The best of everything 2010

It's fun, and a strong blogging tradition, to look back over year just gone and create "best-of" lists. So here's absolutely the definitive list of the best music, books and films from the year. Just kidding, it’s just a random list of my favourite stuff of the past year, conjured by my imperfect memory and no-doubt riddled with omissions, but filled with gems regardless, promise!

Best Music (I discovered this year):

Tijuana Cartel

A great band from Australia's Gold Coast introduced to me by a friend who stayed with us earlier in the year. alternative/electronic/hip hop/flamenco. Unique and awesome.



An incredibly-talented kid from Berkely whose first album "The Human Condition" will be released next month. We found him a couple of months ago via a friend and he's been on high-rotation ever since. His sound is... um... pop-orchestral soul?


You can choose what you want to pay to download the album pre-release.


The ex-lead singer of Sigur Ros released his first solo album this year - "Go" - and it's wonderful. As ethereal and soaring and gorgeous as you would imagine.



I adore Shpongle, so no surprise I think their latest album "Ineffable Mysteries from Shpongeland" is another classic.


Ulrich Schnauss

This album isn't from 2010, or even close. A Strangely Isolated Place (which the track below is on) is from 2003, and Far Away Trains Passing By came out in 2001, but I only discovered them by chance this year and regret the years I was unaware of this gorgeous ambient music.


Best Books (I read this year):

The Tall Man - Death and Life on Palm Island - by Chloe Hooper

Absolutely my book of the year and genuinely one of the best things I've ever read, The Tall Man - Death and Life on Palm Island is the story of an Aboriginal death in police custody in 2004 and a searing portrait of white/indigenous relations. Should be required reading for all Australians.

Switch - How to Change Things When Change is Hard - by Dan Heath and Chip Heath

The follow up the Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath have done it again with Switch. It's both an inspiring call to action and a practical hand-book for creating change in your life, community or world. Switch is written with the journalistic flair and storytelling style of Malcolm Gladwell but rather than describing a phenomenon it extracts lessons and teaches you how to do it too.

The Eternal Frontier - An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples - By Tim Flannery

America is a very big, very diverse and very beautiful country. After we drove from DC-SF in June I wanted to know more about how it got to be the way it was, so read Flannery's riveting account of North America's evolution over the past 65 million years. Ever since I have been able to impress friends with insights on how the Sequoia's survived the asteroid impact, why most of the world's edible nuts are from North America and how horses evolved here. Americans - if you want to understand the continent you are standing on, read this book.

Cognitive Surplus - Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age - by Clay Shirky

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Clay Shirky is the internet whisperer. He brings together diverse trends and disparate information and weaves them all together to reveal a deeper and more nuanced picture of the world social technologies are creating. Like his previous book Here Comes Everybody it is the most insightful thing I've read on the subject, aimed not at illuminating some business strategy or risk as so many books on the internet are but instead designed to reveal how these technologies are changing our cultures, societies and, ultimately, us.

Rand McNally Road Atlas

We set off from DC with two smartphones, an iPad and a GPS. They weren't nearly enough. With coverage in the middle of the country incredibly patchy and the GPS being useless for choosing long-distance routes on day 3 we bought a proper countrywide map, the kind you spread on your lap in the passenger seat (or "navigation station" is it became known) and get an overview of your next three days of driving and imagine alternative ways of getting there. So much more fun this way too.

Best Films (I saw this year):

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy's first film and, like much of his art, it's edgy, unique and a lot of fun. It combines incredible footage of now-famous street artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey with a is-this-real-or-not portrayal of the arts industry they (and he) have created.



A wonderful and bitter-sweet biopic of the short-lived but groundbreaking political career of Harvey Milk. And we live just a few blocks from where it all happened!



One-third Alan Ginsberg biopic, one-third the courtroom drama of the Howl obscenity trial, and one-third a psychedelic animated reading of Howl, Ginsberg's most famous poem. 100% great.


Avatar 3D

A genuine technical triumph. Just a great cinema experience.


Best Websites (I used for the first time this year):


I'm really enjoying keeping my alternative, shorter, "bits and bytes" blog over on Posterious. Check it out if you haven't yet.


