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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Mum back in the emergency ward

I got a call this morning at around 8.30am from the nursing home informing me that mum wasn't opening her eyes or responding to questions today. They wanted to know if it was ok to call an ambulance and of course I said "Yes". The crew arrived and took her to Ryde Hospital as usual, so a bit after this second phone call I hit the road and went to the hospital. It's not far from the nursing home and I'm used to the route by now.

At the emergency ward I told the staff who I was and they asked me to go into the ward room. I spoke briefly with a nurse and then with a doctor, who told me that the infection this time was probably due to mum's legs. She has heart failure which causes her legs to swell up and leak, and she has had wounds on her legs now for several months which the nurses in the nursing home dress every day.

I went out a bit later because they wanted to put a catheter in. I headed to the cafeteria on the grounds and bought a coffee and a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich on brown bread. Then I went back into the waiting room and sat down, drinking the hot coffee. I watched the TV which seemed to be showing mainly ads for computer equipment. It was tuned to Channel Nine. Then a nature program came on the screen, showing a guy visiting caves in ancient granite volcano plugs off the north island of New Zealand. Soon he was under the water in scuba gear photographing fish. They fed dead fish to these big, flat, camouflaged predatory fish that live on the reef.

A while later I went back into the ward room and spoke to the doctor again. We went over mum's advance health directive, and I told them that the nursing home has a copy of the original document for reference if required. The doctor told me that verbal consultation with a family member is just as reliable from their point of view. I sat down in the chair next to mum's bed. Her hands occasionally jerked and wandered and she would sometimes make groaning sounds with her mouth. I tucked her hospital gown in and also the blanket as they had somehow worked free due to her moderate exertions.

The antibiotics were administered and the nurse also put a bag of fluids to drain into the canula in mum's arm. I told the doctor that due to mum's dementia she tended to be a bit disoriented once she woke up, in the ward, after the antibiotics had done their work. She thanked me for the information, and for the details of the advance health directive, and said that I could go home. They would admit mum to a normal ward soon. So I got back in the car and drove home.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Even a small thing can provoke anxiety

Yesterday I was going to get a lot of things done. I had a dermatologist's appointment in the city to go to and then I was going to the NSW Government customer service office near Wynyard. After that I was going to catch a train to Bondi Junction and get some dental scans done in Randwick. I had it all planned out but what I didn't count on was that the bottom literally fell out of my trousers.

There had been a small tear around the crotch a couple of days earlier but I didn't think anything about putting on these trousers - which had been bought around a year earlier - for the purpose of finishing all these errands. Nevertheless it became clear as I was walking across the bridge into the city that I wasn't going to make it to Randwick on this day. The pain in the upper thigh area was too much to bear. I'd have to put off the scans to another day. But I thought I could do the driver's license renewal after seeing the doctor.

When I arrived at the dermatologist's and had taken off my clothes I had a chance to see the full extent of the damage to my trousers. It was exceedingly bad. There was an eight-inch tear at the top of the left leg, which accounted for the rubbing I had suffered from during the walk into town. To cut the story short, once I had left the doctor's office I jumped straight into a cab and came home. All my plans had fallen through because I had been remiss in not taking the small hole in my trousers seriously. I would have to delay important things to a day next week. I walked into my sunny apartment and went straight to bed and had a long nap.

When I got up it was lunchtime and I made some fried rice with leftover rice, tomato, mozzarella and spring onion. I sat down at the computer. For the rest of the day I would be there or reading a book on my Kindle but the nagging sense of having wasted time gnawed away at me. The nap hadn't expelled the feelings of anxiety I was having as a result of bollocksing the morning up. Then the rain came. I felt terrible. I felt brittle and thin, as though the slightest thing could cause me to dissolve. The rain pounded outside. The feeling of anxiety continued all afternoon and later, at around 4pm, I went back to bed because I was having feelings that were troubling my conscious mind.

I thought about having a glass of wine to relax me but then I thought that I was becoming an alcoholic and that I should stay off the booze. I seesawed between these conflicting ideas for a good 30 minutes but then at around 5pm got up and went to the kitchen anyway, poured a glass of white wine, and sat down at the computer screen again. Then there arrived the problem of what to do for dinner. I didn't think I could manage going out to eat, and it had been raining anyway, so I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. The cauliflower and parsley that were sitting on the shelf returned my gaze. They almost looked accusing. I had bought them with the specific intention of making fritters but now, with the feelings of anxiety consuming me I worried about making smoke and setting off the smoke alarms on my floor of the apartment building. What if everyone ended up on the street like happened that other time when someone was cooking carelessly?

It was early for dinner anyway but I suddenly made a decision. I would make the damn fritters and the hell with the cooking oil. I put a saucepan with water on to boil, got my chopping knife, extracted the ingredients from the fridge and started dismembering the cauliflower. Then I put the flour, eggs, salt and pepper, spices, and chopped parsley into the biggest mixing bowl and stirred them into goop. Once the cauliflower had boiled for long enough, I smashed that into the mix as well. Then I put on the oil to heat on the big gas ring, got the spatula and spooned the mix into the fry pan. I did the fritters in groups of three. No alarms went off during this process. Despite the hot oil and the frying fritters, the air in the apartment did not get smoky. I had won.

I ate three of the fritters with some hot mustard and sat down at the computer again. The news was on. I relished the mundanity of the ensemble: meal finished, glass of wine, news on the TV, social media on the PC. Everything was fine. Except the nagging feeling of brittleness would not go away. I curled up on the sofa and watched the TV programs, changing channels occasionally and getting up finally to do the dishes. I had a shower, brushed my teeth and sat back down in front of the TV. The bland feed of nightly programming washed over me until I decided it was time to sleep. I read for a while in bed then turned out the light, hoping that the brittle feeling would go away by morning. I wanted to feel normal again.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A room emptied at the nursing home

I had noticed in recent times up at the nursing home that H was not making as much noise as she used to. Normally H would be in her room and calling out to the nurses: "Nurse! Nursey! Please help me." this would go on and on for half and hour or so, and then she would start asking for mum. "Jude, Jude, Jude, Jude!" she would cry from her chair at the back of her room. Mum would sometimes get up from the recliner chair in her nearby room and go to see what was required of her but in recent times she had stopped going.

Then I noticed that H had stopped these constant requests for attention. I always make a point of asking mum about H and how she (mum) is getting on with her. Yesterday she gave me a standard response. "I don't sit with her any more [at meal times]," she said. "I don't have compatibility with her. Which is odd for me, not to be compatible with people." Which is true. Mostly mum gets along with everyone. "I don't need her," she finished up. Then today I noticed they had taken H's nameplate out of the holder by the door to her room

"So what do you think about the fact they've moved H?" I asked today. "I think that the staff were sorry for me," she answered with a little laugh. "Is that the reason they've moved her?" I asked. "Yes, only don't tell her," said mum.

"They told me that they put her into the dementia unit," I said to mum. "Did they?" she answered. "I didn't even know they had a dementia unit," I said. "Oh yes. It's waiting for me," said mum with a giggle. "So you're sad to see H go? I asked. "I'm glad to see her go," she said. "She wasn't a particularly positive person," she said. "I'm glad to see her go, yes."

As I was taking mum back inside I noticed the assistant manager in the front reception area, and she said hello to me. I told her I saw that H had vacated her room. "We moved her down to the dementia unit this morning," she said. "Was it because of mum?" I asked. "No. She was bothering everyone in that hallway where your mum's room is. And there are more staff where she's going now and she can get the level of care she needs." I said goodbye to her and took mum back upstairs, and thought back, as I often do, to the days when H and mum were almost inseparable. I certainly wouldn't be arriving at the nursing home any more to find, as had happened in the past, that mum was sitting companionably in H's room having a doze.

