Thursday, December 3

It's time to say goodbye.

It is my sad task to inform you that Ian Skinner is deceased
(the term passed away was always abhorrent to him)

He died peacefully in his sleep after an enjoyable family outing in the evening.

On behalf of the larger Skinner family - we wish his blog followers, and people in general, well for the future - life is short - stop to smell the roses - be kind to each other.

"What profit a man to gain the world & lose his soul" - while it is true that Ian never gained the world (materially), it is also true that at no point in his life was he ever in danger of losing his soul.

Those of you who are familiar with Ian's Blog, will know he was a family man to his very essence. He always said his family was his greatest achievement and lasting testament to his core values. As his son-in-law, I am proud to be part of that large and wonderful family. Ian will be missed in a way that I just don't have the words to describe, and his memory will be cherished by us all.

posted by Nick (Ian's son-in-law), on behalf of the Skinner family.

Sunday, November 29

My word is my bond. What a quaint idea.

Once upon  a time, children, conservative men regarded their honour as paramount. Proud men would face one another with pistols at dawn if somebody questioned their integrity.

Even today, the words dictum meum pactum (“My word is my bond”) feature as the motto on the heraldic coat of arms awarded to the London Stock Exchange in 1923.

Sadly, I have to tell you the world where a conservative's word was his bond has long vanished, if it ever did exist. Today lies and treachery are de rigueur, especially for senior right-wing members of Australia's Liberal Party.

You'll all know what I'm talking about – it's been in all the papers. Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and his lieutenants have spend weeks in intensive negotiations with the Labor Government's Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, to achieve an agreement under which they would pass the Emissions Trading Scheme through the Senate before it rose for the year.

They obtained many concessions (too many, in this grumpy old journo's opinion) and the Liberal Party leaders had a deal they believed they could take to their party room to be quickly endorsed and passed by the Senate.

That's when the “Treacherous Ten” revealed their duplicity. Ten leading Liberal politicians who had previously indicated they would support the ETS legislation if the Libs could negotiate significant concessions – which was achieved – quit the front bench and made it clear they would never vote for an ETS.

In essence, the hard-liners had duped Turnbull into believing he could negotiate in good faith with the Labor Government.

Why would they do that? The answer is simple. It's part of the filibuster you have when you're not having a filibuster. The foremost of the Liberal rebels, Tony Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin, made this clear when they demanded Turnbull agree to have the ETS legislation referred to a Senate committee for consideration.

If Turnbull agreed to that, he would be welching on his deal with Labor.

But the strategy appeals to the hard-line climate change sceptics because it may allow them to defer the legislation for months while avoiding the risk of a double dissolution. It all comes down to interpreting one of the “triggers” the Australian Constitution provides for the simultaneous dissolution of the full Senate and the House of Representatives when they're deadlocked.

Section 57 allows the Prime Minister to ask the Governor-General to dissolve both houses if the Senate rejects “or fails to pass” legislation passed by the Reps, or passes it with amendments unacceptable to the Reps, and does so a second time if the Reps again passes the legislation after at least three months.

If the Senate's climate change sceptics used a plain filibuster to stall the legislation until the Senate rose for the year, it probably would give a double dissolution trigger. But referral to a Senate committee for examination could be seen as a normal part of the legislative process, and most likely would not be held to be a trigger.

This opinion was provided by Robert Ellicott QC, a former Federal Court judge and Coalition Attorney-General, in a Weekend Australian article last October. And it appears retiring Senate Clerk Harold Evans supports his view.

[I've just come across this opinion by ABC election analyst Antony Green, posted to his blog yesterday. It covers the “failure to pass” issues in detail. And in this earlier post, Green points out that whenever he received a trigger, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could delay requesting the double dissolution until August 10, 2020, with the election taking place in September.]

Not that Rudd necessarily wants or would use a trigger to call a double dissolution, but it's handy to have one – or preferably, a handful of them – at the ready if required. That time might come mid-way through next year.

It sticks in the craw to admit the vacuous right-wing columnist Miranda Devine might have called something right. But even I thought she might be correct back in August when she wrote a column jeeringly headed, “Bring it on, Labor, pull that trigger.” which claimed the Government would be defeated if it called a double dissolution on the Senate's rejection of ETS legislation.

A few weeks later, The Australian's Newspoll contradicted Ms Devine when it reported strong support for climate change legislation, even among Coalition voters. Yesterday, The Weekend Australian relied on the September figures in its lead story, “Libs facing electoral rout.”

But that was September. Today, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and other Murdoch Sunday tabloids around the nation reported a Galaxy poll taken last Friday night. The Sunday tabloids'  report said:

MALCOLM Turnbull's hopes of fighting off a Liberal rebellion over climate change to hold on to the Opposition leadership have been shattered by a poll showing a whopping 60 per cent of Australians are against Kevin Rudd rushing the Emissions Trading Scheme through parliament.
Despite Mr Turnbull insisting the ETS must be passed now - ahead of the UN's Copenhagen summit - the poll overwhelmingly backs his opponents - with 81 per cent of Coalition supporters wanting the vote delayed.
Incredibly, nine out of 10 Coalition supporters - and three out of four Labor voters - say they don't understand the ETS and want the Government to explain it better.
The Galaxy poll, conducted exclusively for The Sunday Telegraph on Friday night, shows a huge 80 per cent of voters do not believe the Government has provided sufficient details about an ETS with only 26 per cent now supporting the Turnbull-Rudd push for the Senate to pass it into law immediately.
Fewer than one in five Australians believe the Government has provided sufficient information about the ETS.
Even 73 per cent of Labor voters are in the dark over the ETS.

Tuesday, November 10

I love praise, but is this a bit stiff?

Like any other blogger, I love praise. So when this notification of a new comment turned up in my Inbox today, I was chuffed:
I don’t know if I said it already but … I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say great blog. Thanks! 
Naturally I hit the button to publish the comment. Then I opened Grumpy Old Journo to admire the comment at the end of a post I put up last July. I want to know more about the comment's author, so I click the highlighted link which should have taken me to the author's blog or website.

Guess what it opened up? A website offering generic Viagra. 

Kill the comment? Perhaps I should have. Instead, I posted my own comment right underneath.
I was chuffed to receive this comment months after the post went up. But all is not as it seems. Readers should not click on the Lipitor link above unless they want to be directed to a website which offers generic Viagra from an unknown supplier with the ethical values revealed in this duplicitous comment.


Monday, November 9

Remembering the republicans' defeat

Where is the passion we felt ten years ago when we argued about becoming a republic? The 10th anniversary of the republican movement's defeat in the November 1999 referendum passed with scarcely a ripple the other day.

That's to be regretted, because it means Australia continues to be headed by monarchs who inherit the throne according to laws which should have no place in a modern nation (even if we do manage to accommodate the idea of an inherited monarchy).

Succession to the English throne is still governed largely by the Act of Settlement of 1701, which specifically excludes not only Roman Catholics, but anyone who marries a Catholic. The monarch must be Protestant, and become part of the Church of England communion.

In addition, the monarch carries the title Defender of the Faith, and is automatically Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This may be appropriate for England, if you accept the idea of an establishment church.

In Australia, our founding fathers were determined not to import sectarian nastiness from the old world, and wrote this into the Constitution:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

No religious test required – except, that is, to inherit the position of King or Queen of Australia.

In another provision which should be anathema in a modern nation, the Act of 1701 bases succession on the rules of male primogeniture. A woman cannot inherit the throne if she has a younger male sibling. (In Britain, this is unlikely to be a practical issue for many years, if ever – but it's still a relic of times when women had inferior status.)

Over recent years in Britain, there have been moves to change these rules but nothing much has happened.

Contrary to monarchists' claims today, a decade ago most Australians did support a republic – but a majority of them wanted nothing short of a republic in which the public elected the president. They declined to vote for the “minimal change” model put to them in the referendum, under which the president would have been elected by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of the Federal parliament.

For the then Prime Minister, John Howard – a committed monarchist – it must remain a proud achievement. As Grumpy Old Journo wrote in this post in February last year, Howard used a brilliant “wedge” strategy to halt what appeared to be Australia's inexorable loosening of ties with the “mother country”.

First, he set up a Constitutional Convention which argued for a couple of weeks before agreeing on the “minimal change” model which was put to the electorate. With a small majority, it supported a parliamentary vote to select the President, rather than a national election, because it would not disrupt constitutional arrangements which were working well. And that's where we lost.

Tony Abbott and other Liberal leaders said the position of President would be far too important to be decided by politicians. We should vote no to a republic so we didn't have the President elected by politicians.

It worked. It seemed Australians didn't know that under the existing, continuing arrangement, one person – the Prime Minister, possibly but not necessarily in consultation with a few cronies – chooses the Governor-General. The British monarch must accept the Australian Prime Minister's nomination.

Howard was also able to exploit two weaknesses in the republican cause. As historian Stuart Macintyre wrote in the second edition of his Concise History of Australia:

The first was the very celebrity of the republicans. [Malcolm] Turnbull's movement used prominent writers and artists, recruited television personalities, business and sportspeople. Their enthusiastic advocacy could be dismissed as an example of the estrangement of the elites from the practical concerns of the battlers.

The second weakness was to campaign for the minimal republic.

Their chief argument turned out to be no more than an appeal to national prejudice: Australia should not have a foreigner as its head of state. Since an Australian governor-general already exercised the functions of the head of state, this allowed monarchists to divert the republican debate into an arcane argument over constitutional law.

It also did not help the republicans that Howard also drafted a new preamble to the Constitution, and put it to the electors in the same referendum. The electors duly rejected both questions. As Macintyre wrote:

. . . he produced a preamble of startling banality that invoked mateship, refused to recognise Aborigines' prior occupancy of the land, and took a gratuitous swipe at political correctness.


Thursday, November 5

Merry makes a tidy Cup profit

A nice triumph for my wife. She backed the third placegetter, Mourilyan, giving me the pleasure of going down to the pub to collect $36.50 for a $5 place bet on the NSW TAB (yeah, we're the last of the big-time punters).

So does that make her a particularly gifted judge of horses? Decide for yourself > > >

Monday, October 26

Taking the moral low ground – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Rudd's inspiration?
image from Wikipedia

What a tawdry fortnight in Federal Parliament as our political leaders scrambled to occupy the moral low ground over asylum seekers heading for Australia in leaky boats.

And how easily those leaders fit Stanley Baldwin's jibe against London tabloid newspaper barons – “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

It's a grand phrase, although (as pointed out later) it doesn't stand up to too much analysis. It is, however, apposite when we look at the attacks by Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and the Opposition's immigration shadow minister, Sharman Stone, on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's removal of the more brutal elements of the previous Liberal government's treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat from Asia.

Turnbull and Stone both went for the throat in their attacks on Rudd's policy. Turnbull, as is his practice, took up a glib phrase – Rudd had “rolled out the welcome mat” for “illegal immigrants” – and repeated it ad nauseam. On ABC radio, Dr Stone attacked Kevin Rudd but refused to answer when asked if she would go back to the old rules.

And that, essentially, is the prerogative of the opposition politician through the ages – to attack government policies, to sneer and jeer but refuse to say how they would do better. Power to attack, no responsibility to offer a solution.

More disgraceful was Kevin Rudd's apparent repudiation of the Christian values he espoused so publicly a year ahead of the 2007 Federal election in which he ousted Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

As Rudd joined the auction for the moral low ground – dog-whistling the message, I'm treating the boat people just as brutally as they would – this angry old journo wanted to shout: “You're a Christian, for Chrissakes.”

Grumpy Old Journo acknowledges Christianity is a broad church, or collection of churches (as demonstrated in the past week when the Catholic church welcomed misogynists and homophobes who want to quit the Anglican communion – a move which should help both churches achieve their goals). Without any insincerity, Christians may adopt very different views across the political spectrum.

But Rudd, in his landmark essay in The Monthly in October 2006, was emphatic in his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rudd left us believing he sought to emulate the German theologian. In the second paragraph of his long Monthly essay, Rudd wrote:

And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.
Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Rudd also said this in his essay:

I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement [of church and state] should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

Provided, one assumes, they're not in leaky boats headed for Christmas Island.

One notes, too, from Wikipedia that when the SS raided Abwehr military intelligence and uncovered the Resistance cell plotting to assassinate Hitler, they also found documents proving Bonhoeffer was involved in an Abwehr scheme smuggling German Jews into Switzerland.

A people-smuggler! “Vile”, if we use Rudd's word for people-smugglers.

Is it unworldly, appealing for moral leadership in our top politicians? What use is a politician of moral integrity when voted out of office?

Kevin Rudd is a cautious man. He remembers how John Howard won the 2001 “Tampa election” with his brutal treatment of the 438 asylum seekers rescued from a sinking boat – treatment which attracted votes from some blue-collar Labor and One Nation supporters.

But I believe times have changed, and Rudd could afford to risk a little of his remarkable political domination of Turnbull and accept the new mood.

Although most Australians still want strong border protection, few yearn for a return to the John Howard days. Most Australians now understand that almost all boat people held on Christmas Island are genuine refugees seeking asylum – and as such, it's incorrect to label them illegal immigrants.

Not only that, anyone who reads newspapers knows most illegal immigation problems are with people arriving on commercial airlines, not boat people,  as yesterday's Sydney Sunday Telegraph explained.

Should we abuse the boat people as queue-jumpers, then?

Last April, Grumpy Old Journo argued that we should prefer refugees who “jump the queue” over those who wait passively in refugee camps waiting to go to whatever country they're allotted:

I believe most of those asylum seekers who turn up at Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island on leaky boats, especially those who've brought their families, have shown fitness to live in Australia and eventually become citizens.

As an amusing diversion, you might like to read what the British Journalism Review said about “prerogative of the harlot” a few years ago.

So the famous phrase, grand as it sounds, has no foundation in sense. Its actual author, Rudyard Kipling, clearly had not appreciated the economic and social situation of the average harlot, presumably being unacquainted with them. But when he was needed he was happy enough, as a journalist whose career had started on an Indian newspaper which supported the local government and was supported by government printing contracts, to lend his eloquence to the Prime Minister. Baldwin, after all, was not only his friend but his cousin.

And you may think of Malcolm Turnbull's repetitive phases – “cash splash” comes  to mind – if you press on to read this:

There may be no kinship quite as close as that among the politicians of the present day and the people, paid or voluntary, who help to promote their policies. Nevertheless, the party in government and the parties in opposition can call on large numbers of such people, even if none of them has the facility of Kipling with persuasive words. Their purpose, as we are constantly reminded, is not to explain honestly and completely the problems the politicians face and the logical methods by which they are earnestly striving to solve them. It is to repeat and repeat whichever slogan the politicians want the electors to believe represents the most important issue of the day.


Thursday, October 22

When it's deadly, it's outstanding

"That's a blackfella word. It's the ultimate praise anyone can give you"  – performer Leah Purcell defines "deadly".

With this month's awards for top Aboriginal achievers, most Australians now know the word. But no-one seems sure where it came from.


Thursday, October 15

Read all about it . . . but not in our leading newspapers

It's an old tradition in newspapers, and I guess none of us would expect anything different. I'm speaking of articles on the news pages which boast of the paper's success in winning awards.

But now I'm on the other side of the fence – someone who pays for his newspapers, rather than being paid to help produce them – I'm beginning to wonder whether editors owe their readers something better.

"Eleven journalists writing for The Australian are finalists in this year's Walkley awards, including two vying for the Scoop of the Year." That was the Oz's intro to its Page 2 lead story (above) on the success of its people  in Australia's major journalism awards.

The Oz ran colour headshots of all 11 finalists over eight long pars. And it added one final sentence naming two journalists from the rival Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald who were also finalists for the Scoop of the Year.

At least the Oz was more gracious than the SMH, which reported that "A large number of Herald journalists have been recognised . . . " and named them, but failed to mention any finalist from its rival.

To see the full list of finalists, go to this Walkley Foundation web page (which did not seem right up to date today) and scroll down till you see a link to a PDF file and click on it.

Interesting, isn't it? At a time when media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch are claiming the moral high ground against internet companies like Google, anyone wanting an unbiased report on the Walkley finalists found they'd wasted their money buying his flagship Australian newspaper. Or, for that matter, its rivals.

To get the facts, it was necessary to turn to the internet. And to find the information there, most would have used Google.


Saturday, October 10

While we're arguing about blackface . . .

Most Australians couldn't see what the fuss was about when a nostalgic revival of the Hey Hey, It's Saturday television variety show ended in a bitter debate.

So what's wrong with five performers wearing fuzzy-wuzzy wigs and vaudeville blackface in a skit where the sixth performer wore whiteface to sing and shuffle a Michael Jackson number? And those bloody Yanks – what right have they got to be so angry at a bit of good old fashioned humour on television?

Political correctness gone mad? Well, not really.

Imagine an Australian shirtmaker advertising its products by putting them on an Aboriginal man who's saying, “Mine tinkit they fit.” Even the letters page of The Australian would be full of angry protests (I'd hope).

The long-running “Mine tinkit they fit” campaign began with a depiction of two indigenous Australians wearing what may be mission hand-me-downs, but later ads depicted the black Australian as a more satorially elegant.

I've taken the images of the Pelaco shirt ads from this history web page. The page is worth a look – historian Richard Broome describes how he tracked down these images, which were familiar to my generation of Australians in our younger days, and also how he discovered the identity of the indigenous Australian, "Mulga Fred",  who was the model for the ads.

As a young man, Fred was a successful buckjumper – a rodeo competitor who tries to stay on an angry, bucking horse – and he must have been a dashing and athletic figure. This photo, and the information on the history web page, suggest he became a fringe dweller in white-dominated country towns.

Today, any journalist would be wary of jokes based on racial or ethnic stereotypes – Abo jokes, Ikey jokes or Paddy jokes, or, if you're Indian, Sardarji jokes. I do, however, regret the disappearance of this hard-drinking layabout from our newspaper comic strips:

Today, it seems few would run Reg Smythe's Andy Capp cartoon strip, drawn for the London Daily Mirror since 1957 and syndicated in newspapers around the world. (Although political correctness did get to Andy – the cigarette stub perpetually on his lower lip disappeared in 1983 and he became a non-smoker.)

The image is from here and you'll find a brief history of the cartoon strip here.

Perhaps I read a better class of newspaper, so I felt most journalists had a good understanding of why blackface skits are offensive to Americans and should be to Australians too.

