Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Contemporary playground equipment

Once playground equipment was fun.

And by "fun", we mean dangerous.

Swings swung high enough that the fall would break legs. Slippery dips were of towering heights and could rocket you into the ground after the sun baked metal had seared your flesh. And nothing could sever fingers like merry-go-rounds.

An unlikely alliance of sense and litigation put paid to this era. Equipment became safe plastic, but blunt and stunted. But it was colourful, and children could use their unthreatened fingers to give each other shocks. It was boring, but a taste of risk remained.

Today we are in a new era. Equipment looks like this.

I don't understand it.

It doesn't look fun at all.

In the same fashion I do not find trees erotic.

Certain playground equipment looks unfun. Certain people are unattractive or repulsive.

But this is in a different world entirely.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A train ghost

Today I was on the train travelling into the city.

A deshevelled man walked up the carriage holding a crumpled envelope. He went to each passenger in turn, and poked it under their noses.

None looked up. They stayed immersed in their books, in the views out the window, or the gum under the seats in front.

None wished to make contact with the crazy man.

He came to me. I intended to do as everyone else did. Nonetheless, I briefly looked at the envelope.

It was dirty and worn, with several sentences of text. I read only the first line;

"(I am dead)"

He swiftly moved on to others, and then the next carriage, apparently unpeturbed.

A man. A ghost. Wandering and trying to reach the living.


But enduring.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A draft comic


viewable in Firefox or IE only

One day to be polished.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The freedom of the automobile, by the grace of the state

In Australia, and elsewhere in the world, a debate about transport has been brought about by an infernal mix of congestion, fuel costs and global warming. Central to this debate is the role the car plays in our transport options, particularly in urban environments. Unfortunately, as with many debates on policy, the discussion often degenerates into bomb throwing between commentators whom would be better placed barracking at football matches, and whom see the car as a symbolic issue on how society
One set of cheerleaders declare that other options are woolly socialist thinking and knee-jerk hatred of the successes of Western Civilisation. Did we not win the cold war? Wasn’t the Trabant the emblem of socialism’s failure before the Mercedes glowing example of enterprise. Isn’t the control of a vehicle and the freedom of movement by an individual the epitome of the sanctity of the person before the whole as opposed to the cattle herding of public transport?
Another set of cheerleaders sees the car and its consequences as encapsulating the failures of neoliberalism. Is there a better way to showcase how selfish individualism aggregates poorly than global warming, or a traffic snarl filled with honking monsters whom would otherwise be people? And aren’t the absurd amounts of money and love spent on the car classic signs of affluenza and conspicuous consumption.
Both these views are reliant on the idea that the car culture is somehow the result of free enterprise, of user pays and of consumer sovereignty. This idea is very hard to justify. The car, if a symbol of anything, is a symbol of government and industry collaboration. The Great Mid 20th Century Handshake that lingers with us still.
It is illustrative to look at the epitome of car culture, the United States, and particularly LA. There was a time when transport was ruled by lassaiz faire, before the depression soured the public and politicians to the idea, and subsequently LA was ruled by street cars, run by a polyglot of firms bursting into life, dying, selling to each other. This echoed the amazing outburst of entrepreneurial zeal which had endowed America with railways in the previous century and which had elsewhere built the London underground and provided Sydney with it’s first passenger railway (now the Inner West line). This street car system was the most extensive in the world, and the mobility it gave the residents of LA was responsible for allowing the city to become the great sprawling mass it is.
It came to an end obviously. It has often been blamed on the insidious plots of General Motors, but this was but a small element in the wave of public, political and commercial sentiment that followed the Great Depression and more importantly, the war economy. This led to a great growth in manufacturing, particularly planes (giving Boeing an ascendency it still holds) and automobiles, and it gave a promise of a new system. The street cars could not survive in this world.
Post war, the Great Handshake was in full swing. The cars rolling off factory line enlarged by war spending drove on Eisenhower’s new Interstate Highway System. This in turn was born of the great 20th century faith in public works and also provided for the greater mobility of the government’s armed forces. These in turn were administered by the former GM president and Defence Secretary Charles Wilson whom captured the sentiment by declaring he “thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa". Just to be fair, a Ford president in Robert McNamara was given the job the next time around. The companies were happy selling their cars, the public was happy to buy them and zoom off to the suburbs (and new “teenagers” to sexual experimentation) and away from urban centres hamstrung by planning laws designed for that very purpose. The government was happy if the first two were happy. Eisenhower may have closed his presidency with a warning about a “military-industrial complex”, but why spoil a good thing?
The oil shock and consequent and subsequent chaos spoiled this faith in the American system, but it did not destroy the handshake, nor its child the motor car. It merely shifted it, first to the growing might of the Zaibatsu manufacturers such as Mitsubishi and Honda, deeply enmeshed with their own government through Japan Inc, and later their brethren in the Korean Chaebol.
Even today the largest car maker, Toyota, is part of this marriage with the state and elsewhere governments fight to keep motor industries alive. Zappa may have declared the need for a beer and an airline, but a motorcar industry seems to be seen as a far more potent sign of national virility. Why else would Malaysia pour so many resources into Proton. Why else is the Australian car industry still shielded by tariffs when the rest of country responds to globalisation, and why else is it such a recipient of government largesse when competition is the watchword?
The car culture hasn’t been the result of free enterprise, but could it have been anyway? Afterall a car is only as good as the roads on which it drives, it only takes you where the roads go and as fast as they let you. And the roads are public goods.
Private companies have (and are) building roads, but these are reliant on the modern manifestation of the Great Handshake called, obviously, the “Private Public Partnership”. Unfortunately, even with this partnership the exercise is producing losses in examples such as the Lane Cove Tunnel and Cross City Tunnel, and these companies may not return. How would they succeed without the assistance of government?
Otherwise roads are provided by government with little regard for user pays or market forces. Whilst there are registration costs, these go but a small way to covering the expenditure on roads and furthermore these costs are the same regardless of whether one drives once a week on an unpaved public road, or everyday on an elaborately engineered freeway. The pricing mechanisms on which most of capitalism rests holds little sway. When a market mechanism is suggested such as congestion pricing, it is howled down and when it exists in some form is it subject to poplist counter measures, such as the M4 cashback.
The free roads are then governed not by the market but by a mix of norms and the law.
Most quieter roads run mainly on the former, a complex and tacitly understood web of what should and should not be done, when one should give way and is entitled to cut in. The law is in theory in force, but the enforcers are unlikely to catch an infringer, and the social enforcement of driving peers is paramount. This honestly works surprisingly well, but is reliant on social values and sharing, and not on the enlightened self interest of capitalism.
When this society breaks down on major roads is when authority comes into play. Speed cameras, traffic cops, more lights and road markers and signs and fines. This may also work to some extent, but isn’t managing a system by force of authority rather than the aggregation of individual actions the antithesis of free enterprise?
So the car is not the result of free enterprise, nor could a car culture emerge or operate under free enterprise. So if cars are not a symbol of free enterprise and capitalism, what then are they a symbol of?
The answer is “nothing”.
We simply need to recognise that in modern society, and form of transport will be reliant on the provisions of government (even walking requires a footpath). No transport system, whether cars, public transport, bicycles or walking are independent of either enterprise, the state or social norms.
Advocacy of any transport system should only be viewed in light of its merits and not in light of an apparent world view.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wikimafia, and apologies for the buzzwords

