Category Archives: ideas

Swinging with Duke

This is a post about Duke Ellington and dance, because he is on my mind at the moment.

I’ve recently discovered the 1951/52 stuff by the Johnny Hodges band on this dodgy digital download album Pound of Blues is really great for teaching dance, particularly choreography which recognises strict phrasing. It’s good, solid stuff, and I’ve used it for DJing in the past, though not with any particular enthusiasm. The steady, predictable phrasing of songs like ‘Wham’ on this album do not really reflect all of Ellington’s compositions, as anyone who’s tried to choreograph to ‘Rockin in Rhythm’ will know. But Johnny Hodges was, of course, a musician who played with Ellington for a long time. One of the soloists the band leader would compose for, and organise compositions around rather than forcing them to fit into a musician-shaped hole in his band.

I’d like to say that this ‘Pound of Blues’ album reminded me of the orsm of Ellington, but that’s not true. Ellington is always on my mind. I love him. I love his music and I own a lot of it. A LOT. I’m a massive fan of the Ellington small group stuff, but I’m also nuts for the bigger bands.
The Never No Lament: the Blanton Webster Band 3CD set was one of the first serious Ellington CDs I ever bought (though it was a lot cheaper then than it is now), and I bought it because dancers and DJs I admire recommended it on the SwingDJs discussion board. It’s great, but as with many of the Ellington recordings I have, the quality isn’t so great. There’s a lot of surface noise (ie scratchy crackly rubbish) and the high pitched stuff sounds awful when I’m DJing. And all that from a CD.
This last point is important, because I recently bought myself another Ellington set, Decca’s Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings 1926-1931. I’d somehow managed to miss this little chunk of Ellingtonia and I needed to rectify the problem. I went with CDs rather than the cheaper downloads because I’m finding download files – especially legit ones – are of such poor quality they make the songs unDJable. The rubbish files plus the scary sound quality of the recordings themselves are just unuseable on shitty sound systems.

I guess I do have kind of an Ellington problem. But then, he’s so interesting, he justifies a little obsessive collecting.
I used to have a long bus commute to uni which I’d spend reading my way through Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz 1930-1945 and listening along with my whole Ellington collection on my ipod. I read music (haltingly), and Schuller spends quite a bit of his time examining scores in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by everything Schuller says, but Schuller’s is an interestingly scholarly approach to a musician who was as comfortable with concert halls as dance floors.

Today’s dancers are familiar with many of the soundies and film fragments featuring Ellington’s band. Mostly because they also featured dancers. The most famous of these is probably Hot Chocolate (Cottontail), with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:

My favourite is Bessie Dudley and Florence Hill dancing to Ellington’s band playing ‘Bugle Call Rag’ in the 1933 film Bundle of Blues:

Bessie Dudley was married to Snake Hips Tucker, and she appeared with him in Ellington’s 1935 film Symphony in Black. There’s a scene in that short film where Tucker’s character throws Billie Holiday to the ground, and you can’t help but think of the verisimilitude – Tucker was a brutal, violent man who abused Dudley.

Ellington’s relationship with dancers was strong and complex. He worked extensively with dancers at the Cotton Club and on film, and travelled with Dudley and other dancers on tours. And later, as his music became more complicated and challenging, his productions with dancers and choreographers like Alvin Ailey also became more challenging.
There’s an interesting article by Patricia Willard called ‘Dance: the unsung element of Ellingtonia’ (Australians can read the full text version here, but there are other versions available online if you google). In that article Willard writes

Duke thought and spoke in dance vernacular. Maneuvering a remarkably stable roster of assertive, quirky, occasionally aggressive individualists into a consistently identifiable and cohesive big band through the decades demanded an accomplished psychologist and master manipulator, which he was. He proudly referred to his role as “The Choreographer.” (Willard)

This idea of Ellington’s music as dance music (which Willard pursues in that article) is nice. Ellington himself said “Swing is not a kind of music. It is that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, buoyant, terpsichorean urge.” (Ellington, quoted by Willard) This idea that Ellington was at once engaged in popular culture and able to move on to all that difficult artier music and concert dance is just one bit of proof of his versatility.

Most of my love for Ellington is centred on his earlier stuff and on those small group recordings. My interest tends to wane at about 1950, to be honest, but that’s not a strict rule. There’s a song called ‘B Sharp Boston’ which Ellington recorded in 1949 and which used to get around on those dodgy ripped compilation CDs as ‘Sharp B Boston’. I picked up the Chronological Classics Duke Ellington Orchestra 1949-1950 CD in about 2006, and discovered it was actually called ‘B Sharp Boston’, and that there was a bunch of other great stuff on that CD that makes for top DJing (I’ve written about this before in Duke Ellingon’s Difficult 1949-1950 period). ‘Joog Joog’, for example, is one of my favourites (I like to pair it with Doris Day singing ‘Celery Stalks At Midnight’). A fair chunk of stuff on this CD is, however, already edging over into dissonance and confusing timing which makes for challenging dancing.

These sorts of awkward combinations of note and timing really heralds bop. But years ahead of other peeps. Listening to even Ellington’s 30s stuff, you hear a hint of the dissonance that was to come. I tweeted the other day “It’s like Ellington heard collective improvisation in NOla jazz and went “hm. Dissonance.” In 1938.” And @twobarbreak replied “Look where all of Ellington’s players were from, and who they learned from. your hunches closer to right on than you think!”

Again, though, it’s fascinating that Ellington could produce excellently danceable songs like ‘B Sharp Boston’ and ‘Joog Joog’ at the same time as he was really getting into much more experimental stuff. By the end of the 40s Ellington had well and truly begun to explore crazy arse stuff that doesn’t always work for dancing. Well, unless you’re Ramona and Todd at ILHC this year

I read an interesting blog post recently (cannot remember where, I’m sorry – PLEASE let me know if you know the one I mean), where someone cleverly pointed out a couple of recent lindy hop choreographies that worked with this sort of ‘difficult jazz’. One of them was Giselle Anguizola and Nathan Bugh’s 2011 Classic Lindy entry in ILHC:

I keep an eye on Giselle, because she’s been involved in some interesting projects over the years, from Girl Jam to working with jazz bands on the streets of New Orleans. Both are interesting, not just as exercises in jazz dance and jazz dance skills, but in the enculturation of dancers in jazz tradition.
One of the things I really like about the way dancers like Giselle and Chance engage with bands on New Orleans streets is their recognition of turn taking. Soloists in a band take turns, even (especially) the vocalists. In these street jazz groups, the dancers function as soloists, taking their turn, and then stepping back to let the musicians shine. They’re not only responding to the music they hear, but also functioning as part of the band, and part of the performance. Most modern lindy hoppers barely manage to look up and see the band they’re dancing ‘to’, let alone take a moment out to admire what they hear.

And of course, all this talk of New Orleans jazz, solos and recognising individual talent within a collective ensemble takes us back to that idea of Ellington’s most radical work being a response to the interests of the musicians in his band, many of whom were from New Orleans or taught by New Orleans musicians. The most radical ‘art’ part of Ellington was perhaps his references to tradition and vernacular, everyday culture?

