“The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” – John Kenneth Galbraith in the Affluent Society.
May 31, 2009
A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel up at university. The subject was whether universal human rights exist. These are my, slightly edited, speech notes.
The question that has been asked of us this evening is: are there universal human rights? Rights which we are all entitled to, regardless of where we live, regardless of whose borders we find ourselves within, regardless of our gender, race, abilities and age?
I have a short answer to these questions and that is simply: “Yes – Of course.”
I also have 10 minutes of space allocated to my talk. So I had better give you the slightly longer answer as well.
May 29, 2009
So, finally, I’ve started taking Methotrexate. This is the immunosuppresant commonly used to treat Reative Arthritis when it gets severe. I’ve held off taking it for so long. Why? Partially, because when it was first suggested to me in 2003 it was unclear I actually needed it. Partially, because I’ve been afraid of its potential side effects. Partially, because I’ve thought of it as a way of dampening symptoms rather than a cure (and I’ve always hoped for a cure). And partially, because, while the few people I’ve known on Methotrexate have benefitted from it, they’ve never done that well.
Was I right to do this? If you’d asked me that two years ago, essentially in remission and unaware of my heart problems, I would have said ‘yes’…but now…immobilised and unable to risk more damage to my aorta, the answer is completely different. So I’ve started taking it.
Last week I also returned to Melbourne to see the doctor and naturopath there. I figured they’d hate Methotrexate but they didn’t, so I’m continuing with the diet and anti-biotics as well.
More important than all that, maybe, was South Melbourne itself. Nestled against Port Phillip Bay. Two blocks back the Nappean highway chugs its way alongside cracked footpaths and carbon stained buildings. Supermarkets, delis, and chemists stand next to each other, wearing uncomfortable shapes. People shuffle around, worn, or harried, or overweight, in in mismatched clothes. Depressing. And yet, on the morning of my appointment I wandered down to the beach. The sand is golden and mist is lifting off the sea. It’s glassy calm and the water sits quiet and clear over the sandbars. To the north and across the bay fog swallows the distance. The sun is warming the world and in South Melbourne ugly and serene seem to get on surprisingly well…
May 24, 2009
…another writing course exercise
Like ghosts in a dream, icebergs appear in the mist below. Until then I’d been my own gritty fog. Three hours sleep in a Reykjavík dorm, the ache of an ended relationship. The torments I always have at the start of a trip: you’re unprepared, you’re over spent, why are you here? It vanishes with the icebergs. I see one and then realise that, like the night’s first star, it’s surrounded. Two. Three. Four. Hundreds! I press my nose to the small oblong window. I want to sing or at least shout “icebergs” to everyone on the plane. I keep it to myself but I’m bubbling like freshly opened soda. The sea below us is glassy-still, pale-blue and woven with filaments of cold, white cloud.
The icebergs gather, beautiful, but more important still, road markers: the point where Greenland stops being an idea in a book I’d read somewhere and starts to become a place where I’m actually going to stand.
The continent follows. We circle a giant Fjord and land next to a village of scattered, hopeful, red and blue houses. We stand on the airstrip, boots crunching on the gravel, breaths puffing in front of us. The view is giant-sized. Mountains, cut steep out of granite, tower and fall from the icecap. In the valleys glaciers, spines of splintered ice, inch to the sea.
Propellers stopped, it’s quiet. The sort of swallowing silence that turns shouts into whispers. Out front, the icebergs saunter, glowing like shattered stars. Water sculptured by water – curves and swoops, steeples and arches, coils and lenses of blue in white.
Next to me, two pretty Spanish day-trippers, wrapped in scarves and stylish coats, babble – every bit as excited as I am. “Est magico, est magico,” one of them keeps saying.
I have three weeks in Greenland, under the northern lights, north of the Arctic Circle. And then, after that, the frustration of never quite finding words to do justice to it all. In the end I will give up and just borrow from the Spanish lady. I tell you: Greenland is magic or, at least, as close to it as I have ever been.
May 19, 2009
a writing course exercise…
In 1666 a bakery blaze became a firestorm that swept across London. It destroyed Saint Paul’s Cathedral, razed the homes of bankers, and burnt the slums of the poor. The army fought it by blowing up buildings and pulling down houses with grappling hooks. It sparked a refugee crisis and led to the lynching of unfortunate French and Dutch. On the continent it was claimed as divine retribution. It may have put paid to the plague.
