Monday, December 31, 2007

Scientists with time and money to spare

Scientists have created a Hebrew bible the size of a grain of sugar.
Not only have they created this nano bible, they are now working on applications by which they may magnify it 10,000 times so people can look at it displayed on a wall.

Why shrink it just to enlarge it? Why not leave it the way it was?

Do scientists have nothing better to do?
Are the worlds ills all cured? Is peace achieved? Is the environment healthy?

And what if someone sneezes on the nano bible?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The ugly world of website comment

How come, as one who adores reading diary blogs, I cannot bring myself to do anything quite so straightforward?
I suppose this is a "comment" blog. I only blog when something gets up my nose.
Six months later, I am still wishing that it was smoke getting up my nose.
How tragic.
Oh, why can't being a non-smoker be easier?

For the last few months, I've been sidetracked into blogging for my newspaper's website.
It is a pretty unrewarding business.
There is a very different demographic going to those commercial sites - and it contains some rather ugly individuals who take the invitation to "comment" on stories as an opportunity to leap, in ill-educated English, into vicious personal attacks.
They misread the copy, misinterpret or perhaps don't read at all, since a few of them simply seem to want to talk about my photograph.
Most common comments are in the vein of "get off your high horse lady - X is a lot better than you are - go back to writing cookery books".

I am sure these people would not speak to one in the flesh in this manner.
It seems that the anonymity of the Internet is an enabler for sour, angry, frustrated and, dare I say it, pretty stupid people to hit rock bottom and be their true selves.
Cowardly, crude and venomous.

So, it is generally an unpleasant experience to log in to moderate the comments on the newspaper blog.

But, my compensation lies in the fact that these uglies are not as anonymous as they may think. Their email addresses may be private from the website readership but they are not concealed from the website administrators. So, guess what? I know who they are!

Oh, my, and wouldn't their employers be appalled at the sort of grotesque things their staff members are sending out online during the course of their working hours?

Aren't they lucky that I am not as vindictive and cruel as they are?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Googling up the dregs

Somewhere along the line, a mob of tatty exploitationist amateur hour sods has totally screwed up the business of Google search.

These are the phoneys who leapt into what they assumed would be a zillion dollar business of rallying businesses to register on listing sites. Heaven knows what they charged them but, presumably, part of the deal was that they would buy priority listings for the listings with search engines. This all worked. Really badly. It has turned into an alienating mess which makes one shake one's head in despair and go back to the old phone book. Google has been nobbled by business listers.

I was searching for gelato manufacturers today.
Usually, doing a pure information search, one surfs quite neatly into news, web and blog data.
Search for something with a commercial edge and one comes up against the conmen who gave birth to these dire listings.
My suspicion, and please correct me if I am wrong, is that these sods ran around and rustled up the businesses, charged like wounded bulls, set up the sites - then took the money and retired.

All of us who know anything about the Internet know that it is an ongoing concern.
Data must be entered and updated. Websites must be maintained.
Things change. Things go out of date.

This is what happens with these assorted business listings. They are ad hoc. They are half out of date. And a lot of them are so badly programmed that they can't even sort themselves out into what purports to be categories.

These business listings, however, continue to claim priority on the Google spiders. Have they paid for these rankings? I guess so because there they are dominating the search results. One wades through them in pathetic hope that one may find what one seeks.

It is not to be.
One just finds more lists - often with maps. Gee.

Oh yes, the wide boys found themselves are chink of opportunity, made their money and ran - leaving chaos.

I liken it to tag graffiti scrawled all over a very fine and valuable edifice.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The pathetic Liberal diaspora

In the aftermath of the Ruddslide Ausralian Federal Election, the Liberal Party heirarchy has been running like cowardly dogs, quitting the Party which, five minutes ago, was the avowed answer to all things, the pride of the country, the only path for the future.
It seems that those men of promises did not believe in the source of their promises - their party.
And so the tumbling dominoes of Liberal Party resignations go on - tearful politicians bowing out one after another. To do what?

"To spend more time with my family."

They all want to spend time with their families all of a sudden.
There is an epidemic of men wanting to spend time with their families.
They say they owe their families their time.
On and on...they bleat the same story. If they are ugly in gloating and smug victory, they are contemptible in their spoiled brat defeat. Disgraceful.

But what of the families?
Poor hapless things. Suddenly these soggy, defeated males descend on them to lick their political wounds.
Oh, boy, do these families get the short straw.

As for the politicians. Using their families as a cliched excuse is just another bloody lie. They can't even leave office without a lie.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


The Prime Minister loses his seat.
A female journalist usurps him.
How sweet it is.

An appalling, mean-spirited man replaced by an urbane and emancipated woman.
Maxine McKew replaced John Howard in the seat of Bennelong. A seat Howard has held for 33 years.

History can be beautiful.

This is the stellar moment in what is being described as a "Ruddslide".
A transforming moment for the country.

Faith is restored.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Qantas. Why do you insult us so?

Qantas is failing Adelaide?
Tourism Commission chief Andrew McEvoy is right. Good on him for sounding off.
It is time Qantas was held to account. But perhaps Mr McEvoy has not gone far enough.
Perhaps Qantas is failing Australia.
It is not just that it is not putting Adelaide on its flight paths. It is that the national carrier has turned into the worst of all aerial cattle trucks. It insults its passengers –we good people who pay its bills and keep it aloft.

It packs us in mercilessly with never a seat to spare – and, worse, with less leg room than one finds elsewhere. Mean, nasty skimpy 31inch seat pitch which means that the moment the person in front reclines, one is pinned in. Trapped. Don’t even think about crossing your knees.

It is a sickening irony that Qantas plays inflight DVT (deep vein thrombosis) exercise videos to passengers who can’t move a muscle. Unless they are in Business or First, of course.

Don’t believe what you hear projected by the marketing spin doctors and travel writers. They all travel Business. They have no idea what hell we real people go through. Of course the executives will be screaming with indignation and saying that I am absolutely wrong in my descriptions. But this is my opinion and not theirs. My experience and not theirs. I’ve done the hard yards - a decade of trans-Pacific flights in Qantas economy. I have watched conditions worsening year by year, fewer cabin crew working harder, tempers fraying. Less oxygen, too, perhaps. I always seem to get sick after one of these flights.

The other trick Qantas has learned is to deny its passengers choice in seat allocation.

There is a mystery to this procedure now. Apparently only uber-platinum frequent flyers can get a decent seat allocation.
The rest of us can consider ourselves lucky if we even get to sit with our travelling companions.

No blame to the staff, poor darlings. It is not their fault they deliver the bad news. And, however frustrated, we passengers must never take it out on them.

Nonetheless, I am regularly dumped at the very back of the plane by the check in staff. It does not matter how many months earlier I have booked or how early I arrive at the airport. The seating hell is the same. Hateful. I have ended up feeling very demoralised because over and over again, I have been denied the one simple request I make – a window seat, please.

What has happened to Qantas’s ability to perform civilized seat allocations? What has happened to our once-cherished, national pride airline?

This year I baulked and flew United where, at least, one has an option for Economy Plus seating which provides a dignity of leg room but, otherwise, conventional economy conditions. Yes, they actually let you choose seating when you book. And, that bit of extra leg room is all one wants on the long hauls. Ahh.

United, however, gives lots more. It is a very pleasant airline, albeit they tell me it has been in a financial crisis for years.

I used to be so proud of Qantas.
It was a symbol of my beloved country, my laid-back and friendly fellow countrymen, our high standards and good quality of life...
The flying kangaroo used to warm the old heart wherever one saw it.
Now, I apologise for Qantas to my international friends. How embarrassing.

Qantas has retained the best safety record, which remains a significant point of pride – but it has cheapened itself with the worst economy cabin conditions and ever-declining passenger service.

So I was not surprised, on an Internet airlines standards page, to read:
Qantas' A330s "make the live sheep boats to the Middle East look positively luxurious (the boats have more room, fewer travellers and more interesting conversation).”

It is downright sad - not just for the airline but for all Australians on whom it reflects.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bruce Hawker - Labor's man of the soak cycle

The politicians, now vying for leadership of Australia, tell us that our broadband services cost nine times as much as that of the rest of the world and are 35 times slower. Labor candidate Kevin Rudd promises to amend this and to bring this nation up to speed, literally. Give or take five or so years to do it.
John Howard says Rudd is out of date and we've suddenly gone high speed.
You could have fooled me.

This country is disadvantaged by its small population and large areas in issues such as the Internet. However, it really can't brag.
It has been slow to clue up from the word go - treating the Internet with absurd suspicion, unwilling to accept its global potency.
Right now there is a spin doctor called Bruce Hawker who is out there telling the country that "the internet is very much in its infancy"! The only value of YouTube and viral communications is that the mainstream media picks it up.
Where has he been?

