Monday 04 November 2002


My mother is heading off to Morocco at the end of the month and I spent a few hours on Saturday helping her with some errands. As we were eating lunch at a Délifrance in Chatswood, I noticed an Apple store across the street. Leaving my mother to finish her iced coffee, I zipped over to have a look at the Macintosh I have no intention of buying.

Which model? Not an iMac (the swivel-mounted screen looks as though it’s about to topple off). So either an eMac or an iBook. I can’t make up my mind which one not to purchase.

With a spare battery and AC adapter plus an extra 128MB of RAM, the iBook (with a 20GB hard drive and a Combo Drive) will cost AU$4014 (US$2250). A similarly configured eMac (though with a 40GB hard drive and a G4 chip) costs AU$2460 (US$1380). Portability costs.

The sales assistant couldn’t show me how to switch on Japanese text entry but she did tell me that if I ordered a Macintosh before January 7th, 2003 I could purchase Microsoft Office at half the normal cost. I told her I’d pass on that offer, figuring that by then OpenOffice for Mac OS X might be shipping. But I was happy to see that I could replace the atrocious Apple mouse with a Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer. Not that I’ll be buying anything, anytime soon.

Later. I returned from my afternoon swim to find a letter from the computer rental company offering me a FREE $200 shopping voucher if I rent over $2000 worth of new business equipment before November 30th…

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Tuesday 05 November 2002

IBM does the right thing for blind Australians

Newspaper headline: IBM backflip over blind software

My first foray into consumer advocacy has been spectacularly successful. Three weeks ago—in a post titled IBM socks it to blind Australians. Again.— I pointed out that IBM Australia were charging AU$341 for Home Page Reader (Digital Delivery) whereas blind or vision-impaired US residents could buy the same product for AU$214.40 (US$117). I emailed the weblog link to Bernard Lane, an IT journalist at The Australian, who had interviewed me earlier in the year for an article on Googlewhacking.

Bernard, who has a weblog called Milon’s memory, a living obituary, promised to contact IBM, ask for an explanation of the price difference, and perhaps write a story. This morning he advised me by email that the story was in today’s paper (and in the online edition).

And guess what? IBM Australia have cut the price!

Contacted by The Australian IT more than a week ago, IBM Australia did not offer any explanation of the price difference beyond saying its prices generally were influenced by “currency exchange, local taxes, customisation and support, as well as the cost of doing business”.

Asked whether GST applied to a product expressly for the blind or whether the local download had been customised or came with support, IBM said it was “examining what factors influence the pricing of Home Page Reader and whether current pricing is appropriate”.

Yesterday a check of the IBM Australia website revealed the price had been cut, without announcement or explanation, from $341 to $233, a figure comparable to the US download cost.

I called Bernard Lane, logged on to the IBM Australia Web site and purchased my $233 copy of Home Page Reader, then walked up to the newsagent to buy a copy of The Australian while the 40MB installer downloaded.

So… thanks to Bernard Lane and The Australian for following up my post. And thanks to IBM Australia for doing the right thing by matching the US price for Home Page Reader. Weblogs rock! Or, as Dorothea might say, “Woot!”

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Wednesday 06 November 2002

On gatekeeping

Dorothea Salo mentioned—in the context of sharing responsibility for household tasks— gatekeeping, a habit displayed by “some people, typically women… [who] shut other people out of particular tasks and then complain about lack of help.”

I’m not sure whether this is true of all gatekeepers but I’ve noticed that the exclusion is frequently done on the grounds that the task must be performed in a specific way. A few years ago, I was slicing some lemons in a friend’s kitchen (at his wife’s request). Suddenly, she snatched the knife out of my hand and snapped: “Don’t you even know how to slice a lemon? Don’t worry about it, I’ll do it myself.”

Apart from thinking, “What a graceless, inconsiderate hostess,” I wasn’t too troubled—I don’t have any emotional or intellectual investment in my lemon-slicing technique. As we squeezed lemon juice onto our oysters, however, I did take care to check her lemon slices (mine had been consigned to the wastebin). The problem was that my first slice had been horizontal, through the “waist of the lemon,” as you would if you intended to extract the juice with a hand squeezer. I had then sliced the halves into quarters. Her first slice had been vertical, then she’d sliced each half into three, yielding six slim elegant slices, instead of my chunky four.

