17 December 2012

The Second Amendment is the bug in America

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:33 am

As a teenager I had a series of unpopular computers—an Amstrad instead of a Commodore 64, an Acorn when everyone else had an Amiga—that I taught myself to program from books and magazines. I was never very good at it: most of it was trial and error, and all of it was whatever ended up working; I’m sure I never wrote an elegant or even particularly imaginative line of code. But I still enjoyed it; or, rather, it captivated me—I couldn’t leave the program alone until it worked to some approximation. And I still remember the satisfaction that arose from something finally working, no matter how many hacks and kludges I’d shoehorned in there, no matter how ugly the code or how urgent the compiler warnings. 

When I came to study and then practise law, I found much that was familiar. Many legal documents—statutes and contracts in particular—have a lot in common with computer programs. They’re designed to achieve a particular outcome using specific forms of language. They use variables and constants, and the basic logical operators familiar to any coder: if, then, else, and, not. They employ functions and subroutines. With recent moves towards plain drafting, they’ve even started to look like programs, with nested indentations teasing out the impenetrable paragraphs of the old days. And great chunks of them are dedicated to error and exception handling, trying to ensure that if something goes wrong then the instrument itself can deal with the problem, instead of requiring a court to sort it out—surely the most expensive tech support around (or close).

Even so, sometimes a law or a contract will have a typo in it, or an undefined variable, or an unfortunate choice in language or even punctuation that means that the thing doesn’t work at all, or doesn’t do what you want or expect. That is: it has a bug.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment is the bug in America. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love America. It’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it has a terrific sense of humour. But it’s a little bit crazy. This terror of government—you can kind of understand it; America’s had some bad luck in the past, you’d want to be careful. But this thing with the Second Amendment: this is batshit. It’s pathological. What other modern state could imagine such unrestricted access to such a range of weaponry? What other country would do so little in response to so many gun deaths? The fact that America stands so far apart from the world isn’t because Americans are parochial or narcissistic. It’s because America itself—as an idea, as an entity—is constituted by, well, its Constitution; and that Constitution has a pretty disastrous bug in its very foundation, in its framework.

There are many passages in the US Constitution that are beautifully written and wonderfully precise. Then there’s the Second Amendment. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. But how does the first clause relate to the second? What do you mean by “the people”—what do you mean by “infringed”? There have been endless arguments in every direction, none of them altogether persuasive. They all dismiss too much of the language or the historical context. And it was never going to be any other way: there can be no satisfactory interpretation of such a frustrating piece of drafting. And I think it’s precisely this ambiguity that makes the arguments on both sides so heated, even hysterical: they have to make up in zeal what they lack in clear constitutional backing. And so one side goes on about fetishists and gun nuts, and the other grows alienated and paranoid. You have to wonder whether the framers ever really knew what they wanted; in any case, it would be hard to imagine a provision more perfectly crafted to drive a nation insane.

So the Constitution needs an urgent patch: it needs a referendum on the Second Amendment. Either replace it or repeal it; it can’t stay as it is. If the requisite majorities really want an illimitable individual right to bear any kind of weapon, let them say so unambiguously. If not, then treat it like Prohibition and repeal it already. That wouldn’t itself result in any fewer guns; but it might allow a more constructive debate about guns, perhaps based more on utility and empirical information—including the experience of other countries—and less on ideology and weird notions of what it means to be American. Modern America needs to decide how it is to deal with modern weaponry: the Second Amendment can do little to help. It’s a bug, not a feature. And for too long, the best advice from too many people has been to just try turning it off and then on again.

And no, I don’t live in America, and it’s none of my business. Except that we’re all Americans today, and it seems like we’re all Americans more and more often lately, and it’s hard not to say anything about that.

22 January 2010

Beat up Martin

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:02 pm

Newton.jpgApparently Apple is about to announce some kind of new gadget in the next week or so, and it’s going to revolutionise everything all over again. Although nobody thinks that the new device is going to be a mere e-book reader, it looks like it’s going to be at least an e-book reader, with Apple rumoured to be in talks with Hachette, HarperCollins and others to secure electronic distribution of their titles. The idea would be a sort of iTunes store for books as well as journals and the existing music, movies and TV shows.

I never thought I would have considered a tablet computer or e-book reader, but now I think there’s a good chance I’ll buy the Apple one. What happened to me? Honestly: it was the iPhone. Another rumour has it that the iPhone was born out of something called the “Safari Pad”, a touchscreen tablet-style device intended for web browsing that Steve Jobs finessed into the smartphone we all know and mostly love. That decision now seems to have been an inspired one, about developing the market as much as the technology.

