The primary skill of a person in an attention-scarce environment is making relatively quick decisions about what to turn their attention toward, and making longer term decisions about how to construct their media environment to provide trustworthy information. Mike Caulfield ‘Attention Is the Scarcity’

Below is a collection of starts, thoughts, threads on algorithms, taste and curation. I feel that this is one of those posts that seemed less straight-forward the more I sat with it.


Losing my religion curation

Discussing Instagram’s decision to change their algorithm to field both popular and possible future popular posts in an effort to potentially fill the gap in the social media space if Tiktok is in fact banned, Mark Fennell, Alice Clarke and Angharad Yeo on Download This Show podcast rue the fact that we do not curate our feeds as we once did.

Social media platforms are like different countries and they’ve all got their own cultures.

Source: Can Instagram poach TikTok stars? by ABC Radio National

They discuss how with the algorithmically driven platforms, such as Instagram and Tiktok, we no longer have the control we once did over who and what we follow and consume, instead we have surrendered our taste and agency to somebody else.


AI and what not to read

Coming at the problem of social media, algorithms and the internet from the perspective of the creator, Douglas Rushkoff worries about the ever increasing speed and pressures placed by platforms that is creating a “perspective abundance.” He wonders if one of the challenges we face in being more “disciplined” is in fact choosing not to respond.

Most ironically, perhaps, the more content we churn out for all of these platforms, the less valuable all of our content becomes. There’s simply too much stuff. The problem isn’t information overload so much as “perspective abundance.” We may need to redefine “discipline” from the ability to write and publish something every day to the ability hold back. What if people started to produce content when they had actually something to say, rather than coming up with something to say in order to fill another slot?

Source: Breaking from the Pace of the Net by Douglas Rushkoff

To me, this touches on Dave White’s idea of “elegant lurking”

The Elegant Lurker can be much more engaged than the noisy contributor and not being visible doesn’t mean you aren’t present.

Source: Elegant Lurking by Dave White

Continuing with his reflection on the challenges of creating, Rushkoff wonders if AI actually takes the fun stuff away.

I was becoming the servant to the AI and the AI was doing the most fun part of the whole process, the actual coming up with the stuff.

Source: Breaking from the Speed of the Net by Douglas Rushkoff

This is something that Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly discuss on The Mindfield podcast, with Stephens worried about what is lost when we no longer spend the time considering what it is we are writing about.

Rushkoff then discusses the realisation that maybe the best use of AI is to use the feedback to know what not to write, to know where you have sunk into cliche:

The real value is to use what the AI produced to know how not to write.

Source: Breaking from the Speed of the Net by Douglas Rushkoff

I wonder if this logic applies to our feeds too? Whether AI recommendations are a guide of what not to read or listen to?


You are what you eat read

In a short post, Jim Nielsen reflects upon the purpose of reading, that being to expand your thinking. This thinking was in part inspired by Dave Rupert’s discussion of ideas and how we check these.

The goal of a book isn’t to get to the last page, it’s to expand your thinking.

Source: How do you verify that? by Dave Rupert

The challenge that both Nielsen and Rupert touch on is that we are not always conscious or critical of the ideas (or dots) as we consume them, even so they make us who we are. Borrowing from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nielsen asserts the following:

I cannot remember the blog posts I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten; even so, they’ve made me.

It’s a good reminder to be mindful of my content diet — you are what you eat read, even if you don’t always remember it.

Source: You Are What You Read, Even If You Don’t Always Remember It by Jim Nielsen

For me, this reminds me in part of Brian Eno’s belief that, “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”

Beautiful things grow out of shit. Nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they somehow appeared there and formed in his head—and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting, and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn, is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest. And then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. I think this would be important for people to understand, because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that’s how things work.

Source: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno Here Is What Is (Youtube)

Although Eno may well be true that beauty grows out of shit, out of luck, out of chance, I imagine that there are many ugly things that also grow out of shit as well, such as weeds that grow from a single seed to also grow and strangle a forest. I wonder then if the challenge is to be curious and continually extend our serendipity surface, while at the same time being critical.

Discussing the world of information and online literacy, Mike Caulfield advocates for the importance of always checking the validity of a site. He argues that it is not enough to check what is deemed as suspicious.

One of the things I’ve been trying to convince people for the past year and a half is that the only viable literacy solution to web misinformation involves always checking any information in your stream that you find interesting, emotion-producing, or shareable. It’s not enough to check the stuff that is suspicious: if you apply your investigations selectively, you’ve already lost the battle.

Source: The “Always Check” Approach to Online Literacy by Mike Caulfield

Written before the rise of the chatbots, this is even more important these days I guess.


Mid Culture

Coming back to the Download This podcast, Fennell reflected on the way in which he feels he has surrendered his agency and taste in music to Spotify’s ‘radio’ stations and playlists. This leads to a situation of where the algorithm simply provides more of the same, but slightly different. “Only the shit you love?”

Reflecting on the growth of ‘Mid TV’, Alan Jacobs raises the wider concern about how interesting and imaginative creative work is becoming seemingly prohibited and disincentivised:

All the incentives of everyone involved are aligned against it.

Thus the thesis of this essay by James Poniewozik: “We have entered the golden age of Mid TV”:

Above all, Mid is easy. It’s not dumb easy — it shows evidence that its writers have read books. But the story beats are familiar. Plot points and themes are repeated. You don’t have to immerse yourself single-mindedly the way you might have with, say, “The Wire.” It is prestige TV that you can fold laundry to.

Or you could listen to a Sally Rooney novel on Audible while chopping the veggies. Same, basically. This is what I think about almost everything from current big-studio Hollywood movies to new literary fiction to music by Taylor Swift or Beyoncé: it’s … okay. It doesn’t offend.

Source: more rational choices by Alan Jacobs

Just as Ruskoff uses the algorithm as a guide of what not to write, it could be argued that Jacobs uses the algorithmic nature of big studios as a guide of what not to see and consume.

  • If someone I love wants me to go to a movie with them, I do.
  • Otherwise, I don’t watch movies produced and/or distributed by the big studios. (I had been leaning in this direction for a while, but I didn’t make it a guideline until three or four years ago.) I just don’t, for the same reason that I don’t read novels by people who live in Brooklyn: it’s not a good bet. The chance of encountering something excellent, or even interestingly flawed, is too remote. Not impossible — I really enjoyed Dune, for instance, and Oppenheimer, both of which I watched with my son — but remote.
Source: more rational choices by Alan Jacobs

Instead, Jacobs’ focus is on the human level, on personal recommendations. Again, this harks back to the importance of curation and having a network.

Coming back to music, there are different ways I feel like I am arm wrestling the mid-music algorithm. I often peruse weekly newsletters from Pitchfork, Stereogum, NPR and Double J. I enjoy diving into playlists by artists, such as Dan Snaith or Kieran Hebden, or regular curations from those like Gav R. The thing that I wonder is the way in which however I fight it, I am “always-already interpellated“, always pulled back into the ‘mid’, always within the dominant?

For example, I have recently turned to buying and listening to vinyl, one of the things that I have been left thinking is how many smaller artists actually have the money to create their music, let alone press it to vinyl, and whether that in itself serves as its own limiting factor reducing the possibility for shit to turn into gold?

Interestingly, one way I have stumbled upon new music that I have not necessarily found elsewhere is by going to concerts early and listening to the support artist. This is how I found one of my current favourites, Twinkle Digitz, when he supported Damian Cowell. Firstly, Twinkle Digitz is not on Spotify. Actually, Twinkle Digitz is not really anywhere. Feels like my version of Cowell’s ‘secret shit‘. Other than a few lockdown videos published on Facebook, I have depended upon seeing him live. I sometimes wonder if this friction of seemingly existing outside of the machine adds to the mystique? It often makes me wonder how many how many other possible Twinkle Digitz are out there, not on a playlist, playing to a small room, working a day job?


Rewilding our attention

With so many changes currently occurring around algorithms and the use of large language models at the moment, such as Google’s pivot to Generative AI in search, I am left wonder what the solution is to get beyond the ‘mid’ culture?

Here I am reminded of Clive Thompson’s call to rewild our attention.

If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence.

Source: Rewilding Your Attention by Clive Thompson

Returning again to the discussion on Download This, one of Thompson’s suggestions is to build up your own feeds. This is something that I have discussed here:

I am not sure whether social media will go away, but with the questions being asked of it at the moment, maybe it is time for a second coming of blogs, a possible rewilding of edtech. The reality is that technology is always changing and blogging is no different. Whatever the future is, standards such as RSS and OPML will surely play their part.

Source Laying the Standards for a Blogging Renaissance by Aaron Davis

What is interesting about building your own feeds are the spaces that are interoperable, allowing you to pull content, whether it be straight out of the box or using sites like Granary, Fraidycat or RSS Anything, and those that do not, such as Twitter, Instagram and ABC Australia website.

