Monday, May 24, 2010

The Aker Thread We Had To Have

I'm furious with Akermanis. I heckled him at the game on Saturday, and I'll probably be joining people with a banner against him next week. The Channel 7 outrage is far more serious, but I love AFL, and I'm a Dog's fan. This is personal.

Nevertheless, I think what is going on is a bit more complex than the commentary recognises. For a start, I don't think Akermanis is exceptionally homophobic. People have rightly mocked his "some of my best friends are gay" response when put under the spotlight, but the fact is that's still a big step forward from the "bash them all" response real bigots display. It's worth remembering that Aker is a rare thing in football - a bloke who chose to marry a highly intelligent, highly educated woman rather than someone who was either stupid, or trying desperately to pretend to be so. He is also rumoured to have refused to demand Brisbane trade someone he thought had committed rape because he wouldn't play with him. Two steps up on your stereotype knucklehead.

Aker is, however, arrogant. This is a statement somewhat lower in the controversy-creating stakes than the Pope's Catholicism. He's also a bit homophobic. And since he thinks he's better than everyone else - particularly better than the blokes he plays with and against - he assumes they're more homophobic. If he's only half ready for a player to come out, they must not be ready at all.

I think he's wrong about this, or at least half wrong. If a player who was unpopular for other reasons, or who was struggling to get a regular game came out now I think it wouldn't go well. However, if a popular talented player came out first it would change, well not everything, but a lot.

I don't believe AFL is more homophobic than Rugby League. For generations League has defined itself in opposition to Union on the basis that Union players were "a bunch of poofters". Certainly 2010 is a less homophobic point to come out than 1995. The problem is that players like Ian Roberts don't grow on trees. Roberts was a legend of the game, and a really nice bloke as well. If an equivalent in AFL (Brad Johnson, Adam Goodes) came out no one would have a word to say against them. There are quite a few players of lesser stature who would at least win universal support within their club.

I think there's a generational shift going on. Akermanis's comments were made in response to an AFL campaign to encourage acceptance in sport. A campaign a lot of players (including his coach and one of his teammates) have got on board with enthusiasm. Younger players have grown up with heroes who have come out as gay from other sports or the media. Aker doesn't see that because he's too caught up in the idea he's better than these young whipper-snippers.

But here's the thing I think is really interesting. If I'm right about this, then what it proves is that Akermanis knows homophobia is bad - if he didn't why would it be important to him to think he's got less of it than everyone else. In other words, deep in the changing rooms of the AFL the message is already seeping through: being bigoted is not something to be proud of.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Work of Art

Given my pseudonym it would be remiss of me not to post this:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wouldn't This Solve Everything?

Reading about the crisis in Greece and Spain at the moment I can't help thinking there is a simple solution to the mess, and one which would simultaneously help with a lot of other problems as well.

I'm very much a believer in the line "for every complex problem there is a simple solution - and it's usually wrong'. But I keep wondering if this is not the exception.

With the exception of Ireland, the Eurozone countries in the biggest trouble are those around the Mediterranean, blessed with lots of sunlight (and in Spain's case wind). According to Paul Krugman, who I tend to believe on such matters, the way out of the Global economic crisis is for creditor countries like Germany and China to start spending more.

So isn't the answer to have the Germans invest big time in solar-thermal and wind projects in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, as well as upgrading the European Grid to bring that power to other parts of Europe.

Results: Lots of jobs for the countries that most need it; tax revenues for Greece and others who might otherwise be in danger of defaulting; German investors get assets that will be worth a lot as the energy crisis hits; Europe becomes to a large extent energy independent removing the danger of being held hostage by Russia and cutting the flow of funds to oil rich enemies; a major dent is put into global warming.

And the downside is?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings and Depression

I've been struggling with depression a bit recently. Not down there with the worst I've been through, and even my lowest moments don't really compare with what some people suffer, but after two years pretty much free of the thing its not a lot of fun.

In the process I've been reminded of some of the things people do, clearly with out meaning to that make these bouts worse. I'm not sure how unusual I am in this. I've never read anyone else talk about these sorts of interactions as particularly troublesome, but I figure that if they are common they're worth mentioning because it really shouldn't be hard for readers to avoid doing them.