There was a middle-aged pair - a man and a woman - walking the hallways this morning in company with the staffer who had welcomed me when I had first gone to the nursing home to see about finding a room for mum. It's often her job, greeting newcomers and explaining conditions of residence to them. She also sits on the downstairs front desk answering phones and letting people in and out of the building. Soon there would be a new occupant of H's room. Maybe they would become mum's friend.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

I'm grateful that Australia has strong institutions

This corrupt buffoon is Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia. According to a New York Times story he is desperately trying to wriggle out of accusations of corrupt conduct. To that end he has already dispensed with the services of one Malaysian attorney general. The people there are outraged but nothing happens and this slimy leach continues to hold power.

Nothing like this could possibly happen in Australia. The Opposition here would mercilessly taunt the PM for his sins. Meanwhile, the media would whip up a frenzy of outrage within the community, and the community would be heard not only through social media but also through the opinion polls. The government's ratings there would plummet and there would be calls from within the ruling party to change the leadership. It would be a bloodbath the likes of which we have not seen for decades.

We often talk of institutions like political parties, the High Court and government departments. But the range of institutions is wider than just these capital-letter organisations. The Twittersphere, for example, is a recent institution that requires more study to really understand how it works. Some people who use Twitter regularly have become very adept at using it to their personal advantage, but as a general rule it is largely an unknown. It tends to be a bit more of the left than the broader Australian community, for example, because it is still largely made up of fairly early-adopters, people who always tend to be a bit better endowed in the IQ stakes than the average punter. And we know from past studies that there is a direct correlation between IQ and political persuasion, with the smarter people tending to be able to hold more than one thing in their mind at one time, making them more likely to be comfortable with the complexities inherent in progressive stances.

And the media has been understood to be a critical institution in society for a good 200 years, at least since the French Revolution, when it was famously called "the fourth estate". Unfortunately even in a country like Australia the media gets short shrift often. Few people have much sympathy, for example, with its current economic difficulties, difficulties that are due to the advent of the internet and the subsequent lowering of the cost of entry into publishing.

But we would be lost without the media. How else could we reliably get information about all the things that we need to know in order to make an informed judgement on polling day? In a large democracy with millions of people living in geographically-distant places, like Australia, the media becomes absolutely essential for everyone. Without it we simply cannot know what is going on. I think nobody thinks that their own immediate community represents the whole of the country. This is why I support the media by keeping personal subscriptions to several mastheads. It's not a lot of money but for me it's an insurance policy against totalitarian government, which would be the likely outcome for us in the absence of a competent media.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

What to be grateful for on Australia Day?

This post is purely subjective but at least it can stand as a reflection of one person's attitude toward Australia Day - that much-contested date on the annual calendar - because you can judge a country by the people it produces, and vis-a-vis Australia I am one of those particular objects. I chose to accompany this blogpost a photo taken of me in my mid-20s because this was the time in my life when I was most actively discovering myself.

I had grown up in a stable family void of physical violence, and there was always plenty to eat when I was not attending school. My secondary education was adequate if not often absolutely inspiring but it gave me access, later, to university. I didn't have much choice about going to university as it was always a firm part of my father's plans for me but I'm not sure that a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney gave me the type of education that he - a no-nonsense type of conservative voter who nevertheless valued what education had done for his own life - would have valued very highly.

Once university ended I took a range of jobs in various places until I found something I liked working in a small English-language PR unit in a Tokyo high-tech manufacturing company. The experiences I gained there led me - some time later - to complete a second degree, this time in media studies. I then went on to freelance as a journalist writing stories for different magazines but had to stop doing that for family reasons.

So I am grateful to have grown up in a country where secular values have deeply influenced most of the major public institutions - for example the school and university systems - and where tolerance of diversity is promoted actively by society's leaders and the arms of government in which they work. I am especially grateful to have been afforded access to a liberal arts education at one of the world's great universities because it gave me a grounding in critical thought that stood me in good stead both in the workplace and in my personal life. I am grateful that my parents spent so much of their excess cash on my education and actively encouraged me to read - I remember a book club my mother enrolled me in when I was about 12 years old, at a time when I hadn't really started reading, which worried her - and that they always had books in the house.

My parents' solicitous regard and the regard that society aims at education gave me the space within which to explore different aspects of my own personality, and for that I am grateful. It was through university that I made some of the most enduring friendships of my life, friendships that continue to sustain me even today, when I am in my mid-50s. When I was at university as an undergraduate my life may have seemed rather chaotic and haphazard but it was during those years that I finally began to understand what I could be, and the lessons of those years continue to resound in my mind today, at a time when due to my seniority I am more than ever responsible for the state of the society within which I find myself.

And I see my own views now reflected in the outside world, which is a great comfort to me because there was a time when everything seemed so wrong and confusing. Not only have I come to understand myself better, but the world has come to resemble me, and for both of these things I am very grateful.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Mum and me talking on the iPad with my brother

This is a fantastic picture. Just look at it. It's so good because it appears that mum is completely bored with what my brother and I are talking about, causing her to fall asleep. What needs to be added though is that before we sat down to hold this FaceTime conversation mum and I went out to the park for a walk and to sit and watch the dogs. And it was just before lunchtime. Mum was tuckered out. And she tends to drop off to sleep all the time anyway, it's just the way her metabolism works these days.

But at least you can see roughly how these conversations work. Mum will sit in her big recliner chair and I will sit in the chair closest to the windows, right next to her. I'll then pick up the iPad and dial up my brother overseas and when he takes the call we'll sit for 30 minutes or so having a three-way conversation while I hold the device pointing at mum so he can see her.

I think iPads are great for older people like this. My brother asked me to buy the iPad a few years ago when mum and I were still living up in Queensland. I took mum down to Brisbane one day to the Chermside Apple Store and we got the device.

Mostly it will be me initiating these conversations. Before, in Queensland, sometimes I would arrive at mum's apartment during the day and she would be talking with her other son on the device. However since then mum has become unable to identify the true source of the ringtone of the iPad, and so she just lets it call out. The other problematic thing that happened - from mum's point of view - is that Apple asked me to implement a security code so that I can unlock the device before using it each time, and of course mum would not be able to remember such information.

So I'll call my brother and mum and I will sit down to have a chat. My brother has several dogs and cats, which is good for mum as she likes animals, and readily identifies with them. A cat will jump up on my brother's lap and mum will say, "Ooh, there's a cat!". Or a dog will wander into the camera's view and she'll go, "Oh look, there's a dog!" It's similar in the park. Mum loves watching the dogs run around. It's a leash-off park so owners of the animals can let the dogs run around and sniff everything, which dogs love to do. Mum will keep me there on the bench for as long as possible if the weather is not too hot or too cold. Yesterday we spent 50 minutes in the park.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book review: The Reef, Iain McCalman (2013)

It wasn't clear to me whether the subtitle of this fascinating and impressive book was thought up by the author to reflect his own passionate attraction to the subject, whether it had to do with the kinds of relationships the people written about in the book had had during their lives vis-a-vis the Great Barrier Reef, or rather if it was just the idea of an enterprising editor. It probably doesn't matter in the end but the subtitle continues to niggle at me, suggesting that someone somehow thought the book wouldn't be thought worth reading by the general public if not for this addition to its cover and title page.

