It’s Not About Shelving The Books and Keeping Kids Quiet

Some schools no longer have teacher-librarians and, the more I see of teacher-librarians, the less sense that makes to me. What’s next? No teachers? Kids turning up to the classroom each morning and inventing the day ahead? Maybe there’s a note on the door about what the curriculum has in mind, maybe there isn’t …

Each time I’m told that a school no longer has a teacher-librarian, I’m told that the school still has a library, as though the building does the job all by itself. I imagine, as usual, classroom teachers are expected to take up the slack and add the library to their already overcrowded list of duties. And kids are taught how to check books out, as if they’ve suddenly been up-skilled, and as if that’s what it is that teacher-librarians do (along with putting them back in the right place, and stopping things getting too noisy).

Some news for schools thinking of going librarian-free: having some books on shelves in the school’s second-biggest building – along with a chillout zone with half a dozen lunch-stained beanbags – does little for your students lives without a well-trained passionate human or two in there to wake the place up and get the most out of it.

Some advice to anyone running school budgets anywhere: CUT THE TEACHER-LIBRARIANS LAST. Cut other things and give the T/Ls more money. Cut other things and hire more of them. Sell as many lamingtons as you need to to keep them. Because I’ve seen what they do. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but let me name a couple of recent schools that brought the importance of teacher-librarians home to me: St Eugene College, Burpengary and Emmaus College, Jimboomba (two places almost an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s CBD, in opposite directions).

The librarians in these schools worked in different ways, but in each place there was a passion to create a reading culture, and a whole lot of imagination applied to ways of doing that. Why does that matter? Okay, so I like books, and I like the idea of promoting reading, but that’s about 5% of it. Promoting reading does far far more than that.

Promoting reading promotes literacy and prepares students for life. Promoting reading promotes questioning, exploring and thinking. Reading broadens a student’s view of the world, knowledge of it and understanding of it. Reading can dramatically increase a student’s options for the future. Reading can help erase disadvantage and create advantage. Reading can increase understanding and empathy. Time Magazine recently headed an article Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer because there’s evidence it can and it does.

Teacher-librarians know that reading (deep reading, the reading of books, whether e or p) can change lives significantly for the better and that’s why, despite us almost always underpaying and overworking them, they keep coming back. And they do change lives. They see it and I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the alternative too. I’m not saying every school without a dedicated teacher-librarian is automatically diminishing its students prospects, but I’ve been to schools with human-free libraries. One of the more demoralising comes readily to mind, with its half-empty shelves of books from the 60s and 70s (by which I mean not reprints of books from then, but actual books from then, with cinnamon-coloured pages and more dog ears than a puppy farm – books that, if offered as a donation at my local Lifeline bookstore, would be met with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’). The only decoration was a saggy inflatable solar system mobile hanging from the ceiling, planets out of order, Pluto at the margins, still holding on. I’ve spoken in that library with the shelves pushed back, to a cluster of blank-faced kids who had never had the chance to learn how to be an audience, who had never really connected with the idea that books had authors, who had mostly learned to be quiet but perhaps not to listen, who couldn’t think of a question to ask or answer a question asked of them, who didn’t seem to have have been given the tools to play a word game or solve a puzzle.

‘We don’t have a librarian, but they check their own books out,’ I’ve been told. Do they? Really? And what do they do with them then? No one’s morale is high in a room like that, and mine’s around boot-level when I leave, nonetheless determined to go back if the chance arises. Not that sporadic author visits can fix much at all. Put a dedicated teacher-librarian into that building though, and the prospects are very different.

Someone there every day, dedicated to books and reading and bringing skills, imagination, energy and passion, can stop books being a blank, an uninteresting mystery or a chore, and start turning them into access points to stories, entertainment, facts, ideas and a wider world. Not every day will be easy or see great progress and not every child will be won over, but any child who is has his or her life changed for the better. And that is a very very big achievement. We lose something every time we underestimate it.

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The Surprise Salad (or Why Writers Festivals Are Still Fun After 26 years)

My first writers festival was Brisbane, in 1989. That’s a story in itself involving dancing chickens, some terrible poetry on my part and time as a storytelling armchair, but for now let’s stick to my latest writers festival experience: Sydney, yesterday. I’m well over a hundred festivals into this job. I should be over it now. Thankfully, I’m not.

I’m not over it because a well-run festival is at worst a pleasant experience (meeting readers, catching up with writers you haven’t seen for a while) and a poorly-run festival doesn’t kill you (or at least hasn’t yet, in my case). But my favourite thing about festivals is their capacity to surprise – to offer a whacky experience sitting somewhere beyond the imagination horizon, but that is suddenly handed to you in the real world. And I had one of those yesterday. And, like most of experiences of that kind, it spent a good while teetering on the brink of grand-scale embarrassment while falling back the right way and ending up a total gift.

By mid-yesterday, my Sydney Writers Festival experience was going well. The whole festival seems to be. The room at Campbelltown Library on Thursday booked out (okay, so not everyone made it, but life does that), the catering there was great (so many enticing varieties of mini quiche – who’d have thought?), my driver was a smart guy called Wayne and I learned a thing or two from him.

Yesterday morning’s workshop was full of clever people who worked hard and worked me hard and turned out some fine ‘show don’t tell’ work that suggested some real writerly skills.

After a lateish night on Thursday and three hours of workshopping, my brain felt like 1.4kg of pizza dough by mid-yesterday. I left the workshop building at 12.30 and, the day being as scheduled it was, spent the walk back to the festival doing an interview with a smart young writer (yes, you, Madi M), arriving at the festival precisely on time to walk into the temporary ABC studio there to play a two-hour game on radio. A game Dominic Knight, the host had pitched to me the week before and that I had been unable to resist. And he knew about my timing problems, so offered lunch as part of the deal.

Here was the brief: write a children’s story in under two hours in front of a studio audience, responding to cues from the audience, with several live updates on progress during the show. Now, that could go badly wrong, and therein lies its charm. My tolerance for embarrassment is now so great, that I’m way more able to be persuaded out of my comfort zone than I once was. Partner Mal Meninga in a canoe race? Sure. Place soccer in a celeb curtain raiser to a big game in front of 30,000 people? Bring it on. Crazyarse borderline-impossible storytelling in full public view? I’m your writer.

This was to be my dose of festival quirk, and it delivered quirk way beyond my expectations. Here’s how.

Dom’s show was chock-full of great, possibly one-off, ideas. Idea #1: interview Annabel Crabb, host of the irresistible Kitchen Cabinet (for those not in the know: a TV show in which she goes to the homes of federal ministers and opposition front benchers and interviews them while they cook her a meal), with Dom’s genius idea being to turn the tables – in two ways – by making her prepare a meal on stage during the interview, and by sampling her TV show to have her interviewing herself.

Annabel made a Greek salad, and this is where the event, from my point of view, went from great to something even better.

I was led to my spot. Had there been an orchestra pit, I would have been in it, but there wasn’t one. I had my back against the stage, a card table in front of me for my laptop and, immediately in front of it, an audience of several hundred.

It was time for the prompts. Dom gave me a heroes name: Valentine. It’s probably no coincidence that we were in the timeslot James Valentine usually occupies. Dom asked the audience for a villain: they nominated ‘The Budgie Smuggler Thief’. Thanks for that. He called for a quest and they suggested some kind of search for treasure. Then came the words that had to be incorporated. The dozen or so suggestions were written on a recycled TV gameshow-type wheel, which was duly spun and gave me ‘blender’, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘spectacles’. Thanks heaps. There’s got to be a great instant story in those. But that’s the game, isn’t it?

At each update it was spun again, giving me ‘frog’, ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Tony Abbott’, then ‘nose/knows’, ‘wind’ and ‘dishwasher’. Great. Dishwasher.

