O death, where is thy Sting?

By David Walsh

Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?

Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late ’79 or early ’80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It’s ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn’t ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting’s career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don’t know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don’t like living to someone else’s schedules; I don’t like the idea of living in Canberra; I don’t handle criticism well; and I don’t know what I’m talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I’m ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It’s our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O’Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other’s choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn’t reply. Embittered by Dean’s indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha’s arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here’s the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn’t what’s the point, they need to know.
But there isn’t a purpose, life’s a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O’Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin’ him
And with his end, I’m changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you’ll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we’ll live a lie
Act as though we’ll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton’s gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can’t read music. But I have friends that can. Here’s what Dean, now a willing participant (‘With all due respect, I’m not doing a shit job on a Sting tune’), made of Sting’s delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends):

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna’s and Mark’s and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.

More Mona

By Elizabeth Pearce

When the museum first opened, this artwork, by Jon Pylypchuk, was displayed alongside a ‘spin’ painting by Damien Hirst. It was an odd coupling, one that seemed somehow to demand that I think about the myriad reasons people make and look at art.

You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

Foreground: You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk
Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

We sold the Hirst and some other works recently, part of David’s scheme to raise money to make MORE MONA – another wing to house his James Turrell fetish.

There’s three artists – Hirst, Pylypchuk, and Turrell – who illustrate the trinity of creativity at the heart of the phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Turrell is a craftsman and magician, tapping into our innate preference for the numinous. If you’ve been to the museum recently you could hardly miss his rooftop spectacular, Amarna.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Hirst is hard. It’s so easy to dismiss him as a charlatan and to point out that he has approx. zero talent as a painter; no actual, nameable, hands-on skill or craft to speak of. But look harder – or in a different way – and he is a deeply traditional artist, in the sense that he is expressing his reality using the most relevant, up-to-date tools available at that particular time; what humans have been doing since they started making marks on the walls of caves with their hands. In post-Thatcher, empire-burn-out Britain (that is, in Hirst’s time), individual virtuosity was subsumed by the economic and nationalist nihilism of the era. In this context, the reverence with which we regard the figure of the artist – as a harbinger of authenticity, specialness, and truth about ourselves – was more than irrelevant, it was simply untenable. Art has always been packaged and delivered to us in a culture industry that stands in awkward (and sometimes arbitrary) relation to the fact of the artist’s actual talent. But for the first time, in turn-of-the-century Britain, the culture industry swallowed the artist and his talent entirely. Damien Hirst was clever enough to run with, rather than against, this sorry state of play, and in doing so made: a) A shit load of cash, and b) Us reconsider what it is we want from art. How far we are prepared to go to defend it. I posit that Hirst’s career ended with his debut as a traditional painter at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009. The public reaction to his exhibition of blue-themed, Francis-Bacon rip-offs – the Telegraph called it ‘one of the most unanimously negative responses to any exhibition in living memory’ – gave us a definitive answer to the question around which Hirst’s entire career had hitherto revolved. Are painting, drawing and individual skill important to us? Yes, they are.

What has this to do with Jon Pylypchuck’s collection of creatures doing unnatural things to trees? First, a little background. Pylypchuck came to art via laziness and apathy. At the time, he was trying to avoid getting thrown out of uni (University of Manitoba, Canada), and had ‘no interest at all’ in making art. Then he just started making this stuff he calls ‘scrap art’ with his friends, and thinking up stupid titles to make each other laugh. I don’t know. It just works. It’s weird and funny, that’s it. The weight of Turrell’s hope for humanity and of Hirst’s disorientating nihilism is crushed beneath its coolness.

David is philosophical about selling the Hirst work, but I am sad. Not because I loved that particular piece but because I have almost forgotten what it was like, in Mona’s early days, to have no set opinions on art, to be trying to work out what it’s all about. Thankfully I’ve still got Jon Pylypchuck here to remind me.

First stone

By David Walsh

Constant access to gaming facilitates problem gambling and, it seems to me, is an invitation to addiction. The US and Chinese model, perhaps inadvertently, places casinos out of harm’s way. Vacationers periodically visit Vegas or Macau for a few days, and drink and shag and gamble their allotted entertainment budget away, and then they go home and save up for next year. I think people should have to travel to gamble.

Me, A Bone of Fact

A Tasmanian politician, Andrew Wilkie, has launched a bit of a crusade against poker machines. I think he’s right. Poker machines allow the punter to control the frequency of the gamble, push a button, get stimulation. Experiments on animal models show that direct stimulation to areas of the brain associated with the anticipation of pleasure cause animals to ignore sex and food in favour of more stimulation. It’s contentious, but predominantly accepted, that similar processing occurs in the human brain. I don’t think gambling is inherently immoral but I agree with Mr Wilkie that pokies are a social evil.

Me, A Bone of Fact

Our casino would be poker machine-free. As I mentioned before, I think they are a moral outrage. Of course, there are those that think all gambling is a moral outrage. Anyway, it would be table games only, high minimums and maximums, and it would be targeted at rich international patrons of the arts. Our casino would need a name, of course, and a Mona name must be an acronym. The leading candidate at the moment is Monaco, a notorious casino destination, and an only slightly contrived distillation of Mona CasinO.

Me, A Bone of Fact

Walsh has said he wants to build a pokies-free casino for high rollers. While that is the intention, it must be acknowledged visions change, finances change and, importantly in the gambling industry, technology changes.

When a referendum was held here in 1968 about whether to permit Wrest Point Casino, it was described as a pokies-free, high-roller, tourist-attracting proposal. Today, along with the Country Club Casino in Launceston, it has become a poker machine barn with 1185 machines spread between the two venues.

Meg Webb (Anglicare), The Mercury

Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser.

Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Recently I proposed establishing a casino at Mona to shore up Mona’s financial position, despite an existing monopoly held by the operator of Tasmania’s two casinos, the Federal Group. In the last week or so opinions have been voiced on my proposal in parliament, in the press, and on air. Some commentators pointed out that I may be inadvertently complicit in an extension of the existing monopoly, a scenario that is particularly unappealing in relation to poker machines. This blog expresses my position with respect to these matters, which seem to be of sufficient import to warrant public deliberation.

In the spirit of my proposed new venture let me lay my cards on the table:

  1. Yes, I want to build a casino at Mona.
  1. No, Mona will not shut down if I can’t, or choose not to.
  1. I won’t build the casino if its licence is conditional on the Federal Group being able to operate poker machines without any new restrictions, and with a monopoly extension.

Expanding on 1. I want to build a casino with the following limitations: no Tasmanian gamblers; 12 tables and no poker machines; high minimums and maximums; and did I say no pokies? All revenue would go to Mona and related projects; if Mona becomes profitable then casino revenue would fuel expansion, acquisitions, social programs and anything else we can think of. All of this is contained within my proposal and would be enshrined within legislation. I also plan to build a 160-room hotel, a function centre, and a thousand-seat theatre based on the largesse of Monaco. Each of these will be smaller if Monaco doesn’t eventuate. Beyond that, we are planning a gallery expansion. And before that, we are going to build (assuming planning permission is forthcoming) a wing to house a number of James Turrell works and a new restaurant/function room/bar facility. All up, we are looking to spend more than $200 million.

All that looked to be a winning hand. The plan: take a risk to get some cash from outside of Tasmania. Spend it on Mona. Grow Mona and tourism. Exploit the Mona effect. And although locals wouldn’t have access to the casino facility while gambling was taking place, in the daytime we would have another gallery to tour. Along the lines of Kenny’s ‘daytime friends and nighttime lovers’, the two groups should only suspect each other’s existence. And, of course, Tasmanians would have access to other new facilities generated on the back of Monaco.

But, as is becoming clear, it may not be a winning hand at all. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I know full well that Wrest Point started out with no pokies and is now a pokie palace. I despise poker machines (see the quote from my book, above) and deplore this transformation. That’s why I suggested the motto for Monaco could be: No pokies, and no porkies. If my casino is permitted and then proves to be unsuccessful, it will be utilised as a Mona facility. We are confident our design will be worthwhile whatever happens within it (just quietly, our preliminary plans are shit hot). And, anyway, I am a gambler – I’m unafraid of loss, and I am empowered by risk.

When I applied for a casino licence I was aware that the government would have to negotiate with Federal Hotels to vary their monopoly (although it is far from certain that that monopoly is legally sound). I specified that I would not support an increase in the number of poker machines in the community. I did not anticipate, unfortunately, that Federal might link their acquiescence to a Mona Casino licence to an extension of their monopoly. The government has not confirmed this is so, and it may not be, but since someone (Andrew Wilkie?) suggested it, the absence of denial looks a lot like confirmation by default.

So Federal may have played their cards very well indeed. And since I could not support an extension of their poker machine monopoly, it looks like I have played my hand like a novice. I have lead into their strong suit.

That Greg Farrell, the boss of Federal, would want an extension to their monopoly is obvious, in hindsight. This is the status quo; they are accustomed to this enormously beneficial position. I’ve met Greg a few times, our interactions were convivial, and he is very charming. Federal even supports ‘24 Carrot’, Mona’s school garden project, by paying for the garden of one of our schools (Springfield Gardens Primary). He is, however, unlikely to see any harm that pokies might be effecting – he has skin in the game.

When I first opened Mona I wasn’t concerned about it surviving in perpetuity. I thought I’d see how it went, and if people bothered to come it might be worth keeping open until I lost interest or capacity. I knew that museums take on new directions when the founder dies, and I saw little reason to plan for my vision being abandoned (this period after my demise, in deference to the Christian calendar, would be known as Mona Anno Domini, or MAD). Then a strange thing happened. People started calling it ‘our museum’, expressing community ownership and pride. A lady, who told me her name was Kirsten, while thanking me for Mona and the Mofos, eloquently précised the community zeitgeist when she said, ‘You gambled and we all won’. This stuff, plus a splash of national and international recognition, and the clear economic benefit that Mona has generated, got me thinking about how to keep Mona open during the MAD period. Monaco is part of my attempt to fulfil that emerging desire.

I want to operate Monaco. But I won’t open it (before 2023 when the cooling down period of the present monopoly could end) if my opening it enshrines Federal’s poker machine monopoly. So I would ask Greg Farrell to continue to support Monaco being granted a licence, even without a monopoly extension. Monaco, in my opinion, would not affect Federal’s business (but if Wrest Point were to establish a bit of a high roller sideline, it’s reasonable to expect that Monaco punters might wander down the river for a look). So support it, and ask for nothing in return. As a favour to me, and the community. Or if you need to accrue a benefit to satisfy your board or your business brain, request a reduction in the licence fee, or some other more palatable outcome.

As I’ve said a number of times, I find poker machines antisocial, unsightly, and insidious. But, unfortunately, they are now a significant source of revenue to the government and our legislators are, therefore, conflicted. That means it’s up to those of us who think pokies are a problem (apparently 80 per cent of us) to give a clear indication of the direction we want. Since I’m the idiot that inadvertently started this process, I should lead it now, even if I’m the loss leader.

With no change to the existing regime Monaco could be operational in 2023, although waiting till 2023 is complicated by the fact that the chosen site will be inaccessible after we build the hotel. In 2023 it would also be possible for poker machines to be put to tender, and the winning bidder would not necessarily need to be the highest bidder, in the event of an enlightened government. Social criteria could include: a lower total number of machines (who knows, if my finances are going well I might bid and nominate zero machines); lower individual take-outs; and one-dollar maximums (which, anecdotally, seems to be an idea with wide support).

