Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Magpies and makings

Magpies (2015) by Pants

The Australian magpie is not, as far as I know, associated with the superstitions of its European counterpart. Being of a highly superstitious disposition, I salute them anyway, just to be on the safe side. There are plenty about at the moment. Many fear them as they can be aggressive and prone to swooping at the heads of passing pedestrians and cyclists. This hasn't happened to me since I've been in Larrikin's End. I tended to think it was because of the saluting. What bird doesn't respond to a respectful gesture? I now discover that magpies only attack certain people. How they decide upon who is a threat is probably as arbitrary as our government's decision-making process when it comes to the threat posed by refugees to our national security.

I watched a magpie build a nest in next door's ghost gum. It's about six storeys up in a swaying tree. I wouldn't like the chances of any eggs that happen to fall out of that nest. The European magpie is known for collecting trinkets for decoration. Wikipedia informs me that our magpie and the bower bird are passerines. Bower birds are known for their enthusiasm for re-purposing found objects but I don't know if the magpie shares this predilection. The magpie is known for its musical versatility and ability to mimic. I have heard one do R2D2, which was quite a treat. Recently, there's been one around that has mastered the call of my oven timer. I've got a terrible memory when it comes to putting food on to cook and forgetting about it has caused some near disasters. It's not uncommon for me to put eggs on to boil and forget about them so I always put the timer on and then, sixteen minutes later, squeal,

What the fuck is that beeping!

It's just as likely to be a magpie these days. There is a football team in Melbourne called The Magpies. On one of my first trips to the city, I was sat at a pub with a friend and there was a menu board out front. It read, 



And I said,

What's a go pie?

Well? Context is everything. Since then, I've developed a recipe for my own go pie. It contains everything from my fridge that needs to go into a meal or into the compost. Never let a good idea go to waste is my motto.

I hate waste. Yesterday I posted an item on Art of Pants about a small assemblage I made from a plastic paintbrush handle I found on the beach. The whole piece cost me under $1 to make. I bought a frame for 50c from a local charity shop and had the other items I needed to hand (an orphaned fake pearl earring, some black card, Araldite). I conclude rather cheekily on the that post that I can't understand why artists need to apply for grants. What's wrong with making things from whatever one has lying around? It would be different if I wanted to replicate the piece as a 200-foot long balloon and suspend it from Sydney Harbour Bridge, I admit. But why would I want to do that? Arts funding in Australia is so ludicrously fraught that it seems a lot easier to learn to be content with small pieces made from rubbish than to spend all that time competing for money that you probably won't get anyway. This way you get to really assist the environment rather than going to all the bother of explaining to a bunch of arts administrators how you're going to comment on the environment with your artwork.

My favourite work by Picasso is Bull's Head. Forget the $100m paintings. This is the one I'd pick if I had my choice. I do love the ambitious visions of Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley, et al. But I've always been just as impressed by a surprise Banksy suddenly appearing on a street I walked down daily. Art can cost a lot or it can cost nothing and, for me at least, there can be little in it. Damien Hirst's For the Love of God is indeed very beautiful. It is quite something to be in a room with it for a couple of minutes. When I saw that paintbrush handle lying on the beach and pictured it with a pearl for an eye, I thought that idea as profoundly beautiful as a $50m diamond-studded skull.

Sometimes, life really is black and white - with a salmon-pink background, obviously.

Monday, August 31, 2015

PC Issues

Shark Net by Pants (2015)

There is no new post for August as I have PC issues which will hopefully be resolved later this week. Instead, I reproduce this post that appeared on Art of Pants recently.

I finished this piece yesterday*. As I walked around Lake Larrikin in the morning, I spotted a pod of Bottlenose dolphins close to the shore. 'Seeing dolphins is a good omen,' I thought. I bought a lottery ticket, went home and finished the assemblage above. In the afternoon, I lay on my winter-sun sofa and read a section of Karl Ove Knausgaard's Boyhood Island. The boy Karl Ove and his grandfather spot a pod of porpoises in the sea off their Norwegian island and the grandfather tells Karl Ove, 'seeing porpoises is a good omen, you know.' My chances of winning the lottery improved.

When it comes to Karl Ove Knausgaard, I am one of the firmly gripped. Boyhood Island is the third in the series My Struggle. I have read the first two in English and have asked the kindly people at Larrikin Library if they will be so good as to purchase the fourth, Dancing in the Dark, which is recently out in English translation. In the second book, A Man in Love, Knausgaard paraphrases Lawrence Durrell's method of novel-writing - 'you set a goal and go there in your sleep.' This method also works for assemblages. The elements are all out there, they just need a few sleeps to come together. 

I found this piece of driftwood last week. Australian artist Fiona Hall constructed a wall of animal-shaped driftwood for the Australian Pavilion in this year's Venice Biennale. There is an awful lot of it on the beaches of southern Australia and the Larrikin coast is no exception. I've made a few animal-inspired driftwood assemblages myself, some of which have previously appeared on this very blog. The piece featured above struck me initially as shark-like but it could also be a very angry dolphin. 

