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walking west

Saturday, September 16, 2000

To see ourselves as others see us...

I've just watched the Olympics opening ceremony on NBC in San Francisco, nearly a day after it happened. (Are they going to keep up this artificial time delay through the entire Games? This will be ridiculous. They could hardly do more to encourage people to get their news from the Internet instead of TV.)

The ceremony itself was well done, I thought, but given that 4 billion people watched it I won't go on about how cool those jellyfish looked or how amusing it was that the fire-breathers were swilling stubbies and that the tap-dancing 'workers' were all dressed in flannies... instead, I thought I'd just report for the benefit of my vast Australian readership (note my laconic Auss-ie sense of humor) the highlights of the American commentary.

I was a little worried even before the coverage itself, when the host of the lead-in show on the 'Backroads of Australia' pronounced the name of our favourite bird as 'Koo-koo-bera'. (Couldn't he hear the Kooka-buh-ras laughing at him after he said that?)

After some preliminary stories on the Salt Lake City scandals, the coverage itself began with a collage of scenic splendor and James Earl Jones reading an overblown script about 'a land an ocean away where winter is summer and today is tomorrow' (and NBC schedulers run around in a blind panic as a result). Then it was off to Homebush.

First-up, the horses. 'The Man From Snowy River' was described as a poem where a stockman rode downhill chasing 'bush ponies': 'The music is from the film The Man From Snowy River from about 20 years ago, which starred – Kirk Douglas.'

Horses, we were told, were part of the Australian 'romantic ideal'—and 'no matter how cosmopolitan' they may be, most Australians see themselves as 'swashbuckling adventurous outdoorsmen'.

Human Nature, singing the anthem, were 'Australia's answer to N-Sync'. (Personally, I was disappointed not to see Barnesy up there, belting out 'girt by sea' to the tune of 'Working Class Man'.)

A little later we learned that out of Australia's population of 19 million, 'two million of those consider themselves to be surfers'. Party on, dudes.

We were told that 'how to reconcile 400,000 Aborigines with the culture as a whole remains a vexing question' (funny, I thought it was the other way around).

Ned Kelly was described as 'part Jesse James, part Robin Hood', and drew the comment that 'Australians have a strong anti-authoritarian streak'. Kelly was hanged in 'Mel-Borrne, or Mel-bin as they say down here' (nope: Mel-bn).

'Australians have a bit of an inferiority complex about that [convict history]—it does hang over their heads a little... [but they] have a great sense of humor, really, about their checkered past.' Ha ha solitary confinement in chains in abysmal conditions at Port Arthur ha hundreds of lashes from the cat-o-nine-tails ha ha ha.

The upbeat sequence on immigration and multiculturalism drew few comments, but we were treated to a shot of Chelsea Clinton in the crowd halfway through (to go with the many shots of Muhammed Ali throughout the evening).

Throughout all of this, it was clear that chunks were being omitted at ad breaks—which seemed ridiculous, given the huge time-delay in coverage. They could have showed every single minute if they'd wanted. The omissions became more noticeable during the procession of athletes, when countries like Fiji and Vanuatu mysteriously disappeared (also Madagascar, which I was keeping an eye out for).

During the procession we were told that the Cook Islands were named after 'the explorer who discovered Australia, Captain James Cook'. Good to see that blatant falsehood perpetuated.

The commentators noted 'a few scattered boos' for Indonesia, and the 'polite applause' for New Zealand—'not an overwhelming response'. NZ was also described as the 'closest nation of considerable size to Australia', which is interesting given later comments about how Papua New Guinea is only a few kilometres away from the tip of Cape York, and then there's that little matter of 150 million Indonesians...

Another classic pronunciation: Dawn Fraser, we're told, is considered a bit of a 'lorrakin' (larrikin), or 'scamp'. (Mental picture of a classic Goodies episode: 'Cuddly Scamp, he's da champ!')