I bought an iPhone because I already had an iPod, I listened to a lot of music and podcasts and could never get them to work seamlessly enough with whatever smartphone I hoped would solve it all for me. I just wanted to carry fewer gadgets and have more free pockets, and the iPhone fit the bill. I hadn’t ever thought of reading books on it, because that wasn’t remotely possible on either previous phones or iPods. The closest thing I’d done on either kind of device was listening to audiobooks, which I do like a lot, though I’ve always found there’s something unwieldy about them: you can’t read at your own pace, it’s hard to flip back and forward to find things you may have missed or misunderstood, you can’t copy out bits that you like.

But I got a couple of free books for the iPhone and started reading them, just because they were there and I didn’t have anything else to read on the bus or waiting in the pub. I downloaded the Shakespeare application, like most people do. I got the Kindle application and bought a book or two. I was sent a first draft of a new novel by e-mail and instead of printing it out I read it on the iPhone. It wasn’t ideal, the screen was too small, it wasn’t particularly comfortable to hold, but instead of thinking it was all rubbish and I’d go back to paperbacks, I started thinking: what if the screen were bigger? If the contrast were better? And then: what if I could easily search through the book, make notes to myself, copy and paste passages? What if, any time I didn’t know a word or a historical reference, I could just tap on it for its definition or Wikipedia entry? By being almost good enough, the iPhone suggested what would come after it, and began to persuade me that I needed something I’d never thought about before.

And then I started thinking: what if, having bought a paperback for reading around the house and making the bookshelves look good, I could pay an extra buck or two to download the electronic version? And what if the audiobook were just a couple of bucks more? (The Kindle has a text-to-speech function available for some titles, but it’s no substitute for a proper reader, who does need to be paid: I don’t know how much of the price of an audiobook goes towards its production, how much is for the underlying work.) What if I could switch between the text version and the spoken version when I had to walk somewhere, and switch back when I sat down again, or when I wanted to make a note or a quote or look something up—and it always knew where I was up to? I still think I’d favour the paper version, and use the others when circumstances demanded, but I’m not sure about that. I can imagine the convenience and versatility of the electronic versions might trump even the pleasure of paper.

At the moment I’m reading my wife’s paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s brutal Blood Meridian together with the audiobook version narrated by Richard Poe that I bought a while ago, and looking up many of McCarthy’s old-west names and places from my iPhone. I feel like there may be a reading experience even richer than the one we’re used to around the corner. As always, the challenge will be to make sure all the rights are dealt with effectively and realistically, to make sure creators are rewarded without stifling innovation or alienating readers. If we don’t get in our own way too much we could offer a new generation of readers something that we’ve never had before. And to have the latest McCarthy bloodfest up there on the same page, in the same search results as the latest Dexter episode or High School Musical instalment or Jay-Z protégé, just as accessible and nearly as flashy and cool—that’s got to be a good thing for the written word.

Paddy Power now has a market on what Apple will call the new product, with “iPad” almost unbackable at 1:5. I always thought it would be cute to call it the iSaac, a synthesis of the overused i-prefix with the original and much-loved Newton MessagePad that let Dolph down so badly in the picture above. But I acknowledge that that would be an extremely nerdy and unlikely name, and Paddy Power prefers even the “EtchaSketch” (at 500:1).

13 August 2009

Stay away from that jazz man

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:06 pm


Last night I had the very great pleasure of catching famed jazz pianist Barney McAll with bass guy Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Simon Barker at the Macquarie Hotel. Barney was in town for some sold-out shows with the legendary Fred Wesley, but this was a more intimate acoustic gig. The piano trio is my favourite jazz combo, and I think it’s the most poetic arrangement. It seems to me to be a perfect balance, rarely showy, a real conversation.

Barney and Jonathan did the music for my stage adaptation of Solstice, with Hamish Stuart on drums and Kate Ceberano singing along. Over the years Barney has continually stretched and redefined himself, experimenting with Cuban, African and electronic influences, and trying to keep up with him has taught me a lot about music. Some of his stuff is pretty challenging, but last night he folded it all back into an old-school trio performance that soothed the mind and the soul.

Barney’s five albums are available as high-quality DRM-free downloads from his website and are well worth the $US9 each. I’m encouraged by the way musicians are using the Internet to get their work out there and get a return on them, despite some questionable moves from the industry associations. I think the publishing industry can learn a lot from the music industry, though I’m not sure exactly what yet.