I immediately began to sift through my mind-closet for a suitable mount and remembered that I had a long, thin, framed board among the many that I've purchased for a few dollars each at charity shops over the years and that it had a blue, 'stressed' frame. It had previously displayed a Zodiac poster - Cancer, the Crab. Presciently nautical, I thought. I had a sample pot of emulsion that would do for background and some water-based gloss so there was no expense there. My initial thought was that I would make a piece that mimicked a trophy. Then I remembered that I had some garden netting in the shed.
Some popular Australian beaches are strung with nets to help prevent shark attack. I am strongly against these (unless of course I am swimming at one of these beaches, in which case I feel a lot safer). The nets kill other marine animals including turtles, seals, rays, dugongs, small whales and, yes, dolphins. Bad, bad omen. 

I decided to make a piece about shark nets. (That lottery ticket should pay off tonight.) Apart from the usual problem I have with assemblages - i.e. the assembly bit (note to self - Araldite will not stick anything to anything). Happily, the piece of driftwood had two well-positioned protrusions on the underside which were amenable to screws. After a great deal of unladylike language and wishing that I had several extra available hands, the thing came together. 

It's not clear from the photograph above, but the little rock at bottom left has the word 'DREAM' chiseled into it. I have no idea where this object came from* but it was kicking around and it was the right colour so it went on - and so far remains, thanks to a generous blob of Araldite. Dream is a word that has special significance in Australia, especially in relation to nature. It seemed right to add it in.

I have a feeling that the 'DREAM' rock might be from a conference pack dating back to the late 90s, when an element of warm-fuzzy, body-mind-spiritedness was often woven in to soften the hard-data coldness that tended to dominate public-sector proceedings. I can never bear to throw this sort of artefact away. Superstition can be good for art.

* July 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

The awful truth about Australia and racism (again)

Blurring the lines (2009) Kodakotype by Pants

It has been a vile week in Australia. I didn't especially want to write this post because many of the things I'm about to say, I've said many times before. But every week, every month, every year, things get worse in this, the birth-mother country that feels less and less like a real home and more and more like an ideological prison. This week, we really broke it when we hounded an Aboriginal man - a sporting hero and courageous activist - into silence. This post will contain no original thought but this is not a day for original thought. It is a time for simply standing up for what is right.

My personal abhorrence and intolerance of racism has been expressed many times on this blog. One of the reasons for this post is that, of the six hundred entries on That's So Pants over nine years, one of the most popular is this one. I wrote with some pride in 2007 about how Sydney had responded to the Cronulla riots by training a group of Muslim women as life guards. At the time I was living in Britain, where I had been since 1982 and was blissfully unaware of how skilled Australia is at papering over nasty cracks with a token gesture and a few reassuring words. I got played. I believed the hype. I wanted to believe it. And now things have gotten a whole lot worse since I rode back in on the wave of hope and enthusiasm generated by Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous people in 2008.

I have written in support of Aboriginal football player Adam Goodes before too. Now, the former Australian of the Year has taken time out and may even retire after being hounded by crowds and pilloried by the media over a prolonged period of time. Curiously, his singling out coincides with his speaking out about racism, calling for reconciliation and overtly expressing cultural pride. Journalist and football fan Waleed Aly spelt it out here - this really did need saying. And it needs repeating until we finally get it. 'Australia is generally a very tolerant society until minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place ... the minute somebody in a minority position acts as though they're not a mere supplicant, we lose our minds.'

Australia is and always has been a racist country. The degree to which racism manifests depends on 1) how regressive a government we have at the time and, 2) what's happening in the rest of the world. Right now, our political 'leaders' are a bunch of a self-serving, light-fingered jobsworths captained by a fork-tongued creep who makes a show of head-patting Indigenous people for the television cameras whilst openly plotting to cut off their essential services and hand over their lands to his mining buddies. Would you like smallpox with that blanket? (Snigger, snigger.)

And the rest of the world? Well, that's a very sorry story too. With the mega-rich hoovering up more and more global wealth, there is less and less for us ordinary folks to share between us. When that happens, we look for someone else to blame for our reduced opportunities. We can't blame the rich because they're paying our shrinking wages, so we turn to a group we've traditionally oppressed and we have another bash at them. The rich and powerful are leading by example, setting the tone. Trickle down doesn't work with money but it works a treat with oppression. Look at what's happening in Greece right now. You lean on people, they lord it over someone even more powerless.

There's an especially virulent form of racism that white people reserve for black people. White Australians have routinely directed casual racism at other fellow immigrant groups from the Chinese who came during the nineteenth century through to continental Europeans after the Second World War, the Vietnamese following the Communist victory and lately refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Sri Lanka. But Indigenous Australians have always been bottom of the heap. All the other groups form a buffer, so that we can occasionally say, 'see, we pick on them too.'

