January 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
My faster half became briefly famous for his alternate view of the 2003 Canberra bushfires. By way of introduction, the SMH wrote on 19 January:
“Mr Howard cut short his summer holidays today to return to Canberra to inspect the burned out remains of hundreds of homes destroyed in the ferocious firestorm that ripped through the ACT yesterday.
He thanked scores of firefighters, police, volunteers and army personnel as he visited the Emergency Services Bureau.
The prime minister then tried to give some comfort to residents who had lost their homes in the ravaging blazes as he made his way through the fire-hit suburbs.”
December 17, 2012 § 3 Comments
There’s an enormous residential development taking place in the Molonglo valley in Canberra’s west. Molonglo is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘suburban lifestyle’. The Ngunnawal people were famous for their traditional neighbourhood values with a focus on sustainability for the future.
In charge of this carve-up is the Land Development Agency (LDA).
The LDA’s newly hatched suburbs are called Jacka, Bonner and Wright. These strike me as names that are destined to be given to babies, if they haven’t already. Hold Jacka for a minute while I hang out the washing, would you?
Apparently, Bonner is ‘somewhere to look forward to’, which makes it sound like it will never be finished. Kingston Foreshore urges its residents to ‘immerse yourself’ which is unfortunate given the condition of Lake Burley Griffin.
The other day I rode my bike past Wright, with its street names that sound like pharmaceutical companies (Xenica) or herbal menopause capsules (Amaryllis). The streets have been paved with the world’s finest bitumen. This is in sharp contrast to the usual method of road-making in the ACT, which is to squirt tar all over the place, then dump stones on it in the hopes they stick. Light poles have been pushed into the earth like candles in a birthday cake. Even the driveways are ready: concrete ramps leading to uniform clods of dirt and imaginary residences.
The whole place is pregnant with expectation.
If – like me – you are dreaming of a future in Wright, or having a nightmare about it, check the Housing Development Guide first:
- You must build in a mix of materials including brick, painted brick and, er, rendered brick. You may use stone, timber and metal as ‘relief’, or get a hand job from a sex worker.
- You must choose from off-whites, creams, browns or greys for your colour scheme, which is the same difficult decision that confronts Richie Benaud each morning.
- You must erect a letter box of approved size in the approved location and you cannot use a street number from any other source (for example the Mayan calendar).
- You have to put in a minimum of 2 trees and 20 plants, a front path, and the rest of the driveway. You get 1 tree on the nature strip.
- Shared fences must be 1.8m high, a highly discriminatory standard that allows tall people to see and be seen over the fence while short people remain ignorant and unobserved.
- Extra pressure is placed on owners of corner blocks, whose homes must avoid being dull and uninteresting by adding external features such as windows, and preferably by being two-storey.
- Finally, all indications of life (satellite dishes, air conditioners, clothes lines and presumably children, shipping containers and vehicle carcasses) must be positioned to avoid being seen from the street.
This will not preserve the character of Canberra, it will change it.
I’m reminded of the bit in George Johnston’s book My Brother Jack where the narrator loses it over the manicured subdivision he has mortgaged his life to (Beverley Park Gardens Estate) and defiantly plants a ‘proper bloody tree’.
If all this is a bit depressing, there is always Mingle. Mingle in Molonglo Valley is not, as first feared, a noxious weed. It’s a community development program where you meet people who want what you want. And decide if you hate them.
Let us pray.
Lord, may the imminent citizens of Molonglo enter unto their eucalyptus-coloured dwellings and may they keep Bonner’s unregistered shitheap off the front lawn. And Lord? May the LDA grant them a petrol station and a supermarket; that they may stay out of the queues I’m in.
Further reading: this nice piece on My Brother Jack and the Australian struggle with suburbia, by James Button.
