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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

When there's a diversity of trousers

The weekend before last I went into the city to buy clothes and I ended up walking out of the store with two pairs of trousers and three long-sleeve shirts to complement my existing cold-season wardrobe (although truthfully I wear this sort of outfit pretty much throughout the year; next summer will be about a year since I last lived in Queensland so we'll see if I will start to feel the warmth of the southern summer; I certainly did not feel the heat last summer in Sydney, so it was long-sleeves and trousers every day after relocating last February).

The thing about the trousers that turned out to be a little strange is that even though they were identically labelled the trousers were very different in fit and finish, and I had to take both of them to the tailor for adjustment. I just came back from the tailor the second time this morning in fact.

The blue trousers were a good 5cm longer than the black ones, for a start. So when I spoke with the tailor up the street she got me to put the blue trousers on so she could fix a good length with a pin prior to doing the work after I left. I like my trousers a bit shorter than most people, I gauge, so it took a few tries before we got the right length. The blue trousers also had button holes that were not large enough for the attached buttons, so I asked the tailor to mend those as well. (Changing the length of the trousers ended up being a lot cheaper in Sydney than the same procedure cost me back on the Coast.) I got the blue trousers back from the tailor last week and they now fit fine, and they have been washed.

The black trousers fit fine and had perfect leg length from the time they were purchased but what turned out to be at fault with this pair was that the lining of the back, right-side pocket was not sewn away properly as it should have been. So I took the black trousers back to the tailor's yesterday and they returned them this morning fixed and in good order.

It's curious though how different the two pairs of trousers turned out to be. Apart from the length of the leg, the blue trousers also have pockets that are not big enough. My keys and mobile phone just barely fit in these pockets and I have a mind - before some disaster takes place and I lose something valuable in the street - to get the pockets enlarged to make them the right size to suit my needs. I can only think that the trousers must have been made in different factories or by different companies, because by the time they arrived in the department store they were labelled exactly the same. Same type of label, same description, same size, same cut. It's a mystery.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Getting things ready for if my son comes out

I sent an email to my ex-wife last week telling her that my spare room would be empty in case my son was interested in coming out to Australia for a visit and a few days later he sent me an SMS asking if I had any ideas about a college where he could study in Sydney during the Japanese summer holidays. After confirming his email address I sent him a message asking him for the dates when the holidays would be in force so that we could start making plans. Summer holidays in Japan usually take place in late July and August, so I guessed that there would still be enough time this year for us both to make the necessary arrangements in the case that we were able to organise a trip for him.

One thing that would become pressing of course was the matter of a bed. I had some sheets for a bed smaller than a queen-size bed from when my daughter came out two years ago. They are nice sheets - one set is black and one set is red, as chosen by Adelaide, who is now 23 - and have hardly been used so I thought it would be best to find a bed that fit them, and buy that. So this morning I looked up homemaker centres in Sydney and found one in Alexandria, then printed out a map from Whereis and got in the car and headed out. After taking a wrong turn from Wyndham Street that put me on Bourke Road I got back onto O'Riordan Street before getting to the turn-off to the homemaker centre, which is visible where there is a turning bay marked in the middle of the street making it easy for cars to get in.

There was hardly a soul in the building and the bed store was right near the entrance. Within minutes I was trying the sheets on different beds assisted by the salesman and we worked out that it was a king-single-size bed that we needed for me to go with my sheets. Shortly afterward I had chosen a frame and mattress. The salesman took my details for the delivery and I explained to him about the fairly complicated arrangements you have to make to deliver goods to the building where my apartment is. I paid and left, heading back home. I expect the goods to arrive within 10 days, and the store will call me when they are ready to deliver. It was a simple process made easier by being completed on a quiet day of the week. I hate to think how much more time the process would have taken if I had attempted it on a weekend.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Twitter's promoted videos in the native interface

Twitter is doing a really irritating thing in order to improve revenues (yes I know the share price has slipped recently and they are getting nervous out at head office, but honestly!).

What they have done is they're running a campaign of promoted tweets that contain videos, in their native interface. The video tweets get bumped to the top of the column on refresh so that every time you look at the interface one of them is running there. The thing is that if you stop the video and go away to another tab, then come back to the native Twitter interface's tab the video will be running again; in other words, these promoted videos default to 'running' and it doesn't matter how many times you stop the video and go away to a new tab, when you come back to the native Twitter tab the video will be running again. It's totally gag-worthy.

And it's inescapable. Social media is so hungry for revenue that they of course will compromise your enjoyment of their interfaces if it means earning a buck, and this pomoted video tweet is just another example of that phenomenon. It's not however quite as bad as when HootSuite locked a promoted tweet at the top of their feed; when they did that of course I, along with many other users no doubt, simply stopped using HootSuite and went to TweetDeck instead. While this new example of cashing in on people's attention is not as bad as that one, it's still not a pretty sight and augurs poorly for the future.

With Twitter's new ploy, you are constantly distracted every time you look at the native Twitter tab by the idiotic videos their advertisers have cobbled together just for this purpose. It's rigged and there's nothing you can do about it. However I reported one of the ads and Twitter got back to me within thirty minutes telling me they would contact me in future, but nothing has happened yet on that front. We'll see what happens and I'll keep you informed.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The case of the errant wedding rings

Today wasn't the first time mum and I had spoken about rings. I made a remark about her rings at lunchtime as we were all sitting around the table and she held out the third finger of her left hand and with her thumb dexterously pushed out the ring that was on it, saying, "This is my wedding ring." I didn't really want to correct her, but two months earlier, when she had been admitted to hospital with sepsis I had taken her wedding ring off her finger and removed it to the relative safety of my apartment. The hospital anyway had a sign in the ward on the wall warning people not to leave valuables around. I thought it best.

