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.

19 September 2005

Bloggers for Broggers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

No, of course I’m not in favour of former NSW Liberal leader John Gilbert Brogden MP—I’ll just do anything for a rhyme, as anybody who’s still reading Equinox will already know. But I’m not 100% against him either.

On Monday, when news of his foolish, boozy night first broke, I was naturally appalled but mostly surprised: I’d always found him an unconvincing opposition leader, numbingly reliable in his appearance after every government announcement to carp on about how that proved once and for all how evil Bob Carr was. But he always seemed very controlled, which didn’t make me like him any better, but made his meltdown seem somewhat left-field. Then on Tuesday, when I heard he’d resigned, I almost felt sorry for him. Here was a guy who never even sounded like he believed he had a chance to beat Labor in NSW—no matter how shrill and frequent his protests—until Carr checked out, giving him at least a fighting chance against the low-profile Member for Lakemba (see?). And the first thing he does when that happens is pound a couple of celebratory beers and shoot himself immediately in the foot (not so bad until you remember his foot was lodged firmly in his mouth). It’s almost tragic.

And then on Wednesday, when it came out that he’d tried to harm himself, of course I really did feel sorry for him. I think he did the right thing by resigning, though he did it because he found himself suddenly unelectable rather than for reasons of remorse or honour (otherwise he would have resigned as soon as he sobered up and remembered what he’d done, not when it was reported). But he didn’t deserve to wind up in hospital over it.

The circumstances of his disgrace have prompted some interesting responses. Anne Summers wonders whether the “mail-order bride” slur really was racist, or at least whether it was more racist than sexist:

The stereotype of the mail-order bride in this country is of an Asian woman, often from the Philippines, whose economic circumstances are so dire that she feels no choice but to enter into a so-called mail-order marriage. Such women these days are just as likely to come from Russia or Eastern Europe. In other words, what characterises a mail-order bride is not that she is Asian but that she is poor. Oh, and that she’s a woman.

Brogden might have had in mind to racially slur Helena Carr, and his comments have been described by her husband, Bob, as a “cruel insult against all Asian women” but let’s not forget that they were also deeply sexist. A smear of Helena Carr will of course risk having racist overtones because she is Asian, but she is also a woman and entitled to equal respect as such.

Now this strikes me as perhaps a bit opportunist—everyone wants to be outraged by Brogden’s behaviour for their own reasons (Australia Post has also complained about the slur against things ordered through the mail). Yes, Helena Carr is entitled to equal respect as a woman; but not every insult levelled at a woman is sexist. This one is in the same way that “soccer mom”, “gold-digger” and “princess” are: sure, kind of, since they refer primarily to women, but they’re all more directly about other things. And Brogden’s comment in particular was, I think, overwhelmingly racist.

Of course his real intention wasn’t to insult Helena Carr but to insult Bob Carr—by implying that the former premier lacked the mettle to find himself a wife through the ordinary channels. And that’s deeply sexist, the idea of reducing a woman to a symbol of her husband’s masculinity or whatever, but that doesn’t seem to be what Summers is getting at. And but the only reason Brogden could even try to marshall an insult to Helena into an attack on Bob is that she’s from a region stereotypically associated with that kind of postal arrangement. He might even have tried it on if she were Russian, I don’t know. The unifying characteristic of mail-order brides might be that they’re poor, but the trait that Brogden latched onto is that some of them are Asian, and so is Helena Carr. You can’t say that calling someone a “lazy Abo” isn’t racist because plenty of other people are lazy. Once you’ve implied something insulting about someone based on the person’s race, or insultingly attributed a characteristic to the person’s race in general, that’s a racist insult.

Which also makes it weird that people are running around pointing out that Helena Carr is highly educated and intelligent and a successful businesswoman and lived in Australia for years before she met Bob—that’s all entirely beside the point. In fact it comes very close to buying into the underlying racism. If someone tells you that Herschel is a cheap kike, the answer isn’t to list Herschel’s contributions to charity and generous tipping practices and insist that he’s not one of the cheap kikes; the answer is, “You racist fuck!” Here, Helena Carr doesn’t need defending: there hasn’t been a serious suggestion that she personally is or was a mail-order bride; there’s only been a racist remark, which is to be condemned but not engaged with.