December 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
I have been trying to find a replacement for my old Adidas Adizero Adios, the red rockets. Now two years old, they have done many tens of kilometres and they are literally coming apart at one seam. The out sole has the soft, crumbly texture and appearance of Mersey Valley cheese but little of the eating appeal. They have been awesome shoes.
So I turned to Wiggle local retailers to help me replace my road shoes. Et voila! Meet the New Balance WRC1600B.
The WRC1600B joins the NYC860v3, the MR1400NY and the Ionix3090. Every New Balance shoe model contains 6-9 digits including letters and numbers so in addition to footwear, they make excellent passwords.
The 1600s are one of the army of lightweight, minimalist running shoes that are quickly overtaking both the market and other runners. They have a tiny 6mm drop and will add just 140 grams to your kit, or a bit more if you wear both of them.
I converted to minimalist shoes because I didn’t like the high, spongy feel of conventional runners. A dozen years of yoga has beaten my Achilles and calves into submission. I’m naturally a forefoot and mid-foot striker, because I run like I unicycle: turning little circles underneath me and going almost nowhere. And when every step hurts, every gram counts.
But there is one other factor in my preference for minimalist shoes and that factor is vanity.
In these image-conscious times, you want to be seen in the Thoroughbreds of the running shoe world, not the Clydesdales. Lightweight shoes make you look like a scene-ster instead of a New Year’s Resolution who walked into Athlete’s Foot like a fly into a carnivorous plant. Did I just call Athlete’s Foot a bunch of shills? I withdraw. It’s better than Footlocker, which is some sort of nightclub where you enter with $400 and leave with neon high-tops, a gym membership and a shaved head.
Look. There are good runners, fast runners, who need stability and cushioning on their feet. I just don’t respect them and neither should you.
A ‘blown rubber’ is usually cause for concern, but not in this case. The blown rubber out sole is stealthily quiet so they are well-suited to both shy runners and burglars. Fortunately, the unique hieroglyphic imprint will be a dead giveaway at any crime scene. These intricate lugs wrap around the toe of the shoe to the front, a feature that will appeal to those who include very steep or indeed vertical runs in their program. And thanks to the REVlite mid sole (made of foam that is 30% lighter than other shoe foams) I would expect a largish ant to be able to carry one off.
Of course, the worst thing about these shoes is the logo. I have always avoided New Balance shoes because of the giant, superhero N on the side. What a creative stroke of graphic design that was.
The giant, superhero N on the 1600s is metallic hot pink But on the upside I can’t really see it from where I’m standing which is, obviously, inside the shoes. Anyone outside the shoes is invited to mock me as appropriate.
Still, if you can get past this feature without feeling like wearing your undies outside your compression tights, then I highly recommend these shoes. I will be smashing out some five minute Ks in them. Sponsor that.
PS. Have you read my review of the Adidas XT3 trail shoes? Of course you have.
November 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This is the text of a speech I gave last weekend.
In 1962, a few weeks before the wedding whose 50th anniversary we are here to celebrate, Charles Lyttelton ended his term as tenth Governor-General of New Zealand. Lord Cobham, as he was known, was such a good speaker that a book of his speeches was published. Dad gave his copy to me some years ago, its pages interleaved with old newspaper clippings and other artefacts.
Great oratory is marked by great insight. Before he retired Lord Cobham said ‘One of the hardest things to do is to be able to assess the value of what one is doing now in terms of the future…Human activities have to pass the test of time.’
I have turned my mind to insights I have been given by the guests of honour.
First, I credit my mother with the ominous view of opportunity ‘You pass this way but once’. That phrase has become the little voice in my head, the extra push to step into the unknown and broaden my experience. For that, mum, I have quietly thanked you over and over, nursing the glow of something ventured and something gained.
That we pass this way but once is of course literally false. I have passed many ways more than once and some hundreds of times over with neither positive nor negative consequences. As we stride and sometimes stumble through life, there is very little that cannot be patched up, resurfaced and tried again. More people would survive their darkest hour if they could hear – and believe – that you don’t just get ‘one shot’ at life. You get as many as you need.
However, every single moment is one that you pass but once as the person you are that day. So go for it.
My mother’s pocketful of wisdom also contains the grim warning ‘No one’s indispensable’. Picture a hand withdrawing from a bucket of water; the water closes over, the ripples disappear and the next person to come along will simply see a bucketful (water level a bit lower notwithstanding). As much as a warning about ego, this is a reminder about keeping things in balance. It is a reminder that life goes on.
My father’s advice has more often been specific rather than general. We are all, I think, compelled to check the weather before deciding whether to go over Arthur’s Pass or stay east of the divide. His adaptability, efficiency and all-round nous are part of the family ethic, even if few of us can match his technical skills. No one, thank God, can match the lowness of his engine revs or his thick-skinned allegiance to function over style. He is the original recycler, as prone to pick up a block of wood from the tip or a piece of metal from the side of the road as he is to strategically abandon an old bicycle or a (soon-to-be) homeless chicken.
But more than once he has told me ‘Your best decisions are your slowest’. This advice, statistically, is only right about half the time. Two of the biggest decisions I have ever made in my life – the decision to get married and the decision to get unmarried – were slow ones. The first one was wrong, but I accept it for what it was. The second one – the one that led to this man and these children – was right.
I have also suffered the paralysis of indecision and learned that sometimes, any decision made is a good one. Humans very quickly adapt to whatever course is set, whether that course is set for us or by us.
Still, careful decisions have served me much more often than they have stalled me.
Finally, I credit both parents for instilling in me a desire to occasionally ‘Rock the boat’. In fact, I remember them using this exact phrase on many occasions. It is associated in my mind with the Gladstone years; the church and its community offshoots; the smelter. As a teenager, I was left with the impression that you can – playfully or on principle – stand up and stand out. I hope that I do this at times.
Make the most of opportunities.
You are not irreplaceable.
Make your decisions carefully.
Stand out from the crowd.
These are pieces of advice that I have both adopted and ignored, depending on the situation.
Mum and Dad, feel proud that I have benefited from your advice on many occasions. Feel relieved that I have walked away from it on others. You don’t want to be carrying that much responsibility.
There is a constant undercurrent, when you are a parent, of wondering to what extent you are to credit for your child’s strengths. And, by inference, to what extent you are to blame for your child’s weaknesses.
The answer, I think – I hope – is: not terribly much. As that line from Khalil Gibran’s poem says of parents, ‘You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.’
We are just the bows from which the arrows fly.
Nature’s blueprint is hard to erase. Like a palimpsest, we can always see the original writing underneath. Genetic accident determines so much of our physical aptitudes, mental abilities and even emotional quirks.
But nurture – what happens to us after we are old enough to absorb external influences – plays a huge role because it sets us up with experiences, education and values. As Lord Cobham said, ‘A child is first influenced by the importance that his parents place upon anything’.
There are people who conceal doubt behind confidence. I think that I am the opposite. My confidence lies beneath the surface, but it is there. When the spotlight is off and the door is closed (or the nerves gather and the trail stretches out in front) I think: I am this and I can that. Surely, you helped weave this fabric of self-knowledge and self-belief.
I thank you for enriching my life so far.
I thank you for providing me with a secure upbringing that was neither shy of adventures, nor overburdened with challenges. I think you got the balance about right.
Congratulations on your epic partnership that has passed Lord Cobham’s test of time. It is a small but important part of the inner keel that keeps my sails up where they can catch the wind.
October 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last month, Minister Bill Shorten delivered the annual ‘Light on the Hill’ address in Bathurst.
It was, as usual, a reminder of the life and work of Ben Chifley.
It was also a battle cry of courage, unity and action. Electing not to daub his face with paint and ride to and fro on a horse, Shorten nonetheless rears up with the message that ‘Labor can and must win the next election.’
The speech has a few quirks that are worth pointing out, both in terms of content and style.
