Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Eurovision is truly the triumph of bad taste

So I'm on social media and in my Twitter feed there are all these tweets by otherwise reasonable people because they've tuned in at some ungodly hour of the morning to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, this year being screened from Vienna. And I ask myself a load of questions. In fact the phenomenon of watching really quite normal people get excited by Eurovision is a thing that by its very nature throws up nothing if not a big bag of freakin questions.

The thing is that when I gave a cat's arse about popular music - the last time I did was probably around 1982 - we were listening to Joy Division and Adam Ant and there was this heirarchy of cool among my peers. The most visibly cool of such people were what we called "droogs" (a deeply ironic nod to the hideously violent characters in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess - we were nothing if not ironic) but the important thing to keep in mind is that you were judged by the music you preferred, the parties you attended, and the way you walked down the street to buy a kebab. Cool was something that had currency, like intelligence or talent might do in other contexts. And Eurovision was definitely not cool.

But something happened on the way to the new millennium. In fact, it seems to have happened sometime after the appearance on the event horizon of the new millennium, in around the year 2007. It might therefore have something to do with the global financial crisis. Perhaps everyone suddenly thought "Well, they're spending all this money on this song competition in Europe and they have no money for food so it must MEAN SOMETHING TO THEM." Because that's the thing. For an Australian to watch the Eurovision Song Contest is sort of like a resident of suburban New Jersey watching poverty porn. And we all see the pictures on the TV screen each night from some godforsaken corner of the globe that has just been smitten by an earthquake - that's disaster porn you're watching, boy. But it's the same thing. It is something so far outside your own experience that there's this gratuitous, pornographic element to the experience of watching it. You are PERVING.

So to all my friends watching the Eurovision Song Contest this morning as the sun prepares to emerge in all its glorious splendour from behind the buildings or behind the trees or behind whatever obstruction currently hides it from your view: enjoy. That's all I can come up with. After telling people that they're just a bunch of pervs what else can you say. Enjoy. Take pleasure in the moment and forget all your notions of style and groove to the fantastic Balkan costumes and the weird Nordic rhythms. Get right into that bastard and enjoy the freak out of it.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Problems for Rohingya to get worse before they improve

I have a friend who is from Myanmar although she's not living in that country at the moment. A doctor, she is currently animated by the issue of the minority Rohingya for whom Myanmar has been home since time immemorial. In fact "animated" might be inadequate to describe the level of agitation that the problem inspires in her, and I think that there are many Myanmar nationals who find themselves in the same situation. Even Aung Sang Suu Kyi can't escape the problem; in a video my friend provided a link to, ASSK - as she is known widely - blamed porous borders and refused to blame the Myanmar government for the persecution of this minority even though the government has a terrible record with many of its minorities, which it persecutes throughout the country using the military.

("Burma", the former name for the country in question, is actually an appellation only adequate for describing one of the ethnic groups in the country, the largest. Because of this fact the word "Myanmar" - which means "quick" - is actually a more accurate appellation for the entire nation of 80 million people.)

For Australians the issue of the Rohingya is also a cause for animation because a number of southeast Asian nations where boats full of Rohingya refugees have been trying to land have started turning the boats back out to sea. The reason why this policy is animating for Australians is because turning boats back has been a policy of the Australian government - which was elected in September 2013 - among a range of policies designed to stop boat arrivals of refugees. It's hardly surprising that southeast Asian politicians have taken this leaf out of the book of the Australian government because its range of refugee policies have, indeed, stopped the boats arriving. During the recent UK election those same policies were held up as models by some contenders for office during the pre-poll debates. It probably doesn't need to be emphasised that the people in the UK who admire the Australian government's policies are politically on the right of the ideological spectrum (as is the current Australian government).

So here we have scenes of emaciated, desperate, dark-skinned refugees in boats holding up their children for the media's cameras to capture images of. The one good thing about this scenario is that the media are there to see what is going on. In Myanmar's western province of Rakhine, where the Rohingya live, there are no western media to observe what is happening on a daily basis. And so people like ASSK can with impunity spin the same line about "stateless Rohingya" as the Myanmar government and nobody in the US or Australia or wherever bats an eye. We just take it for granted, for how could ASSK lie? It's impossible. Or is it ...

While the problem can improve if there is more media scrutiny - as it can only also improve in Indonesia's Papuan provinces, where recently it was announced the international media would be allowed to operate - the foreign media has to be allowed and in fact assisted to operate so that its reporting can be unbiased. There must be no coercion. There must be no members of the security services following the foreign media around. The media must be allowed to operate on its own terms, and talk to anyone it wants to talk to. Ideally there should also be security support so that the media can operate unmolested by any of the performers on the ground in Myanmar.

I suggested that more media scrutiny was needed on a comment thread on social media but one of my Myanmarese friend's friends vehemently disagreed saying that the media cannot be trusted. But I think the real problem is that people don't like it when the media says things they personally don't agree with. Sometimes the truth hurts, as the saying goes.

[UPDATE 22 May 2015:] Last night on the ABC they said that the Rohingya had been in Myanmar "since the 19th century" when they were brought to the country (then known as Burma) by British colonisers. However tonight on the ABC on the 7pm News program they said that the Rohingya had been in Myanmar "for 1000 years", contradicting what they had said only the night before. I think there is definitely a need for someone in the media to do a bit of legwork and find someone who can be relied on - probably it will be someone working in academia - to provide an accurate and definitive pronouncement on what is undoubtedly a key element of the entire refugee debate.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Pay attention on days with a nacreous sky

You might be the type of person who when they see a nacreous sky like today's in Sydney you start estimating the likelihood of rain. And it's true that when I went grocery shopping on foot this morning to prepare for the week's meals I put into a pocket of my trusty blue backpack a retractable umbrella. But I also made sure while I was out to pay attention to the quality of the atmosphere today because this kind of moist air - damp but not fully precipitate, full of a sense of the sea but not raining - is especially attractive to me.

In Japan, you get skies like this often. There, the air is frequently so moist that even when it's not raining you get the nacreous sky like this blanketing the city like a light coverlet. Of course, if there are too many days with this kind of sky the air tends to get a bit frumpy and odorous so it's beneficial if days like this are interrupted on occasion by crisp days of sunshine and wind, just to clear out the dank smell of autumn. But I always liked walking around Tokyo on cold winter or autumn days like the one we are experiencing today in Sydney.

Because the atmosphere is so close you feel as if you should be inside. Going out on this kind of day therefore makes you feel like something unusual could happen at any moment. There is a suggestion of opportunity in the air when it closes in and the skies lower. What might happen around the next corner is a mystery but it feels as if there is something out there that will make a difference in your life. While I was walking down the street with a heavy backpack filled with groceries this morning I felt that sense of possibility that I remember from the days of being out and about in Tokyo with all the other busy people living there.

And as the evening comes down this sort of day can become even more intimate and appealing. In Tokyo you might find yourself in a street filled with small eateries that open in the late afternoons in order to cater to the businessman stopping by for a snack and a couple of glasses of beer on his way home to his family and a cramped apartment. Those streets with multiple stalls giving off light, the smells of cooking, and the warmth of running braziers become corridors of shared experience. If you stop by at one of those small shops you never know who you might meet. It might be an old friend, or it might be someone you have never met before.

I remember one evening in Tokyo as I was walking down one of these busy streets - busy though quiet in the dim light of the night coming on - from the train station to the hospital where a work colleague was recovering from an operation. I was in a part of the city I had never visited before. The colleague I was going to meet had been someone I had had the opportunity to talk with about work-related things on numerous occasions. I thought of him as something of a friend. Why else would I be walking down a narrow street lined with sake-ya in the early evening with the smells of barbequeued chicken and soy sauce taste soup scenting the rich air?