Greetings are a particular problem for me. Being bothered by greetings and goodbye's is supposed to be one of the marks of Asperger's, and its something that has always made me self diagnose on that point. In particular I'm troubled by the vague questions that seem impossible to answer. A particular bugbear is "What's happening?" A perfectly reasonable query from someone arriving late at an event, but really frustrating when you run into someone and they fire it at you with no obvious context. I have absolutely no idea how one is supposed to answer. Should you talk about the current state of geopolitics, discuss the last five minutes of your life, of give them an update of what has happened to you since you last saw them.

This is actually quite stressful for me at any time, because if I'm supposed to do one of these I don't really want to get it wrong. Sometimes I can make a joke out of it, but that effort is usually beyond me when I'm depressed. It all feels like there is some secret handshake and if I don't know the correct response I'm being failed as a human being.

Even the standard "How are you?", fine normally, can be a problem when I'm depressed. If the person asking is someone I'm not close to I take it as a totally boilerplate greeting and answer "fine, and you?" It's not true of course, but I figure they don't really want to know, its just a piece of politeness. If the person is someone I'm really close to I might confess how I'm really feeling. Where it really hurts is if its someone I'm close enough to that I don't want to lie to them - as they might really care - but not close enough I feel I can burden them with my worries. I once had someone look on me with amazement when I literally writhed in pain after he asked this question. I just wasn't sure which way to go.

Nevertheless, as a rule I think the "How are you?" is polite without being demanding. What I really hate is some of the more intrusive inquiries. On one occasion a friend of friends asked me "So what brilliant things have you been doing lately?" No maybe he says this to everyone - its his own boilerplate. Or maybe based on our one and a half previous conversations he really does think I do brilliant things all the time. But the problem was that at the time I was deeply anxious about how little I had achieved in the last two months. If someone had offered me a noose and a handy hanging point right then, I reckon it might have been all over red rover. I've avoided the guy ever since, and I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm terribly rude.

The worst aspect of this is when I don't answer the question properly, and the inquisitor gives me a sort of stare, that is apparently meant to mean: You haven't answered my question, instead treating it as a routine greeting. I demand you give me a full explanation of your state of being forthwith, because I have the right to do this. Twenty-five years of non-violence behind me and I swear one day I am going to slap someone who does this.

The worst aspect of this is social situations where there are a mix of people, some of whom are genuine friends and some who are likely to do this sort of thing. Yesterday I was feeling pretty down and remembered a social event of exactly this nature. I knew that some of the people there would cheer me up, but attending meant desperately navigating around, trying to avoid those likely to greet me this way. I nearly didn't go, and the soothing presence of friends was almost entirely counter-balanced by the other factors.

I suppose a different personality would say "I find it really intrusive when you ask questions like that," but most of the time that's not me.

So for anyone who knows me in real life, consider this a head's up. And if you don't, you might want to think about how what you say affects those given to glumness and a certain literalness of interpretation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Misreading the By-elections

One of the odd things about the post-mortems written on the Higgins and Bradfield by-elections is the common assumption that the starting point for the Greens should be the combination of the Green and Labor votes in 2007.

In some cases this is just people who hate the Greens setting an ridiculously high bar so they can gloat about it not being reached, but the extraordinary thing is that some people actually seem to believe it, including some Greens who are downcast that it was not achieved.

It’s rather hard to imagine why anyone would expect such a thing. The ALP is many things, but amongst those it is the party of Martin Ferguson and Michael O’Connor, of Dick Adams and Gary Gray and Peter Walsh. It is the party which for 15 years sent Graeme Campbell to Canberra. On the issues the Greens ran on - climate change and refugees – all these people are well to the right of Malcolm Turnbull and some of them are more hardline than Tony Abbott. It’s unlikely any of them would vote Green ahead of a Liberal, particularly a moderate such as Kelly O’Dwyer. Why would one expect the voters they represent to do so?

The people who voted Labor in Higgins in 2007 had 12 options before them. To vote Green, or Liberal or for one of eight other candidate, or informalise their vote or to not turn up and risk a fine. By far the largest portion chose the Greens. We’ll have to wait for all the prepoll and postal votes to come in, but it appears that those who didn’t turn up are a very, very comfortable second. Those who chose the Liberals don’t seem much more numerous than those who chose the DLP or the Sex Party.

