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.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

It's "catafalque", not "catapult" ...

This year with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in Turkey by Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) I woke early from a dream - there, I was discussing my favourite Italian authors with an old friend who had never in real life read the language - and decided to catch the media feed before the sun came up. It wasn't long before I could hear the marching band playing in Martin Place, the sound of the music carrying across Darling Harbour to me through the open balcony windows as a heavy military helicopter roamed, flashing red and blue, across the pre-dawn sky. I tuned into ABC 702 Sydney and caught part of the Sydney service before the feed switched to the service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

I was happy to hear Able Seaman Alan Patterson of the Gunggandji people (pictured; credit: Alex Ellinghausen) play the didgeridoo this year for the first time but at the end of the service I wasn't pleased to hear that the ABC broadcast would not carry the secondary service for Aboriginal soldiers which apparently is held every year at a special memorial installed for the purpose behind the AWM on Mt Ainslie.

But the Anzac service itself is wonderfully short. There is the occasional Christian hymn just to remind us which particular brand of theism has the franchise on this annual antipodean event. So I was brought to remember many of the old hymns from my days as a private school boy when I wore the approved grey woolen uniform at the annual services staged to mark events on the school calendar, such as the end-of-term service. It took me back to those days. And I teared up when the pipes started skirling; I'm a total sucker for bagpipes and will cry automatically as soon as I hear them play.

The words from Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison AO were delivered in a regimental tenor, in something between a bark and a growl. I remembered Morrison's televised reproof of Australian servicepeople who failed to respect women and shuddered inwardly. He has lost none of his vocal power in the years since that famous TV appearance. And he spoke of making the world a better place, which I found appropriate and reassuring. You want your military to have a responsible goal, after all.

While military lore and practice appears to be in good health in Australia - the catafalque party presented and shouldered arms at the right moments in the ceremony - the same can't be said for the ABC 702 presenter who came on the radio after the service in Canberra finished. Robby Buck misheard a caller who had spoken of the "catafalque party" and thought he had said "catapult party", which is just too bizarre, especially from a radio announcer who has been given a big job for the Anzac Day gig. I think Mark Scott should take Buck aside and have a quiet word with him. Or else get him to read some of Arthur Rimbaud's verses - French poetry abounds in ceremonial terminology.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Emotional lability makes early-onset dementia seem likely

This is mum walking in the park outside the nursing home with her new four-wheeled walker. I drove up to the nursing home today again to visit her. On the way in the car I listened to the ABC's local radio channel and wept silently as they talked about the SES volunteers responding to emergency calls due to the recent storms. I cried as I was driving the car. They were talking about other local SES teams from country towns travelling to Sydney to help out in the metropolis.

I find myself crying at odd times like this these days. I find my emotions are labile and likely to overflow at the most untoward moments. I am not entirely in control of my life. I recognise this but what can I do about it?

I have been going to an employment counsellor in an effort to find paid work but I think that if I get a regular job I will be working during business hours Monday to Friday and so if I get paid work now I think I won't be able to go and visit mum as often as I do. There's a reason to think about this. In November the haematologist on the Sunshine Coast we visited for a consultation gave mum six months to live based on her diagnosis of myelodysplasia. If I go to work I might miss time with mum. I don't know how much time she has left. She might make it to her next birthday in October. She might make it to next year. Who knows?

But my emotional lability reminds me of how my father got in the years I last knew him, in 2006 and 2007, before he finally went into the nursing home on the Sunshine Coast. He would break out into tears at the slightest provocation. I am becoming like him. And my losing my memory these days makes me think I might be contracting early-onset dementia. The thing is that the whole of my father's generation in the family - my father and his sister, my mother and her brother - got dementia. It is more than likely that I will also get it. Why not now?

If emotional lability is an indicator of dementia then I must surely be a candidate for diagnosis. But the apparent loss of memory is even more alarming. I enter sentences and then come up against blank spaces as the right words disappear. I find myself suddenly hesitating as I speak, before at length locating the right word and carrying on with the utterance. Today I tried to remember the word "meringue" until mum got it before me. The lost memory seems to be working in synch with the emotional lability. Am I losing my mind?

I came home this afternoon and not long ago cut up some brie and had it with Salada crackers and a couple of glasses of Adelaide Hills chardonnay. The wine I'll keep on going with until I cook dinner in about 45 minutes from now. But I read a blgopost about Anzac Day a few minutes ago and again I started to cry. The slightest thing does it, and that's the thing that worries me the most. Along with the fragile memory.

It reminds me that the weather calculator on the Sydney Morning Herald website last night - when it read "thunderstorms" - was wildly incorrect as it was actually a mild and cloudless night in Sydney. And the Apple weather predictor for Sydney was way off, apparently, a few days ago when it immodestly predicted sleet and snow for a city where such conditions never apply. Perhaps these programs are like my internal compass, my bodily gauge, which seems to have sprung a leak and is now veering unsteadily out of its normal groove. Maybe I need to recalibrate. More chardonnay perhaps?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Labor's plan to cut superannuation is a betrayal

Yesterday's biggest policy announcement came from Labor mainly because continuing poor poll performance has neutered the Liberal Party. The Libs won't be able to get it together and announce anything other than law and order initiatives until their standing in the community improves. Which is unlikely given the current outlook. The 2015 Budget is just around the corner and there will surely be more bad news stemming from it, although there are signs the Libs are now taking policies direct from Labor in a desperate reach to ensure that something - anything - gets through the Senate.

