The conversations I crave

This morning in bed I was reading a biography of Chekhov, and a history of tank warfare. Last night I watched a doco about the universe and many of its strange quirks. The other night I watched another on AI and nanobots. I have a couple of books waiting for me – a book of essays by Tony Judt, and a history of western culture. Not to mention a book of Ian Flemings correspondence, and sundry fiction (currently reading The Riddle of the Sands).

How much of this do you reckon I get to discuss? Practically nil. I have one friend with whom I’ll have sciencey conversations, but eventually we’ll verge off into discussion on comparative TV series. I don’t know that there’s anyone else much I have the type of conversations I’d like to have.

I indulge in these things because they rouse me in some way. I’m fascinated by the mystery, or seek to learn more. Last night watching the doco and observing some of the complex mathematics I wished some of my teachers had given such a contextual lesson – maths bored me then, but when applied it becomes eye-opening. These are the things that take my attention. In the past, I’ve pondered I might have become an architect or a doctor in another life, but equally given another go I might have chosen lecturer (literature or history), physicist, astrophysicist, cosmologist, archaeologist, or indeed, writer.

I don’t get that opportunity, but it’s unfortunate that for the most part I experience these things and have no-one to share them with. I crave that conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I can talk about the footy all day, and even politics if anyone’s keen – but I’d really like to share these mind stretching subjects. I’d like to pass it on, but also I want that dialogue in order to push it into more interesting areas.

We live in a really remarkable world, and how you can’t be interested in that has got me stumped. If only I had someone I could explore that world with. Maybe next year.


They’re watching you…

The last few weeks I’ve been making a call to a community organisation that isn’t in my phone address book. The other day scrolling through recent calls there was the number recorded, and underneath it Probably…followed by the specific name of the individual I’d been talking to. I’d never seen that before.

I puzzled over this, Fair enough had it recorded the name of the organisation, they’re in the phone book after all. But in an organisation containing dozens of people how does it know the specific person I’ve been speaking to?

Like many, I’m very aware of my online presence and identity. The idea that I’m being watched, that every move I make is tracked, is abhorrent to me, and more so since the Australian government legislated that ISPs must retain the metadata of its customers. It’s a privacy issue, but I also see it as an infringement on my civil liberties.

In my book you’re crazy if you’re not connecting online through a VPN, but even so that only limits the damage, it doesn’t eliminate it.

I read the other day about how Google is extending its online reach, to the point that they will soon know every site you visit. Like most people, I have a Gmail account. Foolishly, as it turns out, I use my Google ID (and occasionally my Facebook) to login into different online accounts. It doesn’t matter if I’m VPN if that’s the case. The solution is to browse incognito through a VPN, and don’t accept cookies, but that’s hard work. And even still…

We’ve all experienced targeting marketing whereby an ad will flash up on screen relevant to a recent search or your browsing history. Once they have that on one source it spreads to other online sources – I get those ads now on my phone, and even at work.

I compound the issue by having location services switched on my phone, as most people do, I’m sure. That adds another very precise layer of tracking which I could easily turn off, except I track my steps, and of course, use navigation and search for nearby handy locations. We are seduced into being tracked by the convenience of the functionality it offers.

At this point I’ve made a compromise – basically, I’m allowing them to view a lot of my activity, but not all. I wonder at the wisdom of that.

But how does that explain my phone entry?

The only explanation I have is that it’s cross-referenced my email by my call history. I’ve sent and received emails from that person, and my phone has put 2 and 2 together and come up with 4. That’s scary.

The question of porn

A couple of nights ago on ABC2 there was live discussion forum about porn. Among the participants there were commentators, health advocates, members of the general public, and porn performers.

These things can be pretty cheesy, and degenerate pretty quickly into a formless mess of people shouting over each other. This was pretty good. It was bold programming by the ABC, and ultimately quite fascinating.

There were different views put representing different perspectives – the devout Christian say (and ex porn addict) against the porn performer. The psychologist pitted against the conservative commentator. And so on. What was clear is that it’s not easy to have a true understanding of porn that is black and white. It’s multi-faceted, with both good and bad aspects.