So I said to mum, "That's not your wedding ring, I took your wedding ring off your finger and took it home when you went into hospital." "Oh well I don't know what that is, then," she said, indicating the offending item of jewellery that everyone at the table was by now regarding closely and with rapt attention. "I think this is mine though."

Things have been fluid in the jewellery area for some time. This morning when I arrived I noticed on the floor under her wheeled table a small sateen bag about the size of a 50-cent piece that has a tiny cord you can pull to close the bag's mouth. A week or so earlier I had seen the same bag inside a diminutive, heart-shaped box that was covered in colourful paper with a printed pattern on it. Inside the bag, at that time, were two silver clasps with letters attached to them - an 'R' and a 'Z' - with the letters attached to the clasps so cleverly and with such efficient craftsmanship that you could not see the seam where they were joined to them. In the box were other items of jewellery although I assessed them to be of no particular value, except perhaps sentimental value for the owner.

In my mother's room, furthermore, is a jewellery case that stands on four feet and two curved legs. It has a lockable cabinet standing upright and inside there are hooks for hanging necklaces, and for rings and bangles and other items of jewellery that you might need to put away safely and in good order. There are a number of necklaces inside the cabinet but nothing worth any money. I am not sure why she has this in her room, but before moving to Sydney she had asked for it to be sent to her, so I had sent it down with the other furniture she needed or wanted. Occasionally she will wear a necklace. But the jewellery cabinet does not explain the wandering rings.

The rings I think get distributed during the normal social rounds that the residents of the nursing home make on their daily progress through life. There seems to be a circulating quota of personal property in the nursing home that just gets shunted from room to room as people mix and socialise. There are people they visit, or routes that they take in the mornings or afternoons. My mother might stop and knock on someone's door and say hello. It's also important to note that when you live in a nursing home there is not a lot you are asked to decide on. For example, I told the lunch gathering today that I would be stopping off at the petrol station on the way home to get petrol for the car and mum asked me, "Do you need some petrol money?" as if it were a germane question. The thing is that I have access to her bank accounts anyway and have no need of her occasional verbalised largesse. But that doesn't stop the need to make decisions, to have agency. I think it's the same with the rings. They are just shared because they can be.

I don't think there's a lot I can do about the rings. I have a collection of family wedding rings in the apartment - as you can see in the photo accompanying this post - but it's not even certain that the one I took from my mother when she was in hospital was actually her wedding ring. She had been in the nursing home for some time by then. And inscribed inside the band are letters, though I cannot clearly decipher them. I don't think they are my parents' initials, however. Which makes me think that this wedding ring is actually the property of someone else.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The ABC should be on the side of truth

When the prime minister asked rhetorically - and very publicly - "whose side" the ABC was on following the Q and A debacle where a convicted felon was allowed to ask a government minister a question on live TV, I stared very hard at the computer screen. I didn't laugh out loud, or splutter incredulously, or choke with rage, although I would hardly be blamed for doing any of these rather more dramatic things. I just looked coldly at the picture of Tony Abbott on the news website and seethed with quiet anger and thought to myself, "Mr Abbott needs to go back to his much-vaunted university and do some more reading I think if he thinks that this is a reasonable response to something so unremarkable."

A free press is one of the things that characterises Australia in comparison to, say, China, where the media is entirely state controlled and where they have a multitude of major problems on a scale inconceivable in Australia, such as widespread pollution of the air and water and land, inadequate support for children and the elderly, endemic corruption, no rule of law, a non-existent public school system ... and the list goes on and on and on and on. And because Australia has fixed all of these kinds of problems - because we have a free media - thousands of Chinese investors are buying properties in Australia every year. More than that, Chinese parents are now paying for the privilege to send their secondary-school-aged children to Australia for an education and a promising headstart in life Down Under. Our universities have long been an important magnet attracting talented young Chinese people to come and migrate to Australia - because these institutions have been developed in a society that had a free media - and now Chinese parents want their child to start their Australian education a few years earlier. Australia should be rightly proud that we are such an attractive destination for both investors and for parents living in China, our vast northern neighbour.

None of those attractions would have existed without a free press. In fact, a free press has existed in every country where democracy has taken root. You could go further to say that a free press is a precondition for democracy. There is a reason that they call the media the fourth estate, after all.

But Mr Abbott should also go further back in his research than just last Monday's Q and A program. He should go back to 2003 when his conservative predecessor John Howard took Australia to war on the basis of a bald lie, to find the roots of the discontent that animates people like Mr Mallah. If the young man is unhappy then the reason for his unhappiness can clearly be ascribed to the actions of people in the Coalition. People like Tony Abbott are responsible for Mallah's discontent, and to blame the ABC is ludicrous. If anything, Mr Abbott should be blaming the biased sources of information at his beloved News Corp, which is operated by a politically-conservative practicing Catholic like the prime minister himself.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Should I really subscribe to Stan TV?

I was up at the nursing home the other day and I saw a guy on the TV in the TV viewing area they have there talking about Stan TV, which is a pay service that the Sydney Morning Herald is currently working with through a promotional offer that you can see on their website. The guy was sitting in his easy chair and leaning so far back I thought he was about to fall off through the studio wall into the street, he looked so relaxed. And he was spouting some codswallop about Stan "changing the way you watch TV" or some other commercial nonsense, after having said that all you need to do is go to the Stan website and sign up and "you're away".

Now it's true that you have to go to the Stan website and register your details for identification and billing purposes but it's a lot more complicated than that in real life as opposed to life in TV land, which is where this leaning guy was coming from. So far, for me, I've had three phone calls with the SMH talking about the subscription options. I have also had several email conversations with Stan representatives, and I called my TV connection experts as well. I think that now I have worked out what it all means but that still doesn't mean that I can just go to a website and put in my details and be "away".