Other things about Ellington and dance I couldn’t fit in this piece of writing:

  • My new favourite ILHC 2012 clip, Melanie and Joshua in the Lindy Hop Classic category dancing to Ellington’s 1941 version of ‘Jumpin’ Punkin’s':

  • The Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra’s album Live in Swing City: Swinging with Duke.
    Probably the most overplayed, most popular, excellent modern big band swing album. Recorded live with a crowd of dancers, this album features the most accessible of Ellington’s work, and is an excellent gateway drug for new dancers interested in discovering swing music.
  • Todd Yannacone again, this time with Naomi Uyama dancing to Ellington’s ‘Main Stem’ in about 2006:

References:

Willard, Patricia, ‘Dance: the Unsung Element of Ellingtonia” The Antioch Review, 57.3 (Summer 1999): p 402

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press: USA, 1989.

Euthanasia, ‘disability’ and human rights

I’ve read two interesting pieces about Peter Singer this week. Harriet McBryde Johnson’s 2003 piece is deeply moving Unspeakable Conversations and Stella Young’s piece The case against Peter Singer from today is a response to his recent visit to Australia.

Twitter was alive this week during Singer’s spot on Q&A (Big Ideas and Big Society: Euthanasia), and I’m extra glad I have so many crip activists in my feed to keep things real.

I’m going to simplify complex issues here, with my next comment. Perhaps the most powerful point made during this discussion was that living with debilitating or full-on medical or physical conditions is so challenging not just because these conditions are so full-on, but because our society(s) don’t recognise and protect the basic human rights of these individuals. That’s why so many disabled people live below the poverty line, consider suicide and generally get a crap deal. If our society was more enlightened, and aggressively pursued and defended basic human rights for all of us (including exploring options like the NDIS), then Singer wouldn’t feel justified in making the arguments he does. Or, as McBryde Johnson puts it (with greater eloquence):

What worries me most about the proposals for legalized assisted suicide is their veneer of beneficence — the medical determination that, for a given individual, suicide is reasonable or right. It is not about autonomy but about nondisabled people telling us what’s good for us.

… I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable.

News: Coleman Hawkins and Lomax

This Jazzwax post “Coleman Hawkins: 1922-1947” is an interesting complement to the Mosaic Coleman Hawkins set and to the idea of Anthologies or collections of individual works as a creative product in its own right (as I began discussing in my post “More thoughts, also illness-addled and pseudoephedrine-fuelled.“).

I’m also interested in the new film Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass directed by Alan Lomax and featuring lots of lovely archival footage from the Folkways project

Some links from this afternoon

This playlist:

Eleven charming songs from dogpossum on 8tracks.

These lyrics from ‘Honeymoon Suite’

Music & Lyrics by Suzanne Vega

the ceiling had a painting on it
in our room in France
so we were living underneath
some angels in a dance

my husband was not feeling well
and so we went to bed
he woke up complaining
of an aching in his head

he said a hundred people
had come through our room that night
that one by one the old and young
asked if he was all right

one by one the old and young
lined up to touch his hand
he spent the night explaining
they had come to the wrong man

the concierge was less than helpful
when we asked her the next day
with coffee and a magazine
we went to the desk to pay

“what happened in that room?” he asked
“a death or something strange?”
she smiled at him politely
and returned to him his change

well, what I’d like to know
and this will be a mystery,
is with all the people in that room
why none appeared to me?

when we sleep so close together that
our hair becomes entwined
I must have missed that moment
in the gateway to his mind

This article ‘Local Economic Implications of Urban Bicycle Networks.

This article about the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting project in New York.

And an (ongoing) idea about place, music, sound, dance and history in a city.

January round up

(photo of Mary Lou Williams, extremely awesome woman pianist, who fucking PWND the fairly dick-centred boogiewoogie piano world, from here. She was all about OWNING the discourse.)

I’m back running, desperate to get some serious exercise during the christmas dancing drought. So far it’s going well, except today I did run 2 of week 2 of the Ease into 10k program, rather than of the couch to 5k program. I couldn’t figure out why I was finding it so challenging. I figured it was just because I’m out of shape and it’s getting a bit hot even at 9am. It wasn’t until the last running section of the program that I figured it out. Dummy. Hope my knees pull up ok.

I love running. I’m not much good at it. I run slower than I walk. But I love running around my neighbourhood, looking at stuff and saying hello to people I see every day. Whether they like it or not. I also like it that just thirty minutes of running does the job. Delivers the adrenaline, kicks my arse, strengthens my core, lifts my mood. It’s finally getting hotter here, so I’m ready to swim again. Been in the pool once, and I’m suddenly on fire for lap swimming. Love that boring, repetitive exercise with clear, simple goals.

Right now I’m listening to a lot of boogie woogie piano, which kind of suits my adrenaline fixation. Lots of busy left-handedness.

The Sydney Festival First night stuff was fun. Thousands of people pouring into the streets of the CBD to dance and listen to music and watch stuff. The best thing I saw was a koori acrobatic troupe traveling through the festival with a team of gypsy musicians. That shit was hot. Then the next best thing was Tuba Skinny, being lovely. I didn’t much care for the Troc festival. I’m really tired of Dan Barnet’s grandstanding. I much prefer the Sirens Big Band when they’re doing their own thing, without someone with a dick bossing them about. Also, they played the lamest, lamest songs. But I did like the bit during the free class where I looked around and realised we were standing in the middle of a crowd of women dancing together. Extreme lesbian awesome. The Speakeasy after the festival was massive and hot and sweaty and I had a lot of fun there, too.

Our regular dancing gigs are about to start up. This weekend Swing pit is on Friday and Roxbury on Saturday. I’m bossing the DJs for Swingpit (do drop me a line if you want a set!), and I’m DJing at Roxbury. It sucks that they’re both on the same weekend rather than alternative weekends, but that’s one of those complicated things that really ends up being too difficult to keep sorted. I’m looking forward to DJing. I haven’t DJed a proper hardcore lindy hop set since MLX, pretty much, and the Roxbury gig is probably my favourite hardcore DJing opportunity in Sydney.

Alice and I are trying to get our venue sorted for our weekly classes, so if you know a good venue in Sydney’s inner west that’d like to righteous sisters running fun and also badarse lindy hop classes, do drop me a line. I’m looking forward to that.

Health wise, things are ok over here. Not optimal, but far better than they have been. It’s a long, slow road, yo.

Realised yesterday that most of the dance clips I’ve been watching lately are of competitions. Which is a bit boring.

Decided today that I’d really like to be a part of a community run dance event like Speakeasy, but run more regularly, and which focusses on proper lindy hopping music. I want to DJ music from 60 to 360bpm in the one set, and I want to play all my music. And I want dancers to come along and give it a go. I think I’ve finally gotten to the point in my DJing and dancing where I properly understand that just playing music within one tempo range is a complete fail, dancing and creativity wise. Not to mention historically speaking. I am now, officially, against separate ‘blues’ and ‘lindy hop’ events. They should all be in one basket. One event. …actually, I’m not sure I’m against those separate events. But I do know I’m going to continue to copy my current DJing hero, Falty, and play all the tempos in one set.

