peteg's blog

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Ah, back in Hồ Chí Minh City. The relatively-expensive JetStar flight back to Sydney in early February was absolutely full, with loads of Vietnamese people presumably travelling to visit their families for Tết. Conversely the relatively-cheap flight back yesterday was about one-quarter empty, consisting mostly of Australian and European tourists, to judge by accents and appearances.

The streets look different, I've moved digs, but the coffee remains as good as ever.

Refugee Realities in Melbourne.

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My mate An in Melbourne told me about this gig. I think he's attached to it as a photo-journalist. Go along and tell me how it is...

This event seems to have been completely ignored by the local media, at least according to Google news. The BBC carried it, however.

Griffith Review #18: In the neighbourhood (Summer 2007-2008)

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One thing I miss about Sydney is ready access to books. I picked up this one from the UNSW Bookshop, who are still kindly offering a 10% discount to all comers, and read it while in Randwick and on the plane back to Hồ Chí Minh City.

This edition was not as good as I hoped; indeed, it is somewhat of a re-tread of issue #9, Up North, but with an overly strong focus on China. Memorable:

  • In Location, Location, Location, Michael Wesley discusses the changing international dynamic, from Western institutions to Eastern ones, as the balance of power shifts after 500 years.
  • Geremie R. Barmié's Sharing Values shows how ironically close the State-articulated aspirational values of Australia and China are.
  • Phil Brown's Hong Kong 1967: Summer of discontent recounts his experiences as a child in the former British colony.
  • Ouyang Yu's Book without bonking amusingly recounts his experiences with the Chinese censors.
  • Nicholas Jose's Back to the avantgarde details the commercial rise of China's artists.
  • Tony Barrell's Japan's paradoxical neighbourhoods is a great account of how the concept of a furusato ("the neighbourhood in which everyone feels they truly belong", usually a farming village) has been exploited and pork-barreled by generations of politicians.
  • Rachel Buchanan's Remembering a forgotten survivor tells of the relationship between illustrator Ronald Searle and Henry "Lofty" Judge Cannon, beginning with their time as POWs in WWII and following the post-war divergence in their fortunes.
  • The poem Heroic mother by Hoa Pham is a short anecdote about the Vietnam War, from a somewhat conventional Northern point of view.
  • Wayne McLennan's A night at the fights is a bit stomach turning; the Thai boxing boys know how to inflict damage on each other.
  • Peter Mares's A routine removal is an excellent and heart-rending account of a Fijian family's time in Australia as illegal economic migrants. (I use that description precisely, not enthusiastically.) This article makes plain the global importance of remittances and strongly advocates for some kind of guest worker program. My two concerns are that the unions will label the latter job-stealing, and the former may stifle reform in the countries of origin. Hopefully someone will write a follow-up article from the Australian "national interest" perspective, suggesting a pragmatic solution.
  • Jane Nicholl's Capitals of the world is a cute little anecdote about Nepal, from a latter-day convert to the concept of HECS who is now busily exporting something like it to developing countries.

Another two articles talk about Việt Nam. The first is Larry Buttrose's Lotus blossom day tags, an essentially touristic take on the country which avoids any possibility of controversy by asking (the usual) rhetorical questions. He claims that the locals have won the peace, but I am not so sure; the apparently over-free market surely creates inequalities, and the apparent lack of aspiration for universal education and health care are cause for me to worry. I have a feeling, but no proof, that USA-style prosperity is the goal. Australians should be well-familiar with the mixed feelings that brings.

He also implies that the women are universally emancipated; his stay at Cô Lợi's should have made apparent to him that a lot of women are stuck at home doing little other than domestic work, and it is at best unclear to a foreigner (non-Vietnamese speaker) just how egalitarian marriages are. Sure, the eye-catching young ladies on their scooters do look like they're got it made, no question.

The second article is, with presumably accidental irony, on page 187: Laurie Hergenhan's A lasting sorrow, a sort-of interview with Bảo Ninh. So much is lost in translation that it amounts to little more than a summary of the book. The flavour is similar to this piece in the Guardian.

Old Fitzroy Hotel: The Soldier and the Thief wait on a bridge over the river Thames while Oblivion waves hello

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There was a time when the Old Fitzroy Hotel could do no wrong; I saw at least four high-quality plays in a row there, when I first found out about it. Now, well, I can't remember the last good thing they hosted. Still, their ginger beer is as good as ever.