In Bradfield there were 24 options, and the Greens again streeted the field, although it seems the fine-riskers may have been closer to the rest of the pack.

The closest thing I can find to a justification for the expectation that the Greens will pick up almost all Labor voters is the theory that voters are tribal, and with generations of hating the Liberals in their blood Labor voters will always back the most obvious opponent. It’s an odd theory, when you consider that the Liberal vote has declined in Higgins over recent years. Some of this may be new people moving in, but mostly its former Liberal voters shifting their first preference. Not a lot of tribal loyalty there.

What’s more the conclusion is totally a-historical. Consider two elections in Liberal held seats in which neither the Greens nor Labor ran. In Menzies the Democrats took 22%, and two other candidates got 10.2%, of which a little over half flowed to the Democrats on preferences. The combined Labor and Democrat vote at the previous election had been 39.5%, so the Democrat primary was barely half this figure.

In Warringah in 1993 the ALP and Democrats combined for 38.1%. Two years later the Democrats got 15.9%. An extraordinary 13.5% voted informal. If so many Labor voters wouldn’t support the Democrats over a Liberal when the Democrats were in their hey-day, why would you expect them to all back the Greens now? Note that the Liberal candidates in those cases were Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott – possibly less attractive figures to Labor votes than O’Dwyer.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Acting Locally

There’s a beautiful piece in The Age today, which doesn’t seem to be online, about a school where almost all the children came from refugee families. A teacher asked children to bring in their favourite book from home. Most didn’t, and those that did produced very damaged copies – in one case only two pages were left.

The teacher put out a call for help, and was absolutely deluged in offers. Not only did people line up to hand over books they were no longer using, many dipped into their pockets (in one case to the tune of $2000) to buy new ones. The target has already been exceeded ten times over, and presumably this publicity will send it higher. Moreover, all sorts of other support is being offered – people with no connection to the school are offering to come in and read to the children, or construct containers for storing the books etc.

It’s all very inspiring in the way many films try to be, while being true and real and not-faked up at all.

I think it also provides an indication of how some of the problems we often see as intractable are anything but, if we can only find the right triggers for action.

This might seem a big claim. The responses have solved the immediate problem of a shortage of books in the children’s homes. We’ll have to wait quite a while to discover if they will solve the real issue of limited reading, let alone social disadvantage. And all this is just one school – there are hundreds across Australia with similar problems, along with thousands of individual students at schools where the problem is less universal.

It’s a big leap from this to saying we can beat Global Warming or war. However, I think the case that these problems are soluble with enough commitment has been made adequately elsewhere. The question has always been “is that commitment achievable?” Examples like this indicate the answer is yes if we can find the right triggers.

Something about this case caused people to take the steps required to fix the problem. The efforts they made are not all that much smaller (and in the case of the $2000 donor not smaller at all) than that required to solve the world’s macro problems. Of course only a minority of those who received the plea for help acted. Maybe there’s a finite number of people who will ever step up to the plate, but I’d like to think not. Some of those who gave to this cause were probably the usual suspects – the same people on Oxfam’s regular donor list and volunteers for all sorts of causes.

But I doubt it. I’ll bet some were people who don’t give a lot the rest of the time. This appeal touched them, they saw the problem as being manageable, and they did something.

It’s the reason for the slogan “think global, act local”. Most people find it difficult to relate to global problems, or those too big to be solved through individual action. The solution, at least sometimes, is to break the problem down into manageable parts – often based on geography – and get people to deal with these. An appeal for books to solve the problem of children growing up without them in the home, without the specific manageable case of a single rather small school, would probably have produced much less of a response.

This is one of the less acknowledged reasons why those who argue Australia shouldn’t “take the lead” on fighting Climate Change because we only produce 2% of the problem are talking utter horseshit. It’s not just that this approach would have seen us stay out of both World Wars (desirable as that may have been in the first case) or individuals refuse to pay taxes if even some others are evading.

