Wednesday, May 30, 2007

tax me, baby

Sweden has legislated something like 18 months of paid maternity/paternity leave (which can be split between the two parents). I can’t be bothered researching the exact details, but it’s something like that. No, I just checked on Wikipedia (NEVER wrong); I was right. Sweden has the luxury of these sorts of social programs because it’s a rich country with high taxes and a small population. Given that Sweden is lucky enough to be wealthy, this seems to me like an absolutely acceptable tradeoff. Many countries – especially those that are not rich and have large populations – would find it impossible to offer such programs. But Australia (rich, low population) could.

The Sweden baby-leave idea makes me wonder if, with higher taxes, a country like Australia could switch to a 4-day working week. This idea would no doubt be met with howls of derision and protest from the business sector and most politicians. But it’s well established that above a certain pretty basic level of material wealth (a level long ago surpassed by most Australians), there’s very little, if any, correlation between money and happiness (see Clive Hamilton’s Growth Fetish, for example.

Think of all the worthwhile, life-enriching pursuits you could engage in with an extra day off each week. But of course many such activities aren’t really recognized as all that worthwhile – after all, how can an activity possibly have value if someone doesn’t pay you for it?

Would I (if I returned to live in Australia, which I likely will do soonish) accept less money for a perpetual 3-day weekend? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Friday, May 25, 2007

enhance THIS

It is true that Asian women don't have a reputation for having the biggest arses on Earth. For some, that's a good thing. But others want more. More BUM. Just as for breasts, you can now get bum enhancement (where enhancement = euphemism for enlargement) surgery. OR, you can simply pick one of these up at the department store:

Ah, yes. Two for the price of one? I'm all for it -- personally, I usually stick a pair of socks down the front of my jocks when I hit the town. Tennis socks, though -- not those thick woolly things. I'm not crass.

Photo courtesy of the delightful CC.

Monday, May 21, 2007

G’day cobber owya garn flat out like a lizard drinkin’ etc etc

I’ll probably come across as an elitist snob with this, but here goes…

A German work colleague recently told me he thought I seemed more European than Australian. While I’m not in the least ashamed of being Australian per se (though I am ashamed of quite a few things that Australians and “Australia” have done), nor did I take my friend’s comment as an insult (nor was it intended as such). I felt it somewhat complimentary.

I know a lot of wonderful expat Aussies, but I also regularly encounter Australians who make me cringe. Some are obvious – the loud, drunk yobbo stereotype. Some are not so obvious (and the cringing not so severe) and are generally people I like. But I’ve noticed a tendency – especially when there are several Aussies in a group of mixed nationalities – to be a bit overbearing with “Aussie culture”. The Oz culture clichés (which are partly truthful, as tends to be the case with clichés) tend to fly a bit thicker and faster in such groups. Or maybe they fly just as thick and fast (i.e., maybe they are really representative of “Oz”) when it’s just a bunch of Australians sitting around by themselves, but they’re more noticeable when there are non-Australians present. The tall-poppy knocking, the knockabout brashness, giving each other shit, the antiauthoritarianism, etc. And there is much (from my point of view) to like about these traits, but I sometimes get a sense that Aussies – whether consciously or not – play them up for the crowd.

The other thing that makes me cringe is when the Aussie clique gets enmeshed in Aussie in-jokes (including Aussie vernacular, some of which is rarely or never actually used by Australians at home) that the non-Aussie contingent has no hope of understanding. In-jokes that exclude a group of people are at best rude or thoughtless and at worst cruel, in any context.

My discomfort with all this may have more to do with me than the other Australians. I guess I tend to be a bit self-conscious and self-analytical. Maybe my countryfolk are simply being themselves and I’m just too uptight to do the same. Still, to me it smacks of this naïve desire that much of Australia (including some of mainstream political, media and corporate Australia, as well as portions of the Oz community at large) has to be recognised and/or liked by people from other countries. This was exemplified when Steve Irwin died. One of the biggest stories I saw the say after it happened was the presentation of all the front pages around the world that featured the Croc Hunter’s untimely demise. It was in part documentation of how phenomenally famous and popular he was – and as such was legitimate reporting. But it also seemed to cry out: “HE WAS AN AUSSIE! WE’RE DOWN HERE! YOU KNOW US! YOU LIKE US! (You do, don’t you???)”

