Friday, August 31, 2018

Friday cat blogging: fall campaign edition

Morty thought he was getting us back on our return from Australia ... but no, that's not to be. The Erudite Partner and I are off to Reno for two months, working on UniteHERE's campaign to replace a Nevada Republican senator who doesn't give a damn about ensuring health care and decent wages for working people. Morty looks a bit baleful there next to our candidate's website, doesn't he? But no fear, good friends will be living with him for the duration.

We all have to do what we can in this dire moment for the country and world. As a wise friend suggested, everyone has to "find their lane." What we each can and should do will be different, but there is no opting out in a season of peril.

If Nevada might be your lane, click this link and read all about it.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Not just in the States

This detail from a contemporary painting by Gordon Hookey, an urban Aboriginal artist, a Waanyi, portrays what police surveillance felt like to boys like him in the Sydney district of Redfern. It hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in that city. Not a pretty picture.

Relations between Australians who immigrated from other continents (both Europe and Asia) and Aboriginal Australians don't fit into neat white-formulated US categories about race. Nor are "blackfellas" (polite Australian usage for Aboriginal people of both sexes) analogous to Native peoples in the US. Brutally put, more blackfellas and blackfellas' culture survived whitefellas' massacres, at least outside the cities, than in the USA. This is particularly true in the remote west and north where we traveled. I'm not going to claim to understand the social conditions we saw -- but anyone attuned to issues of white supremacy and oppression can hardly ignore that something ugly has happened here.

And so, here's another Gordon Hookey painting that his simply a hoot. Titled "Xanthorrhoea takes over suburban backyard" it captures white suburban nightmares about the surrounding, possibly encroaching, native environment.

"Here the 'Australian dream' of the quarter acre block, complete with all the requisite trimmings, has been infiltrated by xanthorrhoea shrubs. This native plant is more generically known as 'grass trees' or 'spear grass.'"

As always, click to enlarge. And check out this detail:

Blog sporadicus ...

Today (August 1) we fly away from a month and posts here will be sporadic at most. Some of time, we will not only be off the internet, but for about 10 days in Western Australia, we won't even have electricity. In the Kimberleys, we look forward seeing stars as modern people seldom do. When possible, there may be photos here. Or not. Perhaps I'll write up some of my reading. Or not.

Enjoy August if you can.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Worst of times; best of times

Sydney, Australia can be cold in winter. After walking around the edges of the harbor and contemplating the famous Opera House, we were ready to duck into a bookstore, looking as much for heat as reading material. This proved to a real bookstore of a sort seldom seen in these days of Amazon's supremacy -- two floors of books, annotated with notes from literate and curious store clerks.

I don't often see what serious bookstores are carrying these days. After a pleasantly warm quarter hour browsing a wide-ranging trade fiction section, I realized there was a theme in what appeared to be the most up-to-date entries: their narratives seemed overwhelmingly dystopian. I mean, The Handmaid's Tale looked cheerful in this selection. We're in an anxious moment.

So I was reminded of this Washington Post article which points out that this is no time to wallow in hopelessness.

The world is on the brink of a historic milestone: By 2020, more than half of the world’s population will be “middle class,” according to Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas.

Kharas defines the middle class as people who have enough money to cover basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, and still have enough left over for a few luxuries, such as fancy food, a television, a motorbike, home improvements or higher education.

It’s a critical juncture: After thousands of years of most people on the planet living as serfs, as slaves or in other destitute scenarios, half the population now has the financial means to be able to do more than just try to survive. “There was almost no middle class before the Industrial Revolution began in the 1830s,” Kharas said. “It was just royalty and peasants. Now we are about to have a majority middle-class world.”

...[The study notes how] remarkably similar daily life is around the world, with the exception of the very rich and poor. The vast majority of the families have electricity, running water in their home, children that attend school and some sort of transportation.

This is new in the last quarter century. It's hard to see in midst of political trauma (yes, Australia is having a nasty one of these, perhaps as awful as the Trump horror show). But if we can keep from rendering the planet uninhabitable, we can rejoice that more humans are enjoying more of a chance for humane lives than ever before in history. Worth noting.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Australia's Red Centre: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Detail from "Garak -- The Universe" by Gulumbu Yunupingu from Australia's Arnhem region at left. Full painting on right. Click to see large.
Somehow this painting -- which we encountered in Sydney several days after visiting the Red Centre -- expressed more than any of my pictures the feeling of the great, mysterious rock features of this ancient place. According to a caption at the Museum of New South Wales:

"Yunupingu has explained that some stars, gan'yu, are special for the Yoingu people and that when she looks at the stars, she thinks about the universe and that all people are connected through the night sky."

I have a hard time writing about our experience/observations visiting the park at Australia's center. For aboriginal Australians, this is sensitive, perhaps sacred (though I think that is not quite the right word) space, where they find/enact their science -- their way of knowing all that is.