In the meantime, Labor has ballooned from the wizzled shred of humanity that lost the 2013 election into a 300-pound gorilla on a slathering rampage through the policy forest. Their announcement yesterday that they would cut superannuation for higher income earners is a sign of the new Labor; it's a sign of great confidence. The Libs are signally incapable of making any policy of this kind right now.

Of course, Labor's hubris means more class warfare of the kind that killed Mark Latham, whose attack on independent schools just before the 2004 election sealed his fate and opened the door for Kevin Rudd to take up the party leadership in the wake of that stunning loss. We're seeing exactly this sort of hubris now from Labor as they go on the warpath against people who have saved and made money, merely to appeal to their base: people who don't save and who have not made money. It's classic Labor and it's bound to rebound on them like a bad case of reflux after a night out and too many chardonnays with the cheese platter.

Labor should be careful that they don't repeat Latham's error. They should remember that a week is a long time in politics and it wouldn't take much right now to reverse the Libs' fortunes and return them to the good books of the electorate.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Umbrellageddon in SydneyStorm

A couple of days ago I had a thought when the storm began that I would write about how Sydney storms compare to the far worse heavy weather you routinely get up in Queensland but it soon became clear that the toll on communities, especially those around Newcastle, was pretty severe this time. And then three people died in Dungog when their houses started floating away in the flood. That event provided storm watchers with a bit of stimulating vision to accompany the myriad posts about other repercussions of the severe weather hitting the Sydney area and parts north.

But what came to symbolise for me the damage of this weather event in Sydney were all the pictures people posted of umbrellas that had given up the ghost. Audience editor at the Guardian, Dave Earley, quickly came up with the #umbrellageddon hashtag for people to use to aggregate all the photos that were coming in. I myself contributed a few entries to the hashtag after a number of trips out to the shops took me past a variety of woebegone umbrellas that had seen better days. The photos were often freighted with pathos, symbolising in a strange way the sadness of city living generally, perhaps even more than they represented how people felt about all the rain and wind.

The photo that accompanies this blogpost shows one of the collection that I made during my travels around the traps. You can see if you look closely that there's a book sitting on the street garbage bin; it is titled 'Wild Ways', and I thought that title was fitting in so many ways. There were a lot of sad umbrellas snapped as people walked around the streets of Sydney. The most impressive photos probably came from the Sydney CBD where street garbage bins were sometimes filled to overflowing with dead umbrellas. It was comic carnage.

It's true that the weather this time in Sydney hasn't equaled what I've been used to over the past (almost) six years living in southeast Queensland. (I have been in Sydney now about two months.) But what they had up near Newcastle was probably just as bad as that. I messaged my cousin who lives up Taree way about the rain but she said they had had blue skies throughout. Let's hope that over the next few days the bad weather falls away down here. I saw some blue sky this morning but it was accompanied - strangely - by lightning and thunder. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Youths who go with Daesh to war resemble Anzacs

It staggers me that noone has made the connection yet between the teenagers who follow Deash now - either by going to Syria to fight, or by plotting terror attacks in Western countries like Australia - and the Anzacs who enlisted to fight in 1915 in their thousands, often at an age so young they needed the permission of their parents to go overseas. The program tonight on the ABC with actor Sam Neill reminds me that we have built up an idea of Anzac that carries the accretions of decades, nay of a century, and so it hardly looks at all like what the war looked like to the young men who went away in 1915 to fight.

There are so many similarities but probably the most striking one lies in how difficult it is for us, living in modern Australia, to understand the motivations that brought these young people to do what they have done. What we do know, and often the only thing we do know, is that they were young. The young men who designed the Anzac Day plot which has just been uncovered by authorities are themselves barely outside childhood and yet they have taken their futures into their hands - just as those young men did a century ago - and despite all the obstacles and despite the danger they have made commitments we find it difficult to comprehend.

If you want to understand the Anzacs nowadays you could do worse than trying to understand the youths who follow Daesh, or ISIS or ISIL (whatever you want to call the movement). They have the same desire to fight, the same irrational commitment to an idea outside of themselves, a bigger dream and a hope for a better world. All of these things are hard to understand, for us, but now we have the opportunity to do so if we take the time to listen to the young people who are going away to fight, or those who bring the fight to our own shores.

Quiet contemplation of memorials and all the usual accoutrements of the day are hardly likely to bring us to a place where we can grasp what it meant to go away on ships to die in foreign countries, not knowing what would happen or when it would happen. That reality is alien to us but we fail completely to do it justice if we merely continue to observe the day in the way we have - over the decades, nay over a century - become accustomed to doing. Something else is needed. We must look to the young conscripts of Daesh for guidance and inspiration.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Will we pay for stories if native ads arrive?

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a person in California inviting me to participate in a new venture writing native advertising for companies willing to pay me. Native ads have become more and more common in the US and there the debate about the various pros and cons is going on now but in Australia we haven't really seen native ads on news websites yet.

For those who are struggling with the term "native ad" it probably helps to think of them as sponsored advertorial. So you get a company that pays a news organisation to write an ad in such a way that it looks like a regular news story. We have had "advertorials" in the past in many places but they were always flagged as sponsored content, usually at the top of the page but anyway in a prominent location on the page, according to company policy and broader industry standards that aim to protect consumers from unethical operators. But native ads are not flagged at all. You have to be awake to the deception. You will not be told if the content you are reading has been paid for or not. It will take special media skills among readers in order for them to reliably decide what is what.