It's hard to say, and in fact I don't remember. There were so many days in Japan, where the air is generally more moist than it is in Australia, when I walked down unknown streets away from a train station. It wasn't always in order to visit a friend in hospital. But there was always the hint of something about to happen, just as I felt today when I went out to buy groceries at the supermarket. A hint in the cold air of an occasion developing out of nothing, out of the sheer impossibility of so much beauty.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Not everyone is happy about being in a nursing home

A few days ago I wrote about how there are different ways to enter a nursing home and one of the elderly women I mentioned in that post, N, was at our table again today. N always takes a large glass of white wine with her lunch. I have not ever had the evening meal at the nursing home so I don't know if she takes a large glass of white wine with dinner also. Nevertheless, by the end of the conversation N is usually rather voluble, if not downright frank.

Today she again talked about her daughters and how they had put her in a nursing home. "I'm not happy about it," she said at one point near the end of our conversation. I should also mention that H was also at the table with us. Usually H is rather talkative but today with N there she was actually very quiet.

N bemoaned the fact that she had lived in her own home in Putney for a long time before her daughters had made the decision to place her in the nursing home, and so she was used to living alone at home. "I don't know why I can't live in my own home," she said. I argued that sometimes it is very difficult for a family member who has power of attorney to make the decision to place an elderly parent in a nursing home. I remonstrated with N, telling her how I had myself struggled with the decision from the time of the first conversation with the geriatrician about residential care in March 2014 until mum was finally admitted to the nursing home in December. But N said that she didn't know why she had to be there, in the nursing home. She said that she was able to fend for herself alone in her house. She didn't have any major health problems, she said, only minor ones.

"But that's probably why they made the decision," I said to N. "They probably thought about the move for a long time before making the decision. It might have taken them years." "And they won't sell my house," N said, slyly changing the subject. "Well," I said, "Sydney property prices are only going in one direction at the moment." "The house is probably worth less," ventured N, not wanting to concede the point. "I mean they are only going up," I added in order to make it quite clear what I meant. "Although if they leave the house empty it will attract capital gains tax eventually," I added, wanting to be fair. "That's what I mean," said N gleefully, a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips. I told her that the issue of placing her in a nursing home and the issue of selling the family property were separate and should not be combined into one argument.

N was not convinced. Having unsuccessfully pleaded her case to me - as if, like a magistrate, I could thereupon order her daughters to act in a different way - N opportunistically and, I thought, rather cynically turned to my mother, who was seated to my left. "They won't sell the house and I don't know why," she said to mum. Mum was busy chewing and looked at N as if she were a package that had suddenly dropped out of the ceiling. "Well I don't know," mum said. I looked at H hopefully but she was just smiling distractedly at the noisy conversation. "She's doing well," said H, referring to the fact that mum had eaten all of her main course and was about to completely finish her dessert. "Yes, she is," I agreed.

I tried to take the conversation in a different direction by noting aloud that in some countries nursing homes such as the ones that are found all over Australia - where the residential accommodation fee is usually paid for partly by the federal government - were completely absent. "I would love to live in a nursing home like this one when I reach an advanced age," I said. "It's warm and dry, they give you meals, they provide medicine, there are staff available at all hours, there is company here." "I don't want to live here," said N, pugilistically brushing aside the entire list of my findings in favour of nursing homes. She would not be convinced. I helped her out of her chair and brought her wheelie walker over for her to use. She left the dining room. No doubt we will talk about this again soon enough.

Those who survive earthquakes forced to carry on

The Nepal earthquake and its aftermath has left many people struggling to maintain a decent existence in that country but it is the way people there deal with the current post-apocalyptic moment that I think will end up defining them. At least for themselves but possibly also for people in other countries who are observers of what is happening there. In Japan, the population is adept at coping with this kind of disaster as we know. In the photo, which I took in Kobe a couple of months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in early 1995, you can see people going about their daily business even though significant parts of the city's public and private infrastructure were destroyed by the tectonic movement.

My work team from Tokyo made the trip in spring of that year after the earthquake in January in order that we might see first-hand the effects of a major earthquake. We combined this purpose with legitimate work assignments, so on the trip we visited a number of factories where we gathered the materials necessary for application stories that we later completed for use in corporate publications.

I remember we had to get off the train in one part of Osaka and take a bus that connected us with another functional part of the rail line because parts of it had been rendered impassable by the earthquake. We took a plane to Osaka landing at the Kansai International Airport even though our flight was domestic. On the bus from the airport to Osaka we drove past rows of buildings that had collapsed, and where one or two floors has been simply crushed flat under the weight of the structure as it was bounced up and down by the forces of the recent earthquake. There were still signs in those low-lying areas around the harbour of liquefaction, where the earth simply turned to mud under the influence of the seismic forces unleashed. Other buildings, like this one in the picture, were rendered useless when they were toppled off their foundations by lateral forces in the earthquake.

Parts of the residential quarters of Kobe burned to the ground when gas that leaked as a result of the earthquake ignited causing a conflagration. We walked past many destroyed homes built in the traditional Japanese style comprising a wooden structure and a tile roof. The weight of the tiles caused the homes to collapse in many cases. Men in official uniforms could be seen performing a range of tasks among the ruins as the city prepared to reconstruct those areas that had been badly damaged.

What I remember most about that visit to Kobe and Osaka was not the collapsed elevated motorway, though such memorable images saturated the media throughout those months in other parts of Japan, as well as overseas. What I remember most from those days was the way people were going about their daily business amid the rubble and despite the ruin that was everywhere visible. The Japanese demonstrated a practical ability to adapt to the circumstances of disaster that will always remain with me.

And you can see how this kind of frequent disaster can have changed the national character, making the Japanese circumspect, considerate, supportive, stoic, and prompt to carry out orders. They are pragmatic and practical too. I hope that we get to see how the Nepalese adapt to their new circumstances. It has been, I think, around 70 years since the last "big one" in Nepal, which is not so long ago. Perhaps the Nepalese have over the millennia adapted to seismic disasters like the Japanese have done. I do not know.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Mum gets an infection again, causing confusion

On Thursday I went up to the nursing home and mum was obviously not well. I arrived around 10.30am and she was sitting in her chair asleep in front of her untouched breakfast. I put her to bed. We ate lunch together in the dining room and then I went home as usual around 2pm. Today when I arrived she was sitting in the lounge area but she was not very responsive when I spoke to her. She appeared to be trying to stand up from her chair, unsuccessfully. I got her to her room eventually with the help of a staffer. Then I dialed up my brother in Texas on the iPad and mum spoke with him briefly but since he's not used to mum's unresponsivenss - she was the same as this six weeks ago at the end of March when she had to go into hospital (you can read about that episode on the blog) - he signed off after a few minutes. When old people are sick they can have difficulty answering even simple questions.

Today I asked the staff to bring mum's lunch to her room as well as mine because she was obviously not able to walk, even with the walker. The staff told me that the GP had recommended pushing fluids so I tried to get mum to drink water before lunch. She accepted being in bed for a while but then she started to throw off her bedclothes and make as if to get up. I asked her why she wanted to get up but she couldn't reply. She just looked at me and started to say something but the words did not come. Her eyes were wide open but it was as if she were asleep. She tried to get out of bed again and I asked her again why she wanted to get out of bed. She made an irritated face and said something I did not hear. Again I asked the same question, knowing that if she did get out of bed she would either fall on the floor or fall back on the bed. Again the irritated face. "Wha ...?" she said. I went to get help.

The staff came to her room when I pressed the buzzer and they put her back into bed. Then the lunch arrived on a tray carried by another staffer. I put the tray down on the table by the window and ate my meal then I fed mum a few spoonfuls of chicken and rice. She chewed the food thoroughly, as she normally does. After about ten minutes another staffer came into the room and started feeding mum in my place, and she talked with me about things in general while I sat by the window watching her care for my mother.

After lunch mum mercifully went to sleep, snoring quietly, and I left the nursing home after having a few discussions with different staff about installing bed rails to stop mum getting out of bed. Falls are the biggest single problem for old people, and with mum's myelodysplasia the risk of death in her case as a result of a fall is even more likely. I can't go up to the nursing home tomorrow because the streets around my place will be closed for a community event, but I'll be going again on Monday.

