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.


Monday, July 13

Clearing away the smoke

For most of the past week, newspapers have been running comment by experts praising a proposal that the Australian Government increase its tobacco excise to push the price of a packet of 30 cigarettes up to $20. I believe the current price is about $13.50.

With an excise increase from 25 cents to 43c, that would lift the price per single cigarette from about 45c to 67c. Here's how the Sydney Sun-Herald highlighted the news a week ago:

The government's Preventative Health Task Force claimed the price jump, along with other anti-smoking measures including generic packaging and gruesome warnings covering 95 per cent of the packet, would help one million more Australians kick the habit.

I'd love to see tobacco smoking disappear from the face of the earth. But we should be wary. Too often, when we nobly go forth to do good, we harm the people we try to help.

When activists boycott coffee or cocoa picked by child labour, they get a warm inner glow and some families in the third world slip from bare subsistence to slow starvation.

Many call it the Law of Unintended Consequences, although it's no more scientific than Murphy's Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”). However, perverse results are always possible if we don't think things through.

Let's face it. Heavy smoking today is largely an addiction of the poor and the badly educated – the underclass of our society. If we make cigarettes much more expensive, many will still need to feed their addiction. To pay the higher price, they will spend less on food, housing and clothing for themselves and their families.

This newspaper article, by two prominent anti-smoking campaigners, disagrees with my view, but I remain doubtful. The article begins:

Tobacco tax is suddenly big news, with speculation about the Government's response to a recommended increase in excise giving rise to several myths and misconceptions. So it is timely to look at how the myths stack up against the evidence.

First, there is the view that increased tobacco excise punishes those on low incomes. The reality is that tobacco tax increases are particularly effective in prompting people in lower socio-economic
groups to quit smoking.

This is very important, because disadvantaged groups bear a disproportionately heavy tobacco death and disease burden. And a modest tobacco tax increase would generate more than enough funding to provide tailored assistance programs for people on lower incomes struggling to quit.

The article – by Professor Ian Olver, chief executive of the Cancer Council of Australia, and Maurice Swanson, the National Heart Foundation's tobacco control spokesman – concedes that poor people suffer the most tobacco-related death and illness.

It also claims recent Quit Victoria research shows 60 per cent of smokers support a tobacco tax increase. To that, I can only say I'm a journalist and it's part of my trade to be sceptical. I'd like to see details of that research.

I'd also like to see the research supporting the claim in the article's second paragraph.

And I'm sceptical of the claim that higher excise would generate more than enough funding to provide tailored assistance for people on lower incomes struggling to quit. With the massive revenue already generated by tobacco excise, why don't we have effective “tailored assistance” today?

(That's not to say we should not be improving ways to provide help – obviously, we should keep seeking them with well-funded research at the highest level.)

But in the past week's debate, nobody seems to have touched on two important issues. The first is simple – couldn't the Australian Government make nicotine lozenges, chewing gum and patches less expensive?

For smokers heavily addicted to nicotine, they may be the only way to give up cigarettes and their cancer-causing chemicals. Making them cheaper must help more people quit.

Looking at the nicotine products in a local pharmacy, one has the impression of an oligopoly – a market supplied by only a few competitors, making price competition less likely.

Perhaps the government could ask the Productivity Commission to examine the production, marketing and pricing of nicotine replacement products. If the commission finds they could be cheaper – with generic products, perhaps – it could lean on the present makers to cut prices.

If it finds the prices are in line with production costs, the government itself could pay a subsidy to lower retail cost.

The second important argument needs careful phrasing (I am well aware of the defamation laws), but perhaps we could strive to change public attitudes so that it becomes socially unacceptable to be a director, executive, marketing or public relations worker in the tobacco industry.

Cigarette production and marketing may be legal, but surely tobacco executives know their commercial efforts result in the deaths of many of their fellow citizens.

It might be a bit extreme to spit on their BMWs as they drive past, but perhaps we could raise our concerns when we sit beside them at the yacht club or on the school council – just quietly letting them know we feel their moral position could stand re-examination.

Some of these issues came under the spotlight in 2003, when the University of Sydney's Senate refused to endorse the appointment of former New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner – then chairman of British American Tobacco (Australia) – to head the advisory council of the university's Graduate School of Government.

In a post on March 22 last year, this blog praised Greiner as a Liberal Party moderate, a good Premier and an astute businessman. But that post did go on to say of his being forced out of the premiership:

At that time one could feel sympathy, but with many of us it went up in smoke when he became chairman of a major Australian company which kills people as part of the ordinary course of its business – British American Tobacco.

This is not to reflect on Nick Greiner's position at the time. Indeed, the issues are not clear-cut, as shown in this analysis by St James Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff at the time of the Sydney University setback.

However, I do believe that over time it will become socially unacceptable to run a tobacco company. Let's make that time come sooner.

Saturday, July 4

Want a film distributed in regional Australia? Do it yourself!

Film-maker Warren Ryan has just emailed me, pointing to a feature in the online industry magazine Inside Film about his aims and methods in making Shadows of the Past, in which rodeo bull-riding is the backdrop for a simple but powerful story

Shadows, you may recall, won my praise in a post on May 28 (“An excellent film stuck in the bush”).

It seems Grumpy Old Journo may be a bushie at heart, because my response to the film has been matched by enthusiastic audiences in those Australian regional centres where it's been seen.

Interviewed by Simon de Bruyn, Warren says:

I strongly believe the regional Australia is largely ignored when it comes to entertainment they can relate to. Distributors cater solely for the city market and yet a huge slice of the box office comes
from regional cinemas. When I got into film making it, I spoke to a lot of people from all over regional Australia about what they would like to see in an Aussie film. I took a lot of their feedback on board when I was writing this script.