Which brings me to the point of this article: will people be more willing to pay for quality stories if the use of native ads increases in Australia? If bloggers here are already being approached by intermediaries looking to recruit writers to produce sponsored content that masquerades as something it is not, then it is only a matter of time - the news business being so badly remunerated because of falling ad rates for banners (which nobody even really pays any attention to anyway) - before we are flooded with native ads. Our news experience will be poorer for it. But there is another alternative: we actually pay a subscription for stories that we value. In fact, the antidote to native ads is in the hands of consumers. They have to be willing to fulfill their role in the news production process and pay for what they consume. Otherwise they will need to learn a new set of skills as the quantity of native ads on media websites increases.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sea-lioned over a photo of Gina Rinehart

This is a photo of a woman in Australia who apparently needs no introduction; Gina Rinehart is the world's richest woman and one of the biggest players in Australian mining. This is the face that you always see when people complain on social media about fuel subsidies for mining companies. Apparently it's a big issue with a lot of progressives. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen this woman's photo next to a socmed appeal for the government to eliminate the mining and agriculture fuel subsidy. It must be annoying for some people to contemplate. It certainly annoyed someone yesterday after I said on socmed that not all mining companies are giants like Gina Rinehart's. It annoyed him so much that he went away and found a news story from 2014 stating that 80 percent of mining in Australia is owned by multinational corporations.

I mean, that's enough right there to get you slavering like an overstimulated green monster-from-hell. You just want to eliminate the fuel subsidy so bad that you practically wet yourself out of frustration and rage. Multinational corporations? You can hear the aggregate response in the progressive spaces on socmed screaming bloody murder at the notion of multinational corporations getting something from the government WHEN IT'S AS CLEAR AS THE NOSE ON YOUR FACE THAT THEY MAKE MEGABUCKS AND DON'T NEED ANY GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS! And they take their profits overseas so none of it ever gets near the cobweb-infested pockets of low-paid and hardworking Australian hospitality industry staff. The poor things.

The problem I think here is that while the mining industry might be 80 percent owned by multinational corporations by value, in terms of the number of companies operating in the sector it's likely to be more like 20 percent. I would say that the overwhelming majority of mining companies operating in this country are small, privately-owned Australian enterprises, many of which rely to a large degree on the fuel subsidy in an industry where profits are often very rare. Small players in mining might go for months and months, if not longer, without any income at all.

But my contention was dismissed off-hand by the sea lion because I had NO CITATION. Although I have written a number of stories on mining in the past and so have rubbed up against the industry in the form of its smaller fry on numerous occasions I chose not to dignify his response with even the vaguest reference to this information and simply told the fuckwit to "rack off". The poor chap almost shat himself. He had been unfailingly polite throughout the exchange, he countered, and how dare I abuse his good nature with my callous verbiage. I had been relentlessly sea-lioned by this crap-headed piece of gangrenous doodoo for the time it took to do half-a-dozen tweets and I had had enough. I told him. I did.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Participating in your own culture is like meditating

We all hear it said from time to time that "all news is local" but do we ever really sit down to think about what that means? Because clearly it's not true. What the expression hides is an admission that we prefer to consume information that has been localised in some way, either in terms of the metaphors or cognates used to communicate it, or by searching out and finding local analogues that can help to explain what might otherwise be foreign in some essential way. Because different cultures are materially different. You cannot just pick up a news story, for example, written by an American writer for an American audience and "get" all of it in all its nuances and subtle meanings, without some sort of explanatory filter.

We feel comfortable within our own culture, whichever culture we come from. There is therefore a challenge for anyone who chooses to live inside another culture for an extended period of time - by relocating overseas, for example - because that person must constantly make adjustments in order to perfectly understand what is happening around them. Perfect understanding being necessary, of course, for survival.

For those who prefer to stay in their own culture and to venture out only for short periods at a time there is the reward of familiarity and comfort. But it's not something that can merely be couched in negative terms in this way. By participating in our own culture we actually function to perpetuate it. Without our participation, in fact, it could not exist, so native participation in the culture is an essential task in order to preserve the rich diversity of cultures that exist in the world. (Diversity being an absolute good.) I think though that we can go further than that, and say that participation in the native culture is a kind of meditation. It's something that we grok to in a multifaceted sense, as it's not something that can easily be broken down and explained easily in terms of constituent parts. It's a rich and complex interaction between an individual and the immersive culture within which they live.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Comfortable in Sydney

I went up to the nursing home to see mum today and stayed for lunch, which was beer-battered fish with chips, although I had to leave the table before the women had finished because I had an appointment back in the city to get to. Mum is looking a lot better. She appears to be her usual self, which is comforting. It is one less thing I have to worry about. I can let my hair down for the weekend and relax.

At lunch I spoke with an elderly lady I have eaten lunch with on one occasion previously whose husband, who died some years ago, was in the military. I will call her M. I told her about the military medals that I received from an organisation called Lost Medals Australia which matches recovered medals with living family members. I had the medals framed in 2012. But added to those, recently I found among my father's records photographs of William Robert Ralph Caldicott, my grandmother's brother, and their father, William Henry Caldicott, in uniform. Both men served in the military, the first in WWII and the second in WWI. So I took the photos and the framed medals to my framers in Annandale a few days ago and asked them to match the photo with the medal(s) and frame the items together as sets. So the WWII medals will be framed with the photo of my grandmother's brother, and the WWI medal will be framed with the photo of my great grandfather.

M said it was a great idea.

I am having a few other things framed that came to light as a result of my continuing sorting through my father's records, a process which has been going on now for the best part of five months. My mother approves. She has always liked pretty things. Although for some reason she had taken down from the wall a photo of my father, and the picture hook had fallen under the bed. I put the photo back in its regular place on its hook.