A super-intelligent question-and-answer site. So much wisdom so freely shared.

I've been looking for a homepage like this for a while.

Best Software (I used for the first time this year):


Integrates social media with gmail, a really powerful tool for building business relationships.


What I'm using to draft this post. The opposite of Rapportive in a way - it blocks out all the noise on your screen (social media notifications, tabs, various programs), giving you just a plain black box to type in. It's helped me become much more productive when I write.

That's more than enough, I hope you either had or are about to have (depending on where you are in the world) a fun and fabulous New Years Eve and that 2011 has amazing things in store for you.

Our "Best and Brightest"?

In a New York Times article otherwise spent bemoaning the unnecessary glamorization and compensation of those on Wall Street despite their obvious errors and shortcomings William Cohen committed one of my hated pet peeves yesterday.

Despite the very dire consequences of the latest financial crisis that Wall Street perpetrated on the world, America cannot seem to shake its infatuation with Wall Street bankers and traders.

We continue to shower them with riches, prestige and glory. We make movies about them. We write books about them. We seriously overpay and then envy them. This year alone, while millions of others suffer from the Great Recession, bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits. Accordingly, Wall Street remains the No. 1 destination for our best and brightest." (Emphasis mine).

Later, he says:

Why do we seem to excuse one insider-trading and pay-for-play scandal after another? Why haven’t we woken up from our generational slumber and realized that we would be better off rewarding real engineers, not financial engineers?

To this I would add: why do we persist in referring to those who are drawn towards an industry known for its insider-trading, pay-for-play scandals and lack of morals our "best and brightest"?

It seems too obvious to debate but I'll unpack the words separately anyway.

By "brightest" Cohen can only mean, presumably, "having the best university grades" or perhaps "being most recruited out of university". But grades in what, recruited by who? A tight set of qualifications in specific degrees are generally what gets one to Wall St and determines who gets recruited for these lucrative positions. Clearly physicists are left out of this equation, and doctors, engineers (who Cohen himself seems keen on) and historians. Philosophers? Feggedaboutit. The qualifications for this title seems self-referential: they are the brightest because they are who Wall St wants, so they must be. And this, of course, is the myopia Cohen himself is railing against.

But putting "brightest" aside, "best" is more offensive. Anyone so drawn to Wall St simply because "bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits" could never be our best. Our best are out there taking risks, creating value and helping people. They are starting or transforming companies, organizations and, yes, governments. They are working on the hardest problems of our times, helping our society move towards greater justice, equality and prosperity. They are entrepreneurs, artists, activists, visionaries, leaders, facilitators.

And you know what? Our best don't do it for the money. They are not drawn to the lure of obscene and undeserved compensation, or profits earned from moving money around, from tricks or loopholes. Our best are drawn to the challenge, the cause, the need. They do what must be done because there is no-one else to do it. They work on behalf of their family, community, nation or world, not for their own fame or greed.

So I welcome William Cohen's call for "the courage to return Wall Street to a less exalted place", and hope we can start by ceasing to refer to bankers and stockbrockers as our "best and brightest."

Image from Sad Guys on Trading Floors.

The Europe of the conservative imagination

This article by Jeffrey Kuhner in the Washington Times is a great example of conservative commentary in response to Health Care Reform. It's the Washington Times, so not completely mainstream (being owned by a Korean cult leader and all) but it's only a small jump beyond what you can read in the Washington Post. Certainly it gets a lot more crazy in the right-wing blogosphere. I particularly wanted to share it with my Australian readers (hi Mum!) as it seems unique to American political culture.

Kuhner writes:

Mr. Obama has achieved what his liberal predecessors - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton - could only dream of: nationalized health care. Obamacare signifies the government take-over of one-sixth of the U.S. economy. It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state. The inevitable permanent tax hikes, massive public bureaucracy and liberal ruling elites will stifle competition and initiative.

Socialism is the road to economic ruin and fiscal bankruptcy. It subverts democracy, threatening the very future of our constitutional republic. Socialist states degenerate into some form of autocracy or technocratic neo-feudalism....