I’m also (while I’m expositing) impatient with dancers who don’t dance slow. Come on, yo, it needn’t be sexy. Though, having just watched Dirty Dancing, I generally feel that it should be dirty as often as possible. Being able to dance slow is really important in the development of your dance skills. Fast dancing hides errors. But when things are slow, you’ve got to have ninja skills. Good balance, good timing, clear understanding of musical structures. Rhythm. I am hereby advocating slow dancing. Though I’m not particularly interested in ‘blues dance events’. They are really really boring. Sure, I like a blues event attached to a lindy hop event, but a whole weekend of blues dancing? Hurrumph. Well, actually, I’m into it if the DJs and bands are ninjas. I need a very good ‘blues DJ’ to convince me to dance without the adrenaline to kick it on. And I’m not single, so I’m not into the whole frottage cheese side of blues dancing either right now. Though I’m certainly not against it. Sexeh dancing. It’s ok by me. I suspect I’d like blues dancing gigs more if I drink. But I’m boringly straight edge, so I don’t. I am an unashamed adrenaline junky, and I live for good conversation. Don’t make me take up drinking so I can deal with your conversation, k? I think, in the final analysis, that it’s easier to go to a lindy gig if you’re feeling a bit poopy or low energy, because the adrenaline kicks you out of your rut. But blues dancing doesn’t kick you, so you just carry on being a poo. Don’t go to a blues weekend if you’re feeling slumpy. Just don’t. It’s too goddamn dull.

…briefly, on blues DJing: same principles as DJing for lindy hop. Exact same principles. Work the crowd, work the tempos, work the energy, transition smoothly between styles, know your music, know music, don’t be a dick. Most importantly: WORK THE ENERGY.

Feminism, in the news. Or on the twitters. There’ve been a few big fights on the twitts lately. Annoyingly, the gist of it has been:

  • Middle class guys with big discursive power write some sexist bullshit in what I would call a discursively powerful/elite space.
  • They get called on it (politely, cleverly) by some sisters in a public, less powerful space (ie twitter).
  • The guys get all shitty about being called on their rubbish. Because they are TEH LEFTIES and they know about feminism because their partner is a feminist OKAY.
  • All the feminists get a bit shitty with the way the guys respond to getting a heads-up.
  • There’s lots of fighting on teh internets.
  • Everyone gets angry and upset.

Here’s a couple of my ideas on this:

  • Twitter is in real time, which means you can post really quickly. In the days of discussion boards, I learnt that it’s important not to post angry. I think that some of teh lefty interkitten people need to be reminded of how to talk in tutorials where everyone is equal: don’t talk angry. It’s upsetting. Be cool.
  • Blogs are good places for complicated arguments. But not many people are good at talking in 140 characters to hundreds of people at a time in real time, without having visual cues to let them know what people are thinking. Though, frankly, I don’t think those guys would have been any good at reading what was happening in their audience’s body language any way. Power involves speaking without fear of consequence. So you don’t need to worry about reading people’s bodies for their feelings. Because it doesn’t matter if they’re shitty: they can’t touch you!
  • A lot of the wordy lefty guy types aren’t much good at talking in a space that doesn’t favour formal turn taking and quietly attentive audiences. In twittersville, peeps are interrupting you, they’re interrupting each other. They’re doing collaborative meaning making (or meaning disruption) in a way that requires pretty serious skills. I keep thinking about the difference between giving a conference paper and being at afternoon tea with a bunch of lindy hopping ladies. One’s nice and middle class polite and gonna maintain your dick-power and status, the other’s gonna be loud, competitive, rowdy, disrespectful and full of dirty jokes, with lots of complicated unspoken rules and limits. Basically, twitter is not for menz who like the ladies to shoosh-while-they’re-talking.
  • Lefty men really, really REALLY don’t like being told that they’re using the privilege of power to other’s disadvantage. Especially when the person telling them is being calm, sensible and female.
  • Specifically, I think those two posts in the King’s Tribune are fucked up, old school sexism. Sure, they were trying to be jokes, but some of us don’t think rape is funny. Not ever. Because some of us have to think about protecting ourselves from rape most of our waking hours. And when you bring that shit onto the internet, you’re going to get your fucking arse kicked, idiot, because THE SISTERS ARE TALKING, HERE. Also, your jokes: they were rubbish. TRY HARDER. FEMINISM IS WAITING FOR YOU TO GET IT TOGETHER. The thing that shits me most about this is that, once again, it’s the sisters who have to help the sooky little boys figure out how to be decent human beings. We are not your mothers. WE HAVE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO and we are tired of helping you tidy up your shit.

I have written part of a post on this, but it got a bit upsetting to write. I think I want to pursue it, but perhaps on another day. But I think I need to, because apparently those guys aren’t actually ok with women talking out loud in public. Especially not when those women are disagreeing with them. And me, I aim to disagree.

Interesting Links

Matthew Bailes, one of the scientists who discovered that diamond planet writes about how his experiences would have been a bit different if he’d been a climate scientist in the article Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method.

Where newspapers thrive is Judy Muller’s story about local newspapers, news values and journalism in small towns. I’m especially interested in this because I did my MA on state based newspaper coverage of gender, and then conceived my PhD project as a study of ‘local’ or community-based media. How do you tell controversial stories in a tiny community where your words will affect the lives of people you know, but also affect your life as part of that community?

djing is spelt v-a-g

Look, just to be clear, the posts about getting your rags, emotions, feminist rage, fucking over the patriarchy, food and badass cooking are the heart of this blog. That means that every post about DJing or dancing or any of that other ‘objective’ ‘rational’ stuff is actually a post about vaginas or fighting the power or being a badassmotherfucker crocheter.

All right?

Right.

digitising public collections – a long talk

This post is going to be a bit of a mishmash of thinking I’ve done in my classes this semester (I’m looking at digital archiving and organising information digitally), my previous work during my PhD (I was interested in how communities of users employ a range of digital tools to complement their face to face activities), my sessional teaching in courses on audience studies (I taught students how to do audience research, particularly online) and some of the reactions I’ve had to public chitchat about digitising public collections. All my knowledge about digital archiving in practice is theoretical, but for the stuff I’ve learnt during assignments. When I talk about the literature in the information management discipline, I’m talking about the literature as it’s been presented to me in my courses. So it’s a pretty subjective overview reflecting course requirements rather than the field as a whole. Which is a pretty interesting comment on the role of course syllabi in structuring and reflecting our understanding of a discipline, yeah?

I decided to write this really long post in response to a number of really annoying things I’ve read online. Firstly, Marcus Westbury made this comment on his blog and in his Age column:

THE perception at election time is that politicians can get ahead only by rolling out the pork barrel and spending up big. But while we’d all love more money for the arts, there are a lot of things that could make us all culturally richer for not much more than the cost of political will, taking the lead, changing some rules and tweaking a few settings.

So, in the spirit of trying to get some actual ideas into the vacuum that is this election campaign, I’ve knocked up a list of suggestions for pollies wanting to do — or be seen to be doing — something useful on the cheap.

He continues

3. Put our national cultural collections online

It’s a no-brainer. Our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. But the confusion of rights makes it difficult, and they often err on the side of caution, meaning these vast resources are lost in red tape. We need the 21st-century equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network. It’s the cheapest education and most effective audience development opportunity there is. We’re spending a fortune on infrastructure, so we’d be mad not to do it.

This comment really bothered me. It reveals a lack of familiarity with Australian public institutions’ digital activities, not to mention the practical reality of digitising collections. I understand that Marcus is suggesting a solution to the challenges of managing IP online (which do slow down digital library activities) – “the equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network” – but I am also fairly sure that this doesn’t recognise the fact that information management specialists are already onto this challenge. I had a three hour session on it last week, and I don’t envy the people who are actually involved in unravelling IP for public institutions’ online and other digital activities.

