Thursday, July 31, 2003

Law: it’s bad for you
(a long polemic rant, approach with irony)

Want to risk depression, mental illness and alcoholism? Want to enter a profession where the highest-paid say, if they had their time over, they’d pick a different career? Want to make money but have not time to spend it? Patrick Schultz, an academic at Notre Dame Law School, has the answer: become a lawyer in a big firm.

It’s always nice to have an academic article backing your prejudices. Schultz’s “On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” (1999) 52 Vanderbilt Law Review 871 neatly summarizes my reasons for leaving life (or un-death) at a commercial firm, even one with nice views of Sydney harbor.

Admittedly, the American situation Schultz studies is more extreme, and he’s a jaded ex-law-firm-partner, but broadly his ideas are sound. So, let me state my bitter, vitriol-filled position: big law firms are wrong and they warp you.

The major issue is time: lawyers sell their lives in 6-minute slices, putting their working day under enormous time-pressure. It’s a reactive profession: court and client deadlines are seldom realistic when working on several cases at once. Promotion is about how much you billed clients last year. Hours, unsurprisingly, are long. Thus, lawyers complain about (at 888-9):
" … pressure to attract and retain clients in a ferociously competitive marketplace. They complain about having to work in an adversarial environment "in which aggression, selfishness, hostility, suspiciousness, and cynicism are widespread." They complain about not having control over their lives and about being at the mercy of judges and clients. … Mostly, though, they complain about the hours."

The results? First off, lawyers are unusually depressed:
"In 1990 … only three occupations were discovered to have statistically significant elevations of MDD [major depressive disorder]: lawyers, pre-kindergarten … teachers, and secretaries. Lawyers topped the list, suffering from MDD at a rate 3.6 times higher than non-lawyers ... The researchers did not know whether lawyers were depressed because "persons at high risk for major depressive disorder" are attracted to the legal profession or because practicing law "causes or precipitates depression." "

Let me take a blind stab at answering that … but it’s not just practitioners:
"A study of law students … discovered that when students enter law school, they suffer from depression at approximately the same rate as the general population. However, by the spring of the first year of law school, 32% of law students suffer from depression, and by … third year … the figure escalates to an astonishing 40%. Two years after graduation, the rate of depression falls, but only to 17%, or roughly double the level of the general population."

Lawyers also suffer “elevated rates” of emotional problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical anxiety, “social alienation and isolation … paranoid ideation, interpersonal sensitivity, phobic anxiety, and hostility”.

Firms seldom weed out problem personalities; indeed, they are sometimes promoted to partner.

The article then goes on to state the obvious:
"Lawyers appear to be prodigious drinkers. The North Carolina study reported that almost 17% of lawyers admitted to drinking three to five alcoholic beverages every day. One researcher conservatively estimated that 15% of lawyers are alcoholics."

Now, all this depicts people unhappy with, and because of, their job. Why don’t they leave? Are the addicted to the money, despite the fact that – really – you could work fewer hours, earn less but still be very comfortable, and regain quality of life?
" … lawyers don't think in these terms. They don't see their lives as crazy. … [indeed] very few lawyers are working extraordinarily long hours because they need the money. …

"Big firm lawyers are, on the whole, a remarkably insecure and competitive group of people. Many of them have spent almost their entire lives competing to win games that other people have set up for them. First they competed to get into a prestigious college. Then they competed for college grades. Then they competed for LSAT scores. Then they competed to get into a prestigious law school. Then they competed for law school grades. ... Then they competed for clerkships. Then they competed to get hired by a big law firm.

"Now that they're in a big law firm, what's going to happen? … [They're] competing to bill more hours, to attract more clients, to win more cases, to do more deals. They're playing a game. And money is how the score is kept in that game … These lawyers have spent their entire lives … measuring their worth by how well they do in the[se] competitions. ... Money is [now] what tells them if they're more successful than the [next] lawyer ... If a lawyer's life is dominated by the game - and if his success in the game is measured by money - then his life is dominated by money. For many, many lawyers, it's that simple."

I have to say, this rings frighteningly true. Lawyers are very position-conscious creatures, and can be quite intimidated by those of higher status. I’ve been asked at a drinks function (by someone who found out I worked for a more prestigious organization), “Oh, so are you still going to talk to me?”

But have I really escaped the game now? True, I’ve dropped out of the “money” game, but I wonder if I’ve now chosen to enter the “further degrees and published articles” game.

Schultz also poses a troubling question: if you have no life outside work, how can you possibly live an ethical life, being so out of touch with social institutions? Law is a closed shop, and following the letter of professional disciplinary codes is not enough: I’ve heard it said jokingly “you only get struck off for stealing the client’s money”. While every aspect of the profession continues to be driven by a culture of time-scarce competition over money, there is little chance of its image, let alone the lives of its practitioners, improving.

Other rants on this theme: God no, they mustn't breed!

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Naylor day

This week's Naylor is up.

I may blog more later in the day, otherwise there's always yesterday's collection of links.

(Jonas, working on your question, not sure the article I link to adresses it.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Intriguing intrigue*: stuff that caught my eye this week

1. Depression = genes + environment?

Why does adversity depress some people, while others soldier on cheerfully? We all have two 5-HTT genes: if both are "long" genes, you're likely to be emotionally resilient; if both are "short" you are more likely to be depressed by age 26.

Now, if only I knew why this English study used a sample population of 847 New Zealanders ...

2. Rebuilding Iraq's courts

How do you re-establish a court system with popular support in a country accustomed to law as a rubber-stamp for coerced confessions and torture? With some inspiring work by local lawyers and law students, and the assistance of US imported experts, it seems. Step one? Reinstating the relatively liberal pre-Saddam criminal law; however, there was a fair bit of heel-dragging over this reform:

"[There was a] long delay in replacing Saddam Hussein's laws with the comparatively progressive Iraqi Penal Code of 1969. Despite agreement among the coalition members in April that this was the best option, the change did not occur until last month. The delay, we were told, came because America's coalition allies wanted the death penalty provisions in the code suspended, while Washington was steadfast in its insistence, apparently, that what's good for Texas must be good for Iraq."

3. Manly manliness, the pulps of the 50s

It's no secret that the cover-art for this male medium was weirdly Freudian and often hyper-politicised (is that Fidel Castro with a rubber hose?):
"The moment most often captured on these magazine covers is one in which the menaced [male] subject has already slogged through a snake-infested swamp, been tortured in a Nazi prison camp, washed up on the shores of a cannibal island and now, in torn or shredded clothing, sopping wet or desiccated after crawling through a desert, faces decapitation, consumption by vicious marine life, amputation by hacksaw, attack by alligators, weasels, ferrets, Indian arrows or samurai cutlasses, sexual exhaustion by Nazi libertines, cigar torture at the hands of Fidel Castro and sometimes - not often - incineration by H-bomb."

In all seriousness, though, what does the lurid pulp fiction of the 50s suggest about male repression and anxiety in stiflingly conformist 50s America?

4. Michael Moore ... also a cheating, millionaire fat-cat?

He deconstructs other people's lies and fictions, so it's inevitable someone would look for omissions and misrepresentations in his work, however bad or slanted their prose:

"And there are the lies of exaggeration - details that after marinating in Moore's brain swell into squishy conspiracy tales, like one of those dried sponges that swell prodigiously in water."

"So how has an embittered, cynical man with a paranoid streak as wide as Montana and a dysfunctional relationship to the truth been able to present himself so successfully as a compassionate, salt-of-the-earth, truth-seeking hero?"

I have trouble taking seriously an article that's racked up 2000 words of invective before offering substantiating examples - though the claim the "free gun today with your new bank account" sequence in "Bowling for Columbine" was staged is disturbing (I've not checked this, but apparently there was a 6 week wait and character check on the issue of that gun).

Still, there's a genuine admiration her for Moore's sheer, improbable charisma - and vitriol is always fun.

Can Moore be criticised for being as simplistic as the monolithic Right he takes on? Of course he can. Polemicists aren't obliged to be even-handed. If they were, they'd be too dull to listen to.

5. No-email please, we're French.

Speaks for itself, really.

*With apologies to the "Mysterious Mysteries" of Invader Zim.

Monday, July 28, 2003

A diary entry

As every good office slave and student knows, nothing makes time fly like a deadline. I leave Melbourne on 30 August (and the country on 16 September) and I have the unaccustomed sensation that my sedate little life has strapped itself in and dropped a heavy right foot to the floor.

So, before I forget everything that’s happened recently, I’m going to step back in time and cover ten eventful days in twenty sentences.

Sunday 27 July. The ineffably camp Shaana warned us yoga would be strenuous, and man did he deliver; the combined sense of tranquil relaxation and rampantly surging endorphins at the end, though, was divine. Also bought THE backpack at the Mountain Design factory outlet on Smith Street for my upcoming adventures.

Saturday 26 July. Kicked off having brunch at the Vegetarian Café, 273 Smith Street with Canberra mate Faye: not only was the food excellent, but it’s great speaking to someone going through much the same stuff – we now do the same type of work for different organisations, both escaped corporate jobs in Sydney, and are both doing a Masters overseas next year (she’s going to Columbia - the University, not the country).

After that came, loosely: Smith Street window shopping where I saw THE backpack, collecting MIFF tickets for “Shaolin Soccer”, lunch/a snack at the gorgeous patisserie Laurent (“to the white place!” we cried) with Beth and Nichole, picking up comics and buying “Promethea” vol 1, dinner at Beth’s and reading “Promethea” (sound effects: jaw hits floor, laughter, wailing that I’ll never write like Alan Moore), and seeing “Bad Eggs”.

Friday 25 July. After work with a dozen colleagues and their spouses I enjoyed drinks at Scubar (where the floorplan and décor have morphed from post-disco to ‘Nam movie brothel), dinner at Nudel Bar (never wear a favourite shirt and order laksa), and ten-pin bowling/cocktails at Crown Casino. My lesson for the night, do not run up and bowl just coz everyone else does it that way; relax, breathe: step calmly to the head of the lane and release the ball firmly and directly – this way you will hit something.

Thursday 24 July. A night of beer with “the boys” (broadly defined) in front of the famous/infamous portrait of “Chloe” at Young and Jacksons.

Wednesday 23 July. A light yoga class, where we were warned what Sunday would be like.

Tuesday 22 July. Dinner at home with a flatmate: stupid jokes told to way past bedtime.

Monday 21 July. Nothing of note.

Sunday 20 July. The end of the Ruminator’s visit: dominated by Yum Cha at Shark Finn Inn City where I disgraced myself by refusing to try the chicken feet on the grounds they looked like Fraggle limbs.

Saturday 19 July. Brunch and morning papers with the Ruminator at the Comfortable Chair, Lygon Street; checked out a seconded friend’s pad behind the Casino; discovered the perils of Kahlua hot chocolate after a long day’s walking; had dinner at the Vege Bar, Brunswick Street; and then went to check out some jazz at Dizzy’s that was fine, but too sleepy for our sedate and sleepy mood (we should have gone to see Cat Empire, dammit).

Friday 18 July. A dinner at Ondine, mentioned over here.

I also appear to have been doing my job adequately, getting on with preparations for the overseas move and reading “To the Lighthouse” for the Book Club of Intestinal Fortitude.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Bad Eggs”: Australian crime comedy, a tad underdone

Sometimes, the script comes out of the oven before it’s quite ready, before all the ingredients have settled into the right proportion. It can still taste good, everything you need is in it, but there’s a lingering sense of something missing.

Crime comedy can be tricky: just do the set-piece gags and visual mayhem (“Charlie’s Angels”); or go for a convoluted plot too? Well, if you are going to have a plot, best to have all the action in the foreground, seen by the audience (“Dirty Deeds”).

“Bad Eggs” is funny, but inconsistently paced. The opening sequence borders on magic realism in its surreal progression from the plausible, to the credibility-straining, to over-the-top mayhem. (Anytime you want to bolster a sense of suburban normality before undercutting it, throw in a few golden retrievers and a tai chi class.) The rest of the film just doesn’t quite live up to this opening, and the first handful of newspaper gags.

Where “Bad Eggs” gets most bogged down is that everything to do with back-plot, motivation or character histories is written in through unfunny heavy-handed, talking head sequences. “Ooops, better do some explaining now, let’s get dull and slow”. The jokes deliver, but are usually telegraphed well in advance.

That said, there are some good performances and some terribly well delivered one-liners (shame 30% of them were used in the trailer). Mick Molloy and Bob Franklin, as the partnered bumbling cops in a crooked taskforce, play off against each other nicely; Franklin routinely outshining Molloy by putting some character into his performance, not just deadpan delivery.

Judith Lucy has a fair bit to carry as almost the only female presence in the film and turns in a predictably solid performance. Her romantic antagonism with Molloy really doesn’t spark, though, until the final sequence (which I found hil-ar-ious).

Shaun Micallef has a lovely turn as an oily State Premier, and Bill Hunter’s old-time cop is as accomplished as you’d expect. Alan Brough’s computer nerd was a surprisingly funny character whose appeal, as the SMH put it, is that he just moves through the film at his own pace, disjointed from the action about him.