How embarrassing for a man to tout himself as a political strategist and be so painfully out of touch.
It has taken a long time for the mainstream media to clue up to the vast interactive population on the Internet. I know. I have tried to jog mainstream media for years and years - finding that they were only interested in stories which made the Internet into some sort of evil bogeyman.
This, of course, because mainstream media was frightened of the Internet. To its interests, the Internet was a bogeyman - a growing rival for consumer attention.
And so the scare stories revved up over the years and there was never anything positive to be said about the Internet.
And the real estate world moved online.
And the travel world moved online.
The marketplace was not as slow as the mainstream media. To hell with the bogeyman. It saw the consumers online en masse.
Financial institutions went online...everything has followed the people out into their anarchical virtual world of free speech.
Finally, the mainstream media realised that it had to bite the bullet, albeit reluctantly, and compete for an online market. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

So now the only person who seems to think the Internet is some sort of newly-spawned amateur hour is one Bruce Hawker.
Spin doctor? I don't think so. Soak Cycle is more like it.
Let me tell you Mr Hawker, the mainstream media picks up YouTube and blogs and internet activities because they are news. If the mainstream want to stay up with what is happening, it has to go online and be online. You could have called the Internet an infant a decade ago. But to do so in 2007 just shows how painfully out of touch you are.

God help Labor for employing you as an advisor.

Oh dear.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Downer with schools

"Why this interest in history? Why this wish to reawaken the past?"

This question was asked on Fox News this morning. Now, of all people, I of course know that journalists fare well to ask the seemingly stupid question. It forces subjects to explain and articulate and it avoids presumptions.

But this question is revelatory.
It explains something of the contemporary attitude towards history - of closing doors on it and moving relentlessly, mindlessly forward. History is barely taught in schools these days. Somewhere along the line it was decided the history was hard, it was dry, and students could be alienated if they had to remember dates.

It was one of the victims of the dumbing down of education.

There was a spelling test recently which was spectacularly failed by Australian teachers. Why? Because they don't read.

That is ironic in this time when text has been given vigorous rebirth on this medium.

One may blame the spoon-feeding of television for the declines in basic education.

But the real culprit is, of all things, education and gender equality.
Teaching no longer the only career for many intelligent women. They can do whatever they want - and they do. Given the choices, however, the brilliant women who once dominated school education now take careers in the subjects they once taught. They are historians rather than history teachers, mathematicians rather than maths teachers...

Cultural progress has resulted in cultural decline.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Non-smoker mania

It is now 15 weeks since “C-Day” – the day I stopped smoking cigarettes.
Why don’t I feel good?
If I dare to complain about the almost primal cravings which continue to grip me, I am told by my “supportive” friends and family that I should be over it.
No one has ever taken so long, my husband said. It should be right out of your body now.

Well, I have no idea about anyone else and I had no idea I was on some sort of clock.

Then again, I know I am no longer allowed to wear the patches because the time of patches has run out.
I am not sure how helpful they were, anyway. The cravings were there with the patches and without the patches.
I am still not just craving but suffering these deep thirst-like sensations.
I have no social trigger. I don’t want a cigarette because someone else is smoking. I don’t want a cigarette because I have had a meal or I am on the phone or I am having a glass of wine. The problem I suffer is disassociated from activities.
It comes from within my body. It is a physical thing, not an issue of habit or emotional crutch.
Then again, my emotional wellbeing is, well, not well.
I continue to be on some sort of razor’s edge. There is an undercurrent of deep anger running through me. Odd things tip me right over the edge. I feel as if I am surrounded by extremely stupid people. An example.
I was at a formal function – an elegant brunch. We were about ten to the table with platters propped aloft in the centres of each table – one loaded with pastries and the other with fruit. The food just stayed there as the people settled in, as the speeches took place, as the entertainments were presented…It stayed until I made a move. When scones were delivered to the table, well the waitress was an idiot in that she put the two platters of scones together on one side of the table – the furthest, so far as I was concerned. And, of course, none of the women would touch them. The sat there pretending there were no fresh scones right in front of them. I waited for someone over there to make a move. But they sat about like idiot dumplings. I looked at them and, yes, it was dumplings they resembled. Big blobs of dough. Poor socially inept women awed by the occasion. And I knew it was up to me again to get that bloody food moving around the table. Despite the fact that I was absolutely furthest away from it. And I hated those poor, pretentious women. I hated them!!! I roiled and boiled with my fury. I am still pissed off with them, whoever they were.
This just ain’t like me!
It feels weird. Uncomfortable. Exhausting.
There is this whole emotional burden going on – a manic current.
Prod me and I erupt. Niggle me and I pop. And is that me talking, talking, talking? Why am I talking so bloody much? I want me to shut up. Why do I have to talk so much? Why do people keep asking me things and wanting more than I can give?

Oddly, I can do rather well on my own. Walking alone through the city, I am overcome by the loveliness of things and people around me. There are feelings that it is all just so beautiful. It is almost euphoria.
And I can ride waves of love for those I love – or even strangers.
I can be contented with my own thoughts…

Then some idiot sets me off, then that draining craving discomfort surges up through my body – that thirst-like thing.
And I’m nutty again.
This is all very disturbing.
My whole being is out of kilter.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nice chat, by George.

George Oates, one of the founders of Flickr, came to the office for a chat today. What a treat.
George is an Adelaide girl – home visiting her decidedly arty parents before going off to give important speeches on international web development in Sydney and then Spain.
Ours was the classic meeting of netizens.
She waved to me as she came in the newspaper’s revolving doors. I knew instantly who she was but wondered how she recognised me. I knew her because I had researched her online. I had visited her Flickr pages and her blog and assorted articles about her. What I had not anticipated was that she would do the same to me. So there we were, strangers confidently waving in recognition.
Photographer Mark Brake bought us both coffees and we sat in the purple plush chairs of in the grand atrium foyer of Sir Keith Murdoch House here and, well, chatted. I tried to “interview” George. But it is an odd thing. If one takes to one’s subject, it becomes more chat than interrogation. And, anyway, George turned out to be quite guarded on any half controversial issue regarding Flickr. It did not matter from a news point of view because whichever really important issue we may have plumbed – content filters and net neutrality, for example – would have taken more words to articulate than there is space provided in the news pages. News stories are short and tight. They are no place for extrapolation.

But I learned a number of interesting things about George Oates.
She is the classic unspoiled Aussie. She may have been part of the receiving end of a $35 million corporate buy from Yahoo, but there is not a ticket on her. She said yes, she had a few shares in the company and of course, the shares were bought out. I t was just “jam”. Plain good luck. She spends her life pinching herself at the wonder of it all, she said.
And having the same sort of fun she always had.
The great expression of her new-found affluence in the cultured high life of San Francisco would seem to be bacon parties. She explained the concept of wrapping bacon around all manner of foods and cooking the resulting bundle on her fancy BBQ, or as the Americans call it, “grill”. Anyone who had been once to one of her bacon parties was committed to come to the next one. That was the only rule of George’s bacon parties.
There ya go. Is that eccentric geek or what?

What I did not know about George Oates was that, after dropping out of two universities because she is “not the studying kind”, she turned up as a “red shirt” at Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in 1996. I gave speeches at Ngapartji. I was on the board at Ngapartji. I remember the red shirts well, but I do not recall George in particular. I wish I did. What a dividend she turns out to be of that now-defunct brave enterprise. It did not give her the training she now uses but it did give her the connections and enough HTML to springboard out into more serious software and onwards through the game that didn't to the photo sharing application that did.

The de rigeur question of the day was her take on the backward nature of Australia's broadband. It is one of the slowest in the world - definitely the slowest in the developed world. She made the right noises of disdain. And we talked some of censorship and how one defines porn and offensive material. George laughs at the misconception of so many that the admins of Flickr are sitting about waiting to pounce on unacceptable material. "We're not arbiters. We're stweards," she said. She was ready to give the concept of "unacceptable" a bit of dissection. It's all deeply moot. But the revelation was that the Flickr community was the decisive factor in judging Flickr content. "They sort things out," said George.

And the old Flickr rule of "don't be creepy" remained surprisingly effective.

The Flickr International issues were another kettle of fish, one that George really didn't want to explore for the mainstream media. She gave it a cautious shot, explaining that different countries had different laws and different filtering systems. One country may not necessarily be able to see content available to another country.
Different laws on content and copyright in different countries may be a headache on one hand but an advantage, perhaps, in the long run - when it came to keeping the liberty of the net alive. After all, said George, people can store data in different places and they can move date. The up side of this website mobility was the difficulty of over-regulating the net and perhaps it would be the net's salvation. We can only hope.

On YouTube George was generous spirited. She said she saw it as a vehicle for people to talk to and see each other. It expressed the voyeur in all of us. YouTube may be burdened with copyright issues from Disney and its ilk but, at the same time it was demonstrated a shift of content away from Disney and its ilk - the people producing their own content.

There are all sorts of new things afoot at Flickr. It continues to evolve and George sees immense promise in metadata - and is keen to play with time sliders. The way in which in just four years Flickr has shown itself to be such a brilliant recorder of history has rather fired her. Indeed, she is keen to know what the academics are finding interesting about Flickr and what they are studying. Some people already are doing their PhDs on the photo sharing phenomenon.