For a start you need to have a special device to connect to your TV if you want to watch Stan from your TV. Some people might be fine watching Stan on their computer but frankly I spend enough time per day doing social media on the desktop that when I relax in the evening I want to do it leaning back on the couch. There's also the option to watch Stan on the iPhone (but it's got a too-small screen) or on the iPad (well, I don't have one). Stan will tell you, if you want to use your regular TV, that there are two devices that you can buy to connect your TV to the modem - Stan comes down through the modem like internet feed - and they are the Apple TV device or the Google Chromecast dongle. Both devices connect to the HDMI port on the back of your TV. Stan does not currently work with Smart TVs, by the way (whatever they are).

One problem for me is that I only have one HDMI port on my Samsung TV and that port is currently being used to connect the DVD player to the TV. The TV connection people put that in there. I actually talked to these guys but it seems they don't know much about Stan (or didn't when I talked with them, which was some weeks ago) because they thought you needed a Smart TV. Of course I could simply disconnect the DVD player from the TV and never watch DVDs again; or I could just plug in the DVD player on the rare occasion when I wanted to watch a DVD.

When I delved further with the Stan representative via email it turned out that the company recommends for my particular model of TV using the Apple TV device and not the Google one. I have seen these devices for sale at Dick Smith's so as far as I can tell I just have to walk into town to buy one and bring it home. Then I can disconnect the DVD player from the TV, register on the Stan website, and upgrade my current SMH subscription.

The SMH subscription thing is also a bit complicated, on top of all the other complications already listed above. Currently, I have a $15-per-month subscription that entitles me to use the internet to read the SMH. If I want to avail myself of the Stan promotional offer, however, I would have to upgrade to an "all digital" subscription, which is $25 per month. That would allow me to read the SMH, for example, on my mobile phone through an app that would improve the reading experience. (I don't know about other people, but reading the SMH on a mobile phone is a complete pain because the ads keep getting in the way and the pages lag, meaning you are constantly tapping on ridiculous ads for Caribbean cruises and aftershave.)

When you get down to it, for someone who wants to watch Stan on their regular TV there is quite a high barrier to cross in order to arrive at the goal of actually watching the feed they provide. Apart from anything else I have no idea what would happen to my remote control - or even if Stan has a special remote control - and how that could be used alongside my regular remote control. So many questions. So little actual need. Do I really want to watch more drama on my TV? Frankly I'm not sure. On top of everything else if I go with this promotional offer instead of paying $15 per month for the SMH I'll be paying $35 per month for the whole package (apart from 6 months free at the beginning of the Stan contract).

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The problem with losing your memory

Mum had a bit of a health scare last week. On Thursday evening around 7.30pm I received a phone call from the nursing home telling me that mum had fallen and bumped her head but that she didn't remember anything about it. There was no bleeding, just a painful bump on the back, right side, upper hemisphere, of her scalp. The nursing home has a policy of always calling the next of kin when the resident has a fall. (It was the same with dad's nursing home on the Coast; they always called us when dad had a fall.)

There was nothing I could do immediately and she was able to speak still, and walk, so I left it there and made a mental note to go up again at the earliest opportunity. When I saw mum again yesterday she looked ok, as she had done on Friday when I had gone up, and she seemed fit and healthy still despite the fall.

There are some things that mum remembers faithfully. For example, she remembers that my flatmate had moved out. That's probably because my flatmate had been a friend for years and because the arrangement where she lived in the apartment was a complicated one, and one which had not been entirely successful from my point of view. But the fall that occasioned the bump on her head is something that evades the grasp of her memory like a flash of lightning, perhaps, or a sudden spark of light as when a car in the distance goes around a corner and the sun glances off its windscreen in your direction. Something so quick is not sticky enough to stay put in the memory whereas something repeated over and over again, such as my tales of my flatmate, seem to have left a mark there.

Overall mum's health is otherwise fairly good apart from the wretched urinary tract infections (UTIs). She has had three of them so far this cold season, and they knock her "flat out", as they say. When a UTI strikes mum cannot walk and has a lot of difficulty responding verbally to conversational cues. It is a debilitating illness that is however thankfully quickly countered by a short course of antibiotics. Unlike with most illnesses that can be treated with this class of drug, UTIs respond immediately, and the effects of the pills can easily be seen even the next day, they work so quickly.

The UTIs can probably be ascribed to a weakened immune system resulting from the cortisone treatment mum is having for the underlying myelodysplastic syndrome that she lives with. The haematologist has wanted to lift her platelet count and so prescribed the drug but it has a concomitant effect of weakening the immune system generally.

I went up to see mum on three consecutive days last week partly because of the head bump. This week I won't be able to go up to see her again until Thursday because of other appointments.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Who would buy clothes online? Not me.

Last week I lost another pair of trousers because the black pair I have had for years and that are durable finally lost it in the crotch area, with a rip the size of Texas appearing as I was putting on my socks. A few weeks earlier I had thrown out another pair of trousers which had had a major issue in the zipper region (the zipper kept falling down when you wore them around). And then a pair I got most recently up on the Coast had showed a small tear in the nether regions, and I thought, "It's time to buy some more trousers." So I walked into town to Myer yesterday morning.

Because I'm quite large-sized some clothiers do not make my size of trousers so I went straight for the "Reserve" labelled Myer's-own brand which usually have the bigger sizes, and I found a pair of a size I currently use which I took to the change rooms. Unfortunately they were not big enough (I actually knew this and was being a bit clever even trying this pair on this time) and so I got dressed again and went back out into the store and got a size-larger pair to try. I took them back to the change rooms and tried them on and found that they were perfect. Back in the store I got two pairs of the same brand in the same size and then asked the sales clerk if she could hold them behind the counter for me while I went and got some shirts.

I had walked past the concession for a favourite shirt brand while on the way earlier to the fitting rooms so I went over and saw a shirt with a pattern that appealed to me. I took it off the rack and went to the fitting rooms but the shirt was a bit tight around the stomach. I got dressed again and went back outside and picked up a size-larger shirt from the rack and took that one back to the fitting room. This one fit perfectly, so I got dressed again, went back out into the store and picked up three shirts of the same brand in the same size that had fit me.

