Category Archives: Uncategorized

’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari_21-lessons-for-the-21st-century

2018, 318 p

This is the third book written by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri. His first, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in Hebrew in 2011, and translated into English in 2014. His second book, published in 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow subverts the idea of ‘history’ to look to the future (a no-no amongst historians). In this third book, he returns to the present and the immediate future with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Historians are certainly getting around! As with The Road to Unfreedom (my review here), it seems that historians no longer restrict themselves to things that have already happened, but are venturing into prediction. I don’t know that I’m particularly persuaded that a historian has any particular skill for prognostication, beyond an awareness of precedence and a span in their view. Hariri is an academic military historian – a historical genre that I am not fond of, but he wanders far from his origins here.

The book itself is divided into five parts. Part I, The Technological Challenge, mounts for me what was the most insightful part of the book, where he marries the broadening provided by Big Data (‘infotech’) and the narrowing provided through algorithms (‘biotech’) to argue that the world will soon have a large “useless” class, which will need to be managed socially and politically. Many of the professions and skills that we assume are based on human insight can, in actually, be reduced to a series of algorithms, and this even extends into the creative sphere, where music, art and film can be tailored to a market ruled by algorithms. (I think of Spotify and how it can easily provided me with a whole afternoon of listening pleasure without me even thinking about it).

Part II The Political Challenge looks at globalisation.  He refutes the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’, arguing that all 21st societies (with the exclusion of Islamic State) subscribe to the same economic template. Nationalism, religion and immigration all challenge globalisation, exemplified by the current tensions within the European Union.

Part III, Despair and Hope looks first at terrorism and war, but then argues instead for a spirit of humility, especially in advancing ‘God’s’ claims. Although he is Israeli, he holds all religions at a skeptical distance.  Part IV, Truth, examines ignorance and fake news, and the manipulation of political opinions through algorithms and popularism. His final section, Resilience, emphasizes that during the 21st century, people will be exposed to relentless expectations of change that our current education system cannot prepare them for. He finishes what was, for me, a rather limp recommendation of meditation – a  disappointing ending to what was, in places, an insightful book.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Movie: Birds of Passage

I’ve avoided watching Narcos and all those drug films set in Colombia. This is one different, however. It shows the effects of the drug trade on an indigenous family over a number of decades, as they become more affluent and family loyalties are stretched and broken.  Mainly in Wayuu dialect, there isn’t much Spanish, and it’s pretty fast and indistinct.

Interesting, both as a story and as visual anthropology.

My rating: Four stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 22-31 October

Empires of History Podcast. The Ottoman Series. I’ve decided to join a class at my U3A on the History of the Ottoman Empire. I missed the first class and am feeling a little out of my depth, so I’ve downloaded this series. It’s American and I’m not sure whether it’s complete or whether he ran out of puff, because the last one was in June this year. Who knows, perhaps it’s a long time between episodes. Even though many of the names are unfamiliar, he doesn’t move so quickly that they all merge into a big muddle. He’s obviously reading it from pages (which you can hear rustling) and the production values are pretty basic, but I’m finding it interesting and useful. However, the special episode with historian John McHugo was pretty ordinary.  I’m up to Episode 8 The Thunderbolt Strikes, Dec. 19, 2018.

In Our Time Another podcast that’s been hanging around on the phone for ages, and first recorded in 2016 is 1816: The Year Without A Summer. During 1815 Mt Tambora erupted in Indonesia, the largest eruption in recorded history. This episode has a volcanologist , a historian and a professor of literature who discuss the world-wide ramifications of this eruption. It caused famines in post-Napoleonic Europe, it might have triggered the west-ward movement of anti-slavery Americans across the mid-west, and the wild weather it provoked kept the Romantics inside their holiday home in Geneva, making up stories like Frankenstein.  It’s an interesting application of big history onto an abrupt environmental intervention.

Earshot (ABC). I must confess that you’re NOT likely to hear “Quick- an emergency!- we need a historian!!”  But in the case of Mosul, when it felt to ISIS, a historian was just what was needed to report the facts of what was happening, on the ground, when journalists could not get there. At great personal danger Omar Mohammed created the Mosul Eye blog (which still operates).  This Earshot Episode Mosul Eye This is his story.

