If you were lucky, you caught Requiem for Detroit on ABC2 last Thursday.  It was a stunning documentary that looks at the demise of a once thriving, major American city to a husk of its former self. Buildings are abandoned, collapsing in to themselves and slowly are being returned to the earth with plants growing up amongst the ruins. The population has shrunk to less than half of its former size.

Coming from a country with a housing shortage, it is bizarre to see hundreds of abandoned houses- and there are many thousands of abandoned houses across the US as a result of people defaulting on their home loans during the GFC. And they don’t just sit there neatly with the windows boarded up quietly waiting for the next tenant: copper pipes are stripped, doors and roof tiles are taken, vandals trash them and they are set alight.

Detroit has been rocked by a number of events from race riots in the late 60s, with heavy-handed police tactics; the surge in fuel prices in the 70s; the arrival of crack cocaine in the 80s and then the GFC in the 00s.

What struck me most about this documentary, is that it seemed to be a symbol for the collapse of Western civilisation if we don’t heed the signs. It seems we are on a tipping point in relation to the environment, water and population and we can dither & choose to ignore it, or we can take on the challenges and see if we can make a difference.

Interestingly, in Detroit, some of the most interesting projects have come from individuals and community groups, rather than the government. In 1986, Tyree Guyton, started The Heidelberg Project and turned an abandoned suburb into an outdoor artwork.

Goodwill Industries has established the Goodwill Deconstruction Project which involves providing training for former prisoners and recycling materials from abandoned houses and then pulling them down. Some of the land is now referred to as urban prairie.

Speaking of doing something positive, don’t forget to bring your unwanted shoes to uni this week for recycling as part of the In Your Shoes program. The collection bin will be on the South Lawn from 12-2 from the 11th to the 15th of October. De-clutter your wardrobe, feel good about yourself & improve someone else’s life to boot.

*Requiem for Detroit will be available on iView until Saturday, 16/10/10

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a melbourne spring

Traces of spring

Spring time in Melbourne is a confusing time. Of all our changeable seasons, spring is probably the most capricious, a time when it can be sunny and rainy simultaneously and when it is advisable not to leave home without sunglasses, sunscreen, cardigan and umbrella and maybe a scarf too. Promisingly sunny skies can turn in an instant to grey, with icy winds and wet-streaked streets.

However, after a long cool winter, any slight raising of the temperature brings people, other than smokers, out into street cafes, parks and gardens. White limbs are exposed to scraps of sun in subconscious attempts to increase vitamin D and raise melatonin levels.

Indigenous Australians recognise around six seasons and so it’s no wonder our weather doesn’t fit neatly into the European system of classification. I wonder sometimes how confusing it must be for European plants to know when to blossom and when to lose their leaves.

Planter box (made by Salvation Army's Creative Opportunities)

Anyway, in the spirit of spring, I have planted a whole lot of seedlings in my new planter box. I’m very excited about this box, as it makes it much easier to work in the garden, being at waist height. Also, I only have a paved courtyard & so everything must be in pots, which although it’s good from a weed point of view, they dry out so quickly.

I used to think that gardening was totally boring – that is, until I tried it. There is something very special about getting your hands in the soil and participating in the growing of your food. I suppose there’s not so many opportunities to connect with nature in the inner city and, like staring into a starry starry night, it puts your life into perspective- a mote in the universe- and yet inextricably connected.

"mysterie l'horizon" with apologies to Magritte

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Doing the Splits

The article in Gourmet Traveller, Battle of the Bills, got me thinking about the culture around bill splitting and money in general. WASPs are often derided because of their alleged mean-spirited approach to paying the bill at the end of a group dinner out. You know how it goes- “I didn’t have the garlic bread…” and a dissection of the bill ensues with whipping out the phone calculator and furrowed brows. Even worse is when someone leaves the dinner early and deposits some notes on the table for their share except when the bill’s divvied up, somehow you’re $30 short.

What happens when cultures collide? In my experience, Spanish people as well as Chinese, are likely to make a grab for the bill and try to pay for it all, particularly if they suggested the dinner to begin with. WASPs are left pathetically proffering their bills which are batted away by the more determined payer. For some, this may be experienced as a nice windfall but for others it feels like things are out of balance- as if someone’s bought you a Christmas present and you didn’t buy them one. (Does anyone else keep a stash of generic gifts in the cupboard for such emergencies?)

It’s quite amusing to see who wins when a Chinese person goes up against a Spaniard – generally it depends on who is more devious or has greater muscle- or the longer arms. Pity the poor hospitality worker who is sometimes dragged in to referee an unwinnable situation.

I think there is also something more than ethnic culture happening in the bill-splitting arena. Different families and different generations have different attitudes to money. My parents lived through the Great Depression and so were green long before it was fashionable. Growing up we had it drilled into us to switch off lights in unoccupied rooms, rug up rather than use a heater & to share the bathwater – 3 inches of water, tops. While I’ve kept up the light-miserliness, I have confess to enjoying very deep baths (luckily for the drought, I don’t have a bath at my place L).