There are so many facets. George pointed out the "life cycle" she had observed among Flickr users. After posting humble first pix of family or friends, their subsequent photos would show greater effort with light, fancy backlit pictures, then they would have gone out and bought a Canon and started shooting macros and doing fashion shots - and the next thing you know they were working as wedding photographers.

There were myriad other facets of Flickr I'd have liked to explore but we were in the usual newspaper rush. The 'tog had to get his pix in - for which he wanted to walk George out in the city streets.

So I produced my camera to get my Flickr pic of George and she produced her camera to get her Flickr pic of me.

And, heavens above, the queen of digital photo sharing uses an old-fashioned film camera.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The obscene power of tradesmen

The rich think they hold the power.
Once it was so.
These days, it is the tradesmen who hold the power.
It does not matter how rich you are, if a tradesman refuses to come and install your airconditioner or hot water service, then you have to go without. Until they are ready to give you some of their time, you are at their mercy.
Tradesmen can decide if you are to be cool in the heatwave or if you are going to have mud instead of cement in the drive, if your leaky roof keeps dripping, if your dishwasher is fixable, if you are going to get sharp TV reception, a floor polished or a carpet laid, a window repaired or replaced, a door fitted...
It is all done on their time, not yours.
Forget waiting for a doctor's appointment.
Doctors are a joy of accessibility compared to tradesmen.

How did this all come about. How did the tables turn so that tradesmen are the most powerful members of society?

Once upon a time, they were something of a lowly class -"blue collar" or "working class".
The management classes and professionals were the smug middle with the dynastic wealth and highly educated scoring "upper". Of course, these classes still were dependent upon the tradesmen. But, if one recalls the past of one's youth, not to mention the past as recorded in literature, they were a cap-tipping deferential class which sought to please those who employed them.

This has changed.
They could not give a damn whether you are pleased or not. They are indifferent as to how long they keep you waiting. They treat those who seek to use their services with sublime contempt - sometimes not bothering to turn up at all.
Certainly they are indifferent to returning phone calls.
What they are calling is the tune.

Why is this?
Perhaps because tradesmen are now in short supply.
The old apprentice traditions fizzled somewhere along the way. Meanwhile, families in the trades wanted something better for their children - university educations.

Even in trade schools, the traditional trades are out of fashion. Kids would rather study computer programming than plumbing.
Who leaves school saying they want to follow their dad into plumbing? In a world where the class system has disintegrated, there is no longer a sense of fraternity in the trades.

The sort of people entering the trades are doing so perhaps grudgingly.
Hence their resentment of the people for whom they are then to work. Well, contempt really.
Tradesmen can name their price. On top of this, they can choose simply not to turn up to do the job.
They don't have to worry about losing business because they know that they are as rare as hen's teeth and they will never run out of work. There is a world of poeple prepared to pay whatever they ask, prepared to beg them to do a job, prepared to wait on their convenience...

Why am I pondering all this?
Well, I may have moved house over a month ago had it not been for the tradesmen who have not turned up, who have put off jobs, who have not been accountable...
I am still waiting. I am not moved.

Oh yes, instead of being angry, I am just a grovelling supplicant, like everyone else.
One can't afford to be impatient with a tradesman let alone rude. They are in control. They are masters of our destiny. They might not be the upper class but they have the upper hand.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fanks for the Formaldehyde

Here we go again.
As expected.
The perfidy of Chinese manufacturers hits the headlines, again, and endangers consumers, again.
Formaldehyde in clothing. In children's clothing. Children of the west seem seriously targeted by the Chinese.
Chinese labels lie. "Low flame" labels on children's garments turn out to be sheer folly. The clothes catch fire. Two New Zealand children have been burned, so far.
Then there are the rashes being suffered by children wearing clothes which are drenched in formaldehyde - 900 times the maximum level deemed tolerable.
They are embalmed clothes, for heaven's sake - soaked in embalming fluid.
Embalmed pyjamas. Embalmed trousers. It's all a bit surreal.
Formaldehyde might be good at providing a permanent press in fabrics but it is permanent stress in the living human body. Carcinogenic, even.
Meanwhile, Indonesia has been discovering formaldehyde-tainted confectionery from China. Sweets! Candy!
This all comes on top of the lead paint on toys causing the greatest toy recall in history, the poisons in cough syrup, petfood...
It is hard to see this as error, as the blunders of an emerging capitalist society. Give us a break. The Chinese are not stupid people.
No, looking at the expanding scale of insidious forms of mass poisoning, it is all starting to look like terrorism.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Oh, Google, you let me down.

How to lose faith in Google.
Just try popping in on its Mountain View HQ in California. If you loved Google before, you will have the old blood running cold afterwards.
I guess I was just naive to think I could swing past the Google building and take a couple of photos.
Well, I'd seen the stunning Yahoo building towering triumphantly out there in Silicon Valley and I had taken a zillion photos of the Oracle building - probably the most elegant and superior high tech establishment in the country, if you ask me. Its sleek blue cylindrical glass towers reach around a lake where a fountain plays in cheerful circles. It is a huge complex and, if there is security, it is pretty low-key.
Google, on the other hand, is the great paranoia security hell.
You can't even drive up the driveway. Security guards stop you and tell you that you will be trespassing if you cross the line into the staff carpark."The campus is private land", one told me when I asked if I could pop in and take some photos of the building.

Yes, we're talking a building here. Just a couple of exterior shots.
I wasn't asking for a the latest search secrets or even a guided tour. I was not trying to find the "Visitor Lobby" marked on the exterior signpost or to see if I could purchase a Google cap, although, had things worked out that way, certainly would have left the place wearing a Google cap, if there is such a thing.
But, as it happened, I was asking just to take a quick snap of the entrance to the building.

I was simply told that I was not permitted to take photographs anywhere on the property.
"You can go to the public field and take a photo from there," he said. "That is public".
Oddly, the field had a sign in the middle of it saying "Closed for Repairs". This had struck me as the funniest sign I had ever seen in a field. Not that it would have stopped me, had there been a way to get to the field.
The problem was that there was no where to park. Even to get to the neighbouring field.

You can't stop here,' the security guard insisted.
"But the whole parking lane right down the road has banned parking," I said.
It was not the security man's problem. All he had to do was to make absolutely sure that people like me did not go anywhere near the Google building. Even if we have identified ourselves and explained our humble mission.

It was an odd thing, the parking ban in the street. Amphitheatre Drive has only a few buildings on it - large outfits on huge chunks of real estate. They are on one side of the road only. Opposite is wasteland with a spectacular view of the mountains.
There is what looks like a parking lane along one side of the street - but it was entirely roped off and dotted with witches hats and signs insisting that there would be no parking. This covered the road for hundreds of yards both before and after the Google property. Half a mile or more. There was even a police car stationed at one point. This was serious no parking.
Apparently, some way further down is an Amphitheatre - for which parking is discouraged on the road to protect the businesses...the one or two of them on their vast acreages.

It surprised me that Google had no visitor parking fact, a lot of things were surprising me.

What happened was that I suddenly felt my faith in and loyalty towards Google shrivelling within me.
Suddenly the negative comments about the wicked Google empire started to make sense.
Only a world with something to hide would hide.
Paranoia belongs to people with agendas.

I felt like a complete idiot.
A few months ago I had written a vast weekend magazine spread on Google - its wonderful rise and the fair and emancipated way it treated its employees and kept the spirits up. How Google had ethics as well as the best staff conditions in the world.
My boss read my piece and said that he did not believe Google was wonderful at all, that I had been conned by Google propaganda.
I was furious. Google has had a few problems - but, as one who hooked straight into the search engine when it evolved, as one who was thrilled to be an early starter with Gmail, as one who looks for the changes in the home page and touts the brilliance of the search algorithm, I was confident in my judgements. I could mention legal issues on the Google record, I told the boss, but I simply would not turn my article into any form of Google-bashing. I genuinely admired Google and I wanted the article to reflect this. It went to print - and it did.

Now I feel two inches tall.
The boss was right.
Google is not quite what we have assumed. Google has a friendly homepage but an unfriendly interface.

Google will not let its fans take a photograph.
Not just a fan, but a card-carrying visiting journalist from overseas. I had mentioned to the guard that I was an Internet writer from Australia - "just want to take a picture".

But the guards were there with rules to follow. Keep everyone out except employees.

OK Google. I got the message. I got more than the message.
I am as offended and alienated as you intended me to be.

I now will not laugh at those who say that you are moving towards becoming the new Microsoft, the evil empire.
Perhaps you now are too powerful.
Perhaps we do need to be concerned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Beware the media beatup

A few months in the USA and I am not sure if I am quaking in neurotic psychosomatics or I am simply shivering with resentment.

Day in and and day out, the US media warns us of things which are just about to do us lethal damage. There are new poisons in common foods, terrible perils in simple activities, what was good for us yesterday is dangerous today...