Our visit allowed us to snap the obvious photos. Here's Uluru at sunset:
The "whitefella" tourist custom is to snap these pictures while nibbling on crackers and dip and drinking champagne. This was altogether weird. But there was the rock.

Sunrise the next morning felt more appropriate.

For the last some 25 years, the local aboriginal people and white park rangers have managed the site together.

Welcome to Aboriginal land
Parks Australia and Anangu, the Aboriginal traditional owners, welcome visitors to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
It is requested that you respect the wishes of Anangu by not climbing Uluru.

At the foot of Uluru, this request not to violate the peoples' apprehension of the universe by climbing the rock is repeated.
The request is routinely violated, though it was not by our group.

We did walk some on permitted trails adjacent to the great rock and also at the nearby red ridge Kata Tjuta.
There's a lot of power here.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A bunch of Bungle Bungles

Australia seems a weird place to this visitor, perhaps more like some foreign planet with its strange flora, marsupials, and even land surface that feels unfamiliar. Close to two weeks bumping around the western and northern interior on dirt roads in 4WD bus/trucks yielded an insight: this is an ocean floor that rose up to be a continent. Unlike anywhere else I've been -- North America, South America, Europe, Himalayan Asia -- the shape of the land was NOT derived from a combination of glaciation and volcanic eruptions. This place, unimaginable years past, was a sea bottom that has since gone through the sculpting influence of wind and water.

And so you get the Bungle Bungles of Purnululu (Sandstone) National Park. (This link explains something about the geology of the place.) White Australia ("whitefellas" in polite local usage) didn't take notice of this 450 square kilometer mountain range until 1983; today the strange 900 foot high formations are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most of the range is off-limits to hiking, so we did what any good tourist would do: bought a flight in a tiny helicopter without doors (but good seat belts) to snap some pictures from above. Enjoy a few.

Oz is different.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Cultural contrast

Somehow I don't think one of these would go over very well in a US airport. Security workers in Alice Springs were cheerful and relaxed. No worries here.

The town of Alice Springs is the gateway to Australia's "Red Center" -- the enormous desert dustbowl where the great rock of Uluru and other significant aboriginal spiritual sites are now national parks jointly administered by the government and the original residents. More when I recover from four days of hiking and treking about there.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Gorgeous gorges and other bodies of water

Western Australia is dry, at least at this time of year, late winter. In the three month rainy summer season, it will be inundated. Many of the places we visited in the Kimberleys are under water in the "wet"; the most common road sign on both dirt and paved highways is "FLOODWAY," signifying to drivers that the road might disappear under a creek flow in the next dip.

So water matters here. And in consequence, in showing off the land's highlights, Australians favor hikes that lead to gorges and waterfalls. Our nine days in the outback were full of them. Here are a few.

Yes, I did float over and look down at the water fall as you can see someone doing in the picture. EP climbed down to a lower pool to sit under the flow.

Here's a pool worth hiking to.

This bit of river wasn't even much of a walk.

At Chamberlain Gorge, some of us took a short exploratory boat trip.

The sunset at Manning Gorge was magnificent.

Come to think of it, I've never seen an ocean so calm as the Indian off the town of Broome, Western Australia. Such colors!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rock wallaby with joey

She's protective of her offspring. Fortunately for her, she's several hundred feet from my camera in her rock niche, inaccessible to curious humans.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

From Western Australia: Jody wrangles a python

Blogger and Erudite Partner are off the road after nine fascinating, wearing days being toured across the Kimberleys, the Bungle Bungles, and endless jarring dirt roads in the Western Australia outback. We plunge out again day after tomorrow into the Red Center of the continent/country.

But in the meantime, here's a tiny story: we're barreling along in the truck, when suddenly our guide and driver slams on the brakes and we swerve to roadside. Sitting up front, I'm one of the few able to see the obstacle -- a 9 foot long snake sunning itself in the morning warmth. Jody cries out with delight, jumps out, and proceeds to capture the sluggish black python.

Once she's made peace with the snake (not so hard), we all had a chance to stroke its back. These pythons ingest small animals, but haven't much interest in big bipedals that inadvertently come along and crush them. After a bit, we all went our separate ways.

UPDATE: One more pic re some Australians attitudes in the far places:

Monday, August 06, 2018

Kangaroos, koalas and kritters galore

What to do when being a tourist in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia? Visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. And then practice with a new camera.
Note the youngster riding on her back.

Let's try a little nap while all those people point at me.

Here, we can hide among the leaves.

This is a barking owl. Yes, they do bark.

Barn owls, on the other hand, are silent mouse predators.

Kangaroos seem tolerant of their visitors,

though some prefer lounging in the dust to interacting.

These kritters are so tame they'll eat out of your hand.

Nearby, the lorikeets enjoy breakfast.

And a monitor lizard basks in the sun.

Bill Bryson describes Australia as a continent where everything is trying to kill you -- not so at this Peaceable Kingdom.

Friday, August 03, 2018

This flying around the world thing ...