But if the letters and blogs I read were a fair sample, the journalists didn't carry their readers with them. Most Australians appear to have a limited contact with world opinion and still cling to some resentment of Americans from World War II – “two things wrong with them, over-paid and over here”.

Use an American expression, such as Kokoda “trail” instead of “track”, or “railroad” instead of “railway”, and someone will disapprove.

So we tend to overreact to criticism from Americans. But surely we can understand why blackface skits are offensive to Americans. The best explanation I saw was posted by intern Melanie Mahony on yesterday. Mahony also ran a Q and A interview with Kamahl in which the well-liked black Australian entertainer explained  why the skit was offensive. The Australian's media diarist Amanda Meade posted this, and in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald David Dale posted this in which he called Hey Hey host Daryl Somers an idiot.

Also on Crikey, Red Symons – the "nasty" judge on Hey Hey's Red Faces segment – had this to say: "As one who is guilty by association . . . I’m now in the odd position of seeing the segment defended by people that I don’t want in my corner."

Tuesday, October 6

Back to the future for Grumpy Old Journo

Two years ago, your Grumpy Old Journo abandoned his associated blog, What, Me Grumpy. Now I plan to resurrect it.

Three things changed my mind (although I'm still wary of making my blogging life more complex). They are:
  • Last week in Sydney, Google and the Walkley Foundation hosted an exclusive presentation for journalist members of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on new Google search tools and tricks – some still in development – to gather, sort and analyse news and data. I learned it's still an exciting world out there, and I want to remain part of it. 
  • Before I walked over to the Google offices, I had several coffees with a friend and mentor who has long urged me to make Grumpy Old Journo better focused. I've finally accepted her advice. I still want to write the occasional self-indulgent post about my family, my motor-cycle trips, or my mulberry tree – but now they'll go into What, Me Grumpy? 
  • While checking the settings and presentation of my blogs, I tried Google Blogger's new editor. It makes the insertion and editing of images much simpler, and in general allows more tweaking without having to switch to HTML editing. That should make life easier. 
Check out What, Me Grumpy as it was (along with what was then meant to be its final post). When I post again to it, I'll put a write-off and link on Grumpy Old Journo. PS: I'll still try to find excuses to run Tony Rafty's caricature of me (right), just now and again.

□   □   □   □   □   □   □

Now to flick through some topics from the past week:

Fairfax's conservative Catholic columnist Miranda Devine seems to dislike the moderates of Australia's Liberal Party almost as much as she loathes pedophiles or people who believe in man-made global warming.

Last week she turned on Liberal MP Alex Hawke, once a member of the party's hard right but now associated with the moderates.

Hawke, 32, was once a protege of the upper house Liberal MP David Clarke, the putative leader of the traditional right faction. Clarke is unfairly maligned as a sinister religious extremist because he is socially conservative, a fan of John Howard, goes to Mass on Sundays and is married to a member of the Catholic organisation, Opus Dei. He and Hawke had surfed the wave of Howard conservatism, sweeping away two decades of control by the soft left wing of the party, and in 2007 he helped Hawke win the safe north-west Sydney seat of Mitchell.

But with Clarke and his supporters unpalatable to the federal and state Liberal leadership, Hawke must have seen his political future as brighter without the baggage of his former boss. So he has embarked since October on a systematic power grab to oust Clarke at his next pre-selection, say Clarke's allies.
Thanks, Miranda. You've just reinforced my views on David Clarke.

□   □   □   □   □   □   □

One can understand newspapers urging readers to go to their online sites – the more clicks the better. That's why print stories often end with the lines, “Have your say on . . .” (Does anyone really care what the readers of, say, Sydney's Daily Telegraph think?)

But it's a bit rough when the Sydney Sun-Herald sets out a quiz for readers, then tells them they'll have to go online to get the answers.

What about the readers who've paid for the newspaper, and who are not connected to the internet​?

Check out David Dale's article on his Sun-Herald blog – just read down to his October 5 post about the questions in the new citizenship test. I must admit I didn't waste too much time on it, but at first I couldn't find the answers there anyway. However, if you click on “more” at the end of the post, it comes up all over again – but this time with answers.

□   □   □   □   □   □   □

What was the biggest story of the past week – the death and devastation of flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis in the Philippines, Samoa and Sumatra, Federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull's ultimatum to his party members, or the quirky naming of a blend of cream cheese and Vegemite?

At times it was hard to tell. The blogosphere exploded into fully fledged inanity as its denizens vented their anger at the name iSnack 2.0.

Was it a stunt by the Kraft marketing people – after all, is there now anyone in Australia who doesn't know about the new product? By that measure it was a successful stunt.

Or was it a humiliating miscalculation by the Kraft marketing people. That seems more likely, but we'll never know for sure unless someone confesses.

But as the marketing writers debated this question, few reporters told us what the product was.

It's a matter of interest to your Grumpy Old Journo. After trying to extend a misspent youth well into his sixties, GOJ is now required to read food labels very carefully indeed.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Helen Greenwood had a go at describing iSnack, but she still didn't tell GOJ what he needed to know. You see, I'd already discovered Vegemite and Philadelphia cream cheese go well together. A favourite snack is a low-fat crispbread biscuit spread with cream cheese with some Vegemite smeared across the top.

But it wasn't until consumer affairs writer Kelly Burke, also in the SMH, rounded up a posse of outraged nutritionists that I learned iSnack had more than 17 per cent fat. That included 11 per cent saturated fat. For me, that's a no-no.

The Philly cream cheese variety I use has under 5 per cent fat (it's actually a blend of cream cheese and cottage cheese to achieve that low fat level). And that's what I'll be sticking to, rather than iSnack or whatever it's to be called.

The point of this item is that if newspapers are to survive, they must provide usable information to people who need it. Journalists should ask, have I included all the information readers need to know?

Sunday, September 27

Screening for prostate cancer – an old argument revisited

Links to material quoted are given fully at the end of this post.

Gee! It's almost two years since your Grumpy Old Journo – also known as a Happy Prostate Cancer Survivor – put up some posts disagreeing with Simon Chapman, a strong opponent of screening for prostate cancer. On November 6, 2007, I said:

Gee! Me against the Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney. This should be a one-sided debate. But here goes.