Let's see. What's new this week? Tomatoes that were good for you are now not good for you? Sunscreen that was safe is now hazardous. Sun that was hazardous is now life-giving. Soda drinks are bad for your heart...

The American consumer market dies a zillion little deaths every day - thanks to the mass media.

Truth is that most of these health scare stories are insubstantial with only a slim margin of truth. They are the beat ups of the desperate news media. Media sets itself rules. It will have a health story every day - whether or not there is a valid health story around.

The constant browbeating of the trusting and not profoundly informed masses empowers the media - and also its important supporters, the pharmaceultial companies.

The pharmaceutial companies bombard the public with ads for drugs while the news media bombards the people with illnesses.

Is there a pattern here?

Sure thing.

Tags: consumer | drugs | food | Health | Media | medicine | news | Pharmaceuticals | sunscreen

Friday, July 20, 2007

Organ donation, a soft tissue issue.

Being an enthusiastic supporter of the power of the Blogsphere to make a difference as the brilliant, international pressure group, I embarrass myself by discovering that I am a day late in raising the flag for organ donors.
It is a cause which merits global attention. The Australian style is simply to sign up on one's driver's license. One would imagine, therefore that there are lots of donors registered. Yet, Australia has one of the lowest rates of donors in the developed world. This turns out to be because the words "Organ Donor" on your driver's license don't actually mean a damned thing. It is a "statement of intent" but it will not make you an organ donor. It remains an issue for next of kin to decide.
If Australians want to be organ donors, they have to go to a bit more trouble. They have to put themselves on a special register and carry a separate card. Another piece of bloody plastic in the wallet - because the driver's license, which is good enough for most ID requirements and is generally deemed the most pivotal personal document after the passport, is not good enough to be an organ donor card. Huh?
Is your head spinning? Mine is.
Well, Australia celebrated a lovely organ donors' week earlier in the year. Lots of nice people signed up. There are almost a million donors, 924,387, when last I checked. In a country of 21 million, I guess that makes one donor for every 21. I would not have thought it was a bad rate. But, of course, the donors have to be dead to be useful.

Or not. There are some nasty, scary stories out there because of which some people carry Organ Retainer cards.
Just to be fair to the other side of the story.
The tales of black market in human organs may not be myths. Certainly, there are some alarming stories from China, yes, China again, about harvesting organs from Falun Gong prisoners. There are tales of donor bodies left stripped, an abandoned gutted carcas on the slab, while the medics rush around saving lives with the harvested organs and tissues.
Those stories are a bit sad.
It is not perfect business and nor is it a perfect world.

But those of us who choose to do a bit of good, to give a second chance to the sick by dedicating our used bits to their rebirth, should make our intention crystal clear - especially to our next of kin.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

...the China saga again

The perfidious China saga goes on and on. At least the Government is clamping down, albeit on what may be a bottomless pit of cynical corruption. The latest lethal scandal is of polluted drugs prescribed to children with leukemia. Injections of Chinese methotrexate have caused pain and difficulty in walking in young leukemia patients - as if they are not suffering enough already!
Meanwhile, there are more recalls of dangerous Chinese goods - jewellery which could cause lead poisoning, magnetic toys which are choking hazards...
The shock and resulting pressure emerging from the West would seem to have rattled Chinese authorities - so much so that they punished their bribe-taking food and drug safety chief by killing him.
Now the push is on to show the West that everything is just A-OK, fine and dandy for the Olympics. As AP's Audra Ang reports:

Confidence in the safety of Chinese exports has severely waned internationally, as the list of products found tainted with dangerous levels of toxins and chemicals grows longer by the day.

China has taken significant steps in recent days to clean up its dubious product safety record, including executing the former head of its drug regulation agency for taking bribes and banning the use of a chemical found in antifreeze in the production of toothpaste.

In a report aired Wednesday night, China Central Television showed how a bun maker in a district in Beijing used cardboard picked off the street as filling for his product.

The undercover investigation report showed how squares of cardboard were first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda — a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap — then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning were stirred in and minutes later, steaming buns were shown on screen.

Yum. Won't the Olympic athletes love it.
Well, to its credit, the Chinese government has installed a panel to screen products and will ban offending manufacturers from production for three years. But is the problem already too big and out of control? This is more than a distinct possibility.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

American abuse of 9/11

Because of 9/11, I am no longer allowed to have a "Welcome" mat at the door.

I was informed of this yesterday by the apartment complex manager after an unwelcome note was dropped on the "Welcome" mat requesting that said mat be removed as a safety measure. It has sat there safely for nearly nine years.

How is 9/11 a reason for people not to have Welcome mats?
Good question.

The answer is that 9/11 has become the obstructionist excuse for anything and everything in the USA. The idea is that there is no come-back if 9/11 is in the equation - even if it is not in the equation. 9/11 was such an appalling atrocity that it holds a position of high reverence, the most sacred of all cannot be challenged.

So I have removed my beautiful "Welcome" mat because of 9/11.
The great post-9/11 doormat ban of 2007 will make the world a safer place.

Who could have imagined that those acts of terrorism in 2001 would produce such ugly and bizarre dividends? Terrorists don't have to move a finger to castrate American culture. Americans are doing it in their name. Wouldn't Osama Bin Laden be amazed?

Put the words 9/11 behind it, and you can demand anything.

So it comes to pass that, after nine years, my slimline traditional American "Welcome" mat is a threat.

I am not an American so I dared to challenge the apartment complex manager when he made this claim. He said it was as an upshot of 9/11 that firemen needed clear, doormat-less access regulations. I don't remember hearing anything about doormats providing obstructions to rescue workers in the Twin Towers. This was the first time I had heard door mats and 9/11 mentioned in the same sentence. I simply did not believe him. Perhaps standard fire regulations are being toughened up, but not as a consequence of 9/11. They had fire regulations long before 9/11.

The apartment complex manager had quite a handful with this Aussie who simply would not take 9/11 as a rationale for the banning of the delightful American welcome tradition. I felt almost sorry for him. Then again, I am keen to discourage people for this sort of gratuitous exploitation of the 9/11. It is cheap and disrespectful.

The saddest part in this context is that it is gutting the country of that which is most sweetly and endearingly American.

Dainty yet hardy "Welcome" mats are a big American tradition, along with floral door wreaths and American flags. When first I came here, I was charmed by the warm, friendly spirit of these domestic statements. I was not quite ready for the door wreath or the flag, but I loved the vivid and welcoming "Welcome" mats and went off to reciprocate the good spirit with a mat of my own.

Nine years later, the apartment complex population has changed. There are fewer mature Americans here and more student sharers and foreigners. So one no longer sees these mats at every door. In fact mine is one of the last in our building. Well, it was. There are none now. A delightful American tradition is dying - perhaps in the name of fire safety but certainly not in the name of 9/11.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Punishments of non-smoking

For those who so kindly ask how the non-smoking is going, I will now share.
It is not good.
What is with these nicotine patches which are supposed to help?
Is there any nicotine in them? At no stage have they released me from the clutches of the cravings. All they have done is give me ugly red rashes surrounded by glue frames which are the devil to wash off. Perhaps the itching of the patch spots is supposed to distract one from the urge to smoke? One is so busy scratching one does not have a hand for a fag?
I have gone without cigarettes for five weeks now.
It is strictly one-day-at-a-time - still!
It seems to get harder rather than easier.
I am at the stage of thinking that the whole thing is just plain stupid and I should really just relax and have a cigarette. Oh, what a relief that would be.
My husband was tender and supportive for the first week or two. But I suspect that he thinks that five weeks without cigarettes means that his wife is now a non-smoker and out of the woods. To be requiring special considerations over a month later reeks of exploitation. Surely it is not logical that she is in deeper water now that she was in the first few weeks?
Well, she is. She is tired of trying. She is tired of this clawing, wrenching, draining need endlessly welling up through her body. She is tired of being gung ho about it. She is frightened of compensatory eating - which does not work, anyway. It just keeps one distracted. It does not take away the cravings. It triggers another one - for a post-snack cigarette.

Stress levels could not be greater. We are moving. Upheaval - not just now, but for a very long time. Now is the time of sorting and counting the accumulations of nine years living in the USA, writing an inventory for the insurance and shippers and getting our world ready to be packed up and freighted off to Australia. We have to defend ourselves against the prospect of Australian duty people who will want us to prove that we have owned our stuff for more than six months. Why did I not keep receipts for everything? Does anyone actually do that? What of the family stuff which my husband inherited? What of gifts? Should friends give receipts with their wedding, Christmas and birthday gifts just in case the recipient moves country?
Of course, I would be one of those people who has difficulty throwing things out. If I have a pair of jeans which proved a bit coarse on the skin, a bit tight or a bit loose, I put them away "in case". It is a guilt and remorse thing for having managed to leave a shop with something less than perfection, to have been fooled by the retailer, to have failed as a shopper....The items may grow to be years old, but they sit there pristine and loathed but relentlessly kept as an act of embarrassment offset by the eternal hope of "you never know, they may come in handy".

The recognition of this syndrome, the unraveling of the cupboards and wardrobes, is simply making me grouchy. The prospect of travel is doing much the same. There is no looking forward to anything - since there are no cigarettes in the plans.
Did I mention that this is the pits?

Friday, June 29, 2007

China is not our friend

If the people with extremely high IQs in China outnumber the population of the USA, how does it come that Chinese manufacturers are so damned stupid?

I am sickened by the endlessly unfolding saga of Chinese manufacturing corruption.
I am sick of writing about it - but I can't let go, since it is up to us in the Blogsphere to maintain the rage and propagate the message which is - boycott all things Chinese, including the bloody Olympics.

The Chinese must be made to realise that its corporate behavior has been internationally unacceptable.

OK, action is being taken in China. Factories are being closed down, they say.
BUT, the breadth of the criminal activity is only beginning to be uncovered.

Now we discover that people all over the world have been brushing their teeth with antifreeze.
Hundreds of thousands of people. Old folk in old folks' homes, for instance. All those in institutions wherein cheap generic products are supplied.. And, we are not sure who else and what else. Yet.

Now this, from today's Boston Herald.

Also Wednesday, Beijing police raided a village where live pigs were force-fed wastewater to boost their weight before slaughter, state media reported.
Plastic pipes had been forced down the pigs’ throats and villagers had pumped each 220-pound pig with 44 pounds of wastewater, the Beijing Morning Post reported Thursday.
Paperwork showed the pigs were headed for one of Beijing’s main slaughterhouses and stamps on their ears indicated that they already had been through quarantine and inspection, the paper said. Suspects escaped during the raid and no arrests were made, it said.
Earlier this week, inspectors announced they had closed 180 food factories in China in the first half of this year and seized tons of candy, pickles, crackers and seafood tainted with formaldehyde, illegal dyes and industrial wax.
"These are not isolated cases," Han Yi, an official with Wei’s quality administration, was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s state-run China Daily newspaper.
Han’s admission was significant because the agency has said in the past that safety violations were the work of a few rogue operators _ a claim aimed at protecting China’s billions of dollars of food exports.

The blood runs cold.

Just pop onto the Made in China directory to see how deeply exposed we are to the vast range of products being manufactured and exported by that populous nation.

Then on this technology site which reports on tainted dietary supplements, fake Chinese medicines and, for heaven's sake, lipsticks containing the carcinogenic Sudan red dye.

I would say that we can trust nothing bearing the words "Made In China" but, terrifyingly, some of the cheat products don't even reveal their origin.
We are in trouble.

Shame, China, shame!!!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Media screws the message

One thing I find deeply irritating in my beloved America is the media's preoccupation with health scares. The old control-by-fear policy seems aggressively ubiquitous in this country. There are fresh scares every day - and endless marketing of drugs to either deal with or add to the scares.

Today a research finding on antidepressants and pregnancy has hit the media - with absurd results.

From the Los Angeles Times we get reportage headlined "Study shows antidepressants increase birth defects" with a story whipping up worry about pregnancy and depression treatment.
From the Associated Press comes a report headlined "Antidepressants pose low birth defect risk".

As one who reads two papers in the mornings, I reeled when I found these conflicting treatments of the same report. The AP report was carried in the Boston Globe, the other in the Nashua Telegaph. AP's was a much shorter report and it avoided the hysteria-raising of the Californian counterpart. How could this be?

Editorial sensationalist policy versus dispassionate reportage?
You can bet your bottom dollar on it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

China Redux

Oh, no, it goes on. Now it is tyres or, for Americans, tires. Chinese manufacturers just happen to have left off a certain safety feature. Recall, recall!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The China problem escalates

I feel another burst of China-bashing coming on.
It has been building up for a week along with the reports of China providing the world with toys covered in lead-laced paint. Toxic Thomas the Tank Engine? This could be seen to imply a whole generation of brain-damaged boys.

For someone who has always loved the Chinese people, this growing saga of perfidy from China is as heartbreaking as it is enraging.

What are they thinking? Is it greed or expediency that has an era of Chinese companies sending poisons to the world?
It certainly is not stupidity. The Chinese are not stupid. Therefor it is the most wicked and duplicitous greed which is rampant in modern China - industries all over the country substituting cheap toxins for the proper ingredients in the goods they purport to manufacture.
Shame, China, shame!!

This phenomenon is out of control. It is ongoing, consciously masked by hierarchies of of Chinese businessmen as they pocket the profits.
The New York Times reported vividly on the obfuscations placed in front of the US Food & Drug Administration as it sought to find the source of the diethylene glycol which has been poisoning children in fever medicines - killing children, for heaven's sake!
The Chinese subsituted antifreeze for glycerine.

I have written about this before, of course.
I reiterate because of the new crisis with lead paints on children's toys. Yes, again the victims are children.
Thomas the Tank Engine has been painted lead red. Millions of Thomas the Tank Engines!! Toys children often put into their mouths. Everyone has known for decades that paint with lead content is ferociously dangerous to children. Don't tell me the Chinese never caught up on the news.

Of course the Western passion for economic rationalism bears responsibility here, too - and the West should not be off the hook just because China has been the culprit.

Bottom line is that it is all about outsourcing.
Everything is made in China these days - cheap products made, supposedly, to the specifications of the ordering companies.
Cheap goods from China are the secret to much wealth among Western companies, just as they are creating new wealth for Chinese companies.

It could be a comfortable arrangement but the Chinese are cheating. They are in a hurry to catch up with Western affluence and any short-cut will do.

Who knows what other short-cuts are being taken?
These crimes may be just the tip of an iceberg of manufacturing corruption.
Already, with the Chinese melamine which has been used in lethal animal food and the diethylene glycol used cough medicines and toothpaste are all over the world as bulk chemicals ready to be used for who knows what!

The Chinese have created a consumer mine field in the West and we must all now beware. We must see the words "Made in China" as an alarm, a danger signal. For our own wellbeing, we must not buy Chinese goods. And we must keep on and on and on making a fuss until we can force our own corporations to cancel orders and stand up for the West.
Even if it means we have to pay more for things.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Toughing it out

Blogging has taken a back seat while this blogger struggles with self-deprivation.
Being at the computer is a powerful smoking cue in my life - so I have been prowling about it rather than spending time on it. This means that I am desperately behind. And it also means that in doing without one thing I love and depend upon, I am also having to step back from the other thing I most love and depend upon.
It is tough.
I can't believe that the patches are really helping. The cigarette cravings come at all the usual moments and they are intense - rather like a desperate thirst.
They come from some deep visceral source, rising up to make a million receptors strain and reach for the soothing comfort of the cigarette, the civilized rituals, relief.
Only smokers known the calming pleasure tobacco delivers.
Only smokers appreciate the way tobacco can focus the mind and power the productivity.
It is extremely sad and mean that it has become the great danger - the most maligned of activities. Beer-swilling men who fall down dead drunk after beating their children and raping their wives are less criticised than smokers. Alcoholics are nurtured by society, given sympathy and treated as people who have a sickness. It is never their fault. Not even the massive collateral damage left in their booze-stewed wake.
But smokers?
The grotesque manner in which society has treated smokers is one of the things which has made me resist giving up. So repulsed am I by the behaviour of the Australian anti-smoking lobby that I do not wish to be associated with them - even in the business of not smoking.
They are self-righteous bullies who have blackmailed their way into sanction of society - inflicting their ugliness not only on smokers but on everyone. Look what they have been doing by way of shock tactic graphic advertising in Australia?

The medical grotesqueries they expose on television and cigarette packets is a form of violent pornography. It is driven not by a sense of being helpful towards smokers but by spite.
The Americans handle the smoking messages much better than the Australians. Their television ads are suggestive, warm, positive, encouraging... They don't threaten or criticise. They hold out a hand.

And, as I give up smoking, I make it quite clear that those crass and shameful graphic Australian messages bore absolutely no influence. Rather, I had to be on the other side of the world, far away from the ugly Australian anti-smoking campaigners, to be able to undertake the battle. The American hand of kindness has quietly worked.

Ah, but the American advertising industry is way more sophisticated than Australia's.
Here, in the land of Vance Packard and Marshall McLuhan, advertising is an art form.

Australia never quite got the media message about the media message. Gawd, I dread getting back to the cheap crap they call television advertising in Australia. It's nothing more than a talent-free con job. And, giving the advertising industry low-lifes lots of money from the anti-smoking lobby, they have come up trumps with a truly appalling job.
The campaign is a failure. It has not worked. It is a disgrace. It is a national embarrassment.

So I had better succeed in giving up smoking here in America because I know that once back in Australia, there were be only the negativity of that squalid mob in my face.

How the hell did we spawn such malicious marketing inferiority!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Paris Hilton phenomenon

The world has ground to a halt in the USA. I have surfed and surfed the TV news channels and there is only one subject being reported - being reported with obsessive minutiae, repetitive minutiae - and, of course, it is Paris Hilton, the tarty hotel heiress who is famous for being famous.
At first, I was amused and horrified. It seemed that the celebrity gossip which has been passing for news in this country had soared out of control.
But, pausing to scrutinise some of the coverage, it became apparent that, while it is, indeed, celebrity gossip reportage, there is something else at play here - something very interesting.