Of course, Brogden did other bad things that night at the Marble Bar, and Summers correctly points out that the racial slur has been seen as much more damning than the propositions and groping. Sun-Herald journalist Angela Cuming was one of Brogden’s targets, and she told her story this week, partly in response to his later claim that he was joking and didn’t mean to hit on her:

I said: “Hi, John” and started to ask him about his chances of taking western Sydney Labor seats. He then stopped me by raising one hand.

He slipped one arm around the small of my back, leant down and said: “Enough of that. Are you available?” I must have looked startled, as did my colleague.

I stumbled out some reply on the lines of: “No, I have a boyfriend, thanks very much.”

Brogden certainly comes off as a sleazebag here, but I still can’t help feeling that the racism was worse. Maybe the reason is somewhere in here:

I, like every other girl in Sydney, is used to the odd drunken suit throwing out a dodgy pick-up line in a bar on a Friday night. It makes me feel uncomfortable any time, as I believe women have a right to a night out without being harassed.

Yes, they do: but people go out to pubs in large part to be around other people, and these other people aren’t just wallpaper—there’s a chance they might want to talk to you. For every group that just wants to be left alone, there’s a group that wouldn’t mind interacting with the other humans and is maybe a bit disappointed that everyone’s so damned unfriendly around here—and it’s not easy to tell the two groups apart. Human interaction is a difficult thing, and the rules are complicated (hey, just like grammar!) but the underlying premise is a reasonably sound one: we’re all trying to get along, and at least some of the time we’re trying to pick each other up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone respects the rules (again, like grammar).

John Brogden has a family, and so his behaviour was rotten. The public has long been tolerant of politicians’ infidelities but I think they probably shouldn’t be: honesty and commitment are important to high office and it does
seem to be one of those jobs where the quality of your personal dealings is relevant to the discharge of your duties. Brogden also broke the rules: you’re supposed to ask a woman whether she’s available before you grope her, not after; that’s just common sense. But this was a social setting, not a workplace, and Brogden never had any power to abuse—as a journalist, Cuming probably could have mopped the floor with him. So his sleazy behaviour might seem more like the perversion, or even just the inappropriate manifestation, of a fundamentally acceptable drive to social and sexual interaction, and perhaps if not forgivable then at least understandable given the minefield that that can be.

Whereas racism is just nasty to the core, and racist remarks can really reveal something deep-down wrong with a person. It can’t be interpreted as over-enthusiasm; there’s nothing defensible about it and so perhaps it should be judged as more serious than some other excesses. I’m glad that as a country we have so little truck with explicit racism; certainly there is systemic and underlying racism all over the place, but at least we’re not cheerfully racist in the way that some cultures are or have been, and we won’t tolerate it in our elected (or repeatedly non-elected) leaders. That may not be much, but it’s something.

Which brings me to the end, I promise. Many people have asked whether Brogden’s transgressions were so much worse than those of John Howard, and further afield George W Bush and Tony Blair, who keep on getting elected despite their unwavering perfidy. It’s a reasonable question. Certainly nobody has died as a result of Brogden’s big night out; no countries have been invaded. He may have made racist comments but he hasn’t promoted a nationwide culture of xenophobia. I don’t know why he’s been pinged while the rest have got off without so much as a warning. Perhaps it’s because people believe that Howard et al really have their best interests at heart, and don’t mind if they blatantly lie about some or all of the details; whereas it’s not possible to conceive of any end to justify Brogden’s behaviour. Who knows. The answer, of course, isn’t to let Brogden off the hook but to hold the others accountable too. I’d like to think that Broggers’s resignation will usher in a new age in which politicians are punished for their outrages, but I’m not a complete idiot.

15 September 2005

A rare glimpse

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:10 am

note.jpgAccording to Reuters, this is the note George W Bush was writing to Condoleezza Rice during a Security Council meeting at the UN yesterday. Suddenly reports of Condi accidentally referring to the President as her husband last year start making some sense.