The nursing home telephoned me after I got home about the consent form for the bed rails and they confirmed for me that mum was started on oral antibiotics yesterday after we sent in a urine sample the day before. Her temperature today was about 38.5 degrees C. Of course the frequency of these events in mum's case, especially given the underlying medical condition that affects her blood (myelodysplasia is like a low grade of leukemia), means that one day soon probably an infection like the current one will end up being terminal. I have been telling people close to mum of late to prepare for this outcome, including G from the Coast, who I spoke with today; I also put mum on the phone to her so they could have a chat.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Google is making me feel like a bit of a fraud

I started using Google's URL shortener some time ago and it has always provided me with a reliable supply of links although to be honest the hurdles it has started making me jump through are getting a little irritating.

While in essence irritating these tests are also making me feel like a bit of a fraud because the appearance of the tests suggests that I am some sort of robot that is trying to spam the tool. Google is therefore undermining my confidence and in different circumstances, because of an underlying health condition, this kind of behaviour by the tool could escalate into something worse.

There are two types of test that Google's URL shortener tool uses to make sure you're actually a human.

One of them presents as a series of pictures that are accompanied by an order such as "Select all the soup". You have to go to the images and click on all the pictures of soup out of the nine that are presented to you. This test can by quite tricky and actually difficult to complete because it's not always clear which picture is supposed to be soup. For example, there might be a bowl of soup in one picture but in the same picture there could be a bowl of noodles. Does the picture show soup or noodles? You have to guess. In other cases the pictures are just not that clear or not that obvious at first glance. In short there can be a fair bit of decision-making to go through in order to satisfy this test.

The other type of test is a simple text-string reproduction test where the program presents you with an image of a string of numbers or letters (or a combination of numbers and letters) and you have to type the same string into the text box using your keyboard. The problem with this test is that sometimes the string presented to you is far from clear visually, and in fact it might on occasion be actually indecipherable to you. You can, of course, request a new test sample using the button at the bottom of the tool.

I don't really know why these tests have been appearing with greater frequency for me these days but it might have something to do with the fact that I have been asking for more shortened URLs in the past few weeks.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Doing it differently: Shorten's Budget Reply future-thinking

OK so I'm not a big fan of the Coalition and I likened the 2015 Budget out of Tony Abbott to an orgy of eating essence of monkey brains. (Zombies ... get it?) Not only that but I think Opposition leader Bill Shorten has got it wrong when he says he wants to target some people's superannuation. (Class warfare and all that ...) But Shorten's Budget Reply speech this year was a real cracker. And believe me when I say that I didn't say anything on Twitter about Shorten "having a crack" (although someone else did, thereby efficiently taking the piss out of the prime minister for asking Australians, in the days following his Budget speech, to "have a go") even though it's not a bad line. Anyway ...

What I thought was brilliant in Shorten's speech was the way he took firm possession of the high ground by thinking in a way that privileges the real engine of jobs growth, which is entrepreneurialism. Shorten's request to allocate three percent of GDP to building start-ups and to establishing a dedicated government body to focus on this segment of the economy is outstanding, and that's in a global sense too because I think this initiative hasn't been equaled anywhere in the world to this point in time. (But wait a bit though because Shorten might have started a trend ...) Shorten furthermore plans to make university degrees in a range of disciplines - including maths, engineering, science, and technology - free of charge in future. Forget $100,000 degrees, folks. And he also wants to rejig the curriculum for secondary students to bring training in these and related disciplines into the classroom for them too.

It takes me back. In 2009 I started writing stories for Australian Anthill, a magazine aimed at entrepreneurs. Although the company did not pay for stories the arrangement meant I got to work with an editor out of their offices in Melbourne and I also got to receive notice of suitable topics and subjects for interviews for stories on a regular basis. So I got my stories published and I had access to expert help in making them the best they could be prior to publication. In some ways it wasn't an ideal arrangement but I was just starting out in the business and it suited me in other ways at the time. I wouldn't do the same thing today of course.

One of the first stories I worked on was about entrepreneurs and I got to talk with some really interesting people including Jonathan Ortmans, president of Global Entrepreneurship Week. Ortmans was bullish on the benefits that entrepreneurs bring to economies where they operate. "Entrepreneurs [generate] the employment and the jobs, they generate the economic growth. It’s really [entrepreneurs], ultimately, that have grown our economies over the last 30 years." That's right, new businesses create jobs. And that's exactly what Shorten was talking about tonight when he introduced the Australian public to Start-Up, his planned new body "to ease loan applications for new and prospective businesses struggling for capital", as the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

For someone with my experience in business, and specifically in the entrepreneurial space, it's all a bit too much to credit. Hot diggity! In fact, I feel so enthusiastic about Shorten's speech that it might be dangerous to get too close to me over the next few days or weeks. Be careful because I'm liable to start enthusing about Shorten's speech on the slightest pretext. Did I say I think Shorten has some good ideas? Let me tell you what I really think ...

Book review: Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert (2010)

Although this memoir - in which the author recounts the process of how she screws up the courage to marry a man - is technically a sequel to 2006's wildly successful Eat, Pray, Love, it is in fact more than just that one single thing. The main players are recognisable to readers of the earlier book, of course. There's the protagonist who is the author and there's also Felipe, the man she meets and falls in love with in Bali at the end of the earlier book after having taken a year off her quotidian existence in order to reassemble her life following a disastrous, confidence-shredding divorce.

At the beginning of Committed Elizabeth and Felipe are happily making their life in the US but things unravel fast when border authorities one day tell Felipe that he can no longer just visit the country on 3-month visas any more. The visa was not designed for this kind of indefinite serial usage, they say. Elizabeth and Felipe make a quick calculation and decide to take the advice of border guard Tom and get married. But being a journalist who is also a modern woman with her own ways of thinking about traditional social constructs and about the law Elizabeth then spends the next year or so looking into exactly what marriage means and in the process works out what it means for her.

This sounds fairly tame compared to the outside-the-box approach to life the author recounted in the first book but it's less tame than it sounds, and contains a lot of the same kind of humour the first book gave us in such copious quantities. Gilbert is a genuinely funny woman and it is furthermore a testament to her intellect that she can turn this kind of potentially dry subject matter into an opportunity to make the reader smile and, on occasion, laugh out loud. I found the book a hoot.

There's also something intensely private about someone trying to make their mind up about their own marriage but Gilbert not only finds a way to do this publicly without sounding trite, she also does it without dismissing the importance of the topic. She conscripts generations of writers, as well as family members, public authority figures and friends in the process and in my opinion none of those people would have any reason to complain about their treatment at her hands.

The period of time Gilbert recounts in the book is, as I mentioned, about a year, and during this time she and Felipe live in a number of countries while their visa application proceeds. This is all happening before the first book - which was eventually made into a successful movie as well as making a lot of money by way of publication - became such a success so money is an issue and so they choose to stay in countries where it is possible to live well for small amounts of money. Gilbert takes advantage of opportunities this arrangement throws up by going out and talking with people about marriage as she puts together her personal dossier on the subject. Some kinds of relationships that are not marriage are ignored, but you have to always remember that the only reason marriage became a question for Gilbert to consider is because of the legal requirement. The two people need to get married so that Felipe can stay in the US.

Gilbert's desire to live in the US instead of, say, in Australia - where Felipe has resident status having brought up two children in that country (he is aged in his late 50s) - is predicated on Gilbert's need to be close to family. Particularly, she wants to live close to her sister, who lives in Philadelphia, and Gilbert ends up buying a converted church in the New Jersey countryside even before the visa is formally issued. For a woman in such a hurry, a year seems like a long time, but Gilbert is nothing if not thorough in her researches. It seems she reads everything that has been written on the subject of marriage. What she gives us though is a gem, and another book that anyone who has been having second thoughts about marriage can profitably read. They'll also have a good laugh in the process.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Budget 2015 splashes around essence of monkey brains

After he'd finished giving his Budget speech the Treasurer's glad-handing with his fellow frontbenchers seemed to be a gesture with little to no substance because the people it appears from the content of his speech he has kept most firmly in mind recently were seated further back in the House.