We made sure the film was authentic, grounded and believable.

The reaction so far has been phenomenal . . .

On distribution, Warren told Inside Film:

We’ve been very happy with the cinema release we’ve put together ourselves and we have an extensive plan for the DVD release in October. Counting this week's release in Tamworth, Orange and Wagga, we’ll have been through around 20 cinemas and we are approached each week by more . . .

We have also received several US distribution offers which is great. I hope to finalize the North American deal this week. The distributor we are leaning towards has a proven background in westerns and I believe will be a great fit for Shadows of the Past.

We have another US company that wants the remaining world wide rights, so we’re currently negotiating that as well.

We don’t look like we’ll get an official Australian distributor which is surprising, but it doesn’t overly concern me.

Much of the rest of the Inside Film interview covers technical information mainly of value to other film-makers, but the feature also raises matters which should be of general concern.

Friday, July 3

Vale Frank Devine, a conservative with wit

When Grumpy Old Journo was a schoolboy in Perth, his newspaper reading was brightened by the work of a young journalist with a flair for colour stories from the busy Perth Police Court.

Frank Devine (pictured), whose death at 77 after a long illness was reported on The Australian's website today, wasn't the first journalist to trawl the magistrates' courts for Runyonesque yarns, but he may have been one of the best.

Some 55 years later, I can remember his stories were marked by their humanity – by the reporter's empathy with the losers and the spivs and the sad alcoholics in that daily parade before the beak.

Frank Devine went on to a stellar career as a foreign correspondent, a senior editor of Reader's Digest in Australia and the US, of US newspapers, and on returning to Australia, as editor of The Australian.

He was a staunch Catholic and clung to hard-line conservative views. He was a stalwart of Quadrant magazine.

Yet Frank Devine was one the few conservative columnists I could read without becoming angry (well, most of the time, anyway). I could seldom agree with him, but his weekly contribution to The Australian's Wry Side comment space was marked by intellectual verve and a devastating wit.

He mocked the pretentious, the groupthink lefties and the woolly minded greenies with all the intellectual force he could muster.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall his turning that force against his groupthink Quadrant colleagues, or those conservatives who made up their minds fifty years ago and they're not going to change now.

Still, Frank Devine was a great journalist. His contribution to Australian intellectual life will be missed.

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Grumpy Old Journo had planned a post rejoicing at Annabel Crabb's replacing Miranda Devine as a columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. Miranda is one of Frank Devine's three daughters, so I guess we can understand why she took leave, leaving Annabel to stand in.

I would have remarked that Annabel Crabb's piece, about the proliferation of saucy innuendo in food and beer advertising, was a delightful contrast with Miranda Devine's somewhat prudish, conservative views.

Annabel crammed just about every double entendre possible into her piece. The only one she seems to have missed is the Bondi Blonde beer slogan.

But we'd better not go down that path.


Wednesday, July 1

Were we prescient, or what?

See, I did write about Malcolm Turnbull:

"Alas, it doesn't take long for a respected journalist, lawyer and merchant banker to sink into political life when he's elected to the Federal Parliament."

Okay, I'll come clean. That was posted to Grumpy Old Journo on December 23, 2006. Is that prescient, or what?

In the post, GOJ said:

Alas, it doesn't take long for a respected journalist, lawyer and merchant banker to sink into political life when he's elected to the Federal Parliament. Take Malcolm Turnbull, our new Environment Minister, quoted in this morning's Weekend Australian: “The whole climate change phenomenon has informed and underpinned the policies of the Australian Government for more than a decade.”

The truth, as Malcolm must well know, is that Prime Minister John Howard has denied evidence of climate change for a decade. A stubborn man who overestimates his own intellectual abilities, he
listened only to those scientists who had the Quadrant Seal of Approval.

The result: We lost 10 years in which we could have been looking for ways to deal with the crisis.

It's a pity to see Malcolm Turnbull getting down to their [political spin doctors'] level with such misinformation . . .

But then, he's the Republican who once wrote of Howard: "Whatever else he achieves, history will remember him for only one thing. He was the prime minister who broke a nation's heart. He was the man who made Australia keep a foreign queen."

A politician, unlike a leopard, must change spots to survive in the jungle. But surely, one can stop short of telling porkies.

Sorry Malcolm, you've lost me. Once I thought you'd be a great prime minister.

Australians expect political confrontation to be full-on, with no punches pulled. But they also expect their politicians to tell the truth, and to be sure of their facts when they make serious allegations against opponents, and to have the decency to apologise if they're proven wrong.

Our Federal Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, did none of those things when he accused Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of lying to the House of Representatives, and in essence, also accused him of corruption.

That's why the public turned against him so dramatically in the three newspaper opinion polls published this week. The Herald/Nielsen poll revealed the proportion of Australians who disapprove of him had jumped from 47 per cent to 60 per cent, and those who approved dived from 43 per cent to 32 per cent.

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My apologies to readers who looked to Grumpy Old Journo last week for enlightenment on "UteGate", aka the OzCar affair. Two factors kept GOJ silent. First, anything I could say would do little more than repeat the news and commentary splashed across all the newspapers.

Second, I was frantically trying to file the past three years' overdue income tax returns by June 30, hoping to qualify for the Federal Government's $900 tax bonus. That money could pay off the credit card after I spend $645 on compulsory third-party personal injury insurance before re-registering my old motor cycle -- almost twice the cost of our car's "green slip".

In rushing to file those overdue returns, I wasn't alone, as this report shows.