The Macquarie Hotel is a labyrinth of bars all apparently playing live music at roughly the same time. Some of the classic rock from downstairs started drifting into the Ravál bar upstairs towards the end of the second set. It’s quite a new space and nicely done up with sofas and soft lighting, perfect for jazz. From my seat by the window I could see but not hear the traffic of Wentworth Avenue, and even look up into an apartment block where a few lights were on and a few silhouettes were wandering around. At one point two people in adjacent apartments leaned at the same time against their common wall; one was talking on the phone, and I don’t know what the other one was doing. Looking at them, and at the jazz—it seemed to be what a city is all about. The photo doesn’t do it any justice, but I kind of like it.

There aren’t many famous bassists—Charlie Mingus being a spectacular exception—but it’s an incredible instrument, it reaches deep inside you. It’s usually a buried pulse, occasionally let out for a brief solo, but I’ll never forget Jonathan playing a devastating, elegiac “Over the Rainbow” entirely on his bass one night in Bondi maybe ten years ago. That’s him in this sonnet from Equinox, one of my favourites, though not as good as I wanted it to be:


They book a table at the Basement
with vodka and potato wedges.
The band tonight is Hip Replacement;
the music seems to have no edges.
The bassist slows to treacle pace
and waltzes with his double bass,
cradling its neck with loving fingers,
stroking its strings. The music lingers
like heavy blossom in the air
as he sinks deeper in his solo.
Tugging the collar of his polo
he sweats and winces, unaware
of anything beyond the dance
of man and bass in mutual trance.

Thanks, guys!

20 February 2007

Hats off

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:13 am

Joyce_Hatto_2.jpgA number of celebrated recordings by the late British pianist Joyce Hatto have just been “uncovered” as fakes. Hatto performed extensively in the 1950s and 1960s but retired from the stage in 1976 after being diagnosed with cancer. She apparently dedicated the rest of her life to a series of brilliant recordings of just about every difficult solo piano piece ever, which were released by her husband’s label, Concert Artist. From her 2006 obituary in The Times:

The discography she assembled latterly, surveying almost completely the piano works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, is a trusty Baedeker of the standard repertoire. But composers outside the Austro-German canon were not neglected: there is, naturally, much Chopin and Liszt, but also Scarlatti, Debussy, Prokofiev and her father’s beloved Rachmaninov. Moreover, this outstanding conspectus was capped by the summa of piano technique, Godowsky’s reworkings of Chopin’s études, tackled in their entirety by only the most fearless.

Everybody seems to have loved these recordings. But it turns out that at least some of them bear surprising similarities to tracks and even whole albums recorded by other talented 20th-century pianists. Questions about Hatto’s unlikely prolificacy had been circling for a while, but it all came down when an anonymous critic for Gramophone magazine stuck a Hatto CD into his computer and was told that it was really a recording by Lászlo Simon previously released by BIS Records.

Now, anyone with iTunes and an Internet connection will recognise something like the miraculous Gracenote® or CDDB database, which has enhanced our ripping experience considerably since the 1990s. CDs typically don’t contain any digital information about artists or titles—they don’t know what they are, and so copying one to your computer always involved typing in all of these details so you could later identify your music. CDDB set up an online database allowing users who had completed this tedious task to upload the information so that nobody else would have to.

The database’s cleverest part was its ability to identify every CD shoved into somebody’s computer. I’d always thought that CDs had some identifying number, equivalent to an ISBN, that was encoded somewhere in the CD. It turns out they can, but a lot of them don’t. So CDDB creates a more-or-less unique ID for a CD by crunching its table of contents (the list of where on the disc each track starts) through some kind of algorithm. The result is that if an album is reissued by another label but the table of contents isn’t disturbed, CDDB will still identify it correctly. Or if you rebadged someone else’s CD under your own name, CDDB would call you on it.

Gramophone magazine sent some Hatto recordings, including the Liszt, to audio expert Andrew Rose to check them out. Interestingly, Rose says that only ten of Lászlo Simon’s twelve Liszt études had made it onto Hatto’s version, and that the fourth track was shrunk by 0.02%, or about a tenth of a second—a pretty wacky result, but not enough to throw out CDDB’s calculations. But the other two tracks on Hatto’s version aren’t Simon’s: one of them is Minoru Nojima and is eight seconds shorter than the Simon, and the last track remains unidentified.

