Blue Motorcycle

Blue Motorcycle

Dirty Streets
Whisper my name
Fill me with longing
To find my way home

I took this photo last week. I saw the motorcycle out of the corner of my eye and took a quick photo without really thinking about it at the time but looking at it now, I find the contrast interesting, the shiny bike propped up against the run-down garage and street.

What you can’t see in the photo is that the entire street was in a similar state; most of the houses looked slightly rundown, with paint peeling and tiles missing and overgrown gardens – but they all had expensive cars in their driveways and satellite TV. I guess having a car and staying connected is more important for many people these days than if a house needs new paint, particularly in the current economy.

I thought it seemed like an apt analogy for the world at the moment. I wonder how many other streets and houses are like this around the world… probably too many to really comprehend, sadly.

Photo and haiku © CJ Levinson 2011

10 things I'd do with 10 million dollars

Why is it that some people are luckier than others? Do they just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time? Or is being lucky something you learn, knowing when to take chances and when to hold back?

Sometimes I’m lucky but most of the time I think we make our own luck… but then there’s a story like this one, where someone won $10 million playing Oz Lotto. They live in a town of just 4,000 people and the ticket was bought from the local news agency where another ticket won $100,000 just weeks earlier. That’s some run of luck!

Of course that’s great for them, but it’s made me wonder what I’d do if that ever happened to me (I can dream). The first thing I’d do is go crazy, but $10 million is a lot of money, enough to change my life and others… this is what I’d try to do with it.

  • Buy a house
    That’s the first thing I’d do. Just a small house, maybe three bedrooms, somewhere in Sydney but away from the crowds and noise. Plus some furnishings and a new TV.
    • Investments
      Next I’d pay off family debts and make sure we all had enough savings to live off comfortably. I’d give some money to friends and invest in a property for my parents to live in as well.
      • Self-publish
        I’d also put some money aside for when I wanted to send my work away. If it was repeatedly knocked back then at least I’d have the option to self-publish.
        • Donations
          I’d give 15% to charities and look at starting a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children; the interest alone could pay for several scholarships each year.
          • Pay it forward
            For this I’d draw up a contract, then find 3 people and give them $500,000 each to start a small business. They could keep the profits, but once they’d made $1 million they’d give $500,000 to help someone else. Hopefully it would keep being paid forward to help new people.
            • Start a bookshop
              This is something I’ve always wanted to do, start a secondhand bookshop somewhere in Sydney, with a small coffee shop and weekly poetry readings… it’d be a nice business to keep in family hands. How’s New Leaf Books sound?
              • Travel
                First I’d take my family on a vacation and then put some aside to see more of the world later on. Hopefully I’d get to see Egypt and more of Europe… and Wimbledon, of course.
                • Copyrights
                  This idea I’ve liked since I heard Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia mention it. I’d look at some of the old copyrighted works which are still under licence (texts, music) and buy them out to release into the community. Realistically a few million dollars wouldn’t buy much but it might help to raise awareness for Project Gutenberg and similar projects.
                  • Music
                    Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is to learn to play the guitar and piano. I’d set up an area where someone could teach me without bothering anyone else. I’d also buy all the CDs I’ve wanted over the years.
                    • Rainforest preservation
                      Finally I’d purchase several acres of land for habitat preservation and do more to support The Rainforest Conservation Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.

                    So that’s my list. I wonder what you’d do with $10 million? 😉

                    Some important dates

                    There are a few important dates coming up over the next month, so I thought I’d do a quick post in case anyone didn’t know about them. One might be of interest to anyone looking to follow up on BlogCatalog‘s Blogging Against Abuse Day.

                    The Hunger Site

                    The first is that October is international Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign by the major breast cancer charities to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research. In Australia alone 36 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day and one in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 85.

                    Part of the campaign in Australia includes Pink Ribbon Day on Monday October 22nd where you can buy a Pink Ribbon or Wristband to support the cause. Something else you can do is to support The Breast Cancer Site. The site helps to provide free mammograms to women in need; every click from a user raises money from sponsors which goes toward the costs of mammograms. 11,000 mammograms have been provided since the year 2000.

                    Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

                    October 15th is BlogActionDay, a community project encouraging bloggers around the world to unite about an issue on everyone’s mind: the environment. BlogActionDay is in its inaugural year and is being supported by over 6,850 blogs and institutions including Greenpeace, Lifehacker, Treehugger, Web Worker Daily and Change.Org. Bloggers are being asked to publish a post relating to an issue of their choice about the environment and to donate any daily advertising revenue to an environmental charity. I haven’t decided what my topic will be yet but I’ll definitely be participating; if you want to find out more, check out BlogActionDay. And thanks to MusEditions and Sanjida for letting me know about it.

                    The third thing is more of a public service notice for anyone in the US. I heard about this from WC and couldn’t believe it; the laws in the US that keep Internet access tax-free are set to expire on November 1, 2007 and the houses of Congress are currently debating whether Internet access should be kept tax-free. I find the idea that you might have to pay whenever you go online bizarre and it really impacts people outside the US as well as US policy is often adopted as standard in other countries. It’s probably not going to happen but the coalition at MyWireless.Org has a form for people in the US to fill out urging politicians to pass the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act of 2007. You might like to have a look and find out more about keeping the Internet tax free.

                    Lastly is just a reminder that the next court sitting regarding the defamation case which led to the banning of WordPress in Turkey is also set to take place on November 1st. Hopefully more information about the ban will be available after the 1st, but if you’d like to send a letter to the Turkish authorities asking that the Turkish courts reconsider their position or sign MidEast Youth’s petition, it might help. Plus you’d be joining with other people in condemning censorship, something which seems particularly important now with the events in Burma.

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                    Let's talk about sex

                    I’m not enjoying writing at the moment. I don’t know if I’d call it writer’s block but I can’t work out where to go with Shards at the moment. It’s been a year since I finished the first draft and I’m still doing rewrites. The main stumbling block’s been getting my head around some of the themes, but recently there’s been another problem. The direction of the story has changed a lot and it’s causing a conflict for me with two of the characters.

                    They were going to be my star-crossed lovers, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, but in rewriting it their story has become less of the focus. Now I’m not sure where to go with it. The romance is still there but it’s not as important; I could cut it out, but the story would still lose something. Or I could keep going with it, but I’m worried it might seem exploitative… like the only reason it’s there is to follow formula.

                    Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I don’t want it to be one of those books where the dynamic just doesn’t feel right… particularly the sex. We’ve all read those books which seem hollow or have sex for sex’s sake; if you’ve read I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe you’ll know what I mean, and I still don’t know what Robert J. Sawyer was trying to do in Humans (a human and a neanderthal, WTF?). Writing sex scenes always makes me uncomfortable but the challenge is finding an aspect in the scene that affects the greater story… without the preceding scenes here, I’m not sure I can.

                    Anyway, while I’m working that out, it’s brought up an interesting topic. We’re a highly sexualised society, but we still rarely seem at ease with our sexuality. We watch sexy movies, read juicy novels, but do we talk about sex itself? Perhaps amongst our closest friends, but beyond that it’s usually awkward and behind closed doors; likewise we’re still uncomfortable with public displays of affection. It’s strange that sex can be seen as such a commercial entity, yet still remain something of a taboo as well. So when does marketing sex go too far? When does it become gratuitous?

                    I’m not sure myself. I was trying to think earlier of books/writers I’ve read that have used good sex scenes and I can’t think of many. Maybe Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… Bret Easton Ellis and Neil Gaiman for giving scenes an interesting dynamic. And of course DH Lawrence. But overall I don’t think many writers write sex scenes that well or realistically. Most scenes seem to be either lyrical and wafty or anatomical and overly detailed. I know Laurel K. Hamilton’s are dull and don’t interest me much; in a vampire novel, that’s not a good thing. There’s even an award for it – The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

                    A lot of sex scenes seem distant and it’s strange really that they’re presented in such a detached way; sex is such a natural part of our lives, you’d think writers would want to explore it in a more satisfactory and natural way. But maybe a realistic sex scene is almost impossible to write because it’s something words can’t adequately describe; it destroys the illusion, the feeling. A sex scene can be funny, awkward, escapist, but can it be interesting if it’s made to seem too real? Perhaps not; then it just becomes voyeurism.

                    I’m not sure I’d agree that writers include sex scenes purely for saleability or formula, though; I’m sure some do, but I’d hope that most still consider it a part of the story and the development of the characters. For that matter, I’m yet to see evidence that you need to have sex in a book for it to be marketable; for any books that don’t sell, it probably has more to do with plot and pace than whether or not the characters shagged on page 180.

                    There’s been a lot of fuss made over David Duchovny’s new series Californication recently and that sort of plays into this as well. Californication is an adult sex comedy, something of a throw-back to the ’70s movies like Shampoo, and it’s been garnering criticism for its content; one columnist went so far as to call network executives pornographers, while some conservative groups are calling for a boycott of sponsors who advertise during episodes. Personally I find the controversy bizarre. Certainly Californication is not to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see what the networks have done wrong; over here it’s on at an adult-only time and each episode has an M/MA rating. It’s not for children and no-one’s suggesting it is; it’s probably not even appropriate for some adults. But we’re a democracy, aren’t we? If you don’t like a show, turn it off – seems like the ultimate form of free choice to me. What I’ve seen of Californication is actually quite interesting; yes, there’s sex and drugs and nudity, but beneath it is a story about a lost man trying to get his family back. The writing’s sharp and at least it’s something other than reality TV for a change.

                    Californication definitely markets itself on its adult content, but I don’t think it crosses the line in to exploiting it. This website, though, has to cross that line. It’s for a German company that has created a new cosmetic fragrance for men called Vulva Original. It’s marketed as “the erotic, intimate scent of an irresistible woman… a beguiling vaginal scent”. Um, what? This has to be the most bizarre product I have ever heard of. Just who would be interested in a product like that? And for the love of God, why? It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so gross.

                    But it’s an example of how an entire industry has evolved around our fascination with sex. Some of it is part of a healthy sexual appetite, but then you get something like this or the rise in pornography; you could argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone but look at Maddison Gabriel being named the face of Gold Coast Fashion Week – she’s just twelve. It sexualises her to adults and surely must be going to mess with her head later on. But it creates publicity and so it’s achieved everything the organisers wanted.

                    And that brings us back to this idea of marketing sex. As a culture we’re fascinated by sex, so it’s inevitable that that fascination would be exploited. The simple truth is sex sells and companies, writers, directors, musicians use it for marketability. The real question is how far is too far? Something like Californication is pushing the boundaries; I think something like Vulva Original has gone way past them.

                    For writers, though, I think it’s fairly simple: if you aim for the characters and story to change though the scene, you’ve done your job. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with Shards… so I’ll probably keep those scenes. Now I’ll just have to go back and finish it! 😉

                    Greed, boycotts and the impact for aspiring writers

                    Bookshop chain puts bite on small publishers
                    I’ve just been catching up on some of the news I’ve missed over the past week. Not sure how this slipped by, but apparently Angus & Robertson have started asking distributors and publishers to pay to have their books stocked and displayed in A&R stores. A&R is the most successful retail chain in Australia, one of the few to still be surviving despite increased sales for discount stores like K-Mart and Big W. I can’t understand what they’re doing; they’re practically shooting themselves in the foot. Getting people to support Australian authors is difficult enough, and now they want to alienate publishers so they don’t have any stock?

                    It’s created the bizarre situation that the leading bookchain in Australia will not be stocking the Miles Franklin Award winner for 2007, Carpentaria. And it seems like it’s all because of greed. A&R wants their smaller suppliers to subsidize losses for unsold books, and wants to make them pay before they even have the books on the shelves. Does that make sense to anyone else?

                    SMH published Michael Rakusin’s response to A&R’s decision. I was impressed by his letter. It’s articulate, angry, but doesn’t score cheap points; it’s not often you get to write a letter like that. Next time I get a condescending letter, I’m going to use “voluble hilarity” in the reply. From my point of view, I don’t blame A&R for wanting to increase their profit margin, particularly with strong market competition. But what the company has done is issued an ultimatum, and the people they’re really hurting are Australian authors. If publishing companies give in, advances will only be smaller, and while A&R won’t stock their works, that’s less exposure and fewer readers for their work as well. It’s a no-win situation. A&R claim they are “committed to stocking a wide range of titles and supporting Australian literature”, but right now that just seems like absolute garbage.

                    The Australian Society of Authors seems to think so too; they’ve condemned A&R and recommended book buyers boycott A&R owned stores over the new policy. I think I feel the same way. A&R appears to only want to stock books with guaranteed saleability, and for a company which is supposed to be proudly Australian, that is unacceptable. Where does it leave aspiring writers? Where does it leave people in small towns who can’t find books anywhere else? A&R are letting greed get in the way of their other responsibilities and we can’t just let that go.

                    I’ll be buying all my books from Dymocks and local book stores until A&R overturns their decision; seeing I have a birthday coming up in a month, that could be a few books. I’m glad to see that this has been gaining traction overseas as well, as it could set a dangerous precedent. Corey Doctorow lambasted A&R on Boing Boing, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden broke down the correspondence to make it understandable. Can you imagine if this happened in the US and Borders refused to stock Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? There’d be outrage; Oprah would be hitting them over the head with her microphone. Here, we’ll just have to see how much Angus & Robertson take before they reverse their decision.

                    Politics and the YouTube generation

                    kevin071.jpg

                    I’ve just been looking at the “Kevin07” website. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It’s good that politicians are trying to engage their audience in new ways, but doesn’t this all seem a bit cheesy? It’s very patriotic; bright colours, videos of supporters, news… it serves its purpose, I guess. But there’s something commercial about the site which I find off-putting. I know that selling these T-shirts and stickers is a way of showing support, but it seems to trivialise the rest of the site as well.

                    It also feels very American to me. Not that that’s a bad thing; just makes me feel like I’m looking at Hillary Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s 08 website instead of Kevin Rudd’s. The Kevin07 slogan and “Get Involved” feel more like something from the US as well, and the site’s dominated by red, white and blue… I just feel like I’ve seen it before. I imagined something more unique for Rudd’s campaign, more green and gold… but I guess imitation is the highest form of flattery.

                    Still, it’s smart. The site speaks directly to Gen X and Y, using a forum they’re familiar with to talk about issues they care about. The simple truth is that every politician needs a web presence now or they’ll be left behind; people will write them off as not being savvy enough. It’s a necessity, but there is practical value in it as well. The whole success of Web 2.0 and YouTube is that they provide content on demand; we can see whole interviews and aren’t just left with what the media wants us to see. For politicians that means avoiding 30 second snippets and being taken out of context, so it’s no great surprise they’re pushing these campaigns.

                    WC wrote an interesting post the other day which ties into this, about how Hillary Clinton’s ‘cleavage incident’ was portrayed in the media. Really, it was a storm in a teacup, but for some reason the media in the US and overseas (our news as well) just wouldn’t let it go. Some thought her sense of dress wasn’t appropriate, others thought she was being objectified for being a woman – and yet the media can only blame themselves, really, as they brought it down to that level, not anyone else. The thing I noticed was that Clinton seems to be trying to soften her image, wearing paler colours, etc, trying to be more accessible. I think that’s clever; it’ll be interesting to see what her image is like closer to the primaries, and if people have accepted it.

                    Image seems to matter so much these days. It’s not just about accessibility, but how you can hold someone’s attention for the message you want to deliver. Rudd’s site is all about projecting the right image, and so are the videos Howard has released on YouTube recently; both are trying to promote themselves as the best choice for the future. So given that, it’s sad that a news story of substance was mostly overlooked amidst the fuss of Kevin07’s launch. The Seante just passed a 6.7 per cent salary increase for MPs and senators, while voting against subsidising a rise for pensioners’ income. It means that backbenchers’ pay will now rise by $8000 to $127,000 a year, Kevin Rudd’s to $235,000 and John Howard’s to $330,000 – while pensioners live off $13,652 a year. It’s disgraceful. On the day politicians talk about providing for the future, they reward themselves and turn their backs on the people who most need their help. Amidst all their images, speeches and promises, perhaps that’s what we should remember more than anything else in the lead-up to the election.

                    When did rehab become the "in thing"?

                    There’s been something about Britney Spears in the news every day this past week; feels like it too. I don’t want to ask if anyone even cares anymore, but aren’t the media going too far with this? It can’t help someone who is self-destructing to see every second of it being analysed on TV. And what’s all this about her parents and friends needing to force her to get help? Yes, they should help, but Spears is 25; they can’t force her to do anything. It’s hypocritical of the media; they say celebrities should be role models, but then can’t have any power in their lives. Unfortunately a part of being in the public eye is having the power to ruin your own life.

                    A lot of the interest here is voyeuristic, I think; it’s like watching a train wreck – we’re horrified, but can’t look away. It appeals to us on a base level, that it could be us, and it reassures us that we’ve made the right decisions. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why there was so much interest in Anna Nicole Smith’s death as well; the tragedy, her bizarre life, the drama. It’s probably not a coincidence that as Smith’s death was fading, the Spears story broke; one human drama to follow another.

                    I must admit, when I first heard about the thing with Britney Spears, I thought it was an attempt at career reinvention that had gone wrong. After months of criticism for partying and indecent behaviour, it would make sense that if she wanted to reinvent her career, she’d want to reinvent her image as well. That was the head-shaving, and I’m still not convinced that wasn’t for publicity. But since then everything has really spiralled out of control. And now she’s supposed to be in rehab again.

                    I don’t understand this trend of treating rehab as a trivial matter. Anyone who has survived an addiction will tell you it’s a hard, difficult slog – anything but trivial. Yet you wouldn’t know that. Celebrities seem to be checking in to rehab at will and it’s being glorified by E! News and the media. Would they all just wake up to reality? Not only are they setting a bad example, they’re treating something very serious with utter disdain. It’s gone from Mel Gibson and Robin Williams being treated for alcoholism, to Linsay Lohan, Kate Moss, Ashley Judd in the past, and now even singer Robbie Williams. And Mia Freedman’s column in The Sun-Herald said that Isaiah Washington from Grey’s Anatomy was admitted to rehab for homophobia. To my knowledge there’s no 30-day program which can help you get over homophobia. Taking an issue like that and making a mockery out of it is deplorable.

                    What worries me is that this is going to change the way we view addictions in society. Suddenly flirting with drugs, alcohol, sex, racism won’t mean anything; we’ll always be able to get “help”. And if we lose our way, we just go back. But rehab is serious; getting over life-changing abuses, putting your life back together again, is one of the hardest things anybody can do. To treat that trivially and make it socially acceptable is awful; having no respect for the people who struggle with it is even worse.

                    I hope people like Britney Spears who need help get it; but they should know that if they use something as serious as rehabilitation for publicity, then their careers are over. Some people will think it’s cool, but others will remember how they didn’t take it seriously, how shallow they were, and we won’t forget it.