BOTH THE SCIENCES AND political conservatism tend towards interpreting the world in terms of iron law, and the principle that there is a way things naturally are that can be discovered through inquiry. That's in contrast to the alternative, more humanistic tradition, in which theoretical models have utility for explaining things, until they don't, at which point the honest thinker throws it away and makes a new model. Neither are intrinsically good or bad; the first tends towards stubborn stuffiness, the second towards fashion and cliques, but they're just approaches. Let me propose, in the first tradition, an Iron Natural Law of my own:



IN MY WORK AND in the life I enjoy outside of work, I am constantly and relentlessly confronted with strategies, plans, frameworks, units of competency, planning policies, control plans, standard instruments, codes, validation matrices, key indicator lists, and an infinite variety of other written documents by which people attempt to guarantee particular aspects of human activity. They have a particular language, such as that a document like the Australian Core Skills Framework, for use in vocational training, bears a lot of similarity to NSW strategic planning documents, setting out land use parameters. They're boring and they're annoying and they're all very much the same. It's not what they, on their faces, are for, the sameness is part of what they are: a technology of public and private government. They all share other characteristics: they're all exercises in categorisation ('Domains of Communication'! Zone Objectives!), they all exist as part of an interlocking and linked library of policies, referring to other policies endlessly, and they are all written with the objective of compliance—they try to achieve what ought to be, rather than what is. Neither are they the product of the dull libertarian imagination's concept of bureaucracy ('Red Tape!'), a dead hand of government spending, holding back vigorous Reaganite market activity; the mentality is just as pronounced in the private sector, and its happiest environment are, like adult education and training, and urban planning, the ambiguous sectors which are neither public nor private. On one hand, it serves me right for pursuing white-collar work in a regulatory industry, on the other, all of these are just part of Australia's rigid, rule-bound culture. None of us can expect anything else: this is not a planning policy pity party.

What strikes me is that what these documents—let's call them in general Frameworks—are reaching for, is a sense of fairness that we all know is denied in practice by institutions. We all know that actually, the skills of urban planners, adult trainers, teachers, and every other kind of worker, are developed over time through experience, and we can see that the world that these skills and practices exist in is unjust and unfair. We know that the most skilled workers spend most of their days applying rules-of-thumb, and following processes that constantly change, because they have to, arbitrarily. Enter the urge to build theoretical Frameworks for compliance, an understandable desire that people's work should come from some consistent and comprehensible system. How terrifying it is, to a society that makes a priority of perceived fairness over any actual equity or quality (which is to say: Australia), to acknowledge that in fact, what most people do to work is fit any available theory to the immediate demands of what-needs-doing. No wonder that the economists' joke at their own expense ('ah, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?') works so well as a general observation about how this society works!



IN A DECISION OF the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the senior member was asked to rule—amongst other things—on whether a particular kind of rifle, that the applicant wanted to import into Australia and own, was 'of a kind that is designed or adapted for military purposes'. Unless you're particularly interested in the arcane details of specific 20thC weapons, which I'm not, it's an interesting judgement for the sheer taxonomic argument that must have gone on between the two parties, discussing what particularly about this object set it in either a prohibited or a permissible category.


What I'm reading—monotype and fossils

Alice Spawls, LRB, At The Type Archive:

Part of what makes the Type Archive unusual is that it has machines and tools from every stage of the process: those that were owned by Monotype and those owned by the printers who used its system. One room contains the original patterns (metal templates) for different typefaces, the giant machines used for pressing the punches and the pantographs that reduce the size of the template to the desired point or pica. (The floors were long ago reinforced for the animals the building once accommodated, so can bear these many-tonned iron beasts.)

Matt Castle, Damn Interesting, Chronicles of Charnia:

Like Mason, Tina realised the frond’s potential significance, and decided she should ask someone in authority. Her parents were supportive, but lacked geological expertise or convenient contacts at local proto-universities. So she mentioned the strange “fern” to her geography teacher at school the next day.

“There are no fossils in Precambrian rocks!” was the teacher’s reply. Tina said she was aware of this; indeed, that was why the find was so perplexing. “Then they are not Precambrian rocks,” her teacher shot back, closing down the discussion.


Cheap human beings

THE FAIRFAX NEWSPAPERS HAVE long figured in this country as an expression of liberalism's two-facedness; as the cliché goes, able to entertain two opposed ideas at the same time, and put them both in a single edition. That they can be demonised by the political Right as the mouthpieces of the inner city élites and also by the political Left as unashamed barrackers for corporate and boss power, and that both can be right, is only credit to Fairfax/Nine's editors. Consider this pair (the italics are mine):


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