Of course, the juice tasted no different. But I realized that whereas I’d taken a functional approach, my friend’s wife was also concerned with how the lemon slices looked. She had conceived the whole dinner party as an aesthetic experience, a kind of theatrical event in which her food and its presentation played the starring roles and her guests were simultaneously the audience and bit players in the drama. I mistakenly assumed I’d been invited for dinner only to find myself co-opted into an elaborate piece of performance art.

To be honest, I prefer simple food and, when I’m eating on my own, cheap restaurants. For me, the fine dining ethos adds a layer of stress to what should be a relaxing occasion, while almost every foodie I’ve encountered has been a pedantic, pretentious bore.

It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between a salad fork, a fish fork, and a dessert fork: to the contrary, I’ve been told on many occasions that I have exquisite table manners. If this is so, it is entirely due to a former employer, a Middle-European countess who drilled me relentlessly in the rules of etiquette. Alas, the lessons did not cover slicing lemons—or anything else—since it would never have occurred to my instructor that I might be called on to assist in preparing the meal.

I wondered briefly why I’d been asked to slice the lemons instead of my friend, but it’s hardly a mystery. The other side of the gatekeeping coin is what one might call calculated incompetence, the strategy by which some people, typically men, botch a simple task so that they won’t be asked to do it again. The classic example is mixing whites and coloreds in the washing or, alternatively, jeans and lingerie. But it works in almost any context: filling the supermarket trolley with expensive deli items and imported beer, ironing synthetic fabrics with the thermostat set to maximum, accidentally dropping a piece of bone china as you’re taking it from the dishwasher.

What a delicious irony, I thought later, that the hostess had consigned me into the same category as her “useless” husband, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. My mother taught me to shop, cook, wash, iron, and sew; accordingly, I’ve never had the slightest trouble taking care of myself. Whenever I’ve lived with a woman, domestic tasks have always been evenly shared though I’m generally happiest if my responsibilities only include cooking a couple of nights a week. I don’t care what anyone says, cooking for two is ten times harder than cooking for oneself.

As for my friend and his wife, I hardly see them anymore. It’s impossible to say which came first: his incompetence or her gatekeeping. Either way, it was exhausting and dispiriting to be around them.

The countess and her (third) husband never argued—yet it wasn’t because they were wealthy and their servants did most of the work. They loved and respected each other and they embraced both the sorrow and the sweetness of living. They were generous with their money, their hospitality, and themselves. The most formal dinner parties were simultaneously spirited and relaxed because the countess took such care in selecting her guests and her husband had the happy knack of putting everyone at ease. The hours I spent in their presence were amongst the happiest of my life.

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Thursday 07 November 2002

A bystander who cares must wonder…

I can’t recall any recent piece of writing that has resonated with me so much yet which has challenged my preconceptions more deeply than A Message from Andrius Kulikauskas, to which David Weinberger linked in last month’s JOHO. The dual triumphs in a single week, of Bill Gates and George W. Bush, can hardly be unrelated—they brought to mind three paragraphs from Andrius’s remarkable essay:

I know that America has a troubled past, notably slavery, the crushing of natives, the invasion of Mexico, the regime making by the CIA. Yet all these wrongs recede away from the everlasting principles to which Americans commit their country to. Around the world, these principles bring hope for the future, for Americans hold them true not only for themselves, but also for others.

But now I hear from the President that it is most important for America to enforce its values around the world, which of course, means that it is less important to worry what those values are. In other words, others should worry about their values in a way that America need not. This is the ugliness of the British Empire, or the Roman Empire, or any empire, where insiders practice on themselves very different values than they do on others.

A bystander who cares must wonder, if America can allow itself such an unremarkable President, receptive Congress, and acquiescent people, then they must be quite out of touch with those values that make America everlasting. If America succeeds here, then it will not be for having risen to any challenge. America will simply confirm itself on a path towards that violence that will ultimately dissolve it.

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Saturday 09 November 2002

Gasp… iBook prices plummeted!

Commenting on my plan not to buy an iBook or an eMac, Dave Rogers alerted me to the rumors that Apple was about to announce “new iBooks with a minor uptick in the processor speeds and a price reduction” of US$200 (AU$354). It’s a long time since I’ve had a Macintosh but my residual cynicism about Apple Australia led me to believe that the price cut wouldn’t be anything like AU$354 by the time the computers landed down under.