I knew none of this when I got off at the wrong Underground station in 1996 and, acting on a whim, decided to go for a walk.
It was autumn and the sky was held together by concrete coloured clouds. Stranded by changing seasons and changing travel plans, I was wearing borrowed clothes, cold in the wind, and struggling, without really knowing, to come to grips with the city I’d found myself in. Everything cost so much. The footpaths were packed, and walking meant weave and bluff, weave and bluff. It wasn’t Wellington, and it was stranger than Kuala Lumpur and Medan because it wasn’t meant to be. It was flat and formless, and run through with congested streets. It never seemed to end.
I was walking with my head down, thinking about places I’d rather be, when the street I was on spilled into a square. A stone column stood in its centre. It was carved and ornate with fluted sides and capped with a golden crown. It struck up at the sky and stuck out from the buildings around it. I guessed it had to be old. I walked over. A plaque at its base explained.
A monument to the great fire of London, built between 1671 and 1677. 202 feet high and 202 feet from where the fire first caught. Designed by Christopher Wren, the architect who remodelled London in the wake of the blaze.
For half an hour I forgot about being cold and lost, and marvelled at the history in front of me, wandering off eventually. I didn’t even think it might be possible to climb the tower as well as read about it.
That discovery was M.’s, made the following spring. We met in the travellers’ house where I lived. She was black haired and pretty, and joked she was the palest Californian I was ever going to meet. We liked the same music and worried about the same things. We wandered around London together. I took her to the Monument wanting to show off this thing I’d found.
She discovered the entrance and we deposited our two pound coins, climbing the spiralling stairs, hands trailing on the hand-worn rail. At the top, we stood together on the almost empty viewing platform.
We were looking out at London from a tower that was built just after Abel Tasman set sight on New Zealand and before the first Spanish settlers reached LA. We were looking out at a city that was at least as old as the Romans, which had been captured by Vikings, and which became the heart of an empire. Above us, blue and grey shared the sky. And out front the metropolis sprawled off, held up by cranes. The Thames curved in and out, dodging buildings and ducking bridges. High rises, churches’ steeples and motorways jostled for space. And the suburbs shrank away.
What way do you think we’re looking?
I don’t know. I wonder, are those hills or clouds?
I think the buildings stop eventually.
That day has its share of stories. How close we stood; what we did, and what we didn’t do. The one that remains most tangible now is less complicated though. Simply, the way the city – stacked up on all that history, and laid out in front of us like a map – became more manageable as we stood there together, eyes straining, wondering if we could see to its limits.
May 17, 2009
The Italians are coming! (Owen Barder in Ethiopia)
John Quiggin excerpts Akerlof and Shiller on neo-classical economics’ starting points and the weaknesses that come with this:
The economics of the textbooks seeks to minimise as much as possible departures from pure economic motivation and from rationality. There is a good reason for doing so – and each of us has spent a good portion of his life writing in this tradition. The economics of Adam Smith is well understood. Explanations in terms of small deviations from Smith’s ideal system are thus clear, because they are posed within a framework that is already very well understood. But that does not mean that these small deviations from Smith’s system describe how the economy actually works
Our book marks a break with this tradition. In our view, economic theory should be derived not from the minimal deviations from the system of Adam Smith [needed to provide a plausible account of observed outcomes – JQ] but rather from the deviations that actually do occur and can be observed.
And Ben Goldacre has a column that shows just how economic power can skew scientific method. And which should scare you even if you’re not arthritic.
In Australia a fascinating court case has been playing out around some people who had heart attacks after taking the Merck drug Vioxx. … The first fun thing to come out in the Australian one is email documentation showing that staff at Merck made a “hit list” of doctors who were critical of the company, or of the drug. This list had words like “neutralise”, “neutralised” and “discredit” next to the names of various doctors. “We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live,” said one email, from a Merck employee. Gosh okay, see you at mine later…
.They’re also alleged to have used other tactics, like trying to interfere with academic appointments, and dropping hints about how funding to institutions might dry up. Institutions might think about whether they, in turn, wish to receive money from a company like that.
But bigger, and better, is the publication Merck paid academic journal publisher Elsevier to produce…But this time Elsevier Australia went the whole hog: they gave Merck an entire publication to themselves, which looked like an academic journal, but in fact only contained reprinted articles, or summaries of other articles. In issue 2, for example, 9 of the 29 articles were about Vioxx, and 12 of the remaining were about another Merck drug, Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions, and some were bizarre: like a review article containing just 2 references.
In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier initially said that the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘Journal’”. I would like to expand on this statement. It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic journal shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.
May 14, 2009
We were sitting in the bank, waiting to cash our travellers cheques when it started to rain. The clouds had been gathering for days, thick and grey, lowering the sky, but we hadn’t thought about rain. In Nusa Tengara the weather had been fine, blue skies and trade winds, for half a year at least.
In a few minutes this all changed. Rumbling thunder, then watery splats as, one after another, the first swollen drops fell onto the road. For a moment the rain was spaced out, falling here and there, but then the cloud truly burst, and it pelted down.
“Good thing we’re inside aye”
We hadn’t thought about rain, but everyone else was waiting for it. The water filled the streets with children. Running out of houses and buildings, laughing and clapping, shouting and dancing. An impromptu football match kicked off. Teenage men skidding across the tarmac, chasing a semi-deflated ball as it splashed between the puddles. Some of the younger kids simply stood, their hands held up, catching raindrops, smiling at the sky. Adults gathered in the eves of buildings, shouting greetings and jokes out across the weather.
I shared a bemo with a Dutch guy once, who told me that the end of the dry season was a time of hunger in South East Indonesia, and that the rain meant the end of this. But these people were celebrating, living in the town where I’m guessing food didn’t run out. Maybe it was still habit, or maybe times really were rough, or maybe they were just glad for the change.
It only lasted fifteen minutes then petered out. At its end we wandered into the street, amongst the running children, talkative adults and the steamy, sated smell of the Earth replenished with water.
May 11, 2009
Reason has its limits. It’s hard, for example, to make a reasoned case for anything more than enlightened self interest. It’s equally hard I should add, lest any libertarians in the audience be tempted to pull out stumps and declare victory after only a sentence, to make a reasoned case for unmitigated selfishness. Either way, in political philosophy, reason can only take you so far in answering the whys before it starts to run out of steam.
“We should provide everyone with accessible health care.”
“Because health is an integral component to peoples’ wellbeing.”
“And society should be structured to maximise the well being of its members.”
With time and patience you can get a bit further but eventually, it seems to me at least, you end up mired in the sands of arguments where reason has little traction. Propelled by reason you can get close to being able to anchor political philosophy in the stuff of the universe but never quite there. Eventually some leap of faith is required.
Similarly, some of the things we value most in life don’t appear to stem from reason at all – love, ascetics, altruism, bravery, tenacity, hope…
Which begs the question, perhaps there’s an alternative to reason? A fairly popular one in the circles I knock about in is spirituality – guidance from belief in something supernatural. We don’t have to reason our morals – we can take them from the bible, or the inspired teachings of a Buddha, or straight out of the universe itself. I can see the temptation; faith has been a motivating factor behind many of the acts of kindness that have interrupted the generally sad sweep of history. And, if, as I said above, leaps of faith are required in all political philosophies why not use faith to make them?
The trouble is, arguments of faith and spirituality lack one critical component that reason does have – a common language for mediating differences. If your god told you to set society up in a particular way, while mine told me to do so in a different manner altogether, we have no way of mediating our differences. Seeing as they are both divinely revealed, true on their own terms and right, we have no potential for navigating between the two.
Consider the statements: “Sex outside marriage is bad because god says so” and “Sex outside marriage is bad because it leaves people unhappy.” The first leaves no space for further conversation (god said it – so there!); the second offers the opportunity for logical testing using evidence. It could well be challenged, proven wrong and discarded by reasonable people.
Saying all this isn’t to deny people their personal beliefs: I appreciate the role spirituality has in the lives of many, it’s just to point out that in public policy – the realm where we negotiate our collective decisions about our actions that impact on us together – we need to be able to test competing propositions using a common framework. And for this there’s no real substitute for reason, despite all its flaws.