Sometimes, though, you can’t help but hear the limit of the budget creaking, especially when the boom mike drops into shot.

Watchable, genuinely funny, but decidedly uneven.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Alrighty, then

Yesterday’s Naylor is now up (I just plain forgot) and hopefully it represent a return to form.

Anyone who wants to take a geek and tell me why some entries, such as this and this, have started publishing in a different font to the one in the template (see this entry) please do!

Much to blog (including a debate among friends as to the correct use of “thankyou” and “thank you” or “alright” and “all right”, not to mention my initiation into the views of “purists” as to the merits of non-table formatting), but little time as I overslept.

Question of the day: should I get an iPod and use it to take my CD collection overseas with me for a year? (Slightly-lower-than-CD-quality sound is less an issue with my jazz collection - as much of it has already been digitally remastered from vinyl or tape and is not likely to be a full CD-quality anyway.) Seems like it could be a big saving on space and having to whittle down a choice of albums, but is it a good item to take travelling? Can I get it duty free? Hmm …

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Crimes that shock the conscience of all mankind

It’s no secret that many in the US are International Criminal Court sceptics. An Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by former Reagan/Bush Snr administration lawyers, takes up the refrain in realtion to international criminal law in general. They begin by discussing the Pinochet case and the Spanish judge who attempted to extradite him from Britain to stand trial in Spain for his human rights abuses in Chile. They comment:

“The problem is that [such prosecutions] … are based
on a legal doctrine that has worrisome implications.
That doctrine is "universal jurisdiction," under which every state
is entitled to prosecute and punish the officials of every other
state for "international" offenses. It is a principle that even its
most active international practitioner, Belgium, is wisely
starting to reject: the governing party plans to amend a
law under which activists tried to prosecute George H. W.
Bush, Gen. Tommy Franks and Prime Minister Tony Blair for
human rights offenses (sic) in connection with the wars against
Iraq, even though nobody involved is Belgian …

Universal jurisdiction does have a proper place in
international law. It began as a device to fight piracy and
slave trading, offenses that took place on the high seas,
beyond the boundaries of any individual state. In more
recent years, however, universality has been asserted for
an increasing number of human rights offenses, even though
there is little practice (in the form of actual
prosecutions … accepted as legal by the defendant's
own country) to support these claims. …”

They are starting from the premise that the only actors in the international community are states, that law is the servant of foreign policy and individuals do not exist as legal subjects on the international plane.

Their examples of slavery and piracy ignore the crime of genocide: intrinsically only capable of being committed within a state, and – at international law – punishable by any legal system anywhere in the world.

The point of universal jurisdiction is not to provide law where state boundaries end (the middle of the ocean), but to punish crimes that shock the conscience of all mankind. That is the principle on which slavers and pirates were tried by courts other than in their home countries: their crimes made them “hostis humanis generis” – enemies of all mankind. The crime of genocide, and the laws of war, recognise that individual people are both protected (and punishable) by international law. The piece continues:

“If international law really did permit each state to
prosecute the leaders of all others … this would prompt a
new kind of war, one fought in courtrooms around the globe.
Courts, however, are poor instruments of international
policy, and such a result would make normal international
relations impossible. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
recently said, for instance … that if United States officials
cannot travel to Brussels without the fear of politically
motivated prosecution, then the United States would take
its business (i.e., NATO headquarters) elsewhere.”

This is a dangerous world view. The Realpolitik view that heads of state should never be accountable for their actions, and should be able to be pardoned for the most outrageous of crimes by themselves, or the cronies who succeed them is self-evidently morally wrong.

The idea that the enforcement of criminal law is an aspect of foreign policy is odious, and in any country with an independent judicial system, is a furphy. The stark American fear of “politically motivated prosecutions” is only of any validity in states where cronyism rules the courts – in a country with a functioning court system if charges are brought as a baseless political stunt, they will be thrown out where there is no evidence to support a conviction.

If in a domestic legal system criminals could go unpunished because local politicians thought it expedient in terms of the smooth running of the country, we would denounce this as corruption. The fact that intelligent people can argue a lesser standard should apply on the international plane should, frankly, revolt us.

(PS if anyone can help me get indented quotes working in this template, I'd be most appreciative.)

(PPS thanks for the tips fellas, I am most appreciative!)

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

“The Scar”, China Miéville

So, a while ago I reviewed “Perdido Street Station”. “The Scar” is the follow-up and has a tangential connection to the events of the earlier novel. If “Perdido Street” was a steam-punk take on the Victorian vampire novel set in London, “The Scar” starts off looking like a colonial novel – Bellis Coldwine, linguist, flees New Crobuzon for its new colony, on a ship with a cargo full of convicts who are to serve as labour to the free settlers. The convicts are transferred to the ship at night from rotting prison-hulks moored in the great city’s river.

Familiar, anyone?

However, the action soon takes a different turn when the ship is captured by pirates. (No, honestly, they are scary, nasty and violent.) What follows is a unique and compelling idea: the pirates come from their own state, Armada, a floating city of vessels chained and roped together over an area nearly a mile square. Nor is there a simple “pirate king”, it is divided into ridings, each with its own rulers and systems of law.

Once again, Miéville invents a city from scratch and peoples it with exotic concepts. His particular gift, I think, is for conveying a sense of the alien – unlike a good deal of science fiction, his non-human races are often genuinely weird with motivations that are at first, quite hard to fathom. Sometimes they manage to be quite horrifically alien in the Lovecraft manner, yet no less sentient, rational beings as opposed to just being man-eating nasties.

The plot has some lovely switchbacks, and the author’s talent for action scenes is well-used. The concept of scars (as wounds, as signs of healing, from fights, from surgery, self inflicted, and as a form of personal map or history) as an organising theme is well-used. His remains a fairly brutal, loveless world, and some of the characters may seem a little thin – or at least unknowable. One can feel a little for Coldwine’s plight, but she remains such a stern emotional self-disciplinarian it’s often difficult to empathise with her. The key spy-figure is revealed as nothing but a “skin full of schemes”, without real personality of his own; and the mercenary general/bodyguard Uther Doul is deliberately cast as a figure who keeps his own counsel so closely, it is impossible to know him.

Does “high concept” plot-driven science fiction always have to be at the expense of characterisation? Nonetheless, a rollicking read, fabulously imaginative and memorable, and full of Miéville’s fondness for obscure vocabulary.