If you've dipped into this blog over the past year or so, you'll know I'm passionate in urging mature men to ask their doctor for a prostate cancer check.

And although I've read Professor Chapman's article in Monday's Sydney Morning Herald [November 5, 2007, headed “Prostate screening not worth it”] – and was already familiar with the arguments he has put – I will not change my advocacy.

I went on to explain:

The reason is simple. Early detection of prostate cancer, before any symptoms became apparent, may have saved my life. At the very least, it saved me from having to make decisions about more risky treatment of an aggressive cancer after it had spread further. I hope you'll bear with me.

I'm trying to explain that screening is worthwhile for most mature men, provided the guy (and his wife and friends) understand its limitations.

All treatment options – including non-treatment, ranging from "watchful waiting" to "no point
worrying about it at your age" – have risks and shortcomings. What's the right treatment for one guy might be ill-advised for the next.

So now, almost two years later, Professor Chapman, in an article jointly authored by a colleague, Associate Professor Alexandra Barratt, has returned to the SMH's pages to reiterate opposition to screening.

Under the heading, “Irresponsible prostate proposal ignores risk of harm to men”, the professors attacked last Wednesday's call by the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand for men to have prostate cancer tests at age 40 instead of the previously recommended age of 50.

The professors' argument, basically, is that studies show screening fails to save many more lives despite higher costs to the public health budget. They ask:

What are the costs of close monitoring of half the nation's men aged in their 40s? What health-care services are going to be cut to cover the additional costs? Or must the health care budget be increased?

Cost-effectiveness? The Urological Society's recommendation means that men should ask their family doctor to order a blood test for PSA – prostate specific antigen – and to do a digital rectal examination at age 40.

Most guys should have a general medical check-up around that age, involving heart, blood pressure and blood testing of cholesterol, so why shouldn't they also ask for a prostate cancer check?

Apart from the pathologist's charge for the PSA test, where's the significant extra cost? And close monitoring? That will only happen if your doctor believes your PSA or DRE results are a cause for concern – and brother, if your doctor thinks that, won't you be glad you asked for the test?

“Risk of harm to men” are the words in the heading. This refers both to the risks involved in a biopsy, and to possible over-aggressive surgery or radiation treatment when cancer is found.

But my experience is that despite the risk of infection from a biopsy, it's worth that risk because it will allow your urologist to avoid aggressive treatment if it's not needed. For some men the biopsy may show there's no need to begin treatment, but to accept "watchful waiting" with PSA tests from time to time.

It would be unproductive to run a longer post arguing my position. The following links should help anyone seeking more understanding of the debate.

My November 2007 post outlined my arguments at length – indeed, it was so long I followed with an “executive summary”.

Last Wednesday, the Urological Society published its new policy here and also issued this media release.

The next day, professors Chapman and Barratt had their article published in the SMH. And here's Professor Chapman's SMH article published in November '07.

Last week, the SMH published letters contesting the professors' views on Friday (including a letter from Urological Society president Dr David Malouf denying the society advocated a screening program, instead saying it recommended 40-year-old men "should be offered a prostate cancer test to assess their risk") and another letter yesterday (on each of these letters pages you'll need to read down a way to find the relevant letters).

You'll also find a good explanation of prostate cancer and its treatment options in Wikipedia.


Wednesday, September 16

The National Times – reborn as a sickly child, stranded out of its time

You have to have lived the times to understand what The National Times meant to many of us. And to understand why we're so disappointed with the National Times reborn this week as an online member of the Fairfax Digital Media stable.

Each Thursday, we'd stop in to a newsagent to pick up the new edition of this remarkably bold – radical even – newspaper produced within the staid halls of the Sydney Morning Herald establishment. Usually, we also bought the weekly Nation Review, grubstaked by the left-supporting millionaire Gordon Barton.

The NT launched its first issue on February 8, 1971. That, my generation will remember, was a time of profound social change in Australia and most of the western world. A growing women's rights movement. The Pill. Flower power and the Age of Aquarius. Hippies. Vietnam war and anti-conscription moratoriums. Some men even dared to let their hair grow long.

In hotel bars, long the domain of blokey men, young women in rainbow garb would tell you they'd studied iridology, stare deeply into your eyes, and pronounce: “No, you're not an alcoholic.” Then you'd have another half a dozen beers with them.

Some 22 months after the NT's launch, came “It's Time” – the slogan which helped Labor's Gough Whitlam become Australia's Prime Minister, winning government after years of conservative rule. Three years later, he was gone, dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr – the former Labor lawyer Whitlam had thought would be his man.

Today, many of us remember Whitlam for fiscal irresponsibility and his failure to rein in the wild antics of his Cabinet ministers.

But we should also remember he legislated to give women equal pay for equal work, to recognise indigenous land rights, to provide for no-fault divorce in place of the shameful and often fraudulent proving of adultery or habitual drunkenness against a “guilty party”. He provided allowances for single mothers, and appointed a special adviser on women's affairs.

He saw Australia's future lay in its relationships with Asian nations, and gave recognition to communist China – a move which will underwrite Australia's prosperity for decades to come.

He also helped Australia see itself as a proudly independent nation, and not an outpost of the declining British Empire (or Commonwealth of Nations, whatever that name was meant to signify).

Before Whitlam, Australians had to carry a British passport when they ventured overseas. His government provided Australian passports.

They were exciting times to be alive. And The National Times was part of that excitement. As Fairfax journalist David Marr (editor from 1980 to 1982) said the other day:

The paper's beat was spies, politics, prisons, rape, defence, politics, the US alliance, motoring, business, sex, politics, tax scams, education, health, the women's movement, the arts, crime and politics. The National Times pioneered a strange alliance between lifestyle and the gutter, between wine and crime. This was mocked and imitated . . .

We weren't planning the overthrow of capitalism. We weren't hell-bent on radical change. The National Times was giving voice to a brand of scepticism growing in Australia for decades. The
revolutionary thing was doing so from behind the conservative walls of fortress Fairfax.

The old National Times lasted until August 1, 1986. It never made a profit, and its circulation rarely reached 100,000. Fairfax changed its publishing day, and it battled on for five months as The National Times on Sunday, and until March 13, 1988, as The Times on Sunday.