You can see the problem: Gracenote® or any other database that works the same way wouldn’t match Hatto’s Liszt to Simon’s, as the Gramophone story goes: they’re not the same CD, so the fingerprint would be all different. If the database didn’t already hold Hatto’s version, it would return a blank. That doesn’t mean that the Hatto tracks aren’t copies—there is a lot of analysis that suggests that they are—but it does mean that the “discovery” story is probably a fiction, or was at least misreported—it may well have been another CD that was an exact copy. As usual, the <a href="http://groups.google.com/group/rec.music.classical.recordings/search?group=rec.music try this.classical.recordings&q=hatto&qt_g=Search+this+group”>newsgroups are all over it, with some suggesting that some shadowy figure had filled in the CDDB entry for Hatto’s disc with Simon’s details, and it all becomes very complicated. It’s the biggest scandal to hit the world of classical music since—I don’t know—Bond!

6 November 2006

Why Cambridge is preposterous

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:42 am

stjohns.jpgI have received a couple of inquiries—the blogger’s equivalent of the phone ringing off the hook—about my recent throwaway that the venerable university town of Cambridge is preposterous.

I should make it clear that I only mean that in a good way. My personal—perhaps idiosyncratic—use of the word dates back a couple of years to a trip to Twin Falls in Kakadu National Park, where during the dry season when the falls don’t have a lot to them you can sit at the very edge and let the water wash over you on its way down. The weather is relentlessly perfect, you have to hike through a lot of scrub to get there, and by the time you happen on the waterfall it really is something. My hiking buddy and I were pretty blown away by it, and she went and lay at the top of the falls as I’ve described and soaked up the sun and didn’t look bad in her bikini, and we both agreed that the only way to do justice to the scene was to call it—you guessed it—preposterous. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t really exist outside of tourist advertisements.

Cambridge is a bit like that, only of course a lot colder. The university itself is about 800 years old. The first college was founded in 1280; there are now 31 of the bastards, and many of them are huge and sprawling and full of courts and cloisters and chapels and battlements and other Gothic what-have-you. See for example the New Court at St John’s, pictured.

What’s preposterous isn’t that edifices of this scale and extravagance exist, or that they’re all lined up one after the other like McMansions; it’s more that people still get to use them: privileged seventeen-year-olds get to skip lectures and defile each other, and smart-arses from all over the world get to do indescribable research, and they all flap around in gowns and wobble about on ancient bicycles and get drunk at long tables in ancient halls between Latin graces. There are older and more impressive buildings than the ones at these old university towns, I’m sure, but they’re either still palaces or now museums; what’s remarkable is that people come here to do work and to use the buildings as they’ve been used for so long. I think.

Outside the colleges, the streets are cobble and flag and there may be more bookshops than coffee-shops—though most of the bookshops have coffee-shops inside them. And yes, everything is expensive—some things preposterously so—but what do you expect in a place that shouldn’t really exist?

Yesterday I heard a punter—someone actually punting along the Cam—tell some tourists that various scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot at St John’s. As far as I can tell that’s not true, they were shot at Oxford—which I’m sure is no less preposterous—but it’s easy to believe. Personally I think the place is crying out for a zombie flick; you could have all these undead hordes coming for the overweight brains of the freshers and fellows barricaded behind the old doors and drawbridges. And all the zombies could be these famously well-educated figures from history, like in that Halloween episode of The Simpsons (“Show’s over, Shakespeare!” “Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”) only more so. And shotguns, plenty of shotguns.

23 September 2005

Turn, turn, turn

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:08 am

styx.jpgThe more astronomically-aware of you will already know that today is the vernal equinox. In some countries, including the US, the vernal equinox (or a day near it) is the first day of Spring, though we in Australia have reverted to the first of the month. Some say the precise moment of the equinox is the only time you can balance an egg on its end, but others have found that you can do it any old day, if you care enough.

The precise moment of the equinox this year was 22:23 22-Sep-05 Coordinated Universal Time (more appealingly called “Zulu time”), or 8:23 this morning Australian Eastern Standard Time (more conveniently called “local time”). That means that, in theory, today will have more-or-less exactly twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. However, according to Geoscience Australia, the sun rose in Sydney at 5:44 this morning and will set at 5:52 this evening, making the day about eight minutes longer than the night. Is this a sign of how brilliant our town is—it’s sunny here even when it’s supposed to be night-time? Or is it an example of slippery maths, like that stupid missing dollar puzzle?