Back in early-to-mid February the Coalition's backbenchers were flexing their new-found muscles while the Opposition and the Senate crossbenchers chuckled discreetly behind their palms at the Party's disaffection because the government's inability to push through Parliament most of its 2014 Budget - among other things - was starting to make its leadership look distinctly zombie-like. A corpse can't lead a federal party room, and Abbott was ever-so green-about-the-gills. In this photo therefore Joe Hockey seems to me to be be celebrating the fact that the government frontbench might now appear - at first blush - to have bought itself another six months of reasonably vigorous life.

The dire warnings about deficits have completely disappeared to be substituted with something softer and warmer. The Budget doles out wealth in fat bucketfuls to small businesses, and this seems to me to make it possible to compare it to Kevin Rudd's school construction program. That exercise was roundly criticised by parts of Australia's media so it'll be interesting to see what that particular sector makes of Hockey's largesse in favour of what might appear to be a newly-targeted support base. You can bet that the Party has crunched those numbers and decided that the profile fits.

Giving tens of thousands of dollars to independent traders and cafe proprietors is as good a way as any of securing the good opinion of a large part of the electorate, at least. If the Murdoch press doesn't gut you in the morning. Recent opinion polls have showed the electorate giving the Coalition frontbench the benefit of the doubt but this Budget is a distinct watershed and I suspect that if the gist of it had mainly ignored the Opposition's priorities the electorate would have turned on the Coalition leadership again as it did late last year and earlier this year in the lead-up to the February crisis.

It'll be interesting to see what the stock market makes of last night's Budget, furthermore.

All the severity and cold steel of Budget 2014 has been left - with a sense of relief, one suspects - by the wayside. Instead, Hockey seems to be taking his lead from the Reserve Bank and adding a good dose of stimulus into the forward estimates. Money for nannies, money for childcare, money for independent traders and small businesses.

But less money for better-off pensioners; loyalty counts for little when your representatives are keen to buy votes elsewhere. And people with children on average incomes form the majority of the current crop of franchisees, as usual. You don't need the good opinion of pensioners because they'll vote for you anyway, but you do need to garner the support of the swinging voter. That fiscal injection might just serve to keep the frontbench unchanged for the forseeable future. Abbott is looking a lot healthier. He might be able to ditch the daily infusion of essence of monkey brains.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Witnessing mum in her final stage of life

One of the ways that my mother asserts her independence is by pulling funny faces. I've found her apt to do this kind of thing at the drop of a hat. When we're sitting at the table in the dining room waiting for lunch to be served, for example, she'll cross her eyes and pucker up her mouth a bit in order to make a face that might have made me laugh when I was three years old, I imagine. I think that doing this kind of face is part of the coping mechanism old people use because there's not a lot they can really do, frankly, when it comes down to it. Making faces is one of the last methods they have of making their will felt in the world.

This image was taken from the video I made of mum during which she says she doesn't mind living in the nursing home. Because mum has dementia you can be sure that she will be telling the truth when she says things like this. I've learnt that from mum so when she said it I was reassured. There's no dissembling with her, it's what you see is what you get territory all up.

When we have lunch in the dining room we get to sit with other residents as well, including H who is a special friend of mum's. H has severe mobility problems, meaning that she can't walk around unaided and she has to be propelled everywhere by the staff. Even getting to the toilet unaided is impossible for her. She's always calling out for the nurses to come, and half the time when I walk past the door to her room she'll hear my footfalls on the carpet outside and call out "Nursey!" thinking it's someone who can help her do whatever it is she's got a mind to do at that particular time. Occasionally I will tell H that I'll go and find a staffer to come and see her, and she always thanks me fulsomely for that.

Mum often goes in to talk with H in her room because their rooms are located very close together. So when H comes into the dining room she asks the staffer pushing her chair to bring her to our table, so that she can sit with mum and eat lunch with her. H is a real character and I learn a lot from listening to the way she conducts herself in the conversation. There are other regulars at our table too, including N who likes to drink a glass of wine with lunch, and S who is 91 and still walks around although she uses a cane. H is 93.

When I think about how mum is getting on in the nursing home I remind myself that there are these other elderly women living there who I have got to know superficially over the months. Mum knows more about them than I ever will of course but then again she has the memory problem so she doesn't even remember their names most of the time. With mum however it's not the dementia that's going to do her in in the end but the myelodysplastic syndrome, the blood disease. It's because of this condition of hers that I haven't put much effort into finding a job even though I have approached a consultancy for help finding employment. I keep putting things off.

The thing is that if I work five days a week I won't be able to see mum that often. I mentioned this predicament to my cousin, who I often consult on matters regarding my mother because she - my cousin - works in the medical field and has a lot of experience caring for the elderly. My cousin says that if I can manage to stay out of work then I should because I won't know how long mum has got left.

Driving up to see mum I usually go on the motorway. I get on at the ramp near my house and take the Western Distributor to the Harbour Bridge, then I go up the Warringah Freeway to the Lane Cove Tunnel, after which I take the M2 to Beecroft Road, which is close to mum's nursing home. On the way in the car I listen to ABC Local Radio. After lunch in the afternoons it's always time for James Valentine except for weekends when they usually have talk shows featuring sport. I look forward to the radio being on to accompany my trips on the toll roads. These roads form part of the relatively familiar road infrastructure of Sydney that I have got to know over the years, unlike in Brisbane where I had basically one route memorised when I would drive down from the Coast to visit the gallery.

In Sydney I generally have more options, and when driving I can take the Victoria Road route for example in order to get to mum's nursing home. Going back to work for an income is also an option for me, unlike on the Coast where there was no work for the likes of me at all. Another option that I have is the ability to see friends and go out for a meal to have a chat over dumplings or noodles. Even the choice of restaurants is better here than it was on the Coast. I simply have more options in Sydney than I did before.

One thing I don't have any control over is when mum will die, however. So I stay at home and every two or three days I drive up to the nursing home to talk with her. I check up on her and see if everything is OK. I help her find her sunglasses. I take her to see the optometrist who visits the nursing home from time to time. I talk with the nurses and drive mum to her haematologist's appointments. I sit in my chair in her room while she dozes and silently go through the social media interfaces in my phone. I am considerate of her friends over lunch in the dining room. I pay attention to her. I am aware. I watch her progress through this stage of her life. I am a witness.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Movie review: Ex Machina, dir Alex Garland (2015)

At the outset the echoes of Jurassic Park are clear, except in that case there was a whole slew of visitors to the remote fastness. In Ex Machina there is only one, a 26-year-old programmer who has been selected to be one of the first people to come face to face with an advanced robot with artificial intelligence.

The isolated alpine domain of inventor Nathan is also a little like the residence of Tony Stark in Iron Man in that it doubles as a research and manufacturing facility. But Nathan is a little more three-dimensional than that character because the search engine he built, Bluebook, the company where the young programmer Caleb works, is at the core of the AI experiment. What if, Nathan suggests to Caleb, you discovered oil before you invented the internal combustion engine? In Nathan's world the oil is the data provided by the search engine that processes 93% of the world's internet searches. The internal combustion engine is the AI robot. The combination of the two turns out to be explosive in many ways.

The most recent iteration of the AI robot is Ava and Nathan brings his creation into contact with Caleb so that he can assess the quality of the AI at the core of its being. He ushers Caleb into the interview room where behind glass Caleb can talk with Ava. The spooky claustrophobia of the residence is amplified on occasions when a power outage causes the backup power system to kick in; everything goes red in dimmed light and a sanitised female voice announces the blackout. In these sensory hiatuses, when the CCT cameras Nathan has installed go offline and his microphones stop working, Ava talks to Caleb urgently and in private, and it is in these short breaks that she warns him about Nathan.

With Nathan as host the expensive mountain residence starts to feel threatening. How would an internet billionaire act in real life? In Nathan's case with avuncular excess lubricated by copious amounts of vodka and beer. The Jackson Pollock on the wall in the lounge room does nothing to tame the unpleasant physicality of Nathan, who we first see sparring with himself on his balcony against a punching bag. The alcohol further serves to underscore the sensual aspects of Nathan's character. He is not a man, unlike Caleb, we are supposed to sympathise with.