When Fairfax began signalling the relaunch of The National Times as a website devoted to intelligent reviews and commentary, your Grumpy Old Journo was sceptical. The times have changed – the youthful irreverence of the 1970s and early 1980s, the optimism and the excitement, are little more than a memory in our materialistic society.

But also, I hadn't realised just how cheapskate Fairfax Digital Media could be.

The Sydney Morning Herald bounces on to my front porch about 3.30 each morning. I usually read it back in bed. For the last three mornings, I've gone on to check the National Times website – and what's this? I've already read most of the featured stories when I perused the morning newspaper. What's the point of that?

Not only that, for all the promotion of The National Times reborn, the website displays with a design and typography which positions it as just another page on the SMH website. So far, the verdict of other commentators agrees with mine, as shown here and here.

Friday, September 4

Washing away the cobwebs

Nothing blows away the cobwebs like a run on the motor-cycle. Yesterday, however, it was more like washing away the cobwebs.

I rolled out the motor-cycle and pointed it over the hills through Kulnura and later north along the old alignment of the Great North Road – you can still see the convict-built masonry walls and culverts along the way – before I pulled up in Wollombi.

Wollombi shops

It's a charming heritage township, and well worth a visit. As usual, my bike came to rest in front of the tavern best known for a fortified wine labelled Dr Jurd's Jungle Juice.

Me? I kept under the limit with two beers and a hamburger while I chatted with some of the other bikers along the veranda. Rode off at 1.45pm – just as the rain started. And it rained all the way home, through Cessnock and down the F3 freeway.

It wasn't heavy rain, but steady. Soon my wet-weather gear was sodden. – and I was experiencing dread as I mixed it with the freeway traffic.

That gives me a subject for this post. But after building up the revs. I'll then speed through a few other topics I'd been looking at.

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Hey guys, give me more room in the wet

We didn't have much rain, less than 6mm in the gauge back home. But that was more than had fallen in all of the month of August.

Steady light rain after a long dry spell means one thing to a biker –a treacherously slippery mix of dust, oil and water may be coating the tarmac. Often, you can feel it as you turn, accelerate or brake.

It's OK for you guys strapped in your metal boxes. If you slam into the car in front because you're travelling too fast or too close, and then someone slams into the rear of your car, you're still likely to walk away from the pile-up.

I know many of you dislike bikers for the way we zip past on sunny days, but surely not so much you'd not care if I slid under someone's tyres.

If I ride a prudent distance from the car in front, don't drop into it. I have to throttle back to restore the safe distance, and then the driver behind gets upset and tailgates me.

And please turn your lights on. I'm peering through a rain-spattered visor, using my mirrors to see what's coming up behind, and in the poor light and through the misty spray I can make out only the grey, blurry outlines of the semis and B-doubles about to pass me.

Let's be nice to one another in wet weather, and I'll promise to give you a cheery wave next time I zip past you on a sunny day.

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And another thing about anti-smoking campaigns

Tougher measures against smoking moved closer this week with the Federal Government likely to accept the recommendation of its Preventative Health Task Force to push the price of a packet of 30 cigarettes up from around $13.50 to $20 – or from 45c to 67c per cigarette.

Grumpy Old Journo still has reservations about this. As this blog pointed out on July 13 (“Clearing away the smoke” [1] ), it may cause many to quit, but there will be some families from lower socio-economic groups who will just buy less food for their children.

And in newspaper reports, I see no support for two measures I suggested in the July post. First, that the government try to push down the price of nicotine lozenges, patches and chewing gum – for many heavily addicted smokers, the most effective way to quit.

Second, that we encourage people to treat directors, executives and PR staff of tobacco companies as scum. After all, they promote an industry which, in the ordinary course of its business, kills many Australians. And as Australian parliaments make it harder for them here, they just turn to killing many of our Asian neighbours to keep the profits rolling in.

Another point has occurred to me. As I walk near the local high school before classes begin, I see students in school uniform in groups around nearby corners – and many of them are smoking.

Most anti-tobacco advertising is aimed at persuading smokers to quit. Surely we can commission the best minds in the advertising industry to produce convincing campaigns which persuade teenagers not to start.

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Appalling gun-lovers blackmail NSW

So it's happening, as forecast in mid-August (in “Appalling politicians”, posted on Aug 17 [2] ). The two members of the Shooters Party in the NSW State Legislative Council are refusing to vote for any government legislation unless the government agrees to let their gun-happy members hunt feral animals in the state's national parks [3] .

They hold the balance of power in the Upper House. Because of the preferential voting system by which members are elected, they got in with minuscule public support [4] .

It's a dreadful choice for the NSW Government – cave in to appalling people who kill animals for pleasure, or see vital legislation stalled.

And if it does cave in, what will these appalling people demand next? The Shooters Party policy includes a US-style right for all citizens to own and use firearms [5] .

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John Della Bosca? What's left to say?

My sympathy is with the former NSW Labor Health Minister, who resigned from his ministerial post after a tawdry tabloid, Rupert Murdoch's top-selling Sydney Daily Telegraph, broke the story of his sexual affair with a woman aged 26 – half his age.

But I'm not putting my hand up to say so. It could lead to speculation, unwarranted of course, about some of my past.

However, you might find two feature articles in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald both informative and enjoyable.

In the first, legal affairs commentator Richard Ackland gives some interesting information about the affair and the Murdoch press's actions. He says the Daily Telegraph has damaged the media's case against tighter privacy laws [6].

In the second, Professor Rodney Tiffen offers a seven-point guide to ministers on how to survive sex scandals [7] .


Friday, August 28

We're a more civilised society

Take a look at this graph – it shows that Australians now oppose the death penalty by an overwhelming margin.

In a recent Roy Morgan poll, only 23 per cent supported the death penalty for those found guilty of murder, while 64 per cent supported imprisonment. When the question was asked in 1947, some 67 per cent supported the death penalty and 24 per cent imprisonment.

The poll also showed that those who believed in a mandatory life sentence for murder are now outnumbered by those who believe judges should have some discretion in sentencing.

It's cheering data for those of us who believe no society can execute criminals and still call itself civilised.

Back on November 9, 2008, worried by my lack of emotion about Indonesia's executing three of the Bali bombers, I put up a long Grumpy Old Journo post examining my opposition to the death penalty. I've just re-read it, and my views are as firm as ever.