This morning when I was talking with mum I occupied her bed. This was because I have had a poor nights' sleep for the last few nights due to a flare-up of my psoriasis. I went to see the local GP this afternoon and got a referral to a dermatologist. Hopefully they can treat the ailment adequately. I have been living with the ailment since I was a teenager so I am resigned to occasional bad patches, but at the moment it is keeping me up at night with the itching and sometimes it is almost unbearable. We'll see how it goes.

I plan to go back to see mum on Sunday.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

If your boss finds out you have a mental health problem (revisited)

I wanted to revisit this issue following yesterday's post because that post only gave half the story. In 2003 I did, as I said in the blogpost, find a job in Sydney. It was with one of Australia's premier education providers. I was asked to provide web development and technical writing services on contract. There were three technical writers working there when I started. By the end of 2005, when my contract was changed from "contract" to "continuing", there was only me remaining. I was doing a good job it appears and with the illness in abeyance everything was going well. In early 2006, furthermore, I started a postgraduate degree with the University of Sydney.

My first boss with the new institution was very supportive when I told him that I had a mental health issue and he was generous about letting me go home if I felt unwell. But he left after a few years and then there was an organisational hiatus before the new manager arrived to take over the IT training function in early 2008. In that year I had a major relapse, partly because of poor treatment by the new manager, who clearly did not like me. Under these conditions my illness flared up - it was fortunate that I had finished my studies at the end of 2007, so that particular project was not affected by the relapse - and I had a major episode.

On one occasion when I had been asked to undergo additional training in the city I found it impossible to complete the day's activities and left the training classroom early pleading illness. When I got home I called my manager and told her that I had this illness. Things changed in the workplace after this admission because it became clear from the way she spoke that she was more concerned about how the illness would affect my performance than about how I was faring. I felt immediately that I had made a mistake telling this manager about the illness.

"I need someone who can do the job," she said. She suggested that the incident was due to “stress” and implied that I had told her the incident was stress-related. This was not true but with this manager it did not matter what I said as she had made up her mind about me a long time before. I was to be gotten rid of and that is what happened. The admission of illness was just another reason in her mind to get rid of me.

Meanwhile, the delusions proliferated and I became very sick indeed. The delusions endured for about three months, during which time I continued to go to work as usual and complete the tasks assigned to me. Under the new regime this was especially difficult because there was no support from my manager. I started to exercise excessively. I swam every day. By swimming regularly I gradually got the illness under control because I was substituting good chemicals in the brain for the bad ones produced by the illness. I managed to control the illness and return to a state of normalcy.

At the end of the year, by which time the illness had receded, my technical writer position was made redundant. I was invited to reapply for a new position in the same team but my experience with the manager made that unpalatable so I left the organisation and became a freelance journalist. A few months after leaving the organisation I moved north to Queensland to look after my elderly mother.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

If your boss finds out you have a mental health problem ...

A story in the Fairfax press today about mental health problems and work made me remember what happened to me about 15 years ago when I first became ill. The story is about whether you should tell your boss that you have a mental health problem. In the story we are discouraged from doing so in cases where we are unsure about what kind of reception the news will receive from the boss. Which is what would happen in most cases, I guess.

In my case, I was getting sicker and sicker and still going to work. This was in Japan when I was living there. I had separated from my family about 9 months earlier and it was winter. (The mental illness when it gets unstable it's always during the cold weather.) My employer, Yamatake Corporation (now named Azbil Corp) had moved me around a bit in the previous few years and I was a bit unhappy about how things had turned out. I had been telling people at work how unhappy I was about the employment situation. Then gradually the mental health problem became acute and I was having delusions. I told a trusted coworker about it and a few days later when it was clear I was in some considerable distress he took me to a clinic. I was given a brain scan. They took me to the psychiatric ward of a major city hospital, Jikei Idai, and I stayed there for six weeks.

I was a model patient. Even when the hospital released me back into the community to go live again with my previous family I did what I was told. I took my medications, which severely affected my physical self; I could barely walk, small tasks like washing dishes and cleaning teeth became very difficult. I went to the hospital to see the doctor at the time of my appointments. I lived peacefully at home. Then one day I was asked to come in to the office to meet with some people from HR. I knew what it would be about. It took them just a few minutes, with me sitting in the chair wishing they would say something different, to dismiss me from the company and to outline the pecuniary compensation package. I had no option but to agree. I didn't want to agree but I did. They sent me back home in the company limousine on the motorway.

Things returned to some normality except that I was in most respects a zombie. But eventually my wife and my father back in Australia decided that I should return to my home country and so I was put on a plane and shipped home via Qantas. I had four seats together. They put me on the plane on a wheelchair. When I got off the plane at the other end my uncle picked me up and he took me back to his place. I lived there for a month until he found me a share house through the regional health service.

In 2003, a few years after my repatriation I got in touch with Yamatake Corp again and they agreed to meet with me. I wanted to go back to my old job. I traveled to Japan and met with a Yamatake worker in one of their offices, in Yokohama. We talked for a few hours and then they took me upstairs to meet with the company doctor. We talked for five minutes and I went back downstairs. I came back to Australia. They did not employ me.

Later in that year I got a job locally doing web development and technical writing. I started with a new employer and stayed there for about six years. I forgot about Yamatake. But I still dream about working with Yamatake, at least the way it was in the early years, between 1992 and 1997. In those years we had a lot of fun and we did a lot of good work. Those dreams visit me regularly.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Retiring mum's three-wheeled walker

Last week I got a call from mum's physiotherapist at the nursing home and during the ensuing conversation she suggested getting mum a four-wheeled walker to replace her old, three-wheeled model (pictured) which is a device she has used for years starting up on the Coast. The physiotherapist wanted me to buy a four-wheeled model, and so I promptly ordered one over the phone from mum's regular pharmacy in Eastwood. They said they would deliver it this afternoon, and in the meantime mum has been able to use a four-wheeled walker owned by the nursing home.

