The Holocaust

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never read any books that describe The Holocaust. That is, until recently when our book club chose this one. It just blew my mind – you would read something terrible and you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, but then you’d read on, and it would. It certainly helped put some of the international politics of the region in perspective.

The Sunflower

Interesting philosophical views on forgiving the unforgivable

Now this is a good book-club book. Simon Wiesenthal writes about an experience that he had during World War 2 while a prisoner in a concentration camp, then a number of other people with relevant experience (including the Dalai Lama) respond to how he dealt with that experience. It’s relatively short, you don’t have to read it all, it comes with a selection of pre-canned opinions that you can choose to agree with or not, and discussion is sure to be heated.

It’s not an altogether pleasant read, but it isn’t densely philosophical or likely to be traumatic to read either. As the discussion revolves around putting yourself in the shoes of Wiesenthal, you need to get to grips with the environment of hopelessness and oppression first. He writes well, and although I doubt that anyone who hadn’t been through it could ever truly imagine it, you do get to a level of empathy. Some of the respondents that follow his story are not as well written, but it is easy to skip the ponderous ones.

Wiesenthal goes on to become a “nazi-hunter” later in his life, tracking down those who engaged in war crimes when younger. He has obviously come to his own conclusions about repentence, forgiveness and forgetting. Reading this book helped me come to some also.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

Diaspora Perthus

I recently heard a podcast about the Pittsburgh diaspora, and I realised that I was part of the Perth diaspora. According to TheFreeDictionary, a diaspora is “a dispersion of a people from their original homeland, or the community formed by such a people”. I know a fair number of people who hale from Perth, in Western Australia, and while they have lived away from there for many years, still retain a fondness, and a connection. Even while there doesn’t seem to be a conscious effort to construct an expatriate Perth community, they seem to form anyway.

I wonder if there are some distinct cultural traits that mark out people from Perth, such that we spot each other. There is a slight shift in accent across Australia, with people from W.A. having a more Pommie accent, and people from the eastern states having a more Kiwi accent. I’m not sure many Australians would recognise it though – certainly I don’t. Also, there’s a little local slang, such as “Freo” for “Fremantle” and “Rotto” for “Rottnest”, and the fact that we refer to bathing trunks as “bathers” (that one’s shared with a couple of other states, I believe). There’s a distinct driving behaviour on the road that is territorial and dismissive of pedestrians. Most people would lose that after driving elsewhere – or their insurance premiums would skyrocket.

The types of people I know that have left Perth have all had careers in fields like IT/Telecomms, Music, Academia, Finance or Law. All occupations that benefit from being close to a larger population centre. Maybe we find each other because we bump into each other at work?

So, if you catch your colleague moaning about the poor choice of beaches, spreading rumours about the dangers of quokkas, or complaining about the time they dated someone that turned out to be the sibling of a friend, then perhaps they’re part of the Perth diaspora.

Gentle comedies

The last couple of films I’ve seen happen to have been both good-natured, gentle, character-driven comedies. They’re a nice change from the recent trend towards unsubtle humour, of which recent examples are Borat or Nacho Libre.

Little Miss Sunshine

A quirky road-movie

Although this film is fundamentally a road movie, with a journey that is more important than the destination, and characters who make self-discoveries through overcoming adversities, the plot is not what this film is about. It’s really about the characters.

The family that jumps in a car together is not defined by their disfunction (a la the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation) but by their individuality. They are an improbably diverse set of characters.

There’s the average-looking girl that dreams of winning a beauty pageant (the Little Miss Sunshine of the title), the boy that doesn’t talk, the father who’s a motivational speaker, the practical housewife, the suicidal uncle, and the drug-addicted grandfather. It’s a totally delightful mix, and each is pretty well rounded.

Don’t expect deep insight, but the bizarre characters reflect back to us the bizarre nature of parts of modern American society. I enjoyed it.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Kenny

A mockumentary full of toilet-humour

The central character of this documentary-style movie is Kenny, brought to us through the skills of actor Shane Jacobson, who also edits the film and is one of the writers. The other writer, Clayton Jacobson, is also the director, and also makes an acting appearance. So does Ronald Jacobson and at least one other Jacobson. It’s very much a family show.

The show is something like a week-in-the-life of a port-a-loo plumber. We get to experience his honest perspective on the everyday activity of using the toilet, while meeting his family and colleagues. Kenny feels fully rounded and believable. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the creation of a new Australian comic personality.