My mate Elliot

And a shout out to the people keeping me on my toes over at Naylor’s Canberra. My “no-prize” this week goes to Dan at quantum meruit (chuckle if you’re a lawyer) for pointing out I had spontaneously re-named Libby Morris as Libby Hughes. I have a nasty habit of changing the names of "off stage" characters inconsistently. My writers’ group in Balmain pulled me up several times in the early chapters for changing the Carmichael family surname, and having Marina’s brother’s name shift to and fro between Stephen and Daniel. Until a character actually scores some dialogue, I often have trouble keeping a name in line.

I also agree recent instalments may feel rushed-to-the-page. Happy to receive any substantive comments people have on fixing that.

However, the reward for the faithful is coming, the next three weeks will be the conclusion of Chapter 6 – hopefully much more polished material, and the beginning of a markedly different phase of the novel.

And there may well be sex. (Now if that isn’t a teaser … )

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Spoilt for choice

Hum, time to pick subjects, at least tentatively, for my Masters. Some sort of pre-registration to indicate what I intend to enrol in. Nice to know university bureaucracy is as just Byzantine, no matter where you land.

I need to sit four papers (three hour exams) to graduate with the Masters, one paper per subject. Some subjects offer as an alternative to a three hour exam either: a two hour exam and a 7000 word paper; or no exam and an 18000 word dissertation. Challenging.

To graduate with international law specialisation, three of my papers must come from the following list:

Law of Armed Conflict, Use of Force and Peacekeeping - which would obviously be intensely topical. Despite this blog though, there’s more to international law than war and invading other countries. Not sure how keen I am.

Settlement of International Disputes - a course with a very wide scope: would include topics as diverse as the use of force, the international court and private international commercial arbitration.

History and Theory of International Law - this is lectured by Phillip Allott. I’m reading his “Eunomia: New Order for a New World” for kicks at present – a dense and sweepingly scholarly book. I’m normally suspicious of “high theory” courses, but Allott argues with convincing fervour that the current system of international relations is morally wrong and that only the development of a radically new doctrine of international law is likely to improve the practice of the international community – provided, of course, you can convince people of your theory.

The WTO and International Economic Law - the WTO strikes me as far too important at the moment to ignore. Like it or loathe it, it’s the only international body capable of enforcing its decisions and, as it has the potential to set internationally binding labour standards, could be the most effectual forum for practical human rights implementation. That said, the course coordinators don’t have a syllabus outline up yet, which is not terribly confidence-boosting.

International Criminal Law - International Disputes and Criminal Law are both taught by James Crawford, who’s a major guru, and he judged me in a moot (mock court) once. War crimes law has been a hobby interest for some time, odd as that sounds to say out loud.

So, anyway, if I don’t do Law of Armed Conflict –figuring I’ll cover the same material between the international disputes and criminal law courses, that would be my four, right? No! I want to do these subjects too:

Comparative Public Law – contrasting approaches to federal constitutional arrangements in the US, the UK and Europe.

Law and Practice of Civil Liberties.

The European Union as a New Legal Order.

One thing’s clear – no commercial firm would ever dare hire me again after doing any combination from this set of subjects. (Yes, I could equally as easily specialise in tax or commercial law. Care factor zero, sadly for my future bank balance.)

PS Last week's Naylor is now up. More Thursday.

Monday, July 21, 2003

On your marks, get set – EAT!

Two words you really want to hear from a friend who has told you that they will be paying for dinner when you crack open the menus at a fancy restaurant: “Go crazy.”

So, the Ruminator was down for the weekend and we indulged.

Oh, how we ate.

My going-away present was Friday-night dinner at Ondine, downstairs at the corner of LaTrobe and Queen Streets, a stone’s throw from work. Thank you for the recommendations people, it was simply astonishing.

We had the three tastes of salmon and mosaic of duck and fois gras (sp?) for entrées, the ocean trout and saddle of rabbit for mains, and the truffle-centred soufflé with peppermint scented caramel ice cream and the “chocolate and coffee” (another three-tastes dish) for dessert. I’m not sure how food can be both rich and delicate at the same time, but it was. By the end of the entrées, the Ruminator wanted to have Donovan’s (the chef’s) baby, and by the end of the mains I was prepared to have a go at it myself.

Any lingering doubts about my limited sense of smell making my tastebuds defective have been abolished. The Riesling by the glass was also wonderfully fragrant. (A bit of a theme of the weekend was how little we wound up drinking – just too full of food, I guess.)

The service was discreet but unpretentious, the lighting subtle – but still enough to see by, and the music was all Ella and Louis tunes from my collection. The post-communist kinky-sex themed canvas hanging in the landing/foyer near the toilets was an odd touch, but the use of space in the restaurant was interesting. (We also saw someone who might have been Geoffrey Rush, but probably wasn’t.)

The rest of the weekend was pretty nifty too – but had a lot to live up to from that as a starting point. However, as I was late to the office this morning, the rest of the weekend roundup will have to wait for tomorrow.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Writing exercise: An overdose of insomulin

And so, his imagination soaked with it, each night he dreamed a world of his own. A world the size of that we know, but circling a giant planet as a moon; following its orbit but unrotating on its own axis, so that each night and each day lasted one half a month. Each night would have a coldest part, when the moon passed through its parent’s shadow, both hemispheres out of the light of the sun.

He dreamed of its inhabitants, of pallid Candlemen, their heads crowned with anemone tendrils that gleamed with latern-fish light and gathered smaller creatures of the night into a concealed mouth. Such people might look human in part, but would need no lips or mouth upon their face.

Somnambulists, too, might live in such a world – beings with two nervous and organic systems within the one body, so that half of them might sleep while the other half woke and took control. Two intelligences could thus share one person, each moving between waking sleep and sleeping wide-awake. Somnambulists would be large, but not strong, and have two sets of eyes that never opened together. What social order would serve a race like this? How do four people with two bodies chose to breed or marry?

In all of this strangeness, he dreamt a human colony, founded on a shipwreck, abandoned. A city built about the petrified remains of two giants, and the creature they died fighting: a fist, a face, a talon extruding as vast obsidian slabs from the soil. A city that mixed law and lawlessness, five wards with courts where a judgement is as it was in Irish myth – a doom that alters one’s fate. The wards draw their strength from the giant’s relics. Beyond are the lawless grounds, where all is free but fierce. Among the men and women move people built of perpetual clockwork, able to act out a precisely ordained fate, changing only if by some accident they should ever need re-winding – their memories lasting only as long as their gears turn.

He saw a strange, precise society, turning on its old grooves, run more by judges than its governor and wondered what might come to pass if the colony should even meet its founders once again.

Sometimes the memory of it kept him from sleeping, and sometimes the dreaming of it made him slow to wake.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

If this is as bad as it gets …

Despite yesterday’s piece of self-indulgence, I have nothing to complain about.

