Grander Bailout

16 January 2009

A Plane Lands on the Hudson

Paseo de los Heroes, by nathangibbs, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)When faced with physical danger it’s far easier to panic than persevere. Yet all that stands between success and failure, heroism and disaster, is a clear understanding that a process must be initiated, a path chosen and quickly followed. Still, that “all” is an obstacle over which almost everyone will stumble, far too difficult for most of us to contemplate. But not for Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, who guided an Airbus A230 aircraft that lost the use of both engines shortly after take off from New York’s La Guardia airport yesterday to a successful landing in the Hudson River with no fatalities.

The choice must have been terrifying – guide the stricken plane to an airport in New Jersey, risking the lives of all on board and many more besides, or turn and treat the Hudson as a landing field, with whatever consequences that might offer up. But others can tell the story better than me:

Wall Street Journala comprehensive description of the landing

US Airways – official press release

CNN – coverage of investigation to come and accounts of the impact

Newsday – a short biography of the pilot

New York Daily Newsan extensive set of photographs

New York Timesaccount of the rescue

What’s most striking about the media coverage is the sense that everyone, from the pilot to the cabin crew, ferry captains, police divers and many others, were doing precisely what they were supposed to do, and everything they could do, and everyone survived. That’s a truly salutary lesson, given the profound gravity of the situation.

It should pay to understand that the extraordinary involves a great deal of the ordinary. Amidst the petty dramas of our lives – increasing rent, decreasing economic growth, misbehaving children, truant lovers or what have you – just getting the job done, focusing on the task at hand, is all that really matters. We don’t have the terror of a forced landing or the icy waters of the Hudson to contend with, we merely have to make decisions and follow them through. That doesn’t seem too difficult any more.


Democracy? You’re Standing in It

7 November 2008

Or the Illusion of Representation

Scottish Parliament - debating chamber, by Daveybot, with Creative Commons licenceDemocracy is the point at which freedom concedes to the majority, when the power to effect change is harnessed by the need to protect social mores. As a sort of rolling compromise, reassessed daily, reconfigured through political decisions quite removed from the experience of the general populace, it’s bound to disappoint. Those charged with representing the electorate, however it might be formed, are at best tangential in their politicking, presuming that their decisions are feasible for society as a whole. This somewhat shaky concept rests on the settled ground of the convention that once every certain number of years, or in an otherwise defined period, public participation determines the composition of the legislature.

In other words, we hold elections and hope for the best.

But what happens if public participation, as represented by votes cast, falls below a critical level? Can we still claim to have a democracy when insufficient electors determine who will lead and legislate? To what extent should representative democracy actually involve direct representation through election? Determining the threshold below which we might be able to say that a country has only a democratic façade could hardly be a straightforward task, given the many permutations of representative democracy around the world. Without considering gerrymanders or other electoral systems that restrict voting rights, how do we determine whether a democracy is, in fact, democratic by the standards I’ve set?

What immediately springs to mind is measuring the turnout of registered voters, but few countries make voting compulsory, so the extent to which those eligible actually bother to register will vary from country to country. The voting age also differs between countries, so pools of eligible electors won’t be directly comparable either. My initial guess is that an appropriate measure would be the number of people who voted as a percentage of the total population, on the presumption that democracies – Western representative democracies at least – have similar percentages of non-eligible voters, with a possibly higher than average non-voting prison population in the United States but similar percentages of underaged populace in most countries (only 7 countries have a voting age of 16, with most of the rest set at 18 and two at 25).

365-268, by sallyrye, with Creative Commons licenceNow this is by no means a precise measure, but it will allow me to discuss something curious about the presidential election in the United States this week. With the world almost literally watching, Barack Obama won an impressive victory. He’s an impressive man; I hope my children watch him as they grow older and realise that someone born of two cultures into a world of discrimination can excel, and do so based on convictions rather than malice. And we can all only hope that his politics are more representative of America’s aspirations than those of his predecessor. But it might be hard to tell.

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A Tale of Interesting Times

25 October 2008

Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis

These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.

Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”.  That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.

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From the Newswires

6 September 2008

The Persistence of Journalistic Bias

Objectivity is the journalist’s catch-cry and crutch. We might presume that it’s simply a function of news writing, but perspective is everything with the written word. When a newspaper journalist mentions objectivity it’s either a shout in rage at the way things are when they should no longer be, or a whimper of shame when happenings prove bias to be inevitable. But is the reading public prepared to scrutinise, to decide when coverage might be other than what it claims?

