Empty remnants of John Howard

Photograph of John Howard's campaign office in Epping by Trinn ('Pong) Suwannapha
Yesterday ’Pong and I journeyed to Epping in Sydney’s north-west suburbs to photograph this monument to history: John Howard’s campaign office for the 2007 federal election. It’s still empty almost two years later.

Epping seemed strangely bleak. This was far from being the only empty shop on Beecroft Road. Signs were dilapidated. In the alley behind the shops, magpies rummaged through restaurant garbage bins in search of food. The eucalypt smoke enshrouding the suburb — the result of back-burning operation before summer — didn’t help.

Two years ago posts referencing John Howard dominated this website’s tag cloud. It’s been a long time since he was Prime Minister, but he’s still prominent here and in the mainstream media through things like his Menzies Lecture — and that was a strange attempt to stamp his own rhetoric onto Australia’s political history.

I wonder how long it’ll be until we stop hearing about the miserable old toad?

[Photo: A Space for Howard ©2009 Trinn (’Pong) Suwannapha. All rights reserved.]

1939: So, is it war then, George?

Daily Telegraph (UK), 19 August 1939, page 3 (part): click for a closer view

If the world was about to explode into a Total War lasting six years, would you know?

As I wrote back in 2007, TV documentaries about World War II cover the rise of Adolf Hitler in a few minutes. We forget that Hitler was head of the National Socialist Party from 1921, fully 12 years before he became Chancellor in 1933. It was another 6 years before the invasion of Poland.

What did it look like for people living it in real-time?

My guess is that for the vast majority of people the rise of Hitler had very little impact on day-to-day life — just as today the distant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have virtually no discernible impact on my life in Sydney. Nor do the many minor changes to our laws which increase the powers of central government without any balancing increases in our own ability to hold that government accountable.

In the summer of 1932, a few politically-aware people sitting in sunny cafes might have discussed that odd Mr Hitler’s failed run for the presidency, but I doubt anyone would have seen it as heralding global war.

This is why I’m starting to find George Orwell’s diary intriguing.

Initially, as the Orwell Prize published the entries exactly 60 years after they were first written it was, to be honest, boring. Laughably so, in fact, as the meticulous journalist documented the day-to-day activities in his garden. On 30 November 1938, it was nothing more than: Two eggs.

But now, we’re only eleven days out from the German invasion of Poland. Thirteen days from Britain and France declaring war on Germany.

Orwell notes a Daily Telegraph report (pictured): “Germans are buying heavily in copper & rubber for immediate delivery, & price of rubber rising rapidly.”

Orwell’s journalistic eye could see the signs. Could ordinary citizens? Sure, gas masks were being distributed and air raid drills held, but did people believe them?

In 2007, did we believe John Howard’s “alert but not alarmed” scaremongering? Or didn’t we? And if not, but they did in 1939, what’s the difference?

I reckon Orwell’s diary will be an interesting read over the next 13 days.

The really real revolutionary revolution of the Internet

James Burke

The man in the photo, science historian and broadcaster James Burke, is a revolutionary. So pay attention. This is important.

I don’t mean “revolutionary” in the lame-arsed sense used by every pissant little company with a new kind of double-whacko widget that’ll “revolutionise” the double-whacko widget industry. Because it’s now available in three different colours.

No, I mean the real kind of revolutionary: someone who advocates a revolution — yes, as in a complete overthrow of the established political system.

I’ve just finished watching Burke’s ten-part TV series from 1985, The Day The Universe Changed. It’s available on DVD, but you can also do what I did and watch the whole thing on YouTube. At least until some copyright-addled arsehole decides that you can’t.

As Wikipedia says:

The series’ primary focus is on the effect of advances in science and technology on western philosophy. The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as you perceive it through what you know; therefore, if you change your perception of the universe with new knowledge, you have essentially changed the universe itself.

To illustrate this concept, James Burke tells the various stories of important scientific discoveries and technological advances and how they fundamentally altered how western civilization perceives the world.

Apart from anything else, TDTUC is an excellent history of western scientific thought. But, after taking you on this journey, Burke’s final episode is a revolutionary call to action.

Continue reading “The really real revolutionary revolution of the Internet”

20 years after Tianamen

Tank Man — This famous photo, taken on 5 June 1989 by photographer Jeff Widener, depicts an unknown man halting the PLA's advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square.

It’s been 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Of the many things I’ve seen commemorating it, one of the most powerful was John Birmingham’s simple blog post of that day’s diplomatic messages from the US Embassy in Beijing.

Cable, From: Department of State, Wash DC, To: US Embassy Beijing, and All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, TFCHO1: SITREP 1, 1700 EDT (June 3, 1989)

PLA MOVES ON TIANANMEN, CASULATIES HIGH. EMBASSY BEIJING REPORTS THAT TROOPS USING AUTOMATIC WEAPONS ADVANCED IN TANKS, APCS AND TRUCKS FROM SEVERAL DIRECTIONS ON TIANANMEN SQUARE JUNE 3. THERE WAS CONSIDERABLE RESISTENCE BY DEMONSTRATORS, AND THE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES APPEARS HIGH.

Please read them all and, as I did, take a moment to reflect.

According to Wikipedia, “There were early reports of Chinese Red Cross sources giving a figure of 2,600 deaths, but the Chinese Red Cross has denied ever doing so. The official Chinese government figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded.”

NATO intelligence puts the death toll at 7,000. Some other estimates are even higher.

China has blocked access to most social media sites such as Twitter, search engines, and many others. Yes. Let’s just stifle conversation and pretend it didn’t happen. Cowards.

I’ll wager this photograph of artist Him Lo, taken in Hong Kong yesterday, won’t be seen across the Middle Kingdom either.

[Photo: Tank Man, taken on 5 June 1989 by photographer Jeff Widener, depicts an unknown man halting the PLA’s advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square.]

Rediscovering James Burke

Photograph of James Burke

It was my very great pleasure today to discover that James Burke‘s groundbreaking TV series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed are all on YouTube.

Connections is more than 30 years old now — it was first broadcast in 1978 — and yet the way it weaves its threads through the history of science is still relevant to a contemporary audience. One thing I did notice, though, is how bleak his worries are, obviously an element of the Cold War mentality of the time.

Burke’s witty writing is a key part of the enjoyment, as this snippet from episode 2 shows:

I suppose Shakeaspeare and the travel agents have done more than anybody else to give us our Technicolor view of Elizabethan England, starring the Queen herself as a kind of swashbuckler in pearls. The fact is, about all she had time for was bookkeeping. When she took the place over in 1558, it was National Disaster Week. The money was worthless. There was no money! There was plague. The cities were packed and stinking.

Elizabeth appealed to the decent English middle class, with their healthy desire for prestige, power, fun and games, and cash. Soon, anybody who wanted to be anybody was on the make. And none more than that famous bunch of privateering seadogs led by Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins, who sailed the Atlantic looking for new American trade opportunities for England, setting up colonies, knocking off Spanish galleons — and doing it all with a kind of gutsy disregard for convention that we describe today as “criminal”.

I’ve often wanted to make programs like Burke’s. He gives hope to someone who, like him, has “a good face for radio”. I know that re-watching these old favourites will be important in many ways.