Songs of loss and pre-emptive mourning

My new earworm is Joey by Concrete Blonde.  It’s a brilliant song, with astonishing vocals from Johnette Napolitano.

It sits alongside other songs of mourning for lost friendships, lost loves (something Paul Kelly and Billy Bragg do well).  That sense of hoping to reconnect with someone who has their own battles to fight is something of a thing for me (not that I’ve a lot of personal experience).  The Whitlams did a great one in ‘Blow Up the Pokies‘.


Two of particular note are

Bruce Springsteen Bobby Jean

Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere
In some bus or train traveling along
In some motel room there’ll be a radio playing
And you’ll hear me sing this song
Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m thinking of you
And all the miles in between
And I’m just calling you one last time
Not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you, baby
Good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean

(you’ll be shocked to hear that Clarence Clemons crushes it on the sax solo)

and there’s always Pink, of course. In this case ‘Who Knew?’


Another #climate warning from 1969. #Australia

On 25 June 1969 Ralph Slayter, an Australian scientist, gave one of the first (but not the first – that’s for another time) warnings of the dangers of the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Slayter was talking at the Australian National University,  as part of a lecture series on ‘Man and the New Biology.’  Slayter’s lecture was entitled ‘Man’s Place in Nature’.  There were several references to carbon dioxide. Here below is the clearest.

1969 06 25 slayter man and new biology
Slayter would go on to a prestigious career in international scientific administration.  In 1989 he became the first Chief Scientist in Australia.  One of the key issues he was asked to tackle was… climate change.

We knew. We knew.  We chose not to heed the warnings we were given.

Video Vox Pop – how I would do it, fwiw.

Recently I proposed that an organisation (I am a FIFO activist on this) organise some video vox pops around an event that they’re organising for about five weeks’ time.  This post is how I would do it.  (Or rather, how I like to believe that I would be able to do it.  By now, pushing 50, I should have realised that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and that my self-regard outstrips my ability, almost always…)

It’s divided into before, during and after.

Comments, criticisms and suggestions on all three are very welcome

With all these events, there are usually three acknowledged goals

  • Get media attention on The Issue
  • Build the media profile of the organisation(s)
  • Get the mythical New People involved

To this I would almost always add a fourth goal –

  • Build the knowledge, skills and relationships of those who are organising the event, whether they are centrally involved or more peripherally in putting the event on.


So, I’d try to get agreement from ‘the organisers’ about what the headlines of the event are, especially if you’re also doing a video advert for the event (another blog post that).

And I’d try to get organisational buy-in by framing the video vox pops as a way of not only building profile and maybe attract new folks, but as something that  can help sustain morale in the weeks/months after the event (when there is inevitably a post-event  dip in energy and enthusiasm – see my famous and much-liked post on emotathons).

Part of that buy-in is agreement from organisations and individuals that when the vox pops are published online, they will be included in news digests, e-newsletters, reposted on websites and social media.

I’d go so far as to clear the questions  we’d be posing to the people who took part, to head off any complaints and grumble (and, given that you are doing something new, and ‘stealing limelight’ from others, there will be grumbles…)

I’d come up with a bunch of different questions that were checked for wording and politics (see above)

The first one would always be someone’s name and where they are from.

The other questions would include

  • Why did you come to this event?
  • What personal changes have you made in your life because of [the issue]
  • What do you think the government should do about [the issue].
  • What do you think activists and organisations should do about [the issue]
  • Why and how should other ordinary people get involved in campaigning about [the issue]
  • How do you keep your hope alive, given the trajectory of [the issue]
  • Anything else you’d like to say?

I’d get all of these numbered, printed in the biggest possible size in landscape A4, and laminated

I’d also have a simple ‘disclaimer’ form ready – something like

‘Hi, we’re making a series of short films about the people who come to this event.  You choose three questions, think about your answers. We point a camera at you.  After the event, we will edit a short film of you.  We will stick it up on the internet in a private site. We will then contact you to find out if you are happy with the film. If you are, we will make it public. If not, we don’t.  If we don’t hear back from you, we assume you’re so unhappy you can’t actually type, and the video doesn’t go up.

We need your name

Your email and your phone number.

We will ONLY keep these for as long as we need,on paper,  and we will not share them with anyone else at all.  Once the video is up (or not) you will not hear from us again.’

[I don’t know what the laws are for consent of kids around this, and I’d be anxious anyway about asking people younger than about 15.  I’d try to get legal advice about all that).

I’d find someone (or even ideally two people) willing to work with me especially before and during the event on the day.  Find out from them what their skills and experiences are, and what knowledge skills and relationships they want to build.  This has to be someone who is reliable. Don’t bother with flaky people.

I would take the promises of help from people who on the day will be busy ensuring that their organisations logos/stalls/propaganda are prominently displayed with a large pinch of salt.

I’d then do a practice run with my sidekick(s), and address any difficulties.
On the Day
I’d turn up with

  • Video camera/recording device fully charged
  • Tripod
  • Back-up camera and/or battery.
  • Storage device to transfer files (because I am uber paranoid about losing stuff).
  • Clipboards and pens
  • Participation/consent forms
  • Two complete laminated sets of the agreed questions.


I’d have a ‘vox pop’ booth away from any point sources of noise. I’d have a neutral background for it, and the whole thing positioned as best as could be for light etc.

I’d have one person in charge of the camera (and the tripod)

The other person(people) are making sure we get copies of people’s signed consent forms

They talk them through which of the various questions they want to answer.

They mike them up if we’re going down that route (me, I am a sound clutz. That’s not good).

I’d start the filming with the person holding up their name and email on a piece of paper, which can then be edited out (obvs) which just helps make sure the right person gets the right ‘are you happy with this video’ email later.

I’d keep filming for a few seconds after they finish their answer, in case they think of something else they want to say.

At the end of the day I’d do a debrief with my sidekicks while memories were fresh.

  • What went well?
  • What went badly and what can we do better next time?
  • Other ideas?


I’d want to start getting the vox pops up as soon as possible after the event.  I’d choose therefore one of the most straightforward ones done straight away. The closing credits would include the logo of the event, but not of individual organisations that were sponsoring it (so it doesn’t look like those being interviewed for the vox pops are endorsing any/all of the organisations)

I’d stick it up on a private site, contact the subject immediately.

That first one could then be press released (with the person’s permission! – but that is probably best if it is an already engaged ‘activisty’ type person who can fake being normal.)

‘xxxx of xxxx  today said xxxxx. Speaking at [name of event] she said ……..
Once the first one(s) were up, I’d just try to plough through all the other editing (until I got tired/more sloppy than usual) , stick them up privately, send out the ‘are you okay with this?’ emails.

I’d then want the videos going up once or twice a week on the same day(s) until all the ones that had been okayed were ‘up’.

I’d then do a celebration/post-mortem event with the sidekicks and ask what more would be needed for them to lead the next time a video vox pop was proposed.

I’d not stress too much about viewer stats. That shit is only partly under your control.

If anyone wanted the names/emails/phone numbers for their organisations contact list, I’d tell them to… [redacted for reasons of taste].


What did I miss? How will it all go horribly wrong?

A #climate warning from the 1969 Reith Lectures

We knew.  We knew.  Don’t let anyone tell you that the failure of the human response to what is fairly clearly its terminal situation was down to ignorance or a lack of advance warning.  The standard narrative has the world first being told in 1988, thanks to prolonged work by scientists like James Hansen, Bert Bolin and some canny organisational entrepreneurs.  That’s true, but incomplete.  There were scientists, 20 years before, flagging the facts  (indeed, 30 years, but that’s for another time).

And I have a hobby, of looking back at the books published in the period 1968 or so onward.  It’s there.  Admittedly, a minor thing, compared to more photogenic and immediate problems (local air pollution, oil spills etc).

The latest find/confirmation is Wilderness and Plenty, by Frank Fraser-Darling.  What makes this one a bit different is that Fraser-Darling had done this book as the 1969 Reith Lectures. So, anyone who listened to it (and my understanding is that a very sizeable proportion of the British intelligentsia does) would have heard a warning on 30th November 1969.

1969 reith lectures fraser darling

He continued

“We are not yet at the end of this story. the warming oceans would alter considerably the distribution of marine fauna.  This has happened already in this century in the warming of the North Atlantic Ocean…. The warming oceans and atmosphere would mean a recession of the polar ice caps. Our ports would go under quite literally, and with them vast tracts of fertile soil.  What happens then to the swarming human population? I suppose they move upward and back, very slowly, of course, but surely. And what then?


We knew. We knew.

Must the tail always wag the dog? Of activism and strategy.

Thinking strategically is very very hard.   The normal activist mode is to move (or, uncharitably, lurch) from one ‘crucial’/urgent; upcoming event to the next. It might be a camp, or a march, or a submission to some government ‘consultation’. It might be a public meeting, the launch of a document, whatevs.

You can spend literally years (decades) sitting in planning meetings where various people have sent their apologies, where the agenda is filled with seemingly crucial decisions, in meetings that are either well facilitated or poorly facilitated.

But the quality of the facilitation (turn-taking, time-keeping) is often irrelevant, because the decisions being made are purely tactical, and based on unspoken assumptions (about what the group is trying to achieve, how it is trying to achieve, what the model of social change is) that never get brought out into the light for consideration.

And so the wheel – what I’ve called the emotathon, or emotacycle – keeps turning, with new people churning in and dropping out after two or three such ‘big events’  (over a year or two).


The hard core activists, who have a model of social change based on vanguard parties, or who get their emotional/social needs met through Activism (capital A) either don’t notice or don’t care, or do notice and care, but feel that there is no alternative.

So the same stuff keeps happening, based on unspoken assumptions that we have to ‘tell the policymakers The Truth (information deficit). That we  just need to get in the media, that we need to make ourselves welcoming to the mythical ‘newbies’.

And even if you COULD get everyone to see this pattern, then you’d still struggle to escape the routine ways of doing things.

Because these are deeply entrenched (and unspoken) assumptions and habits.

And beyond that (because of that?) the skills of strategic thinking (even on a time scale of a year) either distrusted (‘you’re a control freak’) or derided (‘there you go, building castles in the air’ or ‘more masturbation, not practical ACTIONS, comrade’). Or both at the same time.  And alongside this there is the elision – conscious or otherwise – of mobilising and movement-building….

So, the skills are not perceived as necessary, not respected, not rewarded. No wonder they are not developed.

And while  some of us know we should do it, but it’s hard to do it on your own, and when the imperative of a 90 minute meeting is to make decisiosn about the coming weeks.  There’s simply no time for discussion of where we’re trying to be in a year’s time.


So, what is to be done?

Well, if you try to do a separate ‘visioning’ session, you will have some people not be able to come, some people deliberately NOT come (because they don’t have those skills, or because they don’t want to be ego-fodder). Alongside that, you’ll attract people with limited past and less future in the group who just want to grandstand and spout but who won’t be available to do any of the work involved in turning the strategy into deeds.

So, what I think needs to happen is that elements and habits of strategic thinking have to be folded into ‘ordinary meetings’ – just a few minutes (i.e. about 20) at a time.

And based on recent experience, I’d say that the best way forward would be to have people work in pairs or threes, and do back casting from a year, “on the other side”

(More than that in a group is intimidating for some, and means a confident people can easily dominate, and is more keen to do so.)

A facilitator has to have sorted out good simple prompting questions.  I’d go for one of the following

  •  “what knowledge, skills and relationships do YOU want to have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what knowledge, skills and relationships do you think the group should have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what are the points of failure (where knowledge, skills and relationships are absent or held only in one or two individuals) in the group that we need to lessen in the coming year?”

Work in pairs or threes for say 10 minutes on one of them, and then have a plenary, that is typed up and circulated, so that people who were not present feel up to speed.

Would this work? Probably not in the sense of getting a group to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that looks forward a year and guides its decisions, but it would at least foreground the knowledge, skills and relationships questions, and sensitise individuals to some thinking beyond the next few weeks/couple of months.

But it won’t happen, and that’s one of the many reasons I ain’t doing any more activism.  Gonna follow the Cocker protocol in the declining years of the species.

Technology to the rescue? #HybridWorldAdl

In 1759 the English essayist Samuel Johnson had some wise words about techno-hype.  He said

“When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine…..”  

Johnson, like many sceptics of technology, struggled to keep his schadenfreude under control-

“… improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn.” (see video here)

Johnson would have in equal parts bamboozled and enthralled by a two-day conference Hybrid World Adelaide where new promises of technological solution for economic, environmental and social problems were propounded, alongside quite but powerful words of caution.

Hype-ridden or hybrid world?
Adelaide has (outside of “Mad March”) a sleepy image – “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside, sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year” – which the state and city government are understandably keen to challenge.  They provided significant support, arguing that it is an“opportunity to extend South Australia’s reputation as a key tech destination for international visitors and businesses alike.”  This argument – that cities are competing to attract footloose global capital, is known in academia as ‘the spatial fix’  (first propounded by Marxist geographer David Harvey.  But broadband, stable tax regimes and an educated workforce is not on its own enough. In the words of one presenter, Anton van den Hengel   “ a lot of places [smart people] are asked to work by their companies suck. Adelaide doesn’t suck.”

There was an impressive range (and gender balance) among the speakers. The conference proper began with an overview of ‘five technologies that will shape your future’ from the conference’s creative director, Robert Tercek  (author of ‘Vaporised’ ). Over the course of the two days the various presenters spoke to each other’s work, raising questions elided by others, and occasionally fruitfully disagreeing.  Topics included empathic computing, machine learning (not to be conflated with artificial intelligence), space archaeology and, inevitably, smart cities.

There were a series of intriguing factoids thrown out.

  • In four years the number of Australian space start-ups has gone from one to…  eighty.
  • The price of monitoring a cow (handy for proving provenance) has tumbled from a thousand dollars to a few cents
  • Be careful with v-signs on social media – photo resolution is getting so high that your fingerprints could be scanned and used to open your devices
  • The medical advances around software and diagnostics mean photos of your retina taken with an adapted mobile phone will be able to spot heart disease and diabetes, while Chest CT scans can give a good indication if you’ll be alive in five years

The two most compelling presentations (and there was stiff competition) came on the first day.  An anthropologist- Professor Genevieve Bell had even hardened mining engineers sitting up and take notice.  Having pointed out that many of the new technologies relied upon enormous electricity consumption, and that therefore there might be times when AI was not the sustainable option even if it promised’ efficiency savings’, she argued that underlying the enthusiasm for information technologies were differing sets of assumptions and cultural goals. In the west, companies like Google and Facebook are hoovering up information ultimately to sell you things, while in China the focus is more on the creation or maintenance of ‘social harmony’.  Having interrogated the origins of the term Artificial Intelligence, Bell ended with a riff on Arthur C Clarke’s line that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic.  Instead, Bell said, our technologies should be about making magic.

Soon after, her suggestion was met.  When Marita Cheng , a young tech entrepreneur, founder of Robogals /and much else, demonstrated a mobile phone app   that announced what it was ‘seeing’ at eight objects a second, you could hear jaws hitting the floor.  Cheng followed this up with demonstrations of ‘telepresence’ robots,  which, among other things, would enable sick children to still ‘attend’ school.

The conference itself, bigger and better than last year’s effort  was itself a kind of hybrid – not ‘critical’ enough to be academic and  too broad-ranging to be a trade show (you don’t often get anthropologists and archaeologists on the stage).  But it’s this sense of daring, and of ‘ecosystem building’ – of creating the conditions for lateral thinking and serendipity, that the organisers constantly invoked.

As such, it wasn’t a space for interrogating the darkside of tech.  The dominant way of thinking about this was that ‘bias’ (a deviation from the ‘reasonable’ Gene Rodenberry-esque future) might happen, but active malice was ignored,  This was also a feature of the recent Adelaide Festival of Ideas: these events recruit their speakers from universities and start-ups, and  both tend to be relatively uncritical about technology. There are honourable exceptions.

Venture capitalists don’t give money to people who think tech will make the world worse (or poorer) Ask questions that are too awkward too awkwardly and you won’t be invited… A speaker warning of the panspectron,  of the power of autonomous weapons, might have darkened the mood a bit too much…

The gigabit economy?

Adelaide’s mass manufacturing base (never strong) is in poor shape.  Will the unfolding effort  to wire up the city centre for superfast connectivity provide an alternative economic base? Who gets left behind in this economy?  How do people retrain for a very different future? Might the ‘lucky country’ end up – as someone once warned – a banana republic?

There’s a lot to play for.  It will be interesting to see if the Liberal State government – represented at the conference by the newly-minted minister David Ridgway – can get past the fact that this sort of ‘attract the techies’ work was associated with the Weatherill government, and reach not just for current Liberal prime minister’s enthusiasm for ‘innovation and agility’,  but hark back to the state-building vision of a legendary (Liberal) premier- Thomas Playford.

Time will tell. Samuel Johnson might yet be proved right.

Letter on nuclear power and #climate. Predictable outrage to follow… #shitstirringon2continents

So, the (Adelaide) Advertiser published my letter!

2018 07 24 advertiser letterJohn Patterson of the Australian Nuclear Association (SA Branch) writes that he believes that nuclear is “the one big hope for combatting climate change” ((The Advertiser, 23/7/18).  This purported climate ‘solution’ has been a continuing argument by the nuclear industry since the 1970s.  Numerous reports have shown that the costs in building and  decommissioning plants, alongside storage of waste, are prohibitive, before the  the lengthy building time is even considered.

Proponents of nuclear and also carbon capture and storage keep making their innumerate claims about decarbonisation, while meanwhile wind, solar and battery storage -speedily installed and providing green energy-  are providing our only (slender) hope for reducing emissions.

My prediction: Over the next few days the letters page of the Tiser will be full of fall out – hyperventilating and hyperbolic attacks and defenses of the latest pebble-dash sooper-dooper generation x or xi amazeballs reactors.  Just you watch…

Words, ideas, videos