Digitising national collections isn’t cheap, nor is it simple. I’m going to explain why a bit further on in this post.

I was also alerted to this this UK Telegraph article by Colvinius on twitter, which is about a slightly different topic – archiving popular online culture. I can’t really address that in this post as it’s already too massive, but I’m not keen on the implication that public institutions aren’t paying attention to online culture. I mean the Library of Congress is kind of already onto that and they’re not alone – even the NLA is into that action.

Digital archiving? Digital preservation? Digital collections?

Firstly, when I say ‘digital archiving’ or ‘digital preservation’ and ‘digitising collections’ what am I talking about? This semester our work has made a fairly arbitrary distinction between digitising items for long term preservation as digital items, and digitising items for improving community access to these items (whether online at home, in schools or public libraries, on mobile devices or whatever). The differences between preservation and access occur at many points in an item’s journey from physical object to digital file, and then in its storage and access. In the simplest terms, though, a digital preservation project aims to digitise items and then store them for long periods of time and a digital library or gallery project digitises items so as to make them accessible now.

Users? Or, why are we doing this again?
In both cases an ‘audience’ is imagined for the collection, though the term ‘user’ is employed, and complex user personas and use scenarios are developed to aid the design and implementation of the digitisation project. In digital curation, however, the user is positioned as a ‘designated user community’ so as to manage the fact that we cannot actually address the needs of any and all potential users in the future. This is where I’ve found a sticking point: I’d like to design systems that are agile and flexible, able to respond to the needs of potential users. This, however, is in conflict with the fact that much digital preservation work is founded on projects or models developed for use within the scientific or engineering community, digitising their data.

The most important digital preservation model – the Open Archiving Information Scheme – was actually developed to manage the vast quantities of data produced by space research. So the user community – the designated user community – with this sort of data and research was an elite group of highly institutionalised research scientists and engineers dealing with a particular type of scientific data. No flexibility there. In fact, there are, of course, all sorts of positivist connotations about ‘data’ and ‘research’ here: data can be ‘captured’ objectively by skilled professionals working in laboratory-like environments and then ‘stored’, untouched by this process, for long periods of time until it is ‘retrieved’ at a future point in time. Problematic, much?

This raises all sorts of problems for people researching with real, live, actual hoomans (and the word ‘humans’ is actually used in much of this literature, in part to distinguish them from computer users, but still – it’s an amusing distinction, yes?). Particularly those of us working in the humanities area. We know that data cannot just be ‘collected’ as though it were little chunks of rock lying about in ‘the field’. We know that our ‘collecting’ is actually a series of complex interpersonal interactions shaped by our own lived experiences. We know there are power dynamics at work here, and that ‘data’ isn’t some sort of coherent, unit of information, that it is instead a more dynamic map of human relationships and practices that just doesn’t hold still.

Information management literature likes to draw a distinction between ‘data’ and ‘information’. Data is – and this is stated explicitly – objective units of ‘fact’. Information is created in the human interaction with these facts. There is no allowance – despite some fringe ‘theory’ literature – for the idea that all data is actually ‘information’. This notion of data as an object to be stored has been important to library and museum management for a very, very long time. After all, if objects don’t have an intrinsic, objective value and meaning, why would we bother to store them so carefully for so long for some future generation we can’t ever know? This sounds like quite a long diversion from my point. And it is. But I think it’s important to introduce it here because it informs the whole digital library and digital preservation process. So let’s get back to that stuff.

What do I mean by ‘items’? Basically, I’m talking about the stuff in public (or private) collections: books, posters, costumes, china, maps, records, photos, reel-to-reel film and so on. The physical items in a collection. A collection can include ‘born-digital’ items like websites and digital audio files, but I don’t want to talk about them here. Which is a shame, as that’s the point of that second article I quoted up there at the beginning of this post. Ah well.

Items are digitised in a number of ways, including these few examples:

  • taking digital photos with a camera
  • scanning items with a digital scanner (whether flat bed or otherwise)
  • creating digital recordings of analogue sound recordings (ie turning the sound recorded on a vinyl record into a digital audio file, and then ‘capturing’ the physical recording media – the vinyl record itself – using photography)
  • creating digital versions of audio-visual files (ie turning a film recorded on reel-to-reel film into a digital file, and then capturing the physical items associated with that recording (can cover, etc) with other devices)

Whose user?
Who is the ‘user’, then? This is tricky one, and even the literature in the field has trouble with it. While some of the authors in this area are approaching a cultural studies – a feminist, humanities-type – understanding of user which equates to our much-debated ideas about audiences, for the most part there is little rigorous attention to the way ‘users’ are imagined and then built into the design process by information architects. Who are the people who design and then build archiving systems (whether they be for the short or long term). In all this year, I’ve not heard one comment from any of my lecturers or in any of the literature addressing the role of our own identities in our development of user personas. It’s not been addressed even when I and others in the class have suggested that any user persona we develop is in fact more revealing of our own identities than any ‘real’ user (no matter how well substantiated with research). I’ve found this incredibly difficult to deal with.

To my mind, the design of a website or a poster or a database reflects the ideas and values and ideology and physical experience of the people who made it, and it also reflects the way they imagine the people who will use that system or item. My ideas here are informed by my experiences with cultural studies, media studies, hell, even semiotics and the fundamentals of textual analysis. This concept is a very basic prerequisite for thinking and writing about culture in media, communications and cultural studies literature. I’ve taught it a million times to a zillion students. I can’t even begin to contemplate not believing this. It’s the foundation for much of my thinking about power and privilege and broader social relations. So I’ve found this semester quite frustrating. But let’s return to my original discussion.

Organising items or data systems and controlling language
This all means that a database is not a neutral or objective system or structure. It is not only a reflection of ideology (and culture), it is also continually remaking and restating this culture and ideology. We’ve demonstrated this in class when each of us has come up with quite different architecture for the same database proposal. I think this is why I find the discussions about library and museum management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture so interesting. It’s in this literature (which I sought out myself) that I’ve found discussions about how databases and other library systems articulate race and class and power. The best example of this is the ATSILIRN alternative thesaurus.

In the simplest terms, indices or thesauri are controlled languages for describing items. When you enter information about an item into a database, you have to fill in fields like ‘title’, ‘author’, ‘year created’, etc. You could, potentially put any old information in there. The other week when we were discussing indexing I heard my first in-class comment from a lecturer about how language changes over time and how a word used by me today mightn’t mean the same in 50 years time. It was almost a discussion about cultural specificity, but there was no discussion of power or any self-reflexivity. But most database designers recognise this (though they might perceive it as ‘error’ or as aberration) and so try to control what can be entered into the fields. You can do this by adding constraints like only allowing numbers to be entered, or only allowing one of a number of options in a drop down menu to be selected. But you can also use specific indices or thesauri to control the words that are entered into the database. If, then, there are only five words specifying race in your thesaurus, and all of them created by and reflecting 19th century Anglocentric discourse, you can see where Dodson is coming from when he writes

We have been referred to and catalogued as ‘savages’ or ‘primitive’ while Western industrial peoples are referred to as advanced and complex (Mick Dodson, 1993, quote from the ATSILIRN).