Well, both and neither. But mostly neither. It seems that the equinox-measuring folk are talking about the time when the midpoint of the sun’s disc passes the actual horizon, whereas the sunrise-and-sunset–brigade measure the time when the top of the sun appears or disappears over the observed horizon, which is distorted by the atmosphere. As always, USA Today gives us all the facts with handy diagrams.

Some of you may also have noticed that my novel-in-verse Equinox is now over. Thank you for reading it all, if anyone did. It was fun (for me) to have new sonnets turning up every day; sometimes they seemed to have some obscure relevance to the actual corresponding day. If you wanted, you could check out the entry for your birthday; it might tell you something astonishing—purely by chance, but still. I think my favourite day was 18/9. I am looking at options for a print version and will of course announce any progress on these pages.

More of you may have noticed that the “E” is missing from the title of Styx’s classic 1975 album. I cannot explain this. But I can point you in the direction of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1978 album Equinoxe, which clearly has an “E” to spare.

4 July 2005

Another one down

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

apostles3.jpgThe Herald reports that another of the Twelve Apostles off Victoria’s Great Ocean Road has collapsed, leaving only eight apostles standing. The formation is made of limestone and was called the Sow and Piglets until the rise of Christian fundamentalism and its attendant iconography. The stacks were eroded out of the coastline by the Point-Break–quality surf and the stiff breeze, first into bridges like the old London Bridge (the land-connected part of which fell down in 1990, leaving London Arch) and then, when their spans collapsed, into the pillars that remain (or don’t). They are thought to have been formed somewhere between 25 million and 10 million years ago (much less if you’re one of the abovementioned fundamentalists) and are up to 45 metres high. It’s not clear whether there were ever (I mean recently) precisely twelve of the stacks or when the other ones collapsed, but I suppose it’s not really important.

While I was at uni some friends and I rode our pushbikes along the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne, and we had plenty of time to corroborate the heartbreaking winds that lash the coast as well as the majesty of the rock formations. They are one of those things, like the Grand Canyon, that you think can never be as good as everyone makes out and turn out to be better, that you think must have been robbed of something by their overexposure but somehow haven’t. It’s kind of sad to lose one of them, but at the same time I think it’s kind of cool, a demonstration of the fragility of beautiful things—even bloody great rocks—and a good reminder of our infinitesimal horizons. In all likelihood there’ll be heaps more apostles as the coastline pushes north and the same old forces keep building these things and then knocking them down, but we probably won’t be around to see it. It’s just chance that we’re here now.

It’s also nice that this bit of environmental destruction doesn’t seem to have been our fault.

22 April 2005

What’s slightly better than a lame old joke?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

It’s a painfully literal response to the set-up of a lame old joke, as first brought to you by McSweeney’s

A man and a woman are crossing the desert. They find a lamp in the sand. The man rubs the lamp and nothing happens. Afterward, he feels a bit foolish.

A man is driving down a country road at night when his car gets a flat tire. He stops by a local farmhouse and asks the owner if he can stay there for the night.
“Sure,” says the farmer. “As long as you don’t touch my three beautiful daughters.”
The man did as he was told, because frankly, he didn’t find the girls nearly so attractive as their father seemed to.

…and recently picked up and democratised by Something Awful, whose many pages include some that are funnier than Dave Eggers’s outfit’s, and may prove some dubious thing to do with the supposed wisdom of crowds:

Why did the deaf man take his parrot to work?
He was weird.

Why do Mexicans not like going out in the rain?
It’s wet.

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

What’s sad about four black people in a Cadillac going over a cliff?
They were my friends.

Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s new house?
Well, it’s really nice.

A blonde girl walks into the local dry cleaners. She places a garment on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon to pick up my dress.” she says.
“Come again?” says the clerk, cupping his ear.
“I said ‘I’LL BE BACK TOMORROW AFTERNOON TO PICK UP MY DRESS’,” says the girl, this time louder.

Well, I think they’re funny. And with our great Australian tradition of lame jokes, it’s easy to come up with local versions:

A council worker fronts up to a house in Redfern on garbage day and notices that there’s no wheelie bin outside. He asks the Aboriginal bloke standing on the front porch, “Where’s ya bin?”
“It’s right there,” the bloke says.
“Oh, I thought that was next door’s.”
“No, they’re away for the week.”

What’s the difference between an Australian and a New Zealander?
Interestingly, in the late 19th century New Zealand was invited to join the proposed federation of Australia, and attended most of the constitutional conventions before ultimately deciding not to proceed. So, to answer your question: they come from different countries.