On statewide radio and with a packed room, the task had debacle written all over it, and that suited me. Off I went, as soon as I had my first three words. But where was the lunch I’d been promised?

Um, well, this was the ABC and in a stroke of budgetary genius it wasn’t something from the cafe. it was … Annabel’s interview Greek salad, repurposed as an actual meal.

So I have now had the brilliant unrepeatable experience of being wedged in the gloom between a stage and a sizeable audience and having to create – in full view, in no time at all and for live statewide broadcast – a children’s story from a ludicrous word salad of suggestions, while eating a salad Annabel Crabb has just made for me, direct from the big pink salad bowl and using the big spoons she’s used to toss it, with a growing pile of olive pips on my card table.

And this is maybe the biggest reason why writers festivals are still fun after 26 years of them. You do your panels, you catch up with old friends, you make a few new ones and then, when you least expect it, you sign up for a crazyarse radio game and someone you’re a big fan of makes you lunch.

I can never see myself getting bored with that.

Thank you Dom, thank you Annabel, thank you Sydney Writers Festival.

[Note: The story itself, such as it is, with its slender storyline, dodgy references to body parts and demographically inappropriate political allusions, is likely to appear on the 702 ABC Sydney site early next week]

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So Where Has All The Reading Gone?

I’m on the road at the moment with a book for younger people – 8-12-year-olds my publisher says, and they would know more about that than I do (though it already has some adult readers too). Like anything I write, at some level it got written because the urge to write it was an itch I couldn’t scratch any other way but, at a pragmatic level, it’s no bad thing it’s being targeted to that demographic.

Why? Because they read. They have time to do it, many of them like to do it, people buy them books and they read. I don’t mind what platform they choose to do it on – whether the book be e or p – but most of them still opt for the paper version. If a child shows an interest in a book, if the family has money for it, there’s every chance that book will come their way. We know what reading does to young brains, and it’s good.

But what about the grown-ups? Who’s still reading? And what are they reading? Are you 30 and still reading a lot? Or 40 and still reading a lot? Or 50? I suspect a lot of people aren’t. I fear we’ve shed readers this century, and I don’t know if or when they’re coming back.

Here are some factors I think might be at work. For many people, there’s work, study and family responsibilities, but there’s nothing new going on there, so I think there’s more to it.

There are some economic factors, though I don’t think they’re the whole picture either. When the GST came in in Australia in 2000, books were taxed for the first time and unit sales of books in Australia dropped 19% the following year. A few years after that, the financial crisis made people cautious with their spending – novels were a discretionary purchase that suddenly became way more discretionary – then in Australia a major bookselling group collapsed.

Some books are still selling, because they’re textbooks or some other kind of non-discretionary purchase. And kids and YA books are booming. All of which means some segments of the adult discretionary market must be quietly tanking.

Who is still reading? Some voracious readers of genre fiction are perhaps more voracious than ever. When the numbers were crunched on all sales in Amazon’s Kindle Store for one day last year, three genre categories dominated: romance and its subgenres, crime/mystery/suspense, and fantasy and the other spec fic genres. If you look at the numbers and extract only those relating to adult fiction, those categories are the killers and everything else is in their dust. Three per cent of adult fiction purchases in the Kindle Store that day were literary fiction.

Readers of genre fiction often read a lot of genre fiction. Maybe what we’re seeing is people with 200-book-a-year reading habits suddenly working out they can buy 300 books a year for far less by ebooking it. And genre readers talk. They are networked and they were in chat rooms when the rest of us thought all rooms needed walls and a ceiling. Some genre fiction has surged from nowhere to huge success on a tide of reader support.

But what about the rest of us? The people who read outside those genres and used to read, say, 20 books a year? If that was you in 2000, how many books are you reading now? My guess is a lot of people are reading less. So, where has all the reading time gone?

On public transport, people used to sit reading novels. Now most of them are working their phones. A handful might be reading books on them, but most aren’t. I can’t complain. I hit level 52 of Fruit Link before I started dreaming too much about playing it and made myself back away. Here are three interesting stats that might be part of the story.