In fairness, though, Bush isn’t the president of the whole UN or even of the Security Council, so props to him for waiting for a suitable interval rather than just standing up and declaring that he needed to see a man about a dog. Russia would have just vetoed him anyway.

13 September 2005

Hands off Coopers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

coopers.jpgThere can be very few brands to which I am as loyal as I am to the Coopers family of ales, lagers and stouts. These guys can do very little wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, they could have kept the apostrophe, but since it’s their trademark I’m willing to let them do what they like with it—and imagine if we had to write “Cooper’s’s marketing strategy” and so on. Even their light beer isn’t too bad—for that matter, even their alcohol-free beer is drinkable, if you’re a space-shuttle pilot or stuck on a desert island (or both).

Many are the reasons for my loyalty to this fine selection of what may generically be called beers. One is that I learned to drink beer in South Australia, where the Coopers is as bountiful as the Tooheys and VB are here, and often cheaper. You can get it all on tap everywhere, magnificent beer fonts bristling with every kind of Coopers spigot from draught to stout. It’s great.

Now that I’m in Sydney I’ll still always go for a Sparkling or a Pale if they’re on tap, and usually if they’re in bottles—particularly now that the Hospitality Industry is catching on to the benefits of rolling. They’re great-tasting full-bodied beers and they’re made without additives or preservatives. Some people complain about the sediment but I think it shows that you’re drinking a real drink that results from natural processes. The marketing has been clever—particularly the brilliant “Cloudy but fine” tag—but understated, and the old-school packaging gives the impression of substance over style.

Beyond all this, I must say that in recent years my devotion to Coopers has been deepened by the fact that it is not owned by either of the regional beverage giants Foster’s Group or Lion Nathan Limited.

Now, I’m not one of these people who think that a corporate structure or stock-exchange listing is an automatic short-cut to global destruction and a place in the newly-constructed circles of Hell. But I do think that, particularly in the case of food and drink, concentrated ownership tends to encourage a certain homogeneity, a kind of blandness; whereas diverse and independent ownership allows more character and more innovation. The chilli sauces made by Masterfoods are kind of sweet and bland, for example; but Beerenberg’s chilli sauce can kill you. Yes, there are some fine products made by big corporations—those chilli or wasabi Kettle chips ultimately attributable to the Campbell Soup Company are pretty good, though I swear they’ve been toned down lately—but you can almost always get something tastier, more interesting, and certainly better for you up the road.

As well as the beer that bears its name, Foster’s Group now produces such brands as Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, Carlton Cold, Carlton Draught and Cascade Premium Lager. It imports Corona and Asahi and makes loads of wine under the Penfolds, Rosemount Estate, Lindemans, Wolf Blass and Wynns Coonawarra labels. Lion Nathan owns all the Tooheys, XXXX, West End, Southwark, Hahn and James Squire brands, and brews Heineken, Beck’s and Kirin here in Australia. Its wines include Petaluma, Tatachilla, Knappstein and St Hallett. And now it’s after Coopers.

Yes, on 1 September 2005 Lion Nathan announced an off-market offer to buy all the shares in Coopers Brewery Limited at $260 each, valuing the company at $352 million. Coopers has something like 117 shareholders, most of whom are somehow connected with the Cooper family. Lion Nathan acquired 19.9% of the shares through its 1993 purchase of the South Australian Brewing Company, but gave them up in 1995 in exchange for some pre-emptive rights, which have been the subject of several legal stoushes since. Now it wants to buy the lot.

Lion Nathan reckons their bid of $260 per share is pretty reasonable, considering the Cooper family priced a buyback at $45.01 just two years ago. The Coopers Board, bless it, has recommended that shareholders reject the offer, for reasons that will become clear when Coopers files its target statement with ASIC. It has also announced that it might match Lion Nathan’s offer, which it has the pre-emptive rights to do, and is getting the Takeovers Panel and probably the ACCC involved. Unfortunately, there are reports of various divisions within the now-fifth-generation Cooper family, which could result in a bunch of shares winding up with Lion Nathan.

