Symbol of the digital age

April 21, 2014

Here is a metaphor for our digital age, a beautifully painted large colour sign on the outside of a corner shop in Armidale NSW – a regional centre in northern New South Wales, about seven hours drive north of Sydney and five hours drive south of Brisbane.  “The Trading Post” was one of the early “buy-and-sell” services in Australia, and for many years operated as a paper (I am quite certain that it has wholly gone online).

So the lovely ad here – partially covered with green ivy – is certainly a symbol of our digital age.

Trading Post on sale here Armidale April2014

Library of Unborrowed Books

April 21, 2014

Certainly one of the most interesting installations at the current Sydney Biennale is “The Library of Unborrowed Books” (“Section 3” – artist Meriç Algün Ringborg has done it before):  in this case all of the books that have never been borrowed from the library of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA).  This is current at the Art Gallery of NSW until June.  The artist’s statement reads:

Libraries are repositories of information, aiding the acquisition and transference of knowledge from the individual to the global level. Algün Ringborg’s work draws attention to the explicit and implicit interests and systems that determine which books are kept in cultural and educational circulation, and which are left to fade into the shadows of history. With a small gesture, the artist gives these neglected titles their time in the sun; as viewers, we witness their existence and perhaps desire to save them from their former fate. The work also warns of the death of the book as a social phenomenon, signalling a time when perhaps all libraries (as long as they continue to exist) may consist entirely of unborrowed books.

Library of Unborrowed Books AGNSW April2014

A very interactive exhibit:  sit there all day and read the books, if you want.  Here are two “unborrowed” books that are sitting in my “to read” list – Rick Moody’s The Diviners and Barry Levinson’s Sixty-Six:

Rick Moody The Diviners

Barry Levinson Sixty-Six

(I am wondering what this says about me.  I guess that’s part of the point.)

Worth seeing.

Social Mobility: fact and fiction

April 21, 2014

In the March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, business columnist James Surowiecki devotes his column to the myth of social mobility (“The Mobility Myth”, page 28). He points out that, “Since at least the days of Horatio Alger, a cornerstone of American thinking has been the hope of social mobility – the idea that, as Lawrence Samuel put it … anyone can, ‘through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.’”

I understand that Horatio Alger background, having grown up in middle class American suburbia in the 1960s, the child of parents who were born to Eastern European immigrants. In many undefinable ways, I carry that ingrained (and increasingly misplaced) American optimism with me still. (The first self-help book I can remember reading was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, still in print some 62 years after first publication).

Surowiecki refers to the 1962 book by Michael Harrington, entitled The Other America: Poverty in the United States (a book that I picked up in college in the USA and have around carried with me to subsequent residences in two countries). Unfortunately, Harrington’s famous statement (pp. 14-15 of my edition) is still true:

The real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group. Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never have had a chance to get out of the other America.

Surowiecki goes on to point out that:

The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty per cent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one. And although we think of U.S. society as archetypally open, mobility here is lower than in most European countries.

Nevertheless, “this wasn’t always the case”, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the myth continues. As a result, “Americans are less concerned than Europeans about inequality and more confident that society is meritocratic. The problem is that, over time, the American dream has become increasingly untethered from American reality.”

In an article in American Prospect (29 May 2013, “The Wealthy Kids are All Right”), Chuck Collins refers to the luck of the wealthy as the “born on third base factor”. This refers to the game of baseball: when you make it to third base, you have an awfully good chance of scoring a “run” and making it “home”. So starting out on “third base” is a very privileged spot.

Collins’ article is one of the best guides of what to do if you want to give your university (college) age children the best start in life. He continues:

The idea that people’s futures might be economically determined deeply offends U.S. sensibilities. We want to believe that individual moxie matters, that a person’s creativity, effort, and intelligence will lead to economic success. Stories of exceptional strivers, heroically overcoming a stacked deck of obstacles, divert our attention from the data. But the large mega-trends are now indisputable. If you fail to pick wealthy parents and want to experience the American dream today, move to Canada.

Or to Australia. Yes, Australia.

That’s the good news for us who live here. As The Economist (“Rich Rewards”, 12 June 2013) puts it:

This is no joke: the people of Australia and Canada have twice the social mobility of their counterparts in America and Britain despite having Gini coefficients in the same ballpark. No one quite knows why, but possible factors include America’s thinner safety net and deeper poverty.

The key study here is one funded by the Sutton Trust on social mobility in the USA, Canada, Australia the United Kingdom. Miles Corak, a professor of labour economics at the University of Ottawa, has three key conclusions:

1. The extent that a son’s earnings are related to his father’s is a good proxy (my word) for social mobility. “The tie between father and son earnings is almost twice as strong in the United Kingdom and the United States than it is in Canada and Australia, two countries to which they can reasonably be compared.”

2. “This variation occurs in a particular way: mobility is higher where inequality is lower.” And finally,

3. “In an era of growing inequality, the more unequal societies—like the United Kingdom and the United States—will likely not experience more mobility without concerted and effective public policy addressed not just to inequality but also to how families function, how the education system develops the human capital of relatively disadvantaged children, and how families interact with a labour market that is increasingly more polarized.”

Here in Australia, one of the most articulate proponents of dealing with rising inequality is parliamentarian Andrew Leigh.  His recent (27 March 2014) speech to the National Press Club provides a good summary of Australian issues.

May 21, 2014:  An Australian postscript – The Evatt Foundation, in a carefully argued article, details the three most important reasons for Australia’s better-than-the-USA equality of wealth:

1. Australia’s “horizontal fiscal equalisation” (and the pre-requisite “vertical fiscal imbalance”), which takes some explanation.  Effectively, it means:

That Washington only collects about 20 per cent more tax than it spends, whereas Canberra collects about 50 per cent more. These funds are then distributed back to the states and territories in a way designed to ensure all jurisdictions have the capacity to provide the same average level of services. In school funding, for example, every Australian state and territory government has the capacity to provide the same average level of service, whereas in the US, rich states such as New York and New Jersey spend three times the money per pupil as poor states such as Utah and Idaho. Such gross inequity cannot happen in Australia.

2. Universal access to health care services and reasonably priced medicines (through Australia’s Medicare system) is the “major reason why Australia has a lower infant mortality rate and longer life expectancy than the US”.

3. A substantially higher minimum wage in Australia has prevented the development of the “working poor” on the same scale.

The Passion of the Christ ten years on: are things any different now?

April 18, 2014

It’s been just over ten years since “The Passion of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson blockbuster film about the death of Jesus, opened in cinemas worldwide to great controversy.

The film was controversial for three reasons: excessive violence, the inclusion of “extra” (non)-Biblical events and themes and its suggestive portrayal of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Of these three issues, it was the last one – Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus – that was the most profoundly unsettling. The film’s directorial auteur Mel Gibson exacerbated this issue by conducting long-running public arguments with a series of media commentators and Jewish religious leaders in the USA. By the time the dust had settled, the film had grossed many hundreds millions of dollars, made Gibson a wildly wealthy man who never had to consider working again, and turned most Jews – along with a large part of American film-makers – against Gibson.

Even now, when the “passion” has faded from the controversy, the mention of Gibson’s name causes ripples of concern in many quarters.

This coming Saturday night – 19 April 2014 – here in Australia, SBS Television is broadcasting “The Passion of the Christ” on its primary channel at 9.30pm, it’s best movie spot. For some years, one or other of the commercial channels – Nine or Seven – broadcast the film, and now the broadcast rights have moved on. Whereas the commercial channels approached the broadcast in a commercial-with-religious-angle way (as they will), SBS is missing the opportunity to engage in some significant community debate about this film.

Just because “The Passion of the Christ” controversy has virtually disappeared does not mean that the film’s content has changed: the same violence, the same extra-Biblical elements and – most importantly – the same negative portrayals of Jews all remain. It was these elements that specifically do not follow the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988 document “Criteria for the Evaluation of the Dramatizations of the Passion”.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Sr. Rose Pacatte wrote in “The National Catholic Reporter” wrote on 22 February 2014:

Gibson made a film that confirmed many stereotypes of the Jews, such as depicting the moment when the bag of silver was tossed to Judas in slow motion and Judas looked at it lovingly; the “bad” Jewish men with fang-like teeth and the “good guys” with nice teeth; the sneering hatred from the high priest when he questions Jesus; and Pilate calling the Jews “filthy rabble.” Certainly not the first to do so, Gibson uses stereotypes, some more subtle than others, to create a group of “bad” Jews to confront the “good” Jews consisting of Jesus, Mary and their followers who would be thought of as aligned with Christians today.