I was right about the price cut but wrong about Apple Australia. The iBook model that would have cost me AU$4014 a week ago (with a spare battery and another AC adapter plus an extra 128MB of RAM) now costs AU$3359. That’s AU$655 cheaper! And the latest model has a faster chip (800MHz instead of 700MHz), bigger hard drive (30MB rather than 20MB), and twice as much VRAM (32MB). What a pity I don’t need a new iBook.

I am curious about one thing though… would I be better off not buying an extra 128MB of RAM, or should I splurge and not buy an extra 256MB? I like RAM (and so does Windows 2000) so I have 288MB in my ThinkPad and 768MB in my desktop PC. My instinct tells me that, even though it’s UNIX under the hood, Mac OS X needs a shitload of RAM to run well. How much should one have in a hypothetical iBook?

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Tuesday 19 November 2002

The deconstructive soapy stud

When AKMA mentioned that he’d “be spending some time with Prof. Derrida next week,” the thought immediately came to mind that I should ask our learned chaplain to kick the old French fart in the shins for me (so deep is my loathing for pomo theory). Two quite different sources forced me to revise my opinion of Derrida.

The first—following a link from the comments on that post—was the essay by Christopher Norris in which he argues convincingly (to me anyway) that Derrida is not a postmodernist at all. The second, more persuasive text, was the Derrida movie (quoted by Jacob Goodson), which provides documentary evidence that the beloved philosopher does the dishes at home. A “deconstructive soapy stud” indeed. AKMA added:

If only he had the good judgment to take up blogging, we’d have a veritable supermodel for the “Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace” calendar. Speaking of which, Jonathon had better get working on the production end of it for it to be ready for holiday gift-giving. Maybe that’s what he’s up to now… .

I didn’t realize I’d been lumbered with the task of actually producing the “Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace” calendar. When I last checked we were bogged down on the issue of Si’s participation, given the level of nudity traditionally required in sudsy-style calendars.

But Derrida’s potential inclusion totally alters the commercial viablility of the project. Couldn’t we quickly set up a blog for him? An el cheapo Blog*Spot account would do. (I’ve just checked and is available—it might even be worth soliciting donations for a $5 a month Blog*Spot Plus account.)

I thought that Derrida might round out the dozen but currently the roster stands at eight (if we tone down the nudity to include Si):

AKMA, Si, Jeff Cheney, Kevin Laurence, Eric Grevstad, Steve Himmer, David Salo, myself.

Derrida would make it nine and Ray Davis has also expressed interest:

If you find your calendar one month short, I’m also an inveterate dishwasher, by the way.

Ray, your presence would be greatly appreciated, assuming you can provide photographic evidence that you are familiar with the latest dishwashing technology (i.e. a Dishmatique-style device). Derrida, on the other hand, gets a free pass—as does David Salo, even though he uses just a dishcloth and a couple of nylon scrubby pads. After all, “the guy who did the Elvish for the Lord of the Rings movies” need make no concessions to modernity.

That leaves two slots. Further nominations are eagerly anticipated (I’m hoping to hear from one of the Wealth Bondage team—the Happy Tutor or Dick Minim preferably, since not in my wildest dreams do I envisage Candidia Cruickshanks as a sudsy stud).

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Wednesday 20 November 2002

Civilians in the front line

Mike Sanders points to a Slate essay in which Christopher Hitchens argues that “civilians are in the front line as never before.”

Where does it come from? This absurd misconception that civilians have, in recent times, been only accidental casualties of war.

The Luftwaffe’s attacks on British cities during World War II (known as The Blitz) were directed primarily against civilians, resulting in just over 50,000 deaths. Partly in retaliation, mainly because of technological inadequacies, RAF Bomber Command, led by Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, switched its focus to night attacks on civilian targets:

It was decided that precision bombing was beyond Bomber Command’s capabilities and when Harris arrived at High Wycombe he found there an eight-day-old directive which laid down a new policy: “The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the civilian population and in particular of the industrial workers.” In the absence of the ability to hit individual factories the whole town was to be attacked and its life brought to a halt. The official administrative buildings, the public utilities, the workers’ homes and, with luck, the factories would all be hit. The new policy became known as Area Bombing.

Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremburg Raid

The RAF attack on Hamburg in mid-1943 and the resulting firestorm killed an estimated 45,000 men, women, and children (according to German records: 13,000 men, 21,000 women and over 8,000 children). Estimates of those killed in the attack on Dresden, in February 1945, are less precise, varying from 50,000 to 250,000. A figure of around 135,000 is commonly accepted.

The commanders of the American Eighth Air Force, on the other hand, refused to commit their aircrews to area bombing: they felt serious moral reservations about attacking the civilian population of Germany and were confident that precision daylight raids by the heavily armed B-17 could accurately strike military targets. Their conviction was sorely tested in raids such as the second attack on Schweinfurt in which 20 per cent of the attacking force were lost (the accepted attrition rate of 5 per cent meant that only 277 out of 1000 men would survive a tour of 25 missions). The Eighth Air Force persisted and, escorted by the long range P-51 Mustang fighter, the B-17s proved the efficacy of daylight precision bombing.

The same tactics employed against Japanese military targets were, however, an unmitigated failure. Meteorological conditions over Japan—a combination of cloud cover and strong high altitude winds—made it almost impossible for the B-29s to bomb accurately. In early 1945, General Curtis Le May, commander of the XXI Bomber Command, decided to switch to area (fire) bombing at night.

In the first raid—on the night of March 9-10, 1945—napalm-based incendiaries killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. According to the most authoratitive source, Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire, during the course of the campaign B-29s destroyed 178 square miles (43 percent) of the built-up areas of sixty-six cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million made homeless. The overwhelming majority of the dead, wounded, and “dehoused” (Sir Arthur Harris’s memorable euphemism) were civilians.

Mother and child: victims of the Tokyo firebombing
Young mother and child, victims of the March 9-10 raid on Tokyo

So, which front line is it, exactly, that civilians are in as never before?

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Thursday 21 November 2002

The Lord of the Email

Hey, Dorothea, I figured it out.

[I can send and receive email from everyone in the known universe, except Dorothea Salo.]

Dorothea thinks “it’s the Internet’s fault” that her replies to my messages hardly ever reach me. I now know better.

The real reason is this: there’s some kind of hex on me because I haven’t yet seen The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dorothea’s husband, David, did the Elvish for the three movies.)

Aside. Although you might think that I’ve italicized the movie title, I actually used the <cite> tag, as recommended by Joe Clark in Building Accessible Websites (I just used it again, for the book title):

<cite></cite> for “citations,” meaning titles (of books, films, plays, television programs, court cases, possibly even ships) and words and phrases quoted for themselves. It must be reiterated that citations are not interchangeable with <em></em> for general emphasis.

And, although I (correctly) indented the previous paragraph with the <blockquote> tag (because I’m quoting a passage from Joe’s book), I’m now aware that I’ve used the <blockquote> tag incorrectly on hundreds of occasions to indent text, such as computer code. As in:

<cite>The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring</cite>

Instead of what I should have been doing all along, which is this:

<cite>The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring</cite>

“But they look exactly the same,” you say. Indeed, but the (correct) second version uses a class style—.indent-left {margin-left: 40px;}—to indent the text.

“Have you gone completely crazy?” you ask. No, I’ve just fallen totally under Joe Clark’s spell. (I hope I don’t get into trouble from Joe, or Mark Pilgrim, or someone, for using pixels instead of ems.)

Where was I?

Right. Dorothea’s and my email problem. I think there may be a solution. The Greater Union Hoyts Village Complex on George Street—where there used to be three multiplexes, owned by three different distributors, now there is a single megaplex—is currently showing The Fellowship of the Ring, partly as a community service to the 0.0000001 per cent of the population who haven’t yet seen it, mostly as a lead-in to the release in Australia on December 18 of The Two Towers.

I’ll go see The Fellowship of the Ring on Saturday afternoon and send Dorothea an email that evening. If that doesn’t work it might simply mean that I need to see the The Two Towers too, which might have to wait until late December. Failing that, the switch to Cornerhost might do the trick (Dorothea’s site is hosted there too). If, after all that, I still don’t receive Dorothea’s emails, it’ll definitely be “the Internet’s fault.”

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Friday 22 November 2002

Moral dilemma

“I want to ask your opinion,” Amy said as she cleared away the plates in the Chinese restaurant tonight. “I’ll bring tea and you tell me.”