Stephen Downes has concerns about what we mean by ‘rewilding’, arguing that it involves actively pushing beyond your usual circles.

Most people think their internet community of such-and-such is the internet community of such-and-such, especially when it contains well-read journalists, MIT fellows, and other Persons of Interest. They rarely look beyond their immediate circles of Twitter friends and news sources. Actually rewilding your attention means eschewing the popular, getting your hands dirty with real work, and reading the people nobody else reads.

Source: Rewilding Your Attention by Stephen Downes

Beyond feeds, books and searches, sites like The Forest and Tapefear add a touch of the unknown, but probably still not quite getting your hands dirty?

Coming back to Thompson’s rewilding metaphor, I wonder if the apex predator reintroduced as a part of this exercise is the question of time and productivity? Although I may curate my own feed, I often struggle to find any semblance of balance as to how I stay on top of it all? Of late, I find myself scrolling through, saving posts or podcasts for later, only for later never to arrive.


Connecting the dots, sort of

Amy Burvall once remarked that:

“In order to connect dots, one must first have the dots.”

Source: rawthought: On Ditching the (Dangerous) Dichotomy Between Content Knowledge and Creativity by Amy Burvall

For me, this post collects together a lot of dots that are floating around in my head at the moment. I have connected them, but I am not sure how well.

As always, comments welcome, especially if they can explain my current malaise to me.


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Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘The Black Swan’

I recently read Martin Gilbert’s The First World War – A Complete History. The book attempts to consolidate all the nuances of the war. Movement of troops here, defeat there. Gully taken. Gully lost. Another new front, another piece of new technology – gas, grenades, tanks. Another country a part of the war. Another secret deal. Another boat sunk by a submarine. Death, death and more death. Gilbert intermingles this all with accounts from major players in the war, such as Churchill, and minor players, such as Wittgenstein. In the end, I was left with the question though, how do we make sense of or even understand something as complex as the First World War?

In Australia, Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen is used as a part of commemorative services. This is ended with a response:

We will remember them
Lest we forget

This makes me wonder, what does it actually mean to remember World War One or even know?

Is it through film? For example, 1917 captures a particular moment of a long war where two soldiers cross enemy land to deliver a message to stop 1600 men being slaughtered. The two cross through no-man’s land, survey the way in which the German army retreated, as well as life in a town near the fronts. Through their journey they capture many facets of life at the time.

Is it through documentary? For example, They Shall Not Grow Old ties together voices from British survivors with archival film and images given new life by director, Peter Jackson. Similar to 1917, it brings together different facets of war, from enlisting, life in the trenches and returning home, a create narrative about the western front that seemingly existed for so many, but for no-one individual in particular.

Is it through primary sources? For example, 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War by Lyn MacDonald, collects together a range sources from newspapers, magazines, letters, diaries and photographs from the time. The book balances between different perspectives, whether it be those in command and on the ground often touch on the human level. Although there is some editorialising in collecting and ordering these various insights, it is still the task of the reader to connect the dots and progressively zoom out to form a wider picture.

Is it through fiction? For example, with All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, Erich Maria Remarque explores the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental trauma during the war as well as the detachment from civilian life felt by many upon returning home from the war. In a similar way to 1917, Remarque uses narrative to take us inside the thoughts and feelings of what it must have felt like.

Is it through poetry? For example, the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry captures the imagination, feelings and experiences from a range of difference voices. According to Jon Silkin, they represent a conscious desire for change. As he suggests in his introduction to the anthology:

It’s no good, that is, hiding the actions of murder behind pity; only by showing forth the actions clearly do we stand a chance of understanding them, and changing ourselves.

Source: ‘Introduction’ to Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by Jon Silken

Is it by podcast? For example, in the Hardcore History series Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan Carlin zooms in and out to carve out all the extremities of World War One from beginning to end. He marries history and narrative suspense in his choices as a storyteller, as well as providing various insights throughout into the everyday to help the listener appreciate what it may have be been like.

Is it through painting? For example, Arthur Streeton’s paintings of the Western Front from 1918 help capture the life during wartime that serve to add depth to the burgeoning world of photography. Whether it be the scarred landscape or the changes in technology, such as the huge siege guns, these images provide a level of colour and detail that helps the viewer remember the war in a different light.

Is it through physical commemorations? For example, the Shrine of Remembrance was built to honour those who served in World War 1. It contains an inner sanctuary in which light passes once a year on the 11th of November at 11am. Alternatively, there are many towns in Australia with an Avenue of Honour, a memorial avenue of trees, with each tree symbolising a particular person.


In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that memory is dynamic and continually recorded:

Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.

Source: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With this in mind maybe ‘remembering’ is simply doing something to maintain the legacy or else it gets overlay with some other piece of information?


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Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. Austin Kleon ‘Show Your Work!’

The team I am a part of was recently asked if there was any work that we could possibly automate to save time and effort. Leaving aside the strange question of asking the boiling frog how the boiling process might be sped up, I was left thinking about the limits of automation when what is trying to be automated is not always straight-forward and often involves contextual knowledge. My suggestion in response was not to automate the task, but possibly automate the process.

Ever since I have stepped into my new role in the technical team, I have made a conscious effort to capture everything that I have learnt and store it in a canonical space as one of the issues I had early on was that it was too difficult to find anything. This then allows me to produce repeatable processes. (In some respects I imagine that organising information in this manner actually makes it easier for an AI assistant to support?)

In addition to automating the day-to-day, I recently built out a spreadsheet to help with a particular task of cleaning up duplicate records across the database. Given a list of hundreds of records to review, I felt that saving any time and effort was going to make a difference. My thought was to create a series of declare statements to use to query the database, then copy the raw data, review it, create tasks for the relevant teams and produce a summary of the records changed and those that remained the same.

Doubling Down on the Declare

One of the issues I initially found when producing my query was updating all the variables each time. It therefore occurred to me that rather than changing the names and various IDs each time, which was always fiddly and prone to error, I could create a series of declare statements that I updated with the SQL statement each time. This allowed me to leave the rest of the query the same:

="
DECLARE @Sur1 VARCHAR(30) = '"&D2&"'
DECLARE @Sur2 VARCHAR(30) = 'SUR2'
DECLARE @Pre1 VARCHAR(30) = '"&E2&"'
DECLARE @Pre2 VARCHAR(30) = 'PRE2'
DECLARE @Login1 VARCHAR(30) = '"&H2&"'
DECLARE @Login2 VARCHAR(30) = 'CECVIDS\UPN2'
DECLARE @Login3 VARCHAR(30) = 'CECVIDS\UPN3'
DECLARE @CNUM1 VARCHAR(15) = 'CX'
DECLARE @CNUM2 VARCHAR(15) = 'CX'
DECLARE @CNUM3 VARCHAR(15) = 'CX'"

In addition to this, I stripped out any additional information that was included within a text string of possible information and had this represented on unique lines after the initial list:

--"&IFNA(JOIN(CHAR(10)&"--",ARRAYFORMULA(LEFT(QUERY(TRIM(MID(SUBSTITUTE(J2, ":", REPT(" ", LEN(J2))), LEN(J2)*ROW(INDIRECT("1:"&LEN(J2)))-LEN(J2)+1, LEN(J2))),"SELECT * WHERE Col1 LIKE 'C%'"),16))))&""

The output then looks something like this:

--"
DECLARE @Sur1 VARCHAR(30) = 'Davis'
DECLARE @Sur2 VARCHAR(30) = 'SUR2'
DECLARE @Pre1 VARCHAR(30) = 'Aaron'
DECLARE @Pre2 VARCHAR(30) = 'PRE2'
DECLARE @Login1 VARCHAR(30) = 'CECVIDS\01234567'
DECLARE @Login2 VARCHAR(30) = 'CECVIDS\UPN2'
DECLARE @Login3 VARCHAR(30) = 'CECVIDS\UPN3'
DECLARE @CNUM1 VARCHAR(15) = 'C0000001'
DECLARE @CNUM2 VARCHAR(15) = 'CX'
DECLARE @CNUM3 VARCHAR(15) = 'CX'
--CECVIDS\30000001
--C1000001"

I commented the additional information out so that I could use it if required or simply run the updated script it was. It also meant that I did not have to delete the quotations at the start and end that come across when copying from Google Sheets every time. I did tinker with how I could get the additional logins and numbers to prepopulate within the declare statement, but hit a wall as the number of additional values was not consistent.

