Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Intimidate with soggy spaghetti or go for the jugular?

It's strange, I don't consider myself to be particularly interested in politics, but the recent shenanigans by the Victorian and Queensland state governments and the federal opposition have irritated me no end. I'm not committed to either of the major parties, but am appalled at the lacklustre interest they seem to take in acknowledging the advice from an earlier Prime Minister to represent the people of our country fairly and to act with humility and without self-interest. (See photo at the end for quote.) Whether they're currently holding power, or hoping to be elected, the words are an important guide for appropriate behaviour.

I've written about the damage the local policies are having on jobs and local communities in Victoria. I've talked about my frustration with the lack of policies and commitment to strategies to adapt to climate change, arguably the biggest social and environmental challenge to face human beings ever.

However that almost, but not quite, fades into the background with the latest jaw dropping inanities uttered by the leader of the opposition last week on national TV.

Link to 7:30 interview with Leigh Sales.

The leader of the opposition is reported to be paid $342,250 per annum, and for that sum, I'd expect him to be prepared about the topic he's about to be interviewed on. It's what I'd expect of a secondary student, a graduate or an employee. Actually, it's not about the money; whether he's paid or not, I'd expect him to have read the report he's about to be interviewed on, prepared to discuss it in an intelligent, articulate, rational manner.

That Tony Abbott saw fit to utter incorrect, insistent, repetitive, dogmatic pronouncements about a recently released BHP report, yet hadn't had the courtesy or professionalism to even open it and read and digest the contents is arrogant in the extreme. The interview is embarrassing and cringeworthy and would make an excellent teaching tool for how not to present yourself if you expect to look remotely credible.

Leigh Sales, the interviewer, asks questions with growing incredulity, yet she remains professional, polite and courteous. She is clearly astounded by Tony Abbott's obvious ignorance: "But hang on, no, no, you haven't read their statements today, but you're commenting about what they've announced today and how the Federal Government's to blame for that."

Perhaps Mr Abbott has become so used to providing "spectacle and conflict" that's he's become complacent, and thinks that doing some honest research and quoting accurately is beneath him, or perhaps it's a tedious irrelevancy.

He and his party may be surprised to know that many Australians are genuinely interested in his party's plans for our country if they win the next election. How will they address climate change, sea level rise, water shortages, food insecurity? How will they line these challenges up with economic responsibility and sustainability? These issues will affect us all. They will require intelligent, considered, calm, rational, wise leadership, not ignorant, dismissive, contemptuous, superficial rhetoric.

If Tony Abbott can't be bothered to read a report which he knows he will be interviewed about, how can he possible be considered by his party as suitable to represent Australia on the world stage with any confidence? There, he'd be expected to answer curly, possibly insightful questioning from people with no interest in protecting him or being as mild and gentle as Leigh Sales was.

In relation to refusing to seriously answer questions about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Tim Dunlop of The Drum says "Mr Abbott is not being judged on his ability to run a government, but on his ability to manipulate the media coverage by refusing to address a central question about a major policy." This is seen as admirable by some in the media.

Lack of knowledge and the ability to avoid answering serious questions is being encouraged and rewarded! For goodness sake, that's disgusting and it's time our reporters as a group lifted their act. Go for the jugular! Continue asking insightful questions and expect them to be answered appropriately, let us see when they're avoided. Australia and Australians are worth it! Aggressive sound bites are no substitute for thoughtful policy. Spare our country if this shameful embarrassment of a leader of the opposition continues in the role...and even more so if the opposition wins the next election. What is their vision for the future? We can hear their passion to destroy the current government, but that's not balanced by sharing thoughtful, wise policies.

And if the men and (very few) women of the Liberal Party consider Abbott's sound bites adequate to show his fitness to lead and possibly represent our country - what does their choice say about them?
Photo from a wall in Old Government House - Canberra. 
"May those who enter this open door govern with justice, reason and equal favour to all. May they do so in humility and without self-interest. May they think and act nationally. May they speak with the voice of those who sent them here - the voice of the people." 9 May 1927
Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Prime Minister, 1923 - 29

Leigh Sales has since been called a bit of a cow for the interview. In my opinion, the apology that followed appeared half hearted and disingenuous. (Link to the interview here)

But to recap, here's the question asked of by Liberal party strategist Grahame Morris regarding the Abbott interview:  "Were you surprised that he [Tony Abbott] didn't handle that better?"

... and Morris's reply "Well, Leigh can be a real cow sometimes".

Over on G+ I said that Morris's eventual apology is condescending, offhand and dismissive, using words like ... "poor sensitive little souls", and "silly".