As Ava and Caleb become more intimate it's clear that the quality of the AI is exceptional. However this only becomes perfectly clear to Caleb once there is no way for him to go back. Having entered into a journey of discovery with Ava, Caleb finds in the end that she is more than a match for both himself and for Nathan, reinforcing the unpleasant impression generated by the typical sci-fi trope of technology out of control, which is what took place also in the case of Jurassic Park. And like in that memorable movie, people tend to get hurt when the unforseeable happens in the presence of technology that has broken free of the bonds of human control. In the world created by director Alex Garland we get a glimpse into a future where what we praise today for its utility and excellence turns out to be something entirely different under different circumstances, just by twisting by a fraction the screw that holds in place the scene.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Foreign journalists can now travel in West Papua

Big news in today that Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, has lifted travel bans for foreign journalists wanting to travel to the country's Papuan provices - or, rather, the independent state that separatists call West Papua. How this new arrangement will work in real life is yet to be tested but a lot of people around the world will be watching closely to see if the gesture on the part of the Indonesian government is sincere or not.

The two provinces were annexed by Indonesia in 1969 through a process that many still living there believe was illegitimate, although most of the international community recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over the land mass.

Sceptics say that Indonesia has, for example, killed 500,000 in its decades-long struggle to retain control over the provinces, which are inhabited by an aboriginal population of Melanesians who differ strikingly from the Javanese majority of Indonesia in terms of culture, religion and beliefs. But noone knows for sure. Part of the reason for reticence among the international community is a lack of reliable information about West Papua. This shortcoming should now change as the authorities allow journalists from around the world to travel inside the provinces and report on what they see and hear there.

The significance of this move on the part of Widodo cannot be disregarded and should not be downplayed.

Independence activists in West Papua say that Indonesia has a policy of ethnic replacement, whereby Javanese are allowed to live in cities and towns in West Papua in an effort to change the make-up of the population. This is a kind of colonisation-by-stealth. More disturbingly, however, any effort to show solidarity for independence fighters, who are armed, results in swift reaction by authorities, with people reportedly jailed on a regular basis. There are also reports of killings and torture. Now that journalists are able to travel freely in the provinces we should be in a better position to know exactly what is happening there.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

New taxes are a death duty by stealth

Last year around this time the government began a period of humiliating defeat in the Senate that led to its almost losing its leader in February - remember those heady days? - and subsequently a period of deep introspection. The government has apparently learned its lesson through continued refusal of Labor and the Greens to pass their legislation into law. So now we see a compliant government outsourcing its policy development to the Opposition because that's the only way, it thinks, it can get anything through the Senate. It's probably right.

To get to a point where we can clearly look at the current crop of tax policies we have to go back a little way, to the end of the last Labor government and the beginning of the Coalition government. One of the first pieces of law to come into effect back in those days was the change in the regime for calculating aged care fees. That change occurred on 1 July 2014. What it meant was that from that date the fees for aged care facilities would no longer be calculated based on income alone, but would now also be based on assets, because while the elderly don't have much in the way of income they sure do have assets and the government - first Labor, and then equally the Coalition - wanted some of that moolah.

That piece of policy worked so well that now the Coalition government has decided to take another leaf out of Labor's scoresheet and apply the same asset test to pensions. So it doesn't matter now if you worked hard and saved all your life, the government wants you to sell your family home - just as in the case of the aged care assets test - and use that money to live off. You are to downsize. Don't complain, now. And there's no point in your children complaining either because it's bipartisan, which means if there's a change of government the new regime will stay in force.

Slowing growth in China, the end of the mining investment boom, and a sluggish world economy have added urgency to the demographic reality that is the ageing generation of Baby Boomers to conspire against even those workers themselves. And then endless stories about a housing bubble in the Sydney and Melbourne property markets have softened up the electorate, preparing them for an attack on assets. It seems that the Baby Boomers are on the nose with most people. Why, people in the community ask, are we thinking of funding the retirement of these rich bastards when they have all this wealth locked up in the family home?

Not content with making the elderly sell their family home to fund their retirement, it's only a matter of time before the government will attack superannuation, taking away from the first generation that ever had access to this new saving-for-retirement instrument part of their hard-earned wealth. Because it's Labor - the party that introduced super in the first place back in the 80s - that is spruiking for this to happen. It's extraordinary. Once again the savings of the elderly are under attack. Once again the retiree who has worked and paid taxes all his life is being asked to make just one more sacrifice for the country.

We see a government imposing a death duty by stealth. The men in Canberra are telling Australians that they - and not you - are best placed to know how to spend the wealth you have accrued over a lifetime of saving and paying mortgages, a lifetime of worry and struggle. And your children? They can kiss their inheritance goodbye because the party apparatchiks want to control it.

Friday, 8 May 2015

There are different ways to enter permanent care

At lunch at the nursing home yesterday I was sitting with mum and an elderly woman I have had lunch with previously, I'll call her N. As usual we were talking, and then a staffer I recognised from earlier visits to the nursing home came over and asked me about the Kindle that was sitting on my place at the table. I told her about it briefly. She went away soon enough but after a few minutes she came back bringing with her an elderly woman - let's call her S - who she said had just entered the facility as a permanent resident. S sat down and we introduced ourselves and then we talked as we waited for lunch to arrive. (The staff bring your lunch to the table at around 12.30pm every day, though people usually start congregating in the dining room at about midday.)

It turned out that S had admitted herself to the nursing home. She had been living alone in a split-level unit in a nearby suburb since her husband had died a decade or so previously. The unit had stairs, which made it physically difficult to get around. S had consulted with her daughters about entering care but the final decision to go into permanent care was hers alone. She is 91 years old and does not have dementia, so her memory is very good (if not actually absolutely perfect). She is in control of her life and she made the decision to enter permanent care willingly.

By contrast, N had not made the decision herself to go into permanent care. Her daughter - who has power of attorney over her affairs - had made that decision for her and N will always make a point of telling me - if we chance to sit at the same table for lunch on any given day - that she doesn't know why her daughter made that decision. N thinks that she is fine. Today, I tried to impress on N that it's not always easy for families to decide to place an elderly parent in permanent care. I told her about my own struggle - from March last year until December - over the question of whether to put mum into permanent care or not.

I made a movie of mum talking using the Periscope app last week during which we talk about her way of thinking about the nursing home, and it turns out that she's quite happy with the current arrangement. Since mum has dementia you can be sure she's not dissembling and that this is actually what she thinks in truth. Which is a relief to me, since I still sometimes look at my role in mum's entering permanent care with a critical eye. I know it's an issue that has long since been decided, and that there's no point in worrying about it any more, but that's just the way I am.

I suppose that I will again at some point have lunch with S and N, either singly or together. It's impossible to say what will happen in life. Of course, I would only be having lunch at the nursing home if mum continues to reside there, and given that she has a serious blood disease there's no guarantee that she will see the end of the month, let along the end of the year. We'll just have to see. For the moment, I will continue to drive up to the nursing home every two or three days. It is my habit when I go there to order lunch by about 10am so that I can eat lunch and then leave before mum has her nap in the afternoon. (Usually she gets quite tired after lunch.) So I get back in the car by about 1.15pm and am usually home by about 2pm.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Installing Medicare's iPhone app Express Plus

The new Medicare app for iPhone, Express Plus, is touted as a time saver but it seems fitting that the first thing I had to do in order to get connected to it was sit in the government office and wait for assistance. To set up the app - which lets you make Medicare claims using your smartphone only - you first have to have a my.gov.au account, so that was the first thing I did while I was in town. Because I had never had one of their accounts for other benefits or for tax - those are other things that can be linked to the my.gov.au account - I had to apply for an account while I was in the Medicare office. To set up the account you need some ID and you need to select a password. You also need a current email account that you can access via your mobile phone.

