There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.
All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page. It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.
A friend yesterday sent me the draft of an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD. In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading
Powered flight has transformed our lives during the last century. Like many technological breakthroughs, the history of flight is usually written in terms of great men, the heroes of invention like Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the first men to build and fly an aeroplane successfully at Kitty Hawk. But heroic individuals explain only so much. Context, circumstances, contingency, all play a role as well.
Which brings me to the story of Igor and Vladimir, and the curious connection between my suburb of Sandgate, on the shores of Moreton Bay, and the helicopter.
Around the early years of the 20th century, many people were experimenting with the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine. In France and Germany, England and America, amateur aviators tinkered with kites, gliders and balloons. Even in Australia, on the remote edge of the British Empire, Lawrence Hargrave played a part with his experiments with box kites.
Russia had its enthusiasts too. Continue reading
The situation in Syria is tragic, and it’s not surprising that people who see these tragedies on their television (or more likely, these days, YouTube) want to Do Something. Maybe there’s a point to American, or British, or French, or Russian, or Iranian, or Israeli breast-beating over what is going on. I’m not so sure. I was in Belgrade a few weeks ago and saw the site of the NATO bombing in 1993. Did it really change anything on the ground?
Here in Australia, though, there’s no point. We have no strategic interest in Syria, and even if we did, for good or bad we can have no impact on what is going on. Australia is a modest country, with much to be modest about – and thank goodness for that. I doubt if there are many Australians who want to join the Great Powers, especially on yet another expedition of gunboat diplomacy to the Middle East.
Unfortunately, one of them is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In the middle of an election campaign he is highly likely to lose, the ex-diplomat, ex-foreign minister, takes time out from cooking or campaigning to speak in sober, measured and above all pompous terms about his consultations with Barack Obama and David Cameron and – who knows? Ban Ki-moon?
The excuse for this self-importance is that Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council and this weekend takes over the rotating presidency. The real reason is that Rudd loves this sort of stuff.
It all feels to me a bit like ‘We warn the Tsar!’ Continue reading
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