It is an exercise in national schadenfreud.
It is the display of country renewing its commitment to principles.

America has been inflicted with a daily diet of Paris's vapid and vulgar activities.
She has been a grotesque media creation, a cartoon of the American fascination with celebrity, riding high on endless concocted photo opportunities, not to mention the most artificially contrived un-reality TV show of them all.
But now she has tripped in demonstrating contempt for the DUI laws, in believing that as the celebrated Paris Hilton she is somehow above the laws, and the country has turned on her in a spirit of unified loathing.

Even Martha Stewart did not cop this sort of national vilification when she was jailed for insider trading. For all her faults, Martha has talent and has contributed to the world, albeit her contributions are stencilled cards and DIY Christmas decorations.
Paris Hilton is just the cheapest rich girl in the world. Even stencilling a card would be beyond her. But her country now is forcing her to contribute something towards its social mores. She is to be an example of comeuppance.
To that end, there were five helicopters and hundreds of media surrounding her house when she had her brief liberation from jail yesterday. The media halted all other news coverage to mull over the justice and ethics of her case. From channel to channel, there were debates, discussions and analyses - from Fox's savage talking heads to Larry King, from The View to Jay Leno.
And no one had a good word to say about her.
All of which has given her a new crown to wear.
Paris Hilton has taken over from O.J. Simpson has the most hated celebrity in the USA.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Screaming audience aversion

When did women start screaming to indicate their enthusiasm?
Once upon a time there was a thing called "applause" - a clapping of the hands to convey delight or appreciation. Sometimes it came with added whistles.
Then the "whoop" arrived and audiences added whooping vocal sounds to applause.
Now they just scream.
If they are applauding with their hands, it is inaudible beneath the shrill of shrieks and screams.
It is a most terrible sound. It is a descent into inanity.
Is it clear how much I hate this development in the world of entertainment?
Or, how mystified I am about it?

The strident insistence of extended audience screaming has caused me simply to turn off television programs I otherwise may have watched, even enjoyed. Conan O'Brien, the offbeat late night presenter, actively encourages this animalistic nonsense from his audience, cueing the women to keep on and on with the screams as he basks in it its approbation.
On the NBC morning show, there are screamers waiting in the streets. The moment they see a camera light go on, they start with the screaming.
This mindless din accompanies more and more American television. Well, it accompanies anything that includes a live audience. God forbid they start injecting the canned screams to the recorded shows. Daresay it may come.
This phenomenon has acquired nauseating ubiquity. We have produced a whole generation of people who can only express themselves with primal high Cs.
And no one seems to complain, to ask them to try the old hand-clapping routine...

Am I the only person who is despairing of this?
It makes me want to scream!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Robin Cook, where are you?

It reads like a Robin Cook medical thriller. Man with serious infectious disease defies his government and endangers innocent travellers in his desperate bid to slip back home under the radar.
But it is not fiction.

There are many questions we want to ask about Andrew Speaker and his rare and dangerous form of tuberculosis - the very variant which engages his new father-in-law in clinical research. Where and how did he contract this treatment-resistant illness? The microbiologist father-in-law, Robert Cooksey, has been facing news cameras, saying it has nothing to do with him or his work. But, what a co-incidence!

Speaker just married the doctor's daughter in Greece, we understand, and went on honeymoon in the Greek Islands, Italy and as yet unnamed other European countries. It was while he was out of the US that the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention notified him of the exceptionally dangerous nature of his disease and instructed him not to take commercial transport. So what did Speaker do? He jumped on commercial transport. Lots - some six planes. To escape detection by US authorities, he took a Czech air service and flew to Montreal whence he drove into the US. The border guard who ignored the warnings for apprehension and quarantine which popped up on his computer now has been taken off the job.

Speaker's fellow passengers on the trans-Atlantic flight have been sought for testing. There are hundreds of them. But that is just a tip of the iceberg of possible infection. How many people were crammed in airport cattle-grid queues with him, dined in cafes beside him, inherited a hotel room from him, sat in front of him in a cinema...?
One reels at the potential contact one man could have as he moved around popular tourist spots and through airports.
It is the nightmare we all have, most especially in the cramped confines of air travel. I always come down with something after a long-haul flight - and I have written about this issue many times before. It long has worried me.

Of course, one sympathises with Speaker. One would not want to be in his shoes. He must have been very frightened - but only for himself.

How deeply ironic. Speaker should have been more conscious of his culpability than most. He is a personal injury lawyer.

He is a personal injury lawyer who may be having a lot to do with other personal injury lawyers.
Meanwhile, the his law firm's website is down. Too many hits or deep embarrassment?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The not-so-great outdoors

Memorial Day marks the "unofficial" beginning of summer in the US. It is, indeed, warming up - from time to time - in New Hampshire. With it come the warnings - West Nile fever, encaphalitis, Lyme disease, rabies... Yep, you have to be wary when you go outside here.
I say this every year: Australia has an unfair rap as the dangerous creatures country.
I can't believe the way Americans cringe and squeal with horror at our snakes and spiders when they have a ubiquity of their own nasties.
Mosquitos are are a serious worry. So here we go again with the summer warnings and instructions. "Wear DEET and keep covered". DEET is the only chemical which really does it for mosquitos and ticks. A lot of so-called repellents are sold, but horrible old DEET is the effective one which does not so much repel the insects are confuse their sense of where we are. Yes, it is unpleasant to put this stuff on your skin - but it is a small price compared to the alternative of West Nile fever or Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Bird-borne West Nile has been growng more common leaving a lot of dead crows and sick people in its wake.
As for the bloody ticks. As if it is not bad enough that those repugnant little blood-suckers can give one Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted ningnong, this summer comes with the announcement that a new, really, really wicked disease is being spread through New England by the tiny wee deer tick. It is called Babesiosis - and it is a malaria-like disease which makes your spleen swell until you can barely breathe, among other things.
Any idea I had of lying on my belly to get a macro shot of insects like the one above - is just a no-no-no-goer!! I won't be lying in any long grass until I am somewhere where the wildlife is safe - like Australia.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The evolution of creationism

Tara-Tara! Drumroll! Applause, applause.

A $27 million Creation Museum is opening in Kentucky - triumphantly demonising Darwinism with the "science of Genesis".
Recently we saw three Republican presidential candidates raise their hands to admit that they did not believe in evolution. Three out of ten. But, according to the Boston Sunday Globe, that is not representative of the country. The Globe asserts that fifty per cent of Americans believe that God created Adam and Eve just 6000 years ago - and the entire study of paleontology, geology, physics, biology and astronomy is meaningless to them.
This statistic chills my blood.
And, my mind reels at the leaps of logic that the creationist concept encompasses.
It's all about "faith". I recall my first husband urging me to join his religion by making "the leap in the dark" - which was faith. Blind belief.
I have never managed to make that "leap in the dark". I like the light. I am happy being illuminated by education.
This is not to say that I don't have a spiritual streak - for I have a deep sense of my place as a grain of sand in the vast organism which is our universe. I have profound love for life, nature and humanity - and believe passionately in the Dalai Lama's ethos of "compassion" as the core value for this life. Wonderment is no stranger to me. And yet, I cannot countenance the existence of a supreme being. If I were to do so, it would be with immense sorrow that any supreme being, intelligent designer, if you will, would, in fact, create so much cruelty and suffering. Why would an intelligent designer create disease and starvation, children in pain..?
Why would he/she give us an appendix or make the ageing process so degrading? Why would he/she make many religions and then make them divisive? And why would he/she create a complex paleontological record - just to test us?

It defies logic. To believe in all of this is not just a leap in the dark, it is a leap into a morass of denial. Which, of course, is the rub of religion - a prop humanity has required to cope with the concept of our transient existence in the chain of life.
Until the rise and rise of the combative creationists, I've been happy to respect the religions of others, seeing religion and ritual as an innate need.
But when we find a belief which seeks to crush science and human understanding, I recoil.
If they were to have their way, no more diseases would be cured and the earth would warm to environmental implosion. They would call it "God's Will".
They seem to have a pretty strong handle on God's Will. God wills whatever they choose. For some reason, enlightenment is not what they choose.

They have made the leap in the dark - and they are staying in the dark.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Spats and simpers: celebrities are news

Ann Curry's simpering interview with Angelina Jolie has been aired over and over - as if it has some major news significance. Oh, lordy, where will I have to see it next? Curry whispers at her subject with coy adulation, leaning forward in her chair, nodding like a bobble-head and daring to inject her own opinions and moist-eyed life stories into her interview - as if she and Jolie are just such special peers. I think I will dub it the American "simperview" since the talent-challenged Curry is not the only interviewer who uses this cringe-inducing technique. It seems intended to inject some emotional gravitas into what is basically pretty airhead material. Let's face it, Angelina Jolie is doing interviews to promote a new movie. The whole vast "scoop" interview is just a plug. This is not to say that Jolie is not one of the more interesting actresses around. She has always been "different" and she has a powerful and admirable political conscience which, one hopes, is of some influence to the masses in this gob-smacking culture of celebrity. But, bottom line, when she goes out there doing a dollar-driven movie promo, the media dissolves into a pathetic goo of star-worship.