Streamlining the Analysis and Fix

Once I had all the records in the system, I then had to organise them into those to be retained and those to be updated. The first step was to create a conditional formulas using the following custom formula that quickly highlighted possible duplicate records:

=COUNTIFS(L:L, L1, L:L, "<>BirthDate")

This allowed me to then reorder the list and review the rest of the details. Once I had done this, I then created a summary of the data.
Often I create a config tab where I keep tab where I create various formulas that I can refer to. This is particular important when using variable NAMED RANGES. As I wanted to make this spreadsheet somewhat self-contained, I decided to just use the first row of the sheet, which I then hid. This included a summary of the different community names in a single cell:

=LEFT(JOIN("/",UNIQUE(QUERY(F2:F,"SELECT F WHERE NOT F = 'NameExternal'"))),LEN(JOIN("/",UNIQUE(QUERY(F2:F,"SELECT F WHERE NOT F = 'NameExternal'"))))-1)


A summary of staff numbers in a single cell:

=IFNA(JOIN(",",UNIQUE(QUERY(G2:G,"SELECT G WHERE G LIKE 'C%' ORDER BY G ASC"))))


And a summary of login records in a cell

IFNA(JOIN(", ",UNIQUE(QUERY(H2:H,"SELECT H WHERE H LIKE 'CEC%'"))))

Each was given a Named Range that could be easily referred to in other formulas.

Initially, I created a formula which combined these different attributes, but I realised I then had to explain what sort of duplicate it was. Overall, there are four types of duplicate records:

  1. User with multiple staff numbers and login records
  2. User with multiple login records
  3. User with multiple staff numbers
  4. User with multiple community records

To accommodate these differences, I created an formula using the named ranges to combine the IF and AND formulas:

=IF( AND( IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(G2:G,"SELECT G WHERE G LIKE 'C%' ORDER BY G ASC")))>1, IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(H2:H,"SELECT H WHERE H LIKE 'CEC%' ORDER BY H")))>1), F1&" has multiple staff numbers: "&G1&" and multiple login records: "&SUBSTITUTE(H1,"IDS\",""),
IF(AND(IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(G2:G,"SELECT G WHERE G LIKE 'C%' ORDER BY G ASC")))=1, IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(H2:H,"SELECT H WHERE H LIKE 'CEC%' ORDER BY H")))>1), F1&" ( "&G1&" ) has multiple login records: "&SUBSTITUTE(H1,"IDS\",""),
IF(AND(IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(G2:G,"SELECT G WHERE G LIKE 'C%' ORDER BY G ASC")))=1, IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(H2:H,"SELECT H WHERE H LIKE 'CEC%' ORDER BY H")))=1), F1&" ( "&G1&" / logins: "&SUBSTITUTE(H1,"IDS\","")&") has duplicate community records",
IF(AND(IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(G2:G,"SELECT G WHERE G LIKE 'C%' ORDER BY G ASC")))>1, IFNA(COUNTUNIQUE(QUERY(H2:H,"SELECT H WHERE H LIKE 'CECV%' ORDER BY H")))=1), F1&" logins: "&SUBSTITUTE(H1,"IDS\"," ")&" has multiple staff numbers: "&G1&"",FALSE))))

Using the IF and AND combination allowed me to quickly and easily produce a summary of the issue in one sentence to raise in our incident management system.

In addition to this, I created a SWITCH formula to provide the server listener name, as opposed to the IP address provided in the data export:

=IFNA(SWITCH(B2:B,
"IP Address 1","Listener Name 1",
"IP Address 2","Listener Name 2",
"IP Address 3","Listener Name 3",
"IP Address 4","Listener Name 4",
"IP Address 5","Listener Name 5"))

Summarising the Changes

In addition to the summary of issue, I also created a summary of changes that I could easily copy and paste into the incident notes once I had cleaned up the various duplicates:

={"","","","","","";
"Record(s) updated / merged:","","","","","";
"","","","","","";
SORT(Indirect(Table1));
"","","","","","";
"Record(s) retained:","","","","","";
"","","","","","";
SORT(Indirect(Table2))}

As the number of records varied, I created a NAMED RANGE for records updated / merged and records retained and used the INDIRECT formula to refer to them.

The formula used for Table1 was:

="C2:H"&MATCH("Database Name", Indirect(CThreeC), 0) + ROW(INDIRECT(CThree)) - 2

While the formula used for Table2 was:

=ADDRESS(MATCH("Database Name", INDIRECT(CThreeC), 0) + ROW(INDIRECT(CThree))-1, COLUMN(INDIRECT(CThree)))&":H"

As I was continually moving and deleting rows around in the spreadsheet, I found that it kept on breaking these named ranges, so that is why I created two further NAMED RANGES.

This was formula used for CThree:

="$C$3"

And this was formula used for CThreeC:

="$C$3:$C"

Again, all this ‘magic‘ was hidden in the top row of the spreadsheet.

An example of the spreadsheet with the various formulas can be found here.


There has been a lot spoken at my workplace lately about what it means to be proud. Personally, fixing 250+ duplicate records is not necessarily something I am ‘proud’ of or excited by, but I am proud of my ability to improve processes and identify ways in which my actions can make it easier for others to do their job. The challenge I often have is being able to hand over such solutions to others. Most prefer their own way of working, even if that means complaining that they do not have time for this or that. I feel that the issue is finding the right balance between improving a process and creating more work.


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She had the odd idea that the terrorism question had become a fad, like body piercing or flares; a fashion that had come and would go like this season’s colours. Maybe, thought the Doll, if it was just like fashion, it was simply about a few people building careers, making money, getting power, and it wasn’t really about making the world safer or better at all. Maybe it was like Botox, something to hide the truth. Richard Flanagan ‘The Unknown Terrorist’

The Unknown Terrorist, the fourth novel by the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, tells the story of Gina ‘Doll’ Davies, a stripper who becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot. The various elements of her life, whether it be not having a bank account or the job that she chooses to do, mean that she is made the scapegoat for a terrorist threat.

Gina Davies, also known as the Doll, a 26-year-old exotic dancer in a Sydney, Australia, gentlemen’s club, undergoes this Kafkaesque experience. On the night of Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade, she sleeps with a man she has just met, an attractive Syrian computer programmer with a cocaine habit. A day later, after his sudden disappearance, she has been turned into Australia’s most hunted woman — or, as a newspaper would have it, the “Dancer of Death.” By following the desperate flight of this once normal, now supposedly lethal, woman, Flanagan suggests the accused herself has become the victim of an insidious institutional terrorism.

Source: Unusual Suspect by Uzodinma Iweala

The novel progressively unfurls from there, jumping between various interconnected characters, including her friend Wilder, the current affair host Richard Cody, ASIO spook Siv Harmsen, drugs detective Nick Loukakis, manager of Counter Terrorism Unit Tony Buchanan, and the man with a lot of money, Frank Moretti. Along with bouncing between the different characters the novel bounces between the constant noise of the media, the various vested interests associated with each of the characters, and the truth of the situation as seen by the omnipotent reader.

Through the novel, Flanagan explores ideas around power and terrorism:

I’m important to them, Wilder, because if you can make up a terrorist you’ve given people the Devil. They love the Devil. They need the Devil. That’s my job. You get me?”

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Identity:

At the club you danced for money, and you danced because you were Krystal or Jodie or Amber. The one thing you never dared dance was yourself.

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Media, truth and reality:

“It is horrifying,” Siv Harmsen agreed, “and we need stories that remind people of what horrifying things might just happen.”

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

And perception:

There could be no doubt about it; they were Australia and, looking around Katie Moretti’s grand dining room and its new furniture and its splendid view, it was readily apparent to them all what Australia was, and all of Australia was as splendid as it was obvious—it was them! It was their success and their prosperity; their mansions and apartments! Their Porsches and Bentleys and Beemers! Their getaways in the tropics! Their yachts and motorcruisers! Their influence, their privileges, their certainties! Who could doubt it? Who would question it? Who would wish to change any of it?

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

I originally read Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist in 2008. I was led back to it after reading Trent Dalton’s Lola in the Mirror and thinking about characters who exist outside of or on the edges of society. It is always intriguing to think about how the worlds differ, in particular living a life without a bank account in our progressively cashless society and the development of social media. Published in 2006, it is very much a reflection of a post-9/11 world before platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, came to the fore.

It was also interesting reading it after the recent stabbing attack at Bondi Junction and the way in which the media misidentified the killer. However, rather than being hunted down, the misidentified killer sued for defamation. In his review of The Unknown Terrorist, David Marr questioned the reality of the situation Flanagan portrays. Marr asks where the defamation lawyers are? Or why Gina Davies does not ring a lawyer?

Where was the defamation lawyer at Channel Six asking “What are our defences?” before Cody’s one-hour mishmash of guesswork and grainy footage – also called The Unknown Terrorist – went to air? And it doesn’t really help if the answer to that question is: stop being picky, this is a thriller. Without a sense that these horrors might happen, there’s not much thrill, either.