I have a non-regulatory idea that might be able to put pressure on commercial operators of poker machines. It may prove to be tricky to explain, but I’m going to have a go:

Operators of exchange betting sites, like Betfair, aggregate bets from punters who nominate a price they are interested in having a bet at (on, for example, a horse race). They can nominate a bet that the horse wins, or they can bet that it loses, in which case, if the price is right, they can be matched with each other. An example might serve clarity here: I want to have a bet on Social Cohesion, and I choose to request a price of 4.10 (return for $1, including stake). The highest price presently available is 4, so my bet sits in a queue, awaiting a match. Someone (or many people) comes along and thinks Social Cohesion is an unlikely winner. They offer the requisite 4.10, after all the 4 available is taken. The long-term effect of all this is to force margins on both sides down. In liquid markets the disadvantage is often much less than one per cent. Compare this to the legislative guarantee in Victoria that poker machine must pay at least 87 per cent, and thus profit a potential 13 per cent of turnover (I don’t know the figures for Tasmanian casinos and hotels. Do you? If so, post a comment, including your source please). One can easily see that a regime like Betfair operating on pokies could apply tremendous downward pressures on loss rates and, perhaps, make the operation of traditional poker machines unviable.

Could this be done? I think the answer is yes, and at various times I’ve thought about applying for a patent on my technique for achieving it. I haven’t done it, and so that no one else gets a patent, I’ll establish prior art by outlining my strategy for achieving this.

On electronic poker machines, a number of payout structures would be available to the punter, and he or she could choose which one to bet into. These payouts (a payout includes, in a poker example, how much to pay on two pairs, or a royal flush) would have a particular disadvantage to the punter that would be calculated and displayed – the punter could choose the lowest disadvantage stream, or maybe a slightly higher disadvantage for bigger maximum payoffs (there is a consistent public preference for high payouts called, in the literature, ‘longshot bias’ – that’s why people will buy lottery tickets that only return 50 cents in the dollar).

On the other side, larger operators would be able to offer payout streams. The punter would nominate a payout stream and the machine would calculate the advantage (or disadvantage) that those offered payouts would give the player. They would need to have enough money in their account to cover the largest payoff on a given gamble, but it’s attractive to these guys to do this, because they can build in a slight edge (since we know punters will take a big disadvantage, but competition will force the edge down on this side). The upshot of all this: I predict that poker machines could operate at less than a one per cent disadvantage to the player (in fact I have many colleagues who would offer that game). To be competitive, holders of commercial poker machine licences would have to offer similar low margin games. They probably wouldn’t be able to, and thus might be forced out of business. Another possibility: in 2023, if the poker machine licence comes up for tender, I wonder if the community could form a consortium to buy it? I don’t know exactly how profitable pokies are to the operators, but say they net $20m a year. That suggests at least $200m would be required to buy the licence, and the conversion, for example, to one dollar bet maximums would massively decrease that value after the purchase, but with the accompanying effect of a huge reduction in harm to the community. It might not be an efficient way to do good, but it would certainly do some good. Compensation might need to be paid to some of the smaller poker machine operators for the loss of their honestly entered business model.

In most areas where financial ‘services’ are provided, we have recently seen the internet disrupt traditional models with lower overhead cost models. Web brokers have reduced transaction costs for share transactions, and we are starting to see on-line art brokers peddling art with a very small cut. I expect this trend to continue – it will move to the gaming machine markets. So even if the scheme outlined above doesn’t come to fruition, the days of operators reaping the rewards of high margin machines are numbered (unless those operators are protected by legislation).

Writing this missive reduces my chances of building Monaco in two ways. Both Federal and the government may now have good reason to oppose it. The government, in particular, had every right to expect me to maintain a studied silence until the licensing was independently reviewed, and I apologise for my precipitate intervention. I have no reason to think the process is anything but completely appropriate, and my dealings with Treasury on this matter have been reassuringly professional. It may well be that the reviewer’s advice would have been to not support a monopoly extension. Or a monopoly extension might never have been contemplated. But, in the event that the monopoly was to be extended, I would have had to pull out at a much later stage, when community funds and time had been committed. And, this way, the poker machine issue is on the table, with plenty of time to satisfy all interested parties, if satisfaction is possible.

And in the meantime, I’ll follow Kenny’s sage advice:

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep.

If needs be, I’ll throw away Monaco, to keep my integrity.


Since I wrote this on Saturday, August 29, there have been a few interesting developments, so my blog is becoming a diary. On Monday, August 31, James Boyce had a few interesting things to say, although he said them with an overabundance of self-certain sanctimony, perhaps. He contends that the government can issue Monaco a licence without too much fear of statuary risk, and he is probably right. I don’t foresee any government taking this position, however. Incumbents see risk in a very different way than commentators. It’s possible a pretender could use this as an electoral device to become the incumbent, however…

Also on Monday I sent an email to Greg Farrell of Federal, and the Treasurer, Peter Gutwein, to inform them of my intention to blog. That precipitated a meeting with the Treasurer and a phone conversation with Mr Farrell. The Treasurer reinforced my notion, not supported by most pundits, that he was taking and would be very likely to follow independent advice (from Deloitte) that would be forthcoming in a couple of weeks. From the government’s point of view, this is the appropriate course of action and I have no issue with this process. However, if Deloitte determines that, on balance, a Monaco licence plus an extension of the Federal monopoly is good for the community (which, it seems to me, is essentially the thing they have been briefed to resolve), then the government might feel compelled to chart that course. However, that doesn’t mean that a Monaco licence and the termination of Federal’s monopoly wouldn’t be better for the community, although I acknowledge that achieving that before 2023 is unlikely.

Mr Farrell confirmed that Federal is seeking an extension to its monopoly. He pointed out (claimed) that ‘only’ 0.5 per cent of poker machine players in Tasmania are problem gamblers (the Tasmanian Council of Social Services research suggests that there are 2,500 problem gamblers in Tasmania; that is 0.5 per cent of the population, but there are many people who don’t gamble, so 2,500 represents a higher percentage of participants. And 2,500, in any case, is a large pool of suffering individuals). He also revealed a planned capital investment in Wrest Point and other assets if the monopoly is extended, a strategy similar to the commitment to Saffire made when securing the 2003 monopoly; a strategy criticised by James Boyce in The Mercury earlier the same day.