I took these shirts to the check-out counter and asked the clerk if she could get the pants out for me that I had reserved earlier, and she called over another sales clerk to do the transaction because she was busy with other things. We did the transaction and the guy made sure - at my prompting - to neutralise the security devices in the clothing so that the alarm would not go off when I left the store later. Then I headed to floor 5 to the manchester department because while I had been trying on a pair of pants they had announced over the PA system a sale until midday (it was by this time about 10.45am) for Sheridan sheets.

In the manchester department I asked the sales clerk which sheets were on sale and then went over and picked up the most expensive ones I could find: 600 thread count 100% cotton sateen fabric. These sheets usually sell for $429 so I paid half that and walked out with a top-quality pair of sheets. I had needed bedsheets since throwing away a ripped set on the Coast last year.

Now I'm pretty happy with most things digital, and have been using Facebook since 2006 and Twitter since 2009. I spend a lot of my day online doing various things including blogging and social media. I buy books online through my Kindle. But shopping for clothes seems to me to be something that you really want to do in the real world. And I would never have heard about that sale for sheets if I hadn't been in the actual store at just the right time.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Movie review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) dir George Miller

Another dawn. Yes, another day has flashed like a shooting star across the dark hemisphere of your consciousness and you are one day closer to disintegration. One day closer to death. And then you are gone and your children are middle-aged and then they are entering the twilight years themselves. And on and on through the generations until one day you wake up and you are living in a world like you see in this movie where there is no happiness, only dearth, no water, only gasoline, no love, only hunger, no answer, only the claims of absolute power. No media, no debate, no political process, no numbers in the House. Just illness and want and miles and miles of sand.

The movie is full of surprises. The visuals are intense and all-enveloping. There's a strange irony there in the lengths the movie's creators have gone to to create a sense of overkill. The aesthetic is something that a 15-year-old boy might enjoy, for a start. From the drums and woofers of the doof wagon to the wispy negliges worn by Immortan Joe's "breeders", whose fine limbs look outlandish amid the grit and metal of the desert and its panoply of cars. The irony reaches a sort of climax in the silver spray the rev-heads apply to their mouths at moments of intense emotional high, as when they are about to face death. Their mouths robotically chime with appeals to Norse mythological figures as the unbearable blasts emanate from the heavy-metal guitarist strapped to the front of one of the outrageous 4WD vehicles.

On the obverse of this set of strongly masculine and consumeristic tropes sit the feminine absolutes of regeneration and stoicism. The standard-bearer here is the one-armed Imperator Furiosa who initially drives the war rig off the well-trodden path and thereby commits a sin that must be punished, and so the posse of pursuit cars is unleashed from Immortan Joe's rocky citadel, each populated by a handful of rev-heads motivated by greed and blood lust. Although, as mentioned earlier, the violence is here pure pastiche; there is pastiche upon pastiche until each physical act becomes just part of a vast stylised choreography as in Japanese Noh theatre.

There are quiet moments allowing more complete contemplation of things in the movie however, plenty of them. Nothing compares as an illustration of mankind's despoilation of the natural world, for example, quite like the sight of Nux prompting the war rig to winch itself out of the bog via an anchor point on a sole, leafless tree that is subsequently uprooted in the manoeuvre. The night scene is devoid of colour, and dreamy. Dreamy also is the way Nux and Capable fall in love in the back of the war rig amid the spanners and oily engine cloths, her red hair falling softly against her lovely face as the poor rev-head finally discovers hope in the darkness. Even the levers the movie's creators pull in their love scenes are covered in grime and soil.

Soil and water emerge as major elements in the movie's denouement, after the occupants of the war rig meet up with the bike-riding women who inhabit Imperator Furiosa's ancestral lands, which she discovers to be as barren and bare as the rest of the damned landscape. A bag of heirloom seeds one of the old women carries becomes a leitmotif of feminine ingenuity in undertaking the important tasks of nurturing and reproduction. As always, symbols are brought into the ambit of the movie's cinematic grasp but they remain essentially untouched. This is Miller's genius. While the movie seems to be stylised past compare individual scenes and cinematic elements are somehow rendered pure in the process. There is a lovely poetry at work here even as we cope with the demands of the movie's aesthetic overload. It is something of a puzzle.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Being patient with people might get you closer to the truth

Mum was unwell again a couple of days ago when I went up to the nursing home so I drove up again yesterday to check on her and to make sure she was alright. We linked up with my brother on FaceTime using the iPad and he showed mum one of his cats. Mum always responds well to pets, he told me later when we sat down together to talk on the device. I had told him to make sure his communications with mum were positive and unambiguous because, I had said, older people can lose the faculties required to pick up subtle signals in our daily communications, in things such as voice, speech rhythms, and facial expressions. So the cat was happily employed.

While mum was talking with her other son I had strayed out into the hallway where I spoke to mum's neighbour, W, who was standing in her room near the door to the hallway. We spoke about mortality - as you are always prone to do in places like nursing homes, and as it was natural for us to do after mum's recent illness - and W confessed to me that she believed in an afterlife. I expressed doubt but went on to gently and carefully describe to W my personal cosmogony with its Big Bang and the putative whatever that must have come before that event. And then W rewarded my tolerance by telling me a story.

When she was younger she had been in hospital because during childbirth she had experienced a hemorrhage. They took her to the hospital, and while the doctors were attending to her body she felt herself lifting out of it and ascending to the ceiling, where she came to rest. She told me how she stayed there looking down from under the ceiling as the doctors did their work on her. When they had finished, she said, they wrapped her in a grey blanket.