First, the post enumerated rational arguments – for example, that now and again innocent people are judicially murdered in countries which carry out executions – but also the more difficult examination of how we form our moral attitudes.

So it's good to learn that two-thirds of Australians would now agree with me. Last November, I wasn't so sure. I wrote:

I'd assumed the fight against the death penalty had long been won in civilised societies like Australia.
But a bit over a year ago, I was at the monthly meeting of a club for retired business and professional men. Our speaker was a retired police inspector, and when he said he still believed in the death penalty, a murmur of assent went around the room. Out there, support for the death penalty remains, although it's hard to assess how strong it is.

So I thank Scott Steel (Possum Comitatus) for cheering me up by outlining the Roy Morgan data in this Crikey blog post (from which I've lifted the graph). You can read Roy Morgan's own report here.

Those interested in the development of anti-death penalty policies in a civilised nation – Australia – will find this NSW Council of Civil Liberties timeline useful.


Monday, August 24

Neighbourly concerns

The market for villas and townhouses must be looking up in my neighbourhood. People are moving into units which had been empty for a year or two since construction. At the same time, redevelopment notices are starting to appear in front of shabby little fibro cottages on big blocks – of which there's no shortage around Woy Woy.

The other day, we received notice of a plan to demolish the little place next door to build two big villas.

Not long after, a near-neighbour popped a letter into our box. Would we support her objection to the redevelopment because it would take out a magnificent jacaranda tree? We replied by email:

We read your note with mixed feelings. We have lived here for 35 years, and it's where we brought up our four children.

We will be sad to see the removal of the big jacaranda next door. It was well grown when we moved in here.

We know you were fascinated as you watched a pair of currawongs raise three offspring in it last year. We'd been wondering whether we'd see the same this year, but it seems that won't happen now.

However, we went on to say:

So you can see we have an attachment to the old trees. But it would not be in our best interests to support heritage orders preventing their removal.

Ian is almost 71 and Merry turns 68 this month. We have no plans to move, but ill health or an inability to maintain the garden could force us to do so. Perhaps it will be in a few years, perhaps it would be another decade. When we have to move, we too will expect to receive a price which reflects the redevelopment potential of our block – and a tree preservation order would diminish that value.

The quality of the final years of our lives may depend on the price we receive.

Please do not take offence at our refusal to support you.

In reply, our near-neighbour emailed:

Thanks very much for your reply. I totally understand your situation.

I will be lodging a complaint on my own behalf as I love looking out at the jacaranda tree when I am at the kitchen sink, in my dining room, or just passing through my villa. It's actually my only view
because of the high colorbond fence. I love the way the sun reflects on the leaves, and of course I love watching the currawongs in spring. It's one of the reasons I purchased my villa.

Unfortunately too many trees have been removed in Woy Woy in recent years, and I would prefer that this one stays.

After such a polite exchange of views, Merry and I didn't have the heart to tell her about the tree which once grew where her villa now stands.


Monday, August 17

Appalling politicians

It's been bad enough having to pander to the Rev. Fred Nile for the past quarter-century. I believe his hard-line fundamentalist views are supported by only a minority of Christians – and a minuscule percentage of Australians at large – but since 1981 he has been a member of the Upper House of the New South Wales parliament, thanks to a preferential voting system.

For much of that time he has held the balance of power with his vote deciding the fate of legislation put forward by NSW State governments. To win that vote, governments have had to withhold many socially progressive measures supported by the general public.

The Rev. Fred is a bit of a worry. But worse is upon us – to get its legislation through parliament, the NSW Government now has to suck up to people who shoot animals for fun.

Here's the story from this morning's Sydney Morning Herald.


Monday, August 10

Congratulations, Justine Ferrari

It's a pleasure to report that The Australian's education reporter, Justine Ferrari, has won the Australian College of Educators' annual award for excellence in journalism.

John DeCourcy, NSW president of the organisation, said:

"While Justine is critical of many aspects of what may be considered 'accepted wisdom' in some educational hierarchies, she both intelligently argues a case and gives a fair representation to alternative positions.
“Above all, her principal focus, which she shares with the college, is on quality and equity for all children, in all schools and in all systems."

Ms Ferrari was an outstanding young reporter when your Grumpy Old Journo was nearing the end of his working life on the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and a few months ago I presumed on that acquaintanceship to send her an email.

In a blog post on May 8 headed, “At last, The Australian shows how education should be reported,” I had praised her long, detailed front-page report about the introduction of a grammar curriculum as balanced, fair and comprehensive – particularly in its description of other grammars, such as those labelled “transformational” or “systemic functional”.

But in a comment which could have been seen as critical of Ms Ferrari (but wasn't meant to be), I contrasted the article to The Australian's treatment of the debate on the use of phonics in teaching reading. In a post on April 30, I had said:

. . . when the Oz reports only one side of an argument, it's not because the editors are biased. The editors know children should learn to read by phonics alone – they know every other approach is discredited. Me? I'd like to make up my own mind by evaluating the differing arguments. I'd like the news reports to lay out those arguments, even briefly.

Ms Ferrari replied with a courteous email. I hope she won't mind my quoting part of it:

On your point about balance of reading and phonics, in my defence I would argue that the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of explicit and systematic phonics as the first necessary step in learning to read. The debate is over the place at which phonics is taught, not that it isn't taught altogether or that it's the only skill required to be taught, as is often presented.

As a grumpy old fellow, I sometimes put my two bob's worth of opinion into the blathersphere. But perhaps two bob is all it's worth. I'm an outsider peering through the fence as traditionalists and progressives clash on the battlefield, wielding impressive armaments of research data.

That's why I welcome Justine Ferrari's skills to help me make sense of these complex issues. And why it's pleasing to note John DeCourcy's praise, “she both intelligently argues a case and gives a fair representation to alternative positions”.

Justine Ferrari's grammar report drew an interesting range of comment.

As evidence of her views on “quality and equity for all children, in all schools and in all systems", may I point to a paper Ms Ferrari prepared for an Australian Council of State School Organisations forum last March. What's the ACSSO?