I agree with Waleed Aly, visibility plays a big part. Racism against black people generally is becoming more pronounced and violent whether it be towards Australian Indigenous people, African Americans or refugees waiting in Calais for the opportunity to scramble onto a truck heading to Britain. Racism in the United States has gotten worse since Barack Obama was elected president. A black man in charge terrifies the cotton socks off white men. And he's talking about racism now - finally, but who can blame him, you're no good to anyone assassinated. Many black Americans have written about the primal fear that white America has of blackness but few as potently as Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic this month.

Back home, Celeste Liddle tackled the white fear of black assertiveness in The Guardian with the challenge, So an imaginary spear is more terrifying than racism? Really? Many have drawn the obvious parallel - if the Maori Haka is routinely performed at sporting events to roars of delight, what's wrong with Adam Goodes doing a traditional war dance when he scores a goal? Is it because only one of these displays is a programmed and approved activity for which we white people have been given a full and satisfactory explanation? Two years ago, Adam Goodes called out a 13-year-old girl who called him 'ape' during a game. At the time, it was generally felt that he handled the situation with grace and sensitivity. Now, he's being recast as the villain of that situation - a grown man bullying a child who obviously isn't very bright.

So, let's accept that, as a nation, we're racist. Then we can look at the equally interesting question of why are we so desperate to see ourselves as something else entirely? This piece by Sean Kelly provides a comprehensive roundup of the many avenues of denial down which we have been merrily strolling. Why go to all the bother of enacting this elaborate charade to conceal our racism when it would be so much easier to confront it and move on? Isn't this what you're supposed to do with bad character traits? Why doesn't someone call Dr Phil and get us on a program so that we can sort this out once and for all? The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, right? Somewhere in the collective consciousness, we know that racism is wrong otherwise why would we bother brazening it out like a bunch of primary school kids who've been caught trying to set fire to a toilet block?

Anyone who has ever been bullied in this country will tell you that once the bullies have crushed you, they'll immediately gush with faux concern about the state of your mental health - the inference being that you must have been a bit cracked anyway to break like that. And so it is with Adam Goodes. Suddenly everyone's angsting about the effect this will have on him emotionally. Guess what fellow citizens - this is not a group hug moment. This is a group shame moment. We must act to stop racism now.

If you would like to demonstrate your support for Adam Goodes and honour his courage, please sign this petition on

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Nothing much to see here, so stay why don't you

What you looking at (2009) Kodakotype by Pants

No part of the year goes as quickly as June. The short winter days bring with them a lot of extra work and the fact that there are fewer hours to do it in doesn't help. It's not just that. It's almost as if June is non-month in the southern hemisphere. The northern equivalent, December, contains certain events which prolong the days and render it hugely significant. There's all that anticipation and shopping and socialising and planning for Christmas and New Year's Eve. The shops are open late and there are lights in all the trees. The bleakest month of the year needs lights.

There are few things sadder than a seaside town in the southern hemisphere in the middle of winter. So often I've walked along The Esplanade in Larrikin's End in the early evening, parka zipped up to my chin, battling the gale-force winds, looked up at the sad, scrubby pines and thought, 'there is such a thing as solar-powered fairy lights you know.' 

Having said that, the Seat of Pants lighting rig is far from perfection, although there are fairy lights, indoors and out. Three years ago now, I worked for a year in a hideous but well-paid job. I saved almost all of my earnings, whacked the wad into a special, high(ish) interest account and have been gradually upgrading SoP on the proceeds since. The big job was the external painting. It took a great deal of time and I proved not all that good at having people crawling all over my carapace for many months of days. SoP has become a separate planet, a bit like Discworld, gliding through space on the back of a giant turtle. My turtle is not fond of interlopers in Dulux caps.

It took me about a year of monkish silence and furious waving about of incense sticks to recover from le grande makeover, after which I realised that I would need 1) bathroom refurbishment of my en suite bathroom (get 'er) and 2) lighting renewal. I thought the former would be the easiest so I called in quotes. None of the 'tradies' who came were prepared to do what I asked for. They all wanted to strip my little bathroom and start again. I wanted a replacement shower stall, basin and stand (preferably recycled) and a new cistern and seat for the toilet - there is nothing wrong with the bowl or the plumbing.

I turned to the lights - forgive the lame pun, it's late in a very short month which, by the way, barely exits. I called in a lighting guy who handed me a huge catalogue. Forensic scouring of this catalogue failed to come up with a single non-hideous light fitting. Quite a lot of the house should be easy. The whole downstairs section has the low, horizontal ceilings that are well-suited to subdued downlighters. 

Downlighters aren't the problem. What's not to like about a little white disc with a light in it? Upstairs is where the lighting challenge lies. SoP is a typical 1980s house with very high cathedral ceilings, skylights and exposed beams. Along these beams and very high in the corners are positioned typically eighties single spots and rows of spots. Lighting in these areas is very important for a number of reasons. 

The kitchen is there, and it's helpful to be able to see when you're cooking, especially if sharp knives are involved. A large part of it is my work space - well all of it actually when no one else is in residence. I don't tend to work when there isn't good daylight but I might if I had good artifical light. And it's the main entertainment area. You really don't want dinner guests feeling like they're being interrogated by the CIA while they're eating your rather excellent, if you do say so yourself, aubergine lasagne.

Dissatisfied with the catalogue offerings, I dove into the on-line marketplace and came up with no pearls in the shape of discreet, elegant, light-diffusing eco-friendly spotlights. I never thought that I could be rendered despondent by the lack of a consumer product to buy. Reader, it was an annoying first. Then I had a light-bulb moment (June, southern hemisphere, we talked about this already.) I could get retro fittings. But where? I spent a morning on eBay and then thought, hang on a minute, I already have retro fittings!

I phoned lighting guy and asked if the fittings I already had could be repositioned, repaired and fitted with energy-efficient bulbs that didn't explode - several have in my time here, and let me tell you it's no fun picking the aftermath out of the salad. The spots I have suit the style of the house. They're bell-shaped, brass and they swivel. Lighting guy said, yes, in principle, it could work. 

So, I spent half a day calculating if the functional single spots I had would meet my lighting needs.  No one needs banks of spots unless they're planning on moonlighting as a boxing gym. I have enough, counting the one in my bedroom that is pointed straight at my face. It's a fairly large room but the bed can only be located in one place. I really don't know what that's about. Even if one is into self-examination, there are limits, surely.

I sent my detailed specification off to lighting guy and never heard back. That was last June, or maybe the June before. I still work mostly in the daylight hours. Guests have gotten used to candles. One day, in a better month, I'll call for quotes. Next month, I'll write a better post. That's a 'tradie' promise. Meanwhile, I'll put on my fairy lights and pretend I'm in Paris and Lake Larrikin is the Seine.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heart and LOL

Life and Limb by Pants (2009)
If there is one thing we really hate here at Seat of Pants, it's organisations set up ostensibly for the national benefit by people who are apparently incapable of even defining said benefit.

Outcomes Australia - pause for chunder over phony conceptual name - appears to fit that description.

It's okay, TQW, I've got this. Just keep that Chardonnay flowing.

I find faux earnestness so dreary, however, coupled with idiocy, it can provide an evening's amusement on a drizzly night when there is no new episode of Sleepy Hollow to watch.

'What is Outcomes Australia?' you ask as, presumably, you are too smart to have been enticed by my thoughtful linking gesture.

The homepage opens with an obligatory John Lennon, (blessed be his name), quote (There are no problems; only solutions), and mandatory motherhood statement (our almost-perfect nation will prosper exponentially if we just tweak it ever so slightly in a way that only our uniquely talented team of egalitarians knows how to do). Then we get right into the nittiest of gritties with this,

'Outcomes Australia is a not-for-profit organisation for change.'

High-impact stuff. But what does it mean? The organisers want us to give them our small change? Red buckets being jangled in the high street are nothing new to us. Let's move on.

'It is a collaboration of eminent Australians who are dedicating time and expertise on a pro-bono basis to deliver solutions for the greater good.'

Respect to the sentiment but we were not aware that the 'greater good' required solving. Yawn. More Chardonnay.

'Our purpose is to ensure that Australia has optimal solutions to problems that impact on the entire community directly, or indirectly.'

Didn't we just discover that there were no problems? Never mind. What's next?

'The Outcomes approach is not to devise solutions, but to find successful and proven solutions to existing problems.'

Now I'm really confused. An activity that involves no activity? Sounds exhausting - and expensive. Poor John Lennon, (not that he's in a position to care, obviously). Even so, I'm sure he'd be mightily pissed off at the appropriation. He wasn't exactly a 'kick the can down the road' kind of guy.

Dear Outcomes Australia (chortle) - If all you're suggesting is that we copy whatever everyone else is doing, what do we need your eminent pro-bono expertise for? Can't we just Google it ourselves, wait thirty years and then get it all wrong anyway? Whatevs.

Dear Reader - have a Chardonnay. You'd be surprised at how well it goes with these mind pretzels. And you'll be wondering how I came upon this cabal of citizens extraordinaire, no doubt. Grab the bottle as this narrative has more clunky devices than an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Approximately every four minutes, thirty-three seconds, something happens in Australia that is a complete mystery to me. Most of the time I just put on my best 'whatevs' face and move on to unfathomables worth pondering. Occasionally, I find one that might be worth a blog post, and I foolishly follow that rabbit down its hole. When one goes to the bother of trying to join up the dots in Australia, one usually ends up with a cubist portrait of Heath Robinson. You have been warned.