When she awoke she felt hot and she looked down to find that she was wrapped in a grey blanket. That was how she knew that what she had seen from her position underneath the hospital's ceiling had been true. The walls of the ward, she told me, also did not go all the way up to the ceiling, so she had been able to see into other rooms while she was hovering up there in her spiritual suspended animation (or whatever it was). They had taken the grey blanket from a cupboard in a nearby room and later, when she had recovered, she went into that room to find that it was laid out exactly as she had seen during her out-of-body experience.

What W told me doesn't really alter my knowledge of the universe, except to tell me that sometimes you have to be patient with people if you want to hear the truth - the truth is not always the first thing that people say, usually because they are trying to protect themselves for some reason. But it does tell me that what Pixie, our family friend from all those years ago, whose paintings adorn mum's walls in her room in the nursing home, was accurate when she told us stories about poltergeists and other faeries that she had seen.

In Pixie's case the "faeries at the bottom of the garden" were as often as not me and my brother coming up from our place - situated down the hill from hers - to have one of our lovely talks with her after school one day. But yesterday's chat with W underscored to me how universal spirituality is, and how desperately we can cling to our quotidian understanding of life out of fear or horror or whatever it is that motivates us in these things.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Most talk about negative gearing misses the point

I've been watching the commentariat - especially the people on the Left - get worked up over the past few days about negative gearing and it seems to me that the majority of them are working from incomplete data or misguided assumptions. Apart from anything else there seems to be a huge quantity of envy involved right now. As though accruing more than one property were somehow reprehensible when in fact it's just an effective way - tried and true, in the Australian context - to save for your retirement.

As in the case of the superannuation debate, this aspect of the case seems to have slipped people's minds. People don't want to retire on the public purse. And why would you want to? The money is bad, you are relying on someone else to provide it, and there's no guarantee it won't be tinkered with by some parsimonious government or another at some point down the track. It's much more reliable to have your own nest egg to use when you stop working for a wage.

The other thing people seem to have forgotten is that, in by far the majority of cases, the people now with multiple properties were all first home buyers at one point in time. Because please don't think that just because your parents have a home and an investment property that you're going to inherit them. They will in all likelihood be liquidated and the proceeds used to live off, or for some other purpose such as residential aged care. That's right, the government has just changed the rules for residential aged care. In the past, they based the residential fees on your income but now they - both Liberal and Labor - are calculating fees based on income and assets, which means that you have to declare all your assets to Centrelink, and you will be left with whatever the government sees fit to leave you. Or your children.

Apart from anything else the fact remains that if we remove negative gearing the cost of renting properties will just go up. They tried it before in the 80s and that's what happened. In any case, the tax that you save during the life of the mortgage through negative gearing is anyway going to be repaid at the end, when you calculate capital gain. At that point, the government will step in and take away a slice of your property just because they can. And remember, taxation is not divinely orchestrated, it's just the level of punishment the government convinces us we should tolerate in order to live better lives. It's a kind of ethical calculus. For the sake of safe streets, good government, clean air and water we pay tax. But that doesn't mean that the government should be allowed to tax everything under the sun as they see fit.

And if people want to complain about property gaining capital value, they should try living in a country where there is actual depreciation, like in Japan. There, a property you bought in the 1990s for $300,000 is probably worth about $200,000 now. How is that particular circumstance going to work when it comes to a person's retirement? Oh and they also have interest rates at zero, so you can't live off the proceeds from term deposits either.

Negative gearing has served Australia well. There are about a million Australians directly using it, which means that a very large slice of the population is involved in it in some way or other. It keeps properties coming through the development pipeline in a way that benefits many people in different ways, not least the battler who struggles to buy their first home and then, 15 years down the track, forks out another slice of hard-earned to buy an investment property. Because who wants to live off the public purse when they retire? The age pension is the largest single line item in the government's expenses ledger anyway. Buying a second property can therefore easily be seen as a patriotic gesture.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

I'm so very glad I gave up smoking

It has been just under a year since I gave up smoking. The last cigarette was smoked on 21 June 2014. And it hasn't been difficult to stay off the smokes. I got help from Champix, a drug you can get your doctor to prescribe that takes away the cravings you get when you want a cigarette. I took Champix for a couple of months during which time I gradually cut down the number of smokes I had per day, and then gave up entirely, while still taking the medication. Then I stopped the Champix, and it has been fine since then.

I still feel short of breath after climbing a long flight of stairs or if I walk up a long, steep hill, which means that the damage that I did to my lungs over decades of smoking has to a certain degree been permanent. But at least it's not going to get worse, and that's a good thing, not least because there have been more and more restrictions put on smoking by governments at all levels even in the short time that has passed since I quit.

How long did I smoke for? I don't remember. I remember getting the belt when I was aged about 12 years from dad after he found out that I had been smoking. It was the only time he ever used physical punishment on me. Dad was not prone to that kind of behaviour, thank goodness. I remember smoking later, when I was at university, because he would drop me off at the campus and I would go to the canteen under Fisher Library to buy a pack of Kent and have one in the Stack - you could still smoke inside buildings in those days - before going to my first class for the day. I remember giving up when I started karate around 1988 but resuming when I met my future wife - a Japanese woman who smoked - and we got married in 1991. Then it was smoking all the way. In Japan, where I arrived in 1992, I smoked Caster, a local brand, until a colleague gave me a pack of Marlboro Lights and I switched, changing again to Marlboro Reds in around 2001.

That's a lot of smoking done, right there. And I regret it. Not so much the money - it only became really expensive near the end - but the health impact. It's difficult to know what kind of effect it had on my health over the years but I can tell now that having given up, I feel much better generally.

The final straw that made me give up in the end was a simple event. One day I found a can of air freshener on the external module of my air conditioner, which sat in the open-to-the-air hallway in the block of units in Maroochydore I lived in. There were three units of each floor, and the unit to the left was hardly occupied because it had been bought by a family living in Brisbane who only used it occasionally for holidays. So if the can of air freshener had been put there deliberately by someone then I knew who had done it.