But my favourite joke of the evening, which for once was intentional, was about Olivia Newton John: one commentator noted that 'she, like the Olympics themselves, owes much to Greece'.

Some handy Olympic statistics: Bolivia, population 7.9 million, 4 athletes at the Games; Chad, 7.5 million, 2 athletes; China, 1.2 billion, 290 athletes; Cuba, 11 million, 243 athletes; Congo, 50.4 million, 1 athlete; Nauru, 11,000, 3 athletes; USA, 274.9 million, 602 athletes; Australia, 18.9 million, 633 athletes.

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While I'm in discuss-Australia mode, this article by Robert Hughes, Australian-born art-critic for Time, skewers the notion that 'no longer feel[ing] we have to explain ourselves to anyone but ourselves' is a sign of maturity. The article isn't flawless—calling Australia's Constitution 'a document written for us by the English at the turn of the century' may be meant as rhetorical hyperbole, but won't be read as such by readers who don't know otherwise—but on the whole Hughes shows by example that it's much better to explain ourselves maturely. [Via Virulent Memes.]

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Friday, September 15, 2000

Too depressing for words: the Australian dollar has "hit a new level, permanently". Our currency has lost a third of its value against the US$ in just three short years. (Which just happen to be the three years when I've spent the most time in the US since 1980, when the A$ was worth—it doesn't bear thinking about—twice what it is now.)

The Asian crisis triggered it off, but can't completely explain the long-term trend. That has to be down to international money-market types comparing Australian high-tech prospects to US high-tech prospects and not liking what they see. Surprise, surprise: Microsoft isn't based in Melbourne, and Infinite Loop isn't in the suburbs of Sydney. Therefore, sell A$.

The trouble is it becomes self-reinforcing. The A$ sinks and half of Australia's tech-workers flee to America (ahem) to earn themselves a nest-egg in US$. Australia's IT industry suffers, and the money markets sell the A$ down.

It's not that Australia doesn't have the brains (even if Americans do picture the average Australian as being small, fuzzy, and with a penchant for eucalyptus leaves), but rather that we don't have the critical mass. (Quick, eat more leaves!) We can't compete with a population ten times the size of ours.

But that's not it, either. Sydney is as big as the Bay Area. Melbourne is bigger than Seattle. Australians are one of the most urbanised peoples in the world. (It's true. The outback is huge, but nobody lives there.) And if Canada can string fibre-optic cable around miles of frozen wasteland, Australia could surely string it down the East coast. Yes, our federal government has been slow to rise to the challenge; but so have politicians everywhere. And the Australian people have been way ahead of them—we've always been enthusiastic early-adopters of technology.

So what's stopping us? And when will it stop? When the A$ hits 35 cents?

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My English friend James asked me to tell him a bit about Australian comedian Andrew Denton. My brief reply turned into a mini-biography—more comprehensive, in fact, than anything I was able to find on the web—so I've posted it to Funny Ha Ha [and mirrored it here]. Read all about the man who introduced Rolf Harris to a new generation, and pioneered group-house-psychodrama two years before the US series Big Brother.

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Thursday, September 14, 2000

Saw my first 'here come the Olympics' story on American television last night. Opening line about the 'residents being restless' over a shot of kangaroos. A quick shot of a cockatoo squawking. Then of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, with voiceover explaining that the shape of the former was inspired by Joern Utzon peeling an orange, and the shape of the latter has earned it the nickname 'the Coathanger'. Cut to koala and cue joke about it all being more than some locals can 'bear'. And that was it.

I think we can safely say that most Americans will come away from the Olympics coverage knowing as much about Australia as most Australians knew about Georgia after the 1996 games.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I'd kind of hoped to be—surprised, that is, by an unexpectedly sophisticated level of reporting. Instead, the same old clichés. Okay, Australian wildlife is cute, but imagine if the Olympics were being held in New York and the story went like this: opening line about the 'residents being restless' over a shot of startled deer. A quick shot of a bald eagle. Then of the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge, with voiceover explaining that the shape of the former was inspired by a pencil, and that the city is nicknamed 'the Big Apple'. Cut to squirrel and cue joke about the games driving the locals 'nuts'. End of story.

Seems like nothing much has changed since I was in the US in August 1992. I remember watching an hour-long news bulletin at the time consisting almost entirely of stories about (a) all the medals that Americans (and only Americans) were winning in Barcelona, and (b) the Presidential race. There was only one story about anywhere else in the world, on peace-keepers in Iraq.

From guess which country.

No wonder so many Americans are so blindly jingoistic. America is all they ever see. Around them every day, and through the window of television every night. Every ad for a department store is sung to the tune of 'America'. Every burger is wrapped up in the flag.

Not that there's anything wrong with a bit of patriotism. Every country indulges in it. It's just that... well, when Australians call their country the greatest country in the world, what they really mean is that they love living there, and can't imagine a better place for them to live. And that's going to be true for most people anywhere: you're happiest in the place where you grew up, because that's where you 'fit in' and 'belong'.

But when certain kinds of Americans call their country the greatest, they mean not only all of that, but also that their country has nukes, trillions of dollars, an enormous bloody great army, and the wherewithal to whup anyone's ass.

I prefer my patriotism without the aggressive militaristic nuclear-winter extreme-capitalist imperialistic overtones, thanks. Maybe fuzzy animals aren't so bad after all.

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I went along to the BrassRing NetFair in SantaClara YesterDay, and left my resumé with some interesting-looking companies. I haven't been talking about my job search much here because I figure you can take it as read that that's what I'm doing... plus I don't really want to talk about specifics when I'm in the middle of negotiations with a company, or trying to get them interested in me. ('This job looks OK but the company is a bit wonky looking'—that'll sure convince them to sponsor me for an H1.)

I accumulated a swag more freebies—exotic pens, keychains, stress-balls, mousepads and the like. Interesting point of difference from Seybold: no badges, but piles and piles of candy. No wonder geeks are such a distinctive shape. Maybe the candy is actually compulsory, to make sure you fit the corporate profile.

Crunch-time is approaching fast. If something promising doesn't come along in the next week or two I'm going to have to start laying the ground-work for whatever comes next—Canada, the UK, or back to Australia—although I may get a last minute offer before I fly out on October 9th. Living in limbo gets pretty nerve-racking. Those freebie stress-balls might come in handy.

Being half a world away from home on September 16th (or 15th, California time) will also be a drag. I'm going to miss all the celebrations completely. I won't be around for the singing and that special moment when they light the flames. I'll be stuck here, wishing I was in Australia—for Jane's birthday.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Doris Day, move over: sweet and wholesome has a new name, and it's Renée Zellweger. Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty is a great little film combining soap opera, road movies, odd-couple hitmen and comedy, not as over-the-top pastiche but in a genuinely clever and involving way. Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear are all terrific in it, but the whole thing would collapse without a spot-on performance in the lead, and Zellweger holds it all together perfectly. A star is born.

Unfortunately, I followed a viewing of this gem with another San Francisco Fringe Festival show, and this time picked a dud. One of those absurdist 'comedies' that seems to forget that if absurdism isn't funny, it's just plain absurd. The only amusing moment was a defrosted chicken strung like a puppet and flown around the stage for thirty seconds by two characters in clown costumes. The rest was like a series of in-jokes for hard-core Beckett fans. I wish I'd spent my eight bucks on another movie instead.

(Did you hear about the Noh theatre production of Beckett? 'Waiting For Godzilla.' B'boom.)

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Monday, September 11, 2000

Today I turned down a job that would have paid twice as much as my last one. True, some of that is because my last job was in Australia and this one is in the US, and the Australian dollar is limping along at all-time record lows. But still. It was nothing against the company, which looks like it's going places. It just didn't seem like the sort of work I want to do; not webby enough. It'll be stressful enough relocating to the US without having to do a high-pressure job just for the money.

I post this here to remind myself of the noble motives behind this decision when I'm 82 and living off baked beans. Hello, 82-year-old me. I suppose you couldn't afford to go to Madagascar again because of this. Sorry. It seemed like a good idea! Hang on, I'd better call the robonurse, you've spilled beans all down the inside of your space-suit.

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The schizophrenic group-mind that is Slashdot has started dissecting the eBook phenomenon, with echoes of other discussions.

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Dear God(zilla):

The vast majority of the violence in this movie is not directed at man by man. It is at and from a clearly fantasy monster that does not even hint of Satanic power or presence. Is this the sort of violence the Bible strongly admonishes against as in Prov. 3:31-32, Prov. 4:17, Jer. 22:3, or Luke 3:14? I don't think so, but I don't know. Does Phil 4:8 apply to the violence in Godzilla?

[Via Fade to Black.]

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James has redesigned Funny Ha Ha, and very nicely too. I hasten to add that this isn't just a hero-worshipping 'look who's redesigned!' post, because FHH is his and my collaborative blog about comedy. Although James is, in fact, My Hero and I Worship Him, oh yes. Any man who can display his frail humanity for all to see deserves our respect.

'FHH' is also a particularly amusing acronym, if pronounced in a sufficiently unenthusiastic fashion. Coincidence? I think not.

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I've been picking up a few new readers lately, which makes me feel guilty that I don't have a detailed 'About' page for this weblog. Sorry about that. I started to write one a few hours ago but got bored with it and wrote about buying CDs instead. If it helps any, I'm Australian, 32, currently in San Francisco sniffing around for web work, was previously in San Jose and London, and before that was travelling in Madagascar for a month. There's a pre-Madagascar weblog that serves as a prequel to this one, like The Phantom Menace with a better plot and worse special effects.

I'll be flying back to Australia in mid-October to rejoin my wife, who has been back there since our Madagascar trip earning the money to keep us both afloat. After that, who knows. Maybe back here to a shiny new job. Maybe to Canada or the UK to try again. Or Melbourne. You'd think it'd be pretty nerve-racking to have no idea where you'll be in a couple of months' time, but it's actually not that bad.

The rest I'll leave for you to figure out as we go along. You could always go back and read all of the archives, if you're keen.

(There is actually an 'About' page, too. You just have to look for it.)

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This must be some kind of first.

On Saturday I caught a bus out to the Haight to spend a few idle hours flipping through the CDs at Amoeba Music, and of course found myself strangely drawn to the clearance racks. This being America, Land of Plenty, there were thousands of CDs in the clearance racks, all of which would have taken hours to go through completely. Um, all of which did take hours to go through completely.

I don't know why I do it. I could just slap down fifteen bucks and pick up that Travis album I've been hanging out for, and save myself hours of pointless flipping. Surely I've learnt by now that the chances that the new Elastica and Saint Etienne CDs have been misfiled in the clearance racks are vanishingly small?

The trouble is, those bands fall into my B-list. They're the ones where I don't shell out top-dollar for their new releases the instant I see them. After all, if I did that with every band I enjoyed, I'd be bankrupt, and would live in an experimental home showcasing the excellent insulating properties of stacked CD cases.

But just because a band is on the B-list doesn't mean I've forsaken them. No, they're the ones where I still want to get their CDs—but cheap. That way I avoid (or at least postpone) bankruptcy, and keep the rate of growth of my collection at a level where it won't go into an exponential curve until two weeks after I die.

It's a necessary precaution, but often a frustrating one. I'll go around for weeks, months or even years with nagging thoughts: 'Must get Mint Royale's On the Ropes for less than full-price.' Sure, I could have paid A$30 (US$17) for it at home, or £12.50 (US$18) in London. But even though it's an import in the US and unlikely to show up anywhere for less than twenty-five bucks, I keep flipping through those clearance racks hoping that Tower or Virgin shipped over a crate of infectious indie-dance instead of Titanic soundtracks and are now looking to flog it to Australian tourists who listened to 'Don't Falter' too many times on the radio.

Still, it gives a focus to the flipping. And the clearance racks have so much to offer. So many cheesy album covers. So many bands you've never heard of. So many desperate oxymoronic combinations and permutations of words in search of a memorable band-name. The clearance racks should be compulsory viewing for dot-com marketing types: in the end it doesn't matter what you're called or what's on your cover if the music is crap.

But it's not all crap; that's the problem. Every now and then you'll see stuff you know isn't crap. Like the album from your A-list that you bought six months earlier at full price. (If anyone wants Bernard Butler's Friends and Lovers for three bucks, head to Amoeba on Haight St.) Or, if you're a tourist, albums by bands that are huge in your country that have stiffed in the States. Usually ones you can't stand, or whose albums you bought at home six months earlier.

The trouble is, the quality-to-crap ratio is only reasonable when the discount isn't that great. If you want real value, you have to head to the racks where mere mortals fear to flip: the one dollar racks.

So much choice. So many surprises. So much sturdy yet insulating building material.

I can never help myself: I always have to get something from the dollar racks. After all, it's so cheap: a dollar! Even with the Aussie dollar gasping for breath like a lungfish on life-support, that's still only the price of a bus ticket. Which would you rather, half a dozen CDs or a day-long magical mystery tour around the streets of Canberra? There's really no contest.

But what do you choose, when the bands are all completely unknown to you? I usually skip anything more than a year or two old on the grounds that if it hasn't shifted at bargain prices within a year, the Gods of Rock are sending me a sign; but that still leaves a lot of music. I'll start by grabbing anything that looks even vaguely intriguing, but when my arms get tired I put most of them back (to the annoyance of any watching store-owners), keeping only those whose... uh... band-names and covers I like. (Okay, marketing types, so everyone has his price. Mine is a dollar.)

Usually, I get my new CDs home and run them through the CD player only to find that the Gods of Rock had been intending to send me a sign, honest, but they were busy in studio eight jamming with Carlos Santana and laying down tracks for their Best Of album, due in stores December 11th. And I'm left with flashbacks to the time when my brother took his shiny new 45-rpm single of Elton John's 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues' out to the front yard and frisbeed it into the hedge.

But, as I said, this must be some kind of first, because on Saturday I brought home four one-dollar CDs, and: they're all good.

Admittedly, I already knew one of them was good. Kate Ceberano's Brave is getting a little old now (1989), but it's a great slice of pre-techno dance-pop from the renowned Aussie singer, with only a couple of less-than-stomping tracks.

The Avengers: The Album was surely suffering guilt by association, I figured; even if the movie is supposed to be awful, how can a soundtrack with new tracks by the Utah Saints, the Stereo MCs and Roni Size be all bad? And indeed, it's not bad at all. In fact The Verve Pipe's 'Blow You Away' is so brilliant I have an urge to go and pick up their albums (in Amoeba's clearance racks, of course).

The Drowners were completely unknown to me, but the cartoony Adobe Illustrator'd cover in bright orange must have appealed to the Zeldman aficionado in me. Fortunately, Is There Something On Your Mind? is a good guitar-based album with echoes of Matthew Sweet, Ben Folds, and other fine things.

Pocket Size's 100% Human had it all: good band-name and album title, clever cover (courtesy of Photoshop this time) showing a duo of sultry female singer and dork dude in sunglasses (thinks: electropop), and a 1999 release date. And yes, it's electropop, slightly retro-80s but still good, with some catchy tunes that I've never heard before.

On the one hand I'm pleased to discover this stuff at such a bargain basement price, and on the other it's depressing to think that there's so much good work languishing in the world's clearance racks.

It's even more depressing, though, to realise that the whole thing is just a big screaming metaphor hitting me right between the amps: one-dollar clearance racks = World Wide Web.

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Old West