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by David Marr

When I originally read The Unknown Terrorist, I had not read any of Flanagan’s other books. However, I was curious coming back to the book after reading Flanagan’s Man Booker winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Although they are different books, what they share is a respect for the complexity of life and character. Flanagan sets the reader up for certain judgments, such as working as a stripper, only to then peel back layers to add details about past upbringing or past relationships that force the reader to reconsider these simplistic points of view. This is something that Peter Conrad touches on in his review.

Despite all this puffery, Flanagan’s homeland is no longer a community, hardly even a society. Its people, like the lap dancer with her craving for designer clothes, are mired in materialism, obsessed with mortgages, superannuation payments and the acquisition of the latest, shiniest gadget. Their venality makes moral cowards of them, and the government terrorises them into brown-tonguing Bush by appealing to their economic anxiety and to their skulking xenophobia.

Source: Days of thunder erupt Down Under by Peter Conrad

The only problem with this is that The Unknown Terrorist often depends upon the same clichés and stereotypes it is trying to critic in order to dig deeper into the truth. As Magdalena Ball captures in her review:

The book is full of clichés and stereotypes as brutal as those Flanagan criticises. The poll dancers who talk about the Doll are all utterly vacuous. The bad guys, Lee Moon, Frank Moretti, the anchorman Richard Cody, or the wealthy people at Katie Moretti’s party are all characters with no depth or dimension to render them realistic. Sydney itself is seen as a kind of game park with grungy areas like Kings Cross, suburbian areas like the West, or wealthy areas like Double Bay all fulfilling their stereotypical functions

Source: A review of The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan – Compulsive Reader by Magdalena Ball

Even with all these flaws, I enjoyed The Unknown Terrorist, I guess I bought into the suspense of Flanagan’s thriller and attempt to capture a world beyond the stereotypes, to explore the haves and have nots, even if that is problematic at times.


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There’s power in being nobody. When you’re nobody, you are free to be anybody. Astronaut. Actress. Archaeologist. Or even a lowdown, dirty, send-her-straight-to-hell, suburban drug-slinger. Because if nobody can see you, then nobody can see your shame. Nobody can see your sorrow. And nobody can catch you crying your heart out. Trent Dalton ‘Lola in the Mirror’

Trent Dalton is the man who wants to tell you who you really are. With Lola in the Mirror he demands people to notice a reality that often does not get portrayed or left invisible. A world masked by a ‘xanthous’ hue, ‘Tyrannosaurus Waltzs’, of the houseless (not homeless), debt to drug and so many names that one is left wondering which one is true.

The novel centers on a 17-year old moving from town to town seemingly on the run from life until we find her and her mother living in cars and showering in gyms. She is held together by her art and the dream of one day going to art school and having her work displayed at The Met. Similar to Boy Swallows Universe, she is embroiled in a world of drugs that drags her back in even when she tries to leave.

As seems to be the way with Dalton’s writing, the narrative is infused with magical realism which glues everything together, whether it be the stranger with the cricket bat at the right time or the character speaking back in the mirror. However, interestingly Dalton flips this magic and uses it to build out the protagonist:

The mirror was never magic,’ Lola says.
‘It wasn’t?’
‘Of course it wasn’t. Magic mirrors don’t exist.’
‘Then how come I can see you now?’
‘Because you are magic,’ Lola says. ‘You’ve always been magic. You’ve never needed a mirror to see who you are.’

Unlike Boy Swallows Universe which is set in the 80’s and All Our Shimmering Skies which is set in the 40’s, Lola in the Mirror is set in the present (2023/2024). However, it does not feel as if time matters as much as place. For example, the pop references are not necessarily of the now, as there are as many references to the eighties (including the quintessential Gray Nicholls double scoop) as there are to Taylor Swift, but the commentary on the ‘houseless’ and the Olympics is very much about Brisbane.

The artist said she worried about what the Olympics would mean for all the people she knew sleeping rough. She was concerned they’d be driven out of the city. She pointed out that the Olympics would start in winter and all the warm and safe spots to sleep in would be off limits.

Some critics have argued that there is a danger of trivialising the complexity of homelessness and domestic abuse:

Aside from reducing human behaviour to unhelpful categories of good and evil, it also implies offenders are easily spotted, when they often are disturbingly innocuous, everyday people. To dress abuse, however abhorrent, in a villainous costume doesn’t aid understanding – it impedes it.

Source: Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton review – a misguided bootstraps story drowning in sentimentality by Jack Callil

I can appreciate this concern with the optimistic tendency of rags to riches, but I wonder if there is at least benefit in raising it as a point of conversation? Or maybe I should just be reading more Christos Tsiolkas?

In the end, Dalton explains in his acknowledgements that the river is more than a place, it is a metaphor for “whatever stuff you carry inside that turns and stirs beneath your skin” that we are rescued from. Dalton talks about people pulling him out of the water, but I wonder, even with the triviality, if the strength of the book (or any book to some degree) is to pull us out from what is inside stirring. This is something Damian Cowell captures in his song ‘The Future Sound of Nostalgia‘:

That song will be her friend, what a wonderful thing to be.


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Music criticism is not a review of the album you just made, its a review of your career up to that point. – Caroline Polachek Source: This Generation’s Caroline Polachek by Switched on Pop

After doing a deep dive into The Go-Betweens, I was looking for a new artist to delve into their discography, so I decided to dive into the world of Custard.

In part, I was left intrigued by the cross-over between Custard and The Go-Betweens. For example, Dave McCormick and Glenn Thompson had served as Robert Forster’s backing band for a time in Forster’s post Go-Betweens era, while Thompson was a part of the reformed Go-Betweens line-up. They were also integral to putting together Write Your Adventures Down, the tribute album to The Go-Betweens after Grant McLennan’s death.

I was also inspired after seeing Dave McCormack perform an acoustic set supporting The Fauves. I have never seen Custard live and was not sure what to expect. What I was privileged with was a solo set of deep cuts, classics and a countrified cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’. Although I had read about McCormack’s country and western origins (COW) in Andrew Stafford’s Pig City.

Robert Moore had imagined COW as a musical collective similar to the Wild Bunch behind the first Massive Attack album, where a virtual reserve bench of musicians would be on call to play gigs or recordings. Often the band would be joined on stage by backing vocalists the Sirloin Sisters, twins Maureen and Suzie Hansen; at other times, former Go-Between John Willsteed and occasional Queensland Symphony Orchestra violinist John Bone would jump up to add their own flourishes.

SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

This never made sense with the image of Custard that I had from the 90’s.

Lastly, I was left wondering by Damian Cowell’s comment on the Take 5 Podcast reflecting on the 90’s zeitgeist. Talking about Custard, he suggested that it was important to leave listeners with something more:

Use your power wisely … Treat them to an anchovy.

All this left me feeling that maybe there was more to hear and that maybe it was time to give Custard the time of day.


Custard were formed in Brisbane in the early 90’s. Although they have had various line-ups over their time, the classic line-up has been Dave McCormack on guitar and vocals, Paul Medew on bass, Matthew Strong on guitar and Glenn Thompson on drums. As a member of McCormack’s other project COW (Country or Western), Thompson was actually always around. For example, he was involved with creating the artwork associated with Custard’s first release Buttercup / Bedford.

They have had two distinct periods, their initial time in the 90’s until they disbanded in 2000, and their reformation in 2010’s. Their time in the 90’s stood in contrast to the dour grunge sound dominant at the time.

Although they’ve obviously been listening to the Pixies as well as Pavement, unlike many other bands of the ’90s they studiously avoided the Seattle sound, preferring to indulge in pop hooks and resolute cheerfulness.

Source: Brisbane 1990-1993 Review – AllMusic by Jody Macgregor

Or as McCormack reflected upon, they wrote “melancholy song that you could listen to a few times.”

“It’s that whole realisation that people like The Go-Betweens can have on you,” Dave McCormack said. “On the balance of things, no one wants to hear a happy throwaway song. I don’t really. I wanna hear a sad, melancholy song that you could listen to a few times. That’s something we came to realise and therefore that’s what we wanted to do.”

Source: Classic Album – Custard – Loverama by ABC Listen

During this time they worked with producers such as Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, PJ Harvey, Pere Ubu, Augie March et al.) and Magoo (Regurgitator, Midnight Oil et al.) They were a part of the music industry being turned upside down.

The alternative boom of American bands meant Australian major labels and commercial radio were more willing to take a punt on Aussie bands, putting a guitar band like You Am I, who formed in 1989, in a prime position.

The alt-rock boom in Australia kicked off in earnest in 1994, building and bubbling to its own boiling point as it had in 1991 in the US.

Source: 1991 saw the music industry turned upside down, and 30 years later, its echoes remain by Matt Neal

In contrast, their later work is often a little more subdued and has largely been self-produced by Glenn Thompson, although it never quite sits comfortably within ‘Adult Contemporary’ even if it has come out through ABC Records.