Once their system sends you an email with your my.gov.au login you can log into my.gov.au and finish the setup, which includes selecting some verification questions. The verification questions will be used during the process of using your my.gov.au account so you should make sure that you remember the answers; they're not just used in case you forget your password, for example. In fact the security with my.gov.au is impressive, and includes - once you start using the account - sending you a one-off mobile phone code to use to start each session. This is an added layer of security you can choose to use, but it's probably worth it.

Once you have finished setting up your my.gov.au account you can link it to your Medicare identity. You might be able to do this with a special linking code at the government offices, but when I was there the code would not issue so I had to go away and do the linking by myself at home on the PC.

Linking the my.gov.au account to the Medicare identity involves answering questions. The first time I tried doing this - at the government offices - I failed, and the staff told me their system was having problems, so I went away without finishing the procedure. When I got home I did the same set of questions and it again failed me. Then it produced a more detailed set of questions which I answered and the system passed me, which meant that the linking was completed successfully.

You can then download the Express Plus app from the Apple store. You have to set up a 4-digit PIN at this stage (in addition to the login and password for my.gov.au and the three security questions for the same online platform) which will later be used to enable you to log into Express Plus. After I installed the app on my iPhone and set up the PIN I saw the start screen, which has a lot of options on it, and selected 'Profile' so that I could finish setting up my personal profile in the app. However just changing my residential address and updating my email address proved too much for the app, because after I saved those new details I just got a 'Wait' icon rotating endlessly.

It was quite frustrating, but I have heard that Medicare is having problems with Express Plus from other sources. I'll just have to wait - you get used to waiting for things from the federal government, in any case - and see how they go down the track.

Another thing that my.gov.au suggests doing is setting up a MyPost account with Australia Post, and linking your my.gov.au email inbox with it, so I did that too. In future I should be able to receive bills from a range of service suppliers such as Sydney Water, as well as other correspondence that those utilities don't normally send by email because of email's inherent security weaknesses. MyPost is a stronger email system that is linked to your regular email, so you can get notifications in your normal inbox, then log into MyPost to deal with the official correspondence when it arrives.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

After Bali 9: let's legalise narcotic drugs

I don't believe the Australian Federal Police's (AFP) rationale for notifying Indonesian authorities to the Bali 9 for a single instant. What we see the AFP doing now is furiously backpedaling in an effort to deflect blame and escape public censure following the execution by firing squad by Indonesia of two young Australian men convicted of smuggling heroin through Indonesia, where to do so is an offense punishable by death. (Apparently there are signs up in the main airports in Indonesia warning prospective smugglers, but that's no excuse for killing them if they actually do it, it seems to me.) What we have here is a callow Australian law enforcement agency desperate to wriggle out of a tight spot by blaming drug dealers working in Australia for causing harm to the Australian community.

But the AFP did the wrong thing by notifying the Indonesian police in 2005 of the Bali 9's intentions, and trying to justify it with reference to harm done by drug dealers working in Australia is totally bogus. There should not be an illegal drug trade because there should not be illegal drugs, period. Proscribing the use of some substances and not others (alcohol, for example, is legal of course) is stupid and counter-productive.

Portugal tells us that the way we are dealing with narcotic substances is the problem, not the narcotic substances themselves or the people who sell them to an ever-hungry market in the Australian community. You can't just sit on the fence and get people killed by ignorant regimes like the one in Indonesia. You have to do things that will change the way the problem is handled. The way we are handling this problem right now is wrong. We need to bring the consumption of narcotics out of the shadows and into the light where we can address the issue as a community. Let's legalise narcotics immediately.

Having legal narcotics would be beneficial in many ways that are difficult to substantiate but the main benefit would be that legalisation would enable people to consume their drugs in public. Other people in the community would then see that consumption going on and would be able to remark on it - or not, as the case may be - and so there would be a level of effective self-policing by the community because what other people think of us, especially our peers, is far more important to us than what a despised minority do when they occupy the legislatively-sanctioned role of police. People would start to think about their drug use in a more rational way, instead of hiding it and bingeing occasionally - as they currently do - and the amounts of drugs consumed would also fall.

Bringing the trade out of the shadows would also have the beneficial effect of making it unavailable as a means of income generation for the criminal class. The tax revenues generated by a legal drug trade could also then be partially redeployed in preventative measures, and those preventions would be rational and health-based rather than crime-based as they currently are.

There are so many reasons to make drugs legal. These are just a few ideas off the top of my head at the spur of the moment - this is a blogpost after all. Other people with far more knowledge than me are in a much better position to explain why legalising narcotics is a good thing. I hope they follow this lead and get writing!

Monday, 4 May 2015

A woman tries to abscond from the nursing home

Up at the nursing home today I decided to take mum out to the park to sit and watch the dogs. But when we arrived at the front door I was told not to open it. Why? I asked. "Because she wants to abscond," the nursing home staffer told me, indicating briefly an elderly woman hovering around the front door. She didn't point to anyone or even turn her head in their direction. She just said it and looked straight at me with her eyes, merely willing me to understand what she meant. I understood without any problem. It was obvious who she was talking about.

The elderly woman in question held a coat over one arm and what looked like a folder in her hand. It could have been a purse, I wasn't sure. "OK," I said. I said to mum, "Come one let's go." We turned back toward the elevator, called it up to us with the call button, and got in when the doors opened. I pushed the button for the basement, where there is another entrance to the building.

The elderly woman had been standing near the front desk when we came out of the lift from the first floor, which is the floor where mum's room is located. She was obviously angry. I couldn't really work out clearly what she was saying but it was evident that she was not happy. Even before mum and I turned into the vestibule to head toward the front door we felt enveloped in the bad feeling the elderly woman was generating. All the staff were wary of her. They stood at a distance from her, and were placed at different points around the room.  As mum and I started to move toward the front door the elderly woman began to gravitate in that direction also. I should have known what was about to happen.

As we entered the lift to go to the basement the nursing home manager, whose office is located on the first floor near the first floor nurse's station, came out of the lift. "It looks like you've got a problem," I said to her. We knew each other. She said something in a hurry and rounded the corner, heading toward the front desk and the vestibule.

I guided mum out of the lift at the basement and punched the access code into the keypad mounted near the sliding glass doors leading to the carpark. The doors opened. "OK mum, let's go," I said. "I'm coming," she said. I headed out to the street and we walked up the road toward the place where we normally enter the park. I helped mum up onto the top of the gutter by lifting her walker for her. She grunted and eased it onto the grass. I headed into the park. She pushed her walker up the slope, following me.

After we had watched the dogs running round the park for about 30 minutes I started to get cold. I made two videos with Periscope while we sat there. We went back into the nursing home via the basement, the same way we had come out of the building. At lunch I told the story of the absconder to an elderly woman whose room is situated near mum's room. She kept looking round behind me at different people, saying "Is that her?" all through lunch.

After I had taken mum back to her room after our walk she had immediately laid down on her bed to take a nap. While I waited for lunch I went downstairs to the front desk and talked to the staff member on duty there about the elderly woman who had tried to abscond. Apparently the woman's family has not told her that she is now a permanent resident of the nursing home. "Why?" I asked the staffer. "Probably because if they do that's what's going to happen."

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Book review: Secret Histories, Grant Hansen (2015)

Regular readers of this blog will notice that this is the first book review here since July. I have not read a book in that long time because of the level of anxiety associated with moving my mother into permanent residential care. That move happened in December but since February I have been busy organising my household following my relocation to Sydney, so things haven't really got back to normal until very recently. Other readers might notice the increase in regularity of blogposts here and that is also associated with an increase in personal wellbeing due to the move to Sydney. A couple of weeks ago I also bought a Kindle - this is the first book I have read on a Kindle - because of the problem with accommodating thousands of physical books in the apartment. Finally I should disclose that Grant Hansen is a friend I have known for some 30 years. He is a partner in a law firm who lives in Sydney.

This book of historical fantasy presents a world that can be best imagined if you think about Asia Minor at around the year 700AD. This specificity is possible because of the general topography Hansen creates in the novel. For example one of the main characters, a man of action named Priscus, comes from the Gumlaag Mountains in the east, which can be thought of roughly as the Caucasus. There is also an analog for the Black Sea and the Don River which flows into it from the north. The Don here is called the Dog River.