I never said anything to them, but the next time I saw my psychiatrist I spoke to him about my misgivings and he asked me why I didn't give up. I also told him that because of mum's dementia and my desire to move back to Sydney eventually I would probably one day down the track be living in a unit block in that city where pressure from neighbours upset by the smell of cigarette smoke would only be worse than it had been on the Coast. So he prescribed me Champix and it was then only a matter of following the instructions on the packet and cutting down.

When I see office workers stuck out at the backside of the building across the street from my apartment I feel sorry for them. There are always, every week now, more pressures on people to give up. I personally didn't go for the vaping option because I knew that the authorities and the health experts advising them would never allow that route to be easy. So I'm really grateful to my psychiatrist for helping me to drop the habit. It has been well worthwhile and I recommend it to anyone who has anxieties about their own smoking. It sounds hard but with help it doesn't need to be, and in the long run you'll be thankful you quit.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

We need things to be at least a little familiar

When I was driving through Tamworth on the way back from New England on Monday I was listening to the radio and Maggie Beer, the cooking writer, talking about menus in aged care facilities. If you want the elderly to more fully engage with the food you are serving them, you need to introduce it first with a menu, she said. They will pass the menu around and talk about the food on offer. Not only that, she went on, but the description should be at least a little bit familiar so that they can understand what you are serving them. You can make a small change to an item on the menu, to introduce something new to the diners, she said, but only a small change, otherwise it will be too different for them and they will not take to the idea.

The draw of the familiar is something that we are all prone to. Look at literature, for example. In genre fiction, which some people say is "cliched", you get books that contain ideas and tropes that are often familiar but they are interlaced with small differences. It is the friction created by the small differences rubbing against the familiar that generates a sensation of pleasure for some readers - those for whom reading genre fiction is a satisfying experience - but for others there is no sensation at all, and they dub the book cliched and a dud.

We even cleave to the familiar in our politics. Without public figures to hate where would we be? We love to deprecate the words of certain people who operate in the public sphere, even powerful ones, because they are familiar parts of the political landscape. They punctuate the vast landscape of popular ideas like familiar landmarks, and we orient ourselves in that space with reference to them daily. They make us feel at home, despite the fact that we may disagree vehemently with their ideas, and with the notions they express on a regular basis.

Without the familiar we are lost. Without familiar elements in the places that we inhabit we cannot find ourselves, and we don't know where to go. We don't even know what we should like or hate. But how that reality reflects on us - particularly with reference to our politics, whether we are progressive in outlook or whether we are conservative - remains to be discussed. Are the conservatives really bold adventurers who need to have something familiar fixed on their moral and ethical compass by which they can orient themselves as they go out alone in the wilderness to venture far? Are progressives really just meek followers who must have familiar bugbears to give them comfort in the otherwise bewildering spaces that surround them in their daily rounds?

Or is it the opposite? Are progressives the ones who venture out free of restraint except for the pure motor essence of ideas, and who therefore despise the small-minded, hide-bound verbal shenanigans of the conservative politician? And are conservatives merely born followers who shiver with revulsion when you offer them the chance to float free of old certitudes, and to venture out into unfamiliar realms beyond their diurnal ken?

Who knows? What is certain however is that a certain modicum of cliche is desirable when you are trying to communicate something unfamiliar to an audience, which is why journalists and their subeditors often turn to well-known tropes for headlines. Those familiar hooks draw the reader to the story, they attract passing strangers to sample the goods, and to read. Without those familiar markers, we would all be a little disoriented. And what on earth would happen then?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Getting away from it all for a few days is salutory

As you can see from the photo the countryside up in New England is quite green at the moment. The long grass by the side of the highway might be straw-coloured but many fields are tinged with a light green. The hills are often blue in the distance with their load of eucalyptus trees. The eucalypts also demurely display their shy brilliance along the road as you pass through the countryside at speed.

Although I feel at home and comfortable in warm Sydney it's good occasionally to get up into the mountains of the northern tablelands, in the precincts of New England in NSW. While I was up there this time the sun was bright during the day but at night the heat just escapes the atmosphere, making the early morning very cold. Yesterday morning as I scraped the ice of the car windows with a coffee-shop membership card my fingers turned icy and painful. But it just reminds you that you are growing old, as we all must eventually.

Getting away from the routine, from familiar faces, sounds, environments, and the pressing concerns of the quotidian can be a tonic too. You may lie in your warm bed after dinner has been consumed and after you have had a shower, and let your thoughts burble, strut, idle, zoom, buzz, spring, zip and mosey along. As you lie there with the strange walls of the motel surrounding you and the background noise of the TV tuned to the regular show dinning slightly in your ears your mind has a nice blankness to it that might be a relief from how it normally operates when you are at home. You are isolated, immune and sealed off from the things that might worry you during your normal day. You can find a strange sort of restless peace in this kind of environment.

Outside, the town is settling itself down to sleep. The cold air sweeps through the empty streets. These are nights of lore, nights we used to sing about in nursery rhymes. Not a creature was stirring ... And in the darkness as your blank mind ambles along airy skeins of evening silence a different set of thoughts might come to you, or in fact none at all (which might indeed be a relief).

Then after sleeping away the night - if you are lucky - in senseless abandon you wake up and for a moment you wonder where you are. What does that shadow mean? Whose curtains are those? Then it hits you: you are still in New England in the small motel with the thin wooden doors painted brown where the hot water in the shower is difficult to regulate to a comfortable temperature. You might then hear a neighbour - awake earlier than you - outside talking to his wife as he loads the car ready for the day's drive to wherever they are headed.

There are thousands of stories passing you by on the road as you tug the car along the blacktop and through the sweeping curves of the high mountain passes. Each sealed unit contains a unique set of dreams and unrealised aspirations - so don't rush!