In 1971, the world videogame industry grossed $0. The following year, Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn put a Hitachi TV in a wooden box and created Pong. By 2013, the world videogame industry grossed US$60 billion a year. That’s a huge amount of human time going to videogames.

And then there’s all the enticing interweb time-suckage options (news sites, Facebook, Twitter, you sitting here reading this when your time could be gainfully spent purchasing my books, ahem, I meant reading books). I buy into these as much as anybody, but here’s just one to think about. By the time Gangnam Style racked up its billionth view on YouTube, if each view had involved only one person and they had watched to the end, it would have used up 50 million hours of human time. Indulge me in some pure speculation: if a fifth of that time would otherwise have gone to reading and an average book takes ten hours to read, that’s a million books that weren’t read. A million books. Because of one song on one platform of a vast, captivating internet.

Twelve days ago, Netflix became official in Australia. We signed up on day one. This is a golden age of TV, and some of the long-form drama now being made for grown-ups is remarkable. On night one, we watched episode one of season three of House of Cards. I am now binge viewing it until it’s done. Here’s one point that surfaced on Netflix’s launch day: despite it being illegal, 200,000 Australians households had set up fake US addresses to access it already.

My bet is a lot of those people used to read and now they read less. Anyone I know who has signed up to Netflix has done it because of a love of quality long-form narrative with complex characters. A great novel used to be our best and maybe only option for that, and now it’s not.

I’m wondering if, one way or another – and often in many ways – our entertainment time is being sliced up finer and finer until there’s no longer a space big enough to fit a novel in.

In case there’s any doubt, let me be clear about one thing: I am not talking about the end of writing or the end of literature. I’m aware the world is in another phase of that debate at the moment (see this article in the LA Times). Writing will continue for the simple reason that far too many of us can’t resist the urge to do it. But how is reading going?

How about you? How is your entertainment time carved up? Are you reading novels? Are you reading as many as you once were?

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Analogue Men – The Missing Chapter

Every novel goes through editing. Things come in, things go out. More is made of some things and less of others. And then a thousand tiny tweaks occur.

Analogue Men lost very little – only one piece of any real size, in fact. My publisher noticed we didn’t actually need the short chapter about yoga at all. Yes, I thought it was funny. I have no idea if she did. But once she raised the dreaded question of relevance, I knew it was gone. Maybe I had things I really wanted to say about yoga, but is Analogue Men a novel about yoga? No. Does the yoga chapter take the story forward in any way? No. Does it cast fresh light on the workings of the central character’s brain? No. That job’s already in hand.

In editing a novel, you pick your battles. And sometimes you tell yourself, ‘this’ll at least give me an out-take to share when the book comes out’.

So here it is. The missing yoga chapter. It takes place after Andrew goes for a run one morning. Other than that, there’s nothing you need to know.

I’ve always taken a yoga DVD with me when I’ve travelled for work, and always the same yoga DVD, featuring Jessie Chapman, supple as a jellyfish, on the beach at Byron Bay.

Jessie Chapman, who never breaks a sweat, would not condone moving straight from the run to the mat, but Jessie Chapman isn’t the boss of my day and we get on perfectly when I allocate her twenty seven minutes to order me around, calmly and reassuringly and in the same series of instructions and poses every time.

My three favourite yoga poses are tadasana (mountain pose), savasana (corpse pose) and the rest at the end. At a technical level, tadasana might be complicated in fifteen intricate ways, but the lumpen non-yogaphile – the brittle question-mark-shaped conscript – can learn to love it as the pose he or she comes to know as ‘standing still’. As for corpse pose, even dogs can play dead. You’re flat on your back with your arms out to the sides. It’s only number two for me because, in yoga, there is no pillow. And without a pillow, my neck holds my head just above the floor.

I am not a group yoga person. I do not do yoga for the bells, or to chant ‘om’ with other devotees, or to have a hippy make odd observations about my thyroid status. That intrusive triad sums up the one yoga class I went to. I do yoga because, if I don’t, I might seize up into a big nerve-crunching act of Meccano.

What I don’t understand is why people pay for classes at all. Isn’t that just paying for someone to stand in front of you and tell you you’re crap at bending, and all the while you’re risking a fart in company?

After twenty-seven minutes I don’t feel serene or that I’ve gone any way to tidying my errant chakras, but at least it’s done. For what it’s worth, I’ve banked another yoga credit. When the day of reckoning comes and all spines are assessed and most found wanting, I can know I’ve got Jessie Chapman in my corner, insisting that I’ve done my bit.

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Why Sheppard (and Others) Say Geronimo

The success at last week’s ARIA awards of Brisbane band Sheppard and their irresistible hit Geronimo got me thinking – why does anyone shout ‘Geronimo’ before a leap into danger? Wasn’t Geronimo a 19th-century Native American warrior? Was his name shouted then? Why did the practice persist? The amateur etymologist in me couldn’t resist doing a little sleuthing. Here’s what I’ve found. As is sometimes the case (eg, with the word ‘okay’), something brought the new expression about, but it’s likely it took a sequence of events to keep it alive.

Yes, Geronimo was a Native American warrior. He was born in 1829 and given the name Goyathlay (‘the one who yawns’) in the Mescalero-Chiricahua language. In 1851, after Mexican soldiers massacred his camp while he and other men were in town trading, he was involved in tracking and attacking the soldiers. He went into battle with a knife and, regardless of the gunfire, repeatedly threw himself at the enemy. This battle is where the name ‘Geronimo’ began, either as a repeated panicked call from the soldiers to Saint Jerome (‘Geronimo’ in Spanish) to save them from this apparently unstoppable warrior, or from their mispronunciation of his name.

From that time, there are stories (some might be true, some apocryphal) of his name being shouted out during the daring attacks and escapes that were a feature of his decades of armed resistance to the Mexicans and then to US forces. In 1886, his band of 38 became one of the last to end their resistance and surrender.

He became a prisoner, and his story might have ended there, but for an unexpected turn early in the 20th century. Well into his seventies, Geronimo became a celebrity. While still a prisoner, he was invited to participate in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and, with presidential permission, he did. From there, his fame grew. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 and dictated an autobiography.

All this probably kept the interest in him and his story going after his death in 1909. With his story popular and well documented, in 1939 it was turned into a movie. There was also a song of the name around at the time.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that the parachute came to be seen not just as something to be used in emergencies, but also as a way to drop troops into action. Some of the first jumps occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940 and it was there that the troops – with the movie and/or song and Geronimo’s bold deeds in their heads – took to shouting ‘Geronimo’ when they jumped. By 1941, with the permission of Geronimo’s family, ‘Geronimo’ was incorporated into the insignia of the US Army’s first parachute regiment (the 501st infantry) and war coverage of the exploits of paratroopers had made their call of ‘Geronimo’ common knowledge.

That fixed it in the public mind for at least decades. And then Sheppard came along and pushed the name up in the public consciousness again.

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On cuts to the ABC …

Last year, I had the chance to be involved in the development of a TV series. I was flown to Sydney for two days in the offices of a big production company. I worked with people I respected, I learned plenty and, I hope, I contributed something. But there was a moment mid-morning on the first day that stood out, probably only to me.

We had the network bosses there for an hour or two and one of them, as we were talking through the practicalities of the show said, ‘One of the great things about this is that it could be be set anywhere. Literally anywhere. Sydney or Melbourne.’ For once, in the face of comments like this, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t point out that Australia isn’t a country comprising two cities only, total population 9 million. (Yes, that’s right, the broader Australian definition of ‘literally anywhere’ includes almost 15 million other people, ie, 60% of the population.) But the speaker works for a commercial TV network. He has no obligation to think otherwise. He has an obligation to shareholders. It’s possible he only thinks about places as far away as Parramatta because people have TVs there and he needs them to be watching his network. He knows how to make a TV series in Sydney or Melbourne, he knows the people he would use, so why wouldn’t those two places be at the top of his mind?

This is partly why we need the ABC, and partly why we should be resourcing it to do more, and to broaden its geographic production reach, rather than making changes that are going to narrow its scope further. From where I sit, I’m already not sure it’s able to do its job. As far as TV goes, it already feels rather too focused on the 9 million than on the whole almost 24 million of us. Other than news and current affairs, it already has only one TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, and that will now close.

When the ABC stretched to create channel 24 without any additional expenditure, the result was mostly impressive for a zero budget channel, but at times the constraints showed. The breakfast news program offers the best news coverage going, but there have been occasions when I’ve preferred to think of it as In Melbourne Today. The regular in-studio commentators seemed to all be from Melbourne, and I have to admit I once stopped watching for months after one of them referred to the Australia beyond NSW and Victoria as ‘the outlying states’. It was enough to make me veer unwillingly towards becoming one of those grumps who places far too much importance on place-name pronunciation (the Warrego River isn’t pronounced to scan like or rhyme with ‘virago’ – the emphasis is on the first syllable, dammit). That’s what happens when you’re continually getting the message that you’re from somewhere of less importance.

Why does this matter now? Because Malcolm Turnbull says the ABC budget can be cut without affecting programming and Mark Scott says it can’t. That suggests at least one of them doesn’t know how to run a national broadcaster. Mark Scott is cutting, and one of the things to go is the state-based 7.30 shows. This show should be state-based every night of the week – and once was – drawing on the most relevant and important stories from other states. It’s more recently been national, with a state-based show on Friday nights only. It’s going to be cut. Here’s one instance of why it’s important.

When the LNP was elected in Qld in 2012, the Barrett Centre – the state’s specialist inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents – was scheduled to move to a new facility which had yet to be built but for which land had been allocated. Under the LNP government, that land has been sold and the Barrett Centre closed, despite protests and warnings (from stakeholders and experts) that lives were at stake. It was a centre of last resort for teenagers with significant mental illness. In its 30 years of operation, no Barret inpatient or recently discharged patient took their own lives. Within months of the new government’s closure of the centre, despite reassurances that Barret patients would receive top-quality care, three of them had suicided.

The national 7.30 show had four nights a week to cover that story, but I haven’t seen it do it. The state-based 7.30 team have treated it as the serious story it is, covering it twice that I know of, performing multiple interviews and using right-to-information laws to reveal behind-the-scenes details. The coroner is now investigating.

This is what journalism is for. It’s what the ABC is for. It’s one of the things we will lose with these cuts. If that were not the case, 7.30 could have given it national coverage on just about any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday this year. It didn’t.

Perhaps the national 7.30 show meets the needs of the member for Wentworth and the member for Warringah, but the ABC doesn’t belong only to them, or to the other 9 million people in Sydney and Melbourne. As far as I’m aware, we’re all funding it.

The ABC needs to be national, state- and territory-based and even local in both its base and its reach. It needs that for news, current affairs, drama and everything else. I can accept when a commercial network drama boss doesn’t think to make a city-based show outside Sydney and Melbourne – I don’t like it, but I can accept it – but the ABC should be the exception.

Am I saying there’s no scope to do things more economically at the ABC? No. I don’t know the organisation’s finances inside out. The only work I’ve done for the ABC has been on local radio, where I can say staffing levels are lean and pay packets don’t match the commercial equivalents. People in ABC local radio aren’t in it for the money, and they provide a service that no one else comes close to duplicating.

I’ve seen pieces saying that Fairfax faced bigger cuts, so the ABC should suck it up. Fairfax is not the ABC. Fairfax is a for-profit company that has old media at its foundations and the rivers of gold of classified advertising have dried up. It’s a different suite of products, a different model and it serves different masters.