The three-wheeled model has been very useful because it allows you to concertina the walker when you go into shops to let people pass by you in the aisle. Shops also often have very narrow aisles because the operators frequently put out special product display islands that take up space there. So the three-wheeled walker was useful for mum in the early days when I used to take her out to do shopping, such as when we went to the bookstore. Mum appreciated being able to get her device out of people's way quickly so as to avoid embarrassment and inconvenience. In the nursing home the hallways are wide because they are designed for the use of these kinds of devices, so there is no need to economise on space there.

The three-wheeled type of walker is also convenient because it is able to fold up flat making it highly suitable for transportation in a normal car. In fact mum used to keep a walker in the car all the time, and used it when she went out shopping with her housekeeper.

But the physiotherapist said that the three-wheeled walker was not stable enough to support mum's weight. Mum is getting quite frail and the three-wheeled model can't be relied upon like a four-wheeled walker would. So I brought the three-wheeled walker home this afternoon to put it into retirement and it is now sitting in my storeroom among the boxes of stuff taken from mum's apartment on the Coast. (I am slowly going through these boxes that dad filled up over the years mainly with papers. I have been going through these boxes since November and there are still quite a few more to process.) So I might even put the three-wheeled walker on eBay to sell it because I don't envisage a time when it will become useful for me. Not right yet I think.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Why I like Sydney: poetry busking on George Street

It is late on a Saturday night on George Street near Bathurst Street and people are pouring down the pavement, pushing into eateries, draining out of the cavernous cinema, milling around the bus stops at the kerb. At a small table with an old, mechanical typewriter perched on top of it a woman is seated at the edge of the pavement right against the cinema wall. She has an A4 pad of lined paper on her knees and she is writing. Next to her, on another seat on the pavement, sits a young man waiting while the woman works on the poem he has ordered. A yellow cardboard sign stuck to the edge of the table says that you can ask the woman to write a poem for you on any topic.

The woman will work on the poem on the A4 pad for a while and then eventually get around to bashing it out on the mechanical typewriter that is placed centrally on the table. I don't know how much she gets paid for each poem but I recently read about a similar setup in New York. That story was in an online magazine. In the story the man who busked his poetry had set up his table in a subway tunnel. I thought the woman on George Street had found the ideal place to ply her trade.

Tens of thousands of people course along George Street on a Saturday night, making this surely the best place possible in Sydney to be selling poems to passersby. We saw the woman with a single customer but I imagine she had had many others during the evening. This is what I love about Sydney: the unexpected event that makes everything make sense. The casual encounter with the unusual. The strange. The out-of-the-ordinary. This is one of the reasons I came back, because I wanted to see this kind of thing again.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Excessive focus on class really drives me mad

At an event yesterday afternoon while standing round talking to a guy who I'd never met before, and who had just walked up and started chatting with me, I was asked if I were British. No, I said, I've never been to Europe. He then said I must've gone to a good school and I admitted that, yes, I had attended Cranbrook School as a child. I also added that my grandmother, who always spoke very properly, lived with us when I was growing up. And I mentioned how I lived in Japan for a decade later on. But once you mention schools, it seems, people stop listening, so it was the school that this man exclusively focused on despite the fact that I had given him many other topics of potential conversation.

"I always find that people who talk nicely who weren't born in England have gone to a private school," he said. I was more than slightly mortified although I found a slight smile coming to my lips. Here we go again, I thought. This turn in the conversation of course also completely stopped us talking about what we had been talking about before, which were the artworks in the gallery that surrounded us. Instead, we were forced, like automatons, to talk about class. The man, who was somewhat older than me, had grown up in New Zealand and so I was then forced to make some comment about his own accent which was, frankly, quite mild compared to those of some people from that country I have heard. Maybe he wanted me to say just that. Sigh.

But this is the way it is. I had said to this man, at the start of the conversation, as we were talking about the gallery, that I didn't want to talk about real estate. "People in Sydney can talk about real estate for hours," I noted. This came up because he had mentioned that the gallery was an early occupier of space in the suburb of Waterloo, where we were standing. Hence the potential segue to real estate. Once people in Australia start talking about real estate, I find, they never stop. And it's the same with class. I find it so annoying. Here we were surrounded by lovely cultural objects - which were in any case the reason we had both come to the place - and all we could think to talk about was the way different people talked. I sighed inwardly. The man left soon after he told me that his partner's son had attended the same school I had gone to. "So that was what he wanted to talk about," I thought. "He wanted to move the conversation to his partner's son so he could talk about him."

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Movie review: Kingsman, Matthew Vaughn dir (2014)

Rather than a spy movie this is actually a rather cliched action flic. There are a lot of "in" gags working here, from the secret code whispered down the telephone line to the lethal, knife-enhanced Oxford shoes, from the secret underground bunkers filled with high-tech equipment to the loony mastermind bad guy with a speech impediment. The Swedish princess who offers herself as a reward to the hero at the end of the movie is just like a cherry on the chocolate cake, as it were.

As an action movie, however, the film also falls short in many ways, although the hand-on-hand combat is stimulating, even though sometimes you feel like you're inside a first-person shooter game. There is little suspense, for a start. It's quite obvious from everything else in the movie that Eggsy's mother isn't going to harm the little bub. And she doesn't. Because Eggsy saves the world. Ho hum. Puhleeze! I found the class-based sniping among the new recruits quite fun for a while but even that palled eventually. I guess the Americans have never really gotten over the fact of an aristocracy. Well, poor them.