Standardisation
I’ve wondered away from my initial point in quite a serious way, here. But it’s important to discuss this stuff, because all databases managing the records of library and museum and other collections employ controlled vocabularies of some sort. They might be in the indices and thesauri, but they are also in the metadata – the information about data – that is used to organise items within a archiving system. There are various types of metadata, and they gain their value from being standardised. Standardised metadata systems are really lists of fields which have been agreed on by various communities (usually in a formal sense, after intense negotiation, as in the case of Dublin Core).

I was super excited when I heard this – an enforced interpretive repertoire! (you can read about interpretative repertoires in Potter and Whetherell’s work, particularly the 1987 book Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour The collaborative meaning making Stuart Hall talked about was actually codified and institutionalised here! I’d been used to thinking about these sorts of systems as evidence of ideology – or as things that could be analysed for ideology. But we don’t talk about this in class at the moment, and I daren’t even raise it, simply because the concepts require quite a bit of background information. If anything, my frustration here is perhaps evidence of how difficult it is to articulate this sort of theoretical and critical work in everyday language. Irony, much?

So, to this point, I’ve discussed ‘items’, the way users are imagined, and controlled languages in information management. How does all this relate to digital libraries and digital preservation? And exactly what does digitisation of a collection involve?

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has a very handy guide to digitising small collections. You can see as you browse through this excellent guide, that digitising a collection involves a little more than just digitising a bunch of things and then wacking them up on the internet. The digitising process – where you make digital files of each item – is about one third of the entire project. The larger part includes planning, budgeting and then organising the digital collection. Even a small collection includes thousands of digital items, all of which have to be organised within a (series of) databases. Even if your digital collection is not intended for public use on a regular basis, it will still require complex data management tools. Luckily, there is OAIS, which is a standardised (it even has its own IOS standard). Unluckily, OAIS is complicated and not exactly simple to implement. Perhaps more usefully, there is the Digital Curation Centre’s Curation Lifecycle Model, which allows you to develop an overall plan for long term digitisation and preservation. It’s also quite complicated.

I wrote a paper this semester about the challenges of digital preservation for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The most pressing of these (which apply to all collections) are:

  • handling delicate or culturally sacred material items
  • securing permissions to handle and then digitise and store digital records of these items
  • creating an architecture that will organise these individual records and files
  • acquiring and then maintaining the hardware necessary for storing such large amounts of data (ie having good server centres with reliable electricity, cooling and physical facilities)
  • having really good internet access to facilitate introduction of items to the archive and then maintaining the collection and supporting use of the collection
  • having sufficient funding to cover all aspects of the digitising process
  • having access to suitable skilled personnel to do the digitising, organising and maintenance of the collection

All these things are challenging for remote communities facing other quite serious social issues. But they are also challenges for librarians and curators working with smaller collections in regional institutions or within larger institutions.

In the most basic terms actually fairly complicated terms, digitising a collection for preservation involves:

Digitisation of a collection: Planning

  • planning and scoping the project can take a long time. You have to know what you have to digitise, what condition it’s all in, and what your resources are.
  • If you don’t have much money (and no institution in Australia has the money to digitise its entire collection), you have to start planning some serious fund raising. If your collection is attached to a large private enterprise or company, you’re in a much better place than a large public collection.
  • You have to start thinking about acquiring the technology and skills to do your own digitising, or you have to source a suitable external body to do it (which is something most collections do these days). The technology is super expensive, and the hours required for digitising are massive.
  • You have to discover and plan the appropriate standards for file formats for the digital records you produce. What file format will be useable ten years from now, let alone fifty? The questions at this stage continue and continue…

Digitisation of a collection: preparation

  • This is where you start ascertaining the state of your collection and beginning necessary conservatorial and preservation processes. Some items are physically very fragile and need to be handled by professionals in safe conditions. Their preparation for the physical act of digitising can take a long time. Some are damaged by the very act of digitising. Check out Pinknantucket’s blog for some super cool discussion of this stuff.
  • It’s also during this phase that you start checking out the permissions and intellectual property rights associated with items in your collection. Who owns them? Who can use them? There are some loop holes in Australian copyright law that allow public institutions like libraries and museums to digitise or copy items without permission. But you have to be very very sure you understand these laws or you can cost yourself a massive amount of money in legal fees later on.
  • You also have to find out whether you have permission to digitise all the items in your collection. Are you holding items on behalf of third parties? Do you have permission to digitise them, let alone make them available for future use by other parties? This is particularly relevant for items belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. One of the largest challenges here, is that many collections possess items for which they don’t have ownership details. The forcible removal of Aboriginal people from their lands and subsequent government policies of removal of children from families contributed to the mis-identifying or un-identifying of items in public and private collections. If you don’t have a suitably qualified person on your staff to aid the identification of your items, you can’t even begin to approach gaining permission for digitising or use. But this is also important for other community groups and individuals. Is it appropriate to digitise very personal, private stories without permission? Would artists approve the changing-of-form which digitising involves?
  • You should also be thinking about whether open access to everything in your collection is a good idea at all. I’m not convinced that complete access is a good idea. Michael Gurstein raises some interesting questions on this.

Digitisation of a collection: acquisition

  • This is where we actually start digitising. Digitisation is a complex, demanding, labour and resource intensive process. It’d not just a matter of taking a photo of an item with a digital camera. The equipment is very expensive and requires particular skills to use. The digital files produced must be of a very high standard, and of an appropriate format. They must have longevity (ie won’t be unusable in ten years) and they are usually very large files. It’s also at this point that we see the difference between digital archiving and digitising for access. One single photo, for example, must also be reproduced in a number of different formats for public access – a smaller file for thumbnails in a catalogue, a high resolution image for sales to the public, a high resolution image of the item accompanied by colour matching tools and measuring tools and so on. Each of these files must also be tested for errors and accuracy – the colours must be perfectly matched. The scale carefully noted.
  • Creating metadata. This is where the digitising process gets complicated. You can’t simply wack a digital item ‘up on the net’ or into a box for use or preservation. All the thousands and thousands of files must be organised – for preservation, for maintenance, for error checking, for migration (where files are transformed to new formats as technology and file formats are superceded, or as publicly accessible catalogues are produced) and so on.
    This organisation is enabled by attaching metadata – information about the data object – to the digital item itself. This can’t just be one long list of details, it has to be an organised system of sets of information, all attached to one digital file. There are different sets of metadata – different sets of ‘rules’ or lists of fields for information about the item – and they can’t be applied randomly. It’s important to use standardised metadata (rather than just ones you make up yourself) for two main reasons: to allow interoperability (where your system can work with other systems – within your institution or with other institutions’) and access (either public access or access within your institution to facilitate maintenance).
    OAIS outlines a complex system for managing this organisation of the the digital files and attendant metadata. There are different types of metadata: submission information (where the digitisation process is recorded and attached to the file, noting things like file format, camera type, photographic angle, etc), descriptive information (which records all manner of things, but can also include descriptions of the original item from its author, historians or other people), technical information (regarding the file format, technology required to access the file – eg a Word .doc file will require a copy of Word to run it) and so on. Copies of the technology required to use the file may also be included as metadata. Most digital preservation systems favour open source software formats so as to avoid the IP challenges associated with this process – so using a Word .doc file is problematic.