Although it often feels like Dave McCormack is portrayed as the face of the band, one of the things that I had never appreciated is how the rest of the band all play their part, often contributing their own songs to the mix. When asked by Lindsay McDougall about what make a Custard song in an interview for Respect All Lifeforms, McCormack explained that it was everyone adding their piece.

There’s sketches of the song and you throw it out to Paul, Glenn and Matthew and then they play it back to you and you say “ahhh, it’s a Custard song” … that nice sort of organic interchange.

Source: Dave McCormack and Custard Respect All Lifeforms by Lindsay McDougall (SoundCloud)

In some ways that may seem self-obvious, but listening to some of the other projects that McCormack has been a part of, there is a similarity and difference. I think that there is something to be said about the chemistry of the band.

It was interesting watching Jonathan Alley’s documentary Love in Bright Landscapes and the pressures put on The Triffids by the record labels with Calenture. I was left wondering if something like this never happened with Custard as the band was always bigger than the individual and maybe that is why they actually initially disbanded?


Listening to the albums, I started with Buttercup Bedford. Although their ‘first’ album, it is both hard to find (not on Spotify) and possibly intentionally forgotten.

Due to its self-published nature, the album has not appeared on any streaming sites and has largely been a rarity to find online, with most sites links to download no longer working. Dave McCormack has expressed that maybe it should stay offline.

Source: BUTTERCUP (BEDFORD) by Custaro.fans

With the majority of the album recorded in eight hours after winning Australian Academy of Music’s Encouragement Award prize of $500 recording time, it felt to me like jangly pop on speed.

David McCormack: That’s when the drugs really came into play, around that time . . . In 1988–89 it was all speed, acid, ecstasy had just hit. And because we had nothing to do – we’d basically finished our degrees and were on the dole, and we were white middle-class kids from Kenmore – we could just get out of it forever. That’s why Who’s Gerald? broke up. We’d be speeding for days on end.

SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

The ‘second’ album, Brisbane 1990 – 1993, combines the Gastanked and Brisbane EPs. It is full of ideas and influences. As soon as you think a song will be one thing, something unexpectedly disrupts this.

These songs capture Custard in lo-fi during the period when they were a group of Pavement fans writing quirky but straightforward love songs like “I Just Want to Be with You” and “Edie,” which has two chords — E and D. David McCormack‘s excitable little-boy tone can be heard taking shape while he sings oddball lyrics like “I had too much to dream last night” in “Satellite,” his rewrite of “Goodnight, Irene.” The self-descriptive “Short Pop Song,” which manages to cram in three tunes’ worth of material despite its 1:14 running time, shows the way toward later reflexive efforts like “Hit Song.”

Source: Brisbane 1990-1993 Review – AllMusic by Jody Macgregor

Wahooti Fandango continues the joyful chaos associated with pasting ideas together to somehow find some semblance of coherence. It often feels like each song is almost in contrast with itself.

Drawing on a vast array of influences (from the art-rock of Pere UbuDevo and Sonic Youth to country ballads and big band swing), Custard’s casual, whimsical approach to their own music often masks the degree of craft underlying songs.

Source: Wahooti Fandango by Wikipedia

Produced by Eric Drew Feldman in Hyde St Studios, Wisenheimer feels less contrasting than Wahooti Fandango, but each track still seems to jump between a different genre, whether it be the angular rock guitar one minute with ‘GooFinder’, to leaning back into the country origins with ‘Leisuremaster’. With sixteen tracks in under 40 minutes, you never really get to settle as a listener. Even the slower tracks fly on by.

Continuing on from the other albums in bouncing between pop, surf, stoner, country and rock, I feel We Have the Technology is best described as seriously silly. Although each track seems to make its own statement in itself, they feel like they are contrasted with how they are organised on the album.

We Have The Technology caught McCormack in an ornery mood. Heavily under the influence of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, also made at Easley Studios, McCormack’s songs were growing ever more tangential and self-referential. And consequently, the music – as a review of another Brisbane band had earlier suggested – ‘disappeared up its own arse’.

David McCormack: I remember Eric Drew Feldman sitting me down in some diner saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to have a radio single, you’ve just got to have one . . . Go as crazy as you want, but you need three or four radio songs so the band can keep going, you can’t just ignore that stuff,’ and he was right. But I was just like, ‘No, man, we’re fucking artists!’ It’s maturity . . . If I could go back, there would be a lot of decisions I would make differently.

The release of Thompson’s Music Is Crap as a single in February 1998 painted the band into a corner.

Source: Pig City by Andrew Stafford

For me, there are just too many flavours on the plate with this album. It balances between genius, chaos and who cares. What remains after all is said and done is a certain catchiness that pervades throughout.

Teaming up with Magoo, Loverama is a case of ‘same, same, but different’. Although it is roughly the same length as previous albums, there are not as many tracks. Although the same ingredients are present, whether it be distorted guitar, slide guitar, weird effects, quirky lyrics, I feel it is the placement of the drums and bass in the mix seems to hold the songs together and provide a semblance of continuity.

“I was happy to do something that wasn’t as throwaway as some of the other ones [songs on earlier albums],” McCormack said, although he was aware his intentions might not land in the same way for listeners.

“I’m sure everyone else would think it’s an overtly happy and quirky Custard record. But I think for us, we could listen to it and go, ‘ah yeah that’s right, that was fucked when that happened.’”

Source: Classic Album – Custard – Loverama by ABC Listen

After this album, the band disbanded, with members going off in different directions and different projects.

They began playing odd concerts again in 2009, however their next album Come Back, All is Forgiven did not come out until 2015. Although it begins with a more laidback country rock feel – maybe Custard Goes Country – they still have the knack of throwing a spanner into the mix that extends allows it to pivot. Craig Mathieson described it as a ‘welcome visit’.

Despite the title, for Custard the new album isn’t so much a career comeback as a welcome visit

Source: Dave McCormack’s Custard comes back (and all is forgiven)) by Craig Mathieson

Similarly, The Common Touch is also bit more subdued than some of their earlier albums, but it feels like this space gives the opportunities for the hooks and harmonies to really flourish. For me, it is one of those albums that the more I listened, the more I could not help sing along with.

“In the ’90s it was much more of an ongoing concern that we were a professional music group, so you had to constantly think about how to make people interested in you again. How could we get people to our gigs? How do we get songs on the radio? And none of those factors really come into the equation now. Now it’s like, ‘What’s the most interesting songs we can write and record and release?’ “

And there’s no shortage of those on The Common Touch, a varied and focused record that shows the band’s eagerness to move beyond their quirky slacker pop “golden days”.

“This is the first time I sat in my spare room in Bexley and just went, ‘Right, every day I’m going to sit down and make myself available to write songs.’ So for about three or four weeks, five days a week, I’d just sit in the room and make stuff up.”

Source: From the ’90s to now, Custard haven’t lost their common touch by Bronwyn Thompson

In contrast, Respect All Lifeforms feels like a return to the ebbs and flows of We Have the Technology and Loverama. Unlike Come Back, All Is Forgiven and The Common Touch, which both open with slower more somber tracks and a touch of country, this albums kicks off with a bang with ‘Couples Fight’. The album then bounces around from there. Gone is the lap steel and harmonica. It also does not wear the criticism of ‘Adult Contemporary’ made against their last two albums so well. Noel Mengel argues that what makes a Custard album is this ebb and flow throughout.

But what is so enjoyable about Custard’s music is not that it can be defined in any neat way but that it can’t. Pop-rock with guitars it might be, but there is a lot going on that rewards play after play. And it always sounds just like them.

Source: Respect All Lifeforms. Custard by Noel Mengel

In addition to sounding like them, there is something to be said about their lyrics throughout.


In an acceptance speech for the Nashville Songwriters Association International award for Songwriter-Artist of the Decade, Taylor Swift shared three genres associated with her lyrics.

I categorize certain songs of mine in the “Quill” style if the words and phrasings are antiquated, if I was inspired to write it after reading Charlotte Brontë or after watching a movie where everyone is wearing poet shirts and corsets.

Fountain pen style means a modern storyline or references, with a poetic twist.

Frivolous, carefree, bouncy, syncopated perfectly to the beat. Glitter Gel Pen lyrics don’t care if you don’t take them seriously because they don’t take themselves seriously.

Source: Taylor Swift Explains Her Three Types Of Lyrics In Nashville Songwriters Association Awards Speech by Tom Breihan

Thinking about Custard, I feel that there are possibly three types of Custard lyrics:

  • Songs that capture a particular topic or situation (i.e. ‘Apartment’)
  • Songs about a person (maybe auto) (i.e. ‘Lez Pinball’)
  • Songs about … songs (i.e. ‘Hit Song’)

However, the more I listened with this framework in mind, it felt somewhat contrived to fit the songs into such rigid categories.

Noel Mengel suggests that what ties Custard’s songs together is an eye for the normal everyday:

You could say Custard have been writing about normal lives and everyday situations since 1990.

An easy hook but not entirely accurate. As with any songwriting the key to such local observations is to create something interesting and lively rather than banal. Or in Custard’s case, interesting, lively and sometimes outright hilarious. Which is in keeping with all the exuberance and energy at the heart of their pop-rock musical style

Source: Respect All Lifeforms. Custard by Noel Mengel

I feel that this is what Cowell was touching upon when referring to ‘anchovies’ in his discussion of Custard on the Take 5 Podcast.

Another element to their songs is that they always seem to enter halfway through a story or a scene. I remember reading something similar from Bono talking about U2’s song ‘One’:

“I like to start a song halfway through a conversation,” Bono says. “As with a lot of dialogue, you very often find yourself talking around the subject rather than through it.” The first lines came quickly: “Is it getting better or do you feel the same?/ Is it any easier on you now that you’ve got someone to blame?” The chorus emerged from an exchange between Bono and the Dalai Lama, who had invited U2 to contribute to a benefit concert called Oneness. Bono politely declined, signing the letter: “Lovely to correspond. One but not the same, Bono.”

Source: Why U2’s One is the ultimate anthem by Dorian Lynskey

For Custard, it is always a conversation, but where the listener is often left scrambling for any semblance of context. It is often akin to a story stripped of everything deemed as superfluous. Sometimes this can be disorientating. As Cowell touched upon with regards to ‘Nice Bird’, when McCormick sings, “Trey’s got the feathers and a 12-gauge shotgun.” We are left wondering who Trey is and why does he have a shotgun? As McCormack touched upon regarding ‘Min Min Lights’ with Lindsay McDougall.

I just got this sketch of an idea. The more mysterious it is the better

Source: Dave McCormack and Custard Respect All Lifeforms by Lindsay McDougall (SoundCloud)

Inspired by McCormick’s comments in their 90’s zine about reading Cormac McCarthy, I was intrigued by Graeme Wood’s comment that “characters are what matters.”

The Shakespeare is no coincidence—and of course Shakespeare, too, was weak on plot; as William Hazlitt and later Bloom affirmed, the characters are what matter. McCarthy’s Sheddan is an elongated Falstaff, skinny where Falstaff is fat, despite dining out constantly in the French Quarter on credit cards stolen from tourists. But like Falstaff, he is witty, and capable of uttering only the deepest verities whenever he is not telling outright lies. Bobby Western regularly shares in his stolen food and drink, and their dialogue—mostly Sheddan’s side of it—provides the sharpest statement of Bobby’s bind.

Source: The Incandescent Wisdom of Cormac McCarthy By Graeme Wood

I think that in some respects that the same could be said about Custard. Although McCormack and Thompson may not be William Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy, it does feel that they do have an eye for character and description over plot.


It is a strange experience slowly listening through a bands oeuvre one album at a time, I feel it is impossible by nature of the exercise not to judge each album against the previous. Sometimes I wonder if you start to hear ghosts after awhile, with one album bleeding into another. For example, I would find myself making assertions, such as this album is more straight-forward or has a different feel when it comes to instrumentation, only to then question myself as many of the ingredients are present in their earlier work. I think that this maybe what Caroline Polachek was touching upon in regards to the challenges associated with album reviews:

Music criticism is not a review of the album you just made, its a review of your career up to that point.

Source: This Generation’s Caroline Polachek by Switched on Pop

Growing up, I remember buying a copy of We Have the Technology at Cash Convertors. My guitar teacher was encouraging me to play the surf rock tune ‘Memory Man’ as a part of my Year 12 group music performance. I knew the singles, such as ‘Anatomically Correct’, ‘Nice Bird’ and ‘Music is Crap’ and feel that past me probably skipped to those tracks on my CD player or computer, but I fear that I never gave the album the patience it probably deserved or needed.

In a review of Loverama, the comment was made that if something was bad it was meant to be.

If something’s bad, that’s what they meant to do, it’s them having fun.

Source: Custard – Loverama (album review) by blueyxd

Maybe this comment is as much about the tendency for the band in the 90’s spending hours and hours perfecting their early albums in the studio. However, I also think that this could probably be read as “if something seems bad.” I feel you have two choices with Custard, you either accept them and their music and come to respect it for what it is or you do not. Younger me never quite reconciled with who they were, therefore I never quite respected it.

This left me wondering if Custard are one of those bands that are best considered as something of a Rorschach test.

The Rorschach test is a projective psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning.

Source: Rorschach by Wikipedia

The music never gets too serious, but is serious none the less, while it never gets too silly, but is silly none the less. The interpretation of the music can then be considered a reflection of the listener. Some listeners take away with them the distorted rock, some the steel string, some the jangly pop. (Thinking about my group music performance, I feel that I could have just played Custard songs and I would have been able to tick all the requirements for my set?) With so much often going on all at once, there is always so much to take in.

I am glad I dived back into the music of Custard. It left me thinking differently about what music could and maybe should be. In the end, I learned to stop worrying and love Custard.


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“A bee sting smarts like a bitch until someone clubs you with a cricket bat.” Trent Dalton ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

Boy Swallows Universe is the debut novel from Australian author, Trent Dalton. Set in Brisbane’s violent working class suburban fringe in the 1980’s, the story tells the tale of Eli Bell, a child finding his way in an often chaotic world. Throughout, it explores ideas of family, friendship and fate in a fantastical world.

Whether it be the references to sport (“catching us mud crabs with claws that bulge like Viv Richards’ biceps”), music (“He played a cassette tape of Van Halen’s 1984 all the way home”) or television (“‘Which planet has the most moons?’ asks Tony Barber inside our fuzzy television, posing questions to three contestants on the pastel pink and aquamarine set of Sale of the Century.”), this somewhat strange story has a way of feeling normal. However, it is far from normal. This is something Dalton touches on near the end of the novel.

She looks out from the foyer to Mum, Dad and August, now waiting at the edge of King George Square.
‘I thought they’d look different, your mum and dad,’ she says.
I laugh. ‘You did?’
‘They’re so nice,’ she says. ‘They just look like any normal mum and dad.’
‘They’ve been working on normal for quite some time now.’

Source: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Whether it be children taken on drug runs, a father coping with alcoholism after nearly drowning his children, a mute child struggling with trauma, a child breaking into prison to see his mother, a child being pen pals with the head of a motorcycle gang or catching out criminals living double lives on a hunch, this book often feels more akin to ‘cartoon descriptions of a cartoon world‘.

Although Boy Swallows Universe explores a world of drugs and crime, this never feels like a brutal drama such as Animal Kingdom or Underbelly, although it has all the same ingredients. One reason for this is the perceived innocence of the adolescent narrator, something that reminded me of Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. The strangest thing is that many of these other worldly oddities were a part of Trent Daltons life.

It was interesting to read Boy Swallows Universe alongside Andrew Stafford’s book on Brisbane, music and its politics in Pig City. Seen from a child’s perspective, politics is often off the page in Dalton’s world, while also ever present through fraud and donations.

Also, I listened to Stig Wemyss’ reading of the novel. After a few chapters, I managed to stop hearing Wemyss’ reading of Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series.


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Surely in a high-performance sport being both ruthless and caring can co-exist. Perhaps it should be about being relentless in the pursuit of improvement rather than being ruthless. Joel Selwood ‘All In’

I must admit, I am often a little circumspect about sporting biographies. I think that it has got to be about more than just the game. I read Eddie Betts’s The Boy from Boomerang Crescent as I was interested in his journey, similarly I was interested in reading All In by Joel Selwood as much to find out more about the person off the field, especially after watching him pull Sam Moorfoot on the ground after the 2022 Grand Final and his retirement media conference.

There are some biographies which break headlines with ‘the truth’ to controversial circumstances, for Betts’ a lot was made about the pre-season camp where players where challenged on highly personal aspects of their past. All In is not really one of those books. Maybe that is because Selwood does not have such events in his life, but it feels more like a conscious choice to only focus on the positives. Although he tries to tell his side of the story around such things as head high tackles and free kicks

 It didn’t take me long to recognise I could gain an advantage over my opposition by exploiting the difficult skill of tackling. And, in my opinion, tackling is the worst executed skill in football. That isn’t because players aren’t good at tackling. It’s just difficult to run 12 or 15 kilometres in a game and also execute such a technical skill when an opponent, with the whole ground to work with, is carrying the ball and running quickly at you or away from you. I identified this as a real weakness in our game and took advantage of that. I prided myself on knowing the rule book better than most and I knew exactly what the umpires were expected to adjudicate when it came to head-high contact. As a competitive professional, knowing every angle mattered.