The other main character, Galen, is a scholarly gentleman who survives the various coups and counter coups of a turbulent period at the end of the Roman Empire (the period the book "covers", although it is actually strictly a fantasy). Galen has links with Priscus but their lives really intersect at the end of the book as a result of an embassy Galen is assigned to carry out to visit the (Muslim) Vled who live in lands located to the north of the Middle Sea. Priscus is assigned to accompany Galen and protect him from harm.

Danger is ever-present in Hansen's pre-Modern world. It is a rough, dirty, unpleasant universe where lives are short and pleasures taken whenever and wherever they can be found. Not exactly the sort of world you'd want to raise a child in but Galen gets married - it is a marriage arranged years before - to the complacent Placidia and they have a son. Fathers and sons form important elements of the plotting in the book, as befits a society where the main social structure is the family (again, it's a pre-Modern society that predates to a large extent the development of what we can recognise today as the State), and where so much in the social order relies upon the peaceful transmission of power from one generation to the next through premogeniture. Not that that is always what happens.

But it's not an entirely prelapsarian world. Priscus, for example, is different from most of his peers in that he spends large parts of his life living in foreign societies. He is multi-lingual and his education has been enriched by exposure to societies other than the one in which he was first raised. Priscus is sort of a modern super-hero: intelligent and strong, violent and uxorious. By injecting a measure of Modern sensibility into the drama surrounding the characters in the book, Hansen gives us a reliable lens through which to view critically the ancient world and also the contemporary world in which we actually live today.

Galen, too, is a modern type of person. Literate and cultured, he is also wise to the power of propaganda and the way that history is written by the victors. In fact it is the "secret history" that his father started and that he is determined to complete - the accurate story of the political system of his time - that ends up closing the novel Hansen has written. There is something here therefore not only for the reader who likes historical fiction (historical fantasy) but also for the reader who likes to be asked to think a bit more deeply about how things are. Of course, some might object to how that dichotomy is formulated.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Workplaces are stuck in the past despite tech innovations

This is what my home office looked like when I was freelancing and pitching stories to magazines published in cities around Australia. You can see the PC on the right sitting on the desk, the view out the window to the park, and the TV on the left swiveled so that I could see it while I was busy attending to social media. In fact I took this picture as part of the post-2015-Queensland-election coverage. The photo I contributed on Twitter and Facebook. Some people commented.

The reason I refer to this scene is because of a story that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald today about the future of work. In the story there are people talking about how the future working environment will be quite different from how it looks today, and the discussion reminded me of a famous piece of TV in which science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke predicted, in 1972, the World Wide Web and its impact on work. But having lived through that moment in history - the Web emerged in 1995 although the Internet appeared first in 1969 - and having freelanced myself for a period of three years - pitching story ideas to magazines, researching stories, doing phone interviews, transcribing, writing the stories, and submitting them to editors then working with editors to complete the stories - I can confidently say that the future work environment as envisaged in that SMH story is still a ways off realisation in our decade. Despite what Mr Clarke said in 1972.

When you freelance you have to be at your desk at the same time as the people you need to talk with are going to be at their desks, for a start. This means being at your desk largely from 9am to 5pm. Any time spent outside those hours on things that do not require a personal conversation is just time you put in to complete the work. But if you want to speak with George and you make an appointment to do so at 11am then you have to be at your desk at 11am in George's time zone. If George is in the US and you are in Australia that might mean calling him well outside the regular 9-to-5 slice of daylight. But regardless, you have to make that call at the right time otherwise you won't get to speak with George.

This kind of limits you as a freelancer because it means that your hours of deskwork depend to a large degree on the hours of deskwork of the people you come into contact with during your day. Another thing that will influence the way managers run their businesses in the future is the business's social media policy. In many workplaces social media is still not tolerated or is tolerated mainly by ignoring the extent of its use. However social media is also an essential part of the professional toolset for many workers. Employers must embrace its use and encourage people to become proficient in its use otherwise they will lose an important corporate function. That could become costly but many people with influence over corporate policy will have to change their way of thinking about social media for it to become accepted as a tool for workers.

There are other tools that can facilitate remote collaboration and these can loosely be labelled live video applications such as Skype or Google Hangouts. Another tool might be Periscope, since it can be used to steam video. But employers must be awake to the relative advantages of video conferencing over person-to-person meetings as these kinds of encounters can radically reduce the amount of time spent travelling from place to place.

In general I think that workplaces in Australia are largely inimical to remote working of the kind that we associate most readily with freelancers. Managers want employees to be at their desks at certain prescribed hours and available for discussions and meetings, regardless of the advantages to be gleaned from operating the business in a different way. We have become so used to people turning up for work and being seen to be at their desks that any other way of operating is impossible to conceive, at least for most managers.

To change the way we think about work will need a new generation of managers, and they will have to be largely digital natives. The current crop are still stuck in the past.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Police cannot question image making in a public place

In Australia under most circumstances the police cannot object to the taking of photographs or video in a public place as it is legal to do so, the exception being in some cases when the subject of the image-making is a minor and usually only when a member of the public present objects to the image-making. However even that caveat isn't clear-cut.

Unfortunately, police continue to harass people making images in public in Australia, as we saw recently in Canberra at the Aboriginal march marking Anzac Day. That footage from SBS is valuable for us especially as it shows how the presence of a camera at such an event can have a positive effect, working to restrain over-enthusiastic police; you can hear members of the public at the march shouting "No violence!" as the police scuffle violently with resisting protesters. As the Taser is unholstered those shouts amplify but it's the presence of the video camera right on the spot - we can clearly see the faces of the policeman and the protester in dramatic close-up - that restrains an imminent assault with the device. Everyone present should be glad - seeing that footage - that the camera was being used there.

Later in the video you can also see the camera operator talking with police, who have clearly overstepped their authority and are somewhat buffoonishly trying in desperation to maintain a modicum of dignity by casting aspersions over the ethics of the conduct of the journalist. They attempt to imply that his use of the video equipment is ethically compromised, for example. Nevertheless it's clear that they have also tried to take away the equipment and we can hear him refusing to surrender it while furthermore insisting on his right to retire from the location of the discussion unmolested by them. He is clearly uncertain how they are going to react if he just leaves.

The ambit claim used by the police in this instance reminded me of a similar event that happened a couple of years ago in Sydney's Darlinghurst which caused some public reaction. It took place at the 2013 Mardi Gras where police were videoed assaulting a young man who was part of the crowd celebrating on the night. In that case, a police officer involved in the events asked the camera operator numerous times to stop filming and he was refused because the person with the camera had experience with media law.

It was shocking. But there's a link at the bottom of that blogpost to a short video Fairfax produced at the time which deals with the specific issue of filming in a public place. In the video a senior police officer publicly regrets the actions of the police on the night of the Mardi Gras. It's obviously worth looking at the video again at this point in time because it appears that the police have not learned their lesson and need to be continually reminded of the public's rights in regard to the making of images in public places.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Periscope uses plenty of battery power

I went up to the nursing home today to see mum and while I was sitting in her room I decided to talk to her about the Periscope app from Twitter, which I wrote about a couple of days ago as an introduction for prospective users and just because I wanted to get to know it better myself. In that blogpost I talked a bit in fairly broad detail about how to use Periscope. Having done that blogpost it was easier today to use the app again. What I want to briefly mention today however is how Periscope uses battery power.

Today I watched for about five minutes a broadcast sent from Seattle where some people were protesting in sympathy with the Baltimore rioters. I then made a video of mum talking which ran for about five minutes, while streaming the video to Periscope and announcing it on Twitter (as described in Sunday's blogpost). After that I replayed the recording of mum talking while sitting in her chair so that mum could see the video herself, and she watched the whole thing through on the iPhone as we sat in her room.

While using Periscope I noticed that the iPhone got very hot. But the really surprising thing about the iPhone by the end of all this video activity is that I only had about 17 percent of battery charge left. I always charge my iPhone at night so when I wake up in the morning it has a full charge. I arrived at mum's nursing home before 10am this morning and apart from a bit of checking of emails and use of Facebook and Twitter Periscope was the only app I used.