Digitisation of a collection: Ingest

  • This is where you actually start putting your digital files into your archiving system. At this point you create a whole new set of metadata to record this stage of the process. It’s really important to create metadata as it will not only help you find your item in the archive later, it’ll also help you open it and then share it.
  • Metadata records permissions, technical information and also descriptive information. The ingest process creates metadata that is about the administration of the item within the system. It’s actually the really big and most important part of a digital archiving process. This is where the big thinking, planning and skill part happens.

Digitisation of a collection: maintenance

  • So once you’ve got your digital archive, you need to maintain it.
  • You’re going to need clever, well researched disaster recovery programs (eg what will you do if your data centre is flooded? Where do you keep multiple redundant copies of your data? What if electricity becomes too expensive for your institution to handle in the future?).
  • You’re going to need to migrate your data regularly to make sure it’s accessible. This is a problem with data in the earlier space missions – it’s stored on technology that we no longer know how to use or have the hardware to use. You need to not only migrate your data across software, but also record this process so that you have records of when data changed form and how. More metadata
  • You’re going to need ongoing funding. More of it. So you need to continually seek out funding for the maintenance of your collection.
  • You’re also going to need to manage the IP of your collection. Has copyright lapsed on an item? If so, do you still have the rights to store it or use it? Has the IP for an item changed hands, moving between generations? What are the wishes of the next generation? Has an item now become publicly usable – can you now make an item publicly available as per the wishes of its creator? If you’re managing ATSI items, how does sorry business (ie the management of items in regard to the passing away of associated persons), sacred and secret status and cultural significance affect the metadata and permissions associated with an item?
  • Repatriation and ‘returning’ items. If you do have ATSI items in your collection, how will you manage the repatriation of those items to the original owner? If you are asked to return an item to its traditional owners, how will you deal with the digital records of the item?
  • Disposal: some items must be disposed of at a certain date. This is the case with items under military or official secrets acts, personal records such as medical records and other issues. How will you handle data destruction? Do you have a schedule for these sorts of events?
  • Ongoing community access. How will your archive accommodate access to and use of the collection? Is your archive intended solely to preserve items for perpetuity? If so, why? Who are the end users you’re preserving these items for? How, when and if will you allow copies of your collection for general access? What are the terms upon which your digital collection can be used? If you are a public institution, what is the mandate of your organisation – who is your user community? This becomes an issue when you’re funded by public money and required to represent the interests of the community which funds you. Are you federally funded? State funded? Commonwealth funded? How should you make your archive available for use? What constitutes use?

All these issues are very complicated. As you can see, it takes a lot of time, money and effort to create and maintain a digital collection. The types of metadata you use will depend on the goal of your work: are you preserving for the long term? Are you interested in broader community access? In my course a distinction is made between digital preservation and digital libraries for immediate access. This distinction affects metadata strategies. To my mind, a sound digital preservation project allows for interim use as well as long term preservation.

But the challenge here is that digitisation strategies are relatively new, requiring serious institutional changes and are being developed as we go along (though you can read about NSW State Library digitisation policies here). We had a talk from a representative of the NSW State Library this semester, and he noted that for the most part they were figuring out how to do things as they went along. Though there are international standards for a range of aspects of the process, they had to figure out how to do things like manage work flows and labour; how to handle the digitisation of physically fragile items; and how to prioritise digitisation of a massive collection. In the last case, his comment was that they digitised first the items or mini-collections which attracted the most public or private sponsorship. Simply put, the items they’d digitise first were those private beneficiaries and donors considered most important. We were all aware of the difficult power and taste issues at work there.

He also made an interesting point about the way digitising was shaping the organisational structure of the NSW State Library as a whole. The vast resources required for digitising were re-working work flows and allocation of resources throughout the entire library. Digitisation was effecting the culture and goals of the organisation as a whole.

Australia’s national and state institutions’ digital activities today
Australia has actually been very foresighted in its approach to digitising cultural heritage. The National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage was composed in 1995. The National Library has a well-respected and quite comprehensive digital preservation policy. The National Museum also has a digital preservation policy. In fact, most national and state institutions have digital preservation policies, in part motivated by policy documents like the National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage Policy. I’d be curious to see the government policies for these things and to see how they’re being fulfilled (or not) today.

I’ve been really surprised by just how active our various national and state institutions are in terms of digitising and engagement with online communities and culture. The Collections Australia Network (CAN) is not only facilitating and documenting digital work by Australian cultural institutions both large and small, it is also engaged in collaborative projects overseas (with CHIN in particular). A whole range of Australian institutions are involved in digital online public access projects like the flickr commons project which works with a third party facilitator, but also with national collaborative projects like Trove.

Trove is a very interesting project because, while it administered by the National Library of Australia, it draws on the collections of a great many Australian institutions and projects. You can use Trove to search hundreds of collections and catalogues. This interoperability is facilitated by badass metadata. Simply, Trove and other tools (including the wicked mashups with google maps around the place) are enabled by hardcore metadata. And controlled vocabularies. These standardisation tools provide common languages for collections, allowing this sort of exciting collaborative work. Which is yet another reason for following the time consuming, frustrating and expensive digital preservation models like OAIS.

One of the impressive things about Australian collections online is their willingness to take up, experiment with and then move on from online projects. Picture Australia, for example, was an innovative gateway to the image collections of Australian institutions. But it will soon be dismantled in favour of (or integrated into) Trove as its technology and services are made redundant.

I’m particularly interested in the way a number of Australian digital collections employ ‘crowd sourcing’ for intellectual, technical and practical labour and community participation. Various institutions employ crowd sourced ‘tagging’ for items. No controlled vocabularies there. The Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program is particularly exciting. Basically, the NLA scans Australian newspapers then puts the files online. Here, volunteers edit the scans, correcting mistakes in the scanning. This is a truly amazing cooperative project, where a national collection works with people in the broader community to make their collection not only online but also usefully online.

Beyond these few examples, most large Australian institutions also maintain a lively online communicative space. I follow a range of organisations on twitter, from CAN to the Powerhouse Museum. Most also have blogs or regularly updated websites with comments and places for people to ask questions (there’s an interesting discussion about the Powerhouse Museum’s 80s exhibition social media strategy here). The National Museum is particularly accessible, not only making items available online, but also providing useful, skilled advice to complement the items themselves. And DINOSAURS!

I could go on on and on. But I think it’s worth noting that point that it’s not simply a matter of wacking stuff online. Sometimes access to a collection means providing assistance in using online AND face to face services. This seems particularly important in regards to the National and State Archives which are very important institutions for individuals trying to find out about their families. They’re used not only by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people tracing families, but also by migrant and refugee people. In these cases online access simply isn’t as useful on its own as it is in cooperation with skilled, culturally sensitive librarians and archivists – real, live people.

