Sunday 13 January 2002

Someone who could care less about blogging

Pudding-chan

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Sunday 20 January 2002

Flapjacks

Since I am not an accomplished cook I stick to a few tried and tested recipes. Here’s a foolproof one for flapjacks, from The Whole Wheat Heart of Yasha Aginsky (by Yasha Aginsky).

3 farm fresh eggs
1½ cups of milk
½ teaspoon of sea salt
1/3 cup of sunflower oil
3 tablespoons of raw honey
2 cups of whole wheat flour

Blend everything together and chill until ready to use. (The batter will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a week.) Bake on a hot, oiled griddle until browned on both sides. Serve topped with raw honey, pure maple syrup, or a mixture of yoghurt and stewed apricots. (Natsuko likes a topping of fresh fruit salad and maple syrup.)

The recipe works perfectly well with normal eggs, salt, and honey too. Unfortunately the cookbook is out of print; though at the time of this post there was a secondhand copy at Powell’s in Portland, OR.

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Friday 25 January 2002

eczematic, beermeister extraordinaire

Cooper's beer sign

. The pub across the street from the New Wok in Town where I ate dinner tonight has this beautiful glowing Cooper’s sign in one of its windows. I was sitting in the restaurant drinking a Cascade Premium Light. I’d actually ordered Cascade Premium Lager but the new waitress brought me the light beer by mistake and it didn’t seem important enough to make a fuss about. As soon as I looked up and saw the sign, I wished I’d ordered a Coopers Best Extra Stout instead. Except that the New Wok doesn’t stock Coopers.

All of which is just a preamble to writing about this terrific beer site I discovered: RateBeer.com. (Over 44,000 real user ratings of more than 11,600 beers!) The range of beers rated is astonishing and, while the quality of the ratings obviously varies, the knowledge and wit of some users is impressive. I looked up Cascade Premium Light and found this gem by eczematic:

Drank some of this last night when we ran out of anything else. Better than some light beers, having a reasonably pleasant hop aroma, and some cleanish barley grain in the body, but I still get the feeling that I’m a victim of some practical joke where the brewers piss into green bottles and see how many people will buy it because it says “premium”. I think the accelerating drunkenness versus sobering over time graph will show that this stuff actually sends you backwards - it’s the antimatter of the beer cosmos, and should be annihilated.

He gave it a score of 1.4 out of 5. He rates Coopers Best Extra Stout at 4.5. As a point of reference, he gives Anchor Steam Beer a score of 3.6, describing it as the best American beer he’s had. When I checked eczematic’s user profile I discovered he’s only been a member since September 25 last year and in exactly four months he’s rated 552 beers! Each member profile page shows a distribution graph for all the beers rated and there’s a spike in eczematic’s down at 0.5. He’s not xenophobic—his worst ten includes four Australian beers but, I’m pleased to say, Schlitz Red Bull and Schlitz Ice occupy the two spots at the absolute bottom of the barrel. I’ve tasted some wonderful American beer over the years but nothing can erase the memory of two mouthfuls of Schlitz I drank in Vicksburg, MS in 1981.

The really good news is that eczematic lives in Sydney. I’m going to suggest to Garth that the three of us get together and talk drink beer. We might even be able to talk eczematic into starting a beer blog—though given his strenuous tasting schedule he may not have the time.

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Friday 08 February 2002

Brian

Brian sells The Big Issue outside the Newtown supermarket

On my way home yesterday afternoon I photographed Brian outside the supermarket, where he sells The Big Issue most days, apart from Mondays and Fridays when he switches his beat to Newtown railway station. The Big Issue, an Australian offshoot of a UK publication, is an “independent current affairs magazine with a sense of humour sold by the homeless and longterm unemployed on the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.”

Brian is no longer homeless though he does have a great sense of humor and he has been “unemployed” for a number of years—if you define unemployed as selling his magazines for six to eight hours a day, thirteen days a fortnight. He receives half the cover price of AU$3 (US$1.52) for each copy he sells. He’s invariably cheerful and ready for a chat. I tease him about his smoking (he keeps promising to quit), I threaten to report him for not wearing his badge (on the cover of the magazine it says “Please buy from badged vendors only”), and I pretend to have bought the magazine from another vendor. It’s all water off a duck’s back.

Late last year I saw him on a Saturday afternoon selling sausage sandwiches outside the supermarket. I assumed he’d come up with a way of supplementing his magazine income but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It turns out the supermarket chain was running a promotion for the Childrens Hospital and the manager had decided on a sausage sizzle. Brian saw him selling “about three in half an hour” and offered to take over. Through the course of that afternoon and the next, Brian sold enough sandwiches to his regulars and other locals to raise $1000 for the hospital.

Australia is full of people, rich and poor, who complain about the hand they’ve been dealt. Brian isn’t one of them. When I saw him yesterday, he had two reasons to be happy—there’s a story about him in the magazine (that’s his photo on the page he’s holding open) and today is his birthday. This afternoon he’ll be outside the station when I get off the train. I’ll look forward to seeing him so I can give him a gift, which won’t come close to repaying him for all he’s taught me. Brian is someone we call in Australia a “battler.” I’m lucky to know him.

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Saturday 16 February 2002

Pudding-chan

Pudding, Newtown, 13 Feb 02

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Couldn’t disagree with you more

Victor offers a suggestion “to revolutionise American popular culture—it would be to use a much thinner mug for serving coffee at breafast time. The thick white mugs that are used in many establishments are guaranteed to turn that first cup of coffee stone cold.”

The thick white mug is an essential component of the American coffee experience (in a diner at least, I don’t know what kind of mugs they have at Starbucks). I drink my morning coffee out of a thick white mug and the heft and feel of it more than compensate for a slightly lowered temperature.

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Sunday 17 February 2002

The woman of my dreams

“A Melbourne woman today celebrated the opening of a new Starbucks store in her home suburb of St Kilda. ‘I have always hated the taste of coffee, so it’s great that I can now get a coffee without any taste,’ she said. (The Chaser News via Meryland)

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Thick coffee mugs

Coffee cupThis is the kind of thick white coffee mug that so greatly distresses Victor. I suspect that he would find Dave’s coffee mug perfectly acceptable (Dave’s mug is made of thinner, whiter china than mine).

I’ve had this mug for more than twelve years and would be terribly upset if I accidentally broke it. Each time I travel to the US, I tell myself that I should buy a spare or two but I never seem to get around to it.

I just tried to find a supplier via Google and all I could turn up was the Jack Rabbit Coffee Cup (“A great thick coffee cup with the Jack Rabbit Trading Post Logo on the cup.”). One wonders where they could put a logo other than on the cup.

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Sunday 28 April 2002

Dishmatique

DishmatiqueI’m not sure what this reveals about my personality but one of things I loved about being a photographer was having different camera systems, with all kinds of accessories that screwed or snapped together with satisfying clicks. Though not anywhere near as tactile, computers are similar: I have lots of SCSI, USB, and Firewire devices hanging off both my desktop and notebook PCs.

I like the Dishmatique washing up system for the same reason: not only does it have replaceable sponge/scouring heads, but you unscrew the cap on the end and fill the handle with dishwashing detergent, which the Dishmatique automatically dispenses as you clean!

Dishmatique replacement headsEach scouring head has a kind of bayonet mount with a safety catch to ensure that the head cannot work its way loose—no matter how vigorously you scrub.

Best of all, two kinds of interchangeable sponge/scouring heads are available:

  • Non-Scratch White (for delicate china and non-stick cookware) and
  • Heavy Duty Green (for stubbon stains and cast-iron pots and pans).

Given that the Dishmatique is made in England, it amazes me that a Google search on “Dishmatique” yields only two sites: Maria in Finland and Kron International in Sweden.

I can’t imagine facing a pile of dishes without my Dishmatiques (I have two, so that I don’t have to switch heads in mid-wash). I’ll be interested to hear if they’re available elsewhere in the world.

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Wednesday 01 May 2002

The glory of pho

Spring rolls from Pho 236 in NewtownLast week, taking a break from moving my Radio site to Movable Type, Herman Coomans and I had lunch at Pho 236, a Vietnamese place in Newtown, where I live.

Today I had lunch there again with my friend Gerrit Fokkema. We started with a serving of Goi Cuon (cold spring rolls) followed by Pho (noodle soup) with seafood rather than the traditional beef.

Seafood pho from Pho 236 in NewtownIf you’ve never had pho, you should run immediately to the closest pho restaurant and order a bowl (it doesn’t matter what time it is, pho can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner). Both Herman and Gerrit were struck by the delicious flavor, the freshness of the ingredients, and the feeling that you’ve eaten something really healthy. Just writing about it like this makes me want to return tonight, but I’m having dinner at Linda and Jane’s place so I’ll have to wait.

<edited>For those who want to know more about pho, Mai Pham, the owner of the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafe in Sacramento provides a complete history of the dish plus a recipe in this marvellous SF Gate essay.</edited>

Here, she discusses pho’s origins:

Some theorize it was the French who triggered pho, popularizing the use of bones and lesser cuts of beef to make broth. After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved from biftecks? In fact, they believe perhaps it was first created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot au feu for their French masters. The name pho, they suspect, might have even come from feu. But others argue that while the French can take credit for popularizing beef, it was actually the Chinese who inspired the dish with ingredients like noodles, ginger and anise. Then there are still others who claim it was the Chinese, and the Chinese alone, who instigated this culinary wonder.

But regardless of the origin, Chinese or French or both, once at the stove, the Vietnamese were quick to interject their own ideas. They concocted an exciting dish, using ingredients inspired by their foreign rulers but customizing it to include nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the defining characteristic of the local cuisine.

In the 1930s, in part spurred by nationalistic sentiments, some Hanoi scholars wrote passionately about pho, a food that not only cleverly provided all the necessary nourishment in one convenient bowl, but one that also symbolically freed the Vietnamese. At last, the Vietnamese succeeded in their fight for self-determination; finally they were free to express themselves, if only through their pho.

<edited>Now I feel that in ordering seafood pho I haven’t had the authentic pho experience. I’ll make up my mind about that tomorrow. And if you take the time to read Mai Pham on pho, you won’t be able to resist trying a bowl.</edited>

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Thursday 02 May 2002

An American Dishmatique

Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush (photograph by Jeff Cheney)There have been some very exciting developments in the worldwide hunt for the Dishmatique. Kevin Laurence added a comment to the original story, noting that in the UK, three scouring heads are available: White, Green, and Orange. “The orange one is less abrasive than the green and not as smooth as the white,” explained Kevin, adding that the Dishmatique system might be available in France too.

Then tonight, Jeff Cheney emailed me the news that he’d found the American equivalent—the Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush—at Walgreen’s on Market Street in San Francisco.

It’s clear to me at least, from the picture Jeff included, that the American version is superior to the British models we use in Australia. Not only is the scouring head tapered (allowing better access to gunk-filled nooks and crannies) but the handle is calibrated (so that you can add water and detergent in the correct proportions—if you favor diluted detergent for environmental or other reasons). Once again, American know-how transforms excellence into perfection.

Additional Dishmatique clones (Photographs by Jeff Cheney)

<update>Jeff Cheney sent photographs of two more Dishmatique clones that he found at a local Safeway grocery store. “I’m not sure what’s ‘automatic’ about the first one,” he writes, “but I like the aggressive brush on the “Squeeze & Wash” model. Jeff adds that he thinks the Dishmatique “still wins for the best name.” I can’t see how anyone would disagree. Though I do prefer the interchangeable sponge/scourer head to the bristles on the Squeeze & Wash.</update>

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Saturday 11 May 2002

Washing dishes at the University of Blogaria

AKMA writes that reflecting on Carol Carbone’s supplemental addition to DSM-IV (on Identiopathic Personality Disorder) while washing the dishes led him to ponder “the difficulty of thinking critically about the church from within the church.”

Although he has promised to send me a dishwashing photograph, I already know that AKMA does not use the Dishmatique or any of its American variants, since the technical complexity of the Dishmatique discourages any speculation other than Should I switch to the Non-Scratch head for this china salad bowl? or Do I need to top up the handle with detergent?

I remain alert, however, to the possibility that AKMA has developed a postmodern dishwashing method that amplifies one’s capacity for free associative thinking and critical analysis while guaranteeing spotless dishes and utensils. With AKMA’s permission, I will publish the photograph as soon as it arrives.

In a post titled Hands Off My Saint, AKMA responded to what he perceived as Jeff Ward’s unfair slur (since retracted) on St Augustine. I could only barely make sense of the paragraph that Jeff quoted (from On Christian Doctrine) but AKMA pointed to two sources of difficulty: Latin syntax sometimes results in sentences that translate badly into English while the quality of the translation is crucial. AKMA provided two alternative translations, each of which made much better sense (I preferred that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers to Edmund Hill’s).

Does not AKMA’s description of Jeff Ward as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Blogaria imply the existence of other professorial vacancies? I have no objection to AKMA’s appointment as Chancellor of the university as long as fund-raising for the institution is placed in the hands of the Happy Tutor, whose intimate connections with the rich and powerful would surely result in a steady stream of endowments.

Unencumbered by any sense of false modesty, I nominate myself for the Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon Foundation Chair in Early Japanese Literature at the University of Blogaria.

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Sunday 12 May 2002

The dishwashing theologian

True to his word, AKMA has furnished photographic evidence of his commitment to the highest standards of dishwashing excellence.

A.K.M. Adam holding a Liquid Detergent Dish Washer (plus closeup photo of Dish Washer packaging)

Although, as he admitted in a previous post, “the snap-on sponges lack that scrubbing surface that would make the product ideal,” the Liquid Detergent Dish Washer does in fact meet the criteria for a Dishmatique-style product:

  • a handle that is filled with liquid detergent; plus
  • snap-on replaceable sponge heads.

The scouring surface on the snap-on sponge (available in one level of scouring intensity in the USA, two in Australia, and three in the UK) is generally accepted as a refinement rather than an integral part of the design.

Accordingly, I must offer my abject apologies for doubting AKMA’s dishwashing bona fides and, at the same time, express my unbounded admiration for someone who can engage in inner theological debate whilst using a complex dishwashing implement.

(I reject all suggestions that my humble demeanor is related in any way to AKMA’s influence on my recent academic appointment.)

Ralf added a comment to my original Dishmatique post, saying that although he likes “the idea of washing dishes with more or less clean hands” he despairs of finding one in Germany where he lives. The fact that the Dishmatique is available in Sweden and Finland suggests that dishwashing standards may be higher in Scandinavia than in other parts of the European Union (the UK, of course, excepted).

“Maybe someone is willing to send me a box full of dishmatiques with replacement heads (after I sent the money, of course),” adds Ralf.

Having asked for, and received, a tenured professorship at U Blog (without any money changing hands), I am prepared to act as a Dishmatique supplier of last resort. However, I do urge Ralf and anyone else who lusts after the Dishmatique to try a few different supermarkets—after all, Jeff Cheney located three variants in San Francisco in less than 24 hours and AKMA found a fourth in Evanston, Illinois (although in AKMA’s case we cannot discount the possibility of divine intervention).

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Sunday 14 July 2002

Eat a peach

Sun-dried peachInspired by Burningbird’s excellent post On Being a Sensualist, I’ve just eaten a sun-dried peach (the one in this photograph actually—just like Edward Weston who would photograph a green pepper in the morning then slice it up in the salad he and Tina Modotti would eat for lunch). I’d love to eat another, but at AU$39.95 a kilo I’m rationing them so that the five I bought this afternoon will last until the end of the week. (Don’t think I’m not aware that the true sensualist would have no truck with rationing.)

I like dried fruit. Over the years I’ve eaten dried fruits of every description—apricots, sultanas, bananas, raisins, prunes, figs, dates, muscatels, apples, currants—but until last Saturday I’d never had a sun-dried peach. I was at the greengrocer’s, buying some more California cherries, and I’m sure the woman behind the counter must have thought to herself: Anyone who’ll pay $21.95 a kilo for cherries has to be ripe for an upsell to sun-dried peaches.

“Have you tried these?” she asked me innocently, reaching across and plucking a fat, juicy, sun-dried peach from the box. Cherries, peaches, tamarillos… in that order, my favorite fruits.

“Well, to be honest,” I replied, “these cherries are already stretching my budget.” (Surely an authentic sensualist doesn’t know the meaning of the word “extravagant.”)

“Try one,” she said. “On me. Because you’re a good customer.” As they say in the drug business, the first taste is free. And indescribably delicious.

I held out yesterday but today I was back, asking for “just a handful.” Now I’m hooked.

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Monday 22 July 2002

Beautiful

Staff on Sydney trains are typically taciturn and uninformative but on the 8:19 from Newtown to the city this morning we had an unusually talkative conductor: a young woman with, from the sound of her voice over the intercom, a Middle European accent.

“We are waiting for red light to change,” she informed us—with a hard “g” at the end of “waiting”—as the train was briefly delayed just beyond Macdonaldtown station. “We will be going again shortly.”

Then, as the train approached Central, the first station on the inner city loop, she made another announcement:

“Next stop is Central. It is beautiful morning, we are living in beautiful city. All the passengers are beautiful, life is beautiful. I wish you will all have very beautiful day.”

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Wednesday 31 July 2002

Joy in dishwashing

Am I wrong in believing that AKMA is the only Blogarian who blogs doing dishes? As in:

After I collapsed in a heap to nap for the afternoon, I went to the store for Margaret, ate a delicious dinner of gluten-free quiche (with a crust you could never tell was gluten-free if you didn’t already know), washed dishes, and then we headed to the Evanston Megaplex (which is why I haven’t had time to blog today).

(Or could it be an oblique way of saying that he really loves using his Dishmatique?)

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Sunday 11 August 2002

Sorry, no Twinkies

The 1000th Comment Contest winner, Mahesh Shantaram, has claimed his prize by providing me with a shipping address. Although I included photographs of the Dishmatique and a pair of Tim Tams in the contest announcement, Mahesh wrote:

Anyway, I hope to expect this Tim Tam thing, whatever it is, in my snail mail box someday…

But he appears to have figured out that Tim Tams are biscuits/cookies since in a followup email he wrote:

Say can I get Twinkies instead? We don’t get Twinkies in India and I’ve heard so much about it :`(

I don’t think we get Twinkies in Australia (Allan, Victor, or another Australian resident might correct me on this). So it looks like it’s Tim Tams for you, Mahesh. Just make sure you refrigerate them as soon as they arrive.

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Thursday 15 August 2002

The Gemco Li’l Scrubber

Gemco Li'l Scrubber dishwashing apparatusThanks to Burningbird for pointing me to what looked like one of the most exciting developments in dishwashing technology since the original Dishmatique.

Eric Grevstad used his Gemco Li’l Scrubber (apparently not to be confused with the same company’s Li’l Scrubby) as a test subject for a Hardware Central review of the Toshiba PDR-3300, which he describes as the best value he’s seen in a digital camera (a compact 3-megapixel, 2.8X-optical-zoom model, for the low 2-megapixel price of US$349).

As much as Eric might like the PDR-3300, I was far more impressed with the Li’l Scrubber. But Eric cautioned me in an email that the Li’l Scrubber is designed quite differently from the Dishmatique and, as a result, suffers from operational problems:

…you pry off the top to pour in and then push to release the soap — actually not my favorite design, since it’s hard to scrub without squeezing the soap trigger.

I realize now that I got carried away by the appearance of the Li’l Scrubber, as well as by its artful placement with the scourer in the porcelain dishwashing apparatus stand. And, having read Eric’s comprehensive review of the Toshiba camera, I’d be a fool not to trust his evaluation of the Li’l Scrubber.

But another part of me just hankers after one. I think that before trying to obtain my own Li’l Scrubber by mail order from the US, I’d better get a second or third opinion as to its potential. (At first glance it looks as though it would be vastly superior to the Dishmatique for cleaning my Le Creuset cast iron skillet grill.) AKMA and Dorothea Salo’s husband David spring immediately to mind as dishwashing enthusiasts. It’s been a while since we’ve seen David’s byline on a Caveat Lector post—this could be the opportunity he’s been waiting for. Naturally I’ll be most interested in any other first hand experiences with the Gemco Li’l Scrubber.

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Tuesday 20 August 2002

Make that a soda

Mark Pilgrim visualizes having too many drinks at his wedding reception:

This is how it goes, until a full-body numbness mixes in with the adrenaline and the lack of sleep and the awful awful music that I specifically asked the DJ not to play and the general oh-my-God-ness of actually being in the middle of my own wedding, and at this moment I suddenly realize that I’m feeling a little bit tipsy. It is this moment that you must understand, this moment that you do not understand, because you have lived this moment in your own way but never in the way that I have lived this moment, the way that I always live this moment. This is the moment that sets us apart, you and me, husband and wife, alcoholic and not. This is the moment where you switch to soda, but I do not.

When I read Mark’s post, my immediate response was: “Whoa, how are the wedding guests going to handle the “non-alcoholic bar”? But what I was really thinking was: “Whoa, how would I handle a non-alcoholic bar?”

I’d handle it fine, by flicking the switch in my head from “drinking” to “not drinking.” The problem is, though, that the switch can be somewhat stiff and difficult to flick at times.

Truthfully, it shouldn’t be a matter of “handling it.” Because “handling it” implies that “it” needs to be “handled.” It equals alcohol, and handling equals making sure everything stays under control. Which inevitably means rules: don’t drink before the sun has set, don’t drink on weeknights, don’t drink alone, don’t mix your drinks, don’t drink more than two beers and one glass of wine (or one beer and two glasses of wine), drink only low-alcohol beer, stop drinking when your face feels numb… the inexhaustible strategies of the addictive personality. Simpler not to drink at all. But that’s a big ask—when you like the taste, and the comfortable numbness, and the physical act of sipping your drink (I imagine that smoking offers similar pleasures and more).

But, at the wedding reception, I’d drink soda (lemon, lime, & bitters, actually), I’d watch and listen (and be far more present than if I’d had a drink or three), I’d talk and laugh and dance, and I’d be grateful to a host who respected his new wife and himself, and who—in demanding the best of his guests—had offered us all a remarkable gift.

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Friday 23 August 2002

A cat’s tale

In response to repeated demands for photographs of my new cat, here she is:

Cat tail and Ethernet cable

I didn’t give her a name until a couple of days after she arrived and, unfortunately, the name I chose hasn’t really stuck. It’s a Japanese name that begins with an “R” and I realize now that only Japanese speakers will pronounce it correctly. More seriously, a Japanese friend pointed out to me tonight that the name I chose is associated with a tall, elegant, somewhat aloof style of Japanese beauty, whereas this little cat is short, somewhat tubby, and endearingly friendly. My friend thinks I should call her Hanako or Momoko (flower child and peach/pink child, respectively). I’m not so sure. She’s a gray and white cat. I did manage to take a nice photo of her, but I’ll hold off posting it until she has the right name.

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Monday 26 August 2002

Introducing Reimi

Reimi-chan (my new cat)

This is Reimi. I decided to stay with the name I gave her when she first arrived, notwithstanding the problems I mentioned about its pronunciation and meaning. When I consulted an internationally renowned expert on naming animals, she advised me that:

animals, in particular cats and dogs, respond more positively to names that end in a long ‘e’ sound, such as Zoe. If possible, you want to name an animal a two syllable name, ending with the long e sound, such as Joey, Sammy, Kimi, Baby…

That nixed Hanako and Momoko.

The Chinese characters for Reimi

So I considered all the Japanese female names I like that end with a long ‘e’ sound, such as Nami, Fumi, Kimi, and Mami but soon realized that I think of her as Reimi (technically, three syllables in Japanese: re-i-mi). My friend Natsuko got around the fact that she’s not a tall, elegant, aloof cat by suggesting an alternative kanji for rei. So now her name means lovely/companion (rei) and beautiful (mi).

Pronunciation remains a problem. After hearing Natsuko say “Reimi,” my sister Louise asked: “Does it start with an ‘R’ or an ‘L’?”

Both,” replied Natsuko. Or, as Jack Seward explains:

To a layman like myself, the Japanese r sounds like a blending, in equal parts, of the l, d, and r of English. To a scholar of phonetics, it is a single-tap r with the tip of the tongue hitting briefly against the ridge behind the upper teeth and immediately descending. Try saying the English name Eddy, pronouncing the dd only very briefly and touching the tip of the tongue to the ridge behind the upper teeth only very lightly. This should give you a close approximation of the Japanese word eri, meaning collar.

Interestingly, research Professor Patricia Kuhl has conducted over the last 25 years at the University of Washington reveals that, at six months of age, babies of all nationalities can differentiate between sounds no matter what the language. “But over the next six months of life,” as Gregory Roberts writes in this story for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

the babies get even better at perceiving the changes in sounds from their “own” language, the one their parents speak — yet they gradually lose the ability to recognize changes in sounds that don’t exist in their native tongue.

As an example, Kuhl cites the English “r” and “l” sounds, which distinguish between words such as “rake” and “lake.” In the United States, babies from English-speaking homes detect the change from “ra” to “la” when they are 6 months old and get better at it by 12 months.

But in Japanese, there is no such “r” and “l” distinction. In Japan, where babies at 6 months perform as well as their American peers with the “r-l” shift, they can’t tell the difference at a year old.

As for Reimi-chan, she doesn’t seem to care how her name is pronounced, particularly when she’s being called for dinner.

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Sunday 01 September 2002

A Bottlematique?

From Nantucket, AKMA advises me that his Aunt “has a dishwashing device, evidently designed specifically for bottles, that might make a helpful adjunct to the Dishmatique.”

Naturally I’m anxious for details. A photograph, particularly, if AKMA can turn his attention from “looking for a cafe with an open wireless access point” to picking up his digital camera and taking a snap of the bottlewashing implement. You did take your digicam to Nantucket, AKMA, didn’t you?

The abundance of dishwashing devices around the world has suggested a business opportunity. (The US, not surprisingly, seems to have the greatest variety but on my next trip to Japan I’ll spend some time investigating Japanese dishwashing technology. A quick trip to Tokyu Hands in Shibuya should turn up some gems.) I’m thinking about putting together custom dishwashing kits and selling them on the Web. So that someone who (for example) is a home brew enthusiast with lots of cast iron cookware and an aversion to Teflon surfaces could order a bundle consisting of a standard Dishmatique, a Li’l Scrubber, and the bottlewasher favored by AKMA’s Aunt.

Update. Mark Pilgrim returned from his trip to Cupertino to discover that his beloved fianceé had bought and installed a sponge organizer in their sink:

Upon wondering aloud—in a roundabout sort of way—whether this was an example of suburban consumerism run amok, I was informed in no uncertain terms that sponge organizers are specially designed to allow sponges to dry more quickly, and are therefore good for the sponges’ health.

Mark doesn’t make it clear whether said sponges are used for actual dishwashing or merely for wiping down the sink and benches. If even one of the sponges is regularly employed in washing dishes, then I’ll have to add sponge organizers to my online catalog.

(One of the advantages of the Dishmatique is that if you store it on end, the detergent drains to the bottom of the handle and the sponge/scourer head is exposed to a constant flow of air.)

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Tuesday 03 September 2002

Reimi says: “Thank you, Mark!”

Reimi, my new catIn honor of Reimi, my new cat, Mark Pilgrim started a weblog category for cat pictures.

When I just told Reimi, she said that she was honored to be the foundation cat in Mark’s cat pictures category, then asked if there was any kind of prize involving food. I said, not as far as I know, but gave her a handful of Whiskas Cravers Chicken Delights (The crunchy soft centered snack).

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Sunday 08 September 2002

The Tim Tams have landed

From Mahesh Shantaram comes news that his prize for making the 1000th comment on my weblog has finally arrived—happily on his 25th birthday. In a gracious thank-you message, Mahesh told me that my timing impressed him just as much as the Tim Tams:

Given the inherent inefficiencies and sheer unpredictability of all physical postal systems in the world, this is a remarkable feat. You’ve simply outdone my 1000th comment performance.

I have a feeling that Mahesh’s wife may be the main beneficiary of the Tim Tam prize since women consume considerably more than 50% of the Tim Tams produced by Arnotts in Australia. (Tim Tams advertising is directed exclusively towards female consumers.)

Nevertheless, I believe that in the long term Mahesh’s wife would have benefited more if he’d chosen the Dishmatique prize. Once a man falls under the spell of modern dishwashing technology, his loved ones need never again plunge their hands into sudsy water.

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The full dishwashing monty

AKMA reports from Beantown:

Good news for Jonathon: I grabbed snapshots of Si manipulating the Bottlematique. Another dishwasher for the Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace Calendar!

Does the imagination of our peripatetic pastor know no bounds? First he organizes the intellectual blogging elite by establishing the University of Blogaria; now he’s figured out how to commercialize the Blogarian male’s fascination with dishwashing implements. The Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace Calendar, on sale at a quality bookstore near you.

Twelve slots to fill, guys. Plenty of freshly scrubbed hunks to choose from: AKMA, Si, Jeff Cheney, Kevin Laurence, Eric Grevstad, Steve Himmer, myself… nominations are now officially declared open. I assume we’ll all have to appear nude, with sudsy substances deployed in the necessary places.

But David Salo will have to make a stronger commitment to dishwashing modernity than a dishcloth and couple of nylon scrubby pads if he has any expectation of appearing as Mr August.

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Saturday 14 September 2002

Bottlematique?

Close up of BottlematiqueAKMA’s son Si has auditioned for the forthcoming Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace calendar by demonstrating an “anonymous bottle-cleansing device” that AKMA has christened—“for no good reason,” he says (somewhat disingenuously)—the “Bottlematique.”

When AKMA first mentioned the Bottlematique, I had no problem with the name; now that I’ve seen the photographs, I have some doubts. As the acknowledged international authority on the Dishmatique, I’ve always assumed that the “matique” suffix connotes automating the manual dishwashing process in some way—most obviously by dispensing detergent from a hollow handle (see also Li’l Scrubber).

AKMA’s and Si’s “Bottlematique” appears to offer no such automating potential. On the other hand, AKMA might argue that the “matique” suffix may be ironically conferred on any unusual dishwashing device—so perhaps he’s using “Bottlematique” in this post-modernist or post-structuralist sense. Despite my ancestry, I have little enthusiasm for French theory. Rather, my theoretical allegience lies squarely with Adorno and the Frankfurt School.

If it wasn’t late on Saturday night and I wasn’t itching to watch Kate Winslett in Enigma, I’d spend some time searching for an apposite quotation from Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I guess that means that Bottlematique it is. (Though Si wouldn’t even be allowed to buy the calendar I had in mind, let alone appear in it.)

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Tuesday 17 September 2002

An abundance of -matiqueity

AKMA conceived the term “-matiqueity” while simultaneously agreeing with my theory that its essence lies in the device’s “automating the manual dishwashing process in some way—most obviously by dispensing detergent from a hollow handle.”

This breakthrough in the semantics of dishwashing seems to have precipitated the discovery of two more devices, one of which extends the power of matique technology outside the kitchen.

Kevin Laurence reports:

Just when I thought the UK might be losing ground in the washing gadget wars, my wife spotted the Easy-Do Bathmatique in our local hardware store (could the Sudsy Studs Calendar have been her motivation?).

Easy-Do Bathmatique, courtesy of Kevin LaurenceFor the sake of your marriage, Kevin, let’s rather hope that she was motivated by a selfless desire to raise her husband’s matique-cred.

Kevin is correct in assuming that, by virtue of its being fillable, the Bathmatique qualifies as a true “matique”. Intriguingly, as well as coming in “at least two colours,” the Bathmatique can be switched “on and off by rotating the sponge head by 45 degrees.” (From the product packaging, it looks like the sponge head might also be topped with a non-abrasive scourer.) I can only assume that the ON/OFF switching controls the detergent flow. Fillable, switchable, available in two colors, designed to clean an entire bathroom—it would appear that, with the Bathmatique, the UK has returned to the forefront of matique technology. Only fitting, many would say, since my own Dishmatiques are proudly labelled “Made in England.”

As we await Kevin’s photographs of the Bathmatique in action (preferably in the bathroom and the kitchen), Steve Himmer brings news of an American matique device called the Quickie. Steve describes it as “a hollow, transparent plastic handle with a screw-cap at one end and a sponge at the other, perpendicular to the soap-filled shaft.”

Gadzooks, indeed. The hollow handle, screw-cap, and sponge immediately qualify the Quickie as a genuine matique product. But it’s the perpendicular relationship of sponge to handle that’s really exciting: imagine the force you could apply to a dirty surface by pushing perpendicularly instead of pressing laterally. Steve has also promised photographs of the Quickie. My dream of selling dishwashing kits online is looking more and more practicable.

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Sunday 06 October 2002

A stunning new Dishmatique

In a nostalgic post about memories past, Burningbird fondly recalled late April, 2002—mentioning me in the context of two of my favorite tools:

That was the time that Jonathon started his Dishmatique craze, leading to the Sudsy Men of Weblogging. I beat Jonathon’s rollout to MT by a couple of hours, and it seemed like there was a virtual cascade of webloggers switching to Movable Type at that time.

Allan Moult's new DishmatiqueToday, as if on cue, Allan Moult discovered the Dishmatique Flex, the most significant advance in dishwashing technology since the original Dishmatique. Get rid of the Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush, discard the Liquid Detergent Dish Washer, jettison the Gemco Li’l Scrubber, ditch the Bottlematique, dispense with the Easy-Do Bathmatique, abandon the Quickie… consign them all to the dustbin of dishwashing history.

But I’m not going to steal Allan’s thunder. Let him tell you the whole story.

I did, however, turn up some fascinating information about the development of the Dishmatique Flex. Though the new device hasn’t yet been indexed by Google—it’ll be there next month, for sure—buried within all the weblog entries in the search results for “Dishmatique” was a case study by Hyphen Design, the company that designed the new model.

It took Hyphen four months to run the Dishmatique Flex—which they call the Easy-do Dishmatique—through the six design phases: concept generation, styling and ergonomics, concept model, feature innovation, engineering, and production assistance.

For a moment, when I saw Allan’s post, I’d fantasized that Easy-do had discovered our blogging conversation and used our ideas as part of their brief to Hyphen Design. It appears not, if you believe this [annotated] account of the design process:

Hyphen took an existing washing up brush [the Dishmatique] and added patented, marketable features [check Allan’s post to see what they are], while keeping the cost of manufacture low. The product is now selling in supermarkets worldwide [including Woolworths in Hobart], and we are working with Easy-do on a range of future products.

Daniel Neuman, Managing Director, Easy-do Products - “We work very well with Hyphen. They learned from our experience initially, then gave us the fresh ideas to take our product forward. We also have the confidence from the support when it comes to manufacturing.

There’s no Woolworths close to my home so I’ll have to wait until Tuesday, when I’m in the city, to find my own Dishmatique Flex. And, as much as I respect Hyphen’s design, I firmly believe that we could teach Easy-do a thing or two about the Cluetrain.

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Friday 11 October 2002

I sleep, but my heart waketh

Strange… I was going to title this post To sleep, perchance to dream (Shakespeare) and I find that Burningbird got there before me. Lucky I chose a Biblical reference instead. Seems like Bb needs to sleep:

All I’ve wanted to do for the past few weeks is sleep. As soon as the sun goes down, I’m ready for bed. I’m ready for bed now, and it’s only 7:45pm.

Shannon Campbell slept (just the right amount too):

Woke up feeling rested after a solid six hours of sleep. (Anyone else ever hear that theory that you should sleep in blocks three hours? Something having to do with circadian rhythms, or some other nonsense that I failed in biology. [I once got a 13 on an AP Biology test. It was graded on a curve. Of 13.] Supposedly, if you can’t get nine hours, you should only sleep six. And if you can’t get six, you should only sleep three.)

I believe Shannon is out by a factor of two. You should sleep in 90 minute blocks. I know it’s true for me and I’ve tested the theory over the years whenever the topic of sleep comes up in conversation by asking people what time they normally wake up after going to sleep without setting an alarm. It’s always a multiple of 90 minutes (plus or minus 5 minutes): 6hrs, 7.5hrs, 9hrs, 10.5hrs, 12hrs.

If an alarm wakes you in the middle of a 90 minute block, you feel like shit. You’d have been far better off waking up at the end of the previous block—even though you’d have had “less sleep.”

Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D. sums up the research:

Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain-wave patterns. For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less that 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes).

If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes—for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes. In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle. A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed….

In other words, the 90 minute sleep cycle is a scientific and medical fact.

For some reason I’m obsessed about proving this to everyone with whom I talk about sleep. It might be that I really love sleeping. Or, more particularly, dreaming. It’s almost as though I live a parallel life in my dreams. Themes recur, I visit the same locations over and again, I dream in Japanese, I meet up with dead friends, I sort out all kinds of problems…

Tonight in the Chinese restaurant, I asked Phoebe, one of the waitresses, how her art school studies were progressing.

“Only four weeks to go before I finish,” she told me, “but I think I’ll go on to do an honors year. The only problem is I have to specialize and I can’t decide whether to choose painting or photography.”

I’ve always thought it was a miracle that her (Chinese) parents allowed her to go to art school in the first place. There are two other waitresses and—as one might expect—one’s studying accounting and the other business administration.

I told Phoebe that every night from now on, when she turns off the light and rests her head on the pillow, she should ask herself one of two questions:

  • “Which should I choose, photography or painting?” or
  • “Which should I choose, painting or photography?”

(Best not to privilege one over the other.) Her unconscious already knows which path she should follow, it’s simply a matter of allowing her heart to awaken.

When Phoebe came back later with a pot of tea, she said: “I like your idea. I’m going to give it a try.” I thought about mentioning the 90 minute sleep cycle but decided to leave it go—she’s under enough pressure already.

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Tuesday 29 October 2002

Dishmatique Flex

In acknowledgment of AKMA’s snazzy new domain name and in appreciation for his exegesis of the phrase “hallowed be thy name”—both in my comments and on his own blog—I thought I should review the Dishmatique Flex, first reported by Allan Moult a couple of weeks ago.

Imagine my surprise to discover in the dishwashing implement area of the Woolworths Metro store adjacent to Town Hall Station not just the expected Dishmatique Flex PowerPad but an additional device: the Dishmatique Flex Brush.

Dishmatique Flex dishwashing system

While both devices feature the classic hollow detergent-dispensing handle that epitomizes the Dishmatique approach to dishwashing excellence, the handles on the new models have been greatly improved ergonomically: broader and slightly flatter, the Flex handles sit more comfortably in one’s hand, offering a more comfortable grip.

Initially I was dubious about whether the silver non-scratch PowerPad could replace both the Non-Scratch White and Heavy Duty Green pads available for the previous model. But the PowerPad turned out to be tough enough for cast-iron cookware and gentle enough for the Teflon-coated bowl of my rice cooker. The Dishmatique Brush is perfect for cleaning the stainless steel strainer in my Panasonic Juice Extractor. Since the Flex devices use a different style of attachment, the old pads have been obsoleted. Such is the price of progress.

My only quibble is that the screw cap at the end of the handle has been replaced by a flexible rubber cap which forms part of the rubberized handgrip. While there is no longer any risk of losing the screw cap, I am concerned that the rubber may not stand up to years of heavy use.

Putting aside that minor reservation, I’m happy to report that with the Dishmatique Flex system, Easy-Do have taken a superb product and transformed it into an outstanding one. I confidently await their assault on the American market.

[I can’t resist the temptation to explain that, although I’ve been using Photoshop since version 1.0, it took me until today to figure out how to deep-etch the Dishmatique photos by using the pen tool and converting the path to a selection instead of laboriously selecting pixels with the lasso and magic wand tools. What a breakthrough!]

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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 derrida.blogspot.com 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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Saturday 07 December 2002

Progressive lenses for the hyperflexible personality

I need to wear glasses for reading: I have one pair for using the computer and and a slightly stronger pair for reading books. But since I’ve started to work on improving my Japanese reading skills I’ve realized that a single pair for both tasks would be more convenient. So I had my eyes tested today, by a new optometrist who’d been recommended by a friend.

He turned out to be a fascinating person. We chatted about reading foreign languages—I said I had no trouble reading Japanese from either left-to-right or top-to-bottom (the Japanese do both) but that I thought I’d have difficulty with right-to-left languages like Hebrew and Arabic. He told me that he used to be able to read and write Hebrew but that his writing skills had diminished for want of practice. He also mentioned the higher than average proportion of left-handed Israelis (compared to other countries), suggesting that the Hebrew writing system probably makes left-handedness more acceptable. If this is true—and, although a Google search yielded no references, I have no reason to believe it is not—then one would expect it would also be the case in Arab countries.

(I recall that in elementary school the nuns used to force left-handed children to write with their right hand by the simple expedient of tying their left hand behind their back with a length of coarse twine.)

Halfway through the testing procedure, which took nearly 45 minutes, I commented on the fact that I felt a degree of performance anxiety, experienced as a strong desire to provide the “correct answer” to each of the optometrist’s questions about the relative sharpness of individual test charts. He told me that this was quite natural, since I had such a strong emotional investment in the process. (He was right, of course: there are certain Japanese texts that I’m desperate to read in the original rather than as translations. I’d unconsciously linked the success of my Japanese reading project to having the right pair of glasses.)

He said that he listened very carefully to a patient’s voice while conducting these tests, in many cases giving greater emphasis to the emotional resonance of their answers than to the choices they actually made. Why? To avoid the risk of prescribing a lens that is stronger than necessary. He also factored this “emotional coefficient” into his choice of one kind of spectacles over another.

My friend had recommended this optometrist because he’d prescribed spectacles for her husband who, like me, needed to use a computer and read printed material on the desk in front of his monitor. So I went to the appointment expecting that he would recommend the same eyeglasses: progressive lenses, which would provide a smooth transition from intermediate to near. This was, in fact, his recommendation but out of curiosity I asked him about bifocals, segmented lenses with two distinct regions for—in my case—intermediate and near vision.

“I only prescribe bifocals for patients with rigid personalities,” he answered. “In other words, people who see the world in terms of black and white rather than shades of gray. Of course I wouldn’t be having this conversation with someone who needs bifocals.”

The optometrist as psychotherapist, I thought to myself, what an intriguing character.

He had another patient waiting so he took me to the frames department, where I selected a pair of thin black rectangular frames just like the ones I currently wear (chosen after seeing and admiring the spectacles the Wes Studi character wears in Michael Mann’s Heat).

My new eyeglasses should be ready late next week (the anti-reflection coating takes three days more). I’m looking forward to switching my attention seamlessly from screen to printed page, hyperflexible guy that I am.

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Saturday 14 December 2002

A summer cold

Dimetapp Cold and Flu packageI used to boast that taking Echinacea had protected me from colds and the flu for years. Since it’s generally accepted that it loses effectiveness after prolonged use, I’d break up my Echinacea usage by only taking the tablets from the first to the tenth and the sixteenth to the twenty-fifth of each month. But I’ve been careless about it over the past few months and on Thursday I came down with a severe cold. I tried taking a triple Echinacea dose for a couple of days but it was too late. I needed chemical, as distinct from herbal, assistance.

Dimetapp Cold and Flu capsules I haven’t taken Dimetapp for a long time and was happy to see that it was still available. It’s ridiculously expensive compared to the generic equivalent which is, no doubt, equally effective. But I love the DayGlo-colored capsules: bright orange (non-drowsy) for during the day and a kind of teal color for night time (with added Doxylamine Succinate to help you sleep). It’s one of the all-time great packaging jobs—Dimetapp overwhelms the surrounding cold and flu medicines on the pharmacy shelf and, when you pick up and flip open the package, those shiny fat orange and teal capsules look as though they’re bursting with chemical goodness.

So, that’s my cold and flu regime. Echinacea to ward away illness, Dimetapp to relieve the symptoms if I succumb. I guess you could call it the sublime and the ridiculous.

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Sunday 05 January 2003

Dishappointing Dishmatique

Google search: dishmatique

According to Google, fellow-Australian Allan Moult and I remain the world’s leading authorities on the Dishmatique. Since Allan was the first Sudsy Stud to discover the Dishmatique Flex, I called him yesterday morning to ask how he was finding the “improved” Dishmatique after three months of use.

Dishmatique non-scratch PowerPad and handle (top)“I’m having a few problems with it,” he told me, a hint of disappointment evident in his voice—even all the way from Tasmania.

“Mine leaks detergent,” I confessed.

“From both ends!” he added vehemently.

A wave of relief washed over me. At least I wasn’t the only one having problems with the new model. We discussed the Flex’s shortcomings for ten minutes or so, agreeing that Hyphen Design may have been too clever by half in totally revamping the Dishmatique’s detergent delivery mechanism. Instead of a simple hole in the head of the classic—where the sponge/scourer attaches snugly—the Flex model has a complicated sprung-loaded sponge/scourer and a rubber washer in the head. When the Flex is stored head down, detergent leaks out. (Allan told me that he’d even tried reversing the washer, to no avail.)

Dishmatique handle (bottom)Storing the Flex with its head up proves to be no more satisfactory since a stretch rubber end-cap has replaced the tight screw cap of the older model. I admit my initial review of the Dishmatique Flex was overly enthusiastic, given I’d only had it (and the Brush model) for a few days. But at least I foresaw potential problems with the end cap:

My only quibble is that the screw cap at the end of the handle has been replaced by a flexible rubber cap which forms part of the rubberized handgrip. While there is no longer any risk of losing the screw cap, I am concerned that the rubber may not stand up to years of heavy use.

I’ve retired my Dishmatique Flex and have gone back to using my classic Dishmatiques (one fitted with the heavy-duty green sponge-scourer, the other with the non-scratch white attachment). I still use the Flex brush for cleaning my juice extractor.

Allan and I also chatted about our long run at the top of the Google search results for “dishmatique”:

  • my weblog occupies #1, #2, #7, and #8 spots;
  • Allan has #3 and #4;
  • Easy-Do (the manufacturer of the Dishmatique) is #5 and #6;
  • DMPB (a direct mailer for Easy-Do) has #9; and
  • Burningbird comes in at #10.

Easy-Do have significantly improved their ranking over the past year—when I started writing about the Dishmatique they barely made it into the top thirty. But a couple of small changes to their site design catapulted them into the top ten. And the fact that they’ve taken out a Google sponsored-link indicates their seriousness about playing the game. Even so, Easy-Do’s Dishmatique and Dishmatique Flex pages still illustrate perfectly how not to design with high search engine rankings in mind.

For the valuable consideration of a gross of classic Dishmatiques plus a gross each of heavy-duty and non-scratch replacement sponge-scourers (the three-packs, not the two-packs) I’m willing to consult with Easy-Do on how to get their site to the #1 spot on Google. If they come to the party on this, anyone who’s ever expressed interest in the Dishmatique or its imitators—either by posting on their own weblog or by leaving a comment in mine—can look forward to receiving a complete Dishmatique system in the mail.

Gemco Li’l Scrubber update

Turning to other dishwashing news, I received an email and an attached photograph from Norm Jenson (he’s happy for me to publish both):

Norm Jenson's Li'l Scrubber knockoffDoes this qualify as a dishmatique type device. Is it something new or perhaps there has already been a picture of this on your site. It would be easy to miss. I tried google but there are hundred’s of pages of posts by some Delacour Dude about this subject. I looked but didn’t find this exact model, though it certainly may have been there. I found it on my sink, I don’t know where it came from, but I suspect my wife. I tried it out and I like it.

I thought it looked like a cross between a Dishmatique and Eric Grevstad’s Gemco Li’l Scrubber, the one piece of dishwashing apparatus I still lust after (the Gemco has nylon bristles instead of a sponge-scourer).

And, as if cued by Norm’s message, Saundra Doty left the following comment:

Just got a Christmas present from my ex-husband’s present wife. It is the Li’l Scrubber by Gemco.

She presented it to all of us gathered at their home in Clermont, FL for our traditional feast and gift-giving Christmas celebration. She said it was so great that she wanted to share with all of us. She’s a gem and so is the Li’l Scrubber.

But….where do I get it. I live in little ole town of Brooksville, FL..some hour or so away from everywhere. Please help me…I’m in love with the Li’l Scrubber! I am wanting to share this will bugger with all my friends. any suggestions as to the closest place or if I could mail order? Thanks and Happy Holidays to the Sudsmen, whoever they are and if they are the inventors of Li’l Scrubber..God bless them and my hands bless them.

Eric’s no longer blogging, but perhaps someone else can advise Saundra (and me) as to where we can pick up a Li’l Scrubber.

And what a relief to find a female dishwashing enthusiast! When I read the opening paragraph of Tom Jaine’s Guardian review of Escoffier: The King of Chefs, it immediately occurred to me that men approach dishwashing in the same manner:

A wise old cook, veteran of work ruined by guttering fires and smoking chimneys, observed the essential difference between males and females in the kitchen. Men treat a meal as a problem to be solved; women as a series of things to be cooked. Men are preoccupied with tools, performance and manual dexterity. Women just press on. It’s the old antagonism of means and ends.

Happily, Saundra’s comment proves the existence of Sudsy Dames.

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Sunday 12 January 2003

The “idealization of historical ignorance”

From Normative Shift by Coral Bell (The National Interest No. 70)

Whether 300 or 1,300 years in incubation, the conflict between the West and Islam has changed dramatically in the past thirty or forty years. For most of its history, this conflict was about power, land, and religion thought of as a creed armed rather than as a basic moral. Muslims and Christians alike had no argument with the bedrock code of the Hebrew Bible when it came to family, sexual and other fundamental moral obligations and assumptions. But in the last three or four decades, it is the West that moved rapidly away from these fundaments. Having so moved, the West then turned around and, mostly by media and commercial-borne inadvertence, begun exporting these new norms to the world of Islam—where they have caused no little trouble and resentment. The critical normative gap between us and them has widened because we widened it. And yet this obvious fact is hardly ever noted in the West.

From Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History by Joan Didion (The New York Review of Books, Volume L, Number 1):

There was much about this return to New York that I had not expected. I had expected to find the annihilating economy of the event—the way in which it had concentrated the complicated arrangements and misarrangements of the last century into a single irreducible image—being explored, made legible. On the contrary, I found that what had happened was being processed, obscured, systematically leached of history and so of meaning, finally rendered less readable than it had seemed on the morning it happened. As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself. We now had “the loved ones,” we had “the families,” we had “the heroes.”

In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity,” it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

From The Burden by Michael Ignatieff (The New York Times Magazine, 5 January 2003)

Until Sept. 11, successive United States administrations treated their Middle Eastern clients like gas stations. This was part of a larger pattern. After 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet empire, American presidents thought they could have imperial domination on the cheap, ruling the world without putting in place any new imperial architecture — new military alliances, new legal institutions, new international development organisms — for a postcolonial, post-Soviet world.

The Greeks taught the Romans to call this failure hubris. It was also, in the 1990’s, a general failure of the historical imagination, an inability of the post-cold-war West to grasp that the emerging crisis of state order in so many overlapping zones of the world — from Egypt to Afghanistan — would eventually become a security threat at home. Radical Islam would never have succeeded in winning adherents if the Muslim countries that won independence from the European empires had been able to convert dreams of self-determination into the reality of competent, rule-abiding states. America has inherited this crisis of self-determination from the empires of the past. Its solution — to create democracy in Iraq, then hopefully roll out the same happy experiment throughout the Middle East — is both noble and dangerous: noble because, if successful, it will finally give these peoples the self-determination they vainly fought for against the empires of the past; dangerous because, if it fails, there will be nobody left to blame but the Americans.

(Links via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Wednesday 15 January 2003

Minky socks it to the Dishmatique

If anyone qualifies as the Sudsy Dame par excellence it must be Kevin Laurence’s wife: she discovered the Bathmatique (from EasyDo, manufacturers of the Dishmatique) and now she’s unearthed an even more revolutionary dishwashing product, the Minky Dishjet Powerpad!

Though I don’t want to steal Kevin’s thunder, I can reveal that the Powerpad does qualify as a true dishmatique-style product since it has a handle that one fills with liquid detergent plus replaceable sponge/scourer heads. So, why is it revolutionary? Because the Minky Dishjet Powerpad also has:

“an on/off switch built-in to the handle so that although it ‘Dispenses Liquid As It Cleans’, it also ‘Saves Washing Up Liquid.’”

No doubt Allan Moult will share my enthusiasm since both of us were shattered by the Dishmatique Flex leaking detergent problem.

Kevin has lots to say about the Minky Dishjet Powerpad including details of the Minky company’s secret weapon in the war of the dishwashing implements.

I’ve emailed Minky, asking whether they have an Australian distributor. Ain’t competition grand? (And to think I was upset with Apple for going with the KHTML rendering engine!)

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Monday 27 January 2003

Too many babies?

I couldn’t help but think of Dorothea (“Oh, for Mung’s sake, there’s a <censored> baby in my office”) Salo when I called Ayame, one of Natsuko’s nieces, in Japan yesterday morning. No sooner had I offered my congratulations on the arrival of her new baby girl than Ayame informed me that her younger sister’s baby had been born the night before. That’s two new babies in just over a fortnight! Perhaps I should explain…

Natsuko’s sister, Emiko, has three daughters. The eldest, Nami, has a five year old boy and a four year old girl. The middle daughter, Ayame, has a boy (eighteen months) and a new baby girl, born a couple of weeks ago. Her younger sister, Mika, has a girl (also eighteen months) and now a boy, born on Saturday night.

If that’s not enough to send Dorothea into a tailspin, Nami and Ayame and their four children, plus Mika’s little girl are all staying at their mother’s house—Mika and the new baby boy are expected there as soon as she leaves the maternity ward. It’s not uncommon for Japanese women to go back to their mother’s house for a couple of weeks after their baby is born. And, since Nami is very fond of her younger sisters, she’s come along to make up the numbers, so to speak. If I had a copy of Visio, I could lay it all out in an org chart.

Where are all the husbands? With the exception of Emiko’s husband, who works a couple of hours away in Tokyo and lives there during the week, they’re all at their respective houses enjoying a moment’s peace, I imagine. How big is Emiko’s house? Not big at all. It’s a typical Japanese house with the living room, kitchen, and bathroom downstairs and three smallish bedrooms upstairs. Where will they all sleep? At a guess, Emiko will probably sleep in the smallest bedroom, Nami with her two children in another bedroom, and Ayame and Mika and their four in the largest bedroom.

Or they might all pile in together. Whenever I’ve been away with them—to a hot spring inn, for example—we’ve always shared one large room, with fourteen or fifteen futons spread out over the floor. This communal sleeping experience came as something of a shock to someone who likes his privacy but I rapidly became accustomed to it. It’s actually very pleasant to go for a bath and come back to find the evening meal laid out on low tables then to head off for a walk after dinner and return to find the futons laid neatly out in rows.

So it’s not the sleeping arrangements that pose any difficulty. The really pressing question is: How will the washing machine hold up under the strain?

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Monday 17 February 2003

Now don’t you be dishrespectful

Sometimes, when you live in a time zone far removed from many of your blogging pals, you get the feeling that you’re missing out on important stuff—even though, as in my case, I’m currently anywhere between 16 and 19 hours ahead of my American colleagues (so things should happen to me before they happen to them).

I awoke this morning to learn of two critical developments in blogging:

I’d have thought that being “respectful” would confer the kiss of death on any weblog but I never went to an Ivy League university—and, had I wanted to go, Harvard would almost certainly rejected an application from someone variously described as “half-witted” or “a three-quarter wit, and a little change to spare” (unless his parents had “change” in the order of ten or twenty million dollars to spare).

As for Google’s buying Pyra, I’m largely indifferent—at least until the reasons for the purchase become clear. I am pleased, however, that Blog*Spot users can look forward to more reliable hosting.

Even though, as AKMA suggests, one should “never presume to correct the Tutor,” I’m not at all indifferent to seeing my picture of the Dishmatique used without permission or attribution on the Wealth Bondage site (changing the file name from dishmatique.gif to dishmatique2.gif fools no-one, Candidia). And Tutor, you can tell Dick Minim to check every page on this site, but I can save him the time—he won’t find a Creative Commons logo anywhere.

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Tuesday 08 April 2003

The raw and the cooked (Cetacean)

While the world’s attention has been focused on the Middle East, respected Australian environmental scientist, Dr Tim Flannery, has caused a furor by suggesting that “less intelligent whale species are much like sheep and should be sustainably hunted.”

In a paper about to be published in the Quarterly Essay, Dr Flannery, who is director of the South Australian Museum, accuses some “save the whale” campaigners of wooly thinking:

What people fail to realise is that the Cetacea (the group to which whales and dolphins belong) is an extraordinarily diverse group of mammals… It includes relatively large-brained hunters like dolphins and killer whales (which have the demonstrable intelligence of land-based hunters such as dogs) and tiny-brained filter feeders such as the blue whale. These leviathans are aquatic vacuum-cleaners, whose need for intellectual power is slight indeed.

If these animals are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog, is it morally wrong to eat them if they can be harvested sustainably? My view is that at present the anti-whaling lobby is frustrating the attempt to develop a sustainable industry based on these creatures, and is therefore frustrating good management of marine resources.

Arguing that it is these filter feeders—rather than the more intelligent hunters—that Japanese and Norwegian whalers target, Dr Flannery added insult to injury by suggesting that it’s the Japanese who are actually trying “to create a sustainable whaling industry.”

Needless to say, anti-whaling spokespeople were massively unimpressed. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Michael Kennedy, director of Humane Society International in Australia, as saying: “Flannery’s argument only has friends in Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic circles.” Quentin Hanich from Greenpeace told ABC News Online that “even though blue whales might have small brains, there are only around 2,000 left and they need to be preserved.” He added:

“We don’t protect trees because of intelligence or any other vulnerable species because of their intelligence, we protect them because of their importance in the ecosystem and because of their biodiversity values,” he said.

“To me it’s totally irrelevant whether a blue whale is able to play chess or is a filter feeder.”

I might find Mr Hanich’s argument more persuasive if the anti-whaling lobby hadn’t worked so assiduously to persuade us that whales and dolphins shouldn’t be hunted because they are so intelligent. If blue whales are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog and if they can be harvested sustainably—as Dr Flannery suggests—then surely the argument against hunting them falls apart. (Although my case may be weakened or strengthened, depending on one’s viewpoint, by the fact that I’ve eaten sheep, dog, and whale—as well as snake, cat, crocodile, kangaroo, and emu).

For me the most logical position is to be either a carnivore or a vegetarian. Whereas I respect anyone who refuses to eat meat for ethical reasons, I’m happy to eat pretty much anything that’s put on my plate, as long as it’s not a protected species and it’s not still alive. That the issue is frequently discussed on the basis of emotion rather than logic was brought forcefully home to me in a conversation I had with a Chinese woman while I was living in Japan. She was horrified to learn I’d eaten kangaroo—“But they’re so cute,” she told me—while seeing no problem in eating live monkey brains. Accordingly, in Japan I feel OK about eating whale meat that has been legally harvested under the quota allowed by the IWC but won’t eat live lobster sashimi.

As Gregory Jackson writes in this old Asahi Evening News story, “whale still appears periodically on the menu at izakaya bars around the country, but not many restaurants specialize in it.” Kujira-ya (The Whale Restaurant) in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district offers a complete whale-based cuisine including the three dishes I tried: sashimi, steak, and tonkatsu (crumbed and deep-fried). Apart from suggesting the restaurant is difficult to find, which it’s not really—it’s in a basement, not far from the corner of the 109 Building and diagonally opposite the Book One bookstore—this BBC Science/Nature story, titled Dining out on a guilt trip gives an accurate account of the experience, concluding that:

All in all, it is a fascinating and delicious experience - but then I guess animal rights campaigners would say that while whale, veal and paté foie gras may all be tasty, they are also morally unacceptable.

It’ll be interesting to follow Dr Flannery’s suggestion for sustainable whale harvesting though my guess it will have little impact. Gregory Jackson notes researcher Anny Wong’s belief that the reluctance of environmentalists to give up the fight extends beyond whaling itself. As Wong herself says:

The ramifications may be even greater for those environmental movements than for the pro-whaling countries. The latter are fighting for a principle, while the former rely on the anti-whaling campaign for their image, credibility as an environmental group, and for finance. The whale icon is a powerful money raiser.

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Thursday 17 April 2003

Carwash

What does this mean? That I arrive home from having my new car washed to discover that, while I was sitting in the carwash cafe, sipping a flat white and reading the last hundred pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Burningbird was momentarily trapped in a carwash.

Carwash, Cleveland Street, Redfern

What an odd coincidence. I hadn’t owned a car and hadn’t been near a carwash since 1991; but last week a close friend of my mother gave me a 1990 Daihatsu Charade (you can see it in the photograph, beyond the tables—a man in a red coat is shampooing the seat covers).

I don’t really need a car, since I chose where I live very carefully: close to shops, restaurants, swimming pool, hospital, movie theaters, university library, parks. The railway station is a seven minute walk; eight different bus routes pass within five minutes of my house. Whenever I did need a car, I borrowed my mother’s or my sister’s or, most conveniently, Natsuko’s, since she’s only a twenty minute walk away. But Natsuko’s dilapidated Nissan gave up the ghost a few months ago and she’s been at me since then to split the cost of “a five thousand dollars car.”

The Daihatsu turned out to be a five hundred dollars car ($510 actually—US$314 or €287): $343 for some minor repairs, $37 to transfer the registration, $40 for a resident parking permit, and $90 for the deluxe wash, polish, and interior clean—including a “free” cup of coffee. The car seems mechanically fine, it just needed sprucing up.

Reading WG Sebald's Austerlitz at the carwashAlthough the carwash manager told me I’d only have to wait an hour, the job wound up taking twice that long. I didn’t mind. I finished Austerlitz just a few minutes before he came to tell me the car was ready. For those couple of hours I was utterly content, for it’s the last part of the book with which I identify most strongly: Austerlitz’s visit to the Theresienstadt ghetto where his mother was interned, his journey from Prague through Germany to Paris, his failed relationship with Marie de Verneuil (and their unhappy sojourn at Marienbad), his obsessive viewing of the film of Theresienstadt made by the SS, his nervous collapse after visiting the museum of veterinary medicine in the grounds of the Ecole Vétérinaire, his attempts to find in the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale a trace of his vanished father. But, most of all, his yearning for Marie de Verneuil.

WG Sebald's Austerlitz, page 378

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Sunday 19 October 2003

Spirited away

The magical moment of our ninety-minute trip through the Orient Cave occurred when the guide led us into a large chamber, turned out the few dim lights, and left us in the dark for a minute or so.

“Even if you stayed in here for a week,” he told the group, “you still couldn’t see a thing.” I knew he wasn’t exaggerating—it was almost as though one could feel the absolute absence of light.

Then, in an artfully arranged sequence, he turned on the main illumination, astonishing us with the beauty of the limestone formations.

Interior of Orient Cave, Jenolan Caves, NSW

I hadn’t been inside a limestone cave since visiting Ryūsendō (竜泉洞) in Iwate Prefecture in 1991. So I readily agreed to a suggestion by my friends Herman & Fiona that we make a day trip to Jenolan Caves—which I’d visited many years ago, when I was 11 years old. Jenolan Caves is three-and-a-half hours west of Sydney by car. Herman and Fiona live in the upper Blue Mountains, about midway between Sydney and the caves. They picked me up at Springwood station around 11am and, a couple of hours later, three adults and three children were eating lunch, having already booked for the 2:30pm tour of the Orient Cave.

I have no idea which of the three main chambers—Persian, Egyptian, or Indian—was illuminated after we’d been plunged into darkness. But I know I’d have been perfectly happy if the ninety-minute tour had ended right then, after just fifteen minutes. For if Miyazaki’s Spirited Away first made me aware of my animist sympathies, the Orient Cave confirmed them.

So it was mildly disappointing that our guide, whose skilful piece of theater had provoked my transcendental experience, spent the rest of the tour encouraging us to “use our imaginations” by projecting meaning or identity onto the various limestone formations. Fairies, animals, the Medusa’s head, Cleopatra lying on a couch… one by one, the flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, and shawls were drained of their abstract magic. (I tuned out by concentrating on taking photographs—but I’d have been infinitely happier had we been allowed an unmediated interaction with the subterranean landscape.)

A related impulse was at work in Ryūsendō Cave where it seems that neither the natural beauty of the calcite formations nor the astonishing 120 meter deep underground lake were deemed sufficient—for one would turn a corner to be confronted by an exact replica of a prehistoric cave painting from, for example, Lascaux.

Does this need to impose meanings upon (supposedly) inanimate objects spring from our reluctance to acknowledge their innate—although arbitrary—beauty? Or is the desire to name the unknowable a defining characteristic of human behavior? In either case, it seems to me that the pleasure obtained from subjugating natural forms with names often comes at the cost of being blinded to the spirits that animate them.

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Thursday 30 October 2003

Mega Memory™

Do you suffer from these symptoms?

  • Poor Concentration?
  • Short Term Memory Loss?
  • Slow Mental Ability?
  • Mental Exhaustion?
  • Mental Fatigue?
  • Clogged Mind?
  • Forgetfulness?
  • Blankness?
  • Poor Recall?

You may need Mega Memory™!

Mega Memory packageI doubt I would ever have heard of Mega Memory™ had I not mislaid my mobile phone a few months ago. Perhaps I left it in a hotel room—or it might be somewhere in my house. I was packing to go to Melbourne at the beginning of last month and couldn’t find the handset anywhere so I called Telstra to see if anyone had been using it but the customer service representative said that there hadn’t been any calls made from that phone for six weeks. I had her put a bar on the number, just in case. On Monday morning, having finally decided to replace it, I drove to the nearest Telstra shop to choose a new phone and (hopefully) a cheaper monthly plan.

On the way I tuned the car radio to 2UE so I could listen to John Laws, the thinking person’s Rush Limbaugh. I spend so much of my life in a left-liberal ghetto that if I’m in the car on a weekday between 9am and midday—I never turn on the radio at home—I like to catch up via Lawsie with what the majority of Australians think and believe. Which is how I heard the Mega Memory™ advertisement.

Since I started my crash course in reading Japanese a few months ago, I’ve been suffering this low-level anxiety about how I’ll ever remember the twelve hundred kanji and thousands of compound words that I need to know in order to read even tolerably well. On the way home from the Telstra shop—with a new Nokia phone and a ten-dollar-a-month-cheaper plan—I thought briefly about stopping at a pharmacy but decided to wait. I’ve always been skeptical about vitamin supplements—they’re only of any use if your dietary vitamin intake is inadequate and I make sure my diet is healthy and well-balanced.

But on my way back from the pool yesterday afternoon, I dropped by the local pharmacy and walked over to the vitamin section where Karen, the pharmacist, was arranging the stock on the shelves. I asked her if she had any Mega Memory™.

“We sure do,” she replied, plucking a blue packet off the shelf and handing it to me. I was instantly reassured by the picture of the brain, which seems to be pulsing with billions of easily retrievable facts. I turned the package over and read the blurb on the side:

Mega Memory™ is a blend of traditional herbs combined with a special selection of vitamins and amino acids, which help nourish and support healthy brain and memory function. Mega Memory™ may also help to improve alertness, better recall, clear your mind, enhance mental ability, help you think quicker, improve your accuracy and memory retention. Great for students, or anyone who needs to retain a lot of information in a short space of time!

“Do you think it’s actually any good?” I asked her.

“I think it might be. A guy came back after taking it for a few weeks and told me he’d started to remember all these events from his childhood. It contains Gingko biloba and Brahmi which are both supposed to enhance your memory.”

I read the blurb again: Great for students, or anyone who needs to retain a lot of information in a short space of time! That’s definitely me, I thought to myself. I need to retain a lot of kanji and compounds in a short space of time.

I looked at the Consumer Information Panel on the back and saw that Mega Memory™ also contains Schizandra chinensis and Gotu Kola, plus a dozen other ingredients.

“I’ll take it,” I told Karen and followed her back to the cash register.

“That’ll be $29.95,” she said. “Cash or credit?”

“Credit,” I replied, opening the pocket of my sports bag, only to find a $5 note and my gym membership card.

“Oh, I forgot to bring my credit card,” I explained. “I don’t like to take my wallet or a lot of cash to the pool.”

Karen burst out laughing. “You might need this more than you realize.”

Cover, Kevin Trudeau's Mega MemoryI went back and picked up the Mega Memory™ pills later that afternoon. So far, I’ve taken two but I realize it might take a month or so until I start to see the benefit.

There’s also a book, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory: How To Release Your Superpower Memory In 30 Minutes Or Less A Day.

Mega Memory watchI’m trying to read less in English and more in Japanese so the chemical approach is probably best for me. But Karen is a savvy businesswoman so it might be worth suggesting to her that she do a cross-marketing deal with the bookshop two doors up the street: buy a six month supply of Mega Memory™ pills and get the Kevin Trudeau book free.

There’s even a Mega Memory watch, with an integrated 128MB flash drive and a built-in USB cable that tucks neatly into the watch band. Reliable Mass Storage Solution On Your Wrist. I could use it to back up my LexiKAN Flash Card files.

I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the whole Mega Memory concept. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

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Thursday 20 November 2003

Preaching to the converted

A couple of Blogarian colleagues, whose powers of perception are otherwise acute, have mistakenly suggested a pharmacological cause for my recent lull in activity. In the comments on Language Hat’s pointer to Cor Kwant’s gingko site, msg wrote:

Ginkgo supplements for cognitive enhancement: daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
Every three days or so seems to be about it, for my metabolism.

To which Language Hat replied:

Aha, that explains why you haven’t been posting lately, Jonathon!

In the same spirit, this morning Burningbird left a comment on my MegaMemory™ post:

Jonathon, did you forget to blog?

Although I’ve certainly been preoccupied, I’m sure it’s not the MegaMemory™ pills that have had such a drastic effect on my output. One reason is that I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking a lot—as we introverts do—and writing a lot too, then finding myself reluctant to publish what I’ve written. Mainly, I suspect, because of Dave Rogers’ entry about his increasing reluctance to “speak up”. I tried unsuccessfully to summarize Dave’s insights so I trust he won’t mind my quoting his entire post:

I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I’m as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I’ve always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I’m not so sure about that.

Sometimes the urge to speak up is the result of habituated thinking, a conditioned response. Someone writes something that triggers an emotional response, certain automatic behaviors kick in, and before I know it I’m writing some kind of negative response. I can’t think of a case where it did any particular good. I get to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush from the experience, and maybe a couple of people agree with me and I get a little validation; but most of the time, the target of my ire and indignation is unaffected. There is no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It’s all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded and generate a little titillation for the folks who like to watch. I also can’t recall a case when, finding myself on the receiving end, I’ve altered my point of view; especially if it was something I cared enough about to have an opinion that was likely to provoke that kind of response.

I suppose this is a kind of self-censorship, but I think it’s a good thing. One person’s self-censorship is another person’s self-discipline perhaps. Just as I’ve learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside my own mind when I’m behind the wheel, becoming a calmer and safer driver in the process, I’m learning to pay attention not just to what I write, but why I want to write it.

I’ve been working for a long time on a couple of related entries: about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and the Private Jessica Lynch debacle. Obviously I’m convinced that I have something interesting to say about these subjects—despite the fact that both topics have been covered exhaustively by mainstream journalists and webloggers alike. What has held me back is a strong aversion to preaching to the converted, an aversion based on Lisette Model’s philosophy of photography (quoted in the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus):

Photography is not about preaching a truth, rather it’s about discovering a truth.

The camera is an instrument of detection… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Model’s theory of photography translates easily to any form of endeavor, not just to aesthetic practice but also to how one approaches relationships or work or everyday life: with an attitude of curiosity, not certainty.

I suspect it might still be possible for me to write about George W. Bush and Pvt. Lynch but I’d need to eliminate the snarky tone that runs through what I’ve written so far. (I hasten to mention that, although I have a visceral hostility towards Bush and everything he represents, I feel only sympathy for Pvt. Lynch, who is a casualty many times over.)

All this was running through my mind when I read Jeff Ward’s post about Walter Benjamin’s May 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno, in which Benjamin outlined his hopes for starting work on a new project, despite his desperate need to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.

Within a few months Benjamin was dead. I cried when I read the letter, so full of ideas that were never completed. I thought about these fragments, and hoped that I might someday connect them. I get up each day and work, and hope that the Bush nazis will be deposed and my work will continue without interruption. There is a problem with projecting yourself onto tragic figures. It makes you no fun at parties at all.

Jeff’s final paragraph provoked in me a mixture of sadness, anger, and empathy. Sadness for Benjamin whose peerless criticism I’ve always admired, anger at the Bush cabal for their vicious assault on almost everything I value, and empathy with a kindred spirit who simply wants the nightmare to end so he can work without interruption.