Monday, 8 June 2015

The audible sound of silence

After I arrived at the Myall Creek Memorial building yesterday I talked with a number of people, as usually happens on these occasions, including Prof John Maynard of the University of Newcastle, who had been invited up to the memorial this year to speak to the gathering. Prof Maynard was like me one of the early arrivals. A few of us stumbled around the building starting up sporadic conversations while we waited for the bulk of the crowd to materialise in the bright winter sunshine.

It was soon pretty clear to me that there would be a lot more people this year than there had been in the past. My first year in 2008 was not so well attended. I went back in 2009, 2010 and 2011 but then because of mum's dementia I stopped going for a few years. I noticed this time that the car parking area was very full.

There were other changes, too. In the past, you had to declare your lunch needs to the Country Women's Association people in attendance before you went up the hill to the ceremony. This year in addition to sandwiches and soup they also had steak sangas and sausage sangas. And you didn't need to let them know you'd be eating. They had already calculated numbers. (If anyone went without lunch I can't say because this year I left early. I had intended to drive back to Sydney yesterday straight after the ceremony but once I passed Inverell on the way back to the New England Highway I lost heart, and decided to stay a night in Glen Innes instead. It was getting late in the afternoon.)

After the annual committee meeting with its votes and motions - including learning the news that Rev John Brown would stand down as chairman of the committee - everyone trooped or drove in their cars up the hill to the entranceway to the memorial trail. There, a group of people made a fire so that attendees could walk through the cleansing smoke Aboriginal people use for such ceremonies.

I choked up during the progress along the trail at several of the stopping stones. As usual, school children read out the words on each of the plaques set up on the trail to introduce the Myall Creek Massacre to the uninitiated. But even for those who have come here year after year the words are affecting. I think that this year they were for me even more affecting than they were in the past. I don't know why this is. It might have something to do with an increased awareness of mortality I have due to mum's situation, or the heavy year of worry last year when I was virtually silenced by a base note of low-level anxiety, a tone sounding through my life like a sonic anchor, tying me to the earth, making it impossible to escape and fly up into the air. It's hard to say why it was I cried so much this year at the ceremony.

I can say though that this year I felt the echoes of earlier ceremonies in me. This year I came to see the sorrow lying in me due to the history of silence on the issue of Aboriginal massacres. Of killings never reported. Of the kind of hatred my grandmother expressed toward the Aborigines when I was a child sitting in front of the TV as she raved away loudly behind me. Those are memories that seem to be coming back to me, that seem to haunt me. Like the imagined sound of a police siren as you are driving down the highway. It's not there visible or audible before you but you sense that it is there anyway.

This kind of audible silence is also there in the bull-necked ignorance of the locals I saw in the Imperial Hotel in Glen Innes last night when I went there for a few beers before dinner. In their casual verbiosity, their unacknowledged violence toward those who are different, who don't obviously fit in, toward the people outside the warm hearth of the pub's interior. The people outside in the cold, like the 28 victims of the Myall Creek Massacre; women, children and old men. People without mortgages or aspirations to go on holiday in Thailand.

I wept aloud on the trail this year as the bullroarer burred blindly behind the crowd gathered in front of the memorial rock. The donations of stones and leaves, I was told, got to make a pile so high they had to take it away two years ago. People come here to grieve for sins unacknowledged, for although some of the perpetrators in 1838 were hanged in Sydney for their crimes, the Aboriginal people kept being killed. It's just that people were more careful, down the track, to cover up the murders wherever they happened.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Driving up to New England

It's still a few hours until I have to be at Myall Creek for the meeting and the ceremony but I'm already prepared for the day. This morning I used a McDonalds self-service kiosk for the first time, to order breakfast, and I have to say that it was a fairly painless process; at least it will be simple to complete next time I need to do it. After breakfast I walked back to the motel through the deserted streets of Inverell in the dark as the sound of birdsong animated the plane trees.

Yesterday morning I left Sydney early and was at least well on the way to Newcastle on the M1 by 8am. Coming up to that city and wanting to go on the New England Highway, I started to notice the signs for the Hunter Expressway and when that turnoff came I took it. You turn left once again before you get on the new motorway. It wasn't built in 2013, which was the last time I used the New England Highway. On that occasion, I drove down from the Coast to Sydney with my daughter.

The new motorway is a nice road. It carves its way through the countryside all the way to Singleton, or at least you rejoin the old New England Highway about 25km east of Singleton. Then you bump along as usual through the remainder of the small towns in the Upper Hunter Valley until you start to ascend into the tablelands just past Murrurundi. But missing out on the usual malarkey west of Newcastle was no hardship, I really do have to say it. In fact, the absence of those stretches of heavily-trafficked highway was fantastic.

The rest of the way through to Glen Innes was pretty unremarkable apart from an RBT stop. I stopped fairly frequently on the journey to have snacks and to buy petrol and water. Past Glen Innes on the Gwydir Highway you are going west so the sun starts to come directly from in front through your windscreen. I arrived in Inverell well before dark and by 5pm I had a beer on the pub counter in front of me. For dinner it was lamb cooked with chillies along with fried rice at the Palace Restaurant on Byron Street. I watched the news and another program on the ABC before turning off the light for the evening. Because it promised to be cold I turned on the electric blanket before going to sleep.

I think that now they have finished the new stretch of motorway it's probably time to think about taking it all the way from the M1 to Tamworth, however. Probably there are numerous towns on the New England Highway north of that town that also should be bypassed in order to improve the motoring experience. It is certainly annoying to have to change speed all the time just to thunder through another tiny hamlet stuck out on the ranges like a ping-pong ball. But the new bit of road certainly does make the journey less tiring. Considering the number of road signs there are on the highway that say police are targeting driver fatigue, that would surely have to be a good thing.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Traveller Card is not everything it boasts itself to be

Last year in August when I was still living on the Coast and looking after mum fulltime I had to make a quick decision about travelling to Japan because of a health crisis with my daughter, who was then and is now still 22 years old. As part of my preparations I created a Mastercard Traveller Card and loaded it with Japanese yen before boarding the aeroplane. In addition I had an amount in cash, in Japanese yen, to take with me to Tokyo. I also took with me US-dollar denominated travellers' cheques.