It’s a strong film, well-made, and has been very moving for many people. Unfortunately, as Sr Pacatte also found out, most who watch it believe that it is a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Biblical blockbuster “Noah” (by Jewish film-maker Darren Aronofsky) is currently screening in our cinemas. And guess what? It too has excessive violence and loads of extra-Biblical elements. (See my review for more details.) But what it does NOT include are screen images that reinforce ancient prejudices towards Jews – or any other group.

Come on, SBS, get with it. Are you just a commercial television channel with no community responsibility? Doesn’t your status as a national broadcaster and your multicultural charter lead you to attempt to create proper discussion around the significant and misleading elements of “The Passion of the Christ”? From what I can see, apparently not.

New South Wales second largest state by number of gaming machines

April 6, 2014

According to the Gaming Technologies Association March 2014 report (p. 7, note – PDF document), the state of New South Wales (where I live) has the second largest number of “gambling machines” of any “state” in the world (95,799) – second only to Nevada, USA (181,109). In country terms, Australia is sixth (with 198,418) – following Japan, the USA, Italy, Germany and Spain. As you can see, half of these Australian machines are in NSW, and you have to discount Japan because their large number of machines there are actually for “play” and not money.

Australia is yet again “punching above its weight” (as we like to say) in gaming machines – nationally, clearly we have more machines per capita than any other country of the world, and NSW increases that yet again.

These figures were all highlighted in the most recent issue of Time magazine (page 8 of my edition: April 7, 2014).

I am wondering if this is something to be proud of, considering how problem gambling can be a significant contributor to financial hardship and financial distress?

April 6, 2014

Western Sydney is still one of Australia’s great challenges

Yesterday’s edition (5-6 April 2014) of The Sydney Morning Herald has brought a new series of articles about the challenges and difficulties facing residents of Western Sydney. Every few years, the Herald rediscovers Western Sydney (note: the majority of its readers live in the Eastern Suburbs or on the North Shore). Once upon a time, when I worked for the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), the Herald had a Blacktown-based journalist (Richard Macy), although I am not certain if they do now.

In a detailed article by Matt Wade entitled “The daily exodus”, the following facts about “the West” stand out:

– Sydney is the seventh most congested city internationally.
– Long commutes are so bad that Charles Montgomery, in his book Happy City, estimates that “for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work ‘has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love’”. He also quotes “a Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce.” (My comment: commuting from many outer Sydney suburbs to the CBD can easily take 90 minutes one direction, and are especially bad if you have to change “modes” – from bus to train.)
– Rich people live in Western Sydney too. “The Ponds, near Kellyville, was rated the city’s most advantaged suburb” on an Australian Bureau of Statistics index.
– Parramatta ranked the 11th top performing economic area of Australia in 2012-13, with a growth rate of 1.6% that outstripped Sydney’s CBD.
– Olympic Park (Homebush Bay) is also in the top 20 economic districts of Australia.
– Western Sydney has very limited success in attracting key finance, service and IT jobs: only 17 percent of them are in the region.

The economic health of Western Sydney is one of Australia’s greatest challenges. Despite decades of discussion and investigation about a second airport for Sydney, it still has not been announced. I understand that this may happen “soon” for Badgerys Creek. Despite some local opposition to that, I think it is the single most important thing that can happen for the region.

Film review of Noah

April 3, 2014

(A shortened form of this film review of “Noah” appeared in the “Australian Jewish News” on April 3, 2014.)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone

The new biblical epic film “Noah” is a dark, entertaining, messy but rich cinematic experience. Its Jewish director, Darren Aronofsky, is best-known for his feverish and emotionally bleak films with mystical overtones (“Black Swan”, “The Wrestler”, “The Fountain”). In “Noah”, he has created an apocalyptic story of undeniable beauty, which even ventures to illustrate the creation of the earth and replay the story of Adam and Eve. Much of the first third of the film shows Noah – apparently the last righteous man on earth – wandering with his family in a landscape of depravity, debauchery and ecological disaster, increasingly haunted by hallucinations of tragedies to come. These images, and later ones of the large rectangular ark, are powerful and truly memorable.