Amy has a fourteen-year-old son, Brandon, and a nine-year-old daughter, Brittany. Inexplicably, since I have no children of my own, Amy frequently asks my advice about child-rearing. (I’d love to offer some advice about choosing Chinese names for Chinese-Australian children but I’m too polite.)

She poured the tea for me and continued: “Brittany’s friend, Kelly, stopped going to church six months ago. Last week Kelly asked Brittany if she’d vote for her to be class prefect. What do you think she said?”

I had no idea. In February, Amy told me she was disappointed that her daughter had rejected the opportunity to be a prefect herself. “Good for Brittany,” I replied. “You should be proud of her for having a strong enough character to make up her own mind.”

“What did Brittany tell her friend?” I asked.

“She told Kelly she’ll vote for her if she came to church from now on. What do you think?”

“I’m not sure that was the right thing to do,” I replied. To be honest, I thought Brittany had acted manipulatively—out of a misguided desire to please her parents and the minister of her church. And it seemed out of character, given that she’d had no qualms about disappointing her parents and teacher by rejecting the chance to be a prefect.

Amy was surprised at my response. “I thought she did the right thing,” she told me. “It’s important for Kelly to go to church every Sunday.”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but what’s the use of her going to church if she’s only doing it to become a prefect? God wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

“That’s not true. God would be very happy if Kelly goes to church.”

“Let me put it this way. Going to church is no indicator of good character. Plenty of bad people go to church regularly just as lots of good people never go at all. Brittany should vote for Kelly because she thinks she’ll be a good prefect. Whether or not she goes to church doesn’t matter.”

A group of eight came into the restaurant.

“I have to see to these customer,” Amy said. “We can talk more about this next week.” She hurried away to attend to the group.

As I sat drinking my tea, I recalled my last year in high school, when the senior students had the responsibility of electing the school captain. The popular choice was a boy named Terry Dwyer. He was universally admired: easy-going, academically gifted, a good sportsman, and a natural leader. When he won the election, the headmaster called Terry into his office and told him there was a slight problem. It was widely known that his girlfriend, who attended the local State school, wasn’t a Catholic.

“You’ll have to stop seeing this girl,” said the headmaster, Brother Thomas. “Otherwise I can’t allow you to be school captain.”

Terry Dwyer told the headmaster that he had no interest in being school captain on those terms. Previously admired, he was now venerated as a god. The school heirarchy appointed as captain an arse-licking mediocrity whose father was a generous donor to various fund-raising projects. One of the bright sparks in the Modern History class suggested a nickname for the school captain: Quisling, after the Norwegian Fascist leader who collaborated with the Nazis and led the pro-German government from 1942 until 1945, when he was executed.

I feel sorry for Quisling now, though I felt no sympathy for him when I was seventeen years old. Perhaps having “School Captain” on his resume helped him scramble faster up the ladder, though God knows he paid the price.

And I wonder what lesson Brother Thomas imagined he was teaching, by demanding that a principled young man trade his most important relationship for the shabby honor of being captain of a second-rate Catholic school.

I’ll ask Amy, next week.

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Saturday 23 November 2002

The magic of language

I saw The Fellowship of the Ring this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised. Firstly I should say I watched the movie under almost ideal conditions:

  • the print, which was in pristine condition, was projected in sharp focus from the opening scene to the closing titles;
  • not one member of the audience uttered a single word throughout the screening;
  • within the first minute or so, the guy sitting in front of me got up from his seat—at first I thought he was going to the washroom—walked to the entrance and closed the door so that, apart from the projected image, the cinema was in total darkness.

Like everyone else, I imagine, I was amazed by the excellence of the computer generated images. Yet I was more impressed by how the director, Peter Jackson, moved his camera to confer a sense of epic grandeur, to create a variety of believable worlds, and to propel the story forward.

Unfortunately, I rarely lose myself at the movies. Because I’ve worked on feature films, I hardly ever watch one without subjecting both the technical processes and the storytelling techniques to an ongoing analysis. Yet, from the middle of the film on, I would find myself suddenly awaking—as if from a dream—for I’d become so engrossed in the action unfolding on screen that my analytic faculty was temporarily stilled.

