Monday, August 26, 2013

Quixotic

As with every election I can remember, policy in Australia is equated with budgets. Australian electioneering seems to have to settings: slogans and balance sheets. Slogans by their nature speak for themselves and detailed costings are overwhelming to most voters (voters are also sometimes known as 'people' in case you're wondering). I have a sneaking suspicion this is because Australian politicians for the most part have the same natural talent for rhetoric as a howler monkey with severe social anxiety. They can be just about trusted to rote learn a sound bite, but long form oratory exceeds their capacity.

So once everybody has shouted "stop the boats" and "trust us" a few times, there's an awkward pause until somebody remembers to start shouting about costings. Apparently what the average Australian really wants, what school teachers around the nation have known, is to be presented with voluminous amounts of arithmetic. Not that this isn't important, mind you, just that it's unlikely most voters will brush up on their forensic accountancy skills before choosing who to vote for. Those are the choices though, three words or five hundred pages.

Policies are more complex (costings are complicated, but in the end they're just addition and subtraction); they require the politician responsible to be able to clearly explain a concept and, most inconveniently, the practical and ethical motivation behind it. On top of this a television news service needs to be willing to broadcast a single person talking for as long a several continuous minutes. Given these limitations I guess it is hardly surprising that what we get is slogns and budgets. As you may be able to tell I sometimes get wistful for a world in which the various parties would explain their social and economic foundations and I could leave it to the clever chaps in the treasury to sort out the numbers.

Then Clive Palmer joined in.

If you don't know Clive Palmer, he's the guy who's building a replica Titanic. A real full scale working replica. He's the guy who's putting scores of animatronic dinosaurs in one of his resorts to create a robotic Jurassic Park. Also, he's the guy who decided to start a political party named after himself (a feat matched of course by Bob Katter).

Clive wants my vote not because his ideas are better than those of his opponents, but because his opponents are "boring". He's not afraid to play Eye Of The Tiger as his entrance music, he's going to cut taxes, increase spending across the board, somehow end up with more money, and his solution to the "problem" of boat people is to buy them a plane ticket (honestly, that last one is kind of awesome). Clive is a National Living Treasure. Really.

Clive knows what Australia needs, at least he knows what the Australia he sees through his unique lense needs. It needs Clive. Watching Clive tilt not only at windmills, but at basically anything larger than a shoebox that crosses his path has almost been enough to change my mind. Maybe I don't want idealism and grand ideas, maybe I do just want a neat little accountant to mind the books.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Quick

I have been thinking this week about the endless geyser of vitriol that is Internet comments. There has been a steadily growing stream of stories about people getting abused on pretty much every social media platform available. It turns out that many people's first response to reading something that they don't like is to abuse/threaten/type incoherently at the person who says it in the most vile way they can think of. Personally, my reflexive action when I read a tweet is to think of some sort of glib joke. Mostly I don't follow through on that reaction because I feel that a few hundred smart ass comments a day probably has long term effects on one's soul. I am especially careful to filter my reaction when it's something I disagree with because that makes me far more likely to make an asshole comment rather than a smart ass one. There is a certain class of person, however, who prefers death threats and capitalised mis-spellings of every slur they know and these people are also unsurprisingly prolific in their abuse.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to explore when it comes to figuring out why people engage in such behaviour. There are obvious culprits like anonymity, access, entitlement, different social rules, and so on that discussed widely when talking about cyber-bullying and its close relatives. The one I find most interesting (for the purpose of this post at least) is the speed of it all. The Internet has obviously facilitated fast communication; that may not be the point of the Internet, but it's right up near the top of the list. I don't know exactly how long it would take to write a "*$&% U DUMB #%*)&% PIECE OF @#*@$@ IMMA #%^@^ #%^&*#^*" type comment, but I'd guess with the right (read: wrong) autocomplete, probably under five seconds. Combine this with the knowledge that the message will often be delivered (if not received) in under a second, the ability to satisfy whatever your knee-jerk reaction is to somebody else has increased by orders of magnitude over the last few years. There are lots of really good things about this but when it comes to the quality of the content being communicated I think it's provably bad. Simply put, second thoughts may not always be better, but even if they're only sometimes better not having them at all makes your overall communication quality (in terms of content) worse.

There is a reason people advise taking a deep breath before responding, or waiting a day between writing an angry email and sending it (or even better waiting a day before writing it in the first place). I wonder what the level of discussion in comment threads would be if you had a system where a person could not comment on a post/article/video within 24 hours of first reading/viewing it. A person comes along, reads the article, maybe reads the existing comments if there are any. They could then tag the post as one they want to respond to and get an automatic notification when they are allowed to respond. I'd probably cut it down from 24 hours once the first response has been made by the specific reader (ie they have to wait 24 hours for the first comment, but once they are engaged can respond to other people's comments after an hour), but the delays would be something you'd let the author set in the first place.

Obviously such a system would destroy "audience engagement" or whatever the correct term is for letting people spew thoughtless characters into a text box is, and would render a service like twitter meaningless, but I'd be interested to see the results in a blog or YouTube comments scenario where the author wants to engage in some sort of meaningful discussion with the audience. My premise is that most of the people willing to come back a day later aren't going to do so just to write "#@#& &^@#$% @#^#%$^".

Next week's word is quixotic.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pasta

I don't dislike pasta. On a scale of one to predictable Italian stereotype, pasta for me rates a solid five, maybe five and a half. The wide variety of forms are, when push comes to shove, largely cosmetic although not without some meaningful difference in sauce retaining capacity and beard friendliness. Hearty and easy to cook, pasta provides a reliable base for a proper meal. For any given mood, there is likely a pasta sauce that will scratch the itch if not completely satisfy.

Let's face it though, pasta is never at the top of the dinner list, it may have few flaws but it has nothing exceptional to commend it. Given the time and energy, meals would be a subtle mix of flavours and textures reflecting the creative intent of the cook and mood of the diners. Things would be sauteed, reduced, caramelized, and otherwise enhanced. On a cold Thursday night after a long day at work, however, you make pasta. You throw a couple of handfuls of crunchy yellow shrapnel into a saucepan and spend the time it takes to slightly undercook it pretending that the first four things you take out of the fridge will be a good accompaniment. This is the true role of pasta: fallback position. Sure, a little more effort can be expended to make a pasta dish good, but that same effort could be expended to be make something as good or better than pasta, leaving spaghetti mediocranara available for the next cold Thursday.

Why then, do restaurants persist in putting pasta on the menu? There is no such thing as great pasta. There's pasta that's better than average but it's not great. The very best pasta in the world is flour and water (maybe eggs) mixed together. It can't be made badly enough that there can be a really good version, you might as well claim to make the world's best glass of water. The sauce can be pretty good, but then again a similar or better sauce could be made and put on something you might actually want to eat, like a steak. So the meal itself is, by no fault of the restaurant, limited to being "yeah pretty good I guess". Combine that with the negative associations of being too enervated to cook something you are interested in eating, and what's left is the least appetizing and least impressive thing that could be put on a menu.

I know that sounds like my claims of liking pasta aren't wholly accurate but I just don't see the point in ordering something at a restaurant that you could easily make at home but choose not to because it feels like a cop out. If it's a cop out at home, what does that make it for a business whose only job is to cook? Might as well just put peanut butter toast on the menu and be done with it.