How very differently does the media treat Jolie, the political animal, from the way it treats Rosie O'Donnell, the political animal!

The big bad right wing men in suits can't spew enough bile about Rosie. Rosie, a self-described "fat lesbian", is a popular hate target for expressing views not dissimilar to those of the beautiful Angelina Jolie. Rosie is intelligent and highly articulate, but Rosie is portrayed as a wicked loudmouthed left-wing extremist. The big bad right wing men in suits devour her with relish as an outlet for their deep anger at the very existence of a thinking left. She's an easy target, a soft target - and there's nothing they like better.

After yesterday's The View, they are having a field day - since Rosie was in very heated dispute with the very pretty and pregnant poster girl of the right, Elisabeth Hasslebeck. Hasselbeck is The View's balance of opinion - since most prominent and politically aware females in showbiz are, in fact, of Democrat sympathy. Hasselback is the NeoCon plant. She is a creationist.

While Rosie rose through the ranks of showbiz with brains, wit, originality and talent as a comedian, Hasselbeck's vast achievement was being a pretty thing on Survivor: The Australian Outback. I watched that show and I can barely remember her, but apparently American viewers so adored the cute shoe designer that, while she did not win Survivor, she won the bigger prize of national celebrity. She's a pretty little blonde, after all. The stereotypical American mould.

Watching the political spat on The View, I saw Hasselbeck on the attack and Rosie on the defensive. Hasselbeck struck out stridently, a ferocious viper already enraged by Joy Behar's praise for Al Gore and criticisms of the Bush regime. "Poor little" nothing! As she, indeed, said. Hasselbeck is a confident, self-righteous Republican and, doubtless, she is subject to constant briefing and revving up by the party cronies who would see her as a media prize. If you watch footage of that now historic spat, you will see Hasselbeck doing most of the talking and shouting - not Rosie. In sad fact, the two of them drowned out the real speaker, comedian Joy Behar, who had outlined a carefully-considered list of the political crimes of George W. Bush and his administration.

Rosie was naughty because she had a personal agenda with Elizabeth and, in giving vent to it, she enabled Elizabeth's shrieking outburst - all of which effectively took the audience's eye off the significant political ball that Behar had put into play. And it gave the men in suits yet another opening for yet another onslaught against Rosie.

Rosie will be gone from The View in three weeks - rather controversially insofar as all the denials in the world will never convince us that her departure was not pressured by the men in suits.
Meanwhile, pretty little Mrs Hasselbeck will stay on, radiantly pregnant with the next generation of Christian Republican creationists.
And, here's the bet, it won't be long before Fox is making a lucrative offer to draw her into their fold of "fair and balanced" rabid righties.

Geoffrey Rush sweet in stardom

Flicked on the telly this morning and what should I see but Geoffrey Rush cooking pavlova with Martha Stewart.
Good heavens. Geoff the chef.
Well, of course, it is uphill with Martha Stewart. She has an annoying habit of having to one-up her guests - so of course she was making a rival pav and decorating it with fruit in the American colours. How rude, when she is supposed to be demonstrating an Australian tradition. Geoffrey looked a bit nonplussed. Geoffrey put bananas and lashings of passionfruit on his - to which Martha raised her authoritarian eyebrows.
"I've never heard of anyone putting bananas on a pavlova," she snapped.
Well, she, of all people, would have heard!
Geoffrey looked nonplussed again - and politely explained that it was sort of, er, well, popular where the pav came from.

Rush has been doing the talk circuit this week, promoting the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
I get a rush of Rush pride whenever I see him - elegant and urbane Australian actor that he is.
And I get a little thrill in knowing that way back there in the beginning, I had a little hand in his success.
Not that he was not always an exceptional actor. He was based in Adelaide back in the 80s where I reviewed him in State Theatre Company productions, interviewed him on occasion and even, finding him alone at the bar in the legendary La Cantina restaurant , sat down and had a drink with him one late, late night.
I'd admired him from the first time I saw him in the theatre. He is an outstanding stage actor - somehow defying the extraordinary gaunt angularity of his build to embody a veritable panoply of diverse characters. 'Twas ever a pleasure to watch him work.

How did I have a hand in his success?
Well - I wrote the article that inspired the film that won him the Oscar!

May 28, 1986. Page 3, Adelaide Advertiser
Out of the gloom, a genius reborn

Meeting pianist David Helfgott is like tumbling out of everyday life into a softly eccentric wonderland of sounds.

But David, 38, is a world unto himself -- and his tale is one of genius, tragedy and triumph.

The extraordinary WA musician has recently returned to the concert platform after a decade of psychiatric treatment and musical obscurity, shepherded by a woman's love. He is in Adelaide to give a recital at Edmund Wright House tonight.

Peering myopically through milk-bottle-bottom lenses, he proffered a warm, long-fingered hand and his murmurous voice began a strange rhythmic exploration of the sound of new names: "Sssam-sam-samela-sam..."

Then, as if magnetically drawn to the piano, he sat at the sleek Steinway, caressed its keys and filled the ornate old room with the intricate sounds of Liszt's La Campella while transforming his name-refrain into friendly serenade.

Rocking on the piano stool, sometimes bowing his head to the keys, singing, sighing and occasionally asking for a cigarette -- yet never interrupting the fluidity of his music -- he resembled no other concert pianist.

As the musical prodigy son of impoverished Polish migrants, David Helfgott was, at 12, the youngest to enter the ABC's annual WA State concerto and vocal competitions, which he went on to win six times.

At 14, he was the youngest to reach the Commonwealth finals and he pursued a brilliant career to be assessed at 19 in London as a "near-genius" talent. His performance of the Liszt Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall received a standing ovation from an audience of 8000.

Soon afterwards Helfgott suffered a serious nervous breakdown. On his return to Perth in 1973, he was admitted to hospital and his psychiatric and drug treatments lasted 10 gloomy years.

He continued privately to play the piano, sometimes for 10 hours a day, in his cramped lodge where he lived with 60 other psychiatric patients.

His musical career was surprisingly revived in 1983 when a Perth restaurateur, Dr. Chris Reynolds, asked him to fill in for a sick pianist.

Nervously chain-smoking, he produced a few discordant two-fingered sounds on the restaurant's piano, and as the diners began to jeer, he launched into Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee.

It was an historic night at Riccardo's restaurant. Diners, drinkers and staff were stopped in their tracks. They gave a thunderous ovation -- and Helfgott played on for four hours of non-stop classics.

Helfgott was "adopted" by the restaurateur and it was while living in his home that he met visiting divorcee Gillian Murray. At their second meeting he proposed to her and within months they were married.

But he was subsisting unhealthily on 130 cigarettes and 25 cups of coffee a day and prescribed medication, while playing piano three times a week at the restaurant.

Since their meeting in 1984, Gillian has gradually limited his smoking to less than one packet a day, reduced his coffee intake to a maximum of five cups, eliminated his need for medication and strengthened his bowed and lean body with a shared regimen of swimming, jogging and yoga.

Mrs. Helfgott described her husband as "an absolutely unforgettable, irresistibly endearing, hopelessly impractical genius who does not know meanness or dishonesty."

She nurtures him like a rare flower, believing that "fine performers need special care and support so they can blossom to full potential."

Of his wife, Helfgott said she had restored his confidence and blessed him with the sweet fortune to resume the career he loved.

After his "return" tour of Australia, the Helfgotts will leave for a study tour of Britain and Europe and then, according to Mrs. Helfgott, Australia can look forward to hearing much more from "one of the few truly romantic pianists in the world."

On reading this story in the paper, film director Scott Hicks telephoned me and asked "is this man for real?" I assured him enthusiastically that David Helfgott was very much for real, had been quite the most extraordinary extraordinary to meet - and confirmed where Helfgott was playing that night. Scott subsequently excused himself from his wife's birthday party to leap off to hear Helfgott - and Shine was born - wherein, a decade later, Geoffrey Rush's name soared from the world of Australian theatre and into the shimmering lights of international movie stardom.

So, I like to think I was a little acorn...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More to fear from China

"Under Agriculture Department rules, countries cannot export meat and poultry products to the United States unless the USDA certifies that the slaughterhouses and processing plants have food-safety systems equivalent to those here. Much to its frustration, China is not certified to sell any meat to the United States because it has not met that requirement.

But that has not stopped Chinese meat exporters. In the past year, USDA teams have seized hundreds of thousands of pounds of prohibited poultry products from China and other Asian countries, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced in March. Some were shipped in crates labeled "dried lily flower," "prune slices" and "vegetables," according to news reports. It is unclear how much of the illegal meat slipped in undetected.