All you need to know about the production is contained in Ashley Walker's review. If sceptical, this polite review in the SMH should further dissuade you from attendance. It was packed when I went, which I took to be a combination of cheap-Tuesday prices and the large social network of a large cast.

/noise/beach/2007-2008 | Link
Early afternoon snorkel with Rob at Long Bay. We started at Little Bay but were put off by the relatively large surf and whitewater. Absolutely perfect day for it, cloudless and warm, modulo the idiots on their jetskis.

/noise/beach/2007-2008 | Link
Continuing to make the most of my time in Sydney, I met up with Sarah at Coogee and headed over to Clovelly for a swim in some increasingly rough surf. The water was a perfect temperature and the clouds threatened but passed on by.

People like their webpages the way they like their streets.

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I went to visit Marc today, at the Prince of Wales Hospital, and we got around to talking about design. Roughly speaking, it seems to me that people tend to like their webpages the same way they like their streets. In Australia, and perhaps the West in general, we want order, clearly marked lanes, pedestrian crossings, accessibility in the form of kerb cuts and beeping and flashing attention-getting devices. The footpaths are clear of stalls and coffee merchants. Conversely Asia seems to prefer craziness, where finding things is difficult but what you do find is sometimes more valuable than what you set out for. As Marc observed, one uses fifty fonts to show that one is more prosperous than the guys who only used forty-nine, and damn that street food (mystery meat) is tasty.

I'm going to have to face up to the tension between Vietnamese website aesthetics and aspirations to accessibility rather soon.

Quarterly Essay #28, Judith Brett: Exit Right: The unravelling of John Howard

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Judith Brett returns with another Quarterly Essay. This one is a distillation and filtering of the news of 2007, and some of 2006, and as such added almost nothing to my understanding of Howard's final term in office. (It may be of use to future scholars, though, particularly those who weren't politically aware at the time.)

I remarked a while ago about her call-to-debate in her earlier Quarterly Essay (#19 Relaxed and Comfortable: the Liberal Party's Australia, 2005), and her analysis here seems somewhat incongruous with that work; it is as if she is still seeking the perfect metaphor for these "conviction politician" Strong Leaders, and what square pegs she found last time have now been discarded. Here is the direct quote I alluded to earlier (QE19, Howard's Australia, p39):

Many intellectuals are suspicious of nationalism. They know its power to harden boundaries between people and to make them hate and kill each other. But are nations necessarily pathological? Is any appeal to a national "us" a sort of warm-up attack on a non-national "them", a dog-whistle letting people know they really can hate the other? I know many of Howard's critics think so, and this has in my view shaped much of the Left's commentary on his prime ministership. It is also the basic reason for its ineffectiveness, because it has made it impossible to devise successful oppositional strategies.

Because whenever hes has evoked a national "us" he has been accused of really demonising a non-national "them", Howard's critics have been unable to develop any effective or plausible counter-strategies for talking to their fellow Australians. If you regard any talk of "us" as illegitimate, it is not clear to me whom you are going to talk to. Nations are not simply formed and defined by their opposition to or difference from some Other; they are also formed and defined by shared experiences and collective memories. They have centres as well as borders. As I have been arguing, Howard speaks persuasively from that centre. One does not counter him by arguing that the centre is empty, or does not exist, and that he is really only ever policing the borders. One stands in the centre with him and argues about its meanings and its responsibilities, and tells different stories to one's fellow Australians about their past and present and the bonds they share.

As she observes in the current issue, her earlier speculation that the Workchoices industrial relations legislation might be a bridge too far was spot on; Howard's special connection with the centre was more-or-less severed by it, whereas Labor and the unions were listened to as they have not been in years.

Conversely, almost the entirety of QE28 shows that her proposal to go toe-to-toe with the Strong Leader on any of what have become "Left" issues (the arts, social justice, ...) was a waste of resources and doomed to fail, simply because Howard could often not budge without losing Strength. (Paul Keating was no different, of course.) The weak and chaotic capitulation of the Liberal party on any number of recent issues (the apology to the Aborigines and industrial relations being the obvious two) shows how much he held his party in thrall, and just how Faustian they had been while in power.