It began last week, when one of our pre-eminent pro-bozos shocked the nation by resigning as chairman of the Organ and Tissue Authority Advisory Council. (You wha... Have another Chardonnay). As P-E, P-B David Koch's main gig is as a breakfast host on commercial television, he naturally chose to announce his resignation via rant between ads and interviews with reality TV stars. (You wha... Yep friends, this is what living in Australia is all about).

You have an organ, non?  You're a modern, metro male so you can admit to needing a tissue once in a while without the fear of being pummelled to death for being a homo. The birth of your son for e.g. (Strewth love, he's bald just like his ole man). Advising - that's sort of the same as advertising. Well, it's exactly the same except for the 'ert' bit in the middle, right? How difficult can it be chairing meetings where people will be discussing serious issues of medical ethics?

And exactly why did his pre-eminence feel obliged to resign? Well, it seems that the government is dragging its knuckles feet over improving our organ-donation rates which, shock-slash-horror, are not world-class!

'Obviously, I've got no choice but to resign,' he raged, 'and actively counter the tripe dished out by a whole bunch of rich lobbyists that just talk and do nothing.'

Given the general state of inertia in this country, it's difficult to imagine that our eminences ever do anything other than huddle in the nation's board rooms devising new ways of saying and doing nothing, but never mind. Intrigue thickens. It turns out the government appears to be suggesting that its own advisory council is to blame for our poor international showing. Curiouser and curiouser.

After such a bold provocation, I naturally went in search of the 'bunch of rich lobbyists' rabbit which led me down another dark hole. ShareLife (pause for chortle over conceptual, digital-age name), has apparently criticised the government and its advisory council for spending an awful lot of money on 'awareness' and receiving very few human bits in return. Finding an exact statement to this effect has proved difficult as the ShareLife warren website seems to have been stricken by myxomatosis. I did find this article, which clarifies one thing at least - everyone appears to be screwing up. One might pause to consider if a rich tabloid television presenter mightn't have something to gain from there being a lot of people with life-saving transplants to interview. Jus' saying.

Have another glass of Chardonnay and, if you're looking for the place where the pretzel joins up - ShareLife turns out to be a 'project' of Outcomes Australia. I will now pull a rabbit out of a hat.

A little more rabbit-hole exploration reveals that one of our infamous 'national conversations' has been burbling away in the background for the best part of a decade on the subject of whether or not we should adopt an 'opt-out' model for organ donation. I don't feel strongly about whether or not my organs are gifted after death. I don't carry a donor card. My family can do what they like with my remains. I'm happy to be turned into mulch.

However, I do have an objection to the growing tendency in our eminences and the masters of industry they serve to view us lowly proles as instruments. And I certainly have an objection to the notion that a life-saving transplant should be a 'right'. Rights infer universality. In an age when medicine is being increasingly privatised, it is doubtful that such a 'right' would ever be fairly extended. There is even a doubt in my mind as to whether medicine itself can be viewed uncritically as a public good now, given the vested interests that control it.

And I would most certainly object to having to carry a little card around indicating that I am so mean-spirited as to refuse to allow what's left of my liver to be re-homed in a child prodigy who is destined to achieve lasting world peace. I would do that rather than tacitly sanction involuntary harvesting. There is little chance that, given my age and condition, I would make a suitable donor so I am the perfect candidate for protest.
I doubt that, in the present climate, the opt-out 'debate' will get a serious airing. I only heard one interview with a strong advocate for it last week and then couldn't find it again, which is a shame because the interviewee's superior tone was truly offensive. Compulsory organ donation doesn't seem sensible in any case. It appears not to increase the rate of donation nearly enough to take on the political bother it would generate. Spain has the highest organ-donor rates and it has an opt-in model. The clincher is having a nation of people who care about each other. Good luck with that, ShareLife.

I'm on track to end up as mulch.

Meanwhile, back to the beginning and Outcomes Australia.

According to its founder and director, Marvin Weinman,

'Outcomes, (check out the casual shorthand), was formed to deliver much greater bang for buck to the Australian community.'

Another of Outcome Australia's 'projects' is BetterOff, (picture everyone at Seat of Pants going totally Bevis and Butthead about now). BetterOff's, (how can anyone keep a straight face), website informs us that,

'Australia is one of the five most obese nations in the world.'

Well, I guess, when you look at a map of the world, Australia is quite fat, especially around the middle. That's not good. Oh, and apart from our huge belly and tiny little legs, we also have two heads, and one of them appears to be wearing a dunce cap.

Enough rabbiting on from me.

Th-th-th-th-that's all folks!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Stop, look, listen

Stop by Pants (2015)

As a junior sailor, I had to learn to interpret nautical flags. Not that we had any of those on the sabot, mind. A plastic bucket remodelled to crudely resemble an Edwardian coal shovel and some sawn-off polystyrene coolers shoved under the seats for buoyancy was as classy as it got. Neither did anyone ever hoist a flag in our direction. On Sydney Harbour, rich people in yachts just swore at children attempting to navigate a boat the size of a rum barrel and with comparable manoeuvrability through one of the busiest waterways in the world. Survival depended on being alive to risk.