McCalman, who teaches history at the University of Sydney, goes back here to the very earliest interactions on record and in that chapter and the 11 subsequent ones introduces us to a collection of people - both white and black - whose lives were deeply intertwined with this natural phenomenon, the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a prologue and an epilogue that frame the narratives, and that bring the focus back to the author himself in the present.

At its outset the book talks about explorers and ship-wrecked sailors and the passengers who traveled on their ships and who came into contact with the Indigenous population of what is now known as the Queensland coastline. Science also plays a key role in the process of making knowledge about the Reef from the earliest times, including in the beginning, in 1770, when James Cook sailed up the coast in the company of naturalist Joseph Banks. And it continued to play a central role in our understanding of the Reef in subsequent decades, as generation after generation of men and women sought to unlock the secrets that the Reef held. Each of the book's 12 chapters brings the focus of the narrative to bear on one or more individuals whose lives have intersected with the Reef.

From the early interactions it is clear that severe damage for an inordinately long period of time was done to the original inhabitants of the area by unprincipled storytellers. These writers were keen to elicit terror in their readers with stories of cannibalism and "unnatural acts". Such a man was Eliza Fraser's "hackwriter" (to echo McCalman's chapter title), John Curtis. Curtis' account of the events we have come to associate with Fraser's shipwreck on the Reef were not only deeply misleading - criminally misleading, in point of fact - but he also mixed them up with facts and rumours associated with other, similar events in order to produce the lubricious concoction he then sold to the public. The public unfortunately continued to read the account for a long time afterward and it came to characterise to a large degree the relationship between many in the broader community and the Reef.

The local people were in actual fact not barbaric - either those living along the coast or those in the Torres Straits, where peoples of different racial origins live - but rather affectionate, intelligent and capable. Working to help save the reef from oil exploration that was supported by the Bjelke-Petersen government of the 60s and 70s, poet Judith Wright made such claims and more for Aborigines, McCalman tells us later in the book. Faced with indiscriminate and imminent exploitation of it by the forces of Capital, Wright pleaded for the Reef alongside others who were filled with a similar passion. But she furthermore emphasised in her writings that the Aborigines were actually better custodians of the continent and its waters than white people were. Today this is hardly an innovative notion, but in the late 60s it was something few had thought about, let alone said publicly.

There are other great stories in this intriguing book, which comes with an exhaustive set of notes at the back. Together these stories help to fill in the gaps in our general understanding of the Reef. The prose is always accessible and engaging, despite the fact that the author often has to deal with sometimes very complex scientific concepts. This is a great book to serve as an introduction to Aboriginal history in Australia, and also to show how important it is to listen to the people living among us who are prone to dream. For it is often among their words and deeds that we can reliably find the true path forward into the future. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Mum ever mindful of living in care

I'm not complaining at all because it seems to be quite natural, but it strikes me that every time I go up to see mum in the nursing home she will talk about how she is living in care. Sometimes she will just say that she likes living in the place and that she has no complaints about it. I think that's what happened when my cousin went up to see her two days ago. He told me she seems happy where she is, and that she speaks highly of the place as it has everything she needs. Mum is also in the habit of making such comments when she and I are talking on the iPad to my brother, who lives in the United States.

So I've had this kind of feedback from mum many a time. For example, if we go out to the park on a sunny day to watch the dogs run around I might take out my mobile phone and shoot a recording of our conversation. I might start off by saying something like, "How are things?" The remark can be casual but she'll take it to heart and say something like, "Oh I'm happy where I am, the food is good and they look after me." But a couple of times recently she has been coming across a little more macabre when talking about her situation. For example a day or so ago she said to me, "You know I'll probably see the rest of my days out here. It's a good place and the food is fine." She has said similar things to me a couple of times now.

It's not that she's being unduly pessimistic, I think. I made a video of mum on New Year's Day and she was positive about things in general. "I want to live another year. I'm prepared to live another year." She was very definite about it and so I asked again. "So you want to live for another year?" "Oh at least another year," she answered. No doubt about it. Which is a good sign from my point of view.

Nevertheless she has been in the way of placing her living situation recently in the context of her lifespan in the ways outlined above. I don't think there has been any major change in her life that would necessarily prompt her to say these kinds of things, but you can never know what a person living with dementia is experiencing, because they might in the natural course of things forget what had happened to them, if anything untoward had happened that is. Mum cannot remember that she gets up in the middle of the night and visits the rooms of other residents, for example, even though it is true that she does so. It's just that the residue of some events might remain invisible but still present in her mental matrix, and so there might be subtle changes in the way things are expressed from week to week. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

Television mostly substandard

Now before anyone accuses me of elitism consider the proposition: this is the popular culture medium par excellence, on a par with radio, and so to make claims for excellence is merely to be taken in by the marketing departments of the TV production studios. Quality television? The best you can say about TV is that because so many people watch it it gives them something to talk about together. As a socialising mediator, TV has some undisputed virtues, but it's not a choral symphony.

This has been occupying my mind recently because of the pushback by Netflix that has been in the news, where the TV content provider is trying to stop Australian viewers from accessing its US content by pretending to be American. It's all to do with IP addresses and whatnot, so it's all a bit beyond me technically. For what it's worth, I cannot understand why anyone would consciously go out to steal someone else's content, or subvert quarantine measures, just because they believe they're entitled to see the content when they want to see it. It appears to me to be the height of selfishness to put your own needs before those of the content owner's, just because you can. And for TV shows?

But there's another reason I've been thinking about TV recently. It has to do with the parlous state of the sound quality in my own TV at home. I have to turn the sound up to 100% and even then the sound only starts coming through after the TV has warmed up. Once it's been operating for a while it works fine but you can't really adjust the volume, it's really now only got one setting. So I've been thinking about getting a Smart TV.

A lot of people seem to have objections to this kind of device, however. They seem to think that you can get a dumb TV and just add an internet dongle to it, made by Apple, Amazon or Google for example. I also see the benefit in this approach when you take cost into account. A 40-inch dumb TV here costs about $600 but a 50-inch Smart TV will cost about $1000. So there's that. But isn't it all a bit complicated to be sticking dongles into the set when you can just get a set with integrated computer smarts?

The way I watch TV it's all about the internet anyway, which is why I chose this image to go with the blogpost. I usually start watching TV from about 5pm when the ABC early news starts. I will switch between the ABC and ABC News 24 until 8pm and from then I'll watch the dramas or whatever is scheduled, but usually - as with the news programs that come on earlier - from the comfort of the chair in front of my PC. I sit with all the social media platforms open in front of me and sample the zeitgeist. It's how I watch TV these days. Maybe twice a week I'll actually sit down in front of the TV on the couch and deliberately watch a program from beginning to end. The rest of the time the TV is really only background noise.

Will my TV-watching habits change if I get a Smart TV? It's hard to say. From what I can gauge however the quality of the offerings even on pay-TV is not very high. No better than the nonsense Netflix puts out day in and day out. I prefer social media and reading. I do a fair bit of reading, and will review books that I have finished on my blog. I've also got a vlog series going with a friend that we record using a G+ hangout-to-air. That way we can make content and become famous in our own right. Much better to do that than to watch someone else's low-grade toxic goop.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Unassailable Turnbull must remain vigilant

For those who, like me, hated Tony Abbott with a passion - I was not past screaming at the TV on occasion - the news that he will most probably recontest the next federal election in his seat of Warringah is full of portents. For while Malcolm Turnbull - the man who unseated him in mid-September - has so far resisted all threats in the same manner as a duck gets water to run off its back - that is, effortlessly - the news about Abbott still sounds a base-note of sinister intent within the general hum of stable and reliable government that has overtaken Australia in recent months.

Nothing has touched Turnbull. And nothing will touch him while ever he enjoys positive polls. For it is the opinion polls - those regular mini elections that are being conducted continuously throughout the election cycle - that determine the fates of Australian politicians, and especially prime ministers. We saw it with Rudd - once his clumsy backflip on climate change had filtered through the community he lost all standing in it, and that was time for Gillard to pounce - and we will no doubt see it again in future. It is the nature of Australian politics that there is no certainty beyond the next poll; no respite, no "clean air", no sacrosanct breathing space as there once was in the days of Abbott's heroes Howard and Menzies. These days it is always on. Bring it on!

Which is why the news that Abbott will recontest his seat instills a soupcon of fear in the heart of anyone who sits politically near the centre of things. Someone, it seems, just chose to let the dogs out.

Turnbull's ability to retain traction for his policies - and there have been few enough of them - is remarkable. Whoever is advising him - and it might well be his wife, who was mayor of Sydney for a year more than a decade ago - is doing a good job. Few policies, few stumbles, just plain sailing. It's a little like the small-target strategy Barry O'Farrell followed in the lead-up to the 2011 state election in NSW. He just allowed the ALP to slowly implode, dragged down by the long-accreted burden of countless incidents of corrupt conduct due to being in power for so long. He hardly ever said a thing, and just allowed his opponents to struggle like a whale caught in a shark net, drowning slowly. Turnbull remarkably has not muzzled his Party room either, which is something that Abbott was known to do. Turnbull just seems to have gained the trust of them as effortlessly as he has gained the trust of the electorate.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

How many refugees are still drowning?

I think that everyone knows that the Coalition's ugly terminology and uglier techniques for stopping refugee boat arrivals has been prima facie successful in that we have had no new refugees arriving in Australian territory by boat since July 2014. The cost of this success - if you think it is a success, and personally I don't - is that refugees still living in offshore detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island (a part of Papua New Guinea) are being treated abominably, and with no respite in view.

The solution for those in the community who want the government to stop mistreating refugees however is to show how many of their coevals are still drowning at sea in boats because they should be being greeted by Australian coastal forces and brought ashore safely. We need to know. How many refugee boats are there leaving Indonesia still? How many refugees are being drowned because the boats they have left Indonesia on are turned back to Indonesia? What about boats that founder and sink soon after leaving Indonesia? These things are important for the community to know because knowledge of them is the only way that Australia can judge the success of Operation Sovereign Borders. Judging the success of the operation is critical to being able to choose the next government later this year. Therefore it is time for the Coalition to start telling the truth about refugee boats, and to start releasing figures to the media in Australia.

Hiding behind some form of lame excuse grounded in the rhetoric of war is not enough. War is an ugly business and I want none of it. The Australian people have a right to know everything about on-water matters. This is because of what in our country is called the implied freedom doctrine. The doctrine says something like this: the Constitution says that there must be responsible government therefore freedom of political speech must exist. If we don't have freedom of political speech we cannot have responsible government. This is a High Court ruling from 1992 and by extension it must be true that in order to be able to choose a government prior to the election the community must have access to the full facts surrounding each political party. Therefore the government must release information about turnbacks, continued deaths at sea, and numbers of boats intercepted at sea.

Anything less is simply not acceptable. You cannot hide behind the screen of "operational matters" forever. At some point there must be an accounting. Otherwise it becomes impossible for the electoral system to work and democracy becomes a mere label applied to any form of government you wish to conduct because you don't want to be accountable.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Testing times for Clive

I don't think anyone expected Clive Palmer to do as well in the September 2013 federal election as he did. His party's stakes rose to unanticipated heights following polling day and we should not have been surprised when everything started to come unstuck in the new year. There have been seven defections from the party since then. On top of that Palmer's nickel business has been hit hard by the slump in commodities prices - it's a global market and so this is something that is completely out of the control of any individual proprietor - which is probably even more regretted by the man himself, than his electoral problems.

Two of the most visible defections - Senator Glenn Lazarus in Queensland and Senator Jacquie Lambie in Tasmania - have presented their own unique challenges as well because it looks as though those two now-independents are going to establish political parties of their own in advance of the federal election to be held later this year. Palmer's template has also been snaffled by South Australia's Nick Xenophon, who has already announced he'll be fronting candidates for the election in a range of seats under the banner of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT). A snappy label to be sure and the man himself has his own personal brand to ride on, one grounded in a stubborn righteousness that might play better in the community that Clive's mere offering of vague difference.

But despite all the controversies and setbacks, Clive still has a strong profile and a strong recognition in the community, assets which should help him as he moves into election mode again this year. For no doubt he will run again. He won his own seat of Fairfax last time and he can win it this time if he plays his cards right with those tricky Sunshine Coast voters.

In the final analysis Clive has achieved some pretty impressive things and I think a lot of people have been surprised that he's still got skin in the game after so many public reverses. He launched out on his own on the back of nothing more than his odd media presence, and turned that into something reasonably credible at the polls. The defections have hurt him badly, and it will be a challenge for him to find suitable candidates to run next time, people who he can not only trust but who can trust him. How many of them stick around and how many jump ship to turn independent is a question for the prognosticators. I'm not game enough to try to intuit what will happen next year, once the election fervour has subsided and people wake up to normal life. We'll see. One thing you can be sure of is that Clive will be in our faces coming down the straight toward polling day. He's always good for a few laughs.

Monday, 18 January 2016

YouTube FaceTime singalong

On the way up to the nursing home to see mum this morning we had Wendy Harmer on 702 for the first time, and a new segment where the station invites a newspaper representative onto the program to have a chat about what stories are doing the best. I thought today's participant from the Daily Telegraph was not quite candid because he gave us two featured stories the newspaper had produced but not necessarily the ones that were attracting the most comment. This kind of spin is pretty much what you would expect from a Murdoch tabloid however.

Once I got to the nursing home mum was sitting on her bed looking a bit sad. I noticed later on that she had been throwing used tissues on the floor - not quite making it with them over the distance to the bin that is placed next to the wall - and that the tissues had red colour on them. I also noticed that she was coughing quite badly today, and so I made a report to the nurse on duty.

Then I called my brother in Houston and today for a change he answered. We talked for a while about this and that - notably about Second Life, a concept that we had to pretty comprehensively explain to mum as she had no idea what it was - and then I started singing a song. I was holding the iPad on my stomach as usual, at an oblique angle to my body so that my brother could look at my mother while the three of us talked. Mum started singing as soon as I started of course - people with Alzheimer's love singing, and can remember all the words to the old songs of their youth - and the song was We'll Meet Again. Then my brother went online on his PC - he uses FaceTime from the PC in his room - and found Vera Lynn singing the song on YouTube and played it. The song was first published in 1939, when mum was 10 years old, and she said that to us.

Once we had finished singing along to this song my brother found another old song from YouTube. The sound quality on our end was not always perfect because his system was having problems picking up the sound and sending it through to us, taking the feed on the iPad, but it was good enough. My brother chose The Band Played Waltzing Matilda but mum didn't recognise that one. He also looked up and played It's a Long Way to Tipperary, and mum recognised that one and sang along. We had a lovely time singing songs with mum on the iPad and the PC.

The iPad is a great gift for an elderly person. Even if they never work out how to use it - mum used to know when it rang with FaceTime and could answer but does not recognise the tone any longer - an iPad can help connect people together. Used in a group of people - the way we use it: me, my brother and my mum - it can be a lot of fun. I told the nursing home director what we had been doing, when I met her in the lift, and she said it was a great idea.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)

This is a strange and beautiful novel by a young American author that depicts a kind of post-Apocalyptic future and a kind of dystopia at the time of what is known only as the republic. There has been a terrible war. There are cities and towns still but Progress has had a chance to operate on society and in one regard - the handling of the cases of people who have lost all desire to live - there has been some actual progress made.

The Process of Villages is handled by the Department of Failure in order to implement the ideas of a famed thinker named Emmanuel Groebden, and it is to this place that Clement Mayer makes his way on the day his beloved's funeral is being held. They had never married, nor even been engaged, but the girl's family had not invited Clement to the occasion despite the fact that they had known she was to die. There was an illness that was common in the family for generations. They had picked up her body from the hunting lodge she had taken Clement to in order that they might have some time alone, and left him on the outskirts of the city to make his way home by himself. The family was rich and famous and Clement was poor and obscure but that wasn't the whole story, it was just that they couldn't tolerate outsiders.

When Clement arrives at the office of the Department he tells his story to the Interlocutor. At the end of the recount, this man decides that there is a case for the Process of Villages and gives Clement an injection, which knocks him out. He will awake, but not for a while, and when he does he will need to relearn everything, from how to walk downstairs to how to talk to strangers.

The novel is curious because things appear out of order. In the novel, Clement's story comes second, after the story of the recovery of the patient who has been delivered to the Kindest Village. This process itself is quite convoluted and long, and involves several "rebirths" (although they are not called this) and several renamings. But this place is a good place to start because, like the man in the story, we start from a position of unknowing and move to a position of wisdom. So in a real way we follow along his convalescence and reemergence into his full capacities. In one of these phases he meets a young woman, and falls in love. But it is love as experienced by someone who is not quite sure who he is and would never be able to say the word "love". This first section of the book is full of such strangenesses. It is the part of the book where things are explained - by the examiners - as though you are showing a person who has lost a leg - the claimant - how to walk again using a prosthetic device attached to a healed stump. It takes time.

But time is merciful in this novel, which is full of ghostly lovelinesses that rise up from the page and wrap themselves around your imagination in a deep embrace. Like Rana Nousen, the strange girl in the second section who falls in love with Clement; a strong-willed young woman who knows her own desires and acts on them. It is good to spend time with such people, even in a world where the treatment of suicide has been thoroughly bureaucratised. Even in such a place there is care taken, there are offices scrupulously fulfilled, and there are promises kept. This is an exceptional piece of speculative fiction that deserves to be read and thought about, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who are not looking for books written in that genre. There is something here for anyone.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Having a chat with mum as usual

When I went up to the nursing home this morning to see mum I arrived in her room but there was noone there, so I went back downstairs to where they were running an exercise class and there she was lifting up her arms at the instructor's call to reach up high, then putting her hands back down on her knees when told to do so. I went out to the elevator lobby to wait until the class finished, and when it had I went back inside to collect mum so we could go back to her room. Mum was sitting in her chair and she gave me a big smile and told the instructor that she hadn't seen me for weeks (it had actually been three days since I had last seen her).

We headed back up to mum's room. On the way down the hallway we came across the lady with the tea cart, so we collected a cup of coffee and piece of cake each on the journey down. Back in mum's room we took up our positions in the chairs by the windows and I plugged in the iPad because it had lost all its charge.

As usual mum asked me "What's going on in the big wide world" and I mentioned that I had had a meeting with an academic on campus at the University of Sydney because I had been thinking about going back to uni to do a research degree. I told her that I had actually contacted this professor earlier, in 2009 when I was writing a story about future-looking poetry I had found when I had been unemployed in 2002 and 2003. Mum remembered that time. I mentioned the name of the professor - Iain McCalman - and how I had interviewed him for a story on some verses that I had found that had surprised readers in their day but which had turned out to be prophetic. She said it would be good if I could go back to school to do more study. I told her that I was not sure if I would be able to do research very well. My previous experience with this type of study - when I had done my honours year as an undergraduate - had not been entirely successful because I had only achieved a 2-2 for my thesis. This was the lowest mark available for an honours degree.

We also talked about Jane Austen because it is her period of time I would be going back to uni to study. I told mum that for me the Romantic period can best be understood if you look at the work of Mozart - ordered, polite, structured - and compare it to that of Beethoven - interioric, chaotic and tumultuous. "I like 'tumultuous'," said mum. Yes, I told her, it was a striking change in the aesthetic values of Europeans in a very short period of time - about a generation from the American Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars. Mum is always happiest when she is just listening so I felt quite comfortable raving on about my favourite subject - Jane Austen.

Austen had been an active participant in the literary life of her time from an early age, I told mum. She had written short comic vignettes for the amusement of immediate family and friends while she was still a girl, vignettes that had poked mild fun at some of the more ridiculous literary tropes of the time. She had also written a 'history of England' with portraits of all the kings and queens. She was exposed to new reading from her father and mother - who swapped books with her and her sister, Cassandra. She also had two brothers at Oxford studying the classics. All in all Austen was a well-read and opinionated young woman when it came to writing and books, and she had every right to be.

Mum was quite happy for me to rave on about Jane Austen and just sat there listening while I proselytised effusively. I tried to call my brother in Houston but as usual he was not available. We haven't spoken on the iPad to him for some weeks, and it may be that he is busy with work. But mum and I had a nice morning anyway and I left just before lunchtime, and headed back down the motorway in the car. I stopped off to buy some petrol on the way home.

Friday, 15 January 2016

TV review: Death or Liberty, ABC (2016)

When you watch a history program like this that is replete with reconstructions in order to "up" the drama to levels deemed requisite to draw the bog-standard Australian audience you really appreciate what Simon Schama did with his historical programming. Schama of course is an immensely talented writer and general wordsmith, so it's not really fair to make the comparison, but then again ...

This program naturally enough lingered with a certain amount of salaciousness on some of the less attractive aspects of Transportation to the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land so I felt I owed it to myself to look the other way for most of the program. It wasn't that good anyway, and so I was well-enough occupied on social media with the TV on in the background. I would turn around when the action drew my attention.

Having said these things I can still say it was a worthwhile program. These are stories we should know better than we do, but in our comfortable democracy we prefer just to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of life instead of dwelling on the sins meted out to martyrs. It's something about Australia. The ideological tone of the place is turned down to "low". It's the reason the community had little patience with grudges imported from the Old Country, which were mostly quickly shut down when they flared up. It's the reason that all those old battles never gained traction on our more egalitarian soil.

Nevertheless, the stories are worth telling. Many of the men celebrated in this program were transported to the colonies for sins against the status quo back in the Old Country. They were political prisoners. But it wasn't their stories and actions that made the colonies such great places to live in the 19th century, but rather economic growth and prosperity, as we learned from reading George Megalogenis' economic history of the nation, Australia's Second Chance. Prosperity created the ideal conditions for equitable distribution of wealth and for the creation of a country where political equality was also possible. The sufferings of martyrs had little or nothing to do with it. Those old stories were not that interesting to the colonists, but property prices were. Plus ca change ...

Of course there remain things that can be done to correct the record, like renaming a few city streets, perhaps. Enough retribution there so that the powers that be can retrospectively atone for sins committed in a less fair time. Obviously Castlereagh Street would be one of the first to go. Then there's Sussex Street and Clarence Street. But then again perhaps we should just let sleeping dogs lie. Better not wake the beast lest we get bitten somewhere painful.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Trump's supporters are stupid and poor

An interesting story appeared on the US Guardian's website yesterday by a Muslim woman who attended a Trump rally in Nevada. Unlike most stories in the US media, she does not assume that the reader knows who is supporting Trump, and goes out of her way to explain. It turns out the Trump supporters might have been Bachmann Tea Partiers in an earlier life; they are basically the poor, stupid middle that Rupert Murdoch has so successfully captured around the world.