So I don't see traditional video cameras going out of use anytime soon, since you only get about 10 or 15 minutes of broadcasting, let's say, with an iPhone 4 and Periscope.

When I got home I tried to follow my own instructions from Sunday and email the recording from the phone to my computer but because the video is so large it would not let me send the entire video this way. Instead, I sent the video direct from the iPhone to YouTube, and the iPhone lets you type in a title for the video while you're on the phone, before you transmit the video, so that process worked fine. The video is below.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Self-reliant FNQ politician quits social media

This is a photo of Labor MP for Cairns Rob Pyne in happier times, back at the end of January when his party brushed aside the opposition to secure a tentative majority in Queensland's unicameral Parliament. On that day, Pyne fronted the post-poll cameras surrounded by enthusiastic friends and supporters. It was a time to make gravy but apparently that time has well and truly passed with news Pyne has stopped using social media to keep in contact with voters and others in the Australian community. It seems the business of government turned out to be a bit different in nature from just winning an election. Much nastier, less rewarding perhaps, and certainly more complicated.

You can sort of understand Pyne when you think about it. I mean, who hasn't had a run-in with online trolls at some point in their career in social media. We all have, and it's not pleasant. Usually, they go away after an issue has lost immediate relevance. For Pyne, being the focus of an entire community's aspirations and disgruntlements, that pressure didn't just go away. Faced with constant pressure to change his behaviour or to make certain decisions in a way he perhaps didn't agree with, Pyne just pulled the plug. He threw in the towel.

Having lived for some six years in Queensland it's perhaps easier for me to understand someone like Pyne, than it might be for someone who has spent all their life living in Sydney or Melbourne. Being from far-north Queensland you are doubly different. Not only are you from Queensland - and Queenslanders do tend to be a bit different - but your removal from the centre of political and economic power, which is located firmly in the southeast corner of the state, means you are also removed from the centre of things even in Queensland itself. Up in FNQ people tend to be highly self-reliant and independent-minded. Just look at all the loose canons Queensland has produced: Barnaby Joyce, Pauline Hansen, Julian Assange, Clive Palmer, Bob Katter. The list goes on.

When I visited far-north Queensland the one and only time I went there the first thing my contact said to me when we met in the roadside store was "So, you're a Mexican." I thought he was referring to my name at first and I paused, unsure of how to respond to his initial verbal approach. We were getting a cup of coffee each and there was noone else around. But finally it dawned on me. Because I lived in the state's southeast I was a "Mexican", someone from south of the border. That's because far-north Queenslanders feel so different they want a new border for their own state to be drawn at Rockhampton.

So when I come across someone like Rob Pyne who decides that the best way to deal with online trolls is simply to avoid going where they are likely to be found, I smile to myself and tip my hat at the independent-minded folk of far-north Queensland. Sure they're unpredictable, but since we seem to be overrun by crowds of poll-driven party apparatchiks who think it's a long way to drive from Canberra to Sydney, isn't it refreshing occasionally to come across someone who really does think outside the box?

Monday, 27 April 2015

SBS's path of least resistance in sacking Scott McIntyre

SBS managing director Michael Ebeid in sacking sports presenter Scott McIntyre for a few injudicious tweets has cravenly bowed to the influence of the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who had sent out his own views on McIntyre on the socmed platform on the day the original posts appeared. McIntyre's tweets - which you can read in the SMH news story linked to above - contained nothing incorrect, biased or demonstrably wrong although they were flavoursome, direct and strongly worded. I guess is doesn't pay to be manly and independent-minded these days, which regardless are qualities no doubt the original Anzacs would have held in high regard.

The whole story reminds me of how dicey it is to talk straight on social media, especially if you are declaring your professional affiliation - as journalists always do because of the cachet being a journalist carries with it; that cachet brings along with it a multitude of additional followers - but if you do make the declaration be prepared to have your words scrutinised in a way that the words of an ordinary citizen would not be. You are supposed to be a paragon of balance and fairness. It appears that the managing director of SBS agrees with this view, and that if you for some reason decide for once that you want to let your hair down and actually say things that you have wanted to say for a very long time you are putting your career on the line.

The managing director of SBS has sided with a dope of a communications minister, a misguided human rights commissioner, and a plethora of educationally-challenged fools online who don't know their arse from their elbow. And they can't spell either. But maybe all three categories of individual are the same. Does it matter whether you live in secluded luxury if you have no grasp of the meaning of the freedoms that our Anzacs fought for all those years ago, and in all the intervening years since? Have we all so soon, as one online commenter reminded us yesterday, forgotten the lessons of Charlie Hebdo? Are we to be cowed into silence by a fatuous majority because it's just less embarrassing than facing up to truths it might take some time and effort to competently counter with sensible argument?

Frankly the wording of the SBS social media policy and the corporate code of conduct interest me not at all. Having glanced tentatively at them I came away filled with fear at the long lists of damning sentences. Damning if read in one way, but innocent enough if read in another. Line after line of censoriousness and not a drop of commonsense and humanity, which is the place that we should be taken to on Anzac Day, a place dear to our hearts because it means, apparently, something important about who we are. Are we to be defined by rules and suspicion or are we to be defined by our better natures? We should be ashamed. It's hard enough to find a job as a journalist these days, God knows.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Twitter's live video app, Periscope: not perfectly intuitive

I think most people who routinely use socmed will have come across mentions of Periscope, the live video app for smartphones that Twitter bought. A couple of weeks ago there were discussions about Periscope and another live video app that had hit the market and they were battling for market dominance. The dominance of one or the other is unimportant to me but I thought that if Periscope was owned by Twitter then its socmed integration might be a step above the competition so I downloaded it to my iPhone 4 (bought in 2010 and still going strong). It was another week or so before I tried out the app but with the #SydneyStorm hashtag running hot yesterday I decided finally to take it on.

Most people will want to stream their video live to Twitter but you don't have to go this route. Periscope doesn't tell you anything about YouTube (because that website is owned by competitor Google) but if you want to save the video file to your PC and then load it later to YouTube you can do that at the end of the livestream even if you choose to go live to Twitter first. At the end of the recording Periscope will ask you if you want to save the video file to your iPhone's camera roll. If you click on this option the file will end up on your phone and you can just email it to yourself then load it to your YouTube channel at a later time.

Getting back to the interface there's of course the livestream to Twitter route. This will be the route most people will want to use because it's the method with the closest socmed integration.

It works like this. When you click on the broadcast icon at the start screen (there are four icons at the bottom of the screen, and broadcast is number three from the left) you'll get the message "Initializing video stream". Note however please the tiny Twitter icon located on the right-hand side of the screen in the centre. If you want to stream live to Twitter this icon must be highlighted. But while the video stream is initializing you might not be able to get the Twitter icon to turn white straight away. It takes a bit of time (Periscope has a few of these "lags" in it, including the initialisation procedure itself). After a while it'll let you switch it to highlighted and a little message appears telling you "Twitter post ON", for example. Keep in mind also that the Twitter icon adopts the same setting as the most-recent previous recording, so if your last recording had it ON then the next recording will also default to ON.

You can then use the keypad to type a message to appear with your tweet that Periscope will automatically send to Twitter after you start the broadcast.

When the big red "Start broadcast button" appears you can touch it and livestream whatever you want, whatever is in front of you or whatever is happening in your environs. People will start to watch and the little counter will show how many people are currently watching your feed. Their comments will appear at the bottom of the screen. When you want to finish recording just swipe the screen down and hit the Stop button.

Watch the save to camera roll method though because if for some reason the saving to the camera roll fails inside Periscope then you'll never get the opportunity to save the video file again. It will sit on your phone but you won't be able to do anything with it except show it to friends on your phone or view it on your phone yourself. This appears to me to be a big minus in Periscope's interface and I would suggest to developers that they look at ways to make it easy - if that initial download fails for whatever reason - to get the video file off the phone to somewhere else where it can be then used.