My inner critic is desperate to suggest that it’s not a great movie, since the characters are little more than simple archetypes, the plot is entirely predictable, and the performances are frequently lazy and uneven (Cate Blanchett has less charisma than a stale turnip—she seems to be sleepwalking through most of her performance). And I wish Peter Jackson had focused more on the disintegration of the fellowship.

But to quibble like this is to fall into the same trap that ensnared Germaine Greer and others. In the second part of his Salon essay on The Lord of the Rings, Andrew O’Hehir comments on the horrified response to the news that Tolkien’s epic “had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers’ poll conducted by Britain’s Channel 4 and the Waterstone’s bookstore chain.”

In a lengthy and inadvertently hilarious screed published in the wake of the Channel 4/Waterstone’s poll (whose result she called a “bad dream”), Germaine Greer defines the central characteristic of Tolkienian literature as “flight from reality.” This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.” Although educated in terms that modernist critics and authors had to respect, Tolkien attracted a readership of millions with a disreputable genre and the message that almost everything valued by the modernists was empty and evil…

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used “mythical method” not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the “realist illusion” of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions … He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.

“Thoroughgoing rejection of the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”
“All our views of reality [are] illusions.”
“All forms of human language are already an experiment.”

My value system in a nutshell.

And what a surprise for a lapsed Catholic, to find myself so deeply engaged by and sympathetic to what is, at its heart, a Christian morality tale. I can’t recall a story which speaks so directly to the ongoing problem of evil in the world and that, of course, is why Tolkien is so unpopular with Greer et al. In the words of Joseph Pearce:

Basically, Tolkien’s moral traditionalism, i.e. his belief that good and evil are objectively real, goes against the grain of our philosophically relativist and morally bankrupt age…

The central point is that the moral dimension in The Lord of the Rings is powerfully applicable to our lives. Concepts such as self-sacrifice; the exaltation of the humble; the power of humility versus the destructive and self-negating futility of pride (theologically understood) are at the center of everybody’s lives—even if they don’t realize it!

It’s been a long, strange journey but I’ve come to accept that evil is objectively real. The best way of opposing evil is not so clear—other than to commit oneself to a quest and, in doing so, to act with sincerity and good faith. Perhaps an answer is revealed in the subsequent films of the trilogy. Or, something I would never have imagined, I might benefit from reading The Lord of the Rings.

For now, I carry the memory of one beautiful transcendent moment from The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s when Arwen appears and utters the first words of Elvish. So deep is my belief in the magical power of language that my eyes welled with tears.

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Wednesday 27 November 2002

For a Dancer

Stephanie Kesler wrote (link via Scripting News):

For many of us, our first adult experience with the process of death occurs when one our parents dies.

My first adult experience with death began with a knock on the door around 2am one morning a long time ago. Two policemen gently told me that a close friend, who’d been staying with me until he could find his own apartment, had been killed in a car crash a few hours before. Since his family lived in a remote country town, they asked me to come to the morgue later that day to identify his body. He looked still and white and cold and nothing like the person I had known and loved. I was 22.

I spent the next ten years immersed in death. Another fourteen friends died with startling regularity: motorcycle accidents, cerebral malaria, drowning, hepatitis, suicides, drug overdoses…

Two lovely posts by Loren Webster brought back that grief-stricken period of my life. In each he describes events in his life filtered through a Jackson Browne song.

To Find Out What Is True relates the song For America to Loren’s experiences in Vietnam and America’s lost conscience:

Although I wasn’t one of those who saw the world from “the comfort of a dreamer’s bed,” unless you can call a cot in Vietnam a dreamer’s bed, I, too, joined the army naively believing “in the Motherland.” I found my own “truths” in Vietnam, but America is still “in my blood and my bones,” though I had hoped that we would have learned enough in Vietnam to find new ways of ensuring freedom and justice “for all.”

In About the Size of a Fist Loren Browne’s song In the Shape of a Heart illustrates Loren’s disappointment at the breakdown of his marriage:

Sadly enough, it is possible to live with someone for seventeen years and never know “what she was talking about” and never realize that “she was living without.” Perhaps it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I suspect that it goes much deeper than that. Beliefs that seemed unimportant when young and in love, suddenly seem insurmountable barriers when raising kids.