Needless to say, Jeff’s characterization of the Bush clique as “nazis” provoked a response:

If there is one universal talent amoung human beings it is the talent (if you can call it that) for fooling ourselves, for believing what we want to believe. It’s not limited to only one side of the political fence. Those who refuse to look at Bush’s faults are as guilty as those who compare Bush to Hitler. Our current president, like those who came before him, is neither a saint nor a monster. He’s just an imperfect human, with his own natural biases, trying to do the world’s hardest job in the world’s biggest fish-bowl.

The great thing about America is that we are free to say whatever we think, no matter how ridiculous it is. We should criticize our leaders - when the criticism stops, then I will be worried - but the only useful criticism is that which originates in the here and now.

Well, actually, no. This is not an accusation made by the kind of idiot leftist who flings epithets like “Nazi” and “Fascist” at anyone slightly to the right of Stalin. The comparison with Hitler and the Nazis is apt, as Jeff Ward persuasively argues in a subsequent post. Your current president—admittedly neither a saint nor a monster—is however a corrupt, hypocritical imposter. And the most useful criticism is not that which “originates in the here and now” but rather that which draws on the experience of the past to better illuminate the “here and now”.

For those who doubt the similarities between the Bush administration and the totalitarian forces that came to power during the Thirties in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, I can only say “Come back after you’ve read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s from cover to cover. Then we can talk some more.” A few weeks ago I sent a copy to a friend. This morning he emailed me, saying: “I’m on the penultimate chapter, “Nippon in China” — and I keep noticing echoes all around me.”

In the introduction, Brendon states the main theme of his book: the manipulation of perception and the distortion of reality.

Propaganda became part of the air people breathed during the 1930s. All the major occurrences of the day were the subject of organised deception which ranged from the big, amplified lie to a delicate economy with the truth. Moreover, many public spectacles were specifically mounted and choreographed with propagandist intent. King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations and his son’s coronation were a democratic riposte to Hitler’s barbaric pageants at Nuremberg. Stalin’s purge trials dramatised a new kind of tyranny. Mussolini’s aerial circuses advertised the virility of Fascism. The unveiling of countless war memorials in France not only marked the nation’s immense sacrifice but stressed its incapacity to face another blood-letting. Hollywood created celluloid myths to banish the Depression and affirm the New Deal. The machinations behind the scenes were at least as important as the performances acted out on the stage.

Of course, to lie is human and deceit has always been the element in which politicians, more than most people, live—their salamander’s fire. “Lord, lord,” said Falstaff, “how this world is given to lying!” Similarly the manufacture of illusion has invariably been part of the business of government. Rulers as remote as Rameses II, Augustus Caesar and Louis XIV have exemplified Montesquieu’s dictum that the splendour surrounding monarchs forms part of their might. Yet the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Never had science and art so combined to promote earthly powers. Goebbels and others developed novel techniques of thought control. New media such as radio and talking pictures were mobilised to sway the masses. Leaders used aircraft to grab the limelight and they emblazoned their messages on the sky. Dictators imposed their version of the truth by means of dogma and terror. They created new cults and persecuted unbelievers. Russia and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, had their own reality. Facts were moulded like plasticine into the approved shape, whether Communist, Aryan, Fascist or imperial.

The defining characteristic of Bush and his administration is the gap between their words and their actions. Yet, despite the fact that Bush’s entire political agenda is built upon a foundation of manipulation and deceit, he manages to evade the consequences of his actions—as Ray Davis explains in his entry titled Causal Fallacy:

To a more extreme extent than we’ve ever known before (the bloated Republican puppets of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties being more openly pulled by the strings of their puppet-masters), the United States is under the power of the consequence-free. Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

To which I would add that Bush is the allegedly devout Christian who, far from driving the money-changers from the temple, has instead encouraged their rapacity whilst facilitating the relentless destruction of the natural environment that is, for Christians of his fundamentalist ilk, God’s own creation.

Louis Menand, in a New Yorker article titled The Devil’s Disciples, quotes Hannah Arendt’s belief that “totalitarian rule… is predicated on the assumption that proving that a thing is true is less effective than acting as though it were true. The Nazis did not invite a discussion of the merits of anti-Semitism; they simply acted out its consequences”.

For Bush & Co, finding evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or establishing a plausible link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden or proving that Saddam was in a position to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was less effective than simply acting as though all of those dubious assertions were true.

Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin’s cousin by marriage and a pupil of Martin Heidegger, established her reputation as a political theorist with her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that Fascism and Communism are regimes of essentially the same type, with shared origins in 19th century anti-Semitism, imperialism, and nationalism, as well as a methodology based upon the systematic deployment of terror. Menand explains that Arendt was interested in the politics of totalitarianism,

…but she was also interested in the metaphysics, in totalitarianism as a mode of being in the world. Terror, she argued, may be experienced as arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary and it is not lawless. Every despot exercises power arbitrarily; all dictators are outside the law. The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. “Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous,” she said. In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle. Man-made laws and political institutions are temporary shelters for vested interests, to be flattened by the winds of destiny. And the winds never cease. Hitler did not talk in terms of his own lifetime. He talked in terms of “the next thousand years.”

“In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle.” And, under Bush, everyone is subordinate to the war on terror. As he boasts of bringing “freedom” to the people of Iraq, a majority of Americans meekly succumb to his sustained attack on the freedoms he swore to uphold and protect.

Like Jeff Ward, I wake up hoping that the Bush nazis will be deposed so that my work can continue without interruption… but I have little optimism that this will happen. For all his rhetoric about liberating Iraq, it’s clear that Bush’s overriding concern is maintaining his grip on power. His exit strategy from Iraq will turn out to be no more principled than, in Joe Duemer’s words, “Nixon’s (non-existent) ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam war”. I agree with Joe that there isn’t “any realistic choice in Iraq but to stay—to stay while doing everything possible to internationalize the occupation under NATO & the UN.”

The war in Iraq was unnecessary & like the war in Vietnam was fought for domestic political purposes; the problem is that when geniuses like McNamara & Perle come to recognize their intellectual & theoretical limitations, it is already too late to avoid the debt of responsibility that genius & intellect & theory has incurred. In for a dime in for a dollar.

But that debt of responsiblility won’t be paid by Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Perle, Wolfowitz or any other members of the consequence-free elite. The debt will be paid by all of us, Americans or not, for years to come.

I apologize for doing exactly what I promised not to do: preaching to the converted. This was not the post I set out to write. Yet, as Brecht understood, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

I particularly apologize to Dave Rogers, for citing then ignoring what I still believe to be the best course of action when faced with the temptation to write about politics. I don’t think this post will do any particular good. I didn’t get any adrenaline rush and, even if a couple of people agree with me, I’m indifferent to whatever validation I may get. The targets of my ire and indignation will be unaffected. There will be no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It was all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded while irritating those who are convinced that people like Jeff Ward and myself are “fooling ourselves”.

But, as Jeff himself said, “I just had to get this out of my system”.

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Wednesday 17 December 2003

Mainstream media—just say no!

Commenting on my post about coping with information overload, Robert Castelo wrote: “The secret of course is filtering”.

Although he has access to 100 cable channels, Robert restricts his viewing to one: BBC4, which—by focusing on arts, culture, documentaries, debate and world cinema— has already done a substantial amount of filtering for him. He refines their filtering by going through the BBC4 schedule and choosing what he wants.

I implemented Robert’s filtering strategy a long time ago: firstly, by refusing to have cable TV installed, thereby restricting myself to five free-to-air networks; and secondly, by mostly watching SBS, the Australian network whose programming policy has, until recently, closely resembled that of BBC4. But SBS has a new Head of Television, New Zealander Shaun Brown, who in the last few months has implemented additional filtering on my behalf by ruthlessly cutting back the world cinema and the arts/culture/documentary programs—part of his plan to move the network downmarket in search of “a ‘younger, groovier’ audience”.

Although I still have a residual loyalty for a few shows that run on the commercial networks—such as The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, and Survivor—the neutering of SBS has made it possible for me to take Robert Castelo’s TV filtering strategy to its logical conclusion. On Monday night, as the final credits rolled on the Survivor Reunion show, I said a silent prayer of thanks that Sandra—and not the odious Lill—had won the million dollars then disconnected the TV from the external antenna.

We’ll see how it goes. If I want to watch a movie, I have plenty to choose from: a few dozen DVDs and a couple of hundred Japanese movies that I taped on VHS as SBS screened them over the past fifteen years. I’m writing this while I’m waiting for the DHL driver to deliver another Ozu DVD box set.

What will I miss on TV this week? A German documentary about the failure of the CIA and FBI to act on intelligence warnings received prior to the September attacks. Underground, Emir Kusturica’s foray through Yugoslav history (which I saw at the cinema). A Spanish documentary about the architect Antoni Gaudi. The Ginkgo Bed (a Korean ghost movie). A profile of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan. NYPD Blue. The 30-minute SBS evening news bulletin. (Shaun Brown hasn’t managed to screw that yet though, given time, he’ll no doubt reshape the news for his younger, groovier audience.)

In other words, no great loss.

I stopped buying the Sydney Morning Herald years ago, though every day I visit the SMH website to stay in touch with local and international events and read the opinion pages. But the quality of writing and analysis that is available from the weblogs I read regularly is vastly superior to anything that the Herald (or any other mainstream publication) has to offer. For example:

So I just deleted the SMH website from the list of sites that load by default every time I open Mozilla Phoenix.

My new motto? Mainstream media—just say no! As tonio wrote in a comment on my Overloaded post:

If there’s something I desperately need to know about, someone will tell me whether I want them to or not, but not having already heard the same thing 50 times on 8 different news stations, radio, and the web makes their telling me a lot more interesting.

But what will I do with all this free time? Go for a walk every day, in addition to swimming laps at the pool. Read a lot more—especially now that I’m starting to read real stories in Japanese by writers such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Natsume Sōseki, and Arishima Takeo. As well as writing the occasional weblog post. Which means that this evening I can start work on the post(s) about Sexual Globalization that I promised Halley Suitt.

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Tuesday 30 December 2003

Conflicting visions

Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

Tony Kushner, Mother Jones interview (via Scott Rosenberg)

At last, someone (a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actually) gets to the essence of why I have such a low regard for “progressive people”—even though I strongly support so many of the policies they espouse.

It’s also why Scott Reynen could write six weeks ago:

reading jonathon delacour’s revelation that he’s “conservative” makes it clear to me that the old left-right axis is almost entirely useless. i generally consider myself “liberal”, but i generally agree with jonathon’s opinions, as expressed in his weblog. so either i’m not really “liberal”, or he’s not really “conservative”, or those words aren’t really important. i strongly suspect the last option

My position on the political compass: Left LibertarianScott made this observation in the context of discussing the Political Compass test, which indicated that he is a “left libertarian”. I took this test eighteen months ago and was also judged to be a left libertarian (although, as you can see from the illustration, I only just slip into that quadrant).

Out of curiosity, I took the test a couple of weeks ago and got exactly the same result.

In his post, Scott took issue with the test’s libertarian vs. authoritarian axis:

while putting “libertarian” at the opposite end of the spectrum as “authoritarian” is something libertarians like to do, i think it’s ridiculous. “authoritarian” is not the opposite of “libertarian”. dictionary.com defines “authoritarian” in part as against individual freedom. the problem is that “libertarian” means both advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state (as dictionary.com recognizes) and “member of the libertarian party”.

In my case, the “libertarian” label is especially meaningless, given that I support maximizing state involvement or intervention in a whole range of sectors, such as:

  • universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits;
  • competition/anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws;
  • environmental safeguards;
  • public transportation;
  • communications and cross-media regulation; and
  • publicly-funded broadcasting.

Anyone reading that list would automatically assume that I’m “liberal” rather than “conservative”. I was initially surprised, however, that when I took the Christian Science Monitor’s Neocon Quiz I turned out—like Joe Duemer—to be a liberal on foreign policy too (the possible categories are Isolationist, Liberal, Realist, Neoconservative).

On reflection, it was clear why I hadn’t been scored as a Realist, the position that would more accurately reflect my views on foreign policy: the Quiz assumes that you’re an American whereas I answered as a non-American, whose foreign policy interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of the United States. Had I answered as an American—or had the Quiz taken into account that non-Americans also use the Internet—I have no doubt that my responses would identify me as a Realist.

That’s the problem with quizzes like this—they don’t map well to the real world.

Scott continues:

i think there’s a real need for something to move us beyond thinking of politics in terms of “left” and “right”, but i don’t think the political compass is a solution. rather than adding another axis, i think we need to get rid of the axes altogether. a new axis just doubles the number of ways in which you can be “with us or against us”.

I’m not sure we can “get rid of the axes altogether” though I think there’s a better way to look at the problem. Before I get to that, however, let me quote from another (more recent) post by Scott Reynen:

a few days ago i unsubscribed myself from yet another conservative weblog. in principle, i believe it’s possible for someone with a liberal bias such as myself to have a reasonable discussion with someone with a conservative bias. but in practice, i’ve found it difficult to find someone with a conservative bias who doesn’t equate my liberal bias with terrorism. of course, the same problem exists with overtly liberal weblogs, which too often equate conservatism with fascism.

maybe this makes sense outside of america, but here i just don’t get it. whether you are a liberal or conservative american, roughly half of the country is in the opposing camp. i don’t understand what sort of views would support the painting of half of all americans as evil. maybe it makes those who agree with the writer feel better about themselves, but isn’t it more important to be changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer? isn’t it a safe assumption that the american government will continue to (albeit poorly) represent both liberal and conservative americans, and will thus be required to find some middle ground? is there no longer a middle ground in american politics?

The polarization to which Scott refers has been skilfully exploited by conservative governments in Australia and the United States, both of whom have nurtured a “politics of terror” as the easiest way of maintaining their grip on power. And polarization works since it’s simpler to see things in terms of black and white, rather than in shades of gray. As for “changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer”, Burningbird outlined the method:

You want to change minds? Find your way into the kind of mind you want to change, and speak the language it can understand. That’ll change minds.

and then pointed to a superb example, David Brooks’ support for gay marriage:

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.

I know from experience how difficult it is to find your way into the mind of someone you love, let alone the mind of someone with whom you profoundly disagree. And equally difficult to find the language to speak your mind in terms that their mind can understand.

As for whether “this [polarization] makes sense outside of America”, it does—though not in quite the same way.

One thing that needs to be said is that “liberal” and “conservative” are not the same in Australia as in the United States. For a start, the main conservative party in Australia is called the Liberal Party, which governs in a coalition with the National Party. So, in our case, the Liberals are the conservatives (and the Australian Labor Party represents what Americans would regard as liberal values).

More importantly, the Australian political spectrum is skewed to the left, compared to the Republican-Democratic axis in the US, as shown in the following illustration:

Comparison of where Australian and American parties lie on the political spectrum

I accept that not just Edward R. Tufte but Australians and Americans of every political persuasion will find fault with my diagram, since it is not merely graphically inept but, more importantly, it is based on nothing more than my entirely subjective analysis of US and Australian political differences. That’s OK, you can use the comments to register your criticisms or make suggestions on how it might be improved. Do not, however, point out that I should have used color more imaginatively—namely red to represent the left and blue for the right. For reasons best known to themselves, Americans use red for the (conservative) Republicans and blue for the (liberal) Democrats. (I’d love to hear Edward Tufte’s view on that.)

Putting to one side my diagram’s shortcomings, I’d argue that similar diagrams—generated by replacing Australia with almost any European, Asian, and South American country—would show a greater or smaller degree of skew compared to the left/right spectrum in the United States. The amount of skew doesn’t really matter since the point I’m trying to make is that when Americans and non-Americans talk about “liberal” and “conservative” they’re not talking about exactly the same thing. Just as I’m a “liberal” on foreign policy when I answer the questions as an Australian, whereas I’d be a “realist” if I answered them as an American.

In my own case, if I were forced to join an Australian political party, I’d opt for the (left) Labor Party. But I’d join the right-wing faction of the Labor Party since the left-wing of the party is populated by Kushner’s progressives, accurately (though unkindly) summed up by conservative columnist PP McGuinness:

It has always been the case that Labor has had a substantial proportion of its membership much preferring the luxury of a highfalutin moral stance in opposition to the inevitable compromises, and sometimes the dirty hands, of practical government.

These are the people for whom [party president Carmen] Lawrence now speaks. Most of the people who usurp the high moral ground do so from a comfortable economic base—they have good jobs (often in the public sector) which give them plenty of leisure, they attend dinner parties with their ilk and sing choruses of hate directed at anyone who challenges their right to govern the world.

They put one hand on their hearts to declare their concerns for the poor and disadvantaged while putting the other hand in the public purse for themselves.

The fact that I would choose to align myself with the hard-headed (and, by the standards of left wing, hard-hearted) pragmatists of Labor’s right wing goes some way to explaining how I can appear to be simultaneously “liberal” and “conservative”, since—as the JD button indicates—it places me close to the conventional political center in Australia but on the left of the Democratic party in the US.

The one thing you can take away from this is that it all depends on your frame of reference.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, and that is to replace the liberal-conservative axis with what Thomas Sowell calls unconstrained and constrained visions of the nature of human beings. This makes a lot more sense to me and it provides a better understanding why “liberals” and “conservatives” hold their respective positions.

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Sowell compares the unconstrained vision expressed by William Godwin with the constrained vision of Adam Smith. Whereas Godwin argued that although human behavior appears to be motivated primarily by self-interest, this egocentric behavior “arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature”. For Godwin, the underlying nature of human potential suggested that “man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved”. Moreover, “Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being ‘of the essence of virtue’, and virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness”.

For Smith, on the other hand, “the moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented… nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision… Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed, Smith attempted to determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint”. In other words, “one of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in tradeoffs rather than solutions”.

Sowell sums up the conflicting visions in these terms:

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a viable and beneficial tradeoff.

Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution… By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.

In my Ozu anniversary post I quoted Donald Richie’s belief that “you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself”. Thus it should be clear that my antipathy towards the unconstrained vision of human nature is based at least partly upon a conviction that intentions count for nothing, that only actions have value.

Although it would be foolish to deny the existence of altruism, the capacity to “directly [feel] other people’s needs as more important than one’s own”, everyday observation suggests that, for the most part, we are no more capable of acting impartially when our own interests or those of our family are concerned than were those who enthused over Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in the years following its publication in 1793.