Research has shown that the “tightwads” outnumber the “spendthrifts” and they also feel pain when they spend money and pleasure when they are saving, so that quibble about the bill actually stems from trying to avoid pain!

Maybe there’s also the Aussie sense of egalitarianism at play here- if we each pay for what we had, then we’re even stevens.

It’s certainly easier to simply divide the bill into equal portions, but what if you’ve just ordered an entrée because you are on a low income and your friends on good salaries are ordering multiple cocktails? Should you have to put in $80 for your taramosalata?

So what is the answer to the bill-splitting dilemma? I try to put in enough to cover what I’ve had, plus a bit extra to make sure there’s enough for sometimes forgotten items, like corkage or that fifth margarita (kidding). And ideally enough for a tip as well- although that’s a whole other area. As for dealing with the person who always insists on paying, once you know their modus operandi, you just have to try to beat them at their own game.

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Is self-esteem cultural?

Radio National’s “All in the Mind” recently aired a program in which they explored several studies into the differences self-esteem between “Westerners” and “East Asians”.*

Research, by Professor Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia, comparing self-esteem of Americans with that of Japanese, Korean and Chinese, indicates that Westerners have relatively high self-esteem and East Asians have neutral self-esteem. This was interpreted as being connected to the Western individualistic culture and the East Asian more collectivist culture. According to the research, Westerners rate themselves on their own assessment of their capabilities, whereas East Asians place higher importance on how they are perceived by others.

According to Deborah Ko, from the University of Hong Kong, in the West, the self is seen as something that is fixed, whereas in the East, the self is seen to be malleable and something that should be improved upon. Also, modesty is more highly valued- people with high self-esteem are often considered arrogant. Someone who feels superior to their peers isolates themselves from the group. Westerners are perhaps more likely to aspire to be someone with high self-esteem or to be attracted someone like that.

The program got me thinking about a comment Sarah made in class a couple of weeks ago, that Australians, unlike Americans, seemed reluctant to promote themselves (in the context of getting noticed in the digital publishing world). In some ways, Australians seem more like the East Asians in these studies- although for different reasons. We have a reputation for cutting down ‘tall poppies’ and if you sing your own praises you are considered to be ‘up yourself’. It is not a result of living in a collectivist culture, but something that was imported with our many British ancestors but perhaps also relates to our convict origins. There is something deeply anti-authority in Australia and until recently, there was a strong sense of egalitarianism. I say until recently, because I think changes in economic policy- the rise of the user-pays system, and the shift to the right in politics, has put a serious dent in the “fair go for all” mentality.

The flip side of having high self-esteem may be that you feel you don’t need to improve on yourself- how many times have you heard an obnoxious person (usually on reality TV) say “This is who I am and I’m not going to change”? You can also cut yourself off from learning something new if you think you know everything already!

Another interesting finding was that in the West, if your self-esteem is low, you are at risk of depression, whereas in the East the correlation is much lower. Perhaps the prevalence of depression in the West is also linked to the increasing fragmentation of family and community in an increasingly competitive society. Independence is highly valued- sail around the world solo anyone?

I think it’s important to point out that psychological research seem to be interested primarily in the ‘average’ person in any population. The studies seem to focus on the people who fit into the middle of the bell curve rather than those at either end and so it can seem to promote stereotypes. Perhaps looking at the people who don’t fit the mould  would produce even more interesting results.

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tea, té, arbata, çay, cha, the, tey, shai

Some say that coffee is the most valuable traded commodity after oil, but second to water, tea is the most consumed beverage on the planet. According to Wikipedia, it outranks the total consumption of coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. All non-herbal tea comes from one plant, camellia sinensis, which gives us black, green and white tea as well as the more unusual varieties such as, kukicha, which is made from the twigs of the tea bush and the beautiful jasmine lotus balls, which unfurl into a chrysanthemum-like bloom- best appreciated in a glass pot.

The Tea Centre has hundreds of different types of tea including many types of herbal tea.

Right now I’m sipping a Husk herbal tea called Harmony, which has cinnamon, lemon balm, rosehip, apple, clove, ginger and cardamom and will presumably help me live in harmony with my fellow creatures (perhaps they should sell it in a convenient pack for sipping when driving). There are so many varieties of tea, even along the supermarket shelves, as well as at dedicated tea shops like T2 that have sprung up around the place, that it got me wondering what exactly are we looking for in a humble cup of tea…

There are health benefits claimed for tea, particularly green tea, including reducing diabetes, heart disease and cancer, although more research still needs to be done to confirm preliminary results.

But what about herbal teas? Chamomile is said to help with stress, rosehip is a tonic for the liver and kidney, cinnamon is for digestion and circulation, fennel for weight loss and ginko biloba for concentration. Then there are the blends- detox, wellbeing, sleepytime, relaxation, passion, revive and fitness mix.