99%Invisible Apparently Toronto has a love/hate relationship with its raccoons. Who knew?- I didn’t even see a raccoon while I was there. In fact, have I EVER seen a raccoon? Anyway, apparently they get into the rubbish and strew it around, so the City authorities contracted a design company to design a raccoon-proof compost bin.  They had to lock securely, so that the raccoons couldn’t get in, but they also had to open automatically because they were collected by a truck with a motorized arm (like the trucks we have here in Melbourne) The resulting bin, described in Raccoon Resistance had a sort of dial-lock, but would it defeat the raccoons??  The website has videos which had me cheering for the raccoon. (The answer is no…)

The Documentary (BBC). Professor Elizabeth Dore conducted the first large-scale oral history project in Cuba in thirty years, and this podcast Cuban Voices is based on some of the interviews she conducted. This episode was put together after the selection of Miguel Diaz-Canel to replace Raoul Castro in 2018. Her respondents talk about the shortages during the Special Period, and some speak with nostalgia of the time before Cuba was opened up to tourism.

Assignment (BBC)  Genoa’s Broken Bridge. In August 2018 the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed. Opened in 1967, it was one of the longest concrete bridges in the world, connecting Genoa with the rest of Italy, and Italy with Northern Europe.  When it collapsed, killing 43, questions began to be asked about its construction methods and the effects of privatizations.

The History Listen (ABC) Historian Ruth Balint talks about her mother’s recipe book in Cooking for Assimilation. Her mother Evi, came to Australia with her husband and baby son in 1938 after Hitler marched into Vienna, before the wave of post-war European immigration from 1945 onwards.  Her recipe book, written first in Hungarian but increasingly in English, documents her mother’s growing network of neighbours and friends in that time-honoured tradition of recipe-swapping.

Letters of Love in World War II. I can’t bear to keep listening because I’m using them up and there’s only two more left after this.  But I can’t bear to not listen because I want to hear what happens next. In Episode 6 Germany: On the Approach, it is 1944 and Cyril is in Europe, going through France and then across to Germany as the German army is in retreat. Interestingly, they start re-numbering their letters to each other from ‘1’ again after Cyril’s short break in England.

Outlook (BBC) I’m quite claustrophobic, and the idea of diving INTO an iceberg makes me feel lightheaded. It might look beautiful, but all that calving and grinding and moving….no thanks. The Diver Trapped Inside an Iceberg tells the story of Jill Heinerth, photographer and explorer who eventually decided that perhaps it was dangerous after all.  30 Oct 2019

 

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

pilkington_rabbit

1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge database.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 7-21 October 2019

I’ve fallen behind so I’ll compress these into one entry

Letters of love in World War II. In Episode 5 D-Day Visitations we are now in 1944 and Olga is surprised and delighted by Claude’s fleeting visit home to take control of a new tank. The short visit rekindles their relationship which was looking inexplicably rocky in the last episode.  I’m enjoying this so much that I only listen to one episode at a time to make it last longer.

Rough Translation. This podcast seems to have changed direction this season. It used to be about a concept and how it was expressed in different cultures. The episode Mom in Translation is more about how the individual changes when in a different culture. In this episode, an American mother married to a soldier of Filipino background shifts with their young children to Japan, where now she is the odd one out with her blonde hair and pale conmlexion. Her little primary-school-aged son, who never fitted into the American schools on army bases, decided that he wanted to attend a Japanese school, which meant that she had to readjust her ideas about mothering.

Revolutionspodcast. The Tsar might have done the progressive thing by emancipating the serfs (one of those give-with-one-hand-take-with-the-other arrangements whenever some powerful group is threatened by losing an ‘entitlement’) but he was still the No. 1 Assassin Target amongst radicals.  In The Tsar Must Die, we hear about the multiple near misses that man had…. for a while.  In Episode 10.16 The Russian Colony we hear about the different radical groups in the 1870s and 1880s. I found this one a little hard to follow – too many Russian names to listen to!

History Workshop  In Concentration Camps and Historical Analogies, historian Dan Stone unpacks the idea of a ‘concentration camp’, challenging the accusation that Trump’s migrant detention centres qualify as such. His definition has the inmates of a concentration camp removed completely from judicial oversight and any system of justice. He distinguishes between the Nazi extermination camps and concentration camps, arguing that people did not stay for any length of time in the Nazi camps, and that these should not be used as the template for a concentration camp. He demonstrates the wide range of concentration camps across 19th and 20th century history.

Outlook (BBC) Identical twins often have a special bond, and when Alex Lewis lost his memory after a road accident, his identical twin Marcus helped him to rebuild his lost memories.  In The painful secret I hid from my twin, there’s a very textured story of memory, secrets and identity.  It’s difficult listening, but very good. It’s the basis of a documentary released on Netflix and some cinemas called “Tell Me Who I Am”.

Earshot. While we’re into some difficult listening, ‘The Call: Inside the Christian Brothers‘ is also very good but challenging. The Christian Brothers have really been brought into disgrace in the Royal Commission against Institutional Sex Abuse, and this program has interviews with two former Christian Brothers who joined as mere pre-adolescent boys.  What a stuffed-up system.

Murchison_meteorite

Carbonaceous chondrite (Murchison Meteorite) by James St John https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/14601493358

Off Track When I was in the Atacama Desert in Chile (says she casually), I visited a meteorite museum. In The unlikely tale of the Murchison meteorite, we learn that good old Murchison also has a very rare meteorite that sits in its local historical society. 4.6 BILLION years old. I can’t even think of a number that big. Meteorites from this shower have ended up in museums in many countries.

 

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler_WeAreAll

2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 – 30 September 2019

nicholasIRevolutionsPodcast continues on, and Mike Duncan’s project of following through different revolutions across the globe and over time is really bearing fruit as he is able to draw connections between one revolution and the other. In Episode 10.13 Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality he looks at Czar Nicholas I and his repressive response to revolutionary fervour both in the 1820s (when the whole of Europe was nervous) and in 1848 when revolution emerged in many countries. His response of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality certainly has resonances in Russian history today. Then in Episode 10.14 The Tsar Liberator, the Crimean War exposes the rot at the core of Russian society, and moves on to the new Czar Alexander who finally bites the bullet and deals with the Emancipation of the Serfs. I found lots of parallels between the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia and the Emancipation of Slaves in the British Empire- the need to ‘buy off’ the property owners and the burdens placed on the ‘liberated’ people.

Duolingo The podcast Autostop en Afghanistán (Hitchhiking in Afghanistan) has been hanging around on my phone for a while. It’s about an Argentinian travel writer who decides to hitchhike through Afghanistan, as a counter-narrative to the rhetoric of the war on terror. Did you know that one of the Spanish terms for ‘hitchhike’ is ‘viajar a dedo’ which literally means ‘travel by finger’? Mixed English and Spanish, with a transcript available – and there’s always Google Translate.

Soul Search.  Simon Schama is one of my favourite narrative historians, and his voice is immediately recognizable in this podcast Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, recorded in coversation with Paul Holdengraber (never heard of him!) at the Sydney Writers Festival. His second book of a planned trilogy of the story of the Jews, Belonging,  has been released recently.

Background Briefing. Another podcast that’s been on the phone, the podcast Welfare to Worse caused a bit of a fuss when it was released in August of this year. It’s about the Parents Next progam, and the unhealthy relationship between private providers, who are paid for keeping people ‘on the books’ and Centrelink, who are happy to shift onto those providers the onus for deciding whether people (particularly single mothers) need to meet interview, work and training requirements to keep their government payments. Having responsibility for eight children, and homeless is no guarantee that a private company won’t deem you suitable for ‘a program’. Meanwhile, the government keeps parroting “the best form of welfare is a job”.

Earshot. We’re aware of deep fakes as a political danger, but there’s another form of fakery where an image of a  woman’s head (and its nearly always a woman) is photoshopped onto pornographic material, to make it seem as if she is a porn star. This happened to Noelle Martin in My Fake Naked Body: one woman’s story of image-based abuse. She doesn’t know who is creating these images, and as she has found, it is almost impossible to remove them.