When I read Loren’s posts, I remembered the Jackson Browne song that gave me hope in the middle of ten years of death: it was For a Dancer, from the 1974 album Late for the Sky:

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down

I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve always thought you’d be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening

I can’t help feeling stupid standing ‘round
Crying as they ease you down
Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know

For a Dancer is a song about the death of a friend, someone we thought would always be with us, and the necessity of embracing life in the face of death. Browne uses the metaphor of a dance to show how you can carry on after the death of someone you loved dearly, celebrating their existence by integrating all the lessons—from them and from “everyone you’ve ever known,” dead or alive—into a dance that is uniquely yours. Because, ultimately, no matter how deeply we love, we must all of us die alone.

Thinking back, I can’t imagine how I could have maintained my hope and faith without For a Dancer. Jackson Browne’s song taught me to accept the arbitrary burden of death, enabled me to make uncertainty one of the defining characteristics of my life, and encouraged me to believe in love and art as antidotes to the meaninglessness of human existence, trusting that “somewhere between the time I arrived and the time I’ll go, there is a reason I was alive that I’ll never know.”

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Thursday 28 November 2002

The art and politics of exclusion

Jeff Ward is scared. He read a book by Judith Butler, winner of the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Fourth Bad Writing Contest, and found it “to be clearly written, understandable, and to the point.” Jeff explained:

I’m really scared that I find Butler’s sentences quite comprehensible. What the hell is happening to me? Have I acquired the virulently pernicious academic gene? Maybe I’m even more terrified by the conversation I had today with the director of the graduate program here. We had a nice talk about my project, in post-structuralist terms that we were both quite comfortable with and she stopped to point out that our conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just talking. Now I’m struck by images of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly where I become reduced to some genetic mutant who drools on his food to digest it. Or worse still, I shrink to an imperceptible size like the Vincent Price version squeaking a nearly inaudible “help me… help me…”

I detest post-structuralist theory because it gutted art practice, subordinating artists to the whims of curators who hate art but love politics and power. Consequently, contemporary art, which used to attract a substantial audience, is now almost totally marginalized, as a tiny coterie of artists, curators, and collectors conduct an abstruse theoretical conversation amongst themselves, while the alienated general audience flocks to exhibitions of antiquities and European masterpieces.

The process that occurred in the art school where I taught for seven years simply mirrored what was happening in literature departments and in academia at large:

‘A typical first-year graduate student in English, now, has a cannier sense of the profession than I had at the age of 40’, [Frederick Crews] complains. ‘What that means is, they’re aiming for one of these little niches - a gender niche, an ethnic niche, or what have you. So their perspectives have already been narrowed. They are completely oriented to the profession, they master the jargon of the profession, and for the rest of their lives they essentially speak to each other.’

But I don’t think Jeff need worry. He bears no resemblance to the graduating BAs mentioned by Crews, who submitted brilliant essays with their graduate school applications and, five or six years later were writing “incomprehensible crap.” Jeff writes with clarity, elegance, and precision. More importantly, his love and enthusiasm for the subjects of his essays—particularly literature and photography (I share these interests)—is evident in every sentence.

I rather see Jeff as someone who, thanks to a happy confluence of factors, is incorruptible. Why? He came to formal education later than most naive and impressionable undergraduates. He’d photographed for many years and therefore understands—in a way no academic possibly could—the relationship between theory and practice. And, as I’ve mentioned, he’s primarily motivated by love: for art, for literature, and for learning itself.

Jeff can enjoy reading Judith Butler and talking post-structuralism with the director of the graduate program because he’s multilingual: he also writes in a way that the rest of of us can understand and appreciate.

It’s his colleague who has me worried, the one who noted that their “conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department.” What petty desire for superiority and control lies beneath that smug remark?

But, hey, what would I know about post-structuralist theory? I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that art and literature are communicative acts, the tangible products of the human need to share our deepest thoughts and feelings, not to exclude as many people as possible.

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Saturday 30 November 2002

Showboating and grandstanding

“We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works…” writes Malcolm Gladwell (link via Arts & Letters Daily) using Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live and Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (about five 18th century inventors) to show that innovation most commonly arises from groups:

…those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. But there’s more to it than that. One of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation…

Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two states—the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity—you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.

Isn’t Gladwell’s image of artists and inventors competing with each other and egging each other on, showboating and grandstanding, an equally accurate description of blogging, at its best?

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour