started one; and as far as I know it’s still going.

When we migrated to Australia, badminton seemed not to be played at all except by children at barbeques and on the beach; with $2 racquets and plastic shuttlecocks; and it wasn’t until 14 years later, when I went to work at a university with a sizeable student population from badminton-playing countries, that I rediscovered it.

In the end, I met my wife through badminton, in a set of coincidences that required the collaboration of four different metropolitan universities to bring us together. But when our son was born, new priorities relegated the sport to the status of an occasional pastime.

I don’t play anymore. But I enjoyed watching the Australian Open, marvelling at the skill and athleticism of the elite players in the fastest of all racquet sports, reliving my own memories, modest though they were; and wondering if, these days, there is any Money in badminton.

Notes on my camera

I didn’t take my DSLR to the badminton competition because Australia has some absurd rules and restrictions on spectators  photographing sporting events and I wasn’t sure if I’d be admitted carrying a big camera with a telephoto lens. But I always carry a compact camera with me, just in case I happen on something worth recording.

These photographs were taken using my Canon G12. My first compact camera was a Ricoh GRD III but it has a fixed wide-angle lens and regardless of what Mr Capa says, it isn’t ideal for sports photography because you often cannot GET close to the action – burly security guards see to that.

At the badminton competition, I took these photographs from the stands, using indoor lighting (no flash, of course), with the ISO set to 1600, and the f-stop set at f5.6, speed 1/60th and I am pretty happy with the results.

Apart from the advantage (over the Ricoh) of having a (fairly modest) zoom, the viewer is plenty bright enough. But compared with the GRD III, there are some downsides. First of all, I find the manual focus on the Canon almost unusable. Maybe its just my clumsy fingers but the focusing ring is so close to other controls, I find myself often inadvertantly switching the flash on or the MF off instead of adjusting the focus. That’s really annoying.

The other downside, from my point of view in comparison with the GRD III, is the time lag on the shutter. With the GRD III (as with my Nikon D300s), the shutter releases the instant I press the button; but with the G12 there is a noticeable delay.  This is okay if I’m photographing buildings or mountains, but badminton is known as the fastest racquet sport of all and by the time the G12 gets round to taking the picture, the scene has completely changed. And unlike tennis where the ball travels a greater distance (from baseline to baseline), it is almost impossible to anticipate the next shot in badminton.

One day, I hope I will find the perfect camera. In the meantime, as the saying goes down here in Australia, it’s still a question of horses for courses.

Deftly done !!

Down but not out
Chen, Jin went on to win the Men's Singles title for China

Mixing it
Japan -v- Chinese Taipei

 

 

Deafening Silence…

I gave an early draft of my first ever manuscript for a novel to my then girlfriend to read. She’d asked to read it; was quite enthusiastic about reading it, in fact. But when she brought it back to me a few days later, she told me that she was breaking up with me.  Her reason: