Friday 29 May 2015

Movie review: The Dalfram Dispute 1938, Pig Iron Bob, dir Sandra Pires (2015)

In late 1938, the South Coast Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation refused to load pig iron onto the "Dalfram", a ship due to deliver the cargo to Japan. The Port Kembla workers had decided that Japan was the aggressor in a war against a peaceful nation and their action enraged BHP, who owned the pig iron, a precursor material in the production of steel. The workers thought that the Japanese would soon be fighting against Australia and their refusal to provide Japan with the raw material for bullets brought them to the attention of the Trade Minister in the Lyons government, Robert Menzies.

Leading the workers on the dock was Ted Roach, a member of the Community Party. Menzies did everything possible to try to force the workers to go back to work and to load the Dalfram and eventually he was successful. In the end, however, Menzies ended up on the wrong side of history because the Japanese eventually did try to invade Australia and the Chinese did end up being Australia's largest trading partner.

It's hard for me to feel sorry for Menzies, although my father was a big fan of the man the Port Kembla wharf workers labelled "Pig Iron Bob". Ironically my mother's father was a card-carrying member of the Community Party. So I have in my cultural gene pool representatives from both camps: the conservative and the progressive. Where do I fit in? I have to admit that while watching this movie I felt a strong urge to cheer at times, such as when other workers in Australia decided to donate money to support the striking workers in Port Kembla. Although Menzies, who visited Nazi Germany in the late-1930s and found much to admire there, ended up leading Australia as prime minister for 18 years, he flatly fails to impress me today, in 2015, when I look back on his legacy, and I find his apologists to resemble a bunch of wispy-looking fools who cravenly rely on incongruities as they assemble the wherewithal to stake their claim to leadership in the here-and-now.

The movie was obviously produced on a shoestring. The repetitive soundtrack does it no great service. An alternative score might have saved certain scenes from appearing dull. Overall, however, the message is worthy. It's just a pity the filmmakers and their Chinese supporters were unable for the screening to invite anyone from the Japanese side. The bulk of the audience for example was made up of ethnic Chinese and the screening was organised by a Chinese economic and cultural association. The Chinese consul-general was there and made a speech as did Senator Sam Dastyari.

But if we are to avoid war in the future in the western Pacific it's not enough to celebrate the strong bonds between Australia and China, however durable they might be. We must also recognise how far Japan has come in its journey from fascism to representative democracy in the modern era. As the movie points out, however, Japan also has a responsibility: to make sure the historical record is accurate, especially in its school curriculum.

Thursday 28 May 2015

When I see mum at the nursing home I feel needed

Today again there was a phone call early in the morning, probably at around 7.30am, from staff at the nursing home. This time the news was that my mother had fallen in the early hours of the morning as she was getting off the toilet. They found her on the floor in her room calling for help at around 5am. So although her red and puffy eyes have gotten better since I saw her last time two days ago it was a mum with a sore-looking bandaged wrist that I saw when I went up the motorway today to visit the nursing home.

We went out to the park after mum had been showered and dressed, and sat in the sun. I talked to her about the book I'm reading at the moment, which is a biography of William Dobell, the Australian mid-century painter. I asked mum about her memories of this man. Mum told me she finished school when she was 16 or 17 and then went full-time for two years to art school, in fact Swinburne Tech. Dobell's famous court case - which I am reading about at the moment - when the trustees of the National Gallery of New South Wales were taken to court because of his prize-winning entry, is something that mum knows about first-hand because she would have been at tech in the mid- to late-40s when it was still a current issue in the community. Dobell won the Archibald prize for his portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943, so the event would have been recent when mum was studying drawing.

I explained to mum my particular interest in the court case because of the way it illustrated Australian attitudes toward modernity. She said that Dobell "was considered avantgarde" but when pressed couldn't remember much else. I asked her how people thought of the avantgarde in those days and she failed to come up with anything. She did think that the whole affair - which Dobell found so trying that he left Sydney permanently when it was over and relocated to a small town near Newcastle, the city he had been born in - was unnecessary. I left it at that.

That conversation took place while mum and I were sitting in the park this morning. After a while the sun became a bit hot for her so we went inside and she slept for 45 minutes or so. Then we went to lunch and sat with H as we often do. H explained how she had been poked in the eye by a staff member this morning while she was being bathed. "It frightened me," she said. I didn't tell her that I had heard her swearing at the staff this morning while I was outside on the chair in the hallway waiting for mum to get out of the shower.

I talked with mum's neighbour while I was sitting on that chair. She is a friendly woman who always fills me in on major events in mum's life that I might have missed because I was not around or because they were not important enough for staff to inform me directly. Mum usually forgets things, even important ones, as she forgot for example by lunchtime how she had fallen over early this morning. We talked about it with H, who was solicitous during the meal, asking mum if it hurt. It's funny what mum will remember and what she forgets. I just telephoned mum a little while ago after coming home after lunch this afternoon. She was on her way to the toilet. "I have to get someone to help me go," she told me. "And I'm waiting for someone to come by so I can grab them." "Why don't you use the nurse call button?" I ventured. "That's a good idea," said mum. 

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Irish marriage equality poll showed what Twitter can do

Unlike the passing of the New Zealand marriage equality law through that country's Parliament - which took place two years ago - Saturday's Irish marriage equality referendum was really a global event and part of the reason for this was how Twitter was used in conjunction with the #MarRef hashtag. While in the first case the news of the legislation was noted by international news outlets in their web pages, in the case of #MarRef the media played catch-up to social media as usual, like a sleepy bear to Twitter's cloud of pesky and insistent sandflies.

Voting in the Republic or Ireland is not compulsory but over 60 percent of eligible adults turned out to cast their votes at polling stations on the day. Of these around two-thirds voted for marriage equality. This news could first be seen on social media, with traditional news sites releasing stories at least 30 minutes after the fact. And the speed at which tweets appeared was something astounding to see. In fact, in order to reliably sample information from the streaming feed you had to do things to slow down or stop the feed. One way to do this is, for example in TweetDeck, to remove the focus of the reading column away from the docked position at the top of the column. To do this you scroll the column of tweets down a tweet or so. Once the focus is taken away from the top of the reading column new tweets will be registered using a counter but the currently-viewed tweet will not be replaced by new ones.

Today is Wednesday and the #MarRef column in my TweetDeck is still active, with people in Ireland posting their views on the event on a fairly regular basis, although the frequency with which tweets arrive in the column is nothing like how it was at the time the poll results were being tallied, and results made public by the authorities. Still, the hashtag still has a viable life as people digest the meaning of the event for them, for their country, or for their community.

What is remarkable about those hours when results were arriving in the public domain in Ireland was the level of excitement the hashtag registered for anyone in the world to see. Already, in Australia, we have seen the prime minister questioned on TV about a private member's bill the opposition leader intends to introduce in favour of marriage equality. Already, the matter has become a local issue in Australia just as it quickly became an international issue due to the presence of that frenetic hashtag and its accompanying tweetstream. That level of excitement cannot be communicated easily in the absence of social media, although a viral video might have come close. This event shows us the unique way that social media can contribute to global and local debates. In fact, it shows how the global can quickly become the local.

Monday 25 May 2015

All news stories are proxies for larger debates

Look, I've been meaning to write about this for a long time and the notion enters my brain occasionally but it quickly gets displaced by other, more pressing things, such as how much sushi I should eat for lunch and whether I need to go to the ATM to get more cash or not. I'm also motivated to act by important things like the matter of whether I need to order more coffee. Life is full of this kind of important issue and those things won't be easily outclassed in the importance stakes by vague, half-baked ideas for blogposts regardless how important blogging is for me. Today, however, the issue of news stories as proxies for larger debates jumped out at me when I was looking at Twitter and this tweet suddenly appeared in the timeline from @SethMacFarlane (who is in TV, apparently): Next time we invade a country, I'm going to point at it and yell, "Media, look!  An actress who's lied about her age!  Go investigate!" This is quite an acerbic and pointed thing to say but it's hardly libelous as MacFarlane in his tweet is encompassing within the ambit of his censure the entire media industry. An easy point to make, therefore, but still worth following up.

Part of the larger point I want to make here is that it's not really perfectly fair to criticise the media for giving people what they want, for a start. The thing about the media in the digital age is that journalists and editors know exactly what people are reading because they just count the clicks. So if you're going to criticise the media for writing about TV personalities then also please criticise the broader community for watching crappy TV shows. That's a small rant but it's one that is worth repeating from time to time.

But here I want to talk about the notion of the news story as proxy. Proxy for larger debates. So for example you might have a story in the business section of the newspaper about iron ore sales for a particular quarter going up. This story can provide information for someone who is interested in the economic growth of a country like China, which uses a lot of iron ore, even if the particular mining company the story talks about is of little interest to that person. Or else you might see a story about rising electricity prices. A story like this can be of interest to someone who might have little interest in electricity prices per se but who does have an interest in the solar power industry. So short, to-the-point and narrow focus news stories can function as proxies for larger debates.

In the celebrity space it's even more interesting because people read these stories for a number of reasons, including the one that the stories offer people opportunities to engage in broader debates in the community. A story about an actress lying about her age has obvious relevance in terms of its association with notions of gender as well as its links to discussions about honesty in public life, for example. So the story is not "just" about an actress who is untruthful about a matter of small intrinsic importance in itself, it also has relevance in terms that people interested in serious debates going on in the broader community can immediately understand.

But stories about celebrities are even more important because they go to our very identity. It's about the reasons we consume popular culture in the first place and the uses that we put it to. If you watch the way that young people use popular culture, for example - and everyone will have experience with this because everyone is young at some stage - you'll see that it's part of the notion of sharing, so it gets to the very roots of things such as community and identity. How do you fit in with your peers? Who are you? What do you want to be? Who are these people you surround yourself with? These are critical issues for young people even if they might never apply such language in this way to what they do with popular culture. It's about who they are, where they are going in their lives, and how they might get there. It's important stuff, and popular culture is a kind of intellectual and emotional and spiritual medium that enables these internal and external debates to take place.

So next time you think you might tell someone they're stupid for caring what a TV personality says or does just remember that for someone else this might not just be an important fact in itself, but it might form part of that person's daily communication with peers and other people who are critically important in a real and very concrete sense. These debates allow people to talk about themselves, their dreams and their aspirations. We should respect that.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Setting out to flane near my home

I went up to see mum in the nursing home this morning but I was sneezing a lot and so thought it best to leave before lunch so as not to infect anyone with my lurgy, and I drove back down the motorway home then parked the car in the garage, popped upstairs to attend to nature, then left the building, turning west. It was well past 11am and I headed toward the Sydney Fish Markets where I stopped to have a bite. The food was ordinary. The chips were fresh and hot but the baby squid, which had been grilled with some kind of sweet sauce, was cold and rubbery. The pieces of fish were overbattered and overcooked and cold, as was the battered prawn and the seafood stick. The oyster mornay was edible and warm, as was the oyster kilpatrick. I finished this all quickly and headed out toward Glebe to do a bit of flaning. (From "flaner", a French word which can best be translated as "going for a stroll through the streets" but which incorporates the idea of people watching as well.)

I skirted Wentworth Park on its northern edge, passing in the bright autumn sunlight close to the detritus piled up around the trees' roots. It smelled sweet and rotten because it is filled with the fallen fruit of the ficus that are planted along that axis. I turned into the street away from Pyrmont Bridge Road at the foot of Blackwattle Bay and went along for a bit before stalking carefully out into the traffic, which had temporarily stopped as the lead car attempted to park by the kerb, and a passing cyclist said something to me ending with "mate", which I think was probably not complimentary as he had to swerve around me to navigate his way up the street. On the other side of the street I went up a set of stairs set into the sandstone cliff and emerged on a small, quiet street just west of St Johns Road.

It was not far to go to wend my way through the streets lined with public housing - terrace houses as well as small blocks of two-storey apartments that have delicate ornamentation on their facades - before I came out on Glebe Point Road. I turned toward Broadway and near the turnoff to the shopping centre at Franklin Street I stopped in at Gleebooks to have a quick poke around. I have no plans to buy physical paper books any more these days because of the matter of storage, and I have now purchased the requisite Kindle that enables you to read electronic books, but it is always interesting to look at what is on offer at one of Sydney's premium booksellers. I made a note on my phone for future reference and left, turning into Badde Manors where I ordered a takeaway flat white and used the amenities out the back.

Back on the street I headed down to Broadway and turned toward the city, making my way along the dirty pavement. I passed a man who looked distinctly shabby with long hair, a beard and a shy demeanor, as though he meant to disappear among the grimy shopfronts of this part of town. He wore a checked shirt and saggy trousers. I omitted to take note of what he was wearing on his feet, but he definitely seemed to me a likely candidate for residency in one of those unkempt terrace houses in the backstreets of Glebe, those parts of the suburb that have not changed in 50 years, and whose occupants have probably lived there for that long. At the bottom of the hill I turned left.

Past St Barnabas, the sexy new Anglican church located on this block, I saw a fishbone fern growing out of the grouted crack between two tiles on a building's facade (see picture) and I held up my phone above my head and in front of me in an effort to take a good photo. From there I walked across Wattle Street and up the hill past an imposing 19th century facade with "Farmers & Graziers" plastered permanently on its frontage, before I made my way to Harris Street. I turned left onto this major thoroughfare and eventually came home. Once there, I undressed and had a nap for a couple of hours because I had been unwise in the way of things the night before, hence the sniffles and sneezing. Let's hope my affliction's gone by tomorrow.

Saturday 23 May 2015

How far to go with medical intervention remains a question

New Yorker feature writer and medical practitioner
Atul Gawande is in Sydney (photo: Quentin Jones).
In her story on Atul Gawande, the world-famous New Yorker feature writer who is also a medical practitioner, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Amy Corderoy evinces some surprise - as does the subject himself - when she discovers universal acclaim among Sydney Writers Festival attendees for the man. I first came across Gawande as a postgrad journalism student because one of his feature stories was included in our coursework, and I also fell under his thrall. So I can understand their reactions. It is rare to find a professional such as a doctor who is able to write with such flair and confidence about his or her vocation.

Gawande is here to talk with Sydneysiders about his new book, Being Mortal, which looks at ageing and health. Because my mother is currently in a nursing home and I have cared for her for the past six years this is something I have some experience with and I admit to being a bit surprised when reading Corderoy's story because she said nothing about Australia's advance health directive (AHD). This is a document prepared with the subject's GP when the individual is still competent to have such discussions, in which the extent of medical intervention in the case of terminal illness is documented and signed off on. You might want to limit the extent of intervention, for example, as in the case of my mother, and not go "the whole hog" in every situation.

Perhaps Corderoy didn't raise this matter because she doesn't know about it, or there might have been space constraints in the story. But I think the AHD goes to the heart of what Gawande discusses in his book - which, admittedly, I have not read yet, though I will read it - and that makes it seem like an obvious candidate for inclusion in her SMH story.

There is no doubt that quality of life has to be considered when you are deciding how far to take the medicine, and that's why AHDs are recommended to family members and subject individuals by lawyers, for example, when a person is also discussing their Will with them. It is I think a routine part of the succession process in Australia. To apply Gawande's own words, the AHD is an effective way for medicine to work with the individual. Of course, nurses in nursing homes will always consult with family members about types of care to provide when a crisis arrives, as it eventually will in all cases. The subject's GP might also go beyond the actual words of the AHD and talk with family members about specific details of the case in order to find out definitively where to stop. As in the case of organ donation - where an individual might sign up for the program at some point during their lives - the consent of family is still sought despite the existence of the AHD.

Which means it's not always specified how far intervention will go, but at least the people involved in the case have some sort of guidance to fall back on when questions about intervention arise.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Eurovision is truly the triumph of bad taste

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Problems for Rohingya to get worse before they improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 18 May 2015

Pay attention on days with a nacreous sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 17 May 2015

Not everyone is happy about being in a nursing home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who survive earthquakes forced to carry on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 16 May 2015

Mum gets an infection again, causing confusion

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 15 May 2015

Google is making me feel like a bit of a fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 14 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Budget 2015 splashes around essence of monkey brains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Witnessing mum in her final stage of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 11 May 2015

Movie review: Ex Machina, dir Alex Garland (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 10 May 2015

Foreign journalists can now travel in West Papua

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 9 May 2015

New taxes are a death duty by stealth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 8 May 2015

There are different ways to enter permanent care

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Installing Medicare's iPhone app Express Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 5 May 2015

After Bali 9: let's legalise narcotic drugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 4 May 2015

A woman tries to abscond from the nursing home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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