The Ruminator visits this weekend, and with great generosity has volunteered to take me somewhere nice for dinner as a going away present. (She has a new job to celebrate too, come to that.) Of course, it’s up to me to pick and book the restaurant – any ideas, anyone? I’m still thinking.

I think our plan is just to drink and eat our way around a few discreet bits of Melbourne, maybe do some shopping. Still, if anyone knows of some good live music Friday or Saturday, drop me a line or leave a comment.

My new, temporary flatmates are great. (I keep staying up past my bed-time with the night-owl of the two, talking and laughing.)

On a completely separate note, one of the joys of being a morning person is about once a fortnight, I just have an unaccountable sense of wonder at the city in the morning – simple things like morning light on the state library, and the pallet of colours under the red-awning of a brightly lit fruit stand can be just breathtaking. Little moments when everyone on the tram seems really uniquely cool in some way, from the girl with a hugely round baby face but a sharp, sharp chin (and funky red shoes and matching skirt) to the guy with hands so big that change looked like play money as he fed it into the machine.

The peril of being a morning person is that no one else is awake enough to share this with, and if you pointed it out to anyone, they’d slap you.
Wild mood swings, strong coffee and wardrobes

I had to take two hours off work this morning to supervise the removalists collecting my gorgeous tawny, century-old wardrobe for the auctioneer’s. Past removalists (cowboys) have chipped it, put nicks in the door, and mysteriously warped one handle out of shape.

At least these guys seemed competent, careful and cheerful. Still, I consigned it to their care without even a signed docket. I accepted my boss’ opinion as to a couple of auction places, phoned around, was referred over the phone by an auction house to a removalist, who then delegated the job to another guy. I am trusting to reputation and could just as easily have handed it over to furniture thieves.

But frankly, even if it were stolen, I’d feel relieved. I’d invested that intractably heavy, awkward, beautiful object (and what to do with it) with so much of my angst over moving house, relocating overseas, studying again and the inevitable administrative to and fro between Cambridge and my scholarship organisation.

Much as I loved it, much as its solid presence made everywhere I’ve landed home, I’d really started to see caring for the wardrobe as a liability and was getting guilty about the damage my serial moves were doing to it.

So yesterday, I was almost crippled by paranoia that the removalists would never confirm a pick-up time and I’d have to start over, that I’d not get funding confirmation from the scholarship in time to make Cambridge’s deadline, that I’d lost a library book, that I’d never get my new room in order in time for a guest this weekend, that I need to look at selling my car and booking the next removal of my stuff to my parents’ in Canberra, that the cat I accidentally let out last night would never come back, etc, etc, etc.

This morning, with the wardrobe gone and a triple black coffee at the morning tea, though, I’m now feeling on top of the world – I have the sense of having done my best to find a neglected pet a good home.

Now, if I could just stop jittering enough to do my work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Guantanamo Bay: the view from here

Last week got a bit heavy on law-stuff, so I won’t be repeating that effort.

But prompted by Jonas, I’m just going to slap down my opinion on the disgraceful situation surrounding David Hicks, one of two Australians being held in Guantanamo Bay, and the legal and foreign policy issues it throws up.

First, as an Australian – why are we taking such a softly-softly approach on this compared to the British? Are we, as Malcolm Fraser challenges, just an unthinking appendage to the United States?

(No, comes the official answer, we strongly oppose the death penalty and will oppose the sentence if Hicks receives it. Now there’s an argument that could rapidly become academic.)

Then, the issues to get a civil-libertarian’s blood boiling are legion. That no civilian Court can issue habeas corpus over prisoners detained at Guantanamo, a legal limbo – neither part of US nor Cuban territory, where conditions are bad enough to be driving inmates to attempt suicide – at least one having already died. That it has taken two and a half years to get Hicks to trial. The fact that the trials before the US military tribunals will be secret, have no right of appeal, and can impose the death penalty. The possibility of indefinite detention if the White House does not certify you ready for trial, or maybe even if you’re found innocent. The risk of co-opting civilian lawyers to lend the proceedings credibility. Oh, and the fact that US citizens still have common-law rights of access to the civil courts, just not nasty foreigners, even the nationals of allies.

As for international law – I have still to hear a credible argument as to why the Geneva Conventions do not apply to men captured on a battlefield, fighting for the then effective government in a region. I am still not convinced that the concept of “illegal combatants” (ie not wearing identifiable uniforms) is anything but a political fiction. Captured combatants are POWs until charged with war crimes and tried, or released at the end of hostilities. Otherwise, they are ordinary criminals to be brought before ordinary courts.

But the thing that really sticks in my craw? Western governments are beginning to treat the rule of law, and what Americans would call “due process”, as a shield for the enemy. Wrong. We abandon these things at our peril. When you relax standards of justice to counter terrorism you risk (strangely enough) unjust results and further radicalising the moderates whose support you need (does no one remember Northern Ireland?). And when we engage in legally dubious adventures such as a naval blockade of North Korea, or the occupation of Iraq, all we do is erode the spirit of international co-operation needed to successfully combat terrorism. Further, every dubious trial and detention in the US erodes the chances of any other power bothering to respect the Geneva Conventions if allied forces are taken prisoners of war.

Now I’m grumpy and want my coffee.

PS To answer the question put by everyone with a talkback show or newspaper column (namely, what crime has Hicks committed under Australian law?), he may have breached the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978. The Act prohibits engaging in hostile activities against a foreign government while overseas, or training for that purpose, unless you’re performing your duty for the Australian government.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Brown tape, brown cardboard boxes; dear god, it's moving day

So I moved on the weekend. And drunk Belgian beer with Beth and others. But mostly the moving thing.

No, the limp is only temporary and the ligaments will reattach any time soon. Last time I ever: (a) do this without removalists; and (b) turn down spontaneous offers of help from several friends. But at the time, I really did think I’d only need help with my bookshelf, mattress and bed-head. And my old landlord and new flatmates did give me a hand with those and other big items.

Still, I managed to foolishly wind up doing perhaps a bit too much on my own.

There is always so much more stuff than you anticipate, and it takes so much longer. Still, zooming about in a rental one-ton van was pretty nifty, once I got over my initial terror and remembered how to drive a manual.

Observation on moving from Thornbury to East Brunswick: only ten minutes apart by car, and it really does feel like the difference between the suburbs and the inner city – farewell excessively wide nature strips, farewell Italian and Greek pensioners taking their constitutional stroll; hello narrow, grassless pavements and share-house students on bicycles. Big plusses of the new house: it’s warm, the bathroom doesn’t flood every time you step from the shower, and it’s much handier for public transport. (I caught a tram to work this morning and it only took 20 minutes!)

I have also gone from sharing with one cat, to two. Munchka – who is the cutest little thing, enough to warm even the heart of a confirmed cat-sceptic like myself – and her somewhat overweight son, He Who Reigns in Darkness and Terror (actually, he’s been pretty good to me so far, I just don’t recall his name).

Still unpacking though, and I have an inter-state visitor this weekend. Perhaps I’m trying to cram a little too much in at the moment …

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Banning “Ken Park”
(Law and morality, part 4)

Police have now chosen not to prosecute protesters who tried to screen “Ken Park” at Balmain Town Hall – including the Movie Show’s It’s a good result, but it’s a bad law that relies on sensible policing to avoid absurdity.

For those not up to speed, “Ken Park” – accepted as an art film in most of the western world and given either cinema release, or limited release for film festivals – has been banned in Australia for depicting actual sex between, involving or with characters portrayed as minors. The actual sex made it only eligible for, at best, an X rating; while the violence context and suggestions of incest or abuse of minors meant put it beyond what was accepted for an X film. There’s an “art film” exception, but as “Ken Park” clocked in with a hefty 6 minutes of actual sex (most of which is apparently adolescent male masturbation) it exceeded the “art” guidelines. Thus, fitting no category, it was rated “RC” (Refused Classification), making it an offence to distribute it, or screen it in public.

Our “Chatterly-ban” era censorship system works like this. The Classification Board of the Commonwealth government’s Office of Film and Literature Classification reviews publications, assesses what age-group they are suitable for and publishes ratings advice – or can refuse them classification altogether. This is purely advisory, as the Commonwealth has no constitutional power to regulate film and literature. All the enforcement laws are state laws. Classification Board ratings can be challenged before a three-member appeal panel, the Classification Review Board. The CRB said in its statement on “Ken Park”:

“The film depicts scenes of sex and violence in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that it warranted Refused Classification status. These included scenes of child sexual abuse, and actual sex by people depicted as minors and sexualised violence.”

Margaret Pomeranz has made the point, having seen the film, that the comments as to child sexual abuse are not at all clear. There is apparently a scene in which a father attempts to fellate his sleeping son, whose age is not directly disclosed in the film and who is portrayed by an actor over the age of eighteen. As for sex between teenagers, Pomeranz has argued publicly that this is not actually a crime anywhere in Australia, provided the parties involved are close in age. This is a film about the bleakness of life in deeply disfunctional urban families, not sex.

I suspect that like “Baise Moi” I’d probably not go see it, if released. And like Pomerantz I support the classification ratings system up to the point where it results in an outright ban. Adults should be allowed to make up their own minds and not be subjected to the rhetoric of obscenity prosecutions that belongs to a time when postal and customs services confiscated “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell” also suffered this fate first imported). These are deeply subjective judgements that should be left to mature citizens to make, not entrusted to prurient bureaucrats with stopwatches.

Besides, banning things only gives them greater publicity, and prompts people to download it from the internet for private (and legal) viewing. I only hope the upcoming review of this absurd situation by Australian Attorneys-General will result in a more sensible system.

Judicial light relief

The New South Wales Court of Appeal isn’t generally noted for its sense of humour. However, JPQS P/L v Cosmaran Construction P/L has proved an exception.

Meagher JA, a known curmudgeon, eccentric and brilliant equity lawyer, when setting out the facts referred to land "situated at Bossley Park (wherever that is)".

Mason P couldn’t resist the opportunity to show up his brother Judge’s ignorance of suburbs without a water view:

“MASON P: I have had the benefit of reading in draft the reasons of Meagher JA.

“I also have the benefit of having access to a street directory. Accordingly, I do not share his Honour's customary doubts about the location of well-known Sydney suburbs lying to the west of Darling Point which sit cheek by jowl with his Honour's customary lack of doubts about most other matters. A useful resource for those who need to locate Bossley Park is By clicking on "map maker" one can find easy ways of getting from, say Darling Point to that suburb. (

“Otherwise I agree with Meagher JA in the dismissal of this appeal, substantially for the reasons he gives.”

It only gets better if you click on the map, showing the good Meagher JA how to drive from his own Darling Point to Bossley Park.

The President’s tipstaff also clearly had a dry sense of humour, adding this to the headnote as a description of the essential finding of law in the case.

“HELD per Mason P (Beazley JA agreeing)

“A useful resource for those who need to locate Bossley Park is
<>. By clicking on "map maker" one can find
easy ways of getting from, say, Darling Point to that suburb.”

It would appear from his own comments that Beazely JA was judiciously amused by the banter among his brother judges.

(For non-lawyers, JA = Judge of Appeal and P = President of the Court of Appeal. I should also acknowledge this one has been doing the e-mail rounds, and A Bright Cold Day in April beat me to the blog.)

PS this week’s Naylor is up.

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

“Go forth and be fruitful”
Prohibiting non-reproductive sex: sodomy, age of consent, and same-sex marriage

(Law and morality, Part 3)

Recently, in Lawrence v Texas the US Supreme Court struck down a state sodomy law, as it applied to consensual acts in private, as an infringement of the Constitutional due-process right to privacy. The case arose when police responded to a misreported disturbance and burst into a private apartment to find two men intimately engaged, and - rather than leaving with a shame-faced apology - arrested them.

To overturn the law, the Court had first to overturn its own precedent in Bowers’ case, which had previous upheld state laws prohibiting sodomy. There is some fine prose in the joint majority judgement of Justice Kennedy:

“ … Bowers [began] as follows: "The issue presented is whether the Federal Constitution confers a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy and hence invalidates the laws of the many States that still make such conduct illegal and have done so for a very long time." ... That statement, we now conclude, discloses the Court's own failure to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake. To say that the issue in Bowers was simply the right to engage in certain sexual conduct demeans the claim the individual put forward, just as it would demean a married couple were it to be said marriage is simply about the right to have sexual intercourse. The laws involved in Bowers and here are, to be sure, statutes that purport to do no more than prohibit a particular sexual act. Their penalties and purposes, though, have more far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home. The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.

“This, as a general rule, should counsel against attempts by the State, or a court, to define the meaning of the relationship or to set its boundaries absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects. It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons. When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice.”

The law can indeed, occasionally, produce inspiring prose.

