[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . .  A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.

William James, The Laws of Habit

“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.


A Google n-graph of the use of the expression “good taste” at its height in 1930 and leading up to 1960 as you can see.

And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.  Continue reading

Sons of Liberty

Samuel Adams (played by British actor Ben Barnes) fights off redcoats in the History Channel miniseries “Sons of Liberty.” Photo: Ollie Upton / Ollie Upton / The History Channel / ONLINE_YESYes, folks flying high above the Pacific Ocean (which as Woody Allen’s father concedes to his mother is a worse ocean than the Atlantic Ocean) I took in the final episode of the History Chanel’s “Sons of Liberty” a mini-series about the American Revolution. I go for historical drama of any kind – even if it’s not very good, you can learn interesting stuff or look at interesting costumes. You can let your imagination run and wonder what life was like.

The production isn’t too bad. Acting was OK. It’s been panned for various reasons including its historical inaccuracy. It wasn’t excruciating by any means, but as you watched the boredom set in. And you started to notice details. The main detail was that the British were all bad. Bad as in “Mwaaahahaha” evil laugh bad. There was the odd obvious anachronism, as much of mood as of anything else. But then there was something so extraordinary that it made me wonder whether I was in fact hallucinating. Perhaps I was drifting off and imagined it. In any event, at least as remembered by me, as they were planning some plan one of the revolutionaries said to one of the others that a particular plan was “batshit crazy”.

I’ve always been intrigued by that expression. It’s stupid that it’s an expression. Why is it an expression? Still it’s kind of fun. I didn’t know that it was coined before 1776, which raises the question of why I’ve never run into it in the Wealth of Nations. But there you go. The very nattily attired George Washingmachine and the gang were wondering around Georgetown and Bunker Hill saying “Batshit crazy” – as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident and these falsities to be batshit crazy”.

Postscript: The place from which I hoisted the picture above picture (nice clobber ey?) confirms that I wasn’t hallucinating. And as I thought I remembered it was Ben Franklin that thought something was batshit crazy – always ahead of his time.

Some wisdom on Europe from 1972!

Euro Crisis In 2012John Pinder, “Economic Growth, Social Justice and Political Reform,” in Richard Mayne (ed.), Europe Tomorrow: Sixteen Europeans Look Ahead (1972):

“… the European Community appears to be moving towards a repetition of the old centralizing errors of the nation-states, by making economic policy instruments uniform over the whole area without considering whether this will allow the peripheral regions to be prosperous or not. For the thrust of the Community’s development has been towards free trade, uniform agricultural prices, uniform tax systems and rates, and now a common currency, rather than towards common action to abolish poverty, unemployment, and regional depression. … [A]mong the first casualties, if the new European economic system is constructed [along these lines], will be the regions outside the golden quadrangle [between Milan, Paris, the Midlands, and the Ruhr]. For they will find themselves bound to that golden Moloch by Community rules of fiscal and monetary uniformity; and this, because the Community’s economy is bigger and its institutions still more remote than those of the existing nation-states, will make their predicament even worse than it is now.”

HT: Tommi Uschanov

RIP Ann Gruen

The video above is a recording of the speeches at a funeral for my mother who died at around 10.15 am on Sunday 7th June.

Sadly she was far gone – not with it for several years. As her mind gradually failed her, even when she didn’t really know what was going on, her eyes would light up when she saw me across the room when I’d come to visit her at John Flynn house. Until the last year or so when she showed no sign of knowing who I was. So it was a strange business going to see her. What did I think I was doing there? I haven’t answered that question, but then the more important the questions are, the harder they are to answer.

In any event it all worked out as well as it could. We were told of her impending demise a few days before she died and I was able to go to Canberra and say my goodbyes the day before she died. David and his daughter Emma happened to be there visiting her at the time. She stopped breathing several times for a fair while – as she had when I’d visited her the previous day – before starting up breathing a few minutes later. Then she stopped again for ten minutes and there was no pulse. Very peaceful which is a relief. A very good death at least in the last little bit of it. But quite strange for the grievers. In my mind she’s really been gone for several years now.

My sister in law Jenny created the lovely tribute to her below, with just the right music (much better than my maudlin choice!) And beneath the fold is the written text of David’s and then my speech (I deviated a little from the text from time to time). Thanks also to my oldest friend John Chandler for being MC.

Continue reading

The sins of the fathers …

Embedded image permalinkHold the presses – Coal may not be good for humanity. OK that was a cheap ideological shot – the kind you might see on our rival ideologically aligned blogs but surely not here at Club Pony.

In any event, the graphic above is a remarkable illustration of the long lived effect of the culture and economy that grew up around coal in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If your area mined coal, chances are you voted Labour in the election and you’re more likely to die young (the map on the right being one of life expectancy).

Overton Window – Overton Juggernaut: Part Two


Well folks, when I put “Overton Window – Overton Juggernaut” into Google and looked for an image, this came up naturally enough. If the cap fits . . .

Continued from Part One yesterday.

Over the last few years, there been a sense in which we didn’t like cutting cash rates to bring them too close to zero. Thus amidst fiscal contraction – initially quite strong as the one off aspects of the fiscal stimulus ceased – though tailing off in severity, and then mining investment boom came off, the RBA showed it’s penchant for very gradual easing (never cutting rates by more than 0.25% and then usually stopping for some time before the next rate cut). For the last few years, we’ve witnessed a situation where the government has been committed to gradual fiscal contraction – however successful it’s been at getting it through the parliament – and the Official Family have forecast slack in the economy to remain for a considerable time. In its February 2012 Statement on Monetary Policy the RBA suggested this:

Employment growth is expected to remain fairly subdued in the first half of this year . . . and the unemployment rate is expected to increase modestly. Employment growth is expected to begin to strengthen later in the year [with] the unemployment rate . . . expected to decline modestly over the later part of the forecast period.

By May 2012 output was forecast to average a sub-par 3% through 2012 and then grow to a sub-par 3–3½% in calendar 2013 which would be consistent with unemployment either remaining high or drifting higher. By Feb 2013 this was the RBA story:

Employment growth has remained subdued in recent months, with the unemployment rate drifting gradually higher. . . . Employment is expected to grow only modestly in the near term, broadly in line with the outlook implied by a range of leading indicators. Employment growth is then expected to pick up gradually, but to remain below the pace of population growth over most of the forecast horizon. Accordingly, unemployment is expected to drift gradually higher. Continue reading

Breaking free of the boilerplate: Testament of Youth – now in a cinema near you

This is a re-post of a post I did on Testament of Youth last December when the lead actress and I sat down to watch it for the first time (as you do). My excuse for reposting it is that the film has now been released in Australia and so is at a cinema near you. However the blogosphere is harsh and unforgiving, even here at Club Pony. So, to keep the howls of protest down, to throw a little meat to the wolves to keep them at bay till I can slink away, the post now has an EXTRA PARAGRAPH on my favourite scene. I discovered (HT James Kent) that the screenplay for this film and many others funded by the BBC repose freely available on the BBC website. A small victory for sensible publishing and an invaluable guide to my paragraph on my favourite scene. Anyway, the review is below the fold. Continue reading

A film and a couple of poems in the lead-up to Anzac day

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for the recent movie adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth about the disaster that was WWI and how it blighted the lives of a generation. It’s opening in Australia today – read my review on the link above and go and see it if you can.

A month or so ago I was in the bookshop of the NSW State Library and flicked through a marvellous fat book of war poetry – in Penguin’s new very cheap collection of books in old original Penguin covers – in this case the beigy-puce colour which seems to have been set aside for war literature. In it I read a remarkable poem. But before setting it out, I also read – I think later on on the net – a poem by Rupert Brooke: he of “If I should die think only this of me, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

Here is the poem “Peace“.

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
      Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
            Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there,
      But only agony, and that has ending;
            And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Brooke is suggesting that the crucible of war might make essences visible to our jaded ordinary selves otherwise tangled up in the mundane surface appearances of everyday life. The poem I read in the Penguin anthology contains the very same idea as Brooke’s – that there’s a surface reality and then a deeper one beneath it. But their treatment of this ‘reality exposed by war’ theme is diametrically opposed. In “To A Conscript of 1940″ the poet and WWI veteran Herbert Read suggests that reality lying beneath the surface is altogether different. His message is not so dissimilar to that of Vera Brittain. That the worthiness of pre-war aspirations were a mirage, not just a trap, but a trap for those of good heart but without their wits about them – the wits that Vera Brittain slowly come to through experience.

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,
His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey:
And my heart gave a sudden leap
As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustom’d ring
And he obeyed it as it was obeyed
In the shrouded days when I too was one

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:
`I am one of those who went before you
Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,
Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the dead
Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;
There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen
The glitter of garland round their head.

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived.
But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go
Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’
Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute
As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace.

In fact Testimony of Youth’s Australian release coincides with the centenary of another event. Already the feted poet of the British War effort, Rupert Brooke died on April 23, 1915. In sad contradistinction to the ardour of his poetry, he never saw a shot fired in anger, dying of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite on a French ship, moored at Skyros, a Greek island in the Ionian sea a good way off from the looming battle for the Dardanelles.

And just as I mentioned John Maynard Keynes in the thick of things in the previous post about the film, the contrast between these two poems puts me in mind of something that Keynes said that stuck with me the moment I read it. Writing to a friend in 1943 – back at the Treasury as he had been in WWI while Vera Brittain’s friends and brother were being blown to pieces – he wrote this to a colleague:

Here I am back again in the Treasury like a recurring decimal – but with one great difference. In 1918 most people’s only idea was to get back to pre-1914. No-one today feels like that about 1939. That will make an enormous difference when we get down to it.

And so it did. WWI, a four year catastrophe on a hitherto unimaginable scale killing 17 million people or whatever it was wasn’t enough to make people really want to try hard to avoid the problems of the past. It turned out that it required a lot more than that. It required that, followed by the desperation of depression and then another world war of a far larger magnitude to get people to really want to get things right for a new generation.

And that’s the situation we’re in all over again. Deep in the grip of VerySeriousPersononomics, with a banking system that, having destroyed the prosperity of a generation, snaffled itself a couple of trillion dollars to pay its uberlords for their continuing fine work at the helm and is now reformed in a sufficiently mild way that it will happen again once the memories fade. I keep thinking of W. H. Auden lamenting that ”low dishonest decade” that had just steered his own world back into world war in Sept 1939.