The Obama revolution threatens to tear America apart. This has happened before. Slavery eventually triggered the Civil War between the industrial North and the agrarian South. Abortion is the slavery of our time - the denying of basic human rights to an entire category of people.

Conservatives will not be passive in this onslaught on all our core values. Mr. Obama's true legacy may be that he divides us deeper than ever before - unless he abandons his revolutionary project.

These are selective excerpts. You can read the whole thing here.

There are two things I consistently find amazing about conservative commentary here. The absurd over-reaction and the lack of context.

The "revolutionary" health care bill he's referring to is less progressive than that proposed by Republican Richard Nixon when he was President. It is very similar to the policy implemented in Massachusetts by Republican Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney and elements of it began life as a proposal by right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation. Far from nationalizing health care it contains no public option to compete with the very-much alive private sector. It's a modest reform which moves the health care system in a progressive direction, largely by guaranteeing their access to insurance.

This is what people are losing their minds and threatening "civil war" over. This intensity of reaction has become standard to anything Obama tries to do.

Even more standard is the conservative dismissal of Europe: "It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state." The "Europe" being referred to here is not, as you might expect, a continent on the other side of the Atlantic ocean from America. The "Europe" Kuhner is referring to exists in the conservative imagination. The idea of it has been established over decades to become a code word for government excess and economic malaise.

But Europe isn't just an allegory! It's a real place! And as such it collects all sorts of statistics that chart its economic progress, not to mention such curiosities as educational achievement, environmental impact and overall happiness. And while Europe has lots of problems they're not doing too bad on many of those statistics. Indeed, even the much-derided French actually create more GDP per worker hour than the US. But they trade much of their potential GDP for several times more leave than US workers get.

You actually can learn a lot from looking at other countries, but to do so you have to treat them like real places and study what they're actually doing rather than just use them as straw man stereotypes and symbolic code words.

The dangers of media fragmentation

Teabaggers descend on Washington I ran a social media for social change workshop on the weekend for people involved in the AshokaU Changemaker Campus program. During it I was asked a question which often concerns me but for which I have no good answer: how do we reach diverse audiences with our message when so many people's media consumption is so narrow?

The future of our democracy may rest on finding an answer to this question.

While I'm obviously a believer in the democratizing power of the internet, and I have worked for many years to help realize this power, I am also aware that the ongoing fragmentation of audiences into discrete niches poses challenges to our governance.

It is now possible to curate for yourself an entirely ideologically coherent media diet. You could listen to only right-wing talk radio, watch Fox on TV and read the conservative blogosphere. You can do the equivalent on the Left (although it will be harder to find left-wing talk radio after the recent demise of Air America).

The result of this fragmentation and curation is that Americans on the left and right scarcely seem to live in the same country. The teaparties are a prime example of this, but the numbers actively involved are relatively modest, despite all the attention they are given. Less dramatic but more shocking were the results of a recent survey, commissioned by liberal site DailyKos and conducted by non-partisan polling firm Research 2000, of registered Republicans.

The 2003 Republicans sampled hold some pretty odd opinions. 39% believe Obama should be impeached (for what the poll does not ask). 63% think Obama is a socialist. Only 36% are sure he was born in the United States. 53% think Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Obama and 31% think Obama is a racist who hates white people. 28% believe the 2008 election was stolen by ACORN. Truly Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus.

You can see this dichotomy play out on issues after issue, and not simply in terms of different opinions about what should be done but different opinions about what has actually happened.

In a recent poll only 12% of the popular felt they had got a tax cut, and fair enough, the tax cut was small, but an amazing twice that many, 24% of respondents, thought their taxes had increased under Obama. As 95% of the population has received a tax cut all most of these people would have needed to do to prove their conjecture wrong is compare their latest pay slip to one from 2008.

This confusion isn't rare. Significant chunks of the population think Obama is trying to end private health insurance (when his plan is, in fact, center-right from a policy perspective with no public option), has reduced military spending (it has gone up) is anti-nuclear (he's in favour) is about to take away the guns (he has said repeatedly that he's not proposing any new gun control legislation). And on and on including, of course, whether Climate Change is happening or not.

One of the interesting aspects of the DailyKos poll was how uniform the responses were across regions and age groups. Here's the response to the "is Obama a socialist?" question:

Remember that this is registered Republicans, so an unusually political group, more likely than most to consume political media. And, I think, for a republican the choice of political media is clear - Fox news and the rest of the right-wing media constellation. It is this shared media diet which produces such a uniformity of belief, and it is the hyper-partisan nature of this media which produces disagreements about what constitutes fundamental reality, such as whether the President of the United States was born in the country.

This is where things get dangerous for democracy. If a society cannot agree on what the issues are, cannot reconcile on a jointly-held view of what's actually happening and who the actors are, then it will be impossible to come together to face the challenges and opportunities which confront them. When a society cannot agree on what these challenges and opportunities are they have no chance of making the necessary sacrifices to change, adapt and move forward.

Instead we are trapped in a battle of wills, of who can more persuasively describe a version of events, with the media satisfied to provide a platform for "he said, she said" debates.

For those of us who care about the future of democracy it is vital that we seek to build tools that bring diverse perspectives together, rather than the easier task of hosting narrow and self-selected conversations. We must move beyond the converted if our democracy is to stay vibrant, creative and capable of making future-focused decisions based on the best intelligence.

The question of how a society talks to itself in the 21st Century remains to be answered but is crying out for new thinking and approaches. The fragmenting of the media landscape is permanent, but without a capacity to talk together outside of our ideological, demographic and class niches our politics will fragment alongside it and our capacity for effective governance may also disappear.

DC Snow Weekend

As you might have heard (or lived through) DC got a bit of snow on the weekend. A record-setting amount of snow actually, an amazing 20 inches in 24 hours, near shutting the city down. Lots of funny and strange things seem to happen at times like this, and perhaps the strangest story to come out of what was dubbed snowpocalypse09 was a huge public snowball fight on the corner of 14th and Ust NW, in the heard of the U St shopping and dining district, at 2pm on Saturday. At some point during the ruckus, which had about 200 participants, some snowball enthusiasts decided to target passing cars, and in particular a massive Hummer. I can understand their desire, there's no car that more makes me want to participate in acts of civil disobedience than the Hummer, a converted troop carrier for god's sake. Anyway this particular Hummer contained an undercover police office, who got out of his vehicle brandishing his gun. At people bearing snowballs. Madness. It was all captured on camera thankfully and the detective is now “confined to desk duties” while the incident is being investigated.


This was all odd enough, but what's really revealing is what happened next. Here's how the local news reported it:

A lively snowball fight on D.C. streets took a dark turn Saturday when anti-war protesters dressed in anarchist garb showed up, and a D.C. police officer pulled his weapon out of his holster.

But things started to turn for the worse when the crowd -- some carrying anti-war signs and dressed all in black with masks -- began to pelt passing cars. A plain clothes D.C. police detective emerged from a Hummer -- it's unclear whether it was his personal vehicle or an unmarked police vehicle -- after it was struck. The detective began yelling at the gathered crowd. At one point, he pulled back his jacket, exposing his service weapon -- it's unclear if he did this intentionally. That's when things took a darker turn.

So they blamed a group “dressed like anarchists” for causing the problems, and indicated that the undercover detective only showed his weapon rather than brandished it, and that the only gun drawn was by a policeman who arrived later. Okay, a couple of things here. Firstly, the “dressed like anarchists” bit. By this we can only assume they're referring to people wearing balaclava's and scarfs around their faces. But aside from the seemingly omni-present anarchists (and bank robbers) who wears this sort of get-up? You got it – people in cold places! Like places where it's snowing like crazy. Like DC on Saturday.

Secondly, re the gun, see the video above. There's enough evidence online that there's no excuse for a professional news operation, reporting hours after the event, to get this wrong.

So besides being an example of a police officer completely overstepping the bounds of their authority it's also an example of the media completely overstepping their bounds of reporting, adding their own spin while blatantly mis-representing the facts, and doing so on the side of authority. This happens all the time of course, and this particular incident may not be the most important example in the world, but it is illustrating nonetheless. Protests in particular always get this treatment by a new media which is part of the status quo being protested. Not that this was even a protest, but the media were all too keen to fit it into their knee-jerk protest narrative of rowdy kids and put-upon police.

On a more personal note I had a productive snow weekend. Firstly K and I made a film with our flatmate D entitled Kiev: City of Love. It's a beauty I think you'll agree, we're very proud of it (My second film ever!).


What do you think, time to get a pilot to the networks?

Then our visiting mate Scott and I made this snow Loch Ness Monster which is honestly the best snow sculpture I've seen since the dump. A weekend well-spent!

Snow loch ness monster

Media gullibility and the country that can't turn away

America was transfixed on Thursday last week by the story of an experimental home-made hot-air balloon which lifted off from a Colorado backyard, supposedly with a 6 year-old boy named Falcon inside. As you've no doubt all heard Falcon turned out not to have been in the balloon at all and the whole thing was, it seems, orchestrated by the father who hoped it would help land him a reality TV show he desperately wanted. So all in all a pretty weird story. I mean, who names their son Falcon? But even weirder, in many ways, was the media's reaction. They dropped everything and covered the story minute-by-minute as the balloon floated over Colorado. President Obama was literally giving a speech in New Orleans when the feed was cut and the presenters breathlessly announced the urgently-breaking news of what has become known as "balloon boy". On Twitter, where I first heard of the story, #balloonboy instantly became a trending topic, being talked about by seemingly everyone. For the next couple of hours it was constant coverage, the excitement, trepidation and commitment of the reporters and fascination of the public at large undiminished by the lack of any new news to report.


This is a common pattern in America cable news coverage - the unceasing coverage of a simple story with good visuals. Hurricanes are always a great example of this, as we cross live to reporters who confirm that yes, it is still raining and still windy but beyond that add nothing to our understanding of the situation.

The constant refrain on twitter and TV was concern for the safety of six year-old Falcon, with prayers and speculation focused on his well-being and mental resilience. This concern was no-doubt real, but at the same time completely ephemeral. Falcon was flying through the air in a UFO-shaped balloon, so therefore was worthy of our concern. But this is not how a society shares their concern for six year-olds, it is how a society shares their love of spectacle.

There is plenty to worry about in America if you do care about six year-olds and other children.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, in the United States:

A child is born into poverty every 33 seconds. A child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds. A child is born uninsured every 39 seconds. A child dies before his or her first birthday every 18 minutes. A child or teen is killed by gunfire every 3 hours.

Every year 3 to 10 million children witness domestic violence, and 1 in 12 high schoolers are threatened or injured by a weapon annually. 5.7 million children live in extreme poverty and 8.9 million are uninsured.

But these are not issues that get covered by the news. They don't lend themselves to hours of monotonous footage or breathless reporting from the field. They are too big, too complex, too much of a downer. Better to focus on an individual fairytale story, use up the airtime, get through the day, hope for another spectacle the next day.

The tragedy of America is that it often seems obsessed with ephemera. I get angry at the news media for being so inane, for containing so little real news and analysis, but could it be that a country get the news media it deserves?

Since the hoax came to light the media has been filled with hand-wringing and condemnation. Most commentators are blaming the 'reality-TV culture' because the parents were veteran reality TV weirdos, having twice appeared on 'Wife Swap' and pitched ideas for their own show to several cable channels. But this isn't so much about reality TV culture as news media culture. It seems to be only too easy for lunatics to manipulate an industry ever-eager for spectacle. There's no room on a 24 hour news network for coverage of the German elections (only the world's fourth biggest economy) but a homemade balloon with an oddly-named boy on-board? Scramble the choppers!

The objective of people like Falcon's father is always fame, and when America obliges by making them famous it can only be seen as a winning strategy.

So much time, so little news

American news channels are really quite amazing in their ability to cram as little news as possible into the 24 hours/day they have to work with. I watch more hours of news programming here than I used to in Australia but I know vastly less as a result. No international news. No real analysis of anything except the political posturing. No ability to separate fact from rhetoric. And that's just CNN, Fox is a whole different absurd story. Check out Jon Stewart nailing CNN for their insipid "we have to leave it there" approach:

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