I’ve long had pretty general views on porn. Like most I’ve seen my fair share of it. My tastes are pretty vanilla, but I still feel a little shameful whenever I partake in it. But hey, I like a naked female body. I would guess I’m a pretty average guy when it comes to porn.

In recent times I’ve been forced to think about it a lot more, for a very unexpected reason.

As you know, I’m writing a book. The idea behind the book has been in my head for 15 years, but when I came to write it I needed an engine to progress the story. I wanted something dark and mysterious, and ultimately porn (and prostitution) was that engine.

Sometimes I wonder how it came to this. It was not the plan. I’m a little disappointed actually, no matter that it fits the theme of the book very well. I have a couple of other book ideas in my head, one of which featured a very colourful character who becomes a ‘pornographer’. I think that’s where the idea came from. Unfortunately it now means I have to change that character if and when I ever write that book.

What I discovered as I wrote this story is that my views on the sex industry developed. I had only given it a passing consideration previously. My attitude was liberal, live and let live. If people want to do this, fine. I still have that attitude, but it’s more complex than that.

I focus on the dark aspects of the industry. There’s a bleak heart beating at the centre of this book. It’s more about prostitution than pornography, and specifically people trafficking for sexual purposes. That’s a real thing, and evil beyond an average Joe’s comprehension. Ultimately it’s about exploitation.

That’s an aspect of the sex trade I hadn’t considered much previously. It doesn’t always apply, but it certainly can, and often is – people being used (and abused) by unscrupulous characters for profit. They become dehumanised, a plaything for others and a tool for the pimps running them. It’s diabolical.

As I said, I had no real notion of just how dark this was until I began to write about it. It came naturally to that. I followed the story and it led to these terrible places. It was perfect for the story I was writing, but I realised that it was true as well. This isn’t altogether fiction.

Click on a link today. Sure, there are many entrepreneurial women out there sassily using their body to fashion a career. For others it’s no more than some cash on the side, and reasonably harmless as far as they’re concerned. But there’s the rest. How many of those women you see cavorting on screen are virtual prisoners of their ‘profession’. More than you would think I would guess.

I can see some positive benefits of porn, as were highlighted on the show. There was a couple who spoke of how it had transformed their relationship by sharing it. There were others who had never had a meaningful relationship for whom this was an outlet, and occasionally a means of expression. There is good porn and there is bad porn.

There’s many things to be wary about when it comes to pornography. Bad porn promotes unhealthy and often destructive attitudes towards women. It can easily become habitual and psychologically damaging (not to mention anti-social). And it’s often exploitative.

I’m not a crusader or moralist. I can see a place for good porn – or erotica, if you like. That’s porn that’s non-exploitative, and has nothing to do with violence or degradation. It’s a celebration of sex and desire by willing exponents of it. I can buy into that. Most can. I have a girl friend who loves classy porn. Good on her.

The problem is the bad porn. Porn that is exploitative, in every sense of it. Where the performers are used, without will or intent of their own. Where the porn contains violence, or plays upon themes of degradation and abuse. Industrialised porn. Criminalised porn.

Is it going to change? No. It’s such a massive industry that there are few means of controlling it. It’s beamed out through the interwebs, often from someone’s suburban bedroom. It’s not going to get any better, and I expect some of the things I’ve written about in my book will only become more common.

Australia’s Best Parody Twitter Account Shocks Everyone And Retires

Australia’s Best Parody Twitter Account Shocks Everyone And Retires.

The best thing on twitter for me over the last few months has been this, @Rudd2000. I don’t know how many times I retweeted or favourited a tweet of theirs, or even occasionally laughed out loud (LOL). It was just genius, very funny and often very incisive and it cut to the quick. Now the account has been retired, and that’s so sad.

Seems to me that Twitter is full of sycophants, trolls, jokers, the odd policy wonk, and genuine commentators. Then there are people like me, a bit of everything really, no real agenda other than to express the odd random thought, and occasionally to engage with others. For me the real value in Twitter is the diversity of views that pop-up in your newsfeed, curated by you, but still unpredictable.

I’m a cynic about a lot of things these days, but I enjoy the democracy of Twitter even as I deplore some of the shockers that take to it to air their toxic views or – more frequently – to victimise someone. Twitter is an expose of human nature, but on the whole I’ve found it entertaining and informative.

Accounts like Rudd2000 don’t come along much, and will be missed. Still, there are bound to be others who come along to take the piss. That is one of the great things about the medium – it can prick pretensions and reveal truth in 140 characters of well crafted satire. That’s a gift.

Old Australia

Back when The Age was still a quality newspaper a regular commentator writing for it was Robert Manne. You don’t hear much of Manne anymore, which is a pity. He’s an erudite, highly intelligent, articulate humanitarian. Occasionally those to the left are accused of being woolly headed sentimentalists. Sometimes that’s a fair charge. It’s not something you could ever describe Manne as being though. Though he has a perspective that might be described as social democratic, his articles always had a ring of conviction beyond mere personal opinion. They were meticulous, logical, and persuasive to the point of seeming irrefutable.

I read a speech of his yesterday about his experience of being Australian. He is of migrant stock, born in Melbourne, his Jewish parents migrating here just in time before the war. His was the migrant experience like so many others of that time, growing up slightly different from everyone else and knowing it. Nonetheless he is grateful, explaining how he never felt discriminated against.

It’s this experience, growing up in a friendly, safe society, but with an awareness of being slightly apart, which has doubtless shaped his views. What others had no cause to question he could reflect on from a different, curious, and highly intelligent perspective. The best become what they are formed by experience, and don’t assume it like a doctrinaire coat. That’s why his writing is persuasive; the reason surely that he found social democracy to be the most humane of positions.

His speech made good reading, instructive and fascinating. At one point he makes mention of the bitter divide between Protestant and Catholic Australians back in the 1950’s. It was something I was aware of, but which seems barely credible given the secular times we live in. Like it or not, that sort of secular rivalry is now irrelevant.

I knew of this battle because of my parents. My mother was Church of England, my father Catholic. My mum used to tell stories of how her father forbid her to go out with Catholics. And my father’s mother – my grandma – refused to go to the wedding of my mum and dad because it was a mixed marriage.

It’s amazing to consider such deep-rooted sectarian bitterness, especially as there is no sign of it now. By rights I should be Catholic, though I was christened Protestant because my father couldn’t care less. In fact I would be the most despised of types, an Irish Catholic if old prejudices still held.

My father’s family was strongly Irish, though by the time I was born they had lived here four generations. In the way of the Irish all over the world they retained sentimental links to Ireland – proudly and independently Australian, but also happy to proclaim that part of their heritage that was Irish. Part of that, I learned, was disdain for the English.

I learned a lot of this growing up from my grandmother, who was a smart, fierce woman. I seem to recall stories she told me about Archbishop Mannix, a legendary figure in the Australian Catholic church. She was a solemn churchgoer who also did volunteer work on behalf of the church. My grandparents house had Irish memorabilia scattered throughout it, though neither had ever been there – in fact neither ever set foot outside of Australia.

My father was worshiped by his mother, but surely the thing that most disappointed her was how he abandoned the church she was most devoted to – and which, seemingly, was so much a part of her identity. He was a modern man though, contemptuous of religion and with little regard for his alleged Irish heritage.

In his speech Manne makes mention of the mystery of how the Protestant/Catholic divide came to such a complete end. I suspect it passed on with the generations. Those who grew up post-war were exposed to a different, less prejudiced world. I’m sure for the likes of my father much of that must have seemed like nonsense, especially in light of the events of the war, and in the face of love.

I’m thankful for it, not just for my own sake, but because it was nonsense, as things like that always are. Fortunately for Australia it now appears as an odd, anomalous moment in time.


I woke up on Australia Day in a different bed from usual, which was a plus. I had spent the night at the Cheese’s for the second week in a row. We’d had a tacos for dinner, a couple of bottles of wine, and watched a movie. I woke yesterday full of vivid dreams, including moments of casual and matter of fact eroticism.