The strange, and slightly mad, ways of (relatively) "economy" class air travel routed us through Beijing Airport where we were greeted by this. Modern Chinese culture seems relentlessly cheerful.

Here's our present location: Brisbane skyline at night.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

This war we do not see or understand

We in the United States and Europe are at war with a foreign attacker, whether we have noticed or not. According to Timothy Snyder, historian and author of that masterful account of Central and East Europe's mid-20th century carnage Bloodlands, Putin's Russia is in full attack mode -- and winning. Seems a radical suggestion: there are no snipers on the roofs or goose stepping troops or tanks in the streets. But after all, if we but dare to look, this accords with the evidence which our more serious journalists have revealed and with what the Mueller investigation is diligently assembling. We can see this war, if we choose.

Snyder calls out Russian rulers' war on hope, justice, and potentiality at home and abroad in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia was an empire that militarily competed with "the West." After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, what is left is a broken, disillusioned and weak kleptocracy ruled by corrupt oligarchs. Russians are a brave and hardy people, very poorly served by a series of deceitful thugs. The economy of this continent-spanning land is about the size of that of Italy. Though the state ostensibly has institutions of law and justice, in fact elections are meaningless and commerce is subject to the whim of those with connections. The current autocrat Vladimir Putin controls almost all media and uses state power to hold on to power. Russia's rulers have adopted a complex theo-fascist nationalist ideology; Snyder explicates this ideology at length, but I will not describe it here. Bullshit remains bullshit, even when it has academic and powerful elaborators and exponents. (Yes, we too in "the West" have our share of bullshit in our culture, but at least ours offers better ideals to aspire too ...)

Because this sad Russia is weak, yet convinced it has a calling to project power, it makes war on perceived enemies not with its missiles and nukes, but though lies and treachery. Snyder describes in detail how, since 2013, Russia has experimented with these weapons in its attempt to peel its Ukrainian neighbor state away from Europe. Here's a summary:

Throughout the war in Ukraine, the Russian leadership engaged in implausible deniability, telling obvious lies and then daring the Western media to seek the facts. [Its soldiers invaded and conquered Crimea; shot down a civilian jet; instigated and carried out war on eastern cities; and all along pretended to its own population that none of this happened and that the Ukrainian government were Nazis. All this intervention goes on till today.] ...factuality was the enemy.

... The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be achieved by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skillful player will lose less than everyone else.

In some respects, Russia did lose its war in Ukraine... the frozen conflict was a far cry from the "disintegration" of Ukraine discussed in Russian policy papers .... Ukrainian society was consolidated by the Russian invasion. ...for the first time in Ukrainian history, public opinion became anti-Russian. ...By invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and shooting down MH17, Russia forced the European Union and the United States to respond. ... [Western sanctions] did isolate Russia from its major partners and deepen Russia's economic crisis. Putin pretended that China was an alternative; Beijing exposed Russia's weakness by paying less for Russian hydrocarbons. ... Almost everyone lost in the Russo-Ukrainian war: Russia, the EU, the United States. The only winner was China.

According to Snyder, the war on Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene more directly against what he sees as the true enemy, the United States. What makes the U.S. such a threat is its semi-functional democracy: if legal regime change can successfully, even if haltingly, carry a society forward under law, it becomes all too evident that Putin's Russian-model plutocracy is doomed to recurrent collapse and failure. And so, Russia's intervention in the 2016 election.

There is nothing inherently Russian about political fiction. ... Other societies can yield to the same form of politics after a shock and a scandal as in Poland, or as a result of inequality and Russian intervention, as in Great Britain and the United States. ...When a presidential candidate from a fictional world appeared in the United States, Ukrainians and Russians noted the familiar pattern, but few on the American Right or the American Left listened. When Moscow brought to bear in the United States the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. And so the United States was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.

... Trump's advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended on American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character "Donald Trump, successful businessman" in the 2017 presidential election. ... From a Russian perspective, Trump was a failure who was rescued and an asset to be used to wreak havoc in American reality. ... Trump the winner was a fiction that would make his country lose.

Snyder knows what happened in 2016 was not solely foreign intervention. If U.S. democracy had not been weakened by our racism, our own economic inequality and our (often justified) cynicism, cyber war and the Republican Trump-bot could not have triumphed. Trump's election was facilitated by Russia, but ultimately our failures are our own. Snyder concludes:

Moscow won a negative-sum game in international politics by helping to turn American domestic politics into a negative-sum game. ... Russian citizens trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of Russian innocence. ... white Americans trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of American innocence. Some Americans can be persuaded to live shorter and worse lives, provided they are under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that blacks (or perhaps immigrants or Muslims) suffer still more. ...

...To break the spell, ...we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. ... we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as citizenry rather than groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality or it will have neither. If it has neither ...American democracy will come to a close.

This book is distressing because it rings true. Go there, if you dare. Choose factuality. Resist and protect much.