As I perused the aisle of the supermarket the other day, I wondered about our high expectations of tea. Are we really convinced that we can revive passion or loose weight by drinking tea made with a tiny bag of dried and crushed leaves? Are we somehow hoping to change our lives by partaking in a cup of tea? Or perhaps it’s somehow more than that. The Japanese tea ceremony is so ritualised that it has became a form of meditation. Maybe by partaking in a brew of tea, we are somehow creating a time in the day to pause and reflect. However, I’m not sure that dunking a tea bag in hot water qualifies.

According to the British Tea Council, (yes there is such a thing) in the UK, 96% of tea drunk is made with tea bags. I find that a disturbing figure as tea bags are generally made with the ‘fannings’ and dust left over from the production of the higher quality loose leaf tea. If you want a better quality and flavour of tea, try using a tea infuser with loose leaf tea. It works out much cheaper than tea bags and given the superior taste, justifies the minimal extra effort required.

I am an Earl Grey addict and have been searching high and low for a fair trade version in the loose leaf. The best one I’ve tried so far is the Hampstead Organic Fair Trade. It’s a delicate, fragrant guilt-free brew, which is refreshing, but beyond that, I somehow don’t think it’s going to improve my life, despite the presence of bergamot oil, which may have properties to protect my neurons from degeneration (this could well be too late, I’m afraid).

On that note, I feel the need for a cup of something to watch TV with.

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How much has The Age changed since 1975?

I seem to remember that when Andrew Jaspan was editor of The Age, he floated the idea of the newspaper downsizing from its current broadsheet size. Not surprisingly, this was met with a barrage of near hysterical complaints from readers who felt fiercely loyal to the present layout and perhaps thought that the content would diminish in quality as the size of the paper shrank. I recall that in a radio interview on Jon Faine’s 774 Morning program, Jaspan defended the idea by mentioning a number of quality papers that had a non-broadsheet format, such as The Times and Le Monde. Le Monde is in a Berliner format, which is between a tabloid and a broadsheet and the size that Jaspan suggested might be good for The Age.

I was surprised to learn that the word tabloid is connected to the word “tablet” and dates back to the 1880s when a pharmaceutical company began heavily marketing their new compressed tablets, as opposed to the powders that were usually sold for various ailments. The word tabloid began to be used to refer to the compressed nature of the stories in certain types of newspapers. In an odd coincidence, Microsoft’s early version of the iPad in 2001, was called a Tablet (no relation).

Jaspan indicated that there was an inevitability to changing the size of The Age- it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. The broadsheet size has been seen as a barrier to young people becoming readers, this, and the difficulty of reading on public transport- were both given as reasons for The Times changing to ‘compact’ format in 2004. (Compact format is slightly smaller than a tabloid.)

Well, Jaspan was removed as editor in August 2008 and so far The Age has resisted the urge to downsize- aside from the 550 Fairfax journalists who were retrenched that same August.

The Age has experienced a downturn in circulation in recent months, but according to Business Day, The Age will be committing additional funds with the aim of increasing circulation over the next year.

I wonder if the size issue is still on the agenda, given the rise in electronic consumption of news media and how long it will be before we no longer have paper newspapers.

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Art. lies & film

I am the sort of person who is often distracted by the art work in films and TV shows- sometimes trying to peer around corners and characters to get a better look. I saw Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer recently, and was mesmerised by the large abstract paintings in the atmospheric house by the sea.

If you haven’t seen Ghost Writer, this is a really well-written review in the New Yorker, that doesn’t give too much of the plot away.

I was unable to discover if these paintings are by an artist or if they were made by the art director specifically for the film, but I did learn that the stunning ocean views from the beach house in Massachusetts were in fact fabricated. The house, which I had taken to be an architecturally designed holiday house owned by someone rich and/or famous, was a set constructed for the film and the windows were merely green screens, with the views added in later. The location shoots were done in Germany and Denmark, as Polanski was avoiding the US due to a crime dating from 1977 where he was tried for the sexual assault of a minor. He entered into a plea bargain that meant he only had to undergo time in a psychiatric hospital, but he fled when it seemed he would be given further jail time. The law finally caught up with him in Zurich and he finished the film while under house arrest. The case has now been resolved. I feel a bit conflicted about seeing a film directed by a man convicted of statutory rape- although the girl/woman has said publicly that she has forgiven Polanski and had requested that the further charges be dropped, so perhaps I can forgive him too?

In films, production designers are responsible for the look of a film, in relation to its sets. They would be the ones to choose the art works, as well as books, furniture and other props on the set. I often find myself struggling to read the titles of books in the bookcase or on the coffee table in films and on TV – often an impossible task, which makes me feel sorry for the art director or props master who has so carefully selected all the props. I also get upset when they blow up things, especially vintage cars, Mixmasters and the like– it seems so wasteful. I look forward to the day they can do this entirely with tiny models or CGI. In fact maybe there could be a new job on the movie set- waste reduction supervisor.

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