I stayed in Japan for a long time that time, about three weeks in total. I knew I would have some expenses because I usually do when I go back there. But one thing about the Traveller Card that signally failed to impress me was the lack of compatible ATMs in Tokyo. In the area I was staying in, which is an area named Shibuya, there was not a single compatible ATM. And Shibuya is like the southern half of Sydney. It's a major shopping destination. But not one ATM was there that would take the Traveller Card. I had to finally look it up on the website and organise to get on a train to reach another part of Tokyo, and there locate a specific convenience store in the basement of a large office development. That's where I found a compatible ATM, and I used it to withdraw pretty much the total amount I had on the card. So it turned out to have some utility. This was on a day near the very end of my stay.

Back in Australia however I very recently received a letter from my bank, which had issued me with the Traveller Card last year, telling me that if I didn't use the card they were going to start charging me a monthly fee. When I finally got around to phoning the company that operates the card they confirmed that they start charging you a fee after one year of inactivity. Which would mean that in September I would have been made to pay money just to have the card in my wallet.

Initially I rather optimistically got in touch with my bank through the internet banking interface and asked if I could cancel the card with them online. I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised, when they replied to me the next day telling me that I would have to contact the card operator by phone to cancel the card. Which I did today. Actually it's not a trivial process. Even in the automated segment of the telephone call you have to enter identifying details using the keypad. Once the telephone has been answered by a human operator you have to repeat some of those details plus provide additional identifying details in order to proceed further. So when they told me to empty the card and call them back I got a bit angry. I have to go through the verification process again? I thought. No, I said, let's just log into the bank's internet interface right now and empty the card, and then we can cancel it while I'm still with you on the phone.

Which is what I did. So I'd have to say that, overall, the experience of having the Traveller Card was one that can best be characterised by saying that it was of marginal utility. I did manage to get cash out of the ATM in Tokyo when I needed it but it took a bit of work just to find a compliant ATM. Then after I get back home I find that they're going to slug me with a charge just to keep the card active. Not very good, frankly. Other countries might offer more options in terms of ATMs, it's true. But in my case the experience was not a great one.

Apart from the obvious utility of having Japanese yen in cash with me, the most convenient method of taking money to Japan, I found, was the travellers' cheques. There was a bureau de change right next to my hotel in Shibuya that happily converted these instruments into cash for me, even on weekends at limited hours.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Using Medicare's Express Plus app to make a claim

Yesterday I put through my first Medicare claim using the government's new smartphone app, which is called Express Plus. A month or so ago I wrote about installing the Express Plus app on the smartphone. The submission process that I completed yesterday is a little lengthy but nowhere near as burdensome as the initial setup process, which requires that you link your my.gov.au account to your Medicare profile.

For making a claim using Express Plus, first of all you have to take a photo with your smartphone's camera of the doctor's invoice. Express Plus will crop an image taken in landscape orientation so it's probably most reliable to use a standard profile orientation to take the photo of the invoice. You should remove from the invoice any receipts and place them alongside the invoice so both documents are clearly visible in the photo you take. I got this information from the counter clerk in the Medicare office a week or so ago, so it's reliable information. Another thing to keep in mind is that Express Plus will convert your colour photo to black-and-white before the image is transferred to Medicare.

Once you have taken the photo you have to put in some data in data-entry fields which are provided by the app. For specialist services - such as the claim I was making - you have to put into the data-entry fields such information as the referring doctor's provider number as well as the provider number of the doctor who provided the service, so there is a fair bit of detail involved that you might never normally think about for making Medicare claims.

I had a bit of trouble with this step because my doctor's invoice showed a list of separate procedure dates but the app only gives you one date field for the procedure. Because of this slight mismatch in expectations I telephoned Medicare after submitting the claim and asked them what I should have done with this. They told me that mostly the scrutineers at Medicare give precedence to the actual invoice that is sent as an image, so, she said, "it doesn't really matter what information you put in the fields."

I put in the claim yesterday in the late morning but the payment has not yet arrived in my bank account. [Checking two days later the internet banking interface said the payment was made on 4 June to my account.]

Overall, the experience of using the Express Plus app was one where I felt slightly awkward and hurried but there was no major obstacle getting in the way of me completing the submission process. As I mentioned earlier, though, the process in this case is far less difficult and complicated than the initial process you need to complete in order to start using Express Plus.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Are you still a freelancer if your voice recorder breaks?

Because I am planning to attend the Myall Creek Massacre memorial ceremony this year I wanted to maybe do a bit of writing on the occasion, since it has been three years since I went up there to attend. The ceremony is held every year in the country near Inverell in New England, and it's a seven-hour drive to Inverell from Sydney. But when I had a look at my digital voice recorder I found that it had given up the ghost some time ago.

The batteries were corroded so I replaced them but even after doing that the unit still would not function. You can see the heavy corrosion up around the top of the unit on the rear side, in the photograph that accompanies this post.

I haven't had cause to use the recorder for many years. Looking after mum on the Coast I stopped pitching to magazines in mid-2012 so the need for a digital voice recorder dwindled immeasurably after that decision was taken. It's really not surprising - although it is sad - that the unit broke from neglect. It was stored in a hard plastic case which was a bit dirty, so I can only assume that what did for it was lack of use in the sweaty conditions that you find in Queensland.

If I decide to do some recording up at Myall Creek this year it'll have to be using my smartphone. I can buy a new digital voice recorder online but there's not enough time, I think, for the order to be processed and the unit delivered before I'll have to set out for Inverell early on Saturday morning.