The only really interesting thing about the movie is the Samuel L Jackson character, Valentine. He's the first IT billionaire I've ever seen as a Bond movie villain, so that's a turn up for the books. Making an MIT graduate the bad guy is in a real way innovative, and expresses general anxiety about the way the world has changed over the past 15 or 20 years since the introduction of the world wide web. The internet itself has been around since 1969 but for most of its early years it was only used by the military, academics and people at research institutions. With the WWW everything changed. And it changed rapidly. We are still getting used to the enormous sums of money that are being generated by a certain class of Americans, and this lack of confidence feeds the inception and delivery of movies like Kingsman.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Abbott should decriminalise drugs, not declare war on ice

On Wednesday, on the day after the Reserve Bank of Australia made its monthly announcement about the cash rate (it wasn't lowered), on what was reasonably expected to be a slow news day where there was no other major issue to occupy the public's attention, Tony Abbott appeared on TV at the offices of the Australian Federal Police and announced an inquiry into methamphetamines, or ice. It seems that whenever Abbott thinks he can get a bit of a boost in the opinion polls he's at the AFP's headquarters, on camera, spruiking some law enforcement initiative. Last time - as I recall - it was about the importation into Australia of guns. This time it was drugs.

It was a craven piece of political theatre designed to make Abbott appear tough and competent and the media duly followed along and for a day or so they played with the ball, chucking it up and down as they ran down the field. There was never any questioning of the basic premise of Abbott's announcement - that criminalising some substances for which there is demand in the community is a good thing - and so the saga dribbled on until the journalists gave up in despair when they realised there was actually nothing to the story. It was, as so much of what Abbott has done since his leadership was challenged this year, a beat-up.

But the fact is that there is no evidence that criminalising drugs does anything to prevent people using them. It does however send drug use underground, where it cannot be observed by the more responsible members of society. It also works to fund criminal gangs and other undesirables, funneling billions of dollars into the bank accounts of thugs and crims.

There is no upside. It is all about perception. In places where such substances have been decriminalised we can see improvements in the treatment of the problem of addiction. People can use the drugs in the open, rather than hiding their use, and so friends and family members can see what happens and maybe help to control their use. People can talk about drugs in a more mature and reasonable way when they are decriminalised, as well. Addiction can be treated as a health issue, which is as it should be, instead of a crime issue. So let's bring substance abuse out into the open by decriminalising the substances that are now driven underground by society, to a place where they become playthings for gutless and desperate politicians who are just hungry for public approval.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

We need journalists to be like fair witnesses

"View from nowhere" refers to journalists pretending to be unbiased when in fact everyone has a political bias in them. It is an idea initiated by Jay Rosen from New York University. According to Rosen, a journalist rather than pretending to be completely unbiased, might start a story by explaining exactly where they sit on the political fence relevant to the topic at hand, the subject being treated in the story.

But if they do that why should I read the story? The biased journalist is just going to cherry pick evidence to support whatever view they already have. In fact, you don't want to read a story like that because it won't deliver the kind of information you want, which is information that is completely objective. We know that people want journalists to be objective because if you take a position either on the left or the right on social media as a journalist you are almost certainly going to be accused of bias, as though being unbiased were more suitable to your role. You are excoriated severely by the public, especially in heated conversations.

This type of engagement tells us that what we want from the media is unbiased information so that we can make up out own minds about any issue being dealt with. We don't want the journalist's view clouding our judgement.

What journalists have to do is to be something very complex: like a fair witness in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, they have to hold both pro and con in sight at the same time and actually SUSPEND JUDGEMENT until the end of the debate that the story encapsulates. Only then can we be sure they are not only not being hypocritical but they are actually being fair. This is a lot to ask, but we should also keep in mind that we do ask journalists to be better than the rest of us. We do follow them on social media because we think they are a breed apart. We do hold high hopes for them, and for the information they are responsible for.

The weakness here is that this kind of story is likely to be labelled "progressive" because it encapsulates complexity. We know that the ability to hold more than one idea in the mind at one time is typical of people who sit on the political left. People on the political right in society are more likely to want simple, clear messages that are unambiguous. So intelligent people - like scientists, for example - who are able to cope with complexity, are traditionally progressive politically. A news story that actually can bring together both points of view because it is written by a completely objective journalist is likely therefore to be called biased. Which is the rub.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Harassment by Queensland Police

Last night I had terrible dreams of humiliation that made me get out of bed early, around 5am, and seek escape online. In one part of the dream a policeman thrusts his baton into my sternum while taking a breath test even though I was the witness to what was almost a tragic accident - a young woman almost struck down on her bicycle by a speeding car - and even though it had been me who called in the crime. There was more to the dream, and more violence and humiliation, but it was this that started it, and it reminds me of what happened to me almost three years ago when I was living in southeast Queensland.

It was just after dinner at the end of April. I had prepared dinner as usual for my mother at her apartment, and I was walking home along the deserted and darkened street smoking my post-prandial cigarette when a paddy wagon drove around the corner in front of me. I had stopped to let the car - I could not see any distinguishing features of it from that distance - go past me on the street before I crossed the road.

As I was approaching my apartment block the paddy wagon pulled up at the kerb beside me and I turned around and approached the policemen as they were getting out of it. One of the men came to my right and the younger man stepped lightly to my left. They were both facing me when the younger man asked me if I was smoking marijuana. No, I said, showing him the cigarette butt in my fingers, it's a Marlboro. They stood there looking at the cigarette.