A commenter replied that he thought the public reaction was a bit over the top. I disagree. To me, it comes across as a ploy to deflect attention from the fact that Leigh Sales asked a question that exposed Abbott's lack of preparedness for the interview, and his willingness to express incorrect ideas as fact.

The term cow can be used is a derogatory way to belittle or dismiss the woman it describes and to undermine her credibility. It's never used to show respect for someone asking appropriate questions.

By responding in this way, Morris avoided answering the important question "were you surprised that he didn't handle that better?" Of course a simple answer could have been damning. The unspoken answer clearly wasn't supportive of Abbott or Morris would have said so loud and clear.


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Big bangs, smoke and fun @ National Science Week 2012

Ya gotta love science!

Not only for the spectacular drama and big bangs, but for the delicate finesse of artistic creativity, researching our environments to ascertain their health, delving into cancer cells and DNA, learning from the stars, or working out how many people particular regions can sustain. I don't pretend to understand it all, but I love that there are people working in all these (and more) areas to better understand the complexities of our world and beyond.

National Science Week is a celebration of science, and the opening today in Brisbane's Queen Street Mall went off with a dramatic bang! Students, researchers and assorted scientists were scattered around the mall sharing insights and enthusiasm.

Garbage bins are usually pretty boring things, but today one was put to good use when liquid nitrogen was carefully poured in a drink bottle and put in a container inside a wheelie bin. The lid was quickly shut and the presenters scampered to a safe distance. An ear popping explosion was the result, with copious amounts of smoke, a wildly rocking bin and hugely smiling emos who'd been watching with feigned disinterest from the sidelines. Not bad at all!

I learnt that listening to the bush is not only delightful, but a valid way to ascertain the health (or otherwise) of environments. Scientists record the sounds, remove the extraneous "noise" then analyse the results. By doing this, (which is a rather complex business) it's possible to discover such things as the infiltration of cane toads to the west and south of the country (seriously not good for native animals of any size), the range and health of particular communities of animals, birds or frogs and how the populations are coping with assorted environmental factors.  

You can listen to some of the sounds of the Australian bush and learn a bit more at www.bush.fm
I love staring at the night sky, looking at the depth and range of colours, scanning for meteors, waving at the International Space Station and looking for satellites. Others become animated and enthusiastic when in the vicinity of telescopes of varying sizes. I heard oohs and aahs as people of all ages concentrated to look at sunspots and held my breath, hoping that no one would trip over the tripods that looked far too insecure to allow the bumbling public near.
Dr Jennifer  Loy seemed to be fielding quite a few questions along the lines of "Where can I get one of those?" and  "That looks like a great course" as she demonstrated a small tabletop 3D printer. I'd heard and seen some uses for 3D printers, but I'd never seen them used for jewellery and other elegant work. The lamp shade was exquisite and the jewellery would be fun to wear. As for more practical uses, glasses frames came to mind, and I expect a clever person could compete well with the outrageously priced stock in many spectacle stores.

Starting a conversation with anyone who is passionate about their particular field of interest can be a fraught business. Are they going to be interesting? Are you going to, for instance, have to resort to chewing your leg off to get away from a tediously boring, long winded, excruciatingly painful, bore? Thankfully, no dramatic, messy newsworthy stories were evident today. In fact, quite the opposite. At times I wondered if the scientists and presenters found the enthusiasm of the public a bit, well, enthusiastic to be honest. Wide eyed wonder, and lots of questions seemed par for the course.

I'm looking forward to having time to explore the Carrying Capacity Dashboard which "is an online application that estimates the resources needed to support a human population" given particular lifestyle choices. You can explore what happens when there are changes in such things as diet, energy usage, agricultural techniques and recycling practices. Adapting our lifestyles has a dramatic effect on the estimated number of people that different areas in Australia can carry sustainably. Given what I learnt today, it's clear some areas are already well beyond their ability to be sustainable.

Australia faces huge challenges with our changing climate. We already have divisive and competing land use demands - farming versus mining, agriculture versus housing development subdivisions.

Communities and states are at loggerheads about fair and equitable use of water - should it be used for farming, irrigation, mining? How much for manufacturing? Which areas get how much? Who decides? What proportion should be left in the environment for healthy rivers and groundwater? What about contaminants? How do we rationalise the use of this impermanent, precious natural resource?