I think I’ll leave this with the comment that our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are NOT sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. No matter what the state of IP and copyright legislation.

a revision of my comments about CSIRO’s approach to vegetarianism

I want to add something to my first post discussing the CSIRO diet.
Here is some very basic information I’ve found in the two CSIRO books. I haven’t looked further afield (yet).
The acknowledgments in the second book write:

CSIRO gratefully acknowledges all those who have contributed to the funding of research on higher-protein diets for weight management: CSIRO Human Nutrition; Dairy Australia; Goodman Fielder; Meat and Livestock Australia; The National Heart Foundation; The National Centre for Excellence for Functional Foods; The National Health and Medical Research Council

My immediate response to this funding from particular interest groups (especially Meat and Livestock Australia) is to wonder just how trustworthy the findings of this research can be. But then I think about the realities of funding for research in Australia. It is probably not so much that the funding bodies dictated the terms of the research, but that there wasn’t funding available for research into alternatives to a high-meat diet. I’m reasonably confident that CSIRO (and the authors of this book) are reputable researchers. So it’s not as though we’re reading a diet book written by me.
This of course raises all sorts of interesting questions about the role of public bodies – government research bodies – as ‘reputable’ or authoritative sources of knowledge and information. It also makes me wonder about the way we are willing to accept ‘scientific’ research about health and bodies as ‘objective’ and ‘reputable’, but are far more sceptical of research on these topics from the humanities. I have read some really, seriously dodgy published work in the humanities on bodies and diet and food and so on – stuff that’s really theoretical supposing and not at all substantiated by solid data – but I’ve also read some equally dodgy ‘scientific’ work. I think, though we could probably accept that CSIRO is quite good at doing ‘scientific’ research, that it would be wrong to assume that this study (as with any ‘scientific’ study) is objective or neutral or reporting ‘just the facts’. This study is as guided by ideology and notions of ‘body’ and ‘health’ as any other. Science isn’t neutral; it’s just institutionalised in a different way.
At any rate, I approach the CSIRO diet with a degree of critical engagement. I want to ‘trust’ this study and diet, but at the same time, this is my body and I don’t want to fuck it up with the consequences of bullshit research.
With this in mind, here are a few issues that I have with the CSIRO diet’s approach to food, and most importantly with its recipes. Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the books have three general sections:
1. a discussion of the research into health and nutrition upon which the ‘diet’ is based;
2. a section outlining exercise, and providing some basic exercises;
3. a section of menu plans and recipes.
The books do not position the diet (and its approach to food and nutrition) within political, social, cultural context. There is no discussion about the political economies of food. There’s no talk about the social and environmental sustainability of particular diets and lifestyles. There’s no discussion about (or even reference to) class and how spending money on food is not dictated entirely by ‘lifestyle choices’, but my the basic economics of living within a budget. I do quite like the way it avoids discussions about body image and gendered notions of ‘beauty’, instead emphasising the benefits of fitness and good health: feeling good. I could also discuss the pictures (which are quite heterocentric and feature far more women than men), and I might later in another post.
Generally, the books remind me of the ABC. Sort of middle class aesthetics, careful with its gender talk (but still gendered), articulate but not alienating in its language, lots of nice san serif fonts. It appears ‘neutral’, but of course it’s not.
The one issue I want to take up here is the books’ approach to (or neglect of) vegetarianism and veganism.
I wrote this in my previous post:

There are also questions to be asked about the CSIRO diet’s funding (which was in part from Australian primary producers – meat farmers to be specific) and how this affected their research and findings. Their very brief section(s) on vegetarianism are really quite bullshitty. There’s a line something like ‘there’s no evidence that vegetariaism is bad for you…’ Which of course is misleading if not downright deceitful. A vegetarian diet is much better for you than a meat diet, so long as you’re eating well. No diet is good for you if it doesn’t have mostly fresh fruit and vegies, wholegrain foods, dairy products and then protein, and finally a small amount of certain types of fats. You can skip the dairy stuff (so long as you replace it), but you certainly don’t need to eat meat.

But I wasn’t entirely accurate. I was actually a bit full of shit, there. Here’s what the CSIRO books actually say:
The first book has this to say about vegetarianism:

Our bodies have evolved to thrive on a wide variety of both animal and plant foods. Many people eat a plant-based diet by way of necessity, but others choose to for a wide range of reasons. Population studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer – but it is not clear if this is due to their diet or their lifestyle. However, if you are a vegetarian, you need to plan your diet carefully to make sure that all essential nutrients are included (p 39-40 Book 1)

And this (within a very serious section about the importance of calcium, particularly for women:

Vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium than do non-vegetarians. Vegetable greens such as spinach and broccoli, and some legumes and soybean proucts are good sources of calcium. Vegetarians who eat dairy foods will obtain sufficient calcium (p 46 book 1).

There’s even less about vegetarianism in the second book (in a section addressing readers’ questions):

Is there a diet for vegetarians?
We have not investigated whether a high-protein vegetarian diet is as effective as a high-animal-protein diet, but we do know that vegetable protein confers a similar benefit in reducing hunger. You may want to consult your GP or dietician to modify the Diet for your needs. If you wish to substitute non-meat protein, we would suggest eating 200g tofu or 260g cooked chickpeas, beans or lentils instead of 200g meat, fish or chicken (p33 book 2).

The context of these quotes – sections ‘warning’ about the dangers of inadequate amounts of calcium (for women especially), about malnutrition generally – is significant. Vegetarianism is framed in terms of nutritional failure or of malnutrition. It is pathologised. This is the most common criticism I’ve heard of vegetarianism: that you have to eat really carefully or else you won’t get the nutrients you need, and that this is very difficult (if not impossible). My immediate response is to wonder whether most omnivorous human beings in mainstream Australian society eat ‘properly’. Eating meat does not automatically ensure proper nutrition. The meat is far less important than the other stuff you should be eating. A standard ‘meat and three veg’ diet with its emphasis on white bread, processed foods and meat rather than vegetables and fruit is not as nutritionally balanced as it might appear. There’s lots of interesting stuff written about the way this type of diet developed in Australian culture, with attendant discussions of mid- and post-war shortages, the rise of supermarkets, gendered division of labour in the home, the economics of mass-production and distribution of food and so on.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this literature (with which I am not terribly familiar) is the idea that science (and the idea of ‘Science’) defined or shaped ‘modern’ living and food. We could go on here about a movement away from diversity in food plant stocks and towards the genetic ‘management’ of food my corporations. We could also talk about the way diets are shaped by supermarket wholesale purchasing and relationships with growers. And we could discuss the role of class in ‘whole food’ or ‘organic’ counter-movements. But I don’t really have the brain for it today. Really, what I want to say here is that the ‘meat and three veg’ diet is culturally specific. It’s shaped by class and gender and ethnicity and so on. It’s not ‘natural’ and it didn’t ‘just happen’. It is a product of economics and capitalism, of patriarchy, of mass media discourse and so on. It’s also, ironically, the product of government policy and ‘education’.
So, what I really should have just said above, is that vegetarianism is presented as deviance from a ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ diet in the CSIRO diet, and that this reflects broader mainstream notions of vegetarianism. But, of course, it’s not. Vegetarianism is as difficult/easy as omnivorous eating. It is, however, more difficult socially and culturally in many contexts. Dining out offers the best example of this: vegetarian restaurants are fewer in number than omnivorous ones in Australia, and vegetarian dishes are marginalised within mainstream menus at Australian restaurants.
A prioritising of meat of course makes sense in the CSIRO diet: this is a diet focussing on high-protein diets. More specifically, it is concerned with the importance of meat in a high-protein diet. I think that the issue not so much the neglect of vegetarianism, but the over-emphasis of meat and neglect of non-meat protein sources.
What this means, in terms of the menu plans and recipes, is that the dishes are all constructed around meat. The meals are still thinking of the ‘meat and three veg’ ratio, rather than thinking of meals as a combination of elements. This basic point is one that we find most difficult about the CSIRO recipes. Each meal is constructed as one item + one item + one item. This is almost diametrically opposite to the notion of constructing a meal as a complex, harmony of flavours and elements. As an alternative, we might construct a meal that is composed of a series of small dishes, each representing one of a series of flavours: salty, sweet, wet, dry, etc. Or we might select ingredients that balance the ‘humours’ of the body: cooling, heating, etc. The meat and three veg diet lumps vegetables into one or two groups: greens and ‘others’. We might instead think of the role of brassicas and leafy green vegetables in relation to pulses and grains and root vegetables. Though the CSIRO diet does explore the sources of particular minerals and nutrients, the meals themselves are still imagined as ‘meat and…':