So now we know. It's comforting to be able to label these fools accurately. And the reason why she described Trump's supporters so accurately? They were the reason she went. Unlike most people covering Trump rallies and talks - people intent on capturing the soundbites produced by the politicians in their unending quest to convert people to their cause - this woman wanted to get to know the followers. So she spent most of her time talking with them. It's a refreshing take in a campaign already oversaturated with quotable pabulum. Most people should do as she has done, it would help us all. After all, a politician is only as good as his worst supporter. And without supporters, a politician is exactly nothing.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Mum and her marshmallows

Today up at the nursing home I had a couple of fairly strange conversations with mum. The first was to do with a pink packet of marshmallows that I noticed sitting in the basket of her wheeled walker. "I've got these big, round things in there," mum began, gesturing to the walker. I immediately picked up on what she wanted to say, and I said the world 'marshmallows' to her. "Yes, that's right," she said. "How did they get in there?" I asked.

"Well I didn't pinch them," she said confidently. "Oh you must've," I said. "No I didn't," she affirmed again. "I bet you saw them on a trolley and thought, 'Ooh they look good'," I said. "No I didn't," mum said again. I didn't insist but I can't think how otherwise she had come by them. She said at one stage in the conversation that she had gone out to the store to buy them, but I reminded her that in the nursing home she wasn't allowed out by herself.

Then she told me she had no handbag. "Yes you do, it's in your room," I told her. "No, I don't have one," she said. "It's in the nursing home," I insisted. "I don't like that one," she said. "What's wrong with it?" I asked. "I don't know, I've just taken an intense dislike to it," she continued. "Oh mum stop it," I said. "You don't need a handbag. I'll get you a calendar though." "Yes a wall calendar tells you what day it is and what week it is, and all that very useful stuff," mum said, having completely forgotten about the handbag, let alone the marshmallows. "I need to have that," she continued. "Especially when you don't have a memory," I said cheekily. "I remember a lot of stuff," she countered. "Yeah, especially where you got the marshmallows," I said. "Well if you didn't have these little snippets what would you have to write in your letters and things," she said presciently, just possibly anticipating that I would write this blogpost about our conversation.

I am not sure that mum has any idea what I normally do during the day. I will sometimes go into her room when I arrive to visit her and she'll soon enough ask me what I've been doing and usually I will say "I've been online a bit." But whether she has a conception of what "being online" means in real terms I can only guess. I suspect she doesn't. But she is quite happy not knowing what I do during the day, because she feels quite at home in the nursing home.

"Little snippets," I repeated. "Yes, little snippets of what the hell mum said the other day," she said, laughing. Our attention was at this moment taken up by the whereabouts of the dogs in the park. I take mum out to the park to watch the dogs and often while out there I will run a Periscope broadcast of our conversation. Dogs continued to occupy her mind however, as I found when we finally gave up our position on the second seat and headed back to the main building. "I thought about getting a dog. But I would have to collect it every day," she said. "Where would you keep it?" I asked. "Yes well that's the problem," she answered philosophically.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

With Bowie's death what we are celebrating is ourselves

Would it be too strange to propose that Bowie's death - announced yesterday afternoon Sydney time about 5pm - had somehow visited me in a dream that I never actually had? Why or how else could I have written about loss and music just 30 minutes earlier? Strange blogpost anyway ('Beguiling the world with simple songs'), I thought as I was writing it. Full of evil portents and gloom. Nightmare stuff, the kind of thing you'd want to whistle away as you walk down the street. Hack! Pshaw!

But we see the strangenesses proliferate with this death. First there was an almost universal disinclination to believe the news of his death until it was absolutely confirmed by multiple reputable news outlets. Then the notion that Bowie - who had lived with the cancer for 18 months, and had kept news of it to a small circle of close familiars - had somehow put the news of his death into his last album, which anyway emerged from the studio just days - wonder! - before his ultimate and complete physical dissolution.

Talk about theatrical. And so this was all Bowie. All sparkle, mirrors, glitter and make-up. All costumes and odd outfits and strange album cover designs. All appearance. All fabricated. All show.

Fabricated? But why then the outpouring of celebrations of his life - a public version of grief, which is essentially a private thing in our culture - from millions of people who found something of themselves in his art, something essential and real. Surely he was the real authentic. The thin white duke riding serene on a chariot formed of the blessings of millions across the cloudy hemisphere and into the setting sun like some Apollonian cowboy. If anything, Bowie was more real than anyone else. How else could it be so easy to shuck off one disguise and don another if the outward appearance were but a manufactured relique belonging only to a specific interval of time? What is essential lies deeper inside, and this was what Bowie told us about when he sang those songs to ward off evil on Friday nights.

Beguiling the world, indeed. His simple songs sustained us for years and years. It was surprising to me to see on social media how passionate some people were about this death. Especially those people who live on the margins, people whose personae might have presented them with difficulties during those restless years of youth when we are all still trying to find ourselves. There was some deep attachment severed with this death. Some debt owed to Bowie by so many people. And they paid with their accolades yesterday. In fact, the stream of verbal tributes continues today as well. It might easily go on for weeks. And the strange thing is that despite Bowie's own debt to the mechanisms of mass culture each person he touched in these ways believed that they had a unique and special link with the singer. It was personal always. Hence the passionate tributes now.

In a real way Bowie represented something more than just the accumulated effect of his various guises over the years. He was always changing - as he said in his famous 1972 song, 'Changes' - just like the culture that enveloped, fed and sustained him. It was out culture. We owned it, and so in a way Bowie was our creature. We bought his albums and chanted his songs from in front of the stage. So this celebration of a singer is also a mass conspiracy because in essence what we are celebrating is ourselves. That generation of post-War groovers and boogie-artists. Bowie is us, and we are Bowie. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bowie dies of cancer aged 69

An extraordinary outpouring of grief on social media followed initial disbelief at news the chameleonic rock star David Bowie had died of cancer this afternoon Sydney time. I had just posted a blogpost about musicians dispelling evil in the world with their songs earlier in the afternoon, so it was particularly strange for me to read the news on social media. I, too, didn't believe at first.

Twitter and Fecebook soon lit up with people denying the news. Many thought the news announcement was a hoax at first, but soon the reputable news outlets were making tweets to announce the news, one after the other. I guess it was emblematic of the man that everyone thought the news of his death was fabricated at first, since everything about the man from year to year and from decade to decade was relentlessly fabricated. Novelty fed on novelty and hit song followed hit song.

The news finally filtered in and then the expressions of feeling were almost universal. It was strange to see so many disparate people showing how they personally reacted to the news of one man's death. Again, something odd, something out-of-the-ordinary. Something Bowie. @suracymbala tweeted: "I first heard Bowie when I was 12. That was also the first time I smoked pot & drank red wine." Carol Duncan of Newcastle  changed her Facebook profile picture to the Blackstar image (see pic accompanying this blogpost). @schetzer tweeted: "Wow. He seemed so much more than mortal. Vale #DavidBowie." @gmarkham tweeted: "Music has been a huge part of my life and I can’t think of any single artist who has made a deeper impression of me than David Bowie."

Time after time people drew out memories and feelings attached to the strange public transformations of this mercurial performer, a man who was never content, never comfortable, who relentlessly changed and changed again time after time ...

And as the afternoon slowly gave way to the evening, as the minutes passed, and as the stream of expressions of grief continued to emerge in public on social media people got used to the fact that they would not see another strange change. Their lives would be somehow less colourful, less grand, less special. It was a strange feeling to become attuned to this, but what we will never forget is the way the man touched so many people in intimate ways, in ways that went to the very root of their identity. A great achievement, you would have to say.

Beguiling the world with simple songs

This morning I planned to get on the blog and write about sadness but for some reason the feeling that I had then has mitigated itself to some degree. That overwhelming and tonic sense of sorrow has been replaced by a disinterest - rather than by any sort of happiness - and I feel that I am not feeling as much of anything now as I was this morning. I am to a certain degree desensitised, whereas before I had a positive feeling of sadness that was stronger than any other feeling or sensation.

Sadness is of course usually brought on by a sense of loss. Usually we say that we are sad because we miss something, something has gone from our lives that was important to us, something is absent. But my sense of sadness is more like a sense that the whole world is inside me and I am using this thing as a filter to understand sensory inputs. It is more of an existential sense of lack, this sadness that I feel. I feel this loss more deeply than I can say.

When I am sad like that I want to weep but tears do not come. I am hard as a rock, rigid with sadness. The sadness envelopes and encompasses me. I am at the centre of a circle of sadness so complete that nothing else is visible outside it. Occasionally ideas and influences enter the charmed circle but they are soon subsumed by it, they fall prey to it, like roadkill. I drive my car through the world and I engulf vast oceans of feelings from everywhere and everything is turned into sadness in my wake.

Being hard as a rock and consumed by sadness you tend to see everything through a single, immeasurable lens that turns everything into your own image. You see yourself out there. And in fact yesterday evening I started to have bad thoughts, paranoid delusions. I thought that he had told her to say something to me, and then my thoughts went off on their own track, consuming everything in their path like an insatiable beast from hell, trundling through the landscape and turning everything into evil, and my soul was consumed by this evil. Luckily I was able to convince myself that my friends would not talk about me in this way and that I was imagining things. I have this kind of insight into my disease, and while it was unpleasant for a while I managed to overcome the feeling.

The sadness lingered this morning, though, following the episode of the night before. I walked through the world entirely convinced that there was no hope and that I would be condemned forever to eternal sorrow, like a stone statue in a graveyard. A graveyard filled with the tombstones of people I know. Each of them inscribed with a recognisable name. I might as well have been walking through such a place, looking around me at all these memories of things past.

It sounds extreme but I think that we all become rigid with sadness sometimes. We offset the effects of this existential state by playing music to dispel the aura of doom, replace it with something useful and instrumental in the world, like a positive emotion. I think that we strive to comfort ourselves for the sense of endless night by assuaging our senses with these sorts of stimuli. It is normal. We are all blessed by the facility to confuse the evil in the world by simple incantations we sing in the shower or while driving a car through traffic. We are all magicians who borrow spells from the angels, those who came before us and who beguiled the universe with their simple songs.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

New dreams for a new year

Here we are 10 days into the new year and it feels normal again. That first flush of - what is it? optimism? energy? enthusiasm? - has washed off in a week's worth of showers. And we did have some rain in Sydney (and elsewhere). But what now? Those who spent Christmas or New Year's Eve alone ... did you really miss all that much in your solitude? Or were you better off having more time to just think and dream.

For we all dream. Dreams come even in our awakening and remind us that we are something more than mere mortals. And dreams are something different from resolutions, which are a more practical type of dream, more utilitarian, merely reducible to short sentences, compact phrases, soundbites. Dreams fly beyond our grasp and take root in strange places, they are volatile and occasional, like hand-written letters, like voices from the past.

I was reminded of the past today when I was out walking. I was on my way to buy coffee and to get to the shop it takes about an hour on foot. I felt immensely sad. It was an overpowering sadness like the idea that the world was about to end, that all things would suddenly cease to exist in a flash of explosive light. Something like a visual dream. But the feeling wouldn't go away. I walked slowly through the streets - as is my usual way, to walk slowly - and I dwelt on the feeling of sadness, a feeling like loneliness, a feeling similar to what you feel when you lack something essential. You miss something.

But strange things happen, for a few days ago an old friend got back in touch with me and we talked. Then today another old friend got back in touch with me. We talked also. Miracles happen when you least expect them to. Something can be lost but another thing can equally easily be suddenly found again, despite your never even thinking of that thing in your diurnal rounds.

Out of the blue - strange expression! - it emerges like a bird in flight to take up a perch in a tree next to you and start to sing. Or it emerges like the sun glancing quickly and brightly off the side of a usually dim city building. And there is light! The world is alive with promises and with the stuff of dreams. Even though things might seem desperate we can somehow all at once reach a new epiphany as something novel appears before us. There is always reason to hope. Always reason to dream.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

With dementia timing of placement into care is important

Mum and I talked about the nursing home again when I went up to see her there today. We had only had this conversation the previous week. It is probably a conversation we will have again however, even though I think that mum is quite happy living where she is. She said it to me again today: "I'm happy living in the nursing home." And I don't doubt it for a second.

But I did tell her how she had resisted moving from her apartment in Queensland to a nursing home. We discussed how she had used to say "I don't think I need to go into a nursing home yet," and when I recounted this phrase to her today she was quick to add in her own voice "yet" to chime with mine at the end of the sentence. As if that made any difference to the meaning of what she had used to say in order to preclude a move. Of course it didn't make any difference if it was "yet" or otherwise, but for some reason mum likes to think that she was being reasonable by adding that one small word to the end of the sentence.

As if she would have been happy to move at some point down the track but not yet. As if. And it wasn't as though she were living independently. She had me coming over every evening to make dinner, and during the day to take her to appointments. Then she had her housekeeper doing the shopping, cleaning, laundry, and ironing. She was supported by two people all the time in that apartment, and that was the only way she could live there alone.

It had taken months to get from the diagnosis of dementia in March 2014 to the move in December of that year. It was around July - when I had brought the accountants into the discussions of the nursing home - that she finally started changing her tune, and accepting that a move was inevitable. But when we talked about it today we didn't talk about the accountants. "I'm sorry," mum said to me, in order to divert attention away from her previous recalcitrance in regard to the move. I told her it was ok, that we had made the move successfully. But I did underline again to her how important it was to move into care earlier rather than later for people living with dementia. I pointed to the problems we had had with dad, who had never really accepted that the nursing home was his rightful abode.

I think mum understands now how well the move had been managed. And in fact I feel quite smug about it all when I look back on all the things that had to be done in order to bring it about. It was a huge displacement of people and accoutrements - two households had to be emptied, and one relocated to Sydney - and even then it was not without hiccups. There was the scene when mum - having slept one night in the new nursing home - had packed her bags ready to leave with us when me and her housekeeper - whom I had invited to come down to Sydney for the move into the nursing home, in order to make sure it all went smoothly - arrived in the morning of that first day.

Now I look at mum ensconced in her lazy chair in her room and realise that she is perfectly settled in. She never asks when we're going home. There's always a compliment about the place on her lips. It's not a trial keeping her in place, as it had been with dad. With dementia you have to move sooner rather than later. Don't put off the shift into care forever, hoping to preserve wellbeing just for a bit longer. If you leave it too late they will never settle in the new environment, and they will always be fretful, anxious and worried. Timing is important when you are talking about putting someone living with dementia into care.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Problems uploading videos to YouTube from iPhone 4

The iPhone 4 I still use has been a bit of a disappointment lately due to its refusing to upload videos to YouTube. I take Periscope videos of mum when I go to the nursing home and then in the past would upload the file to YouTube while still in the park where we sit and talk, but three videos ago the phone started giving me a message saying that the video had not uploaded to YouTube.