I received this letter from the Treasurer:

Mona Casino Letter

While I have to quibble on one point – I didn’t meet with Mr Farrell, we spoke on the phone – this exemplifies my contention that the Treasurer is handling this matter appropriately. I followed up again with Federal, but as will be made obvious in my reply to the Treasurer (below), we were unable to reach agreement. Federal seem to be planning a spending spree in an attempt to convince the Government that a monopoly extension is a good idea.

The Treasurer,

Yesterday I made the following proposal to the Federal Group, in relation to my attempt to secure a licence for the proposed casino at Mona (Monaco).


As you know, I can’t support an extension of your licence monopoly, even though I acknowledge that you might secure it anyway. I do not believe that Monaco affects Federal’s business model (except, possibly, the hotel which I will build anyway).

Here I propose an alternative.

If you withdraw your application for a monopoly until after I am granted a licence, and if I am granted a licence by 31/12/16, I will:

  • Warrant not to attempt to secure, for myself or any agents, a licence to operate poker machines and compete with Federal in 2023. As I’ve outlined I believe there is a low-cost model that can undercut existing business models, while massively reducing costs to the punter.
  • Not attempt to secure a general casino licence that allows Tasmanian customers in 2023.
  • Pay Federal $500,000 upon approval of my licence.
  • Support Federal if they apply for a reduction in the licence fees paid to the Government annually, to an amount of not more than $250,000 pa.

After some thought my present position is that I will build my casino whether or not I have secured a licence. The waterfront placement is problematic, and after I build the hotel I will not have access to the site. I believe it is quite possible that, with a groundswell of community support, that a political party (and thus a potential component of government) could go to an election with a Monaco licence as part of their platform, and thus engage the statutory risk that breaking Federal’s monopoly entails. High level legal opinion suggests this is not particularly fraught, since parliament cannot be bound by its own monopoly, and since the broader business community will see Mona/Monaco as a special case.

If this proposal could meet with Federal’s approval I’m happy to meet with you later today (Wednesday 9/9/15) or tomorrow.

Thanks for your attention,

David Walsh

This morning (Thursday 10/9/15) Mr Farrell called to discuss my proposal. He asserted that a proposal for expansion of Federal Group’s tourism facilities was in play prior to our proposal for Monaco, and that a monopoly extension was to be sought with or without the Federal Group’s acquiescence to Monaco. He had no appetite for acceding to a Monaco licence without a monopoly extension. For this reason, and in response to your request, I wish to withdraw my formal application for a casino licence (unless it can be contemplated outside of the existing monopoly legislation).

As outlined in my note to Mr Farrell, I intend to seek approval to build the structure that would have housed the casino, in any case. I intend to ascertain if the political will exists to attempt to overturn the existing monopoly, and in the event that abrogating the monopoly legislation proves not to be feasible, to seek a licence in 2018 for 2023. I note that, in the event of the Federal Group receiving a monopoly extension, an application for a licence in the future will face the same obstacles as the present application, and I request that the government consider this while processing Federal’s application.

Thank you for your attention (and for your goodwill),

David Walsh

Further, I ask permission to publish, as a component of an explanatory blog, your letter addressed to me. Thank you.

So I have arrived at a place that looks like the place that I departed from. On the other hand, although I hold no malice for them, I do hope that the Federal Group is further from their desired destination than ever. As I stated before, there are at least 2,500 problem gamblers in Tasmania, and for the vast majority that problem is with poker machines. I am not the one who can afford to cast the first stone. But now, for the first time in a long time, our community is within a stone’s throw of having the opportunity to mitigate the stagnant status quo.

A few years ago I read a report concerning a Médicins San Frontiéres intervention in East Timor. With relentless honesty the author, who was an MSF executive, concluded that their attempts to provide medical aid made them complicit in the interventionist Indonesian regime, by making bad look good. I almost made the same mistake. But at least I’ve got Kenny in the background chiding me to learn from my errors:

If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right.

What would Peter Singer Do?

By David Walsh

A note from Elizabeth:

I asked David to write a blog about the refugee crisis because I felt I didn’t know enough about it to do so myself. He replied, ‘I don’t know enough about it.’ We then simultaneously started writing blog posts that included the phrase ‘What would Peter Singer do?’ So, you know, snap.

I’m going to use his, and not mine, because he has a far greater readership and it will reach more people.

You see, the reason I wanted to write something is because I want to share this link – an overview of how you can help, by donating and so forth. (Although after reading David’s post maybe it should be this link instead.) It seemed disingenuous – as my colleague Anna told me – to just post the link to our Facebook page, without offering some sort of explanation of our ‘stance’.

I know she is right in this, and I know, furthermore, I am a victim of my ‘cognitive biases’, exactly as David outlines below.

I’ve been prompted into action by the picture of the dead child. He looks just like my boy looks when he’s asleep, you see.

I turned to Peter Singer for this; what he ‘told’ me is more simplistic than what he ‘told’ David (possibly because I don’t have the kind of technical mind to think through all the implications, as per below). What he told me was that we have to use our ‘cognitive biases’, our ethical weakness – in this case, to care for those like us, and to ignore those who are different – to our best advantage. We have to know ourselves, and use that as a basis, a starting point to reach a higher place of empathy and generosity.

So I feel bad about my ‘cognitive bias’, and not bad, all at once. I was asleep to that suffering, and then I woke up.

I was right, I don’t know enough about the refugee crisis. Why would she ask me to write about it? I live two kilometres from where I was raised. The most adventurous trip I undertook as a child was to the caravan park next to Mona, for a four-day stay. So I said no, after running in circles muttering Monty Python-esque quips about ‘bravely avoiding confrontation’.