So yes, "progress" in the traditional Leftist sense is possible, now that the Strong Leader has been laid to rest. I do agree with Brett that one can hope that the election drew 17 or so years of aggression politics to a close. Rudd may not be the everyman RJL Hawke was, but his early efforts to establish bipartisan projects (the flagship focussing on Aboriginal housing) mark a welcome departure towards bureaucratic politics. Now, will they make technically superior decisions, I wonder? [*]

Four Corners covered similar ground with their "we told him to go" interviews with ex-ministers last Monday 2008-02-19. The lack of loyalty was a bit breathtaking, e.g. from Minchin, who one may expect still aspires to something.

[*] Well, I think we're still stuffed on the communications front, with the ALP's net-nanny policy apparently going ahead. Remember kids, if you opt-out you're clearly a pervert.

/noise/beach/2007-2008 | Link
Brief early-afternoon dip at Gordon's Bay. Incredibly flat, would've been great to go snorkeling off the northern side.

/noise/beach/2007-2008 | Link
Got to make the most of my time in Sydney... back to Coogee. Almost identical to yesterday.

No Country for Old Men

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At the surprisingly packed 9:10pm session at The Ritz. This struck me as what True Romance might have been like if it had been made by Sergio Leone.

/noise/beach/2007-2008 | Link
Back to dear old flat-as Coogee for the first beach swim of the year. The crowd was fairly thin, the weather warm but pregnant with storm. The water was pleasant, the surf absent. In other words a fairly standard day.

Nick Cave: The Exhibition

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Bernie suggested I head over to the capital-A Arts precinct (over the Yarra, opposite the park, under the faux Eiffel tower) and check out this exhibition before I departed the fair city of Melbourne. It really is a testament to the ego of the boy from somewhere-near-Wangaratta, and I can't help but wish there was someone out front, dancing to Federation Square, just to lend some perspective. The coffee was OK but not a patch on my much-missed Trung Nguyên.

This followed on from last night's abortive attempt at watching the new Dirty Three doco, which I bought in the hope of it being an hour or two of Warren Ellis song introductions ("this is a song..."). Instead it is much the same as the Leonard Cohen effort, with the main man being the only interesting thing in the whole project. Warren Ellis looks the part but is stultifyingly sober throughout.

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What a strange confluence: tomorrow is both Super Tuesday, apparently a singular day in the selection of the President of the Free World, and Tết, the Lunar New Year. The streets of Hồ Chí Minh City are full of people, the parks full of (arranged) blooms. Like the Swedes, the people of Việt Nam party hard on the night before and have a quiet time on the day itself. I go back to Australia tomorrow, so no Tết for me.

Bảo Ninh: The Sorrow of War

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A rambling account of the American War from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier. It has its moments, it really does.

1 +# 1 = 2, or more mucking about with Isabelle's HOLCF.

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It's been a while between drinks with HOLCF, and it didn't take me long to realise why; it's a massive time-sink and all one gets at the end is a proof unreadable by the mainstream and an awareness of vacuity. Here are some random observations that I will try to expand on later:

  • Brian Huffman gave me some help with treating unpointed domains, so I've begun cranking out a theory of a few ways to think about Nat. We'll see if that ever gets polished.
  • I was mucking about with those while trying to mechanise Andy Gill and Graham Hutton's worker/wrapper pre-paper. That went OK, modulo HOLCF's general unfriendliness towards numbers. I'll post the development when it's a bit more polished.
  • John Launchbury and Simon Peyton-Jones's Unboxed values as first class citizens is the most awesome concrete application of domain theory I've seen yet. Perhaps I should dig deeper into the abstract interpretation literature.
  • I was curious about Larry Paulson's mechanised verification of the unification algorithm in LCF, from the early 80s. Partial predicates? WTF is this? Larry's inimitable way of politely grinding his teeth made me realise just how much HOL brought to the table.
  • I managed to crank out a proof in HOLCF that "parallel or" and its friend "tell me if this function ever says yes" are continuous. So, err, just what is this domain theory modelling anyway? Those proofs were much harder yakka than I expected. Next step: Gordon Plotkin's notes on domains lists some cute sequentiality definitions that I'd like to understand.
  • In HOLCF we have (λx. ⊥) = ⊥, and one has to wonder just what that entails, coming from Haskell where it does not obtain.
  • Apparently some people are translating Haskell to HOLCF, and I have to wonder what the point is. There's a bit of a semantic gap, so many arbitrary modelling decisions to take, not much of a standard library, ... so there's lots of tedious stuff to do before you can prove your program is incorrect.

I guess I'll have to get back to real (economic) work one of these days.