By and large, we in the minority of the world’s population with access to the Internet still rely on the newswires to bring us the business, to tell us what’s been happening this minute, this hour, this day, this week. And who amongst us seriously asks “is this correct?” or “why is this so?” or how could that be?” Not many at all. We accept that reportage is an approximation of reality, that what might be near enough is probably good enough. And we read on, understanding the world in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

But think about the acceptance of approximation for a while. Not only does it mean that we’ll never know ‘what really happened’, but it also indicates that we’re not very concerned about bias, which is what occurs when objectivity no longer pertains. In a maybe-biased-maybe-not world, how do we discern the effects of propaganda, and the extent to which any part of the media colludes with government in presenting a picture of that which has never been? This is not a problem of our epoch alone, as any historian would admit, but it has become particularly un-nerving just now, when so much information can be had, but so few search through it diligently.

Allow me to offer a brief example from that most biased of journalistic pursuits – the coverage of war. Search the archive of the New York Times online and you’ll be able to find a wealth of military coverage, but one particular article is noteworthy for exposing the mechanics of how both sides in a war might twist and break their own credibility in reporting battles, if only we’d stop and think awhile.

Relaying a report from London, the New York Times shows how some American publications covering one war – I’ll discuss which later – have been making “their accounts of the present operations interesting, tactics which seem to be copied, indeed improved upon” by their counterparts on the enemy side. Here is the crux of the problem, whether in war or in peace. Most of what happens is not very interesting, and certainly not interesting enough to fill a daily newspaper. When happenings capture attention, they’re converted into Events and that attention is recycled every day until the next big happening comes along.

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Show and Tell

24 August 2008

One Picture, 706 Words

There is, we are often told, an old Chinese saying that a picture tells a thousand words. But no-one ever mentions which picture, what words and who might be listening. Or, for that matter, who might be watching, wondering. Consider the photograph on the left. What does it tell us? It shows an athlete running into a crowded stadium – only the marathon allows for that. His salute suggests victory ahead, and a certain confidence that would only come from entering the stadium with a comfortable lead. He is, in fact, Samuel Wanjiru, and he’s just over 400 metres away from crossing the line first in the Olympic marathon for men in Beijing this morning. We don’t know that from the picture, yet a quick search of the Internet will give us the background, the frame if you will.

But leave Wanjiru aside now, including his stupendous capacity to run just over 42 kilometres in 2:06:32 hours and not seem to be tiring. Consider what’s happening around him instead. Click on the picture to enlarge it if you need to. The crowd haven’t quite noticed Wanjiru yet, but they will soon. The stadium announcer will point him out, and cameras are just starting to relay his image to the big screens high up in the stands. And, if you look carefully enough, the screen in the picture is exhorting the crowd to cheer, in both Chinese and English for good effect.

Now ask yourself this: why does the crowd need to be told to cheer? This is no reminder. Crowds cheer – that’s why they go to any sporting event, let alone the Olympics. Not everyone understands the technicalities of every event, but when Wanjiru makes it to the track, when he runs beyond the frame, so to speak, they’ll know. So again, why do they need to be told?

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After the Event

30 May 2008

What Whispers Beyond the News?

Old New News, by ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceEvents are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?

Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.

Its Sandwich Time!!! By ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceBlogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.

It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.

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Familiar Strangers

27 April 2008

One Woman, Two Crowds in Hong Kong

Strange Fruit, by rogiro, with Creatve Commons licenceOne of the things that quickly become apparent when attending a protest rally is that despite the age-old accusation of rent-a-crowds, most people really don’t know each other. Sure, they might know of each other, which is never terribly difficult when you come from a small community, but they’re not overly familiar, and names are often the first thing exchanged. In my last post I wrote that internal differences are the real strength of a community, but does this lack of familiarity in a protesting crowd zap that strength, wither any resolve? As it happens, quite the opposite is true.

Two rallies were held in Hong Kong today, one in my small community of Discovery Bay on Lantau island and the other in the Admiralty business district, both as a reaction to the less than transparent way the Hong Kong authorities have been investigating the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores, a Filipino migrant worker. In a sense the attendance of strangers at both rallies – people who, by and large, knew of each other more than they really knew each other – mirrored the Hong Kong life of the woman we were remembering, the woman in whose memory we were demanding justice be done.

strange, by we-make-money-not-art, with Creative Commons licenceMany people in Discovery Bay knew of Vicenta, but not all that many people knew her. Likewise, or perhaps even more so, on Hong Kong side. Such are the work conditions of a domestic helper, with only one day off a week and a full schedule of chores to fill the day and at least part of the night. In these circumstances, friendships aren’t easy to form, and when they happen they’re often held back by the sheer workload. Vicenta had friends who will remember her dignity, her happiness and her compassion. But to most people here, Vicenta was what Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman have called “a familiar stranger”.

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