So, having presented myself as a culturally cringing, snobbish, elitist wanker, where did D and I eat on Saturday night? Where else but: THE OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE. I played golf at a fancy-schmancy club as part of a fundraising drive for a charity. (I know what you’re thinking: you arsehole, playing an elitist, rich person’s sport in a country marked by severe and widespread poverty, how can you look at yourself in the mirror etc etc – BUT IT WAS FOR WORTHY CAUSE, PEOPLE. That, and I actually really really enjoy golf, damnit. There, it’s out.) On one hole, by hitting the ball closer to the hole than my playing partners, I won a THOUSAND-PESO (around USD$20/AUD$25) VOUCHER FOR THE OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE. It so happened that D and I met after golf near said eatery and decided we may as well use the voucher.

Now, while the Outback can’t hold a candle to the Big Oz (may it rest in peace), it IS filled with LOADS of tacky Australiana. The staff are dressed like Steve Irwin (plus dozens of badges and brooches depicting all things Oz), there are prints of famous Oz paintings (e.g. Tom Roberts’s Shearing the rams), photos of iconic Aussie landmarks, Aboriginal prints, boomerangs and other paraphernalia (tacky at best; exploitative at worst) etc etc. All this in a US-owned and –created chain. Pure gold, people.

To give you a sense of the TRUE-BLUE DINKY DI Oz ambience, here are some poorly taken shots of the toilet doors (poorly taken in part because I’m socially savvy enough to know that being caught taking photos of public toilets is not a good look):

GEDDIT?? Blokes and sheilas! Instead of men and women! So quirky, so Oz.

And that quintessential Oz ambience was heightened by:

1) The TVs showing the English Premier League matches; and

2) The promo girls and guy who came in dressed in saucy “winter” clothes (i.e. tight skimpy dresses and fur-lined boots and hoods – at least the women were dressed so; the guy just had a T-shirt and jeans) promoting some brand of breath-freshener mint that promised to ward off that stale morning breath. They circulated the restaurant, stopping at each table to explain the wondrous properties of the product and offer a free sample. You can see what I mean here:

Exactly what D and I wanted at our secluded Outback Steakhouse dinner for two. When we proffered a “no thanks” before they started their spiel, one of the women held out the free sample. Our second “no thanks” was met with this somewhat confused “But…it’s free…?!?”

I then lamented to D about the apparently unstoppable convergence of marketing and branding upon people’s daily lives and the importance of public and private spaces where we’re not confronted with mass consumerism. But, expecting that sort of freedom – as opposed to the freedom to choose the most attractively marketed breath-freshening mint – in a place that has “blokes” and “sheilas” on its toilet doors was probably naïve.


After the golf, I was in the change room putting on fresh clothes. There was a youngish man next to me (around my age, I’d say – early-mid 30s) doing the same thing. I noticed he had a tattoo (of a butterfly) on his left calf. This made me think he was unlikely to be very socially conservative (this doesn’t necessarily hold true, but I reckon it’s a reasonable assumption). Which made what I witnessed next seem all the more astounding (again, this observation is assumption-laden, but…deal with it). The youngish man painstakingly tucked his shirt into his undies (white briefs). He then painstakingly got hold of two points at the bottom hem of the shirt and pulled it through each undie leg. To help you understand, I’ve skilfully drawn a complex and technical schematic:

Maybe I’m way out of touch and most people do this. It sure as hell insures against one’s shirt coming untucked in public AND SOMETHING MORE IGNOMINIOUS I CANNOT IMAGINE. And I’m in no way condemning – this if it feels good and doesn’t hurt other people, I say go for it. I’m just struggling to comprehend quite how it could feel good.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


SW is wading through the molasses lake of the hundreds of putrid emails that accumulated while away in Melbourne (science journo conference), Tilba (L-N wedding), and Vietnam and Laos (work trip, looking at rice farms (who wouldn't?).

Several unrelated thoughts:

1) I've decided the only form of communication I actually like is face-to-face conversation. All others stress me out (phone, txt, email, chat...).

2) I had some wonderful food in Vietnam and Laos. I was also presented with several things that I took pains to avoid. Most meals (especially in Vietnam) were organised by our local hosts. Some were delicious, but true provincial cuisine tends to include quite a few dishes that contain blood/guts/giblets/intestines/offal/innards etc etc. I confess to having delicate sensibilities with regard to such offerings. Much of it's psychological, I'm sure. Much of it's also texture-related. My problem with many of these foods is the texture not the taste. I also struggle with the strong fishy/shrimpy taste in some Asian foods. Yet I love anchovies. Life's rich tapestry etc.