For instance, he utters the words ‘chaff bag‘ in the opening seconds. In the light of recent events, this is an awkward coincidence. Minister Shorten was not, I think, referencing the chaff bag that Alan Jones visualised in a Sopranos-style exit for the Prime Minister. He certainly wasn’t referencing Simon Berger’s chaff bag, since that hadn’t happened.
He was talking about the early and rude sleeping arrangements of Australia’s 16th Prime Minister.
Unless you have been living in a…well, in a chaff bag, you will know that they have featured heavily and controversially in recent political discourse. But Ben Chifley cannot have predicted this and should not be exhumed and condemned for sleeping in one in the 1890s. If Minister Shorten wishes to revise his description of bedding at Chez Chifley, may I suggest a gunny sack, an army blanket or perhaps a casual throw rug.
Then there is the happy story of the sixty convicts who, with Governor Macquarie’s finest picks and shovels, scratched out a road over the Blue Mountains to the place where Minister Shorten now stood. Not exactly where he stood because the Bathurst Leagues Club is newish but you get the idea. Picked because of their appealing ‘least likely to escape’ personalities, the convicts were promised pardon if they covered the 126 miles in six months. They did. Which just goes to show rewards can motivate people. Even people who are rated unlikely to attempt anything, much less finish it.
Now to style.
In his speech, Shorten asks no fewer than nineteen questions of the audience. Poor audience, who at this point in the election cycle are probably hoping for more answers and fewer questions. I assume that they quickly discerned that all nineteen questions were simply rhetorical devices and continued to eat their three-course meal in peace. Otherwise I would recommend they ask for their $75 back ($55 for pensioners).
Besides all those questions, Shorten uses a lot of short sentences and short words. Short sentences are simple. They are powerful. They engage. See?
Here’s an example. After pondering what Ben Chifley would have made of modern-day Australia, Minister Shorten concedes ‘It’s hard to say.’ In these four words (and just four syllables) he conveys respect and humility. Admirable virtues for a politician, you’d have to say.
Does This Trick Work? I Can Prove It.
There’s a tool called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. It scores text according to ease of reading and expresses the result in terms of United States school grades. The folks (this is America) at Smart Politics analysed all of the State of the Union addresses they could get their hands on, and found that President Obama’s SOTU addresses are as tightly-clipped as his hair:
President’s 2011 SOTU speech:
- had a Flesch-Kincaid grade level score of just 8.1 which is a half a grade lower than the 8.8 he tallied in 2010
- was written at more than a half a grade level lower than 2010′s score, which was the 4th lowest in 75+ years
President Obama now has the lowest average (8.5) Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president.
To put it very crudely, Obama’s speeches are dumb, and they are getting dumber.
I fed Minister Shorten’s speech into a Flesch-Kincaid machine I had lying around and he got a score of 8.9. Contrast that with Obama’s 8.5 average. Shorten’s speech used a very economical 17.0 words per sentence; Obama’s 16.8.
Now the Light on the Hill isn’t nearly as visible as the State of the Union, especially these days, but these low and close scores illustrate that Shorten is using nearly identical speech patterns to Obama.
Almost Presidential really.
September 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
This post contains available data on the number of abortions in Australia, and what percentage of pregnancies that represents. Nobody actually needs data in order to form an opinion or take part – on either side of the debate. Anyway:
Aborted pregnancies / Total pregnancies = Abortion rate?
There was some research done on this back in 2005, possibly because the then (Howard government) Minister for Health and Ageing (who served in that role from October 2003 to December 2007 and is now in a different role) was someone with a keen interest.
The report, Use of routinely collected national data sets for reporting on induced abortion in Australia, is here.
The Executive Summary states that the methodology developed for this report ‘will be used…to regularly report on the estimated number of induced abortions in Australia’ but I can’t seem to find any more in this series.
Not enough keen interest, I guess.