What do you call twenty Aborigines killed in a bus crash?
Most Aboriginal traditions forbid the naming of recently deceased people. You should check with the families or local authorities for a suitable description or substitute name for each of the deceased. In some areas, “Kunmanara” or “Kumanjayi” may be used, but these are specific to certain groups or regions.

What does Brian Lara’s cock taste like?
Really, is that relevant? Why don’t we shut up and play some cricket.

20 April 2005

Religious news

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

bush.jpgWe all know that America is the Great Satan, but Norway’s leading newspaper Aftenposten now delivers the strange news that a group calling itself the All Pakistan Muslim Society has published a tract accusing the Norwegians, of all people, of being “Satan’s sons&#8221:

In addition to associating Norwegians with the devil, the book lashes out at Norwegian ethics and morality. The author, believed to be a mullah or other Muslim religious leader living in Oslo, claims that Norwegians don’t have legitimate children. “They’re conceived here and there,” claims the author.

The author calls Norwegians “barbarians” and “poisonous snakes” who have poisoned humanity. “These white men have set off a devilish spiral in the whole world… to plague people,” according to the book.

Bit harsh, isn’t it? I can only think of a few reasons why such libel should be directed at these poor Scandinavians, who culturally seem a bit gloomy—at least Ibsen and Munch do—but have a proudly untranslatable but extremely useful expression “uff da!&#8221, which means something like, but so much more than, “oops&#8221.

1. Lobsters

Norwegian scientists may recently have given world lobster consumption a boost by claiming that our crustacean friends don’t feel pain. Observant Muslims don’t eat lobster. No, wait! That’s Jews. Muslims say lobster is halal, or “fine&#8221. Scratch that.

2. Hell

There is a town called Hell near Trondheim, in Norway.

3. Isioma Daniel

Four Corners this week had a disturbing story originally from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about young Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel, who copped a local fatwa in late 2002 for writing these words in reference to the ill-fated Miss World pageant hosted by Nigeria that year (parental advisory—blasphemy):

What would Mohammed think? He would probably have chosen a wife from one of them.

As well as the fatwa, Daniel’s seemingly innocuous remarks sparked religious riots in which more than 200 people were killed, newspaper offices were burned down, and the Miss World pageant was hurriedly airlifted out. Daniel seems to have been completely shafted by her newspaper, by the supposedly-secular Nigerian government, and by all of the English-speaking countries who refused her asylum. She was finally taken in by Norway, where she now lives and writes and apparently doesn’t have a tremendous time of it:

I hate Stavanger. After coming through customs at Sola Airport, I didn’t think that I would feel such a violent, angry feeling to this town. I hate its smallness. I hate its smugness. I hate how the 16–30 year olds all dress alike. I hate how we all shop round and round in the same trendy stores. I hate how much money we waste. I hate how homogenous it is. I hate how people stare at me when I’m walking round town. I hate how ignorant their gazes are, and I hate how they make my brown skin seem inhuman.

Hell, maybe they’re sons of Satan after all! It was a good program, and although they naturally wheeled Salman Rushdie out yet again, they did allow him to make some interesting points about how come he always gets wheeled out whenever anybody gets fatwaed.

Interestingly, the Norwegians in turn think the Bush family are devil-worshippers. In the picture above, Jenna thinks she’s making the “Hook ’em Horns” salute in support of the University of Texas football team, the Longhorns. The president has also been snapped making the same gesture. But to Norwegians and numerous heavy metal bands, it’s the sign of the devil and apparently stirred up a good deal of speculation around the Arctic Circle. So it’s all very confusing.

Also, apparently there is a new pope.

9 December 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:40 am

I think this correction from the New York Times deserves a wider audience. Now that’s a correction worth reading—a far cry from the mealy-mouthed versions we get in our papers, which suggest that nobody was at fault and whoever complained about the mistake was a crybaby or an “elite” anyway:

An editorial published on Saturday about the proposal to build a football stadium on the far West Side of Manhattan suffered from a geographic malapropism in a reference to the New York subway. The line proposed for the East Side is known as the Second Avenue line, not the No. 2 line. The No. 2 line runs up the West Side of Manhattan, as it has for, oh, 100 years. We not only approve of its existence—we applaud it. Some of us even ride it.

8 December 2004

Missy Higgins: lesbian?

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:42 am

missy.jpgFirst let me say that I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m never going to be in a position where it’s going to make any difference; and, let’s face it, in all likelihood neither are you. Maybe you don’t care either. But it seems we’re alone on the Internet: for the second month in a row, the search phrase “missy higgins lesbian” tops the list of search phrases used to get here, edging out even “hilary duffs boobs”, “hilary duffs measurements”, “hilary duffs manslaughter”, and “watermelon connotations”.