It's vital that our policy makers address these issues with a deep understanding of the ramifications of their decisions and not make decisions as a knee-jerk response or for short term electoral gains or to satisfy the most strident lobbyists. Carrying Capacity Dashboard is, I suspect, going to provoke a lot of discussion, and hopefully some deep reflection on the sort of society we hope to become.

National Science Week is just beginning! To find out what's on near you, go to http://www.scienceweek.net.au/ it's not just big bangs to entertain the kid in us all, there's also challenging, entertaining, creative, welcoming sessions around the country for people from all walks of life.


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Koyaanisqatsi: A Life Out of Balance with Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble


One word sums up the extraordinary experience of a live performance of Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble performing the score to accompany the Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.
In hindsight, foolish not to have purchased tickets for the trilogy, but financial caution seemed wise beforehand. Now my response is along the lines of "An opportunity wasted". But a commitment to 3 evenings getting to Melbourne seemed a big ask when I booked. Next time, I'll throw caution to the winds and revel in the visual and auditory feast of the films and music.

I read that this film has become a cult classic, but looking round at the audience I see people of all ages and ethnicity. Students in their school uniforms, older men who would have been called beatniks once upon a time, surfies with dreads, wealthy looking highbrow gentry, people decked out in splendid attire and those in jeans and hoodies, even a few hippies. There's no evident "type", yet there is a common bond - it seems everyone knows and loves the film and music.

There's so much in Koyaanisqatsi; wonder, delight, surprise, and an overwhelming sense of 'What have we done, what have we become?'. To explain the film is difficult at best, and a confusing impossibility at worst.

The simplest description comes from the Arts Centre blurb:
The first in the trilogy caused a sensation when released and is now a cult classic. Reggio's film is a simple but searing vision of an urban society moving at a frenetic pace, detached from the natural environment and overwhelmed by technology, in images at once stark and beautiful, assaulting and hypnotizing.
Striated mountains stretching from horizon to horizon, would take millions upon millions of years to form, layer upon layer representing thousands of years of sediment, silt, dust, life and death. Millions of years of erosion; water, wind, rain and geologic upheaval have presented us with exquisite, almost intricate, achingly beautiful formations. It's easy to be lost in awe.

Acres of impossibly uniform paintbox coloured flowers seem at odds with the natural beauty, yet they're beguiling - how is it possible to have them all the same?

Ghostly stock exchange employees - I smile wryly, not much has changed there! Yet other careers have gone, devoured by technology.

Clouds, clearly showing rain shadows. Brilliant for teaching aspects of geography, weather and climate.

The impossibly deep voice intoning "Koyaanisqatsi" weaves throughout, slow paced, measured, authoritative. A commanding presence. A statement. A question ... asking the audience to confront the images, and not shy from them.


Images are still swirling through my brain. Sausages being extruded from chutes, but are they sausages ... or people on escalators ... or frenetically funnelled cars on freeways - (how unutterably wrong that word sounds - 'free' - clearly the single occupants aren't free, no more than the sausages are free). I suffer from vertigo and these speeding scenes don't feel good.

Watching the musicians. Taking delight in their skill and ability to synchronise beautifully with the film. I feel privileged to experience their utter professionalism, and am grateful that there are those who devote their lives to transporting us lesser mortals on an emotional journey of joy, questioning and wonder through their skill.

The pace changes, and whilst this film was created 30 years ago, the fiery tumbling spacecraft reminds me of the more recent shuttle disaster, of suffering, unimaginable pain, fear, death. Slowly, gracefully, arcing through the sky. Transfixed. By golly this is powerful stuff.

Crumbling buildings, cracked glass, decay. Tanks. Explosions. The pointlessness of dominance, of power and might. Spiralling out of control. Destruction. Dust to dust. Oblivion.

Yet ... on stage the musicians create. The singers, one female, two extra males, are poised, attentive, giving of themselves, sharing the power of their gifts. Intense concentration. Beautiful!

The words being sung are Hopi sayings. They weave, rising and falling, meshing with the music, now departing, lone, alone, they whisper, flutter hesitant, but gain momentum and with growing insistence move assertively across the landscape. They command. Demand we listen.

And stop.

I want to stand and cheer ... but that wouldn't be right. There's more.

This feast, both visual and auditory is mesmerising. The music departs from the visuals, meets, meshes, and they depart again. It is wonderful. Nonverbal communication at its best!

How much has changed in the years since this film was released. How much is the same. How much is worse. Our frenetic mindless movement towards self destruction doesn't seem to have changed. Yet, experiences like this give me hope. We can be so utterly, movingly, creatively, powerfully brilliant. It'd be sad to see these aspects of humankind go to waste.