Having recently read Venkatesh's and reading in the early pages of this and account of the Chechen mafia, I have a speculative possibility for the future of organised crime.

The older networks, such as the Cosa Nostra and the Yakuza have worked along rather feudal lines, leadership based on hierachy of seniority and strength and delineated by families.
Yet by the time of the crack boom, the crack gangs worked along corporate line, with local branches, managers and executive directors.

When the Chechen mafia began its rise, it rose as a franchise. Trading on the stereotype of Chechen vicious insanity, the term was for sale to other non-Chechen group that would pay for it, and protect the brand. It had come to a franchise.

Organised crime was following similar phenomena in capitalism.

But where now?

Here's a speculation. Many groups, such as the social groupings of motorcycle gangs or inner city gangs, or political groups such as the Green Gang and other triads, did not begin as organised crime groups. But when crime (often drugs) was adopted to fund them, the crime began to become the sole purpose of the gang.

Now today we have some politically orientated organisations around the world whom may be struggling for funds due to the efforts of several bodies to prevent their former benefactors channeling finance to them. What could happen if Al Qaeda decided to gain more funding from Opium, or some other such source? The main requirement for organised crime is the use of violence, or more importantly, the reputation for it. The training camps are teaching something, and their reputation for bloodshed is strong. It seems quite possible that over a course of years the organisation, like others, could lose its original aim and pursue only the crime.

But there is something else about the Al Qaeda brand. It has no short or medium term goals, only a vague dream of a single caliphate and the destruction of Israel. In the shortterm, merely random acts of violence. Subsequently, the terrorism is now open source. There is no need for a car bomb maker in once country to be attuned to the hierarchy if they now the goal (kill people) and the technology, which is easily disseminated. The founders of Al Qaeda may have no more idea of its extent than anyone else, nor any more control. Terrorism 2.0 to indulge in inane jargon.

If this turned to crime, would it be wikimafia, mafia 2.0, spontaneous organised crime?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Women as accessories

The other day Tomo and I were at the RSL playing snooker. At the table next to us were three people, two young men and a young woman, whom was romantically connected to one of the men.
The two men were playing snooker.
She was not.
She walked around a bit. Then she watched videos on her mobile. Then she played the DS. Then she SMSed a bit, then ate a sausage roll.
And she kept staring at us. Or so I thought.

She was staring at Tomo.

In all this time her apparent boyfriend said all of two sentences to her.

a) To inform her they were going for a smoko (she was left behind)

b) To demand a bite of the aforementioned sausage roll.

I don't know if a girlfriend is more accessory than companion in South China (from whence these uni students came), but I understand if she was feeling a little neglected.
I also understand that this experience of heterosexual relationships may instill some sapphic longing.

But hey, if I was a woman, I'd turn for Tomo.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Casual and paid sex around Central at 6:00 AM

On Sunday I was walking through Belmore park in front of Central station. A Gentleman was storming through the park screaming into his phone, loud enough to be heard for several hundred metres.

"It's fucking over! I'm going to go fuck someone else right now! Fuck you!".

He then hung up, and stormed towards the station.

I don't think casual sex is common at 6 am (the pickings are usually gone), let alone in a train station, unless a glory hole was sought. Brothels are plentiful nearby, but I believe they were closed at 6 am.

I wonder if he carried out on his promise.