One flag I have remembered down the years comprises a blue cross on a white background. Roughly translated, it means 'stop what you're doing and look at me.' I have occasionally had cause to raise the blue cross to friends when they appeared poised to capsize. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

As children we were taught to 'stop, look and listen' when we arrived at a road crossing. It was good advice. It is very important to be fully engaged when attempting to share a confined space with double-decked buses and cement mixers (putty putty). I'm all in favour of daydreaming, but not whilst in transit in high density urban settings.

Switching to autopilot in the supermarket is usually fine and often essential to general well-being, especially if you live in a small town and are sensitive to spontaneous, high-pitched greeting noises occurring scant inches away. An audio book and a set of impenetrable headphones can be invaluable in this situation. I try to preserve my focus for the small print on signs that scream 'SPECIAL', and for the checkout, where 'the bank' very rarely makes errors in one's favour.

I always bristle whenever the weary checkout operator enquires,

'How's your day been so far?'

Where did they get that one from? I'm always nice to minimum-wage, zero-hours people. There but for the grace of a lifetime of parsimony and a lot of fiscal good luck go I. Even with my near-pathological standoffishness, I've a nodding connection with many of the people who work in the Larrikin's End supermarket. They're all much better people than the monster corporation that employs them deserves.

'Fine, thank you,' is what I usually politely reply, with a smile that is the emotional equivalent of badly drawn blood.

This morning, someone finally volleyed the answer I've been tossing about in my fantasies for years,

'Not too good. I've just come back from the hospital. My wife's got cancer and it's terminal.'

I ventured a surreptitious glance. He was right behind me in the next queue. An old guy. Swollen ankles. One of those walking sticks with a claw foot. Face baggy and grey from worry. He was not being facetious. It was not a prank.

I felt for Toby*, the checkout guy. He's worked there for years.

'That's no good,' said Toby, as the vile bar-code-scanning thing bleeped.

The marketing elf who thought up the inanity 'how's your day been so far?' surely must have considered that, at some point, someone who has just received the worst possible news will still need to buy dog food. That person may, in fact, be grateful for the opportunity buying dog food affords to forget that this is the shittiest of days.

'We'll find out more about treatments next week,' the man said as he handed over cash for the three tins of dog food. Toby must have been glad of the cash transaction. Mercifully, he dispensed with the obligatory, 'enjoy the rest of your day,' and merely offered up a meek but clearly genuine 'take care.'

Having a script is all well and good until routine decides to improvise. Perhaps the guy with the dying wife momentarily forgot that this wasn't an actual question - rather the retail equivalent of a salute. Maybe because of the nodding familiarity we all have with each other in Larrikin's End, his grief felt liberated to express itself with the most tenuous of prompts. In that moment, all hell could have broken loose. But it didn't. Thank fuck for express checkout lines. Cash only, one basket. Have a nice day.

Recently, an article appeared in the New Yorker flagging the hazard of (literally) being on autopilot.  A commercial airliner crashed on a short domestic flight in favourable weather conditions because the pilot forgot that you're supposed to push the stick shaker away rather than towards you when your plane is about to stall. The crew were all chatting away in the cockpit and no one was looking at the instruments. There's a comforting thought for frequent flyers. 

The article cites a new study of airline pilots' responses to emergency situations as tested in a flight simulator. Researchers concluded that the higher the level of automation, the less likely it is that a pilot will be able to recognise a problem and fly the plane manually. Not only are pilots' skills 'atrophying' - that is the word researchers used - it seems their minds are inclined to go the same way. The researchers found that when asked to 'sit and stare', humans get bored and switch off and concluded that it would be better if technology designers developed human-centred systems rather than have humans conform to a tech-centric world because we're just not built that way. Well, duh!

Perversely, pilots mostly don't fly the planes these days. Their expertise is usually required for take-off and landing only. They are the cinema projectionists of the sky except with sexier uniforms. Projectionists push a few buttons and then retire to the snack counter to ponder the minutiae of life while a plane slams into the ground in CGI Land. The worst thing that can happen if you're a projectionist is that someone will come looking for you to tell you that the screen has gone black and the emergency lights have come on. If you're a pilot that's you slamming into the ground in real time while you're talking through your marital issues with your co-workers. If a computer crashes, it's merely annoying. If a plane crashes - well that really isn't good.

Unless you're living in a padded cell, any disincentive to paying attention can be dangerous, particularly if there are large, moving metal objects involved. Research seems to be suggesting that increased automation leads to boredom and dullness of wit - states that most of us would find undesirable in any situation. Yet, the hunger for more and more automation persists along with an inexplicable desire to self-subjugate to it. When Business Council of Australia President Catherine Livingstone was asked to suggest a single measure to address the 'growing digital literacy gap between Australia and its competitors', she replied,

'Teaching four-year-olds how to code, introducing them to computational thinking, design thinking, problem solving. They're absolutely capable of it and that's when they should be learning those skills.'

At this moment I am waving the blue cross flag furiously. First of all, good luck with getting your average four-year-old interested in the fascinating patterns you can make with a bunch of zeros and ones. Yes, babies are wizard on the iPad but that is only because they've worked out how to watch the very hungry caterpillar eat a chocolate cake over and over again. If you want to introduce your four-year-old to 'computational thinking, design thinking and problem solving, I suggest you buy a jumbo pack of Lego and invite all the neighbourhood children for a play date - unless of course you would prefer them to revive the horrid memory of how you attempted to turn your own progeny into an instrument of the economy whilst they peruse nursing home brochures. And I'd keep quiet about how much fun you had when market forces still allowed an actual childhood as you're driving them to coding class.

It's time we citizens of this supposedly free society collectively push back hard on the stick shaker before we go into an irretrievable stall and while we can still remember how to fly our lives on manual. Oh, and if you want 'literate' infants, try teaching them letters and numbers - preferably using brightly coloured cubes. That way they can learn their colours, strengthen their motor skills and acquire some basic manners into the bargain. (Pass me the heliotrope block please - thank you.) And maybe very young children also need to learn that sometimes what you build falls down - for real. 

*Not his real name, obviously. This is most definitely Jason and Darren territory.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Lest we develop a little perspective (2015) by Pants

This past weekend our cringeometer hit catastrophic. Seat of Pants has been on a media blackout for most of the week as Australia gorged on the banquet of bathos known as ANZAC* Day. It's a kind of la grande bouffe for the soul. Pretty gory for the uninitiated, I don't mind telling you. It's not that I haven't had time to get used to it. These last seven years should have been preparation enough. But somehow, it so wasn't.

In the brief moments when I charitably entertain the possibility that there just might be some sincerity and decorum to these garish proceedings, at least in intent, I am reminded that the Larrikin's End WWI memorial sculptures were hewn by chainsaw. That's right, chainsaw. No disrespect to John Brady, who did a great job. It's just that there is a very obvious disjunct between traditional mourning and well, you know, the unavoidable flashes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that seep into consciousness. There will be Aussies who will say something like our blokes were so tough they might easily have leapt fully gouged from the great hardwoods of our endangered wilderness forests by the magic of chainsaw midwifery. 

Now that the day has safely passed, TQW and I have settled in with a medicinal Chardonnay to approach the subject with our usual forensic zeal. Firstly, to the centenary events at Gallipoli itself. Apparently, there was 'less of the music festival atmosphere' than is typical for the traditional Gallipoli dawn service on this the centenary year of that disastrous allied campaign. Well, that's a positive. The less music-festivity at a day of significant solemnity, the better.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott cut his usual oafish dash. A few days earlier he'd been asked by reporters for his response to the tragic loss of life when a boat carrying refugees fleeing Libya sank in the Mediterranean. He dismissed the deaths of seven hundred or so men, women and children with a desultory, 'well I suppose we should grieve but...' Political considerations clearly prevented him from finishing that sentence to his ideological satisfaction. Nothing was going to stop him from offering up the wisdom of the Australian solution to those European softies before toddling off to shed some tears for people who stopped needing them a long time ago.

Whilst having no compassion at all for innocent families who died desperately fleeing murderous anarchy, he was suddenly brimful of sorrow for the eager young adventurers racing off to invade someone else's homeland for reasons that still aren't clear, even a hundred years later. In his speech at the dawn service, he opined,

We are here on Gallipoli because we believe that ANZACs represented Australians at our best.'

Include me out of that pile of hokum and the gratuitous dodgy grammar as well. Yes, I said hokum. I remember back to the sixties and seventies when ANZAC Day had all but faded away. Back then, there were still plenty of WW1 veterans living, often with the lifelong legacy of horrendous physical and mental injuries. Did we as a nation look after those veterans? Did we fuck! We waited until they were all safely dead to sentimentalise them and wrap tourism packages around their memory. And we're still at it. While the many and various dignitaries were busy misting up over those long passed diggers, stories like this one started appearing in the media. Stories of living veterans of more recent wars left without social or even financial support. Stories of (mostly) men returning damaged and dumped on families unprepared to deal with the trauma which often quickly turned to violence and/or self destruction. Stories of veterans left destitute and homeless. Lest we forget those poor buggers. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't even know how many veterans are currently homeless.

Obviously, to acknowledge the present-day suffering of veterans and their families would create a certain obligation to respond in some way. Ooo - messy and very costly. And there'd be thinking to do and, heaven forbid, a display of 'caring' that wasn't merely abstract! Where does one even start? To show some genuine compassion to real, living people who might not even be middle class! Fuck that for a game of soldiers. Our own prime minister couldn't find it within himself to express even a microbe of pity for drowned children whose parents rather arrogantly dared to interpret 'a better life' as one in which their toddlers were not forced to watch as their parents were beheaded.

I reject the ANZAC as my template for courage. I prefer to take as my role model someone like Muriel Matters, the Australian-born activist who devoted twenty years to the cause of women's suffrage in the UK. You want brave? Brave is a woman standing up to oppression alone and contributing to genuine social progress. I would prefer a day of commemoration for the pioneer Australian labour activists who brought the world the 8-hour working day. I would prefer to mourn symbolically the loss of those who fell defending their homelands in the frontier wars that aimed to and nearly succeeded at erasing the indigenous peoples of our conquered and colonised continent. Where, pray, are their memorials? Given the period of conservatism that immediately followed the First World War in Australia, it could be argued that social progress came to a grinding halt and didn't really pick up speed again until the late 1960s. Were we 'at our best' during all those years of the White Australia policy? I think not.

Lest we forget - and we will gladly, unless reminded - that the 'NZ' in ANZAC stands for New Zealand. The Kiwis were there too, apparently, but they rarely appear in the teary vignettes of derring-do that have filtered down through the mists of time to cloud our judgement. New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key appeared at Gallipoli fresh from a faux pas of his own, having been rumbled sexually harassing a minimum-wage female worker. All a big misunderstanding, of course. As he fondled a waitress's hair in full view of his wife and security detail, he is baffled as to how this could have caused the young woman any discomfort. It's grand to know that we have morons-in-chief on both sides of the ditch who'd have trouble distinguishing right from wrong on any day of the year.

PM Key's contribution to the solemn centenary was of an entirely different hue. He mentioned Australia with more than just a passing 'also appearing', which was magnanimous under the circumstances. He not only mentioned the Turkish people but even went so far as to honour them. Clearly, he had some vague sense that a people who had done no more wrong than to be a province in an empire that had foolishly picked the wrong side to be on in a very silly war, probably had some justification in shooting at people charging up their very steep hills in a distinctly warlike manner. He even thanked the Turkish people for putting up with the annual carnival of excess that is the ANZAC ritual. They really didn't deserve a hundred years of yahooing Antipodeans. Most years, Gallipoli is high on the list for tick-box tourists.

TQW - you're rambling again.

Pants - shut up and pour me another drink.

Okay, I'm rambling. Let's see if we can wind up by unpacking some of the beliefs that have sprung up around the supposed ANZAC esprit de corps.  It is widely held in our country that WW1 soldiers were fighting for 'freedom of speech.' Among the peripheral subplots to this year's ANZAC bonanza is the case of the young television presenter who got sacked for a series of tweets deemed 'inappropriate and disrespectful' (unlike the Australian PM's comments re drowned asylum seekers in the Mediterranean or the NZ PM's hair pulling escapades). Among the tweets - which at worst should be considered ill-advised, was one that suggested ANZAC Day was mostly being marked by 'poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers.' I seem to recall studying a highly acclaimed Australian play at school in the 1970s which is based on exactly that premise. If anything, it seems our 'freedom of speech' has been eroded since then. An official requirement to think in a specific way is the mark of a dictatorship, non?

And so to history studies and the web of confusion that seems to inform/inspire a lot of these commemoration/tourism packages. There have been reports, (okay, so we might have peeked), that some young visitors to Gallipoli believe that Australia secured a victory there. (We win everything physical, right?) The Pants household was living abroad in 1983 when Australia won the America's Cup and I've only recently learned that Alan Bond (disgraced businessman and a Brit), described the win as 'the greatest victory since Gallipoli'. We are all and always slaves to the limits of our education. Ma Pants recently related the story of a young person she'd heard of who'd been taught that there had been no victor in the Second World War. That young person took some convincing, by a survivor of the notorious Burma Railway no less, that the Allied forces had 'won' the war.

I get that modern teaching might be aiming for a more nuanced view of conflict but it does seem to me that a basic understanding of the bare facts of geopolitics might be useful if you're planning to stake an entire national ethos on one particular event. Having been around when ANZAC Day had almost gone the way of the crinoline, it seems obvious to me at least that its resurrection amounts to cynical political exploitation to serve a regressive agenda. The ignorant are easily controlled. There are any number of examples of the glaring hypocrisy that is the by-product of ANZAC obsession. The frightening thing is that Australians, on the whole, seem either incapable of recognising these or stubbornly refuse to examine them. Instead, we hound any and all dissidents. Self-delusional mythologising is like a cardiac arrest for the soul. Let's try to remember what it is we're really supposed to be not forgetting. Like oppression = bad for e.g.

* Please be advised that That's So Pants did not seek permission from the owners of this word, the Department of Veterans Affairs, for its use. You may be in violation of some law we don't know about by even reading it without official permission. Pants advises extreme caution.