Peter Singer recently published The Most Good You Can Do, wherein he advocates effective altruism, the idea that it is incumbent on all of us (at least anyone with the opportunity to read a blog) to live inexpensively, and to benefact causes that spend the donations in ways calculated to do the most good. In the case of human-centric charities, that means saving the most lives (getting the least bangs for your buck, in the case of war charities). One of the meta-charities he supports suggests that saving a life for less than $5,000 is money efficiently spent.

Among Singer’s assumptions are that every life is equal. He introduces a concept known as Quality-Adjusted Life-Years (Qaly). A Qaly is a year lived with no disease burden. Many people would opt for a shorter life rather than suffering. If you would choose to live half as long able-bodied as bed-ridden, for example, then you are giving being ‘bed-ridden’ a Qaly rating of 0.5. Although this kind of analysis of contentious (not least because in a hypothetical scenario people overestimate how many bed-ridden years they would surrender), it does provide a quantitative method for assessing the value of ‘doing good’. Singer advocates (I think) trying to achieve the most Qalys for your donated dollar. I have a long list of issues this potentially raises. For example, effective altruists are directly manipulable by rich sociopaths: I could tell Singer that if he doesn’t start eating meat – a significant abrogation of his principles – I will withdraw donations that achieve more than he achieves by being vegetarian. My reservations (and sociopathic status) notwithstanding, his model is the best presently available, and I’ve tentatively accepted it. Hypocritically, I haven’t accepted it as my life process: sold my museum, and downsized my life to avail me the opportunity to do the most good I can do.

Some of the people Singer lauds in his book choose to pursue potentially unethical (or neutral) careers so as to maximise the money they have at their disposal, with which to be effective altruists. I’ve inadvertently done that in reverse: having made money gambling I felt guilty and tried to do some good. Not much good, Singer would say. A few years ago we asked him to write an essay about Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (the poo machine). The tone of his reply made it obvious he thought money spent in this way lay somewhere between frivolous and reprehensible; he demanded a ridiculously high fee – which he intended to donate to an effective charity – for his essay. By the seamless logic of his life he had little choice: he had to work out the expectation of his fee (money multiplied by probability of achieving it) such that he maximized the donation he could make. In the event, Delvoye checked him out and vetoed the essay.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer analyses the very act of building an art gallery (or at least a wing on one) to see if it’s ethical. Unsurprisingly, he finds it wanting. Let me paraphrase his argument (his text is too long to quote; he would be ethically bound to sue me for copyright infringement because he could do good with the money). But first, a digression:

A gambling collaborator of mine worked on the Deepwater oil spill settlement. The compensation process required people to assess their loss of utility for not being able to go to the beach. There is an assumption that they lost something even if they never go to the beach, because they have forfeited the benefit of being able to contemplate going to the beach. The assessors might go somewhere they see as equivalent, and conduct a survey, asking, ‘How much would you need to be paid a year to give up your right to go to the beach?’ For those who never go to the beach, the amount is, of course, not zero. And the average amount enables an assessment of harm done. This approach caused a few problems for those with a superficial overview. The upshot was that there was more economic damage done to people in Florida, where many beaches were damaged by sludge, and there are lots of people, than in Louisiana, where some suffered a huge amount, but fewer through these indirect modalities. In assessing whether galleries are effective, Singer used this type of assessment, and the same caveats – that people overestimate an assessed value to them in a survey – apply.

I built Mona at a cost of around $75m (ignoring the art). It’s quite possible that Mona will eventually be profitable, and I could use the profits to fund effective charities. Even if it never becomes profitable, Access Economics have assessed its net benefit to the Australian community to be around $70m per year; those making that money could be donating it to charity, although the portion would be tiny. And the visitors spent their money here, when they might have donated it. So we will proceed, as Singer did, to analyse Mona’s contribution as if it were only a benefit to those that visit (and also not those who benefit from contemplating visiting).

Around 350,000 people visit a year. They have all made the choice that it is worth visiting, and some 80 per cent of them actually like it. Many people visit many times a year – they must actually like it a lot. You are a reader of my blog, and are therefore more likely than most to be a fan. You plan to visit this year. But, it turns out, one person a year will be blinded for visiting the gallery (bold art intervention? Likely terrorist attack using chemicals? God hates degenerate art? Peter Singer’s rational intervention to maximise charitable donations?). Would you still go if your chance of losing your sight was one in 350,000? Probably you would: you drive (or are driven), and a life is lost every 250 million kilometres on the road. That costs you about a half a year of life expectancy, but you still do it. If you ride a motorcycle everywhere, you cost yourself about a quarter of your life expectancy. A few of you do that. Smoking – and, astonishingly, there are still some smokers – costs you ten years.

But that was one in 350,000. What if one person per day lost their eyesight as a result of a visit to Mona? That’s about one in 1,000. I’d say you probably wouldn’t take the chance at those odds. So, forty years (say you’re halfway through an eighty year life expectancy) of eyesight is worth more than 1,000 visits to a (potentially) good gallery. The capital cost of Mona ($75m investment annualised plus losses) is about $15m a year. So you think that: a year’s eyesight is worth (15m/(40*350)) or more than $1,000. That’s kind of obvious. But you also think that the opportunity to visit Mona is worth less than $1,000 a year. That might be obvious, too. Another way to look at it: you think that the benefit that 1,000 people derive from visiting the gallery is less than the harm inflicted on one person being blinded for forty years. That assumes, and Peter Singer does assume, that a benefit to one is exactly 1/1000 of the same benefit to 1,000. Sometimes benefits accrue in a non-linear way. Cities become more innovative a lot faster than their population grows. A thousand people visiting an art gallery are clearly more likely to collaborate than one such person, and – who knows? – they might find a cure for blindness. A doctor visiting Mona noticed that the Rafael Lozano-Hemmer artwork that measures heart-rate could be used to construct a test that was a lot cheaper than the existing one, and he launched it as a product, expecting it to prevent many heart attacks. But let’s proceed with Peter’s assumption of linearity, for the sake of clarity, and computability.

