Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lachlan Macquarie takes the Overland Route

I’m on holidays in Russia at present.  Going to new places always sends me back to things I half knew, but wasn’t interested in before.  I vaguely knew that Governor Lachlan Macquarie had travelled through Russia, but now that I’m here myself, I thought I’d have another look at his journey.  His travel diary has been transcribed, and is available here.

Before he became Governor of New South Wales in 1810, Macquarie was a soldier in the Indian army – the sharp end of the East India Company.  In 1807, he was a lieutenant colonel.  His first wife had died, and at 44, he now planned to marry a cousin, Elizabeth Campbell, to whom he had proposed while on furlough in Scotland. Continue reading

A Black Swan Event in Moreton Bay

The language of business can be surprisingly vigorous.  I love the bestiality of its bulls and bears and dead cat bounces.

A postage stamp of Australia issued 1954 -West...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve only just discovered a new phrase, this one with a tangential Australian connection.  A Black Swan Event, according to a newish book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and can’t be predicted but which in retrospect, could have been expected.

What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Taleb, in New York Times, 22 April 2007, quoted in Wikipedia

Now who am I to question someone whose book was on the NYT bestseller list for 36 weeks, but this sounds to me basically what we historians call contingent events, and which Dick Cheney more succinctly described as ‘shit happens’. Continue reading

Vidal Sassoon – and the long and short of it

Vidal Sassoon died last week.  He was a hairdresser, in the same way that Mary Quant was a dressmaker or The Avengers was just another TV series.  He introduced short, sleek, edgy hairstyles to the celebrities of the Swinging Sixties – and my brush with his hairbrush is about as close as I ever got to Carnaby Street fashion.

According to his obituaries, Sassoon made most of his money from selling hair care products and by teaching his hair-cutting skills.  When I spent 6 months in London in the late 1970s, you could get a haircut at the Vidal Sassoon School of Hairdressing for £2 as a ‘model’ – on condition that you let the student do whatever s/he wanted.  A friend of mine ended up with purple hair.  I was luckier, a silent spectator as tutor and student riffled through my hair, drew a map of my scalp showing crown and parting, and then layer cut it to a point, so that it sat neatly or swung obediently.  They were the best haircuts I’ve ever had. Continue reading

Breaking Voices

The life of an academic historian has occasional hazards.  When our School sent its collection of Parliamentary Papers to be repaired, they dealt with an insect infestation by dusting them with arsenic, so we are warned to wash our hands after using them.  I’ve heard rumours of a poisonous spider that lives in the South African Archives; does anyone know if this is true?  A Pacific historian I know nearly died after treading on a stonefish while taking a student group to Vanuatu.

Usually though, the main dangers are mental rather than physical.  Australian historians risk becoming collateral damage in the History Wars (and most nations have an equivalent hot-button historical issue).  Teaching can be stressful, as is the imperative to publish or perish.  But we don’t use knives or chain saws, fly helicopters or breathe coal dust.  It’s all inside work with no heavy lifting.

So I was startled a couple of weeks ago to be told that I probably have a work-related injury. Continue reading

5 Sex Scandals in Australian politics that didn’t make a blind bit of difference

Australians don’t do political sex scandals terribly well.  Perhaps it’s because Australia is a very secular society, and a good dose of Protestant prurience or Catholic guilt helps – Berlusconi’s strippers dressed as nuns.  And while not a classless society, few of our children spend their formative years in boarding schools under the rule of Matron, like the children of the British elite.  As for the French, in My Fair Lady Henry Higgins said that ‘The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly’ – but even they seem finally to be taking Dominique Strauss-Kahn seriously.

Our current scandal involving the Speaker, Peter Slipper, rates a bit higher than usual, though it hardly scales the heights of Monica Lewinsky, John Edwards or most of the poor fools outed by News of the World over the years.  It is unusual though, because it (allegedly) involves homosexual, not heterosexual, activity, and because, since the numbers in the House of Representatives are so tight, it might actually bring down a government.

In the 19th century, Australian politics had its fair share of sexual hanky panky, but I can’t think of any that brought down an administration.  So here, for your delectation and delight, are 5 sex scandals that didn’t make a blind bit of difference to the stability of government. Continue reading

A humble suggestion to Clive Palmer

What is it with billionaires and replica ships?  Yesterday, one of Australia’s more eccentric billionaires, Clive Palmer, announced that he plans to build a replica of the Titanic.  This one, he says, won’t sink.

Clive Palmer and Julia Gillard on the Titanic

In 1988, another Australian billionaire (pro tem), Alan Bond, built a replica of HMS Endeavour, to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia.  When Endeavour II sailed (towed, actually) up the Brisbane River, I was in the flotilla of small ships that followed in her wake. Continue reading