May 9, 2009
May 8, 2009
May 4, 2009
Which reminds me:
One winter in Madeira I met Tony, an artist and surfer from Wales. Like me he was trying learning Portuguese. Unlike me he eventually got there. In the meantime though, one afternoon he went up to a local joiner to buy some wood for picture frames. When the time came to talk prices, tired of the same old “quanto coosta” he decided to try something new – an attempt at, “how much do you charge?”
Or, as he put it that afternoon, “Quanto caga?”
Alas for Tony, if you want to say “how much do you charge?” in Portuguese. You’d say (sorry about my spelling): “Quanto cobra?” Or something like that.
“Quanto caga?” on the other hand, means – once you allow for bad grammar – something along the lines of: “how much do you shit?”
Tony never told me the joiner’s reply…
The really short review: if you read only one surfing novel in your life, read Breath by Tim Winton.
My attempt at a longer review, complete with another one of my surfing tales (any excuse!), is up at the Scoop Review of Books.
Review now over the fold too.
May 3, 2009
I work in international development. Corruption is something development types take seriously – it gets in the way of markets and stops governments from doing good things like providing health care or building schools. In general, it’s a bad thing. So bad in fact that, as an idealistic younger man, I travelled to Brazil to study something called the Orcamento Participativo, a system of municipal governance which, among other successes to its name, was credited with reducing corruption in the cities where it ran.
Unlike corruption, tipping, on the other hand, isn’t something development types think so much about. It doesn’t lead to war, or stagnation, or disease. It’s not without its challenges though. Especially as no two countries have exactly the same approach to it. In New Zealand you don’t have to tip at restaurants and you’d be thought of as positively odd if you tried to tip anywhere else. In New York, on the other hand, not only do you need to tip restaurant staff even if the service is poor, but you also need to tip bar tenders and hairdressers. In other countries like England and Spain the norms are different again.
Having muddled my way around the globe’s tipping norms, by the time I got to Brazil for my masters research I figured I’d stop guessing and simply ask. Sure, there was the risk that the porter, or waiter or whoever, might say yes even when a tip wasn’t necessary but I figured they were poorly paid service workers in a third world country. If I ended up giving them a few extra dollars when it wasn’t really necessary, what was the harm.
The only real problem I had was that I didn’t actually know the Portuguese word for ‘tip’. Not such a big problem though, I decided I’d just use the Spanish word – propina – instead. Often-enough Spanish and Portuguese words are interchangeable. And in the South of Brazil, where I was, the local vernacular had a stronger than usual Spanish influence.
And so it was that I spent my first few days dealing with my tip uncertainty in a straight-up manner. I asked the nice old guy who carried my bags at the hotel if it was “normal dar uma propina” for his services. He looked at me a little funny – probably struggling with my accent or grammar – but took the change I gave him. The same thing happened with the waitress at the vegetarian restaurant, the guy at the café and the woman at the hairdressers. (Although, she started with a puzzled ‘no’ before changing her answer to ‘yes’). I was a bit suspicious, no one ever really turned my offer of a tip down, but in general the process seemed to be working. I was being straight up, and practicing my Portuguese to boot. Something that, from the strange looks I was receiving, I really did need to work on.
Despite all this, when the chance arose, I did take the opportunity to get independent verification of local tipping norms, and of my use of the word ‘propina’. My chance for this came through Yamil, a friend of a friend, who I went and stayed with in Gramado. He spoke perfect English, had travelled a lot, and aided whenever he could during my stay in Brazil.
And so, one afternoon, I explained to him what I’d been doing and asked whether ‘propina’ was indeed the right word.
His reply started with a laugh.
“No in Portuguese the word is Gorgetta. And here in the south of Brazil the word ‘propina’ means something like a bribe.”
So there I was – student of anti-corruption measures, spending my first few days in Brazil wandering about, trying desperately to bribe my way through its service industry. No wonder they kept giving me strange looks.
May 2, 2009
There may be no good name for my illness, but the English language does provide just the right words for the way I feel right now: bone tired. I’m weary because moving makes me ache – both where bone meets bone and where bone meets muscle – and pain is exhausting. I’m weary also because I (probably) have anemia of chronic disease. Which you get, apparently, because your bone marrow isn’t producing the red blood cells you need.
So, bone tired.