It’s hard to reduce all the potential ways to help and harm to numbers. And that’s what you are probably thinking now. This is all so reductionist, and doing good is good, however inefficient it is. As I said, most likely you are a fan of Mona, and that means that you think Mona is good for you, and good for society. Peter Singer’s approach, which is the best mechanistic approach we have, draws the opposite conclusion. Are you prepared to put your wishy-washy emotions up against his elegantly reductionist logic? Am I? If you are, can you expect others’ morality to be congruent with yours? One thing I can say for sure: it can cost less than $1,000 to cure certain types of blindness. And that’s not just for a year, it’s for a lifetime. A WHO study of trachoma treatment in Nepal reached this conclusion:

The societal cost of mass treatment per one percentage point decrease in prevalence among 5,200 children screened was 32,400 NPR (ca US$600).

That was in 1998, so in Australian dollars, now, that might be $2,000. The kind of trachoma that likely results in blindness (intense inflammatory trachoma) has an incidence of about 4.3 per cent in Nepal, or 223 cases that will result in blindness. A one per cent reduction prevents 2.23 cases of blindness, so curing blindness comes to – voila – 2000/2.23, or around $900.

$1,000 for a one fifth of a life. Less than $1,000 for sight. Or a good time for nineteen people (0.8*350000)*(1000/15000000)? Should I close Mona down and give the cash to Peter Singer to do with as he will?

If you have been paying careful attention, you may recall that this blog is supposed to be about the refugee crisis. And it is. All this posturing was to create a framework that allows some sort of assessment of what’s going on, and how to make sense of the way we react to these appalling events.


As many as seventy migrants have been found dead inside a parked truck on a highway in Austria, according to police.


Photo of Aylan and the Syrian refugee crisis

Is it the image that made the world react to the plight of refugees in Europe? There were no images from the truck in Austria, but photographs can’t capture noxious odours. The last person to die in that truck: is his or her life worth as much as this child’s? The reaction to media coverage would suggest the answer is no. Why? (And why, if you were at the beach, is your first reaction to take a photograph?)

From the beginning of 2014 to mid April 2015, 254,000 refugees made it to Europe, while 5,100 died trying. So 2% of attempted entries died (ignoring returnees). So if your Qaly was less than 0.98, then it is worth the attempt. And in war-ravaged Syria, how could that not be so? Further, about 200,000 of 22m people have died in Syria; pretty close to 1%, which means that the damage to your life expectancy attempting to find a better life in Europe is less than one year. Before I did the research I assumed that desperation was the driver of refugeeism, but those seeking a better life in Europe are completely rational. Here’s my entrant in the most contrived statistic competition: since about 43% of Syrians smoke, but 27% of Europeans, if the Syrian refugees acquire European smoking habits, this alone would compensate for the risk they engaged by becoming refugees (and therefore, of course, they should really come to Australia, since smoking prevalence is lower than in Europe).

But that doesn’t explain why we care about the picture.

I was just talking to my mate Mohammed, and he told me he was going to the pro-immigration rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park. I checked out the rally Facebook page and they led with story of Aylan Kurdi, the child in the photo. I’m sure the promoters know what works. But why do we care more about one than one million? And why does Peter Singer’s carefully reasoned abject objectivity curry very little favour with the broader community?

When we were first trying to win on horse races I found that our models, taking into account form and jockeys and tracks and breeding and lots of other stuff, did not outperform the public, even though the gambling public is just a bunch people voting with their pocket and then being aggregated (it is, incidentally, a rousing endorsement of the democratic process). It was only when we included the public assessment in our models that we could win. Essentially, the public is better at calculating the odds than we are, except that they make consistent mistakes that we can exploit. One such consistent error is called hot hand bias, which is exemplified by the fact that when a basketball player makes a few three-point shots in a row, everybody thinks he is going to keep making them. He won’t; he will make his career average. There is no such thing as a streak. But we believe there is. And the reason we believe there is is evolutionary. One hundred thousand years ago in the African Savannah our ancestors foraged. Foragers were better off returning to where they found food than searching at random, and that provides selection pressure in favour of hot hand bias. Bees also exhibit hot hand bias. It’s a good thing near the hive, or in the Savannah, but it’s a bad idea when betting, or thinking. Mistakes of this type are called cognitive biases. And our appalling treatment of refugees, I think, results from some of these cognitive biases (the conflicts that cause people to flee may also have their genesis in some of these biases).

Not all cognitive biases once conferred an advantage. They are heuristics, short cuts which allow speedier processing of complex data. Mark Changizi, in his wonderful The Vision Revolution, points out that the more complex our environment, and the more novelty we face, the more compromises our neural processing has to make. We live a little bit in the future because the brain takes time to do its processing; but if we live too much in the future, our neural forecasts are more often incorrect (that’s when we are deceived by an illusion). So we want to be as quick as possible to make our future forecasting not too distant (it seems to be about half a second) and short-cuts, mental rules-of-thumb, are required to get the job done on schedule. These approximations, in my opinion, account for most of our cognitive biases. The need for dealing with novelty also accounts for our large brains. We could be smart more slowly, and do it with smaller brains, if we didn’t have to deal quickly with situations that we have not, hitherto, encountered.

So let’s look at a few of these things, these biases that fuck us up, that make difference repellent, and bigotry and selfishness attractive. If it could be demonstrated that these traits really are the result of cognitive bias and thus induce systematic error, then correcting for them might set us on a better path, in the same way that, when betting on a horse race, correcting for biases allows a more accurate assessment of the odds.

We identify with those in our in-group, and often reject or even despise outsiders. Prior to the evolution of speech the maximum number of individuals that could cooperate was about 150. Cooperation is useful: a pack of hyenas can bring down a lion, but coordination of large groups is difficult. Chimps attack other chimps as a group, and bonobos in-group activities are well known. Speech enabled larger groups, but that means there may be too many members of a group to remember. An un-counterfeitable way to recognise friends and enemies is needed. Race provides an easy one. It’s hard to fake the colour of one’s skin (or gender, but in-groups and out-groups often have the same gender distribution). Religious affiliation, and political persuasion, and sports affiliation, and parochial leaning are easier to falsify. Unless we commit to beliefs that are so ridiculous or heinous no one would voluntarily fake them (virgin births, Nazi atrocities, team song bonding, Australian flag bikinis). All this means that we commit to the in-group at the expense of the out-group. That might be where headlines like this come from:

Refugees in Europe: Christians welcome – Muslims keep out…

Another bias, out-group homogeneity bias, is relevant here. The name says it all. We tend to assume that the groups we know are diverse, but that outsiders, within their group, are all the same. A few Islamic terrorists make stereotyping easy, provided we see them as all the same. In fact, Islamic countries often have low homicide rates (Iran lower than the U.S., Saudi Arabia lower than Australia). This type of misperception recently gave Donald Trump the ammunition he needed to stigmatise undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

If you are sceptical about in-group identification and out-group demonization, consider some studies conducted by Henri Tajfel. He assigned random subjects in his studies to groups, in some cases by coin toss. Those involved quickly started accepting the group they were assigned to as objectively superior. This, despite the fact that the experimental subjects knew they were allocated to their group at random.

I’m starting to bore myself. But in the unlikely event that anyone is still interested by this point I’ll plough on.

Another significant group bias is the ultimate attribution bias, which Wikipedia explains so well that I will be lazy (as I say, I’m starting to bore myself) and lift the text:

Ultimate attribution error arises as a way to explain an out-group’s negative behaviour as flaws in their personality, and to explain an out-group’s positive behaviour as a result of chance or circumstance.

Relatedly, just-world bias is the view that those suffering fortune or misfortune brought it on themselves because the world is fair. Amongst other things, this yin and yang view enables rich fuckers like me to avoid donating to charities by believing that they worked hard for their money and they deserve it. The poor, of course, also deserve their lot (and that’s not a lot). It also contributes to explaining why seventy-one corpses in the back of a truck doesn’t cause uproar.

But it doesn’t explain the photo.

Most cognitive biases allow us to get through analysis quickly, but some also allow us to avoid the uncomfortable state known as cognitive dissonance. When we have multiple stimuli that are contradictory, we quickly assume that the information which are most aligned with our personal biases is correct. When exposed to suffering, externalising by locating it in an undervalued out-group is easy. Except when that stimulus is baldly biological, and triggers those protection mechanisms that evolution has amplified within us. We need large brains, in part because we evolved intelligence, and in part because of the required speedy response time to novelty. But kids need to pass through the birth canal, and that means their heads can’t be too large. Fifty days ago I watched my daughter, Sunday, emerge for the first (and only) time, and it reinforced my notion of how risky birth is. But small heads mean undeveloped babies, and that means a long childhood, and a great need of nurturing. Children are cute. It must be so, because they are hard to keep alive, and so we need incentives. A suffering child, therefore, sets up a very strong cognitive dissonance. And a dead child doesn’t offer mental exclusion as a solution because the dominant biological impetus is protection. There is no way out but remorse. One dead child makes us all responsible.

What about a million anonymous dead children? The advertisements for charities tell you how many children die each minute of preventable causes, and despite the good intentions of Peter Singer and others like him, we do nothing. It isn’t that the problem is too large. The lack of direct exposure allows us plausible cognitive denial. We can resolve our dissonance by ignoring the stimulus. The children aren’t right there, so our biases can be employed to save us from suffering. But that only makes those who we could have helped suffer more.

In the ten minutes it has taken you to read this far, seventy-five children have had their lives ended by preventable causes. And three hundred people have become refugees. Now let’s have a beer, or watch reality TV, while our biologically biased brains decide that it ain’t so. See if you can remember these numbers tomorrow.

Hansie Cronje, the South African cricket captain who fell from grace after taking bribes (and who later fell from space), had WWJD tattooed on his knuckles. This stood for, ‘what would Jesus do’. I doubt Jesus would have taken the cash. Let’s contemplate, for a moment, WWPSD (what would Peter Singer do)? The strict application of his principles might suggest he would ignore the plight of refugees, since it’s cheaper to save lives that are more directly threatened by disease, or starvation, or nature. It costs more than $5,000 to save a refugee. The off-shore detention centres (prisons?) that Australia employs as staging posts to sending the suffering home to suffer more cost more than $100,000 per year, per person (inmate?). Of course, those who get into the community probably pay their way. In fact, the very people with the balls to take on such high-level risk might be the ones who could get things done in a community. Perhaps it is cheaper to allow refugees in than to send them back. If each new resettled refugee contributes to the community, does it matter if it opens the floodgates? Factoring the long-term return on investment, allowing refugees to settle reduces costs to below the Singer criterion of efficiency. That is: the money must do the most good it can do.

James Newitt, a Tasmanian artist, gave people in the streets of Los Angeles a dollar for their story. He got his money’s worth. Here’s one:

I left Africa because I wanted to go to Europe, because I had dreams. So I went. I never had enough money to leave Cameroon directly to the US, so I left Cameroon and went to Nigeria – the neighbouring country – and worked there for a couple of months, and from there I went to the next country – Niger – and I worked there for a couple of months, and to Morocco, and from Morocco I went to France. From France I saved enough money to finally come to America, my final destination. I’ve been here for three-and-a-half years now, so you count the three-and-a half years back and I was doing that journey.

I used to think that maybe it was different, you know, money-wise. I know I can make money but it seems to be more competition, you know? Not that I’m discouraged, you know I’m still just working hard to make it like everybody and it’s just a matter of time, I just have to keep working hard.

We are all machines processing stimuli. But we are slightly lop-sided machines, and we pick things more easily on the side (geographically or socio-politically) nearest to us. (This is not just a metaphor: right-handed bias is prevalent. The word ‘sinister’ comes from the Latin for ‘left’, and dexterous, from ‘on the right’.) Our short-cut cognition leads to error, and that error leads to persecution of those most different from us, even if the difference is arbitrary. With effort, we can counterbalance and correct. Most of what I’ve presented in this unwieldy blog I’m not too sure about. But I know this: with effort comes understanding, and with understanding, tolerance.