And don’t get me started on election promises, and how this funding cut isn’t a broken one.

Here’s Tony Abbott in 2011, when in opposition: ‘It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.’

Tony Abbott on election eve in 2013: ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’

Tony Abbott today: ‘This a government which has fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people … Members opposite thought that the ABC was the one institution that shouldn’t be subject to an efficiency dividend. We think it should be subject to the efficiency dividend. The ABC should not be exempted from the kind of measures that are being applied to almost every other part of government. We never promised special treatment for the ABC or the SBS.’

You promised ‘no cuts’, and don’t go telling me I’m too stupid to understand the meaning of something as clear and unequivocal as that. Even if it was reasonable for Malcolm Turnbull to find room for interpretation in a guarantee two words long, his justification was that Tony Abbot meant no cuts to services. And the direct response to the budget cut is a cut to services. This is not merely some back-office tinkering.

Centralising of our urban dramas, the closure of the last non-news TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, loss of state 7.30s, the shunting of Lateline – these are not efficiency dividends. They are cuts to programming, a narrowing of scope and out of keeping with the charter of the ABC. They might not all have an impact in Sydney’s northern beaches or eastern suburbs or Ultimo, but a lot of us – most of us – live elsewhere. News, drama and every other kind of content happen where we are too. The ABC has an obligation to be part of that.

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Cats and the Internet – a Review

Of all the unintended consequences of progress – or perhaps that’s just change – I don’t think any of us could have predicted the impact of the internet on cats. Yes, cats.

Just when they’d breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were no longer widespread subjects of suspicion as medieval witches’ familiars, black cats have found themselves in trouble again. Apparently, they don’t work out as well in selfies, and this is seeing them dumped in increasing numbers for allegedly more selfie-genic tabbies and gingers. Among the burgeoning universe of First World Problems, having to turf your wrong-coloured kitty onto the roadside in order to crank up your selfie virality must rate pretty highly.

Displaced onto a mountaintop in northern Iraq with no food or water and extremists closing in to massacre you? Sure, that’d suck. But when I take a photo of my cat all you can see are its eyes, dammit. Can’t you feel my pain?

Maybe the pressure on cats to boost the appeal of their owners’ selfies wouldn’t be quite so great if it hadn’t been for their dominance in another corner of the internet. While quirky cats pics go back almost to the birth of photography – the Victorians were right into it, putting cats in crinoline skirts and captioning whimsically – it wasn’t until 2007 that a cat first lolled us with a line as winning as ‘I can haz cheezburger’.

It was only with the arrival of the internet that we learned (a) cats can talk (b) thay don no sheet about gramr and spayling and (c) that combo is pretty much a guaranteed crack-up. The web now has close to 15 million hits worth of lolcats. Seriously, if you’re a cat and you’re not lolling, you’re not up to much. Expect to be kicked to the kerb.

But lolcats don’t just haz cheezburger. They’re into everything now. Ceiling Cat is no longer merely watching you attend to your personal needs – Ceiling Cat now has a Bible in her/his language. That’s right. By 2010, the Bible had been translated into lolcat. It’s only a matter of time before, among the John 3:16 crowd clustered at the 18th green at Augusta, we see a tabby holding a sign that reads ‘So liek teh Ceiling Kitteh lieks teh ppl lots and he sez “Oh hai I givez u me only kitteh and ifs u beleeves him u wont evr diez no moar, kthxbai!”’

Is this what the founding parents of the webz were thinking when they bunged together a bunch of networks in the early seventies and realised they’d begun a thing they called ‘internetworking’?

No. Surely they were thinking, hey, if this works out really well, maybe a bunch of people like us will get together over the wires and do something awesomely useful like … translate the Bible into Klingon. Not to worry. Work on that mighty task began in 1994 and continues to this day, though hampered somewhat by the wiki crowd being distracted by hilarious pics of non-black cats, and Klingons lacking any concept of, or word for, God.

(This piece first appeared in Monday’s mX in Australia.)

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