The older, shorter man to my right then asked me why I had sweat on my shirt. "I have been cooking dinner for my mother and myself," I answered. "Why would that make you sweat," he replied. "Because it's hot," I said. He looked away from me briefly and then said Ok. I guessed that their interrogation was over. "Take care," said the older man as he and his partner got back into their car. I turned around and walked home.

I immediately wrote down what had happened and started researching how to complain about police harassment, which this clearly was. It happened that at that time, just before the time when I was to give up freelance journalism - writing for other magazines  - that I had a bit of a straggly beard because I had not shaved for some weeks. It wasn't a nice look, I admit, but I don't think that having a beard meant that I should have been profiled as a druggie by the Queensland Police. I found by looking at the internet that in order to complain you have to contact the police station head in the first instance. but since I thought that I might need the police in future in case my downstairs neighbour started playing loud music again, I decided not to complain.

I sat on my humiliation for almost three years, until today. Now, with this blogpost, I have decided to publicly express my unhappiness at my treatment at the hands of the Queensland Police. They behaved disgracefully with me, and subjected me to unnecessary humiliation for no reason. Here was I, a middle-aged man caring for his elderly mother, being accused of smoking drugs on a public street. And then accused of God-knows-what else with the implication that I was trying to escape from something and therefore had sweat on my shirt as a result.

No wonder I got out of Queensland as soon as I could. It is this small-mindedness that irritates me the most about the place. In public authorities this small-mindedness translates into a suspiciousness that everyone is breaking the law or the rules. Good riddance to Queensland!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Let's remember the frontier wars on Anzac Day

I was surprised when a friend of mine on Facebook put up yesterday a link to a story Paul Daley, an Australian historian, published in the Guardian two years ago on his discomfort at the lack of recognition for the Aboriginal frontier wars in Australia's official war record. To me it has always been a no-brainer, which is why in 2010, when I was working as a freelance journalist writing stories for other publications, I wrote a story for Fairfax's National Times website (now defunct) on the same subject. In both stories there is the sense that we should use the official day for commemorating war in Australia to right a wrong, to fill in a lacuna, to set the record straight.

I have never spoken to Paul Daley and I do not even think I have seen any of his books in a bookshop - although I have not read a book since July, which is a subject for another blogpost at some other time; regular readers of my blog will have some inkling as to why it is so - but after seeing his story and after reading it I count him as something of a soul mate. The idea to recognise Aboriginal Australians in Anzac Day ceremonies is the kind of thing that strikes you at once and then stays with you forever. You do not even have to do any rationalising; all you have to do is say the words "Anzac Day" and "Aboriginal frontier wars" and they immediately congregate in the one phrase.

We should recognise the Aboriginal frontier wars in our Anzac Day ceremonies, as Paul Daley says. If the official Act of Parliament that was used to institute the Australian War Memorial gets in the way because of the way it is worded then all you have to do is change the law. Language, as we know, is highly plastic, and can be made to do many things and take on many forms. To merely say that the Act prevents us from changing our official policy is to merely shirk the issue lazily. It is a matter that we need, as a people, to look after in a way that will enable us to make redress for something that has gone untouched for too long. It is just a part, as Daley says, of the puzzle of Reconciliation, but it is one that can be put in place so easily and to such great effect.

The reason I put the story of the lost medals into my story from 2010 is because often we do forget, although the Anzac Day ceremony asks us never to do so. Remembering the lost lives of fighters in the frontier wars is something that we should do collectively. It should should be something that enters into our collective consciousness. We should have the names of the dead as markers to guide us in our observances and in our conversations about it. It is time to do something. Let's do it.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Let's set up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta

I wanted to talk about this magazine cover in the context of the Reclaim Australia rallies held in Australia's capital cities over Easter, and also roping in the government's harsh treatment of refugees arriving in the country by boat. I don't mean that every family of refugees that comes here will have members who deserve to be pictured on the cover of this magazine. But the contributions made by refugees to Australia have always been considerable and mostly they have been positive. And even given the policy of multiculturalism, refugees - and migrants in general - tend to assimilate into the local culture. And if they do not do so their children will (because refugees like everyone tend to have children).

Having children brings me to another point, which is that without population growth tied largely to immigration Australia's economy would be like that of economic basket case Japan, where it is impossible for anyone to naturalise as a Japanese regardless of how long they have lived there. (There are families of Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations who are still treated legally as foreigners.) A far more rational and humane solution, for us, to stopping the boats would therefore be to establish a refugee processing centre in Jakarta where people arriving in Indonesia from other places with the intention to transit to Australia could be handled by Australian specialist staff so that the transition could be as painless and efficient as possible. Far better this than letting such people risk their lives on rickety boats they pay "people smugglers" to use.

We need refugees. We need immigrants. They lift demand for goods and services, stimulating the overall economy and boosting government revenues. On a personal level, furthermore, I am very positive about the contributions made by refugees because my paternal grandfather was an illegal immigrant from Africa, a place he left in 1924 prior to arriving by boat in Melbourne. He got off the boat and never got back on. He stayed, married a local girl and raised a family. He didn't naturalise until the 50s. His children got married and raised their own families. All of these people have contributed to Australia's economy, and all of them participate in its unique culture. We should be proud of refugees for making a rational choice by choosing Australia to live in, and in response we should make a rational choice and set up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta so that they can be introduced into Australia in the best way possible.