We had a very un-Australian breakfast of poffertjes with coffee. The TV was on celebrating and previewing the days festivities. The sun was already bright, and the grass outside wet with the sprinklers that had come on at 6am.

I left a little before 10. The streets were quiet of traffic. I drove by the odd woman in lycra running by the side of the road in pursuit of their news years resolutions. On the radio they played Australian songs, some of which I’d not heard from ages. Later I’d tune in to that other mainstay of Australia Day, the Triple J Hottest 100. Memories came back to me of this over the years, of celebrations, of times away, of returning to Melbourne in the car listening to the countdown.

I stopped in Malvern to visit the shop. It seemed quiet still, but people had gathered at the corner cafe for coffee or breakfast. I did the same.

The previous Sunday I’d followed the same routine. That time I stopped at a cafe in the back streets of Malvern I’d passed again and again in my car every time thinking that looks interesting, I must check it out. I checked it out last Sunday. I parked the car in the street beside a small park. It appeared a pleasant neighbourhood, quiet and cosy, the sort of area you think you’d enjoy living.

The cafe was busy with people in well cut summer clothes. The coffee was good, the breakfast menu interesting. I soaked it in, eavesdropping on surrounding conversations and examining the artwork. I felt at peace, as if this was my milieu in some way – though not completely true; and as if this was a return to a lifestyle very familiar, but now sadly missed. That much is true.

Yesterday it was a little different. Yesterday felt more of the current routine – a coffee, a chat to the owner, and a last minute decision to have an omelette. Then afterwards, the shop.

I drove towards ‘home’ at a little after 11. The streets were livelier. I drove with the music loud and the sunroof open. I watched as people went by in their short t-shirts – it was a perfect summer’s day. I spotted a man in his shorts using a leaf-blower to clear his nature strip of debris. Somehow it struck me as entirely Australian, though of course it’s not. It summed up much about living here though, for me, the familiarity of it all, a middle class boy like me with the songs of my life ringing in my ears and the Australian sun beating down in a blue Australian sky and the images flickering by me, each of them seemingly epitomising some aspect of life here in Oz.

That’s Australia Day. We fired up the barbie, as you do. We have Pavlova for dessert, as you do. And as so many across the land on this day did. The cricket was on TV, and later the final of the Australian Open.

It’s all so small in its individual pieces, but as a whole it paints a vivid picture. Like a mosaic made of a thousand tiles that joined in one presents an image to make you stop and look. Days like this you have to remember, we really are lucky.

There was a fairy-tale element to the day yesterday. In both the women’s and men’s cricket we looked like losing on Australia Day, only to win both in the last over. In the distance as the last throes of the match played out I heard fireworks go off like crackling thunder. On another channel Wawrinka was finishing off Nadal. It was the end of a big, very Australian, day.

Sex in the Masterchef kitchen

I’m all riled up this morning about something pretty innocuous. I think my feelings are symptomatic of disappointment – in the sloppy way people too often think, and in the general slide to nonsense society has been subject to in the last 20 years.

The new series of Masterchef has just begun here in Oz. Perhaps looking to refresh a well-used format they’ve applied a theme to this series – basically the guys versus the girls. Unsurprisingly this has caused a minor storm of controversy. It’s sexist apparently, it denigrates (though I’m not sure who), it’s retro, it’s boorish, and all the rest of the crap that sells newspapers these days. It’s all fucking rubbish.

Now I’m not watching Masterchef, and have no real desire to, but find nothing offensive in this theme. No-one will ever accuse TV producers of being standard-bearers for virtue, and clearly their focus is drumming up ratings – which this controversy will help. All the same, I’m hesitant to accuse them of more than cynical marketing, if that, which is pretty well situation normal. Ultimately the show is about entertainment, and they’ve found a different angle that plays off the differences in the genders. Why not? There are differences you know. That’s why I like girls and not boys. Deal with it.

What really got me going this morning was reading an editorial piece by one Paul Kalina. Now I have low expectations of TV writers in general. There are some good, but many are just the dregs (mmm, now I’m being discriminatory against TV writers!). This little piece though takes the cake.