I’m not sure how this happened. I have made brief reference to Missy Higgins and also to lesbians. And admittedly I have called attention to the strange popularity of the search term that combines those two subjects. But I’ve never presumed to inquire as to whether, in fact, Missy Higgins is a lesbian—until now. Now, in the interests of attracting more traffic, and of ensuring that everyone who takes the time to visit this site goes away with at least something, let’s have a look at the evidence.

1. Lyrics

Ms Higgins’s ubiquitous smash Scar, which I still like after having heard a lot, contains the following verses (the bridge and chorus are omitted as apparently irrelevant to the question of Ms Higgins’s lesbianism):

He left a card, a bar of soap,
And a scrubbing brush next to a note that said
“Use this, down to your bones.”
And before I knew, I had shiny skin
And it felt easy being clean like him,
I thought “This one knows better than I do.”

So the next one came with a bag of treats,
She smelt like sugar and spoke like the sea.
She told me “Don’t trust them, trust me.”
Then she pulled in my stitches one by one,
Looked at my insides clicking her tongue and said
“This will all have to come undone.”

Now, alert readers will have noticed that the predominant third-person pronoun in the first verse is different from the predominant third-person pronoun in the second verse. The first is a “he”, the second a “she”—and yet both seem by clear implication to have had an intimate relationship with the singer. What is the prurient listener to think?

First, let’s agree that singers don’t always and without exception sing as themselves; sometimes they make stuff up. For example, contemporary meteorological and ballistic records confirm that Mick Jagger was not born in a “crossfire hurricane”; and any decent biography will tell you that he was raised by Joe and Eva Jagger of Dartford, Kent, and not by “a toothless bearded hag” (or even by “two lesbians”). Similarly, Elton John is not in fact a “rocket man” and has never even been to space (though David Bowie might have); and Nick Cave has not murdered nearly as many people as his songs might suggest.

So, while the putative narrator of Scar might be bisexual, or formerly heterosexual but now a committed lesbian, that doesn’t mean Missy Higgins is: she might just be singing as someone who is. She might even be singing as two different people, like in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or (to a lesser extent) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction—though that might be complicating things unnecessarily.

Of course, novels adopt “fake” narrative voices all the time—nobody thinks that Tom Wolfe really is “Charlotte Simmons”, even though he tells us he is—and songs are much more often seen as at least partly autobiographical, which is why singers usually change all the sexes in cover versions of songs originally sung by people of the opposite sex—unless they’re Tori Amos. But we’re going to have to call this inconclusive.

2. Lesbians on the Loose

The October 2004 edition of this Sydney monthly features an interview with Missy Higgins, in which she talks entirely about subjects related to her music. LOTL often features articles about musicians who are not lesbians, because apparently lesbians are able to enjoy music written and performed by non-lesbians.

3. Some guy on a forum

…reckons he heard an interview with Missy Higgins on a Melbourne radio station in which she did talk about whether she liked men and/or women. However, I didn’t hear the interview, and guys on forums obviously say a lot of things. Some other guy in a newsgroup calls her a “lesbian bitch from St Kilda”, presumably because she wouldn’t sleep with him despite the inexplicable sense of entitlement felt by guys in newsgroups.

I hope this has been helpful for everybody. Next week—Missy Higgins: from St Kilda?

Update: most of the comments on this post have been moved here. They’re well worth reading.

3 December 2004

Polly, Polly, Polly

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:16 pm

pj.jpgI caught PJ Harvey at the Enmore last night and am still kind of reeling, not just from tinnitus. She was awesome beyond words; if you can make it to tonight’s Hordern gig I would certainly recommend it (though it won’t be as good, just because it’s a big tin shed).

Chrissie Hynde’s famous advice to chick rockers includes the following:

Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f—able will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not “f— me,” it’s “f— you”! [Dashes in the original and reprinted for authenticity, not to suggest that it isn’t cool or clever to swear.]

But Polly Jean shows that you don’t always have to decide. The way she sings, and carries on on stage—she’s got this defiant vulnerability, this disdainful need, that’s impossible not to respond to. She even has a song that goes “Fuck fuck fuck you”, which everybody loved. We all loved her—not just because she’s the hottest person ever (apart from you, of course, Loyal Reader) but because she just rocked in every sense. One overheated guy even yelled out “You’re the Pope!” which was kind of weird but perhaps as good a summary as any.