Sincere apologies for the mum-and-pop psychology.

Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks

By David Walsh

Sometimes I find myself, in conversation, filling in a detail concerning an aspect of neurology. It might be the nature of colour blindness, or the clinical manifestations of synaesthesia, or the pain engendered by a misrepresentation of self. When I do this I’m occasionally, even often, right. And if I am, that’s not a credit to me. It’s a credit to Oliver Sacks, who studied these things, and understood their nature, and wrote about them, and revealed the burden of those who suffered.

He didn’t write to show off. And he didn’t write to educate. He wrote to entertain. I read all of his books, and I was most majestically entertained. So those things I learned, I learned without effort, because of all the writers I’ve ever read, Oliver Sacks is the easiest to read. The words are a window, and the view is grand.

Two years ago my daughter, Grace, was struck on the head by a rock. Her recovery entailed, amongst other things, overcoming neurological deficits that induced dyscalculia and anxiety. Her lovely teacher, Philippa Herron, patiently helped her through this most difficult time. Jemma, Grace’s mum, suggested an Oliver Sacks book would be an appropriate gift to thank her. She was right; an Oliver Sacks book is always an opportune gift, but in this case it was most apropos. I prevailed on a mutual acquaintance to ask Mr Sacks if he would autograph a book. Although we were strangers, a delightfully dedicated copy of Awakenings arrived in the mail.

To thank him I responded with a copy of the Mona catalogue, Monanisms. And within it, I inscribed the following jingle:

I’ve read around
I must admit,
Cheats abound
Also in lit.

I did you wrong,
No leg to stand on.
I was hallucinating,
Now I’m awakening.

Although I roam
I’ll come back,
And write a poem
To say, ‘Thanks
For each tome,
Doctor Sacks’.

The fellow who helped me out with the autograph, Lawrence Weschler, eulogised Doctor Sacks to the Wall Street Journal thus: he ‘conducted a master class in how to die, after having conducted a master class in how to live’.

Oliver Sacks showed the humanity of literature. And the humanity of science. And the humanity of humanity.

Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.


Current exhibitions

Introducing Sunday

By David Walsh

Gros Michel bananas

Gros Michel bananas

These are Gros Michel bananas. Unless you’ve carefully sampled exotic fruit varieties in Thailand, or are over seventy, you don’t know what they taste like. Gros Michel comprised the bulk of all bananas sold in the world until the 1950s, when a fungus almost wiped them out. Now we mostly eat Cavendish bananas, but they are also threatened by disease. Banana varieties are clones. A single variety has no genetic diversity, and can thus be threatened by a single disease or parasitic species.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragon

This is a pathenogenic (‘virgin creation’) lizard, a Komodo Dragon. It is non-obligate, which means that individuals of this species can also reproduce sexually. In the short term pathenogenesis offers significant advantages. For the Dragons, who are island dwellers, it seems a great way for an individual to start a new population on its own. Obligate pathenogenic species have the significant advantage of not having to locate mates. But obligate pathenogenic species don’t last long. They suffer from the ravages of rapidly evolving parasites, and they don’t have the genetic diversity to express a sufficient range of phenotypes to respond to changing environmental conditions or inter-species competition. Asexual reproduction is a dead end. Fortunately, no man is a banana. And no little girl is a Gros Michel.

David and Kirsha

David and Kirsha

These are two examples of a mammalian species that employs only sexual reproduction (despite one or two outlier claims). Unlike obligate pathenogens they have engaged in mate location. They did that because searching for a mate is fun. It’s fun because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t pair-bond and they wouldn’t breed and they wouldn’t love and they wouldn’t care enough to provide enough care, and they wouldn’t have their children grow up to love and care for their children and their species wouldn’t abide. These two individuals, having been assigned (and in one case re-assigned) names due to social convention, are known as Kirsha and David.

So Kirsha and David, each found a lover, found each-other, became bound to each-other, became mutual care-givers, and made another. And as members of a species within which individuals possess self-awareness, viewpoints can be expressed. Such viewpoints are typically congruent with biologically normative exigencies, but are expressed as if the social domain is dominant. This engenders a first-person narrative style.



This is our freshly minted little girl. The physical manifestation of our evolutionary drives. We think she is beautiful, but we would, wouldn’t we? Evolution sees to that. And evolution, often through concealed agency, sees to it that we express, or attempt to enhance, our social status by communicating our great good fortune at having a healthy by-product of our pair-bonding, and of our love. I could shout it from the rafters, or hand out cigars, but a blog should do the job.

Heide Museum

Heide Museum

This is Heide Museum, near Melbourne. One of the reasons Kirsha and I have experienced a productive pair-bonding is that our biologically expressed but socially mediated interests are aligned. Sharing interests allows one to select appropriate mates, but it also allows the signaling of appropriate bonding mechanisms. If I liked hotting-up cars, say Toranas, then conspicuous displays of my Torana prowess, say a donut demonstration, would reduce the amount of resource expended on testing inappropriate mates with inappropriate interests. But I like art and, using my collection and the construction of a museum, I gave off signals to which Kirsha was apparently receptive. And so I took her to Heide. I saw, in Heide, the birth-pangs of Australian modernism (presently an uncomfortable metaphor). Kirsha saw in it a kindred spirit to her art garden projects –  in New Orleans and now in Hobart. John and Sunday Reed made Heide, and thus might been inadvertently complicit in the tenuous chain making our relationship. And, of reeds – ‘Man’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘Is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed’. That may be so, but our joyful little bundle of biology is female, not yet thinking so much, but already employing her natural gifts to elicit our love, to prevail on us to preserve her from breaking in the breeze. Our reed will be called Sunday. Never shall be Sunday too far away.