As a young man and a new recruit to the Labor Party, Paul Keating—in my view Australia’s greatest Prime Minister since John Curtin led a Labor government during World War II—used to meet each week to discuss politics with Jack Lang, the former Premier of New South Wales, who was dismissed from office by the State Governor (representing the British Crown) when, in an attempt to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, he refused to pay interest owed to British banks. Despite his commitment to Labor ideals and social justice, Lang revealed himself as a believer in the constrained vision when he gave Keating this invaluable piece of political advice:

If you’re ever in any doubt as to which horse to back in the Political Stakes, put your money on Self Interest. There’s nothing certain in politics, in racing, or in life itself—but you can be sure of one thing, Self Interest will always be in there, trying its hardest.

This kind of tough pragmatism is anathema to many progressives, who would prefer to maintain their political ideals and their moral purity—even at the cost of remaining ineffectual. But Tony Kushner gets it right in this exchange with the Mother Jones interviewer:

MJ: You’re saying progressives are undone by their own idealism?

TK: The system isn’t about ideals. The country doesn’t elect great leaders. It elects fucked-up people who for reasons of ego want to run the world. Then the citizenry makes them become great.

One of the great Labor leaders in New South Wales was Neville Wran, who was Premier from 1976 to 1986. One of his ministers was asked why Wran had been so successful. “It’s simple,” he replied, “Neville doesn’t believe in anything.”

Which, of course, is not exactly true. What Wran didn’t believe in was ideology for its own sake, and he certainly didn’t believe in “the highest ideals and the best solutions” beloved of proponents of the unconstrained vision. But he definitely believed in “viable and beneficial tradeoffs”. In other words, Neville Wran believed in Deng Xiaoping’s dictum:

「不管白貓、黑貓,逮住老鼠就是好貓。」
“No matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat; if it can catch rats, it’s a good cat.”

I’ve already argued that, in the absence of actions, intentions count for nothing. In the same way, ideals are useless unless they are tempered by a regard for consequences. As Camus said, “It’s better to be wrong by killing no one than to be right with mass graves.”

“In the constrained vision,” writes Thomas Sowell, “whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

There is, underlying this statement, a “thoroughgoing rejection” of what Andrew O’Hehir calls “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress”, a rejection I warmly endorse.

In an earlier post about the decline of romance, I quoted a passage from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. It’s worth quoting again:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

As I wrote back in March, 2002, that passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost.
  • Our gains rarely, if ever, outweigh our losses.
  • The past is precious.
  • Progress is an illusion.

In this light, both my “liberal” and my “conservative” beliefs flow from an acceptance of the constrained vision of human nature.

As I see it, universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits, anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws, environmental safeguards, public transportation, communications and cross-media regulation, and publicly-funded broadcasting are all viable and beneficial tradeoffs that balance the interests of individual, corporation, and government.

Experience shows me that, while free and open markets offer the most effective way of improving living standards, corporations can rarely be trusted to place (for example) the well-being of the environment ahead of the interests of their shareholders. Equally, individuals can not always be trusted to act in the best interests of themselves and their families. The Happy Tutor put it well:

What 95% of the people may tell the pollster is that they love God and want to be happy with him in Heaven, rather than burning in hell with Satan for all eternity. But with their earthly wallet and mortal attention what they buy is violence, perversity, fleshly pleasure, vanity, pride, pain, and death—all that Satan sponsors.

And until we inhabit a Utopia in which nations consistently place the interests of others above their own, I’ll continue to believe that the high moral ground is a poor vantage point from which to conduct foreign policy. Again, the Happy Tutor is correct when he says:

That is why when True Believers rise in political, religious, military or military circles they are so dangerous, for they are at war not only with Terror, but with their own illicit and unacknowledged fascination with evil.

But True Believers exist at both ends of the political spectrum and I fear those on the left as much as those on the right. Both make a claim to virtue and both are equally dangerous; for, as Adam Smith pointed out:

Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.

I’ll finish as I started, with a quote from Tony Kushner:

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: Anyone that the Democrats run against Bush, even the appalling Joe Lieberman, should be a candidate around whom every progressive person in the United States who cares about the country’s future and the future of the world rallies. Money should be thrown at that candidate. And if Ralph Nader runs—if the Green Party makes the terrible mistake of running a presidential candidate—don’t give him your vote. Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

I, on the other hand, will probably vote for the Green Party, in the Senate at least. The trendy inner-city electorate where I live is largely populated by progressives who relish the freedom to indulge their moral purity at little or no personal cost. What an irony that my parliamentary representative, who has an absolutely safe seat, is a leading member of the progressive-left Labor faction that I abhor.

The Senate is a different story entirely. Australians have long shown a preference for a hung Senate in which neither of the major parties (Liberal/National and Labor) have sufficient seats to exercise control and must therefore negotiate with the smaller parties to have their legislation passed. Currently, the balance of power is shared by the Greens, the (centrist) Australian Democrats, and a couple of Independents. I’ve usually voted for the Democrats in the Senate but the party is unraveling. So, as a way of countering the gradual shift to the right in Australian politics, I may well vote for the nutty, naïve, Utopian Greens.

But a vote for the Greens in Australia will have quite different consequences from a vote for the Greens in the United States. As I said before, it all depends on one’s frame of reference. Any American who votes for Ralph Nader, however, deserves another four years of George W. Bush.

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Sunday 29 February 2004

Kankei: relationship or connection

Contrary to expectation, drastically reducing my consumption of alcohol triggered a corresponding decline in my weblog output: my previous post was a couple of months ago, at exactly the time I decided to drink less. I stopped doing other things too—watching television in mid-December and drinking coffee in early February—but the connection between blogging and alcohol seems too strong to ignore.

I wasn’t even a particularly heavy drinker. A beer and a couple of glasses of wine or a couple of beers and a glass of wine is as much as I ever feel like drinking. Over dinner recently, when I told my friend Willem that I’d started on a plan to drink less, he said: “But you never drank much anyway.” It wasn’t the quantity that bothered me as much as the regularity. Drinking was a habit, like watching television had been, and I was curious about whether I could break another habit as easily.

It’s important to understand that I had no desire to quit drinking. I quit a couple of years ago, for six months, without realizing any profound benefits. I thought I would be more productive, that I would make some substantial progress on the book I was writing. But I was disappointed. The quality and quantity of my writing hardly altered. The book remains unfinished, or unstarted, depending on how you look at it. Which I haven’t, for a while.

I respect the resolve of those who, around the same time, decided to quit but I was after something different: I wanted to drink less and, when I did drink, I wanted it to be from choice rather than habit. For me, quitting would simply mean replacing one type of obsessive-compulsive behavior with another.

Since I don’t socialize much, usually about once a week, it made sense that I would drink a lot less if I didn’t drink at home. So I stopped drinking at home. And still had my usual one/two beer(s) and two/one glass(es) of wine when I went out with family or friends. It didn’t take long to realize that—at home at least—I preferred the feeling when I hadn’t had anything to drink to the fuzzy glow that enveloped me after a few drinks. I slept more soundly and woke up with a clear head. Perhaps we’re only meant to consume a certain amount of alcohol during a lifetime and I’d already reached my quota. One day, looking across King Street at the Vintage Cellars liquor store, the Japanese phrase kankei ga nai (“that’s nothing to do with me”) popped unexpectedly into my head. When I had dinner with Nana the other night and the waitress asked if we wanted to see the wine list, I looked at Nana, she shook her head as if to say “Not for me”, and I realized I didn’t feel like drinking either.

Maybe not watching television made it easier. Someone wrote on the We Quit Drinking discussion board:

The worst cravings have been at night when I am watching tv. How do you conquer those cravings?

Not watching TV worked for me, since one habitual behavior (having a few drinks to unwind at the end of the day) appears to have been inextricably associated with another (watching television to while away a couple of hours at the end of the day).

It was also clear that the “don’t drink at home” policy suited my introversion: for someone who finds frequent socializing too much to bear, the penalty attached to drinking socially makes it unattractive to go out merely in order to drink. On the other hand, knowing that I can drink alcohol on occasion subverts my obsessive-compulsive tendency to seek all-or-nothing solutions.

I’m not suggesting that this approach might be useful to anyone else—perhaps it’s not entirely useful to me—since, as I said, not drinking precipitated at least one unhelpful side-effect. I wanted to write about it because the process that led me to lose interest in alcohol remains a mystery to me. Though not to my friend Karl. When I asked what he thought had happened, he replied without hesitation: “You simply substituted one kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior for another.”

I’m not sure that’s true (admittedly I’m ill-qualified to judge). I had expected that drinking less would release a wellspring of energy: not only would I post more frequently to the weblog (and write the entries in less time), but I’d also resume work on my book project and see a dramatic improvement in my Japanese reading skills. Instead, the opposite happened. I was afflicted by a kind of malaise that, at first, reminded me of Dino, the protagonist in Moravia’s La noia (Boredom). The frontispiece blurb in the NYRB edition of the novel starts:

Dino is approaching middle age, and he is consumed with boredom—not just a lack of interest in life, but a feeling of profound disconnection with the world at large.

That wasn’t quite it: life continued to fascinate me. I didn’t stop writing. In fact I wrote as much as I ever had: about movies, pornography, historical events, shunga, Dr Phil, the photographer Diane Arbus, the Japanese stories I was reading… it’s just that I could never bring myself to finish anything.

Nor did I withdraw from my immediate world—rather, in the words of manga artist Takeuchi Akira—I “surrendered to the demands of my social relationships”.

It was more that my feelings of “disconnection with the world at large” had amplified (symbolized initially, I suppose, by detaching the antenna cable from the TV set in December). Outside the tight circle of my family, friends, and interests, the sense of kankei ga nai (“that has nothing to do with me”) had expanded from the Vintage Cellars store to the world at large and then leached back into whatever I wrote.

Partly, this has to do with being in a similar situation to Stavros: him in South Korea, me in Australia, each of us “half a planet away from all the action”. But, unlike the WonderChicken who was cranking out angry, witty, heartfelt posts (like this, this, and this), I found myself succumbing to the kind of dreaminess that nearly overwhelms Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter:

…toward the end of our marriage I became lost in some dreaminess. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and open my eyes to X lying beside me breathing, and not recognize her! Not even know what town I was in, or how old I was, or what life it was, so dense was I in my particular dreaminess. I would lie there and try as best I could to extend not knowing, feel that pleasant soaring-out-of-azimuth-and-attitude sensation I grew to like as long as it would last, while twenty possibilities for who, where, what went by. Until suddenly I would get it right and feel a sense of—what? Loss, I think you would say, though loss of what I don’t know. My son had died, but I’m unwilling to say that was the cause, or that anything is ever the sole cause of anything else. I know that you can dream your way through an otherwise fine life, and never wake up, which is what I almost did. I believe I have survived that now and nearly put dreaminess behind me, though there is a resolute sadness between X and me that our marriage is over, a sadness that does not feel sad. It is the way you feel at a high school reunion when you hear an old song you used to like played late at night, only you are all alone.

“A sadness that does not feel sad.” Something like the feeling one has on returning home after spending time abroad and realizing that, although much has changed, nothing has changed at all. More to the point, the society you were raised in and retained some residual loyalty towards has managed quite well (or badly) while you were away and it hits you that your presence or absence would have had little impact either way.

I didn’t stop reading weblogs. In fact, thanks to FeedDemon, I probably read them more than ever. I kept myself appraised of the “issues du jour”: the Orkut Juggernaut, the Shaming of Marc Canter, the Rise and Fall of Howard Dean, the Rise and Rise of Joe Trippi, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Community, the Echo Chamber… and, underpinning everything, the growing belief that technology—particularly weblog technology—offers a solution to almost any conceivable social, political, economic, or even interpersonal problem. I took it all in, from a distance, dreamily thinking: “Omoshiroi kedo, kankei ga nai…” (“Interesting, but nothing to do with me.”)

Then this morning I read a review of Elisabeth Sifton’s The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, a memoir of growing up as the daughter of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. She wrote about her father:

All his life, he fought against conservatives because they usually disregarded the imperatives of social justice, but he was also skeptical of liberals because they usually radiated implausible optimism…

It’s happening here too, it struck me, so many weblog technologists radiating that same implausible optimism. As Steve Talbott wrote in an article Lago linked to yesterday:

Technology pushers too often fail to recognize the difference between solving a problem and contributing to the health of society. Solving problems is, in fact, one of the easiest ways to sicken society. A technical device or procedure can solve problem X while worsening an underlying condition much more serious than X.

Actions have unintended consequences. As in: I pretty much stopped drinking and immediately fell into a dreaminess that left me disconnected from the world at large and from something—weblogging—that I thought I really loved.

Earlier in the month, responding to Shelley Powers’ Community Member or Writer essay, Loren Webster wrote:

In its better days this blogger felt like he was joining a conversation with Jonathon, Jeff, Shelley, Dave and others who joined in spontaneously. The discussion not only made me consider other’s opinions, but made me rethink my own position so that I could share it with others.

Loren’s right. Something changed. Stavros nailed it in his marvellous, passionate post Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Wonderchicken:

Your $500 blog conferences, your NeckFlex For President consultancies, your sad tawdry whoredances with the old media moronocracy devil, your repetitive linkery to the same tired wanna-be self-declared pundits you met at the last convention, your careful management of a media face that is, in the end, marketable, it makes me want to puke. It kills the spirit of this thing that I was so in love with, and turns it, as avarice and self-regard always does, to shit.

Jeneane Sessum too:

Yes, I do think a divide is emerging within a medium that attracted us initially by its flatness—no one really wielding any more power than another except through the quality of their writing and ideas and the strength and power of their individual voice…

Now bloggers fly hither and yon for conferences, for meetings, to campaign for the latest answer to humanity’s (that’s US humanity, of course) ills. And the physically connected bloggers create this new hyper/physical space where they talk and move and network and exchange money—and where does that leave our online space and those of us who choose not to ride the blog train?

And Shelley Powers:

We talk about the power of this medium, and how it’s going to be an influence in politics and journalism. “Power to the People!” Yet it is also the most vulnerable to pressure from the ‘community’, and therefore the least reliable. Weblogging as a community tool is no different than any other social organization — there will always be subtle, or not so subtle, clues about how you should adjust your behavior to stay a part of the community. Adhere, and you’ll be rewarded; ignore them enough, and eventually you’ll find yourself cut adrift.

And Dave Rogers:

Most of the discussions about “echo chambers” and “group-think” and “community” are carried on within a very narrow set of beliefs which have been cherry-picked to make us feel as good about ourselves as possible, even if they don’t adequately describe the phenomenon they’re trying to address. As long as we can feel “good,” whether that’s advocating for “emergent democracy” or “smart mobs;” or railing against sexism, elitism, or whatever other “-ism” that has provoked a response, then we’re not going to be inclined to look much further into our own behavior, our own beliefs, our own reasoning. It is superfluous to the goal of maintaining an interior state of homeostasis - usually a feeling which can be described as “good” if only by noting its absence as in “I don’t feel comfortable with…” Or, “I’m offended by…” Which is ultimately why we do the things we do: Because it feels “good.” For the most part it works. But at the edges, it doesn’t, and more and more we’re finding ourselves living at the edge. And woe be unto he or she who challenges what makes us feel “good.” They will be made to feel “bad!”

And Lago:

Ernest reminds us that people who are claiming to help others or seek answers to problems may in fact simply be maintaining illusions that achieve positional satisfaction for the members of the community supporting the claims. This brings up an interesting thought exercise, which is to select any particular idea put forward by a group or community (say, “social network software”) and then figure out what it would take to maintain the illusion of that idea, without assuming any particular truth or falsehood. Follow up by asking who gains from the maintenance of such an illusion, and who loses if that illusion is broken. Might we find that the very people who spend the most effort enforcing hegemony are the ones who have the most at stake in maintaining the illusion, maximizing positional satisfaction without regard for the greater context of their activities? And if, as Gellner claims, most people are engaged in this activity, how can we then break out of these illusions that give us so much satisfaction?

What’s also changed is that this kind of pushback is now dismissed as “negativity” because it doesn’t meet some nebulous definition of polite discourse. I couldn’t help thinking of Stephen King’s observation:

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

There’s no way of happily resolving the argument. What Stavros described as

the steady transformation of this new thing of ours, this weblogging, webwriting, webwrangling thing, into a mirror of the same old evil topdown medium of the kind that has failed us all so miserably in the past

will continue unabated—it’s led, and supported, by good people with the purest intentions, albeit with a shaky grasp of the Law of Unintended Consequences. But the spirit of this thing we were all so in love with—which for me, in its best moments, has always been a celebration of the beauty and sadness of everyday life—is indestructible (as long as the dabs of grit keep seeping into the oyster shells).

So the WonderChicken’s lament that

The weblogging gangs of old, the ones I felt a part of, well, they still are loosely bound, but the threads are so thin now that they are almost invisible.

is pretty much the only thing he’s written lately that I can’t wholeheartedly endorse. The threads might be thin and almost invisible but they remain resilient and strong. They’ve drawn me out of my dreaminess and reconnected me, replacing kankei ga nai with missetsuna kankei ga aru (“I’m intimately related to this”). And if, like Frank Bascombe, “I have survived that now and nearly put dreaminess behind me”, it’s thanks to the insistent tugging of those golden threads.

We’ll see how it goes.

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Saturday 24 April 2004

The answer

Billboard for www.jesuschrist.org.au showing young woman looking wistfully over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend with the ocean in the background and the caption Jesus is the answer

A photographer for nearly twenty years, I thought I could read pictures, particularly easy ones, like advertising billboards. The fact that my alt text is unusually long suggests that this one—or rather its intent—mystifies me:

Billboard for www.jesuschrist.org.au showing young woman looking wistfully over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend, with the ocean in the background and the caption "Jesus is the answer"

The Jesus is the Answer website explains:

The Men of Integrity ministry are running a national outdoor advertising campaign called ‘Jesus is the Answer’ using 24 sheet (6 metre x 3 metre) billboards. It is designed to give a stronger voice to Jesus through a simple yet powerful Christian message ‘Jesus is the Answer’.

This campaign aims to reach the majority of hard to get people with time-poor fast-paced lives. Outdoor advertising is seen and remembered by a greater proportion of 16 to 44 year olds. Especially low media consumption youth audiences, time-poor executives, management, professionals, white collar commuters and shoppers of both sexes.