There are some fantastic lines, and many laugh-out-loud moments. It’s also a tale of family and acceptance. I hope we see Kenny again.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

The “Book-Club Book” as a genre

I’m a member of a book-club, and it’s quite fun. The peer-pressure that forces you to read something interesting but “not what I would have chosen” is a force for good. Apparently book-clubs are relatively common, and their popularity is growing. Perhaps this is my cynicism, but I suspect some authors are now targeting the book-club as the audience for their books. And I suspect this is the case with last month’s book …

The Shadow of the Wind

A mystery story that’s a little too wordy.

What alerts the reader that this book is targeted to book-group discussion is that it has a discussion guide at the back. I’ve seen this on a few books now, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. If a book needs help to discuss it, then it’s probably not a good book-club book.

It is an interesting story, though. This novel tells the tale of Daniel, who is the son of a book store owner. He gets caught up in a mystery that has several bizarre characters and plenty of twists. Will books be his life? Will a book take over his life? Will a book take his life?

Set in Barcelona in the 1950s, the atmosphere of post Civil War recovery provides a rich stage for the characters to develop on. The book is originally Spanish, and the English language version is a translation.

I doubt it’s the translator’s fault, but the writing seems obsessed with its own cleverness and wordplay. It does seem to go on a bit. At over 500 pages, this book is probably also slightly long for the average meet-once-a-month book-club.

In the end, it was a pretty light read. There wasn’t much meat in the story to really discuss and argue about. I find the best book-club books are ones that people are prepared to get heated up over. This wasn’t one of those.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Next month we’ll be discussing Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. It’s not light, but I think it will be an excellent book-club book.

Auction strategy


Winners are grinners

Originally uploaded by 4ndrewScott.

There are plenty of house-buying strategies out there, but the one I used on the weekend is supported by some common sense theory, is not illegal, but most importantly can actually work: we are now house-owners! I figure I won’t be needing to use this one again soon, so I’m happy to share it with anyone else who is bidding at auction.

Firstly, there are two possible auction outcomes: either the property sells at auction, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then any bids you’ve made simply provide the vendor with a position to negotiate the price up from. So, it’s better if you haven’t made any bids in that case, and you can simply begin negotiations directly when the auction finishes.

In the case it’s going to sell, the property will go on the market at some point, and the auctioneer will indicate this by saying it’s “on the market”, it “will sell”, or something like that. After this has happened, you should begin to bid.

As auctions are a painful thing, pretty much anyone prepared to bid at one will have rationally thought out what their limit is, before they go. If your limit is below anyone else’s, you aren’t going to win. However, auctions aren’t a completely rational environment.

Auctioneers are very good at putting on a show, pressuring bidders, and otherwise channelling PT Barnum. Most people have an “emotional limit” that is higher than their “rational limit”. If they used their credit cards, sold some shares, restricted their lifestyle, borrowed a bit from a mate, or did something else that they don’t really want to do, then they could go beyond their rational limit. The auctioneer’s goal is to have people bid well above their rational limit, up to their emotional limit. Even if you have the highest rational limit, you will lose the auction if anyone’s emotional limit is higher than your rational limit.

The mechanics of auction are such that the winner is the one that’s prepared to pay the most, but they only need pay as much as the loser would pay. For example, if a person who is willing to pay up to $200,000 is bidding against another who is willing to pay up to $300,000, then the latter can win by paying $200,001. So, even if your rational limit is higher than everyone’s emotional limit and you win, you will pay a price equivalent to the loser’s emotional limit.

No legal auction strategy can lower people’s rational limit, but a good auction strategy can keep people’s emotional limit to close to their rational limit. This can save you money and may even win you the auction. Unfortunately, the auctioneer is trying to do the opposite, and push the emotional limits of the bidders.

So to beat the auctioneer, you need to join them. They power dress to impress, they stand at the front like a teacher at a class, and they whoop and shout to whip up the emotions. To counter this, you need to dress as a real-estate agent in a dark suit, stand at the front near the auctioneer, and every time the bid increased by someone else, calmly but immediately increase it yourself. You should look like someone with infinite patience and a infinite limit, and who is there to buy.

I felt a little silly, standing up there alone in my suit near the auctioneer. The auctioneer knew what I was up to and started to ignore me. When someone else bid me up, he wouldn’t come back to me straight away, so I had to shout out my bids in order to regain the lead. I think we would’ve won anyway, but this strategy probably saved us a few thousand dollars.

Chopper Reid meets Rudyard Kipling

It’s one of those books that you get recommendations on from many sources, but for one very important reason you never start it: it’s over 900 pages long. However, once you begin, you somehow finish it in a week.

Shantaram

Australian bad boy’s overseas adventure

Melbourne’s own Gregory David Roberts is a criminal, but a writer first. This is what allows the first paragraph to draw you in, and the first page to engage you with his story. And what an amazing story it is.

It falls into the genre of “fictional biography”. I guess this means that you can’t take everything he writes seriously, but this does detract from the power of the biography. I found myself wondering whether particular elements could possibly be true – a question you would not ask if it was either “fiction” or “biography”.

Certainly, Roberts seems to have more adventure in the few years he was in India that any one person deserves to have, and probably more than several people put together could even manage. And when you consider how many languages he learns, how many deep philosophers he encounters, and how he is somehow still alive, it stretches incredible towards incredulity.

I choose to believe that he really did do it all, or at least close enough to it. Others may not. But, it makes it easier to seriously consider the ethical positions he raises, analyses and resolves. I like that sort of thing.

Another thing I liked was how it gave me a bit of an insight into the life of someone like Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks. There are a couple of things that are common to them both, and Hicks is such a thinly represented character in Australian media that it can be hard to understand the motivations of such a person. This book provides a glimpse into the background required.

I think someone once said that the best literature is something like a shaggy dog story. I’m not sure this is the best literature, but it’s one of the best shaggy dog stories I’ve read.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

It turns out that Roberts has now gone back to India. According to his book’s website, he’s now doing charitable work in Mombay.

Trip to Perth

On the weekend, I was in Perth for my grandfather’s birthday. It was a very relaxing trip, and even so I was able to catch up with quite a few friends and family members. Plus, the weather was nice, so I also got to swim at the beach. All up, very restorative.

There are some things about Perth that make the place very special (some would say “stuck in time”, but that’s a bit mean). As well as the lack of daylight savings, extended trading hours and pokie machines in pubs, there’s an easygoing lifestyle and pace that suggests a level of contentment now rare here over east.

Another thing they’ve got is wildlife. In some suburbs, it’s not uncommon to find snakes in your backyard. If you go to Rottnest, you’ll certainly come face to face with a quokka at some point. Also, the many parkland reservations throughout the city host bigger animals like kangaroos. This photo was taken in a reasonably old suburb that’s about 10-15 minutes drive from the centre of town. My parents live nearby, and the kangaroos are a daily occurrence.

The AFL Grand Final as a spectator

We went to the AFL Grand Final on Saturday, to see the West Coast Eagles win by just a point. It was a frustrating game, but it was very exciting towards the end as Sydney Swans came from hugely behind to close on the Eagles. (And let me say that if you’re going to have a mascot, one based on a bird is guaranteed to look like a chicken. Except if it’s an Eagle, of course).

Anyway, it was the second time I’d been to a Grand Final, but the first time I’d seen the game from the stands. Back in 1997, we were there as part of the talent. Not the sporting talent of course – we were in the pre-match entertainment.

It’s still run by Kerrie Hayes Productions. And they still teach the same dance moves. As the little people dressed in black waved their arms to Up There Kazaly, my arms twitched in synch.

It was much better to be in the stands. You could see everything and there wasn’t a costume. The only way to get a birds-eye view from down on the ground was to dress as a chicken.

Realistic Food Sites

Reading The Age Good Food Guide, a Melbournian might get the idea that everyone’s out there munching on foie gras, quaffing chateau du maison, and quoting French phrases. Most of the foodie websites follow this trend, and discuss high cuisine as if it’s almost an everyday experience for the authors. Maybe it is, but what about the rest of us?

For me, a good brunch out can be the weekend highlight. I recently came across a site that reviews good breakfast spots around Melbourne. It’s fantastic! The pictures get me drooling, and I’ve discovered several new places that I’ve simply got to try.

A little while back, I was pointed towards a site that reviews the best chicken parmagiana in town. These are people who take great pride in their mission, and their rating methodology is extraordinarily detailed. But it doesn’t explain why their ratings show North Melbourne as the centre of the parma universe.

Finally, there’s someone out there who is helping us to choose our morning brew. This site reviews cups of coffee (and the occasional hot chocolate). How useful is that? I haven’t really gone through their back catalogue of reviews yet, but there looked like a couple of places I really should check out. It goes well with the breakfast site.

So, more of it, I say. Not everyone has the ability to dine at two-hat restaurants, but a good coffee is realistically available to everyone, and a good breakfast can make your day. This is what the Internet was invented for!