Induced abortion is defined as ‘the termination of pregnancy through medical or surgical intervention.’ There are quite a few qualifications and assumptions applied to the data, but eventually the authors state:
Overall, the estimated number of induced abortions in Australia in 2003 was 84,218.
We count births in the Australia’s Mothers and Babies series. The 2005 report is here.
In 2003, there were 256,925 babies born. This includes 1826 still born babies. If you discount twins (8,358), triplets (228) and quads (16) and pretend they were singletons, then you get 252,582 pregnancies resulting in birth. I removed multiple births from the denominator because multiple fetuses are excluded from the numerator. (I assumed that aborted pregnancies are multiples at about the same rate as continued pregnancies.)
If we add the 84,128 aborted pregnancies to the 252,582 completed pregnancies we get 336,800 pregnancies in total.
84,128 / 336,800 is exactly 25 per cent. Does that mean one in four pregnancies in this country are aborted? No, it doesn’t. One, I didn’t (couldn’t) count miscarriages. It is estimated that up to one in four pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage (though a large proportion of these occur before the woman knows she is pregnant). Two, an unknown number of abortions remove non-viable fetuses; a kind of medically-assisted miscarriage that is no parent’s ‘convenient exit’.
But for every 100 pregnancies that result in birth, a further 30 or so are deliberately terminated.
I guess I’m wondering:
Should we have a target abortion rate in this country, and if so, what should the target be? Should it be lower than that? Could it be lower than that if we did a better job of providing other stuff like contraception, the morning after pill, supportive social security, and family-friendly workplaces?
Maybe the answer is, ‘It’s completely irrelevant since the number of abortions we need is exactly the same as the number of abortions women want’?
But can we even have a conversation about the abortion rate without being crushed by passion and prejudice, religion and righteousness? A conversation that acknowledges the complexity of people’s positions on abortion and doesn’t automatically reduce the debate to ‘If you’re not totally with us, you’re totally against us’? A conversation that allows that there might be shades of grey in amongst the black and white?
I can’t be the only one who’s conflicted. Can I?
Oh, and tell me if my maths is wrong.
August 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Stumbled on a video today of the memorial service for the three New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan recently. The words – and delivery – of one of the speakers blew me away.
Major Craig Wilson was the commanding officer of all five Kiwi soldiers killed in Afghanistan just this month. A gut wrenching toll for a small nation fighting someone else’s war. Wilson, his right arm in a sling, himself shot in the shoulder in a fatal attack, found words with which to decorate the three killed in action.
He does an amazing job. I can only hope to imagine what kind of leadership talent it takes to introduce comedy into eulogy, to instinctively balance grief, sincerity and personality, to control the timing when the situation is out of control, but he utterly nails it.
Watch this video between 1:00 and 3:20. I’ve typed out some of his words below, so I could admire them again.
On Private Richard Harris:
…Richard was one of the young ‘purebreds’, as we call them…he was an excellent machine gunner. Just how dedicated he was to fulfilling this role was demonstrated by his actions when the forward patrol base at Do Abi was attacked at night. He sprang to his post without pausing to get fully dressed and there he was, pouring fire back at the enemy with his beloved machine gun, dressed in his body armour, his helmet…and his undies…
On Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker:
…Jacinda, you were like the mother hen. Apparently, during the same Do Abi contact, she woke everyone up and spent about the next five minutes after the initial rounds yelling at all the boys to make sure they put their pants on – obviously Richard didn’t get that message…
On Corporal Luke Tamatea:
…While the rest of us were photographed dragging our tired carcasses over the Southern Alps, Tama somehow managed to ‘model’ his way across, looking like Derek Zoolander. Apparently, mate, you stayed true to form when the Do Abi contact happened. Apparently, unlike Richard, you started fully dressed and then slowly managed to strip off your kit throughout the contact so you could flex those muscles…
His words were beautiful, stirring and confidently funny. I’m in awe of public speakers like this.