While I don't believe civilisation is in continual decline, I do see many challenges and opportunities, and analysing them is fun.
Well, for Australia tomorrow is it. The time we’ve been waiting for. A federal election.
And it’s been reminding me of the last federal election - exactly three years ago, and long before Covid changed everything. It was called “The Climate Change Election” - and yet it returned to power a government with terrible climate credentials.
“The world envies us”. Ever heard these words?
Here in Australia they’ve often been rolled out by politicians to excuse failures: Yes, we might not have got it perfect, but we’re still doing better than the rest of the world. And there’s some truth to the words, but there’s also a lot of complacency - past success is not a guarantee of future success, and we can’t expect Australia to be immune to what other countries are experiencing.
Last year, Covid hit and made 2020 an exceptionally unpopular year. At that time, I feel like we heard a lot about “returning to normal”. Maybe this would happen later in 2020, maybe it was for 2021, but it was going to be sometime in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, Australia was (largely) CovidFree and we were told the world envied our freedoms.
Fast forward to mid-2021, there were major outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne, over half the population of Australia were in lockdown, and the message had changed to “living with Covid”. Other countries were managing it (which perhaps gave them a break from envying us), so why couldn’t we? Vaccination targets were established for re-opening, the vaccination program was sped up, and both NSW and Victoria are now officially “living with Covid”.
The politicians have been out in full force for months selling it. But what exactly is being sold?
For months now I’ve heard the narrative - presented with all the nuance that Twitter encourages - that calling a snap 3 - 5 day lockdown is the one infallible way to defeat a Covid outbreak. That led directly to claims that the current situation in Sydney (and NSW more generally) is largely due to them defying this orthodoxy for political reasons. And yet here I am in Melbourne, nearly three weeks into a lockdown that did all the right things and still has no end in sight.
This time last year, when Melbourne was in its second lockdown and case numbers were taking off, I heard a number of people asking why the numbers were still going up. The same is true of Sydney right now, which has been in lockdown for three weeks. People are scared and looking for someone to blame, and harmful narratives build.
Covid-19 restrictions were a cynical attempt by Democrats to undermine Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. No need to live in fear. It wasn’t really dangerous - it was just like the flu. And it would go away after the election anyway.
That’s what we were told. Guess what? It hasn’t gone away. Instead, this kind of rhetoric in the US has undermined public trust, brought partisan politics into efforts to control the spread, and left a body count.
With the Covid-19 pandemic changing the world, it was only a few months in to 2020 that people were calling it the worst year ever. By the middle of 2020, this meant some writing off the year, then acting as if everything would be magically back to normal in 2021.
Well, as I write this, it’s 2021 here in Australia, and if anything the situation looks worse than it did a week ago. So I wanted to share a carol I wrote for 2020 (with apologies to Christmas).
Like the rest of the world, what I’ve been writing about has changed as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But I didn’t expect that would mean writing in defence of my favourite bat colony.
Melbourne is privileged to have a colony of flying foxes in a park by the Yarra close to the city. However, some residents have been worried by the risk of disease, so their MP has called for the colony to be moved on or culled. I don’t think anything is likely to come of it, but I still have strong feelings about it.
Two weeks ago it was International Women’s Day, and I was part of a large crowd from many countries watching the final of the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup 2020 at the MCG. Promoters, players, and fans alike were eyeing the record book, and #FillTheMCG had been trending on social media. Unlike England, Australia had been fortunate to qualify in a rain-hit semi-final, and were facing India in hope of a home title and a chance to confirm their dominance over women’s cricket.
It all seems so distant now: Australia have banned crowds over 100 and enforced social distancing, there is a blanket “Do not travel” warning for foreign travel, the borders are closed to outsiders, residents returning from overseas must self-isolate for fourteen days, and I myself have been in isolation with a mild fever (probably not Covid-19). As a result, I’ve been a little hesitant to write about it, but I think it’s worth remembering.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when men first walked on the moon. You might have heard about it - it got far more attention than the anniversary of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.
The anniversary was actually back in July, and at the time I attended various anniversary events and started writing, but somehow couldn’t figure out exactly what I wanted to say. Now it’s the end of the year, and, ready or not, here I come!