Source: All In by Joel Selwood

As well as recounting some silly behaviours, such as covering the teammate’s cars with sausage or taking a short cut across St Mary’s in a car race home, in general the book is simply about capturing his life without controversy. As he shares in the introduction, this is a book written as much for his son, Joey, so that he can know about his life and shared with everyone else in the process.

Interestingly, All In often felt as much a summary of the football team as it is about Selwood himself. Whether it be how the team performed or the changes around the club. I was left thinking that this was as much a reflection of the sort of person and leader Selwood was and is. It often felt like the book was about others as much as it was about himself. Every page seemed to mention someone or thank someone else, and this always felt intentional. For example, he brings up Jordan Clark a number of times, a high draft pick whose decision to leave was surrounded with innuendo. The book felt like a continuation of the role of captain, where he was forever balancing all the different roles and relationships. (On a side note, I am reminded here of Austin Kleon’s post about the complexity of going from one child to two, I shutter to think how many relationships Selwood is balancing in such an exercise.)

In regards to style, I fell it is a book that really focuses more on narrative and timelines. There are times when it would be interesting to have more detail into some situations, but this would make it a different book I guess. While I thought that the choice to have his wife, Britt, tell much of the story of their experience with IVF was important. It could have been told through his voice, however, as Britt captures, so much of IVF is left up to the female and it would not have been possible to honestly recount so many events from the male perspective. It also helped capture a world off the field.

Selwood is always upfront about making the most of his talent by being “all in”. (Ironically, maybe this is actually his talent?) However, I was left wondering about the sliding door moments in his life, those variables which helped make him who is was and is. Whether it be his father’s interest in running, his parent’s decision to not send him to Caulfield Grammar, the recommendation from Graeme Allan who was at Brisbane where his brother was playing to see a particular specialist about his knee, the luck of landing at a club in its prime, I am always left thinking how much chance and others in general play out in these sorts of situations.

I am glad I read the book and feel that there is probably a lot to the gleaned around leadership, especially after his experience with Leading Teams.

‘Ruthless’ was appropriate as a value at that time but around 2012, as the playing group transitioned, it was not so important. By then, we needed to do things differently, to play to the strengths of a new crop of players, to establish a framework but to let players be themselves within that framework. Surely in a high-performance sport being both ruthless and caring can co-exist. Perhaps it should be about being relentless in the pursuit of improvement rather than being ruthless.

Source: All In by Joel Selwood

The game also taught me that rigid preparation was not always possible. What was possible was that I could switch on as soon as I dragged the jumper over my head. Eventually the assistants would refer to me as Sir William Wallace, the hero of the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, when they saw me put on the jumper and joke whether I would be able to go over the hill one more time. They knew that was my cue to put all aside and concentrate on the game. It became a habit for me. They thought that trait was remarkable.

Source: All In by Joel Selwood

My intent was never in question but when you carry that view of leadership – that success was your responsibility – the danger is that when something goes wrong, you look to blame someone else. If you are not careful you can become a cop, rather than a teammate, and forget that the group that had won premierships had changed and other methods might be needed to give different – and new – individuals a prod.

Source: All In by Joel Selwood

Some people can work themselves up way too much. They think you need to do this, or you need to read that. I keep it simple: what about just generally being half a decent person? Have your eye out a little bit for everyone and make sure you have a bit of fun along the way. That was the basis of everything I strived to do.

Source: All In by Joel Selwood

I also enjoyed James Saunders’ reading of the book, which I found via Bolinda Audio’s BorrowBox app.


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In a world that moves too fast, and in which myriad exhausting decisions must be made at every turn, the small ceremony is, it seems, making a comeback. A new generation is discovering how soothing it is to blow imaginary dust from a beloved record – and a dozen other everyday sacraments besides. Observer ‘LPs are the antidote to a frenetic digital world’

I have given up smoking, well at least that is the excuse I give for my new found addiction, buying vinyl records. I feel that the use of the word ‘addiction’ might be hyperbole, but there is something about vinyl that feels like it is a want, rather than something of a need, especially when I often own copies of many of the albums on CD or am able to stream them. However, there is something about vinyl that has really captured my me.

I remember reading Doug Belshaw’s post a few years ago involving a letter to his future self.

You’re 23 years old now and this is you in 10 years time writing to yourself. I want to give you some advice and general pointers. Having already been you, I know it’s likely that you’ll read this and then forget about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. For better or worse, I’m still as stubborn as you are now.

Source: A letter from the future by Doug Belshaw

It is something that has haunted me since, what would I say to my past self that would make a difference today. I think I would probably say would be “don’t give up on your music.”

Saying I “gave up on music” seems strange, it is not that I completely stopped listening to or playing music, rather I feel at some stage in life I stopped engaging with music in a certain way. (Maybe Daniel Levitin might say this is normal, I really should read This is Your Brain on Music.) I have always listened to new and old music alike, but not in the same manner. I also sold a lot of my music equipment – MicroKorg, Roland MC303, audio mixer and reference monitors. In part, I think it reflected a change in life. On the one hand, Aphex Twin’s Drukqs is not really something I would be inclined to play with sleeping children around, while tinkering with music seemed like an indulgence. In addition to this, concerts and late nights no longer seemed like a priority.

I started buying back my my music equipment. This has included a Arturia MiniFreak, Roland MC101, Roland JX-08, a new mixer and monitors. I also started going to concerts again. With my effort to collect my crumbs, I started being more deliberate with my music listening, intentionally listening to albums and making notes of what I listened to. I also started purchasing some music via Bandcamp. However, I had not really returned to purchasing physical music. A part of this related to the fact that I simply do not get out my DVDs and CDs anymore, I was even challenged about whether I needed them anymore, whether they still ‘sparked joy‘. I do not think that this is anything new, as captured in a post from Rolling Stone from 2018:

As streaming gives the music industry its biggest profits in a decade, the CD business continues to plunge. CD sales have fallen 80 percent in the past decade, from roughly 450 million to 89 million. Since Tesla began manufacturing cars without CD players, other companies like Ford and Toyota have recently followed. Downloads – once seen as the CD’s replacement – have plummeted 58 percent since peaking in 2012, their profits now even smaller than physical sales. Artists have taken note; Bruce Springsteen released his latest box set, The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996, exclusively on vinyl, with no CD option, unlike 2014’s Vol. 1. “It’s a streaming world and a vinyl world with a quickly diminishing CD,” says Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, indie-label home of Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.

Source: The End of Owning Music: How CDs and Downloads Died by Steve Knopper

One impetus to start listening to vinyl came when my dad gave me his record collection. I had always enjoyed trolling through his collection of crates when growing up, finding what felt like the weird and wonderful, whether it be David Bowie, Frank Zappa or early Cure. However, I soon realised that I wanted more than somebody else’s collection, I wanted my own music in the collection.

Over the years I have incidentally purchased some vinyl records, such as Radiohead’s In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, as well as Go-Go Sapien’s Love in Other Dimensions. I had some friends who bought vinyl. However, I never really appreciated them. I think I was caught up in the debate about audio quality, rather than how I actually listened to music. I spent years listening on poor headphones, it seemed a moot point to be arguing about the difference between streaming and vinyl records.

Another other inspiration of sorts has been Jim Groom’s VinylCasts, where he would play vinyl on internet radio. I think this may have planted the seed for vinyl being about more than just audio quality. Associated with this, Damian Cowell spoke a lot about searching for records and his love of listening as a part of his podcast for his album, Only the Shit You Love. Also, Austin Kleon often talks about playing particular records in his studio.

One of the things that is often said about records is how good the artwork is and how this is often lost in a world of streaming.

Album artwork today has a comparatively minimal role. It no longer serves as the focal point of an artist’s release, instead, it is one part in a much broader visual whole. Creating consistency between an artist’s social media posts, press photos, tour posters and any other visual elements serves the same purpose that album artwork once did: to build a world around an artist and contextualise their music for the listener. However, I can’t help lamenting what we might have lost. If less people are looking at album artworks, less resources will be allocated to them, and less people will put effort into them.

Source: The Lost Art of Album Artwork by Max Bloom

This is something that Damian Cowell discussed in regards to Roger Dean’s design for Osibisa.

Osibisa is the self-titled debut album by British afro rock band Osibisa
This is the cover art for the album Osibisa by the artist Osibisa.

Covers are often references as being the stimulus for purchasing a record. (This is something that my dad said that did.) For me though, this side of things is an added bonus. Of course covers look better blown up, but it is not what draws me to an album. (Although, I did spot Methyl Ethel’s Triage while flicking because it is such a unique cover.) Other than a handful of occasions (The Fauves Driveway Heart Attack and High Pass Filter’s Nice Coordinated Outfit), I have not bought a record without having already listened to it a number of times first.