“Noah” features an all-star cast, headed by Russell Crowe in the title role. This brooding, highly conflicted but yet driven character has heroic action and fighting capabilities, despatching groups of bad guys through great sword and spear fighting skills, oddly reminiscent of Crowe’s “Gladiator” role (Noah as action figure: who would have thought?). Aside from Crowe – who gives one of his best performances in years, other actors include rock-hard Jennifer Connelly (Oscar-winner for “A Beautiful Mind” co-starring with Crowe) as Noah’s wife Naameh; a mature Emma Watson as Shem’s wife Ila; Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s wizard-like grandfather Methuselah; Ray Winstone as Noah’s nemesis Tubal-Cain (see Genesis 4); and Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo Carrell as the sons Ham, Shem and Japeth.

The last major biblical story to “open wide” in movie theatres was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, back in February 2004. While “Noah” has caused some controversy (and been banned in a number of Muslim countries), it pales by comparison to the antisemitism, violence and interpretation controversies that surrounded “The Passion”. The story of Noah, of course, is from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”, in Christian terminology), and it has a Jewish director with expertise in dark “art” films and who – unlike Gibson – has never claimed divine inspiration for his work.

Aronofsky’s lack of “final cut” (full artistic control) of his film – held by the film studio Paramount – may very well have caused some of the film’s uneven-ness in tone and story. The resulting experience is part art film (it’s stunningly beautiful to look at), part biblical epic and part modern large scale action movie, complete with a climactic battle scene straight from “The Lord of the Rings”. That the three parts of this film fit together uncomfortably is not a fault of trying too little, but attempting (and risking) too much with a story that comprises only a handful of pages in the Bible.

Despite Paramount’s attempts to woo the Christian audience (especially in the United States, where evangelical Christians make up about a third of the population), “Noah” the film is the biggest “Jewish” film epic to come on screen in decades. Although both Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel identify publicly as atheists, both were raised in Conservative Jewish families, and worked on their vision for the film through what they describe as “Jewish Midrash”, researching extensively through Jewish texts, apocryphal books and even going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite – or more probably, because – of this research, “Noah” the film re-writes the story of Noah in a number of very significant ways, ones that may drive viewers scrambling back to read the original story in Genesis. One of the strangest inclusions in “Noah” was a major elaboration of “The Watchers” (the “Nephilim”, or “fallen ones” from Genesis 6:4), using mostly ex-biblical sources like the books of Enoch and Jubilees. As presented in this film, these large stone creatures (half out of Harry Potter and half from the “Transformers” series, complete with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella) are angry with humans, but agree to assist Noah in making the ark and protecting him. In the preview screening that I attended, Paramount ran a promotional trailer for the next “Transformers” film (“Age of Extinction”, opening Australia in June). Seeing the stone transformers-like “Watchers” on screen a short time later caused some titters in the audience. We are meant to take “Noah” seriously as a story, and this explicit pop-culture reference was both distracting and unintentionally funny.

More significant than the inclusion of “The Watchers” is what actually takes place just before and on the ark. While the Bible tells us that Noah’s three sons in turn bring three wives onboard the ark, in this film version only one does – and she’s pregnant. And Aronofsky’s fanatical Noah believes that they are all doomed to die anyway, setting the scene for significant family tensions (to say the least). Further, unlike the biblical narrative (forgive the minor spoiler), there is a human stowaway on the ark.

Unlike Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, “Noah” comes to us in full English with no attempts at ancient languages. Here every character sports some version of a British accent (Crowe frequently sounded Australian to me, but perhaps I was imagining it). This follows a long but rocky tradition of accents in biblical epics: British accents work well for Americans (still the primary audience for this film), giving them just enough “remove” to feel sufficiently “ancient”. The word “God” is never mentioned, with everyone simply referring to “the Creator”.

Another way to view “Noah” the film is as a parable on global warming and environmental desecration. This is not an unusual message: the ecological message of living in harmony with nature featured obviously in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar”.

The story of Noah is a popular one: John Huston played Noah in the 1966 film “The Bible”; Steve Carrell played a funny version in “Evan Almighty”; and a 1928 silent version entitled “Noah’s Ark” was blighted by the deaths of three stunt performers while shooting the flood.

Certainly this “Noah” is the darkest version of the story in recent memory. It’s often clumsy and maddeningly uneven, but never less than sincere and entertaining.