It will be clear to all of you by now that I personally would prefer that this didn’t happen. Coopers claims to be the only surviving family-owned brewery in Australia; certainly it is the most significant. There are some brilliant small brewers around the place, like Scharers of Picton and even the Lord Nelson in the city. But since J Boag & Son was acquired by San Miguel in 2000, there hasn’t been a widely-available independent domestic beer apart from the best beer of all: Coopers. Does it matter? I think it does. If the takeover does go through, I’m going to have to buy up all the family-brewed Coopers I can and drink it for as long as it lasts. And after that I’ll only be able to drink at the Australian (which has Scharer’s), the Lord Nelson (which has Three Sheets) or the Royal Oak (which for some reason has both). Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if socially limiting.

Would the takeover of Coopers by Lion Nathan affect your drinking habits or even just make you nostalgic for better days? Let me know.

10 September 2005

It’s official

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

bush3.jpgThis is kind of cheap but I can’t resist it. And the generally-reliable Urban Legends Reference Pages say that this is a genuine capture of a Sky News Ireland broadcast and not just a clever piece of Photoshoppery like many of the images floating around. I reckon the captioner knew what he or she was doing, too.

6 September 2005

Leave Bush alone

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

bush2.jpgAs has been widely reported, when US President George W Bush was interviewed by Diane Sawyer on American’s ABC last week he made the following excuse for the appalling situation in New Orleans:

I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will.

Now some freedom-hating nit-pickers have argued that certain lunatic-fringe doom-and-gloom–merchants had in fact anticipated something vaguely reminiscent of the present disaster. For example, some socialist street-rag called National Geographic ran the following story in October 2004. I’ll extract this quite extensively so you can see how far off these guys were:

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn’t—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

Way back in June 2002, regional daily The Times-Picayune ran a five-page special on various threats facing the Big Easy, and never came close to anticipating anything like we’re seeing now. All they said was:

[1998 Hurricane] Georges, a Category 2 storm that only grazed New Orleans, had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees. A stronger storm on a slightly different course—such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall—could have realized emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.

That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles.

Like coastal Bangladesh, where typhoons killed 100,000 and 300,000 villagers, respectively, in two horrific storms in 1970 and 1991, the New Orleans area lies in a low, flat coastal area. Unlike Bangladesh, New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. Though providing protection from weaker storms, the levees also would trap any water that gets inside—by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour—in a catastrophic storm.

“Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail,” [Louisiana State University engineer Joseph] Suhayda said. “It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”

Now it might seem from these extracts that some people did in fact give some thought to a hurricane of around Katrina’s magnitude causing widespread flooding, destruction and even death in and around New Orleans, owing to the levees either overflowing or failing. But Bush is still right: nobody anticipated it.

Because of course everybody knows that, despite prevailing contemporary usage, “anticipate” doesn’t mean the same thing as “expect” or “predict”; to anticipate something is to expect or predict it and then to bloody well do something about it. Even the busted-arse dictionary that comes with Microsoft Word lists the following primary meaning for anticipate:

1. To imagine or consider something before it happens and make any necessary preparations or changes.

President Bush, as one of our most proficient users of English, knows exactly what “anticipate” means (although he sometimes pronounces it “ancipitate”), and so his explanation to Diane Sawyer was spot-on. Sure, some people knew that NOLA would go the way of Atlantis, but they didn’t anticipate it—they couldn’t, they were only scientists and such, they didn’t have any money. And Bush knew that because he’d taken all the money for the War on Terror.

I must say that when I first heard about Bush’s protestations I thought they were outrageous, but having consulted some old style and usage handbooks I now realise the President was exactly right. And now I’m convinced that all the other so-called Bushisms can be parsed into perfectly legitimate—nay, brilliant—truths. Though I’m still having a bit of trouble with:

“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat…”

“You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

“I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.”

“We want results in every single classroom so that one single child is left behind.”

“It will take time to restore chaos and order—but we—order out of chaos.”

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says: Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.”