Despite those violations, the Chinese government is on track to get permission to legally export its chickens to the United States -- a prospect that has raised concern not only because of fears of bacteria such as salmonella but also because Chinese chickens, if not properly processed, could be a source of avian flu, which public-health authorities fear may be poised to trigger a human pandemic."

Does this make your blood run cold? It does mine.

These words have been lifted from the very trusted source of the Washington Post, a Sunday, May 21 article by Rick Weiss, headed "Tainted Chinese imports common".
This is a deeply alarming piece which describes some of the 289 shipments the FDA has refused entry into the US because of contamination, toxic ingredients and pure fakery. As Weiss points out, the Chinese don't give up when refused entry for their goods. They try again and then again.

This is an epidemic.

Bravo to the Washington Post for running this deeply alarming piece. But the story needs more, more and more exposure than this. We face a dangerous scandal and it is going to take a massive public outrage to make governments confront the issue. They have to see it as an insidious form of terrorism. An attack on what we eat.

I am sure the Chinese people would be devastated to know what some of their manufacturers are doing. I am sure they don't know.
I am sure the Chinese Government will be embarrassed to realise how these exporters are shaming their country.

But the word needs to be spread. Chinese foods must be avoided and, as I have said before, countries affected by this sinister mode of attack should boycott the Olympics.

Theatre rage and I'm all for it

Theatre rage.
It had to happen.
It could so easily have been me and not members of the audience of the Boston Pops who earned the first headlines for theatre rage. They are now all over YouTube, the people brawling in the dress circle on the glamorous opening night performance.
It was all about someone who would not stop talking and someone who really wished they would.
Talking during performance is the worst of bad manners. It goes against all the rules of theatre etiquette.
But no one knows etiquette any more. And, unforgiveably, the rules are not enforced.

Once upon a time, there was a rule that no food or drink was allowed in the auditorium. There used to be signs, reminding people of this.
The idea is that live performance is something special. It is an intimate interaction between performers and audiences. It also is work on behalf of the performers - risky work for which they need concentration. We of olde worlde theatre background have been brought up to respect this. Hence, the disappointment and annoyance we suffer when we find ourselves in audiences who seem to think that going to the theatre is not much different to watching the telly at home. They arrive late. They get up and go to the lavatory. They snack. I've seen people bring hot pizza into the theatre. They crackle crisp packets and crunch on crisps, suck loudly on candy and they glug, glug, glug on those bottles of water which they seem to think have to be attached to them at all times.

This behaviour has been driving me mad for years. My adrenalin levels rise and I want to call out "stop the show - and let's evict these noisy boors". I know the actors are distracted by these noises and movements just as other audience members are.

Theatre administrators are no help. They have let the rules lapse because they want the refreshment sales.

So, it is up to other audience members to ask for consideration.
It is an unpleasant burden to put on people - especially when they may have paid over $100 for a ticket.

As for the communications devices, the mobile phones and Blackberries...
Now we have to listen to pre-show reminders to turn them off and not use them for recording or photographing the show. This is irritating in itself. And those who think they are special, which is many people, take no notice at all. One will find them texting or holding up their phones to share their experience with someone at home...or to sneak onto YouTube or, damned if I know. But no rules apply any more.

Truly, the time has come for theatres to assert the rules of etiquette. To save the tradition that is the purity of live performance - the beauty and integrity of the experience.
The rules should be posted in the foyer, in the toilets and, maybe, even projected over the curtain before the show. They should be printed on tickets. Ushers should remind people at the door.

If the ignorant new generation of theatre-goers is allowed to continue in this trend of thinking that an auditorium is just another living room, the quality of live theatre is doomed.

I dunno, if I have to sit in theatres among slurping, sucking, crunching, texting, glugging, chatting cultural retards - then I will feel equally entitled to light up a cigarette.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Salem: Bonjour Tristesse

Salem, Massachusetts, has the Witch Trials of 1692 as its strident claim to fame and it has created a witchcraft wonderland of kitsch to capitalise on this and lure in tourists by the busload. It's lots of fun - pure unadulterated corn and guileless exploitation.
But, behind the witch museums, tarot readings, crystal shops and Wiccan souvenirs, there is Salem, Mass, of the distinguished mercantile history. There is nothing phoney in this.

Salem's era of affluence from sea trade left a legacy of peerless architecture in the form of Chestnut Street - one of the most beautiful streets in the USA. It is now a National Historic Landmark street because, thanks to luck and perhaps foresight, the antique houses which line the cobbled street have never suffered at the whim of renovators or developers. The grand old homes retain their historic and architectural integrity.
Chestnut Street is simply a joy to behold, let alone to meander.

Bruce and I, with my birthday-sharing weekend guest, Aunt Libby, took a Saturday drive down to Salem, lunching luxuriously at the grand old Hawthorne Hotel - named after Salem's famous literary son, Nathaniel Hawthorne - and then taking a sightseeing trolly ride, a very comfortable and easy way to glean a full picture of the town and its history. Chestnut Street was the highlight of the drive - so much so that we decided to return on foot to soak in the beauty and antiquity of the architecture at closer quarters.
It was a briskly cool spring day. Forsythia, pansies and tulips were in full bloom all over the place and the trees were beginning to leaf out in brightest newborn green.

Strolling Chestnut Street's brick footpaths, which, underscored by ancient tree roots, undulate quite perilously, we were able to scrutinise the details of the grand old captains' and merchants's houses, marvelling at the famous "coffin doors". It seems bizarre that people should design front doors with their death in mind. Many of the Chestnut Street homes have these extra panels in the gracious, great front doors just so that coffins would fit easily in and out. They were handy for women in hooped skirts, too, we had learned earlier from our tourist guide. We thought they might be handy again for the new era of morbidly obese Americans.

Some of the homes are brick, but most are clapboard, painted in handsome period colours of greys and blues and browns, with their neat shutters, doors and windowframes contrasting in black or white. Most of the houses are huge - mansions of opulent proportions, usually with a top floor which would have accommodated servants in the streets heyday.

One old house which brags a grand ballroom was having an event - a wedding reception we surmised, noting the flower-decked horse and carriage with its attendants in top hat and tails. We watched the smartly dressed locals parking their cars and hurrying down the road. We were amused to spot a husband and wife arriving in brand new his and hers BMWs and parking side by side. It was a rich event in this rich old street.
We were quietly fantasising about the people who lived in the street, how simply gorgeous it must be to live in such salubrious and historic quarters and what a responsibility it must be. How annoying, perhaps, to live in a tourist attraction - to have to put up with people like us taking photos and lingering longingly outside one's home.

We were doing just that outside the house we had agreed to be our absolute favourite on the street. We were paused, gazing at details and imagining the elegant , affluent and perfect life that must be going on within its walls when the front door opened and an elderly woman appeared.
"Hello," I said.
She did a quick double-take and then, returned my greeting with warmth.
"You have a lovely house," said Aunt Libby.
"Oh thankyou," replied the woman, descending the stone steps from the front door to stand beside us in the street. She was wearing a hat and carrying a handbag, clearly on her way somewhere.
"My tooth just fell out," she announced. "I'm very upset."
This was the last thing we expected to hear.

We expressed immense sympathy. She, rightly, was very agitated. She reiterated her horror at this sudden happening. No pain. No blood. She wasn't even eating. The tooth had simply fallen out.
Of course this was a little puzzling. But her distress was very real.
"I'm waiting for my daughter, is that Merridy?" she asked, pointing at a small clutch of tourists ambling slowly on the other side of the road. "The one in red, is that Merridy," she asked. "I'd better go and see." Of course, we did not know her daughter - but it was clear that the woman in red did not know our old woman. Libby offered to go with her, to take her hand across the road. The woman said she was glad of the company. But, as the tourists walked away, she realised her daughter was not one of them and returned to the front of the house, toying with the option of waiting for her daughter to come home or going to her dentist in another town - despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon and she had not phoned him.
"Oh look, here comes the dentist," she said as a spunky young postman approached down the street. We corrected her and she called out and told him he was the postman. "But not doing your round," he replied, striding on past.
At this point, she decided to show us the tooth.
She opened and shut her hand quickly, exposing what was obviously a set of three teeth from a dental plate.

Of course, we had already silently ascertained that this poor woman had dementia, perhaps Alzheimers, so we were decidedly alarmed when she asked if her car was in the driveway. It was. She tried the doors. It was locked. Phew. She did not seem to have the key but returned to the front of the house where we assured her that her teeth would be OK until Monday when she could get an appointment with the dentist and we tried to coax her into returning indoors , to put her feet up, have a drink, try to relax, wait for her daughter... She was accepting this advice and was just mounting the stairs when her next-door-neighbour drove up and she announced that she would just go and talk to him first.

We bade her good luck and farewell and slowly resumed our path. Looking back, I saw the neighbour solicitously stroking her shoulder and knew she was in good hands. Poor, distressed and befuddled old girl.

And thus it was we realised that even the most perfect house does not a perfect world contain.