It’s that its only by breaking the problem down to more manageable scale we can get it addressed at all. My suburb only produces 0.0001% of the worlds Greenhouse Gasses. However, making it carbon neutral is a goal that might inspire people in a way that zero national emissions might not – it’s possible to imagine it happening and one person making a difference to it.

If we can make examples like this attractive we might be on the path to putting together the pieces to get the whole jig saw fixed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why e-books Scare The Hell Out Of Me

There’s an article in The Age today about the anticipated rise of the e-book. Although they admit there have been problems with products such as the kindle, those quoted generally think that electronic books will largely replace paper versions for new sales within three years.

There are some obvious benefits for society in this. All those saved trees for a start. What is more, by eliminating the cost of printing, e-books will slash costs. Falling costs are obviously good for society in general, but they’re even better for books, which provide a public good by raising education and promoting ideas. Lower costs, more reading, more reading, smarter society. Sounds great.

Except of course for the problems of royalty-free distribution. I use this term to avoid the emotion concerning the term “piracy”, which many argue is an inappropriate way to describe copyright violations.

The danger is that e-books will make it so easy for people to distribute copies of books without paying royalties to the author that it will become impossible for almost anyone to make a living from writing them. Or editing them for that matter. Of course, at the moment most writers don’t make enough to live on from writing, but they do make enough to provide some recompense for their time – to make it affordable to go part time, for example, or to take a year off work and living on a mix of ones savings and anticipated royalties.

If royalties drop close to zero, that won’t happen. New books will either be written in a tearing hurry, without proper editing, or they’ll be the preserve of the independently wealthy. A few academics may convince their universities to let them take the time to write, although the trend at the moment is in the opposite direction. Some people may be able to cobble something together out of work they have done for another purpose, such as a set of lectures prepared for university. However, quality novels, and books presenting genuinely new ideas may become an endangered species.

Optimists can point to the music industry against this theory. Peer-to-peer filesharing has slashed musicians’ income, and may have harmed the production of new music, but it hasn’t killed the field. However, musicians have two advantages over writers.

Firstly they have another major source in income in the form of live gigs. Spending months writing and recording music you’ll never get paid for can to some extent be seen as a loss-leader, or advertising, for gigs. This argument gets oversold a lot by those who don’t realise how expensive touring is, but it still has some merit. Despite the rise of spoken word performances and author lectures it doesn’t really apply to writers.

Moreover, it’s possible to sell individual songs for 99c each, at which price some people will choose them over a free version which is harder to find and carries a (small) risk of prosecution.

Most books can’t be broken up the way CDs can into individual saleable units. It’s true that most authors don’t get paid more than $2 a copy or so as it is, unless their product is a large textbook or glossy coffeetable material. However, if one allows for the cost of editing, marketing etc its unlikely to be practical to sell e-books for less than $5 at an absolute minimum, more likely $10. At that price it is all too tempting for people to buy one book every few years, and otherwise depend on filesharing.

Even if more books are read this way (and even more acquired because people obtain free copies they start and then abandon quickly) the royalties will quickly drop to a point where writing books is a totally unfinancial prospect.

The Buggy-Whip Factor

Now clearly I have a financial interest here. My standard of living is supplemented by income from a parent’s books. The royalties of that will dry up pretty soon anyway, but obviously it makes me identify with the producers rather than the consumers. What is more, I hope to have a book published soon. I’ve never expected it would make me rich, or even a living wage, but I do hope it will be a noticeable part of my annual budget for a while.

It’ll be out before e-books are really having an impact, but a future career looks pretty dicey.

Now when people connected to an industry in decline whinge or seek to see it protected they get compared to buggy-whip manufacturers. Lots of people lost their jobs when horses and carts were replaced by motorcars, but there were new jobs in the new industries and (other than the unforeseen climate change consequences) we were all better off. The government should provide support and retraining for those affected, but subsiding buggy-whips or banning cars to protect them, is a bad idea.

The difference here is that people didn’t want buggy-whips once cars came in. Books are different. People will still want to read them, will want people to write them. They just won’t want to be the ones who pay.

The writers and editors may be the first to suffer, but if the quantity and quality of books produced falls dramatically everyone else will lose as well.

I don’t have any suggestions on how to stop the tide. Legal restraints on kindle production aren’t realistic. But that doesn’t stop me worrying.