Men of Integrity’s aim is to present Jesus as the answer in an ever increasingly demanding and self centred life. You best serve man by showing him that God remembers and cares about him.

Jesus is the door to love without conditions.

‘Jesus is the Answer’ Billboards will give people the reminder, invitation and open door to come home to Him. So those who feel lonely, judged, separated, suffering with fear may know Jesus’ compassion and unconditional love for them.

Young woman looking anxiously over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriendI think I’m in some state of awe at how skilfully the photograph—and, by extension, the billboard—has been constructed:

  • the two bodies, merged into one, as a symbol of the love relationship between the girl and her boyfriend;
  • the wistful (regretful? dissatisfied? anxious?) expression on her face, signifying her loneliness, her sense of being judged, her feelings of separation and fear—precisely at the moment most young woman might have imagined as the fulfillment of all their dreams—being held tightly in the arms of the man they love;
  • the limitless ocean of God’s love in the background and the implied suggestion that human love is an illusion, that Jesus’ unconditional love is the only love worth committing to.

It’s undeniable that, for a significant proportion of the population, Jesus is the answer “in an ever increasingly demanding and self centred life”. But isn’t it clear to Christians and non-Christians alike that the engine of our “self-centered life” is fuelled primarily by the relentless pursuit of material things and worldly success? Not by human love and affection, wherever one may find it or however it is expressed.

Am I getting this wrong? Am I missing something?

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Tuesday 11 May 2004

Chills

Centralni Lazne hotel in MarienbadThough I was hardly thrilled when the doctor told me ten days ago that I have pleurisy, I did catch myself thinking, “Well, that’s a relief.” Better to be diagnosed with a “real” ailment than to feel as though I’d never shake the flu I contracted more than a month ago. And the word “pleurisy” has such romantic associations—it makes me feel that I should be taking a rest cure at a spa hotel in Marienbad (even though my only remaining symptom is a sharp pain at the top of my chest when I breathe in deeply).

My doctor wrote referrals for a blood count and a chest X-ray, just to be sure that pneumonia wasn’t lurking around. When I saw her again last Friday, she assured me that I was basically fine, that there was no point my taking the foul-tasting Senega & Ammonia cough mixture my mother had recommended, and that all I could do was to take it easy—that I’d gradually get better over the next couple of weeks. When I admitted I should have taken a week off as soon as I realized I was ill, instead of a just a couple of days, she said, “You were really sick. It can take four to six weeks to recover from this strain of viral influenza.”

My friend Karl, who is also a doctor, pointed out that I should have had a flu shot once the weather turned cold. I’m not against immunization but I’d wondered whether the prevention might be worse than the disease. Now I know better. Since there are no drugs I can take to speed my recovery, I thought about alternative remedies. A little Googling turned up Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberose) so I ordered some from a herbal dispensary in Tasmania (if it doesn’t work, I can get Allan Moult to go round and ask for my money back).

Unlike Karl or my GP, my mother holds to the belief that colds and influenza are always the result of “catching a chill” rather than from contact with an infectious person or object. I’m not convinced, but while lying in bed a few days ago, I gave some thought to any chill-inducing events that might have caused or exacerbated my flu and had no trouble coming up with seven: haircut, hat, ice-skating, pajamas, swimming, echinacea, and Windows XP.

I usually go to the barber every two or three weeks and always have the same haircut: #2 clippers all over, tapered—not shaved square—at the back, and an eyebrow trim. For some reason (perhaps I’d seen someone with really short hair in a movie) I decided to ask for the #1½ clippers, thinking they would leave my hair 25% shorter (six millimeters rather than the usual eight). But I walked out into the frosty autumn evening with hair four millimeters long—I measured it when I got home—wondering how I could have been so stupid.

Mens fur hat with ear flapsI don’t often wear hats but even if I’d had a hat on this occasion it may not have protected me since hat etiquette would have prevented me from putting it on until I was outside the barber shop, by which time the chill might already have entered through my nearly bald head. On the other hand, if the effect of a chill is not instantaneous, a hat might have protected me during the five minute walk home. Since I like having short hair, even in winter, and I’m now anxious about catching another chill, I’ve started wearing a baseball cap or a woolen beanie whenever I go out. But as autumn turns into winter I’m thinking a hat with ear flaps might be better. This Mens hat with ear flaps made from shorn New Zealand possum fur looks good, though I don’t think I want to spend US$175. (I’m hoping our resident hat expert will offer an opinion as to the efficacy of hats as a protection against chills.)

I did wear my woolen beanie when I went ice-skating with my friend Nana and her niece, but it offered no protection from nine year old Mai who glided up behind me and tapped me on the arm, giving me such a surprise that lost my precarious balance and fell flat on my back. As I lay winded on the ice, with Nana and Mai looking anxious and everyone else skating nonchalantly around me, I could feel the cold seeping through sweater and T-shirt into my bones.

Section of citrus patterned pajamas, showing nine circular orange slicesSydney weather is mild enough for one to sleep in the nude so I haven’t worn pajamas since I was a teenager living in my parents house. But when the temperature dropped suddenly one night towards the end of March there may have been a chill hiding in a corner of my bedroom, waiting to pounce. Not wanting to take any more chances, I went to Gowings department store last Thursday to buy a pair of pajamas and was surprised to see an array of brightly patterned pajama bottoms. The lady in charge of the sleepwear department explained that lots of people don’t like pajama tops because the buttons are uncomfortable to lie on, so Gowings offers pajama bottoms that you can team with a loose T-shirt. “What a great idea,” I thought to myself, and bought a citrus-patterned pair to try. The pajama bottom & T-shirt combo works so well that I think I’ll buy another pair.

Perhaps I was foolish to go swimming just a week after I’d spent the weekend in bed, though when I called Dr Karl to check he assured me there’d be no problem. The pool certainly felt chilly when I dived in and there may have been more chills awaiting me on the walk home, particularly since at that point I hadn’t taken to wearing hats.

Echinacea purpurea plantMaybe echinacea doesn’t work as I’d imagined, though I’ve taken it diligently for years—from the first to the tenth of each month and from the sixteenth to the twenty-fifth. The fact that I can’t recall the last serious cold or flu I had before this might simply be due to a placebo effect. In any case, it seems that echinacea is only really effective for relieving the symptoms once the cold or flu has started. I must be a sucker for natural remedies because I still have high hopes for the Pleurisy Root.

Deep down, however, I think Windows XP is to blame. I started feeling sick on March 31, a few days after going ice-skating, but it wasn’t until April 3 that I was able to spend a Saturday in bed. The following day, Sunday 4 April, I woke up and turned on my desktop computer to quickly check my email only to have Windows XP refuse to load because a system file was missing or corrupt. A chill went down my spine. Attempts to repair the installation failed. I’d have to reinstall. Mark Pilgrim might be able to reinstall Windows XP in five hours or less but, even though I had a Ghost image of Windows XP, in my weakened state it took me the best part of five days—the week I should have been resting in bed—to reinstall all my applications, troubleshoot various video driver, mouse, and hard drive problems, and carefully create full Ghost images so next time (hopefully) I can reinstall everything in five minutes. And there will be a next time. Windows applications are, by-and-large, excellent but the operating system itself is a joke. If there are, as Robert Scoble suggests, all these “smart people” working at Microsoft, why don’t they stop dreaming up unnecessary “cool new features” and turn their attention to fixing what doesn’t work?

Needless to say, this wretched affair—along with Gary Snyder’s paean to his Mac—has reignited my interest in buying a Macintosh. I’d be grateful if anyone who has firsthand experience of using Virtual PC could leave a comment. (Unfortunately Microsoft acquired Connectix so it’s now Microsoft Virtual PC: a 45-day trial version is available for Windows but—not surprisingly—there’s no trial Macintosh version.)

Anyway, to cut a long story short (as Halley Suitt recommends), I’m feeling a lot better now, having rested for much of the past week, thanks to an ingenious suggestion by Shelley Powers (which can be the subject of another post).

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Saturday 19 June 2004

Forty years ago today

Forty years ago today I went to a Beatles concert, one of six shows the band gave in Sydney in June, 1964.

Nowadays I never listen to the Beatles. In Australia we got the British albums released by EMI on the Parlophone label and, looking at this complete discography, I realize I wouldn’t mind listening to one or two songs. But if I never again hear Yesterday, Michelle, or The Long and Winding Road, I’ll die a happy man. For a year or so, however, I loved their music. I was—until June 19, 1964—a Beatles fan.

Oddly, I was the only one in my high school who saw the Beatles live. All my classmates thought I was an idiot for going and a few of the Marist Brothers who taught me were openly hostile—I can’t recall whether the phrase “devil’s music” cropped up, though it probably did.

The Beatles concerts were staged at 6pm and 8pm on June 18, 19, and 20 at the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. The Stadium was an old bloodhouse: originally built in the early 1900s to stage boxing and wrestling bouts, by the fifties the American expatriate promoter Lee Gordon had turned it into a popular entertainment venue. At that time the Opera House and the Sydney Entertainment Centre had yet to be built so the Stadium was the only arena that could hold enough fans to make shows by international acts financially viable.

As Greg Tingle explains,

It was built as a circular structure and was unlike any other, except a much smaller version in Newcastle. Every major entertainment act from [Abbot] and Costello, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra to all the Rockers except Elvis and Bing Crosby performed there to the 11,000 screaming fans sitting either on chairs or benches. Way up the back the benches were long and hard and that back area was called ‘The Bleachers’.

The whole place was made out of corrugated iron sheets without any linings and the natural echo was amazing. When the music turned up, the sound enveloped back on itself and was very hard to decipher although it suited the slap echo type of R’n’R! Once the audience started screaming it was impossible to hear anything, even on stage.

Dakota Staton performing at the Sydney StadiumThis photograph, one of a set of Stadium Jazz photographs from the Eric Child collection, shows a Dakota Staton practice session (which is why there’s no audience) and amply conveys how primitive the Stadium was. In Greg Tingle’s words,

The stage itself was circular and slowly rotated so the star could be seen by everyone as it turned, however it didn’t make a full rotation. Once it reached a certain point it went into reverse and started going back the other way. Many an act nearly fell at this point as the motion was anything but smooth. Bob Dillon [sic] had to ask one of his band to catch him.

I’d seen Hopalong Cassidy and Abbott & Costello at the Stadium when I was a kid and there I was, back again for the Beatles’ 8pm show, on a cold June night in 1964. I was too young to have a girlfriend and none of my friends had wanted to go with me so I took my seat in the bleachers and waited for the show to start. I was surrounded by girls: my own age, younger, older.

There probably was a support act but I can’t remember who it was and it didn’t matter anyway. At some point, long before the Beatles appeared, the screaming began. When the Fab Four finally hit the stage, it was impossible to hear a single note they were playing. Ten minutes or so into their half hour performance, I noticed a familiar though unexpected smell. I looked down at the concrete floor and saw a puddle of liquid. For a moment I thought the girl beside me had spilt a drink but then I realized she’d wet her pants in excitement.

(Years later, at a performance of the Peking Opera in Beijing, I was just as surprised to hear a splashing sound behind me and, looking down, to see a trickle of pungent liquid flowing between my feet. An old man behind me had decided to urinate, not out of excitement but because he couldn’t be bothered getting up to go to the washroom.)

Album cover: The Freewheelin Bob DylanThe Beatles finally left the stage, leaving in their wake ten thousand sobbing teenage girls and at least one disillusioned former fan. “What a waste of time and money”, I thought to myself. I switched my allegiance to the Rolling Stones and, more seriously, to Bob Dylan. Looking at the album covers on this 1962-1969 Dylan discography gives me goosebumps, and reading through the song titles brings back a rush of wonderful memories, making me recall to what an extent Bob Dylan’s music was the soundtrack for my late teens and early twenties. The cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with Bob and Susie Rotolo walking down a snow-covered New York street says it all.

As for the Beatles, all I recall is sitting in the Sydney Stadium after the concert was over, gazing at the glistening wooden benches all around me and breathing in the acrid stench of fresh piss.

“Whatever happens to a boy during the winter he’s 16 can mark him for life.”

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Sunday 12 September 2004

China Doll

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in red plastic potI never realized, until I bought a new indoor plant this week, that in England someone with a natural ability in growing plants is said to have “green fingers”. In Australia I’ve only ever heard the American equivalent: “green thumb”. But this morning, while writing an essay in Japanese about my new plant, I found that the entry for gardening (園芸, engei ) in my Kenkyūsha dictionary included:

園芸が上手である be a good gardener; (米) have a green thumb; (英) have green fingers;

米 (bei) and 英 (ei) are the characters used in Japan to refer to America and England respectively; so that 米国 (beikoku) and 米語 (beigo) mean the United States and US English respectively—although アメリカ (amerika) is most commonly used to refer to the country—while 英国 (eikoku) and 英語 (eigo) mean England (or Great Britain) and the English language—similarly, イギリス (igirisu) is commonly used to refer to England.

And sure enough, when I checked my Oxford Dictionary, I found “green thumb” described as the “North American term for green fingers”.

Dead houseplant in ceramic potIn any case, when it comes to having “green fingers” I’m all thumbs. My backyard looks like a jungle but I can kill off an indoor plant faster than most people can say “fertilizer”. I did manage to keep a bamboo tree alive for several years but this photo gives a fair idea of the usual outcome of my horticultural efforts.

I’d been meaning to ask the LazyWeb for advice about which indoor plants might be hardy enough to survive my “care”. But when I found myself walking past the gardening section in K-Mart the other day, I decided to check out their selection and, much to my surprise, immediately found an attractive plant.

China Doll label showing Chinese girl's face in front of a red umbrellaI assumed on the basis of the cute label that China Doll was a brand but it’s actually the popular name for Radermachia/radermachera sinica.

The Burke’s Backyard website (Don Burke is Australia’s most popular TV garden expert) includes China Doll in a list of the ten best pot plants for shade:

China doll (Radermachera sinica) is a Chinese native with glossy, dark green leaves and an elegant growth habit. It does best as a garden plant in the warmer areas of Australia, but also makes an attractive pot plant. China Doll is readily available in 200mm (8”) pots for around $18.95.

That made me feel as though I’d made a good choice, particularly since K-Mart was having a 15% off sale when I bought my China Doll, reducing the AU$12.99 list price to AU$11.04 (that’s about US$7.70).

The results of Google searches for both “china doll” plant and “radermachia sinica” yield a high number of Taiwanese sites, suggesting that the plant is actually native to Taiwan. This site, 石門國小校園植物網, has a page devoted to the plant—including links to ten photographs showing it at various stages of development (in this one it’s grown into a tree two stories tall). The Chinese name is given as 山菜豆. These characters mean “mountain”, “greens/vegetables”, and “beans” respectively and, in Japanese, the first two characters (山菜, sansai) mean “edible wild plants”. (Hopefully, someone who reads Chinese will leave a comment revealing the Chinese pronunciation and meaning.)

Given the experience of this Texas gardener, it appears that my China Doll might have a good chance of survival:

China Doll is often sold as a small indoor plant at many places. This is what happens when you put one in the ground in Zone 9B of southeast Texas! Produces a beautiful tree that is right at home in any landscape, especially tropical or Oriental. It was used quite extensively in southern Florida during the 1930’s but is almost nonexistent in Texas. The binnate leaves having numerous green leaflets are quite distinctive. It would make a beautiful specimen tree. Had I known this it would have been planted in a more prominent place. The tree pictured is about 18 feet in height and still growing. Quite a few years ago it did die back to about 1 foot above the ground when we had an unseasonably cold winter that reached down to 20 degrees F with an ice storm. The tree revived itself by producing 4 new trunks. This winter it went through 5 periods where the temperature reached 27 degrees F and hardly lost a leaf but the trunks are 3.4 to 4 inches in diameter now and more heavily barked than that previous cold winter. Hopefully this will protect it from future bitter cold.

He adds that his China Doll has recently started blooming: “once they open at night the scent is comparable to Night Blooming Jasmine but not as overpowering”. I’m not anticipating that my plant will bloom indoors.

Given the experience of this Alberta gardener, I might be able to prevent my China Doll from growing too tall by turning it into a bonsai plant (though the idea of using China Doll for bonsai seems to have found little favor in the Garden Web Bonsai Forum).

In a lovely post titled Hard Wired for the Aesthetic, Joe Duemer wrote:

I spent the better part of three hours this afternoon making like an elderly Asian gentleman, repotting & trimming my “bonsai” collection. The first edge of fall has transformed the air. It is dryer & cooler, but the sun is still warm & many plants still insist on putting out last spurts of growth. The new lawn, planted from seed at mid-summer, is still green & lush.

When I was living in Vietnam several years ago, the bedroom window of my apartment overlooked the rooftop of an adjoining building, on which a fairly extensive garden, grown in containers, flourished. Space is tight Hanoi & the population density is high, but the Vietnamese are a nation of gardeners & even in the cities they find a way to nurture plants. My desk was situated in front of that window overlooking the neighboring building & I enjoyed watching while, most evenings, an older man came out onto the roof & did a combination of calisthenics & Tai Che, then tended to his plants. I did not feel I was intruding on his privacy—rooftops in Hanoi are semi-public spaces—but I was clearly watching a meditative practice. A practice based on an aesthetic view of the world, not an instrumental view.

I’ve always seen my inability to nurture indoor plants as a character flaw: although I’ve never experienced any difficulty in taking care of a cat, I guess—as Joe’s post suggests—a plant requires a different kind of attention. In the space of a few days I’ve become quite fond of the China Doll so, hopefully, I’ll figure out (or it will teach me) how to care for it properly.

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in ceramic pot

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Thursday 11 November 2004

Pressure

I had dinner with my friend G and his wife. Earlier that evening I’d called to tell them I’d be 15 minutes late. G’s wife answered the phone.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“In Stress City,” I replied.

Lately, I’ve been under so much pressure that I’ve felt my life steadily unraveling. I should make a list, I’ve thought to myself on several occasions, of all the situations I’m likely to encounter between now and the end of the year so I can tick them off, one-by-one, as each turns into either a disaster or a catastrophe.

Keith Miller battingWhen I said this over dinner, G’s wife smiled at me sympathetically. G—one of my closest friends—said: “Remember Keith Miller?”