Tandoori chicken with garlic spinach
chicken with djon mustard and white wine
chicken and tarragon meatloaf
(book 1 recipe titles)

And vegetable dishes are then served with them (if at all).
In practical terms, this means that you buy the meat first, then look for vegetables to go with it. This tends to suggest that cooks will look first to their meat, then their vegetables. Which means that they’re more likely to use fresh meat and less likely to use fresh vegetables. If meat is the priority, then the veggies are the ‘add-on’ rather than the central taste and ideological ingredient. Financially, it’s challenging to build a menu around meat – it’s one of the most expensive ingredients. But then the CSIRO diet is not cheap. In part because of its emphasis on meat, but also because of its neglect of seasonal variations in ingredients. I think it’s worth emphasising the importance of cost: this is not a diet for those on a low budget.
Of course, this leads me to an interesting point: the idea of meat as a luxury good. This line from the CSIRO book works with this point:

Many people eat a plant-based diet by way of necessity, but others choose to for a wide range of reasons.

The line about necessity is key. I wish they’d expanded. What issues do they feel necessitate vegetarianism? Poverty? Religious restrictions? Geographic location? Allergies? I also wish they’d referenced some of the reasons vegetarianism is chosen. A few million spring to my mind immediately: ethical (preventing cruelty to animals, treading lightly environmentally, avoiding unjust labour and economic practices…), religious, economic… Surely vegetarianism for these ‘reasons’ is a necessity. It is necessary that they choose not to exploit animals. It is necessary that they live simply so that others may simply live. It is necessary that they honour the teachings of a holy figure by not taking lives.
Finally, the point I’d like to return to at the end, is the one of eating seasonally. The CSIRO diet does not in any way account for seasonal variation in fresh produce. It relies upon its users shopping at conventional supermarkets and having access to all ingredients at any time. We found that the preponderance of particular ingredients (tarragon!) made shopping expensive. The neglect not only of seasonal variation, but also of regional availability made shopping difficult and expensive. This is where we first began varying the menu plans: we didn’t want to eat manky out-of-season tomatoes, or to walk past gorgeous fresh asparagus.
One of the delights of a vegetarian diet is that you supplement dried ingredients (grains, pulses) with fresh produce. Your diet changes with the seasons. In practical terms, this means that you’re eating a menu that changes over the year; you don’t just keep eating the same old stuff, day in and day out, regardless of its freshness or availability. Seasonal produce – stuff that’s in season is fresher, tastes and looks better and is cheaper than stuff that is not. So it simply makes sense to build meals around ingredients which are in season rather than force-grown in a greenhouse, shipped in from overseas and riddled with preservatives and generally sapped of any flavour.
Eating seasonally does require some knowledge of the seasons, and also, by extension, of local farming practices. But this sort of knowledge can come almost osmotically if you’re not shopping in a supermarket. Supermarkets stock the same products, day in, month out. Greengrocers and fresh food markets tend to buy most what is cheapest as well as keeping in stock perennial favourites. But when you’re shopping at a greengrocer every week, you see the biggest piles of cheapest vegetables change with the seasons. Even if you’re not buying organic.
Of course, buying organic is something the CSIRO diet does not make simple. Meat-centred meals with un-seasonal menus do not support a diet of organic, seasonal produce. While the second does not refer to it at all, the first book has this to say about organic produce:

We are often asked whether or not it’s better to buy organic produce. Although organic fruit and vegetables are probably no more nutritious than conventionally grown varieties, they may taste better. Some organic leafy vegetables and potatoes also seem to have higher vitamin C contents, which may be due to the fact that organic produce is often smaller and therefore denser than conventional produce, which has a high water content. The bottom line is that eating more fruit and vegetables, whether organic, conventional, fresh, frozen or tinned, will increase your intake of protective compounds and is important for good health (p50)

There’s a whole world of wrong in that paragraph. I’ll let other people explain why.
I know I’ve rambled off-topic a bit here. I began with an argument about the CSIRO diet’s anti-vegetarian stance. But I think it’s important to point out how a meat-centred diet which neglects seasonal variation discourages the consumption of organic produce and encourages the consumption of processed foods (including canned and frozen food). I think that eating out of season is a matter of swimming upstream when you’re trying to convince people to eat more fruit and vegetables. If the fruit and vegies they’re eating don’t taste too good (because it’s out of season, loaded with preservatives and pesticides or simply sat around for too long), people won’t eat them. If the fruit and vegies they have do taste delicious, they will eat them.
I think this is at the heart of a ‘healthy’ diet. Eating well should be a delight to the senses. It should be about pleasure. This means that a ‘good diet’ not only avoids discussions of ‘restriction’, ‘denial’, ‘guilt’ and ‘suppression of appetite’, but actively encourages pleasure and interest in food. Healthy eating is about enjoying food, about taking an interest in the growing and preparation of produce. It is about the provocation of appetite, the association of food with pleasure and happiness.
It’s no wonder that hardcore cooks become interested in . An interest in cooking leads to an interest in sourcing produce. And this leads to producing your own food – even if only your herbs. For many foodies, an interest in gardening leads naturally to an interest in water and sustainable food production. But not all foodies. I think it’s worth pointing out that being interested in food and growing your own veggies does not necessarily mean you’ll end up a hardcore hippy growing organically. I think it’s also worth pointing out that availability (or lack of it) often pushes cooks to gardening. I’m thinking about migrants in particular: tomatoes in Brunswick, bok choy in Ashfield. Frugality is often a prime motivator for gardening: it’s far cheaper to grow your own organic produce from seed than buy it from the shops.
While the CSIRO diet has been very useful, I think that its neglect of these sorts of social, cultural, economic and scientific issues is a profound weakness.
Having said that, though, I think that its success is largely owed to the fact that it does not address these issues. Perhaps, then, it’s worth thinking about the CSIRO diet as a gateway drug, encouraging an interest and food and cooking and nutrition that might lead to experimentation with other recipes and food types? Unfortunately, I think that the CSIRO diet’s books discourage this type of exploration. Though the book suggests that once the ‘initial’ ‘weight loss’ part of the diet is achieved, users should move on to tailoring their meals to suit their (new) lifestyles, I wonder just how many users do stay with the diet long enough to reach that point.
Ultimately, the CSIRO diet is not so much a ‘diet’ as a manual for lifestyle change. But it is not, unfortunately, a manual for ideological change in terms of approaches to socially and environmentally sustainable food production and preparation.