3) The Philippines had its mid-term elections on Monday. Almost all elected positions from local to national government were being contested, except for president and vice president. I'll take the liberty of simply pasting in Lone Gopher's summary here:

Just a short report from the midterm elections here in the Philippines that took place today. I was watching one of the local news channels to get some info on who won. Well, the results are not finished yet, but what I did find out was that a chief of police reported that he thought that they had been able to show the international observers that the elections where relatively peaceful. So far 191 poll related acts of violence resulting in 114 deaths of whom 11 were candidates.
There's also an interesting BBC piece on some of the political quirks of the Philippines.

4) I can't believe the land that some people are forced to farm to eke out a subsistence living. I'd avoid simply walking up these hills once -- the idea of farming them all year round boggles my mind. Here's an example:

The land on these slopes has been cleared for farming. There's a crop (maize I think) planted in the area to the right. (Not the green patch in the upper right area -- the plants there are weeds. The crop is in the lower right, much more sparsely spaced.) The yields are predictably terrible on land like this. As I sit here in an air-conditioned orifice, it makes me think twice about whinging about my job. BUT IT WON'T STOP ME, DAMN IT.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A risk assessment of global warming

I have no formal knowledge of risk assessment – but I know someone who once took a risk. Ah, yes, I jest. Very funny, but what does it all mean? I’m glad you asked. It is true that I’ve never studied the idea of risk assessment in any formal way, and my knowledge is limited to our innate capacity to assess risks and make decisions based on perceived outcomes. Humans in general aren’t necessarily great at this. I think we’re probably OK on basic tasks, like crossing the street, but we also tend to be scared of things that pose very little danger (airplanes, sharks, kamikaze sharks piloting airplanes, etc) and relaxed about things that might warrant a more circumspect approach (driving while drunk – I’ve heard it happens – and smoking are the first examples that pop into my mind, though there must be better ones).

Back to the issue at hand. Climate change. Global warming. I’m talking specifically here about the way my beloved Prime Minister, John Howard (and his ilk), is tackling the problem. That is, he isn’t really. Beyond a bit of lip service and some heavy investment in the coal industry’s communications strategy, his main thrust is that – as Ian Lowe put it recently – preserving the current state of the economy is more important than saving the world. (And Howard’s argument is spurious – there’s a raft of studies showing that, overall, moving to a low-emission economy would stimulate rather than retard and/or that the failure to move to a low-emission economy would be disastrous…this is where I should spend some time finding links to sources that support this statement, but I can’t be bothered – but the reports do abound, including the Stern Review and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports).

So. (This is an oversimplification, but hopefully it makes my point.) There are two main camps in the global warming debate: 1) the Lowes, who say that unless we make some major changes, there’s going to be a whole shitload of trouble so we better do something NOW; and 2) The Howards, who say that the jury’s still out and maybe it’s not going to be a big deal, so let’s just sit for a while so we don’t put our glorious economy at risk.

OK. There are four possible scenarios here (in an oversimplified way, but stick with me):

  1. There WILL be a-trouble, and we DO act (not desirable – of course it would be better if we didn’t have climate change – but we have a chance to sort it out).
  2. There WILL be a-trouble, and we DON’T act (disastrous).
  3. There WON’T be a-trouble, and we DO act (not bad, potentially very good).
  4. There WON’T be a-trouble, and we DON’T act (status quo – you be the judge of whether that’s good or bad).

So, of those four scenarios, three are acceptable (1, 3, 4). One (2) is disastrous.

Let’s look at scenario 3. This is the worst-case scenario if the vast majority of the planet’s climate scientists (what would they know about something they’ve spent most of their lives studying, I ask you; clearly we should defer decisions to politicians and business leaders) are wrong, but we choose to act on the chance they’re right. That is, we’ll end up with a much more energy-efficient economy that doesn’t rely on finite resources of polluting fossil fuels. Maybe there’ll be a few economic humps and bumps, but there’s a very strong case that it will be economically very beneficial to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies (not that making money should be the primary reason, but it almost always bloody-well is, and it also raises the question of why GDP-obsessed folk like Howard would risk missing the boat here).

Now look at scenario 2. This is the worst-case scenario if the scientists are indeed correct and we sit around wanking our engorged economic egos instead of trying to fix things. That is, we’re pretty-well fucked.

So – and correct me if I’m wrong; I did mention that I have no formal knowledge – doesn’t a basic risk assessment suggest we should actually try REALLY FUCKING HARD to do something?

There’s an irrational part of my brain that wants climate change to kick in damn fast and damn strong and sweep us all the way to hell, just to prove Howard et al. wrong. But I recognize that this would be the most pyrrhic of all victories.