The US case I found more disturbing was, Limon v Kansas involving consensual oral sex between two intellectually disabled teenage boys, one of whom was sentenced to 17 years. (Some state laws in the US include oral acts in the definition of sodomy, and cover acts between persons not of the same sex.) This law was struck down under Lawrence as an infringement of principles of equality: if one of these boys had been a girl, a “Romeo and Juliet” clause would have applied. Under such laws, where “sodomy” occurs between opposite-sex teenagers, a significantly lighter sentence may be meted out.

It is hard to see these laws as doing anything other than trying to prohibit all non-reproductive, penetrative sexual acts. It’s legislating a code of sexual behaviour that goes far beyond prohibiting violence, abuse and incest.

As a result of Lawrence many, of all orientations and political creeds, see same-sex marriage as the next step. Underlying the existence of sodomy laws, laws requiring a higher age of consent to homosexual acts and laws that do not acknowledge marriages other than those between a man and a woman is a similarly bigoted social consensus whose epoch has passed. The social and legal prohibitions on pre- or extra-marital, and especially non-reproductive, sexual acts served a blunt social purpose.

Some 37 US states have passed “defence of marriage” acts, to prohibit marriages other than between one man and one woman, citing the “need” to defend marriage and “traditional” families. (We might think of the Australian government’s mean-spirited approach to superannuation law reform, refusing the gay partners of deceased persons equal rights in their superannuation, to “defend” the family.)

Legally acknowledged or not, the range of possible family structures has already exploded. All children, however raised, should have the same dense web of legal certainties and safeguards that surrounds those of heterosexual couples. The law’s protection already extends to de-facto (straight) couples and their children, why doesn’t the marriage analogue extend to same-sex cohabiters?

Ultimately, though, it’s about more than child-raising. Heterosexual couples may marry without raising children, and with effective contraception may chose to remain childless. Why then should the law privilege cohabiting relationships merely by reference to their odds of procreating?

Our laws should really reflect the irrelevance of who does what to whom by consent and in private and get on with the business of dealing sensibly with social change that is well beyond holding back.

Monday, July 7, 2003

Legislating for the moral high ground
(Law and morality, Part 2)

All law-making is an expression of values, because all law-making involves choice - and very often the priority to be given in allocating scarce public resources.

More particularly, some laws express, quite forcefully, a self-consciously moral stance. The classic example is prohibition in the US in the 1920s. Prohibition in the US was not about ending the undoubted social damage caused by alcohol consumption, it was about white ango-saxon Protestants expressing superiority of their puritan, Protestant tradition to that of the newly arrived harder-drinking, Catholic eastern-European and Mediterranean peoples. If it had been about ending drinking, there would have been effective enforcement. The myth of the “Untouchables” aside, customs and police agencies were never given the funding they needed, even to pay their officers well enough that they’d be less likely to take bootleggers’ bribes. Like the three-strikes law it was one which existed to express the superiority of one social group over another, it did not aim to end drinking, just to make criminals of a group of whom the legislative majority disapproved - unless they changed and assimilated into the dominant culture of the law makers.

The realisation that all law is, in some sense, a moral expression came to me with the recent Supreme Court case in the US striking down sodomy statutes (more on that tomorrow). It is a move that has been celebrated, or decried, as ending any morals legislation and opening the door to laws allowing same-sex marriages.

My own reaction was to think: “Great, morals legislation is bad”. Then I realised that as a supporter of homosexual marriage, many would see this as moral legislating, whereas I would see it as simply serving a principle of legal equality. Law-making, then, is always moral: it’s always about value-choice.

You cannot legislate social change any more than you can legislate back the tide, but people still believe in laws’ educative effect. Both advocates and detractors of same-sex marriage can argue it would “send a message” that such relationships are socially acceptable; differing only on whether this is a good thing. People thus use legislation to express the superiority or correctness of their value-choice.

I don’t think “morally neutral” law is really possible. Even fields such as taxation and expenditure are value-laden: consider the uproar about taxing books and sanitary items for the first time under the GST, consider the constant clamouring for more health and education funding.

We do have to make moral choices in legislation: and human dignity, equality and diversity are moral principles. It’s in that context I want to write tomorrow about the Supreme Court decision and same-sex marriage.

“The law in its majesty equally forbids the rich man and the poor man to sleep under bridges”
Criminal law as a system of values
(Law and morality, Part 1)

Beth’s recent post on the operation of three-strikes laws in Western Australia for petty property crime and the disproportionate impact on aboriginal youth has sparked this rant, along with the question posed by Michael as to whether the fact that “a law (or punishment) disproportionately affects one group or another allows one to conclude that it’s [a] bad [law]”.

Well, frankly, I think it does.

The last thing the law is, is neutral - the enforcement of criminal law in particular. Police discretion plays a huge role in its practical application, and an overwhelming role in three-strike systems. If you are white you’re more likely to only be cautioned for minor offences, if you are black you’re more likely to be charged. This crudely racist fact is demonstrable through the “civilised” world. Three-strike laws exacerbate the racially biased impact of police discretion, and in effect move sentencing discretion to the police rather than the courts.

But let’s look beyond implementation to the laws themselves. Any rule (laws, employment conditions or organisational policies) can discriminate directly or indirectly. Southern slave states in the US once expressly barred black people from voting: this is direct discrimination. After emancipation some introduced a “grandfather clause”, allowing you to vote in an election only if your grandfather had been so entitled. While this rule is, on its face, neutral - in practice it had an overwhelmingly racial impact, continuing to prevent black people from voting. Indirect discrimination is only visible in outcomes. Similarly, nineteenth century British laws against vagrancy, and contemporary laws against loitering, superficially apply to everyone - but in practice protect the propertied classes from the homeless, and discriminate according to economic status.

Thus, imposing disproportionately harsh and statute-fixed sentences for petty property crime may have a discriminatory impact. A middle-class business person on his first tax-evasion offence and a young indigenous offender on a third shoplifting charge face radically different outcomes. The net harm of tax evasion to society is certainly greater than petty property offences as it (indirectly) robs public education and health systems of vital funds. The tax evader faces no mandatory sentence unless it is his third time before the court, a serial shoplifter gets jail time. Despite the social damage done each year by financial crimes that, the Western Australian legislature is determined to mete out stiff sentences to people who steal food, clothes and bedding. The law is not rational or proportionate, or directed at the greatest evils - it is capricious, inflexible and aims to send a moral message. The fact that young aboriginal men are vastly over-represented in petty offence prosecutions is such a long-standing fact that to claim a legislature can pass “neutral” law in ignorance of the consequences is beyond credulity.

What such a law expresses is a moral position: “we are not interested in why such crimes occur, only in imposing brute discipline on a social group that refuses to respect our rules.” The overwhelming link between poverty and lack of educational opportunity is not addressed.

Proponents argue the law’s harshness is mitigated by allowing for diversionary sentencing: sending offenders to rehabilitation programs, not jail. In impoverished, isolated, rural aboriginal communities where these offences are at their highest no such programs exist. The exception, in practice, tends to let white kids from good suburbs off easily. After all, their futures shouldn’t be ruined by a few mistakes.

I have so much more to say on this topic, it may consume my week.

Anyone wanting light-hearted entertainment, read last week’s stuff. Especially the fiction. Or the stuff about Cambridge.

Friday, July 4, 2003

A thought meant for some day in September

Every now and then, when I get bored, I’ll flip through the quotes on my work-issue quote a day desk calendar.

I justified this to myself yesterday by only “spoiling” the surprise of quotes for dates after I leave for England. The one that struck a cord was:

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possible not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born” – Anais Nin.

I think this is terribly true, through each new friend – or new experience – I learn something about myself and my capacities and capabilities.

Similarly, through talking with people who don’t share my views, I’m forced to re-evaluate my own cosy trendy leftist thinking (as Jonathon Franzen notes in “Being Alone”, few narcissistic pleasures beat that of enthusiastic, impassioned conversation with people who share precisely your views).

We discover our own identities through interaction with others, and through new experiences. I’ve learned a lot about myself, I feel, moving cities twice in three years and starting as many new jobs in that time. Living overseas for a year (or more) now seems like just the next step.

For someone who has always seen himself as risk-averse, change-averse and wedded to his comfort zone, I certainly inflict a good deal of change on myself. I like the resilience and confidence I’ve learned as a result.

Oh, I also liked as a quote:

If you have any trouble being condescending, find a Unix user to show you how it’s done” – Scott Adams.

It could only be funnier if I understood it.

Thursday, July 3, 2003

Very nearly halfway now …

This week’s Naylor is up. The project now clocks in at five draft chapters at 22, 873 words, about half a 50,000 word “typical” novel. Alright, fine, I’ll probably pass half-way two weeks from now.

Still, the reason I’m reflecting on the progress today is that this week’s portion is the first “completely new” part of the project I’ve put up in blog format – everything I’ve posted before now was at least a rough draft before I left Sydney last October. A good portion of it I’d even had the chance to workshop with my writer’s group.

But now, the plot is changing a bit and the section that came this week needed a total re-write. Also, somehow, I lost my electronic copy of that bit. Only around 500 words, but whatever, it sucked.

It’s funny, the writer’s group was a big part of the last three months of my Sydney experience. I really liked getting to know the other writers as storytellers. I got involved with their stories, week to week. Most had finished draft novels they brought in to share with the group chapter by chapter. I learned a good deal from what I saw the others doing well, or less well.

I haven’t missed that though, I suppose the blogging community gives me the same sense of fellowship with people who are writing because they enjoy it. The Naylor site has also attracted some useful feedback, some in comments, some in e-mail. It’s been rewarding. I hope I manage to finish the bastard.

I’m already getting an idea for my next project, but maybe it’s just those China Mieville fuelled, insomniac semi-hallucinations I’ve been having when I should be sleeping of late. Yes, this would be odder than some of my old fantasy novel ideas. (I’ve kinda written the Jeeves and Wooster as twenty-something lawyers piece already – just as a thousand word short-story.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

What in the weird? Weirdness in brief

1. Potter-the-Devil: These sites are everywhere, but this is one of the more amusing - Demon-Buster: Harry Potter. I particularly like “I was informed that REAL curses are in the books”, but don’t worry, they’ve not read the book to see: “DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME DEFENDING HARRY POTTER. WE DON'T READ IT. We read the Bible.”

Of course, children should be allowed to read Tolkein, but never Rowling – as she promotes evil.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

2. We can keep guns at home, but not swords. I wonder if the local gun-lobby will protest about the right to bear samurai swords or the rights of recreational or sporting crossbow shooters? Despite the recent murderous samurai supermarket rampage in the states, I’ve not yet heard “swords don’t kill people, people kill people”.

It's OK, though, you can keep your machete.

3. Suburban quagmire: how often in inner-urban Melbourne does the fire brigade have to rescue people at night from perilous quicksand? The ABC reports: “Firefighters in Melbourne have rescued two women stuck up to their belly buttons in mud.”

Is it just me, or is the most amusing part of the report the use of “belly buttons” by our national broadcaster?

4. Do this right now before someone fixes it!: Go to then type: weapons of mass destruction.

Don't press Search!

Next click the "I'm feeling lucky" button - and read the error message carefully ...

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

So, it’s not a Hogwart’s letter by owl …

… but I did receive my college admission pack from Cambridge this week.

If there was any doubt I was stepping into an ancient, occasionally anachronistic institution, it’s been allayed by some of the more useful information provided.

There is a fair bit of jargon to conquer. A formal dinner is a “Hall”. To “matriculate” is to join the college – and requires signing the college register at a formal dinner:

“Please note that the appropriate dress for this event … is evening dress and gown. You will need both these many times during the year.

Evening Dress: … "black tie". Or your own formal National Dress.”

It becomes apparent that “gown” means “academic”, and not “ball”:

You need an academic graduate gown for the Matriculation Dinner, the weekly Grad Hall dinner and a number of other events during your stay. The correct gown is a black Cambridge gown: a BA gown if you are under 25, an MA gown if you are 25 years old or more. Undergraduate gowns are noticeably shorter and you should not wear one. Sources of new and used Gowns include Ede and Ravenscroft [who?] … Also the Porters at Trinity Hall often know of gowns for sale.”

Righto, then. I get to wear a Masters gown just coz I’m old. And I either have to pack a tux or National Dress.

(Where is my Steve Irwin outfit?)

On bicycles:

“A bike is almost essential for getting about. Each bicycle must have the College number assigned to its owner painted on the frame. Numbers are issued by the Porters. Bicycles are forbidden in College except in the racks provided … If you wait a couple of weeks, there is an auction of unclaimed bikes on the first Sunday of Full Term, run by the police ...”

Cars are also regulated:

“If you are under 25 years old you need permission to keep a car from the Graduate Tutor and the University Motor Proctor. … There is very limited parking at Wychfield and … [you] need permission from the Wychfield Residential Manager and Head Porter.”

I am also getting the impression that it’s the Porters who have the inside running on everything. (“Psst … where can I get a gown/bicycle number/parking permit?”). They do everything, it seems other than carry your luggage. (“Do not be confused by literal meanings, grasshopper.”)

There are also numerous warnings about the weather: mild summer, winter with extreme wind chill. It is also noted that:

“An umbrella is very useful.”

I imagine that counts as English understatement.