"Literacy educators are becoming increasingly demoralised and frustrated at the relentless, simplistic, headline-grabbing attacks on their professionalism" – Dr Beverly Derewianka, Director, Centre for Research in Language and Literacy, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong. (to read more). And to see the views of other academics and teachers on what they see as attacks by conservatives, try this.

A Wry Side columnist to The Australian, Emma Tom, recounts her university experience of an intellectually demanding non-traditional grammar. She also mocks people who nit-pick their way through misplaced apostrophes.


Wednesday, August 5

“Manners, none; customs, beastly” – a depiction of Aboriginal people

“ In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency.”

How widely held was this view of indigenous Australians in the latter part of the 19th century? Too widely, must be the answer. The quotes above come from an impressive, encyclopedic reference work which would have been used by many settlers to understand their new country.

Published in 1884, the Australian edition of the Universal Self-Instructor and Manual of General Reference (pictured against a mobile phone to show its size) carried the article reproduced below in full. Today we are appalled by its claims, but at the time of publication many settlers would have accepted them as justification for forcing this “primitive race” off their land to be “superseded by higher tribes.”

Publication came at a time when the dispossession of Aboriginal people and their removal to missions and reserves was at its peak.

(This article was run without paragraphing, which I've added for easier reading.)


The native blacks of Australia are as distinct and peculiar as are its vegetable and animal life. They belong to the group of tribes known as the negritos or Austral negroes, being entirely distinct from
the Malays, Papuans, and Polynesians.

In physical appearance they are of height little inferior to the European, but of small muscular development, and inclined to corpulence. The cranial formation is, on the whole, long and narrow; the color varies from coffee color to black.

In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency. Marriage is merely a form of slavery, and chastity is unknown.

These aborigines dwell in caves, rock shelters, and rude huts, in winter wear skins, and in summer go altogether naked, and live upon every form of animal life, including snakes, insects, lizards, ants, frogs, and occasionally human flesh.

In the construction of their weapons they show some ingenuity, and they wield the spear, boomerang, and throwing-stick with great dexterity.

The only form of government is that of the family ; the only law, the club. Summing up their manners and customs, we may say, "manners, none; customs, beastly" Dread of ghosts and demons forms the only religious belief.

The languages of the tribes are numerous, but closely connected. In sound they are harmonious and polysyllabic, but are incapable of expressing abstract ideas, and evince no sense of number. Most
tribes can count only to three, a few to five.

It is believed that the Australians represent a primitive race, superseded in other lands by higher tribes. The number of natives at the time of settlement by Europeans was about 150,000 ; it is now
supposed to be from 70,000 to 80,000.

Grumpy Old Journo is indebted to a fellow book club member who bought the Universal Self-Instructor in a carton of old books, and brought it in to show us. It's almost 700 pages, and it would have been a fine example of the bookbinder's trade.

It is bound in leather over hard boards, and the front and spine are embossed with gilt lettering.

The book appears to be an Australian adaptation of a similar book published in New York in 1882, and no doubt it retained many of the features of the US book. Within its covers, the user could refer to articles on writing, bookkeeping, business practice, household management, physical exercise and rules of games, etiquette, geography and history, quotations, selected poetry and lots more.

Let's hope those topics were better researched than the article on Aborigines.

Title page of the book


Friday, July 31

With the right philosophy, motor cycling can be inspirational

The worries began when I dropped the motor cycle in Terrigal. I'd pulled up on a steep grade, brakes holding the bike as I gave way to a car on the right. But when I put out a leg to prop us up, I couldn't reach the sloping pavement, and over we went.

For the following weeks I took my time as I cannibalised an old bike to replace the broken bits. The replacements look a bit tatty, but they do the job. I also put a spanner over the rest of the bike.

Great! Everything working well with days to go before the bike needed its re-registration inspection.

Alas – not so great! The rear brakes wouldn't release, and the front brakes didn't come on when I pulled the lever. Unused for a couple of months, the systems had gummed up with brake fluid which must have passed its replacement date a decade or two earlier.

With the rego deadline looming, the master cylinders and perhaps the slave cylinders too would have to be stripped, cleaned and rebuilt before I replaced the fluid and bled the air out of the lines.

Once again, everything went sweetly. I must have good karma.

Not enough good karma, however. Took the bike for a test up Ocean Beach Road, no problems. Exhilarated at being on two wheels again, I turned to take the twisty road over to Patonga. Then I realised:

(a) It was a very cold day
(b) I was wearing a T-shirt
(c) I already had the beginnings of a mild cold.

Now I know how to turn a mild cold into something longer lasting and not so mild. I'm still a bit thick with it, but I did re-register the bike in time. Unfortunately, I didn't feel up to blogging. My apologies.

All those thoughts of karma reminded me of a book I read more than thirty years ago – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I dug it out, and took it back to my sickbed.

It's about this philosophy professor who went nuts trying to define quality. We don't learn until near the end of the book that he'd had shock treatment in an attempt to cure his obsession, nor that the book was written by that man.

Although he never confirms it, we end up knowing author Robert M. Pirsig is the philosopher and that his book is a first-person account of a motor cycle trip across America with his son on the pillion.

Pirsig has an old bike, and realises he has to maintain it himself if it's to be done right. His thoughts contrast with those of another couple who ride along with him on a new BMW and are uninterested in the technical bits – a contrast Pirsig uses in a series of mini-essays about the philosophical treatment of quality. Here's a sample from early in the book:

And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this
twentieth century. I don't want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous
twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it.

That's an easy passage. As the book continues, Pirsig becomes more rigorous in his philosophical discussion and the reader has to work harder to follow it.

Pirsig sent his manuscript to 122 publishers. Only one thought it worth publishing – and even that publisher didn't think it would make a profit. But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went on to sell four million copies.

For many of its readers, it was inspirational. Perhaps the times were right – in 1974 the world was caught up in the excitement of a new order, with millions of people questioning the doctrines and moral certitudes of the 1950s and 1960s. The book's sub-title is An Inquiry Into Values.

A good account of the book and its themes appears here. Wikipedia also has an entry.

This is a book I hope to re-read, more carefully and thoughtfully, when I find the time (it joins a growing list which includes works like Patrick White's The Tree of Man, all of them read too quickly the first time).

We should caution that Zen etc. may disappoint many bikers. In an Author's Note, Pirsig warns:

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.