Last year saw the release of the film First Man, chronicling Neil Armstrong’s personal journey to the moon. Personally, I really enjoyed it.
However, it came in for some criticism for not including the planting of the US flag on the moon. I’d like to discuss why I think that criticism was misguided, but also to discuss what placing the flag on the moon really meant.
Recently, I was reading Brené Brown talking about the importance both of civility and of speaking truth to power. I think it’s important to be able to treat our ideological enemies as charitably as those we agree with. And on that note, I’ve seen a couple of Donald Trump’s tweets uncharitably interpreted in the last few weeks, and I’m sure there are more.
Alan Turing is something of a patron saint for my field. He is also well-known for his prosecution for homosexuality, and his more recent pardon. So when I saw that my local theatre was performing Breaking the Code, a 1986 play about his life, I made sure I went along. I expected to be both moved and upset by the treatment he received, and I was.
On Christmas Eve, 1968 - fifty years ago today - the Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon. The three astronauts inside it were the first humans to leave the direct gravitational influence of the Earth, the first to orbit the moon, and the first to look back on the entire Earth. Understandably, it has since been overshadowed by the first moon landing seven months later - but it’s still an incredibly impressive achievement.
Last year, the common wisdom was that 2016 had been a terrible year, with one major factor being the deaths of various celebrities. Earlier this year, I discussed this in connection with long-dead celebrities, suggesting that we had forgotten how much life expectancy has improved in modern times. But my first thought was “2016 has to have been a lot better than 1916”.
After a protracted negotiating period, Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers’ Association have been unable to come to an agreement over a new Memorandum of Understanding. This means that, as of last Saturday, the majority of Australia’s cricketers are unemployed, including some of the best players in the world. And given the polarised nature of the dispute, with both sides questioning the good faith of the other side and doubling down on their own position, it seems unlikely it will be resolved soon.
In the current pay dispute I would say the public has been fairly supportive of the players. But one comment that sometimes comes up is how much they are paid. To some commenters, they should be playing for the honour of representing their country, and just agree to the terms offered and get back to entertaining us. And certainly headline figures suggests sports stars are making far more than the average layman. Is it too much? Is it unfair?
As a proud member of the Dandenong Ranges community, I have the right to look down on others. And all it takes is a short walk to put me in a position to do so. The grand vista, the pure mountain air, the absolutely natural gravel and asphalt paths: everything testifies to my superior position as I look down on the mortals below. Up here, I am free and surrounded by views. Down there is a flat plain stretching out to the city, with the occasional bump pretending to be a hill. And doubtless that plain is filled with countless humans scurrying back and forth like ants on whatever minor projects occupy them.
This experience of looking down on others got me to thinking about hill-climbing, about seeking views, about linguistics, and about comparing ourselves with others.
OK, now I know how unfairly I have been privileged in gaining the education which allows me to write this blog in tolerable English. It was all due to my parents’ reprehensible practice of reading to me at bedtime, which I should forthwith adjure and abominate.
(yes, that may seem like click-bait - but there’s some serious analysis here).
Last weekend I was in the Victorian Alps, and saw clearly the effects of technology. Yesterday, I spoke of the wonder of technology, but cautioned that it can be used for harm as well as for good. Today, I want to speak of some of the harm I saw.
The main history of the area is gold mining. The town I stayed in (Harrietville) was a gold mining town, and in fact still has two operating mines 150 years later. Some of the other towns I visited were also established in the gold rush era. Now they host tourists in the summer and seekers after snow in the winter, but the legacy of man’s frantic search for gold is still visible.
I learned today that Alan Simpson, co-writer of Hancock’s Half Hour with Ray Galton, died a couple of weeks ago.
Hancock’s Half Hour was one of the earliest sitcoms and is one of my favourite comedy programs. I continue to listen to it, despite knowing many of the events at 23 Railway Cuttings and around East Cheam by heart. Perhaps it shows my love of old(er) things: The show started on radio over 60 years ago, and finished on TV more than 50 years ago.
At the end of 2016, the common wisdom was that it was a terrible year. I’ve given it a month to settle, and I haven’t seen too many people retract that judgement.
As far as I can tell, 2016 was condemned for two reasons:
- Certain celebrities died.
- Unpopular political changes were made.