Getting back to the Reclaim Australian rallies, it seems to me that these people are exercising their democratic rights in order to voice their objection to extreme versions of Islam, rather than to immigrants from Islamic countries more generally. It is unfortunate that some people will make the mistake of thinking that their grievance is with Muslims in general. However, we have never seen rallies like this in Australia before and it appears to me that they are more specifically a response to extreme varieties of Islamic practice such as ISIS in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Shabab in Kenya.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Mum gets out of hospital after eight days of admission

This is a photo of mum on the day she was taken to hospital, which was last Sunday, which means that she was in hospital for eight days. Today I had just bought hot coffees for mum and myself and I was walking from the kiosk to the hospital's front entrance when the phone rang and it was the nurse in mum's ward telling me that mum was to be discharged. I hurried upstairs and made arrangements, and soon brought my car around to the back of the hospital to take mum back to the nursing home. She was still wearing her hospital gowns and the orange socks the hospital issues patients that have white rubber studs on the soles to prevent the wearer from slipping.

Back at the nursing home I parked the car under the building and mum and I walked arm-in-arm to the elevator. We took it up two levels, back to the first floor, where mum's room is located, and I gave the nurse standing near the elevator doors the hospital's discharge documents and the plastic bag full of medicines the hospital had given me, which included mum's oral antibiotics. We went back to mum's room and two staffers came to help mum change clothes into normal clothes, then I took a call on the iPhone from my brother and he and mum talked for a few minutes.

Mum is not quite all there however and I could sense something amiss in the course of the Facetime conversation she had with my brother. Things were not quite getting through between the two of them. Mum did not really seem to actually understand where she was. Although the hospital physiotherapist had ascertained that mum had reverted - post the treatment for the blood infection she had been admitted to hospital for - back to a baseline equal to where she was prior to admission, in cognitive terms I feel that mum is still getting back to that point. There remains a deficit linked to the dislocation, which is understandable in someone who is living with dementia, because she had been completely removed from familiar surroundings for over a week's time. I asked mum during lunch - when we finally made it to the dining room together - where she was and she said, "In a boarding house."

"Almost," I thought; and it did in fact make sense if you have ever read a story set in an old fashioned boarding house. There are the shared meals in the dining room, for example, and the changing faces as people arrive at the establishment and leave it. Mum was not far off the mark. But the mistake said a lot about where she is, in a cognitive sense, following the illness she has just recovered from. She is in a shifting landscape. She knows when she is cold, for example, but may not know how to change the temperature on the air conditioning control unit. She may need to follow the call of nature but may not know which direction to go in in order to reach the bathroom. There are pieces missing, and hopefully, with time, they will be filled in with new images and ideas. We can only wait and see.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A big day in the rain

This morning as usual I went up to see mum in the hospital. Over the past few days she has had a new neighbour who evidently has a mental problem, as this person does odd things with her hands, placing them just below her chin and sighing repeatedly in a loud voice. She does this kind of thing for an hour at a time, sitting upright in her chair and sighing through her raised fingers, and over her palms held up near her chin. She has a daughter who comes to see her. They are Arab Christians I think, and the daughter always brings the old woman a box of sushi to eat for lunch.

I don't think the woman eats the sushi, and the daughter doesn't seem to know any better since she appears to leave before lunchtime arrives. I stayed for lunch today and did my bit for sanity by encouraging mum to eat her food, and then I left the hospital when visiting hours ended at 1pm.

After I drove home on the sodden motorway - with the traffic screaming along at its usual frantic place, and idiots in 4WDs doing their best to get everyone within a radius of twenty metres killed in a burning heap of steel and rubber - I had a lie down in bed. Then my flatmate came home and we went out, taking a cab to Taylors Square. From there we walked through the wet streets with their old houses down to Stanley Street and had a late lunch - I had prawns with fettuccine - before heading east on foot over the hill and over the bridge into Paddington. We walked up to Five Ways then through to Hopetoun Street and up Paddington Street to Jersey Road and then turned right to come out on Oxford Street.

After arriving on Oxford Street at Darlinghurst again we caught a cab down to Chinatown where we ate again and headed home with full stomachs. At home it was the right time for me to do my laundry, have a shower, and drink a couple of glasses of wine while watching the evening news on the ABC. We walked for about three hours today so the rest at the end was well-deserved. A big day for me and I think I'll sleep well tonight. I'll go back up to see mum again tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

I'll be glad when mum is out of hospital

My mother has taken the canula out of her hand twice because, she said, it was uncomfortable. The canula is necessary because staff at the hospital are feeding her antibiotics through the drip. She has responded well to antibiotics and is much more herself now, after three days in the hospital, and I think the staff are going to discharge her soon.

She is keen to go back to the nursing home. When I arrived at the hospital yesterday she was so eager to see me she almost jumped out of her chair. And later, in the afternoon, she called me on the hospital phone and asked me to get her out of there. She was very confused. I had to reassure her that she had been very ill and that being in the hospital doubtless saved her life, and that she should continue to be patient. "I have been patient all day," she told me. "You have to keep on being patient," I said to her over the phone.

My mother is obviously not a very patient person. Her urinary tract infection - which is what the staff think was the thing that made her sick in the first place - migrated to her blood, so she had urosepsis. This was why she was so weak and unlike herself initially. The antibiotics have done her wonders, and she is clearly getting back to her normal self. It takes time and care, which the hospital has provided with great skill and gentleness.

For myself, it has been quite disruptive to have mum in hospital because I have had to go and see her every day. Usually when she is in the nursing home I might go and see her every two or three days. So from my point of view the episode has been troublesome, and today I feel quite tired what with all the driving on crowded roads. Back home I have kept myself busy with more shredding and throwing out papers in the recycling room. It has been seven weeks now since I moved here and the organising of the boxes of dad's records continues. It all takes time.