“The cricketer?” I asked. I’m not a cricket fan but my father loved cricket and he held Miller in the highest esteem.

Keith Miller died last month, on October 11, at the age of 84. His Cricket Online obituary notes that:

Miller was part of Australia’s 1948 tour of England, who later returned hailed as “the Invincibles”, and are recognised by many as the best side ever assembled.

My father, were he still alive, would be 85 this year. I was born in 1948, the year of the Invincibles tour. Miller had been a fighter pilot during World War II and Bill Brown, one of his team mates, recalled:

“He was the finest all-rounder I came into contact with—he could bat, bowl, field and he could fly an aeroplane.”

“You could bat him anywhere you want to, he was a strong hitter of the ball, he had a very good pair of hands—especially in close—and you could always give him the new ball with confidence. I don’t know a lot about his flying days but I know he flew Mosquitoes and they were in the thick of the action, and I admire him for that very much.”

G took a sip of beer and said, “Someone asked Keith Miller whether he ever felt under pressure while playing test cricket. You know what Miller told him?”

“What?” I asked. I had no idea.

“Pressure, I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Messerschmitt 109

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Sunday 21 November 2004

Anglo-Celtic enclave

One consequence of being a good listener is that people occasionally tell you things you’d rather not hear.

Last week I spent a couple of days in Rockhampton, a city of 60,000 inhabitants on Australia’s northeast coast, just above the Tropic of Capricorn.

Map of Australia's northeast coast, with Rockhampton at its center

In mid-November it was already hot and humid. Not the overwhelming heat and humidity of Tokyo in summer—mushiatsusa (蒸し暑さ) in Japanese—that doesn’t arrive in Rockhampton until February. But, for me, unpleasant nonetheless. The cab driver who took me back to my motel after dinner didn’t agree.

“Best climate in the world,” he told me. “No winter and nine months of summer.”

By the time we’d pulled in under the awning outside reception it was raining lightly and he was telling me about the enormous house he’d built on an acre and a half of land for a bit over a hundred thousand dollars. Including a swimming pool.

Then he looked me in the eye and said: “But do you want to know the best thing about Rocky?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“No ethnics.”

Good listeners can embrace another person’s world view as easily as they put on a hat or an overcoat but the cab driver must have detected a flicker of disquiet, for he added hastily:

“Not that there’s anything wrong with them… it’s just that in the big cities they all want to live in the same area.”

He was referring to the tendency of new immigrants to form ethnic enclaves, by clustering together in a particular neighborhood or suburb. In Sydney in the fifties, during the first wave of immigration from southern Europe, Italians moved to Leichhardt while Greeks chose Marrickville. Thirty years later, immigrants from Southeast Asia settled in Fairfield, Ashfield, and Cabramatta.

The Rockhampton Tourist and Business Information website notes that:

On census night in Rockhampton, 7 August 2001, persons of indigenous origin totaled 3,006. The remaining 95% of Rockhampton’s population were found to have Australian (48%), English (37%) or Irish (12%) ancestry. English topped the list as the most prevalent language spoken at home with a total of 94%. The three most common languages after English were Chinese, Tagalog (Filipino) and Japanese.

Thinking about the conversation later, I was struck by a paradox: what the cab driver valued most highly about Rockhampton—the homogeneity of its population—was also the source of his resentment towards immigrants. Whilst relishing life in his 95% Anglo-Celtic enclave, he was hostile to the idea of “ethnic enclaves”.

And yet, in their paper Multiculturalism and the spatial assimilation of migrant groups: The Melbourne and Sydney experience, James Forrest and Michael Poulsen point out:

Based on port-of-entry considerations, spatial concentration is likely to be highest in the first generation (immigrants born overseas), which Jones (1996) argues is largely the case. For their children—the second generation—hybridization is expected to occur, as members of a previously different culture become a mix between their migrant and host society cultures. Grandchildren of the original migrants (the third generation) are expected to have become fully assimilated with the host society in terms of occupations, education and membership of host society culture and institutions. Clearly, this process takes time; for some it takes a shorter time, perhaps just two generations; for others it takes longer.

I was vaguely aware that such enclaves “are a transitory phenomenon on the way to spatial and social assimilation”. But I didn’t raise this with the cab driver. Nor did I tell him that, since the Anglo-Celtic enclave in which I grew up was a spiritual, cultural, and intellectual wasteland, I’d rather put a bullet in my head than live in a place without “ethnics”. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be a good listener and a good arguer. And I long ago lost interest in changing anyone’s mind.

To each his own.

Yet I’m continually amazed at how individuals can perceive and experience the same people or events or situations in such radically different ways. It’s a miracle we manage to find any common ground.

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Wednesday 05 January 2005

Something I also believe

At the end of each year John Brockman, literary agent and publisher of the science-related Edge website, poses a question to a range of “scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers.” The 2005 Edge Annual Question, suggested by Nicholas Humphrey, is:

“What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

This morning I followed a link from Arts & Letters Daily to a New York Times story which lists excerpts from some of the responses. The first, by Roger Schank, “Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Author, Designing World-Class E-Learning,” articulated something that once I would never have accepted but now believe is absolutely true. Roger Schank’s complete response is worth quoting in full:

Irrational choices.

I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made?who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people’s minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

As an example of what I mean consider a friend of mine who was told to select a boat as a wedding present by his father in law. He chose a very peculiar boat which caused a real rift between him and his bride. She had expected a luxury cruiser, which is what his father in law had intended. Instead he selected a very rough boat that he could fashion as he chose. As he was an engineer his primary concern was how it would handle open ocean and he made sure the engines were special ones that could be easily gotten at and that the boat rode very low in the water. When he was finished he created a very functional but very ugly and uncomfortable boat.

Now I have ridden with him on his boat many times. Always he tells me about its wonderful features that make it a rugged and very useful boat. But, the other day, as we were about to start a trip, he started talking about how pretty he thought his boat was, how he liked the wood, the general placement of things, and the way the rooms fit together. I asked him if he was describing a boat that he had been familiar with as a child and suggested that maybe this boat was really a copy of some boat he knew as a kid. He said, after some thought, that that was exactly the case, there had been a boat like in his childhood and he had liked it a great deal.

While he was arguing with his father in law, his wife, and nearly everyone he knew about his boat, defending his decision with all the logic he could muster, destroying the very conceptions of boats they had in mind, the simple truth was his unconscious mind was ruling the decision making process. It wanted what it knew and loved, too bad for the conscious which had to figure how to explain this to everybody else.

Of course, psychoanalysts have made a living on trying to figure out why people make the decisions they do. The problem with psychoanalysis is that it purports to be able to cure people. This possibility I doubt very much. Freud was a doctor so I guess he got paid to fix things and got carried away. But his view of the unconscious basis of decision making was essentially correct. We do not know how we decide things, and in a sense we don’t really care. Decisions are made for us by our unconscious, the conscious is in charge of making up reasons for those decisions which sound rational. We can, on the other hand, think rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood fantasies. As for making good decisions in our lives, when we do it is mostly random. We are always operating with too little information consciously and way too much unconsciously.

Observation of my own behavior and the behavior of those around me (in both “real” and virtual worlds) suggests that what Roger Schank says is true, that people are rarely (if ever) “capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives.”

I suspect that Schank’s view is neither widely held nor popular, even though it explains so much about us.

Update

As I’ve been thinking about this, on and off throughout the day, one of the things that occurred to me is that Schank’s view might be “neither widely held nor popular” because it leads inevitably to what many might regard as a deterministic view of our inability to alter habitual behavior—a kind of bleak variation on the Jesuit boast: “Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

I realized that, by the time I was seven (or perhaps eight), I’d concluded—as a consequence of my Catholic upbringing—that hardly any assertion can be taken at face value since (not always but frequently enough) there’s either a subtext or a hidden agenda.

In both cases there’s a gap between the assertion (what someone says is happening) and the action (what I observe them to be actually doing). If there’s a hidden agenda, then X might be consciously trying to manipulate me. If there’s a subtext, then X’s actions are probably outside his or her own awareness (in Schank’s terms, the decision was made by X’s unconscious while X’s conscious concocted plausible reasons for that decision).

Also that Schank’s belief in “irrational choices” restates a conviction that—closer to home—Dave Rogers has been writing about for a long time. A couple of posts ago, in the context of my decision to return to the Macintosh, I wrote: “I’m only too aware of the extent to which my decisions are based on emotional, not rational, criteria—an awareness that has increased as I’ve followed (and absorbed) Dave Rogers’ meditations on the subject” and went on to quote an entry Dave posted in October:

Most of the “choices” we make in the course of our daily lives, are really little more than habituated responses selected for by some interior emotional state.

Other times, a decision may be outside the bounds of our ordinary experience, yet we do have a significant emotional commitment to the subject of the decision. In those cases, our choices are usually based on how we “feel” about the issue, and our reasoning is constructed to support the “feeling.” In other words, we reason backward from our feelings.

It’s always amazed me that Dave’s posts on this issue—and on authority, on suffering, on group dynamics (to name just a few other subjects he wrote about in October)—don’t attract more attention. But really, it’s not surprising at all, because Dave’s observations cut a little too close to the bone:

You want to change the world? You’ve got to change yourself. Stop listening to every would-be “authority” out there, and carve a couple hours out of every day and pay attention to yourself and what you think you believe and why you believe it. I’d be willing to bet that reading the phrase “pay attention to yourself” evoked a negative emotional response, if only fleeting. We’re conditioned not to pay attention to ourselves. That’s selfish, or worse. Besides, what good would you be to authorities if you weren’t devoting all of your finite time and attention resources to them?

It’s not fun. You won’t meet any hot chicks. You won’t get millions of hits on your weblog, from links from all the “A-Listers.” You won’t acquire the illusion of authority. But you might begin to exercise authority over yourself. And your life might open up for you in a way that it probably hasn’t for a long time, if ever.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m an authority on nothing, and I make all this shit up.

Rather, many of us—and I’m hardly immune—are frantic to acquire those millions of hits, the links from the “A-Listers,” that illusion of authority. Despite our assertions to the contrary.

This is also why I regard so much Blogarian “self-revelation” with more than a little skepticism: either the the blogger is playing hard and fast with the truth in an attempt to boost his or her authority or, as I suspect more frequently happens, the events they write about have occurred or the opinions they express have been formed outside their conscious awareness. They, like all the rest of us, “are always operating with too little information consciously and way too much unconsciously.”

What’s the answer? Some form of spiritual practice, I guess. A practice that, in Dave Rogers’ words, takes me out of myself for a couple of hours every day so that I can pay attention to myself, and what I think I believe, and why I believe it. Easier said than done. Yet how else might I begin to break the shackles that were already firmly in place when I was eight years old?

But don’t take my word for any of this. Like Dave, I’m an authority on nothing. I make all this shit up.

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Friday 21 January 2005

Femininity, Feminism, and Dr. Phil

Screen shot of advertisement for Dr Phil's Weight Loss program embedded in Slate article about the conflict between feminism and femininity

From Navel Gazing: Why even feminists are obsessed with fat by Laura Kipnis

(One wonders whether complaints to Slate about the Dr. Phil ad—which perfectly illustrates Brecht’s dictum that capitalism gratefully swallows any poison it is offered, transforming each dose into sustenance—caused it to be replaced by a series of Vonage ads?)

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Wednesday 09 February 2005

Denunciation

In The Specters Haunting Dresden Theodore Dalrymple suggested that, nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, Germans are unable to take pride in their cultural heritage, which they regard as irretrievably tainted by the atrocities of the Nazi era.

Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is taken in the achievements of one’s national ancestors, it follows that shame for what they have done must also be accepted. And the shame of German history is greater than any cultural achievement, not because that achievement fails to balance the shame, but because it is more recent than any achievement, and furthermore was committed by a generation either still living or still existent well within living memory.

I have no idea whether Dalrymple’s assertion is correct. It’s been 25 years since I was briefly in Germany, where I visited only Frankfurt and Heidelberg. Nowadays, the occasional German movie, W. G. Sebald’s books, and Scott Hanson’s weblog are as close to Germany as I get.

Aerial photograph of Dresden taken immediately after the 1945 raidsSebald drew attention, as Dalrymple notes, to “a curious lacuna in German literature of memoirs or fictional accounts of the bombing and its aftereffects. Millions suffered terribly, yet there is hardly a memoir or a novel to record it”

In Air War and Literature, the first chapter of On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes:

There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.

The lectures upon which Air War and Literature are based were delivered in 1997. Even then, as Sebald notes, accounts of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany were relatively sparse:

Apart from Heinrich Böll, only a few authors—Hermann Kasack, Hans Erich Nossack, Arno Schmidt, and Peter de Mendelssohn—ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction, and as we shall see, they generally did so rather equivocally. Even in later years, when local and amateur war historians began documenting the fall of the German cities, their studies did not alter the fact that the images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness.

Nossack’s Der Untergang has been recently translated into English and published as The End: Hamburg 1943. Sebald compares it favorably with the Hiroshima Diary of doctor Hachiya Michihiko, who documented the plight of the victims in the two months after the first atomic bomb was dropped. Sebald quotes Elias Canetti, who “asks what it means to survive such a vast catastrophe, and says that the answer can be gauged only from a text which, like Hachiya’s observations, is notable for precision and responsibility.”

“The same may be said of Nossack’s account of the destruction of the city of Hamburg,” adds Sebald, “which is unique even in his own work. The ideal of truth inherent in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction.”

Unfortunately we shall never know how W.G. Sebald regarded Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand (The Fire, 2002) and Brandstätten, (Fire Places, 2003), Klaus R. Röhl’s Verbotene Trauer (Forbidden Mourning, 2002), Stephan Burgdorff & Christian Habbe’s Als Feuer vom Himmel fiel (As Fire Fell from the Sky, 2003), Christoph Kucklick’s Der Feuersturm - Bombenkrieg über Deutschland (Firestorm: The Bombing against Germany, 2003), or Volker Hage’s Hamburg 1943 (2003) and Zeugen der Zerstörung (A Witness to the Destruction, 2003)—all of which were published in the two years following Sebald’s tragic death in a car accident in 2001.

Cover of Tokyo daikushu hiroku shashinshuConversely, books about the of Japanese cities began to appear in Japan immediately after the US occupation ended, with many being released over the past fifty years. I have ten such books, as well as the five-volume Tōkyō daikūshū sensaishi (The Tokyo Air Raids: A Record of War Damage). The earliest in my collection, Tōkyō daikūshū hiroku shashinshū (A Confidential Photographic Record of the Tokyo Air Raids) was published in 1953. Clearly the Japanese have never regarded the destruction of their cities by the USAAF as “a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.”

Nor are films about the firebombing uncommon: Takahata Isao’s 1988 animated film Hotaru no haka (Graveyard of the Fireflies) portrays the effects of the bombing on Japan’s civilian population while Imai Tadashi’s 1991 film Sensō to seishun (War and Youth) contains a graphic recreation of the first raid on the night of March 9-10, 1945.

It is hardly surprising—given the sanitized history of the Pacific War taught to Japanese schoolchildren, which glosses over the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army and Navy—that many Japanese regard Japan as victim rather than aggressor. (More than one Japanese friend has pointed out to me that theirs is the only country to have suffered the atomic bomb.) Yet memorials to the victims of the firebombing of Japanese cities are conspicuous in their absence. One local historian in a tiny private “museum” located almost at the aim point of the first Tokyo raid explained to me that the national government regarded the construction of a proper monument as a potential provocation to Japan’s Asian neighbors.

It seems hardly to have mattered to the effort of post-war reconstruction, whether publicly expressed complaint was impermissible (in the case of Germany) or allowed, if not encouraged (as in Japan). And if, as Dalrymple suggests, “resentment… was a powerful stimulus of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, into which the Germans in the West threw their potentially resentful energies after the war, for lack of anywhere else to direct them,” then for the Japanese a similar resentment must have been coupled with the humiliation of seeing their country reduced to ruins (a country that—unlike Germany, which had long been a powerful European nation—had transformed itself from a feudal backwater to the first rank of military and industrial power in less than 80 years).

Over the past few years I’ve read dozens of books about the firebombing of German and Japanese cities so there was nothing in Theodore Dalrymple’s article that surprised me, except this:

To the moral complications of a Nazi past were added those of a communist past, the greatest of which was an awareness of just how widespread the practice of denunciation had been. On some estimates, a sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were Mitarbeiter—-collaborators with the secret police, the Stasi-—and had spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even spouses. Once the archives opened and people could read their security dossiers for themselves, they discovered in many cases that those to whom they had relayed their private thoughts had relayed them in turn to the Stasi, in return, practically, for nothing except the informer’s satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful. Those whom people had thought were their best friends turned out to be the very ones whose denunciation had resulted in their otherwise inexplicable failure to gain promotion in their work, sometimes for decades. Such discoveries were not conducive to a favorable or optimistic view of human nature or the trust upon which a secure social life is built. The GDR, founded on a political theory that made a fetish of human solidarity, turned everyone into an atom in the asocial ether.

Although failure to gain promotion in one’s work can hardly compare to the horrific suffering of both the victims and the survivors of the firebombing raids, the idea of being spied upon (and denounced) by someone whom you believed you could trust seems especially terrible—particulary when denunciation to the Stasi could also have had far more serious consequences, including imprisonment or even death. The suggestion that the practice was so common is doubly horrifying.

I believe, however, that Dalrymple is mistaken in attributing the motive for such denunciations to “the informer’s satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful.” I’d argue instead that resentment was a powerful—perhaps even the primary—motivation; that at least part of the resentful energy used by West Germans to rebuild their cities, imploded in Communist East Germany and was directed against friends, neighbors, relatives, and work colleagues.

It is a tenet of the self-help movement that resentment does most damage to the person holding a grudge. For example, Norman Vincent Peale believed that:

Resentment or grudges do no harm to the person against whom you hold these feelings but every day and every night of your life, they are eating at you.

Yet, for many of the Stasi collaborators, the corrosive effects of holding and nourishing a resentment must have been offset by a profound, ongoing satisfaction at observing the frustration, bewilderment, and bitterness of their victims.

I suppose these betrayals by friends, neighbors, relatives, spouses, and colleagues are common in any totalitarian society (I now recall reading about similar occurrences in Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s account of life in China during the Cultural Revolution). And yet perhaps one can draw comfort from the fact that five out of six East Germans didn’t denounce anyone to the secret police.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour