Knight moves

Knight moves imageFrom the chess board to the board room, what can business learn from chess?

There is an Indian proverb that says chess is a sea from which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.

What may appear to some to be a board game, albeit a rather complicated one, is to others a confounding obsession, a deeply personal challenge, an intellectual battle, a psychological arm wrestle. To succeed at the game requires tremendous dedication – often many years of full-time specialised training – and also the ability to strategise, to mobilise forces, to make sound decisions but also audacious, unpredictable moves. You must understand your own strengths and have the ability to read those of others, and anticipate them.

Which, when you think about it, sounds a lot like the qualities required for success in business: focus, strategy, structure, discipline, expertise.

And, indeed, some have made the connection between the two demanding disciplines. David Cordover is a former Australian junior chess champion and a partner in Chessworld, a franchise chess equipment business operating in several Australian states.

“Business is just a game,” he says. “And knowing a couple of strategies absolutely helps you. The more I learn about business, the more I think it’s so, so simple – and it’s so like chess.

“The key thing in business is to focus and to have a plan. Chess is exactly the same thing.”

Though many countries claim to have invented chess, it’s commonly thought to have begun in India, evolving from the sixth-century Sanskrit game chaturanga.

The modern version of chess emerged in the 19th century. Today it is one of the world’s most popular board games, played recreationally and competitively either online or at social, club and tournament level.

The governing body is the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, which presides over tournaments, titles and rankings.

“To my mind there are two sorts of chess players,” says Gary Bekker, FIDE’s representative in Australia. “The first group are players I would describe as chess bums. They are very good chess players, but not so good at anything else.

“The other group are made up of those who are brilliant at everything. They have an excellent memory and a flair for anything that involves mathematical puzzles and problem-solving skills. They are not only chess masters but also successful in their business pursuits. They can be excellent sharemarket investors and have a head for managing businesses, for foreseeing problems and how they might be overcome.

“The problem is that usually you have to be either very dedicated to business or to chess,” Bekker says. “There are very few who are excellent at both.”

Those that excel in either discipline talk about the importance of establishing a blueprint for success, but being prepared to deviate from it as the need arises.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov achieved the highest FIDE rating of all time (2,500 is required for grandmaster status), and since retiring from the game has written extensively about chess, politics and business.

He says at the elite levels of chess it’s as important to consider your rival’s actions as it is your own. “In business, too, successful strategists think not just about their own new products, pricing and marketing, but also about how their rivals will respond – and how to respond to them,” Kasparov wrote in Fast Company.

“Smart executives … must understand that their competitors are at least as smart as they are. In chess, I know that my rival sees everything I see. Even if I do the unthinkable – a bold unprecedented move designed to leave him gasping – I must assume he has anticipated it and will have an equally daring answer. Call it the courage to accept humility.”

Guy West, 48, is an international master (a FIDE rating between 2,300 to 2,400), a former Australian chess champion, six-time Victorian champion and has represented Australia at 10 chess Olympiads. He also has enjoyed success as a share trader and is now a partner in West attributes his achievements in both domains to “determination rather than inspiration”.

“In chess, perseverance is extremely important, and shouldn’t be underestimated,” says West, who in the lead-up to his Australian championship win in 1996 devoted four hours a day to chess study – in addition to the many hours he spent playing.

“Many people in business will tell you the same thing – that if you survive the first five years you’ve got a very good chance of being successful. In chess and business, it’s certainly not enough just to be talented.”

Bruce Pandolfini is a world-renowned chess teacher (he was portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer) and the author of Every Move Must Have a Purpose, a tome offering guidance to applying the principles of chess to other endeavours such as business.

He says most great chess players think only as far ahead as they need to, usually just a few moves. “Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time,” Pandolfini says. “The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you.”

The real issue, he says, is not how far ahead you think, but how well you think at the moment it is required. Good thinking, Pandolfini says, is all about making comparisons. If you see a good idea, think of a better one. Weigh them up.

FIDE’s Bekker says it’s important to note the difference between tactics and strategy.

“Tactics is all about what’s happening in the next two moves,” he explains. “Strategy is present in the overall position of the pieces on the board. Good chess players pay attention to both, correctly balancing immediate concerns with long-term strategy.

“It’s the same in the business world for a manager. What’s happening in the office and the day-to-day affairs of the company [its tactics] might all be going extremely well. Meanwhile, strategically, the company might be incredibly unprofitable. But a good manager will be able to modify as changes come along.

“And of course, the two affect each other,” Bekker says. “How your company performs day to day – the attention it pays to customer service and to details – impacts on its strategic direction, and vice versa.”

Says Kasparov: “Great chess players cannot lose sight of the mundane details. In business you might call this … the everyday operations that, if left untended, will undermine your organisation.

“One ill-considered move, or non-move, seemingly inconsequential at the time, can leave you hopelessly behind.”

The Melbourne Chess Club, established in 1886 and now located in inner-suburban Fitzroy, seems about as far from the business world as it is possible to get.

On a Monday night, the nondescript building, home to one of the oldest chess clubs in the world, is busy but quiet. It is tournament night. In one room there are several tables of players earnestly hunched over chess tables and punching clocks when they’ve completed their moves. In another, much larger room, the weekly tournament is taking place, and there is no talk at all.

This is clearly a male domain. There are no women anywhere, and the males present, ranging in age from perhaps early 20s to late 60s, seem not overly interested in socialising. Fashion, for most, is an afterthought.

Because chess has been around for so long, many of its manoeuvres have been codified. So, the moves I see players making – especially at the start of games – have been executed many times before, and are even allocated names, such as the Sicilian, Slav or French Winawer openings. There are many of these, and when chess aficionados talk about strategy and homework, they are often referring to the study of past contests: openings, endgames and technique.

Chess strategy has been analysed and refined since the 15th century, so its study can represent a lifetime’s work – and sometimes there is a fine line between passion and addiction.

“You tell yourself that it’s just a game,” jokes club member Scott Stewart. “But then you find yourself playing four tournaments a week. There should be a Chessaholics Anonymous.”

Another club member, Marcus Raine, loves studying old games – he can speak with authority about contests that took place in the 1930s – and talks about the beautiful aesthetics evident during great contests.

“Chess clubs,” he says, “are a bit of a sanctuary from the world.”

Chess in Australia operates very much under the radar.

In Russia, where chess has been played since the 11th century, the prohibitively cold climate lends itself to indoor pursuits. Chess teaching, learning and culture has a considerably more prominent place in wider society.

Kasparov, for instance, began learning under grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik from the age of eight, his towering chess talent eventually making him famous and wealthy.

“When chess is taught in Europe it’s done so as something that enhances academic results in terms of improving problem solving, pattern recognition and memory,” FIDE’s Bekker says. “And all those skills are handy in a business sense.”

Gerrit Hartland from Canterbury (Victoria) Chess Club, where Australian grandmaster Darryl Johansen teaches, says chess also helps with concentration and logical thinking.

“You see the development of a young player who comes to us at the age of seven,” he says. “Bit by bit they learn to concentrate. They learn patience, which is one of the toughest things to teach a small kid.”

Whether or not youngsters adroit at chess harness their skills to later forge a successful professional life away from the chess board is another question.

“It’s a matter of time,” says international master West. “Most people who are successful in chess devote a whole life to it.”

Yet some do master both. Joop van Oosterom, for instance, is a billionaire Dutch businessman and chess enthusiast who became the world correspondence chess champion.

Dato Tan Chin Nam is the main owner for horse trainer Bart Cummings, and a chess enthusiast who sponsors tournaments. He frequently names horses after chess nomenclature.

There are many others, though, who find those forces on the board to which Hartland refers as irresistibly mesmerising, and from which it’s difficult to break free.

As eclectically talented as these players are, to them chess as a metaphor for business is therefore something of a moot point.

“Chess is chess,” Hartland says. “That’s the end of it.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

10 films to watch in lockdown

Every year I rate my favourite films from the previous 12 months. It’s a way of cataloguing the year’s viewing and revisiting those movies that for one reason or another stayed in my consciousness. It gives the films a longer life, a resonance, beyond the initial viewing. And then because I always compare the list with my good friend Derek Agnew’s best, I find out about those I‘d let slip by. Or if there are films that are highly rated by the cognoscenti that I find myself avoiding, I get an insight into my changing preferences and prejudices. For instance, the more I heard about Parasite and the louder the commendations, the less I wanted to see the thriller/comedy/drama/social commentary by the Korean iconoclast Bong Joon-Ho. Given that it earned best film honours at the Oscars, I may have missed out on one there. But the 10 I rated the most enjoyable were my own personal pantheon for the year. And I finally got around to listing them, roughly in order.

Apollo 11
What an astonishing viewing experience. Ideally, you’re watching this documentary about the 1969 lunar landing on a big screen to truly appreciate the epic scope of the mission, the team and infrastructure behind it, and the ambition of those who put everything on the line to get there. Made entirely from archival footage pieced together with tremendous deftness by director Todd Douglas Miller, the film charts the Apollo program’s most celebrated mission. This was a transportive, mesmerising experience in no small part due to the soundtrack, created entirely with a 1969-era Moog synthesiser by Matt Morton.

Sometimes, Always, Never
I didn’t notice this film on any of the year’s best lists, which is surprising, really. I left the cinema thinking I’d seen something unique, quirky and uplifting, despite a sadness at its core. Bill Nighy plays a natty retired tailor searching still for a son lost now for many years while struggling to connect with the son left behind, and his family. Scrabble is involved.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Assassin deluxe John Wick has been made “incommunicado” for his actions in the second Wick outing. In this one he dispatches with lethal aplomb legions of fellow hitmen trying to take him out in order to earn the generous bounty on Wick’s head. In this cross-cultural celebration of the art of elimination, somehow Wick survives the depredations of the High Table, its underlings and henchmen, losing a digit and introducing us to horse fu and dog fu along the way.

True, 1917 represents an impressive technical achievement in editing and cinematography, and one can’t help but be impressed by the fluid, seemingly seamless movement of the camera, and the manner in which the film hangs together. But it is also a thrilling, visceral and tremendously emotional depiction of Britain in the First World War, and a moving cinema experience. I wasn’t expecting that.

Avengers: Endgame
There is a lot going on in this epic closing chapter (for now) superhero saga but somehow all the threads in the story are tied together with skill, tact, excitement and sensitivity.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has famously declared that he will make an even 10 films and then never again call “action” on a feature-length film. But with Once Upon the Time in Hollywood seemingly the most Tarantinoesque film yet – featuring the director’s obsessions, conventions, excessive dialogue, gratuitous violence and generous running time – it’s been suggested this outing – his ninth – should conclude the canon. Brad Pitt (doing his best Billy Jack impression) and Leonardo DiCaprio both shine, but it might just be the costuming and production design evoking 1969 so convincingly that provide the film’s most compelling performance. Leave a bit more of Margot Robbie’s performance on the cutting room floor and this could really have been something extraordinary.

The King
Mendo (Ben Mendelsohn as Henry IV) and Edgo (Joel Edgerton as Falstaff) are standouts in this pared-down retelling of the band of brothers, the happy few, who fought and defeated an upstart contemptuous (what else?) French army.

Diego Maradona
It’s easy to forget how big and how good the little Argentinian soccer superstar was. In this narrator-less (seems to be the style these days) docco, the best example of “big” might be the scene where 60,000 Napoli fans turn up to watch Maradona ink his contract with the Italian giant. So, that’s just to put pen to paper, in his street clothes. And the “good”? Perhaps the footage of the maestro against the English at the 1986 World Cup and the two goals he tallied in the 2-0 triumph. The first was the famous “hand of God” score, but the second sees Maradona take possession and seemingly dodge and weave past every single Brit on the pitch to score and secure the win.

Ford v Ferrari
You don’t have to be a huge gearhead to appreciate this movie, but it probably helps to have an appreciation for cars (Fords and Ferraris in particular). That said, I’m not by any means an autophile, yet this biopic has enough narrative juice to power a V12, lively performances, cracking production design and a moving father-son story. It’s cinema that’s the winner at the falling of the chequered flag.

Amazing Grace
Technical difficulties and contract imbroglios meant footage from this concert, filmed at a church in Los Angeles in 1972 when a 29-year-old Aretha Franklin was at the apex of her considerable powers, sat in cans for about 40 years. This despite the fact that the album made from performances over two nights had been a huge success. Backed by the buoyant Southern California Community Choir and its effervescent conductor, and with the support of the Reverend James Cleveland, the docco provides a transcendent experience.





Setting the climate agenda

Recently I fired off my first letter to the editor. The missive was not published.
(Well, it was my first letter to the editor when I wasn’t in fact the editor and the recipient of my own ersatz correspondence).
In the midst of the awesome and awful bushfires engulfing Australia I issued a hastily worded epistle to The Age.
My point? The thing that had got up my craw was that it had taken Australia immolating for The Age to finally prioritise coverage for climate change as an issue worth reporting on and informing its audiences about.
In July last year (not long after the federal election) only a very small percentage of Australians were concerned about climate change. That figure has obviously changed now.
It wasn’t that nothing was happening in terms of the issue, was the point I was trying to make in my letter, merely that it hadn’t been reported very well. Contextualised. Framed.
I have read and heard so many people say since the fires tore through our country that the Earth’s climate is always changing, and the very hot conditions prevailing through bushfire season were merely a manifestation of this.
But do they realise the Earth is actually the hottest its been since humankind has been upon it?
Or that the level of carbon in our atmosphere is the highest it has been for 12 million years – back when Antarctica had forests on it?
Is your average Age reader aware that July 2019 was the hottest month on record?
These milestone tell a story: the narrative of a planet heating up.
Anyway, here’s the unpublished epistle in question:
Kudos to The Age for its excellent coverage of Australia’s heartbreakingly destructive bushfires. Chip Le Grand’s front-line reporting in particular has been as evocative as it is informative.
Where The Age has been less than stellar, however, is in its coverage of climate change in general.
This could be said for the past decade (the Earth’s hottest on record), the past five years (see above), and in particular over the past year (Australia’s hottest and driest on record).
Only now that the country is literally combusting are we finally talking about this crucial issue ahead of relatively trivial matters such as franking credits, Royal Family vicissitudes, or footy.
Meanwhile, over the past 12 months some major climate milestones have either been ignored or given low priority.
Consider that July 2019 was the Earth’s hottest month on record, with records dating back to 1880 in some countries.
June was the hottest June on record, and September, October, November and December either equalled or set new temperature records for these months.
August was the second hottest August on record (ref. Copernicus Climate Change Service).
In short, the world is heating up. Indeed, our planet is the warmest it’s been since humankind has been on it.
Harvard University Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James Anderson says the level of carbon now in the atmosphere has not been seen in 12 million years.
Best known for establishing that chlorofluorocarbons were damaging the ozone layer (which led to the Montreal Protocol), Anderson says me must act, and act immediately.
To avoid the worst effects of climate change, an epic global mobilisation of resources is needed to halt carbon pollution and remove it from the atmosphere, and to reflect sunlight away from the poles.
This must be done, he says, within five years.
Perhaps I was being a bit harsh. The Age has certainly done a far superior job than News reporting on the issue. Unlike the papers in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian stable, Age columnists acknowledge climate change. The issue is covered regularly.
Coverage has certainly improved since the bushfire crisis unfolded, but this must continue to be the case.

To the Moon and back

Of all the events that took place in 1969, none have been subject to as much scrutiny, conjecture, analysis or celebration as the Apollo 11 spaceflight.

The mission famously took a crew of three astronauts to the Moon on July 16, and then returned them safely to Earth.

Our fascination with Earth’s only natural satellite stretches back millennia. Some ancient cultures built monuments to it, others worshipped it as a deity. Others still thought they saw in the dried seas of lava (or “maria” as scientists refer to them) a human face – the Man in the Moon.

With a diameter 28 per cent that of Earth’s, the Moon is located about 407,000km away from us at its furthest point.

The Moon impacts the ocean tides, and some say our moods, too.

My cousin Adrian, who was blind and deaf, was nonetheless thrown off-balance by full moons, which kept him awake and strolling outdoors in the middle of the night to head for his beloved swing.

Common wisdom had it that it was the Moon itself that causes a kind of madness, which explains how “lunar” and “lunacy” originate from the same Latin word.

Was it a kind of madness that prompted US President John F. Kennedy to promise in 1962 a manned spaceflight to the Moon’s surface by the end of the decade?

If so, it was lunacy borne of the Cold War, as the US and USSR fought for superiority in whatever realm they could compete – sports, culture, technology, and hegemony.

The Russians had a head start in the Space Race; they had propelled the first creature, Laika the dog, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Gagarin returned a hero. Laika, alas, a gentle creature originally discovered wandering the streets of Moscow, perished (from heatstroke, it’s since been admitted), an early casualty in the Space Race.

There would be more.

On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger Chafree – were killed in a fire on the launch pad.

An investigation found that the blaze had begun under Grissom’s seat, somewhere within the 50km of wire on board the spacecraft. An exact cause was never discovered.

Though tragic, the incident was a turning point; from then on the program became more “coherent”, more streamlined and structured.

In an era of more primitive communications, the Americans could not exactly tell how they were faring against the Russians.

The truth was that the US program was considerably ahead of their Soviet foes. And after the Apollo 1 catastrophe, US efforts were redoubled.

The NASA Mercury and Gemini  “bridge” programs were run as testing initiatives for equipment, procedures, manoeuvres, operations, pilot skill and team capability.

A successful mission required an extraordinary number of things to go right – for every piece of a rocket, every tiny component, to work as designed, but also for the astronauts to know their roles. A minor pilot error on board could have epic consequences. The smallest equipment failure could spell disaster.

The Russians kept experiencing problems in their somewhat chaotic roll-out; the US persisted with a more organised program.

In October 1968 NASA launched Apollo 8, which flew to the Moon, orbited around it, checked it out up close, glimpsed its mysterious pockmarked “far side”, and in what became a famous photograph, watched the Earth rise above the Moon’s horizon.

Apollo 11 was the culmination of an astonishing effort involving billions of dollars and personnel of some 400,000 people to make happen.

On board were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins.

Aldrin, who later legally changed his named to Buzz, campaigned behind the scenes to have the honour of being first to step onto the lunar surface.

It wasn’t going to happen. Armstrong’s more reserved character was favoured by the NASA suits.

And so on the morning of July 16, the rocket blasted off.

The rocket that did most of the flying component of the trip was known as a Saturn 5.

“This beast is best felt,” Collins said of the Saturn 5’s power. “Shake, rattle and roll! We are thrown left and right against our straps in spasmodic little jerks. It is steering like crazy, like a nervous lady driving a wide car down a narrow alley, and I just hope it knows where it’s going, because for the first 10 seconds we are perilously close to that umbilical tower.”

You do notice quite a bit of sexist language emanating from this time period; there are many references to men, mankind, “the hearts and minds of men” and the like. It is one of the reminders that the events took place half a century ago, before the impacts of the feminist movement were widely felt.

After nine hours, the rocket was due for a midcourse correction. By then the rocket was travelling at 10,844 m per second, sufficient to escape Earth’s gravitational field.

On day four of the mission, lunar orbit was reached.

“The Moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen,” Collins said.

The astronauts slept in lunar orbit that night.

After breakfast the next morning, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into the lunar module (LM), nicknamed “Eagle”. There was a 12-minute decent to the lunar surface.

A few things start to go wrong.

Mission Control can’t communicate with Eagle, and has to go through Collins in the command module (CM), nicknamed Columbia, to communicate with Armstrong and Aldrin. Communications drop in and out.

There’s an electrical problem on board. Computer alarms go off. 

Armstrong took over manual control about 150m to the lunar surface. There was an issue with timing that required a different landing spot than was originally proposed.

But with 30 seconds’ worth of fuel left Armstrong found an appropriate spot, and Eagle softly touched down.

“Contact light,” Aldrin said.

Six hours – six hours! – later, Armstrong climbed the 3m down from the module to the lunar surface, followed by Aldrin, who described the vista as “beautiful desolation”.

They collected rock and soil samples and took photos, mostly of Aldrin, who claimed photography wasn’t part of the training, but was perhaps getting revenge for not being chosen to take those portentous first steps.

Armstrong may have uttered “One small step …” but it’s Buzz who dominates the photo album.

They performed experiments, set up equipment and planted a flag.

A few hours later and they were back inside the Eagle. Then after a stay totalling 21 hours, the LM left the Moon’s surface and returned to rendezvous with Collins onboard the CM.

On the return trip all three gave TV interviews in which they thanked those who were part of the program, the American people, and God.

“This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon,” Aldrin said. “More still than the efforts of a government and industry team; more even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

A note was left beside’s JFK’s grave. It read: “Mr President. The Eagle has landed.”

On July 24, the trio splashed down in water 1,450km south-east of Hawaii, where they were picked up by USS Hornet.

The dysfunctional family

MansonOf all the events that took place in 1969, two are remembered above others. In one, mankind reached for the stars, literally, during the Apollo 11 ascent to the Moon.

The other was a manic, depraved and craven series of homicides that made up what became known as the Manson murders. It was a descent into madness.

On August 9, 1969, maid Winifred Capman arrived for work at 10050 Cielo Drive in the exclusive Benedict Canyon area of Brentwood, Los Angeles.

Inside she found the body of Voityck Frykowski, a friend of film director Roman Polanski, whose house it was. Frykowski had been stabbed repeatedly.

Later, LAPD officers discovered the bodies of Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee estate; hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring; Steve Parent, who was a friend of the caretaker; and Sharon Tate, who was Polanski’s wife, and who was eight and half months pregnant.

“All had been stabbed viciously in what must have been a mad, brutal frenzy,” writes Gary Lachman in his informative tome The Dedalus Book of  the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind.

“PIG” was written in blood in the front hall.

The next night there was another series of murders, this time at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Silverlake district.

Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were tied up and killed with their own kitchen knives. There were many stab wounds. DEATH TO PIGS, RISE and HEALTER SKELTER were written in blood on the walls and fridge. The last reference was a misspelling of the name of a Beatles song.

The murders, as was soon discovered, were the work of sociopath Charles Manson’s Family, a hippyish cult in thrall to Manson and his self-styled teachings.

The Family was marked by its prodigious drug taking, enthusiastic orgies, poor personal hygiene, and viciousness.

Manson was convinced the Beatles had tuned in to his wavelength, and were sending him coded messages in their songs, particularly those from The White Album.

Helter Skelter was what Manson called the apocalypse he thought was imminent. He spent considerable time searching in California’s deserts for the entrance to a mystical underground city to ride it out.

Aged 34 at the time of the murders and a little over 5 ft, Manson had spent 17 years of his life at that point in prison. He had been a burglar, car thief, pimp, forger and wanderer. A hater of blacks.

Manson was so accustomed to life behind bars that when he was released from Terminal Island Prison in 1967, he pleaded with the wardens to take him back.

His visions, such as they were, were fuelled by frequent acid binges and orgies.

Known to some as “the Wizard”, Manson cosied up to players in the LA music scene. He got to know Beach Boy Dennis Wilson when Wilson picked up two of The Family’s young female devotees who were hitchhiking and took them back to his house.

Wilson later arrived home one evening to find that Manson and a dozen young girls had taken over his home. By the end of their stay they had cost him $100,000.

“Although Manson and the Family were officially charged with nine murders, privately Manson remarked to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi that the real figure was 35,” writes Lachman.

Bugliosi believed this to be a low estimate.

You’ve got a friend

The second instalment in your trusty correspondent’s reflection on the incidents, accidents, milestones and landmarks of 1969 looks at an erudite thinker’s simple premise: be a buddy to yourself.

Born in December 1969 in Switzerland to fabulously wealthy but emotionally distant parents,  Alain de Botton spent most of his childhood at exclusive boarding schools in England.

Eventually the bookish de Botton found his way to Cambridge University, where he read History and then Philosophy.

It is in this classic realm where de Botton has found his calling, having written about 15 or so tomes dealing with, related to or riffing on philosophical themes.

These have varied from modern reinterpretations and reframing of the old-school masters, to monographs on travel, architecture and work life.

One might be forgiven for thinking that de Botton turned 50 many years ago. And it’s not simply a long-bald pate that provides this deception, either, but a worldly sagacity and self-possession usually associated with those who have logged time on our planet, read considerably and travelled widely (both of which de Botton has done in spades) as well as made and learned from mistakes.

Truth be told, as the recipient of a considerable trust fund established by his financier father, de Botton need not (for financial reasons, anyway) have bothered with the workaday world.

Yet a seemingly genuine desire to have a positive influence on his fellow human beings and our “faulty walnuts” as he refers to our brains, has seen de Botton forge a reputation as a provider of eminently sensible advice for improving everyday living and happiness.

For instance, in reply to the question of just how you can forgive yourself for terrible mistakes (and possible move on, having learned from them), de Botton’s answer is that “we need to try to become an imaginary friend to ourselves”.

“This sounds odd, initially, because we naturally imagine a friend as someone else – not as part of our own mind,” de Botton says.*

“But there is value in the concept because we know instinctively how to deploy strategies of wisdom and consolation with our friends that we stubbornly refuse to apply to ourselves.

“If a friend is in trouble, our first impulse is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a shithead and a failure. We try to reassure them that they are likeable and that it’s worth investigating what might be done. A good friend likes you pretty much as you are already. Any suggestion they make, or idea they have about how you could change, builds on a background of acceptance. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving you a compliment or emphasising your strengths.

“It is ironic – yet hopeful – that we know quite well how to be a better friend to near strangers than we know how to be to ourselves. The hopefulness lies in the fact that we do actually already possess the relevant skills of friendship. It’s just we haven’t as yet directed them to the person who probably needs them most – namely, of course, ourselves.”

*Quote from The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, edited by Nathan Williams



















The 1969 files: Butch and Sundance

Butch and Sundance for blogIt’s perhaps surprising to think that in the same year marked by landmark events such as the lunar landing and Woodstock, that the most popular film was one of the most traditional and iconic genres of American cinema: the western.

In 1969 the biggest movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Earning US$100 million in the US alone, its takings more than doubled the two films that finished in second and third place (Midnight Cowboy and The Love Bug) combined.

If you consider that the astronauts who flew to the Moon were paid an annual salary of $17,000, you quickly realise the film’s ’69 tally must be worth many times this figure in today’s money.

With its charismatic stars in screen veteran Paul Newman and handsome newcomer Robert Redford, clever dialogue, beautiful vistas, and simple but propulsive plot, the film obviously struck a chord with mainstream audiences.

Though it might best be described as escapist, there is a bitter-sweet note as well, and a reminder of life’s impermanence. That’s evident in the film’s denouement, but also its very format. By 1969 the cowboy film and small-screen variant (Gunsmoke, Big Valley, Rawhide, F-Troop, Bonanza) had more or less had its heyday and moseyed off into the sunset.*

The plot is a fairly simple one: Butch leads the Hole in the Wall Gang, a nefarious outfit that, as the name implies, uses incendiary means to procure bank assets not their own.

What Butch lacks in firearms skills he more than compensates with guile, charm and pluck.

Sundance meanwhile is a crack shot whose legend precedes him; men shake in their boots when his very name is uttered.

After robbing a particular railroad one too many times, the gang earns the ire of its owner, who sets an all-star posse after them. A chase ensues.

I was surprised when I re-watched this film recently how many montage sequences there are – at least three, including a strange (for a western) interlude where Newman has fun riding around on a bicycle to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. Yet there is no rain to be seen.

Newman and Redford have undeniable on-screen chemistry, and exude effortless cool. Butch and Sundance is a bromance – Lethal Weapon with bank-robber cowboys, Ocean’s Eleven in the Ol’ West.

I first saw the film in the 1970s – about 1977, I think, when both the film and I were eight years old.

I can remember the thrill of seeing something I probably shouldn’t have, the Dillon family travelling from our summer holiday spot in Merimbula to the Pambula Drive-In for the occasion.

Located about seven hours from Melbourne on New South Wales’ south coast, Merimbula was – and is – a summer haven for thousands of Melburnians every year.

We stayed in cabins near Short Point Beach, and spent hours each day swimming, surf-matting and, well, playing.

Because there was no access to TV during our three-week hiatus, my brother, sister and I read books, tossed frisbees, played Totem Tennis and chasey, and contested epic sessions of cards, with Canasta the game of choice. We listened to the radio, collected shells, recovered from our sunburns, and played with friends we saw only at that time of year.

But I think at some point we craved access to pop culture – and if this jones was satisfied by a trip to a drive-in, even better.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was teamed with The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox that night in Pambula (the closest town to Merimbula). The latter film is about a sassy whore played by Goldie Hawn, who outsmarts and out-sasses a crafty old thief of thieves (George Segal). So like Butch and Sundance, totally inappropriate for an eight-year-old.

Films had longer lives in those days. We are talking about an era before video, before the internet, and obviously well before streaming services.

It could take many years before a popular, award-winning film reached TV, and often screenings of these classics were important television events.

I can recall movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, The Great Escape, and The Sound of Music – all made many years earlier – receiving heavily hyped TV screenings.

These were often introduced by avuncular enthusiastic experts such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins, who contextualised and rhapsodised.

These days, of course, a film is likely to be available for illegal download soon after hitting cinemas. A family would be unlikely to have the experience of seeing an older film together on the big screen – even one observed from behind a windscreen. And that is a pity.

Perhaps the last year of the 60s was ripe for escapist, traditional fare.

After all, the 12 months before, 1968, had been tumultuous indeed.

“It was a year of riots, burning cities, sickening assassinations, and universities forced to close their doors,” writes David Whitehouse in Apollo 11: The Inside Story.

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated in 1968.

In Vietnam, 15,000 US lives – and many more Vietnamese and some Australians – had been lost in a pointless war that had cost US$25 billion to that point.

Little wonder, then, that in 1969 a likeable western charmed audiences into cinemas.


*That said, some fine westerns were made in the 70s and beyond, including iconic fare such as Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Silverado, Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, and Butch and Sundance – The Early Years (OK, I’m kidding about that one – great it is not).  Even in 1969 True Grit (the original version starring John Wayne) was released. The genre’s time, however, was definitely on the wane.



Briefing paper: Climate Change


Just the facts about the planet warming.

Global warming is defined as an increase in the Earth’s surface temperature caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The greenhouse effect, meanwhile, is a naturally occurring phenomenon that helps make life on our planet habitable. Without it, surface temperatures would be about 33°C lower than they are.

According to climate scientists, however, global warming (a term sometimes used interchangeably with “climate change”) is magnifying this phenomenon, increasing carbon in the atmosphere, and raising average temperatures around the globe.

Indeed, it’s estimated that average global temperatures have risen by as much as 0.8°C since 1880, when records first started. Although this doesn’t sound like all that much, the Earth is a delicate system, and the ripple effects of even small changes are profound.

These include greater frequency of extreme weather events such as cyclones, blizzards, hurricanes, wildfires, extreme-heat days and droughts; the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers; the rising of ocean levels; and the disruption of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, among other major impacts.

Using sensors located around the world, and comparing results with historical data, climate scientists tell us the evidence for the impact of climate change is clear and compelling.

“Cold and hot, wet and dry – we experience natural weather conditions all the time,” says Texas Tech University climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. “But today, climate change is loading the dice against us, making certain types of extremes, such as heatwaves and heavy rain events, much more frequent and more intense than they used to be.”

The 20 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years. And only three years – 2016, 2015 and 2017 – were hotter than 2018.

2018 was the hottest year on record for the planet’s oceans, which are heating up more quickly than has been estimated.

Scientists have warned of dire consequences unless action is taken immediately to reduce our carbon emissions.

The Paris agreement, an international climate treaty, aims to limit global temperatures rises to less than 2°C. Scientists say that any more than this will see the planet experience dramatic, irreversible changes that make life for humans much less hospitable.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has confirmed that the summer of 2018–19 was the hottest on record. The average national temperature across the country was up by 2.14°C. It was also 1.28°C hotter than the previous record, set in the summer of 2012–13.

New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory all experienced their hottest summer on record. For Tasmania and South Australia it was the second warmest, and for Queensland the fourth warmest – partly due to flooding rains in that state during late January and early February.

Adelaide set a record temperature of 46.6°C. In Port Augusta, 300km northwest of the capital, it topped out at 49.5°C.

Different sites in NSW also new records, including Borrona Downs, which went through one night with a minimum of 36.6°C. Nationally, the average minimum temperature broke the record by 1.67°C.

“There’s been so many records it’s really hard to count,” says the BOM’s senior climatologist Andrew Watkins.

It was also the driest summer on record for parts of Australia. Dust storms from Central Australia affected the east on several occasions – one storm in mid-February stretched over 1,500km.

“Summer 2018–19 comes on the back of a string of warm months and warm seasons for Australia,” says the BOM. “This pattern is consistent with observed climate change. As the State of the Climate 2018 report outlines, Australia has warmed by more than 1°C since 1910, with most warming occurring since 1950. This means that natural climate variability sits on top of this background warming, and temperature records are likely to continue to be broken in the coming years.”

About the same time as the Australian electorate rejected serious action on climate change, scientists in the US detected the highest levels of planet-warming CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since records began.

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has tracked atmospheric CO2 levels since the late 1950s, detected 415.26 parts per million in early May. It was the first time on record that the observatory measured a daily baseline above 415 ppm.

The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained this much CO2 was more than three million years ago, when global sea levels were several metres higher and parts of Antarctica were covered in lush forest.

“It shows that we are not on track with protecting the climate at all,” says Wolfgang Lucht from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The number keeps rising, and it’s getting higher year after year. This number needs to stabilise.”

Levels of CO2 – one of three greenhouse gases produced when fossil fuels are burnt – are climbing at a rapid pace.

And 2019 is likely to be an El Niño year in which temperatures rise due to warmer ocean currents.

“All of human history has been in a colder climate than now,” Lucht says. “Every time an engine runs, we emit CO2, and it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t miraculously disappear; it stays in the atmosphere.”

Despite the Paris agreement the past four years have been the hottest on record.

“We’re on a runaway train,” says leading climatologist Dr Peter Gleick. “Scientists are blowing the whistle, but politicians are shovelling coal into the engine.”



The last days of Koala Video

It wasn’t a simple decision for Zeng to shutter Koala Video. He didn’t want to, that’s for sure, and the judgement call was made after months of agonising. Still, the door will close permanently on the Balwyn East business in a matter of days (or when most of the remaining stock is sold).

“It hasn’t been easy,”  says Zeng in his understated way, about winding up his 17-year operation.

Koala Video and Zeng are among the last hold-outs of the disappearing breed of suburban video dispensary. When I have let it slip to friends that I rely on DVD borrowing as the main method of viewing new films they are incredulous – at my old-fashioned habits certainly, but also at the continued existence of an anachronism such as a video shop. It’s like hearing about a strip-mall blacksmith, or horse-and-cart milkman.

There is no doubt that the DVD is a disappearing artefact.

Online digital streaming services such as Stan, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (as well as YouTube and illegal movie downloading) have killed the video store.

For the longest time Zeng didn’t want to admit this essential but unpalatable truth.

He argued passionately that articles in the Fairfax press about the demise of a classic suburban institution such as his were hopelessly compromised, since Fairfax itself (now subsumed into the Nine behemoth) was an owner of Stan, and therefore far from objective about the subject.

Yet the evidence was compelling, as all the nearby video libraries gradually went belly-up.

The Blockbuster in Balwyn (and then Mont Albert), the VideoEzy outlets in Hawthorn, Kew and Blackburn South – all now long gone.

It’s hard not to see this as an ineluctable trajectory. For a long time, though, Zeng chose to view this trend as an opportunity.

Customers determined to borrow their films in hard-copy form found their way to the Belmore Rd business, often through word of mouth. Liquidated stock from defunct businesses was absorbed into the Koala collection.

And truth be told, there are some advantages to having movies available in physical form. Families with young children made up a considerable portion of Zeng’s customers.

They could place an order at the fish and chip shop next door, and while they waited, wander around Koala Video and examine a large but finite (curated, if you will) offering.

Over the years Zeng had implemented a variety of generous offers, so that eventually it was possible to borrow a lot of movies for not much money (yet somehow still more than a monthly fee for Stan). Many customers often wound up being slugged hefty fines on their optimistic transactions.

The other audience that benefits from video libraries are the enthusiasts – the cinephiles and obsessives.

Online versions of films invariably don’t include the extras available on disc – the directors’ commentaries, making-of documentaries, and how-to guides.

Without these you might never learn that Ocean’s 12 was made from an existing script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. Or how Tony Scott used a hand-cranked camera for parts of Man on Fire, or that a mate of director Edgar Wright wrote the “Is He Slow?” track for the music-heavy actioner Baby Driver. Without DVD extras you might never learn the secret to the perfect toasted cheese sandwich (see the special features on Chef).

Zeng has an incredible work ethic.

Operating a video store means that it stay open for 70 hours plus per week. Ten years ago some of those could be worked by casuals. But as business tightened this became a luxury, and for quite some time Zeng was working all of these himself – 364 days a year. Good Friday was usually permitted as a full holiday; Christmas and New Year’s Day were open for business.

A couple of years ago a regular customer recruited Zeng to the real estate business. It made sense. With his incredible customer service, patience, determination, meticulousness, and drive – not to mention fluency in his native Cantonese and excellent English language skills – there are plenty of things the 48-year-old Zeng could do.

Since that time Zeng has been running the business in partnership with his wife.

During the day, Zeng focuses on real estate – the relentless “sell, sell, sell” of the national obsession. But you’ll find Zeng in the shop from about 6pm most nights, until the close of business at 9pm (10pm on the weekend).

This Herculean workload has taken a toll. Last year there was a health scare – a liver issue – and sometimes he simply looks, well, fatigued. Working a 12-hour day seven days a week will do that.

A few years ago Zeng took a few days off to spend it with a childhood friend over from China.

And this year the shop was closed on January 1 because Zeng’s three children had pleaded with him to take them to a waterslide park outside Geelong. Despite forgoing one of the best business days of the year, Zeng had no regrets. By then he knew that Koala Video did not have a future. The tricky balancing act of two jobs and family life was becoming increasingly precarious.

Attempts to sell the business, however, came to nothing.

One business broker even had the gall to ask for $10,000 up front before even thinking about taking on the assignment.

As for Zeng, he’s bitter-sweet about the business’s demise. And he says it will be at least six months before he feels emotionally capable of watching a movie. That’s a big statement; Zeng will cheerfully sit through any film a customer complains about (usually for technical reasons). A little while ago I caught him watching Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and seemingly loving it.

The local shops situated near the big roundabout at the intersection of Belmore and Union roads will miss Koala Video in the same way that Mont Albert mourned the demise of Pick-A-Flick a few years back, eventually taking with it the Silky Swallow Chinese restaurant on one side and the convenience store on the other. Having a variety of different shops is key to a shopping destination’s health; homogeneity (say, too many restaurants or coffee shops) usually spells trouble.

Koala Video is set to close for good on March 15. In the meantime there is a sale on, and everything must go. If you’re quick, you might even get to take home Herbie.



























The band of the hand

In February 1987 I was in a car accident that left me with a damaged hand. During the accident the car rolled several times, and somehow the metal watch I was wearing was dragged off.

I was “de-gloved” to use the medical parlance – all the skin on my left palm was torn off – and I lost the top two joints of the middle finger. The index finger is shorter than it should be, and is held together with a metal clip.

After the accident I was self-conscious about my injury, but in time I thought less and less about it. Now, 32 years on, I don’t often reflect back on that day, except to try and do something life-affirming on its anniversary.

I am still alive, six years older than my dear father was back then. Time plays tricks on you in this way.

One of the injury’s consequences is that it has made me both curious and vigilant about others who have endured something similar. There are a surprising number of folks getting around with at least one less digit than the standard 10.

A university lecturer whose classes I attended was missing a couple of index finger joints. A workplace accident took several of an uncle’s digits, and a former work colleague was absent all fingers on one hand save for a thumb, the result of a childhood mishap.

Well-known members of the Missing Finger Fellowship include Don Quixote writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose quill-holding hand was disfigured by a misfiring gun.

Humorist Dave Allen used his missing digit for great comic effect, placing the stump at the base of a nostril to make it appear as if the better part of his finger was shoved up his nose.

M.A.S.H‘s Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) was often seen carrying a clipboard or other prop on the show to camouflage a disfigured hand.

A grenade left self-styled Russian politician Boris Yeltsin’s short two fingers, while both Telly Savalas and Daryl Hannah forged decent acting careers despite missing a couple of fingers between them.

You would think that the absence of something as important as a finger would be an impediment to musical virtuosity. Yet it need not be.

Swing-era guitarist Django Reinhardt, bluesman Houndog Taylor, and psychedelic troubadour Jerry Garcia all became renowned axe handlers despite not having the requisite 10.

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen survived the amputation of his left arm (the result of a car accident) to play in the British soft metal band’s most triumphant era.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has established a successful career as a classical musician despite being born without a right hand.

Self-taught on a mini toy keyboard before taking his first lesson at age 14, McCarthy is believed to be the first single-handed musician to graduate from the Royal College of Music.

(When I mentioned McCarthy to a musician friend, Angus, he replied cheekily: “I’ve done some of my best work with one hand”.)

Still, in most of these examples the digital disability is little-known marginalia – a side note or asterix. A curiosity rather than a defining feature.

Either that or it shows incredible tenacity and persistence for an individual to rise above and achieve things even most fully-abled people are not be able to do. Some, such as one-handed NFL player Shaquem Griffin, provide shining examples of inspiration.

This is not the case for the film world’s band of the hand. In movies, a mangled hand often points to a troubled soul, or simply a very damaged individual.

Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook and Get Smart‘s Dr Craw (or is that Dr Claw?) are quintessential villains, their nastiness exhibited in everything from their lairs, to their henchmen, and of course, the prosthetic for which they have been named.

Both have weaponised their disabilities.

Like Messrs Hook and Craw, Poor Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) is also named for the implements at the end of his arms, yet in his case the fear engendered in the local community is shown to be misplaced. Edward is an artist, not a butcher.

File Logan Lucky‘s Clyde (Adam Driver) into the category of “pitied” rather than “feared”.

When we first meet him, we see a sad-sack bartender, his missing arm the butt of jokes. It is the family’s renowned bad luck that has cost him his limb in a war skirmish.

As the story unfolds, however, we see the Logans are not so unfortunate after all, and if there is cosmic intervention, it is on the side of good fortune as well as bad juju.

You could say the same for Moonstruck‘s Ronny Cammareri (Nic Cage), who lost his hand in an accident at the bakery where he works. Ronny blames the incident on his brother, but perhaps it was just misfortune.

Meanwhile, Ronny’s milquetoast brother Johnny (Dannny Aiello) is betrothed to the lovely accountant Loretta (Cher).

“I lost my hand. I lost my bride,” Johnny says. “Ronny has his hand, Ronny has his bride. I ain’t no monument to freakin’ justice!”

Whether it’s something lunar, Love with a capital L, the universe itself,  or simply a case of an unlikely attraction that won’t be denied, Ronny’s destiny is not to be thwarted by an injury sometimes used by writers as a symbol of emasculation or even dehumanisation. He will get the girl.

When Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) loses his hand in a light-sabre duel with Darth Vader, it is replaced with a bionic one.

Our fear is that Luke will go down the same path chosen by his evil father, and that this modification is a step towards the Dark Side. Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a high-tech fix for a significant injury.

For Game of Thrones‘ Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the loss of his right (sword-wielding) hand is both devastating and humanising.

When we first meet the “King Slayer” it is as a fully able villain: a man who has relations with his sister, and pushes a child from a window when observed in the throes of that vile act.

“Even if the boy lives, he’ll be a cripple, a grotesque,” says Jaime of the injury he’s inflicted on Bran Stark. “Give me a good clean death any day.”

Says his dwarf brother Tyrion in reply: “Speaking for the grotesques, I’d have to disagree. Death is so final, whereas life, ahh, life is full of possibilities.”

Of course, when Jaime lose his right hand, he becomes one of the grotesques he used to loathe. And perhaps by relinquishing his status as the kingdom’s most formidable swordsman he learns a modicum of humility and empathy in the process.

We see that while hardly a “white hat”, Jaime has some decent qualities too; he is not his sister.

Importantly, he may still be of use defending Westeros against its greatest foe. Indeed, perhaps some of his best work will be done with one hand.