When I buy a record, I do not necessarily want surprises. Even though I can connect my headphones to my turntable, I usually listen while doing things, therefore it is a very public medium. I am more inclined to listen to a range of music online, but when it has reached vinyl, it feels like a statement of intent. On the Take 5 podcast, Ed Droste discussed how it usually takes five listens to form a judgment on an album. My purchases can therefore be understood as a confirmation of my judgment. (Ironically, Droste felt that growing up with vinyl and being unable to skip helped with that judgement process.)

A strange thing I like about listening to vinyl is that it forces you to listen to a whole album. I like this constraint. There is no skipping and no pauses. If I have to stop an album for some reason, then it means I need to start that side all over again. In a world where being interrupted has become standard, missing a part of an album makes this more concrete. (I have actually taken the album approach to long drives. Instead of worrying about playlists and/or individual tracks, I have started queuing albums, one after another.)

Here is a list of my vinyl purchases so far:

  • Methyl Ethel – Oh Inhuman Spectacle
  • Methyl Ethel – Triage
  • Methyl Ethel – Are you Haunted?
  • The Panics – Cruel Guards
  • Sarah Blasko – Depth of Field
  • Massive Attack – Blue Lines
  • Portishead – Dummy
  • Portishead – Portishead
  • Jeff Buckley – Grace
  • The Avalanches’ – We Will Always Love You
  • DIANA – Familiar Touch
  • Joseph Shabason – Anne EP
  • Beach House – Teen Dream
  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  • The Fauves – Driveway Heart Attack
  • Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine – Only the Shit You Love
  • Client Liaison – Divine Intervention
  • Montaigne – Complex
  • Washington – Batflowers
  • Kimbra – A Reckoning
  • Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
  • Depeche Mode – Violator
  • Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK
  • High Pass Filter – Nice Coordinated Outfit
  • Tortoise – Standards
  • Autechre – Tri Repetae
  • Boards of Canada – Geogaddi
  • Lorde – Pure Heroine
  • Lorde – Melodrama
  • Taylor Swift – 1989
  • Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

I must admit, I have not started buying vinyl that maybe scratched to have on the shelf. I know some buy some albums just to have them in their collection, whether they are playable or not. I am also circumspect about buying expensive second hand records or expensive records in general. For example, I saw a used copy of The Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotion for near on $100. Although I love the album, I feel there needs to be a limit. (I am not buying four versions of the same record for four album covers.) I have bought many of my records when on sale and would rather have three different albums than one really expensive one. (If Jamie Lidell is right in his desire to purchase and play an original Can record, then I might be wrong about listening to original recordings. However, for now I will live with that.) I also prefer albums that a single records. I accept that some albums are actually quite long, but there are others that end up with on a couple of tracks on each side, which just seems frustrating. Oh, then there are albums like Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi which is three records.


As always, comments welcome. Oh, and I only used giving up smoking as a reference. I find it interesting the idea that if I had given up smoking that it would be somehow justified.


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Kind of poetic, isn’t it? The act of speaking to an art-AI feels like a communication word-game — like playing Charades or Taboo, where you have to trigger your collaborator to produce the right result by talking around a subject. Except in this case, the goal is to find the correct incantation that awakens the spirits residing within yonder eldritch cauldron of vectors, and summons them to do your bidding. Clive Thompson “The Psychological Weirdness of Prompt Engineering”

I must admit, I have been somewhat circumspect to what impact applications like ChatGPT would have on my work and life. I am not going to deny the potential, but there are too many stories that make me wonder, such as John Johnston’s chat with Bing. Really, I have had enough trouble handing over some of my work to colleagues, I therefore cannot see my work disappearing anytime soon, even if I were to somehow hand it over to a chatbox.

However, one area that I have found it interesting to explore is the ability to learn with the support of a chatbot. This is a use that I have seen come up in my feed. For example, Ben Collins talks about using AI tools to create formulas:

The AI tools can create formulas for you too.

ChatGPT and Bard generally give correct answers for simple formulas but it’s hit-and-miss with more complex formula asks.

Again, it pays to be as specific as possible with your prompt.

Source: What AI Can Do For You As A Google Sheets User. Is The Hype Justified? by Ben Collins

While Doug Belshaw has reflected on using AI tools to improve code:

I’ll not go into too much detail, but I wanted to replicate the style of my main archives page which is generated using the Simple Yearly Archive plugin. I duplicated archive.php in my themes folder, renamed it category.php and then tinkered around with it. ChatGPT was excellent at giving me the code I needed to do the things I wanted, including for the category RSS feed.

Source: Tinkering with WordPress category archive pages by Doug Belshaw

Through my work Microsoft account, I discovered I have access to Bing’s Co-Pilot chatbot based on OpenAI’s GPT-4. I have therefore been tinkering with this a bit. In particular, I have been using this when I have a question about creating a formula or script. For example, today I asked for a PowerShell script to change the naming format of a group of files. I began by asking:

How do I use PowerShell to swap around parts of multiple file names each split with an “”? For example, the current format is 12343_FirstName_Surname.pdf but I want it to be 12343_Surname_FirstName.pdf

Bing came back with a formula that spoke about moving around the different parts split into an array and move the elements around, however it did not account for the ‘.pdf’ ending. So I asked the following:

Using PowerShell, How do I split a file name into an array using _, but exclude the ending .pdf

It then added the missing lines associated with removing the .pdf ending at the start of the process and then adding it back at the end.

See the final script below.

# Set the current directory
$directory = "xxx"

# Get all files in the directory
$files = Get-ChildItem -Path $directory

# Loop through each file
foreach ($file in $files) {

    # Remove the .pdf extension from the file name
    $fileNameWithoutExtension = $file.Name.Substring(0, $file.Name.Length - 4)

    # Split the file name into an array using the underscore as a delimiter
    $fileParts = $fileNameWithoutExtension.Split("_")

    # Swap the first and last elements of the array
    $fileParts[0], $fileParts[1], $fileParts[2] = $fileParts[2], $fileParts[0], $fileParts[1]

    # Join the array back into a string using the underscore as a delimiter
    $newFileName = $fileParts -join "_"

    # Add the file extension to the new file name
    $newFileName = "$newFileName.pdf"

    # Rename the file with the new file name
    Rename-Item -Path $file.FullName -NewName $newFileName
}

What I have found is that although I often get an answer, it is not always the final answer or correct for that matter. This was the case when after I recently exported all my links from Diigo and asked Bing for a Google Sheets formula to check which URLs sent back a 404 and which didn’t. Co-Pilot gave me back the following formula:

=IF(HTTPResponse(A1)=404,"404 Error","No Error")

I tried this in Google Sheets only to get the error:

Unknown function: ‘HTTPResponse’.

I then asked Bing, “What is the HTTPResponse function in Google Sheets?” To which Bing responded that there was no function ‘HTTPResponse’ built-in, but that I could use UrlFetchApp.fetch in Google Apps Script to create a custom function. It then also provided links to a number of sources which I followed, finding Adham El Banhawy’s guide the most helpful. Ironically, I then got an error in trying to run the custom script, which I raised in Co-Pilot, and was given a fix.

function getStatusCode(url) {
  if (url === undefined || url === null) {
    return null;
  }

  var url_trimmed = url.trim();
  // Check if script cache has a cached status code for the given url
  var cache = CacheService.getScriptCache();
  var result = cache.get(url_trimmed);

  // If value is not in cache/or cache is expired fetch a new request to the url
  if (!result) {

    var options = {
      'muteHttpExceptions': true,
      'followRedirects': false
    };
    var response = UrlFetchApp.fetch(url_trimmed, options);
    var responseCode = response.getResponseCode();

    // Store the response code for the url in script cache for subsequent retrievals
    cache.put(url_trimmed, responseCode, 21600); // cache maximum storage duration is 6 hours
    result = responseCode;
  }

  return result;
}

In each of my experiences of CoPilot, I have had to make adjustments to the code provided. A part of this is actually learning what is happening. However, this may well be the questions that I asked:

  • talk to it as if it were a person
  • set the stage and provide context
  • have the AI assume an identity or profession
  • iterate with multiple attempts
  • keep it on track
  • specify output format
  • explicit constraints on responses
Source: How to write better ChatGPT prompts for the best generative AI results – David Gewirtz, ZDNet, Oct 12, 2023 Commentary by Stephen Downes

Or it may well be the trial and error nature of coding. The thought that I am left with is a comment a few months back that questioned if we have to learn what prompts to use with AI tools, how intelligent are they? I With this in mind, for me I feel that AI tools are useful as an aide, but I am circumspect about using them as the answer. I guess time will tell.

As always, comments and webmentions welcome.


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