10 November 2004

To the intrepid Googlers

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:46 am

…who wound up here with these search terms:

poems about anthony minichiello
what does hilary duffs hairstyle look like in the year of 2004?
missy higgins lesbian
girls with tomato ketchup on their boobs

I hope you found what you were looking for, eventually.

30 October 2004

Jeepers creepers

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:20 pm

chdal.jpgRight now I’m recovering from laser eye surgery, although perhaps “recovering” is the wrong word. I thought it would be like this scene from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s stoner fave Un Chien Andalou (you can see more screenshots, including the nasty one, here) and take weeks of stumbling and Lear-type cursings. And although this still does approximate one important step in the LASIK procedure, in fact the whole thing was almost painless and almost instantly effective, and now I’m going around recommending it to all of the myopic types among whose number I used to count myself.

I was first prescribed glasses when I was about 11 and could no longer read the blackboard for all my squinting and guesswork. It was an ambivalent relationship, best summed up by a sequence of whispered comments by a couple of fledgling babes in my first high-school maths class, which I always suspected was deeply sarcastic. “I think he’s cute without his glasses,” said one. (I wasn’t.) “Yeah, but his glasses make him look older—more mature,” said the other. (I’m sure, if they did, the effect was negligible.) You can imagine the paralysis to which a pubescent dork might be reduced by such a pair of conflicting appraisals.

I got some contact lenses but kept losing/ripping/letting ocular crud accumulate on them and soon gave up on the whole business. For a long time I embraced my glasses as a reflection of my personality, almost as a kind of nerd battle-scar—that’s what you get for reading Ulysses, for writing a thousand sonnets, I thought, and tried to find frames that went well with skivvies and God knows what else. I quite liked being able to take my specs off and let the world fuzz up a bit, let us retreat from each other. I felt slightly morally superior to, and slightly betrayed by, the contact-lens crew and the squinter brigade, with their fragile self-worth, their pitiable vanity. I always kind of fancied girls with glasses, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.

But at bottom, not being able to see unaided is a real pain. Carrying around regular glasses and prescription sunglasses, swapping them every time you go in and out of somewhere, not having anywhere to put them all; trying to see in the rain; getting involved in almost any kind of sport. If you want to get into a fistfight—which I always kind of did, in a secret and not-very-well-thought-out way—you can’t really do it, you can’t muster the necessary abandon. Even these miraculous disposable one-day contacts, which I’ve recently sworn by (“Fuck, these are good—and relatively cost-effective,&#8221 I always said to myself, when putting them in)—even they come out when you’re swimming, or disappear up behind your eyelids when you jump into water from something high above the water, giving you all sorts of concerns about your optic nerves and so on. Plus, they dry your eyes out.

So once a couple of friends had had this diminishingly-newfangled procedure done, I started getting interested. And I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s gone. There were disturbing noises and burning smells at the time, and for the afternoon and evening of that day I could hardly open my eyes—you know how it is when you’re chopping fresh chilies and you accidentally rub your eyes (which by the way is far from the worst thing you can do when you’re absent-mindedly chopping fresh chilies)—but by dawn the next day (4:58 or something ridiculous) I could see clear across the room, for the first time in a long time, and it felt like some kind of miracle. It really did. Twenty-four hours after the operation I had near-20/20 and was ready to get out and look at things. I think I got off pretty lightly, as some of my friends had a slightly rougher time for slightly longer. But they all say it was the best thing ever, and I’d have to agree. Things are a bit bright during the day and haloed at night, but getting better already. There are risks, of course, but if I can keep from rubbing my eyes for the next while I think I’m out of the woods. It is an amazing thing. I may miss the glasses, and whichever high-school maths-babe claimed to prefer them, but really we’d been growing apart anyway.

3 October 2004

Gotta love this

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:36 pm
Beer and Sunset

No, it doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I’m fiddling around with the image settings and this one really has it all. The beach is Mindil Beach in Darwin, the feet aren’t mine, and the beer speaks for itself.

2 October 2004

What is this thing called blog

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:48 pm

Hello and welcome to my weblog, which I am setting up to coincide (roughly) with the launch of Equinox, which the Sydney Morning Herald is serialising over the coming year and may well be the reason you’re here in the first place. If not, check it out—and, either way, let me know what you think using the comments box here. Also, props to the various other blogs that have already picked up on Equinox—thanks!

I also want to use the blog to try some new things to do with creative and factual writing, and occasionally to rant about various subjects. I’ll also be posting some samples of works in progress and also some completed works.