I’m not about to re-hash what was a poorly written, barely considered piece of tripe, except to highlight the one passage in it that tipped me over the edge. This guy is so outraged by the evils of this show that he then goes on to speculate what will come next. What’s next? he wonders. Able bodied versus the handicapped?

Now that’s the sort of comment that reveals more about the writer than it adds to intelligent discussion. Is he drawing parallels between the two sexes, and between able and disabled people? Which is which in this scenario? Are the boys the able or disabled? What is the connection? Why wasn’t this spiked?

What puzzles me – and let’s not forget that I’m old school gen X – is knowing who is the offended party in a show that pits men against women (besides TV critics)? What is it about that that gets so many holier than thou types to get their knickers in a wicked twist? The only possible hint of controversy I can see is the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes – but seriously can’t see how that applies when both sexes are in the kitchen.

To my way of thinking this is intended as a fun slant on an old format. To me it’s no more discriminatory than if they had blondes up against brunettes, or left-handed people against right.

Now, technically, it is sexist – the show is being divided down gender lines. What we need to be smarter about is understanding the difference between discrimination that is meaningless, even positive; and discrimination that seeks to elevate one over the other. Now this is sexist in technical terms, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is of the second kind.

Last week I made a racist comment here – I knew it as I wrote it.  Lauding my new manager at the shop, I made mention of the qualities she possesses that I admire in the Vietnamese in general – industry, enterprise, ambition. Now it was a positive comment, but technically racist because I am discriminating (and generalising) by race. That’s something we need be rightfully cautious about – racial profiling – but there also needs to be some balance.

This is what really annoys me. Over the last 25 years western society has made great advances, there’s no denying that. Casual discrimination of all sorts was rife back then. It still exists in pockets, but in general we’re much better educated about it than we once were. There should be no question about what is acceptable and what isn’t, but it has to be more than learned response. Like pretty well everything in life, there should be thought applied to it so that true understanding can emerge. To my mind these issues in large swathes of society have become black and white doctrine. From that emerges what is popularly called political correctness.

Anyone who has read my blog for any period knows that one of my major beefs these days is that too few people really think for themselves. They take their lead from the newspaper headlines and current affairs shows, they have slogans and theories rammed down their throat by media and politicians and commentators and so on. And without any thought they accept ‘standards’ that allow for no shades of grey. We cease to think, we react.

This little piece in today’s paper is typical of that. Here it portrays an issue the writer sees as being black and white, without really understanding the context, or even seeking to. It’s a Pavlovian response – this show discriminates between the genders, ergo it’s sexist. Simple as that.

At this point I feel the need to make clear that I don’t believe I’m sexist. Not consciously at least. I believe in the equality of races, or religion, or creed, and so on. Sexual preference is none of my business. These are things I believe. Now doubtless I’ve been conditioned by society in this direction – I am one of the educated, liberal types of this world. That’s our mantra. It has to be more than mantra though, and for my part I can say these are things I’ve thought deeply on for myself over a period of many years. When you do that what you realise is that so much of discrimination is a nonsense. Putting aside the moral dimension, it’s just dumb to discriminate on grounds of race or sex or whatever, and when it happens it’s largely the result of ignorance or fear or both. You don’t have to be a bigot to be ignorant, however.

Now, I make claims to be this paragon of the fair go, but I’m human too. These beliefs should be vested in a living being. You can learn the times table at school by rote at school and recite it till the cows come home, but what does it signify? We should have these values enshrined in our constitution, but we can’t go around with a stone tablet in our gullet. To have meaning they need air, they need to be part of a living culture and not be stultifying strictures violently policed. We don’t want drones reciting what is right and wrong because that’s how they’ve been programmed; we want people willing to discuss, understand, and engage.

In the last fortnight there have been a lot of developments on the racial front here in Melbourne. I hope to write about it at some point. On the face of it much is disturbing, but on reflection I take the view that we have the great opportunity to learn, not only about the differences we’re ignorant of, but also of the things we’ve been made to understand.

to my mind it has become