I wonder if this functional failure is because the operating system for the iPhone 4 is too old or something similar. I recently also had difficulty with the phone because a commercial app - Blab - would not load on it due to the age of the OS in the phone.

What I did to get around the difficulty of uploading videos was to connect the iPhone to the PC using the cable and uploading the videos manually from inside YouTube. One irritation with this method however is that the upload date does not match the recording date - and the upload date is the date that is shown on the Video Manager screen.

But if anyone knows why the videos won't upload to YouTube from the phone, let me know please. I am starting to think it might be time to upgrade to a newer version of phone anyway. One problem with the iPhone 4 is the poor battery life. But anyway, suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Literature video blog to get new website

A couple of years ago Grant Hansen and I made the first Book Chat Oz video using Google hangouts, but the project subsequently remained in a sort of limbo. At the time I was living in southeast Queensland and Grant is based in Sydney. There were problems hooking up. We both found the prescription to read two books for the program a bit onerous. Questions lingered as to whether we each were really committed to the project.

But things changed after I returned to Sydney. Grant and I have been friends for over 30 years and we frequently get together for a cleansing ale at a local establishment, during which time we talk about our projects and aspirations. Grant published his first book in 2015 (a novel, Secret Histories, which was reviewed here) and was keen to raise his public profile for obvious reasons; publishers and agents like it when authors put effort into their social media profiles. As we talked about the Google hangout thing we decided to adjust the settings, and to set one mandatory book to read for both of us. There would be three books in total, two of which we would read separately.

On the final day of the year we managed to align all the stars - there was a last-minute dash to the electronics store to buy a new microphone - and get the hangout running for episode 2 of Book Chat Oz. Strangely, this attempt also ran to about 33 minutes. (There was no planning in this outcome, it just sort of happened by itself.) In the intervening two years it happened that I had forgotten how to run a hangout on air (which is the type that records to a video file; mine saves automatically to my YouTube account) but somehow it all came together in the end and we got the video cut late in the morning.

As for promotion? I find YouTube a bit difficult to understand on this point, but it seems that the primary method of promoting something there is to pay money, which is an expedience Grant and I hoped to avoid if possible.

There are other platforms of course, the most notable being Blab and Periscope. Out of these two, Blab holds most promise; Periscope is more suitable for live recording in the field using a mobile device and Grant and I were both making our videos sitting at home in front of our desktops. Blab is a new venture that enables a sort of social video-making; the conversation can be saved to a video file and also uploaded to YouTube. The only problem with it is that it is a bit of an unknown quantity from the operational point of view. I have never used it to make a video and neither has Grant, although we both have some experience using Google hangouts. There is also the problem of finding videos on Blab's website. It's not really that easy to get around the website and there's no category for books (same as with YouTube in this aspect). The Blab people have promised me they will do something about navigation but I haven't seen any improvements yet.

The view for web searchers is more promising, and I gauged how it lies by doing a search for "book chat" on Google. There's a rag-tag bunch of stuff on the first page - including our February 2014 hangout - but I came to the conclusion that there is a lot of scope for improvement with our own content. So I reserved the URL "bookchat.com.au" with the view to making a website to host our vlogs. Probably the content structure will come from a Wordpress template but Grant and I are still at the point of deciding on what kind of hosting package to use, so we're not quite ready to start loading files yet.

One thing however that we have thought about is the quality of the content. Some timely feedback from a reliable source tells us that the second and third books covered in episode two were not as good as the segment for the first one - the first one being the book both Grant and I had read. So we decided that we need to put more effort into making questions for the books that we read separately. Part of the solution to this will be that we will write blogposts about the books we read separately, and post them on the website alongside the vlog in question. Those posts can help the questioner to put together his questions, along with other material freely available on the web.

For those curious about when the next vlog will appear, I have no current information. I will be meeting with Grant in the city tomorrow for a cleansing ale, and we will talk about the project in more detail then. Stay tuned ...

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Men behaving badly

Men behaving badly has to be the correct label for the past week in Australian politics, where you had a lot of eye-rollingly-bad conduct by quite a few blokes starting with Jamie Briggs. The Liberal MP apparently conducted himself poorly with respect to a young female staffer employed by DFAT during a business trip in Hong Kong. When this blew up, and the media started to cover the events in detail, along comes Liberal front bencher Peter Dutton mistakenly sending a text message to a female journalist he was talking about, he thought to a friend, calling her a "mad fucking witch".

Samantha Maiden - the journalist in question - generously appeared on TV the next day to say she forgave all of Dutton's sins but there seems to be a pattern emerging of men just being complete idiots in public when it comes to the ladies. To top it all off you get a West Indian cricketer, Chris Gayle, boorishly propositioning a female journalist on-camera, in the process deeply humiliating her.

It just doesn't pay to be a professional woman in Australia. All those years of fighting for better conditions, equal pay, and more opportunities to play in the big leagues, and you get cack-handed fools like Briggs, Dutton and Gayle coming in and soiling the furniture. It's sort of the public analogue of a pack of wet and muddy dogs rolling around on the just-vacuumed couch. Yuck! Outside, all of you!

Monday, 4 January 2016

Capital and the use of tropes

What's disturbing is how specific events, movements, ideas, books, and other things become misappropriated and turned to other uses by various powerful forces in different societies. You see it in the speech acts deployed by conservative political parties, for example, who are trying to coerce people into foregoing their privileges in favour of Capital. You see it all the time. You get tired of it and you know better because you have read the history but it just becomes like shooting at shadows on the wall. Shadows cast by the flickering flame of Time burning away in the centre of the room.

Take the way the Australian party of conservatism, the Liberal Party, appropriates the tropes of liberty spawned originally in the Renaissance by the Humanists, but then later by the men and women of the Enlightenment. Men and women who, if they were alive today, would be horrified to see how their words and their ideas are coopted for oppressive purposes by the powers on the right. It used to be Parliament versus the King. Now it is progressives versus conservatives but they both drink from the same trough. One man's applicable trope is another man's applicable trope.

How do ideas become so worn and decontextualised that they seem to fit into the palm of your hand like a smooth pebble? The onward movement of Time like a great river helps to break off the rough edges, the specific origins disappearing along with the original phraseology, so that the end product can be comfortably pocketed and then used to hurl at the next enemy passing down the mainstreet. In broad daylight. Without shame.

The narrative within which the trope is embedded like a gem in the watch-works of Time is everything. The narrative keeps the watch wound up and the clock ticking. It impels everything forward, it conscripts followers and provides them with the stones they need to fling at the next enemy walking down the mainstreet.

Possibly the thing that galls so much is the lack of shame. The shameless way that specific events, movements, ideas, books, and other things are taken out of context and reappropriated in different ways for different purposes by different players. The brazen, bald-faced lies and outright falsehoods that are perpetrated by otherwise intelligent men and women as we go about our daily business. They do it for their own purposes and we resent it. The shamelessness of it.

But who's to put them right? You can feed a man for a day by giving him a fish, or you can feed a man for a lifetime by teaching him to fish. But how to imbue in everyone the essential information - hidden within the visible remnants of history - that will enable them to accurately pick out the shameless reappropriations perpetrated every day by the forces of conservatism? Do you make media literacy a secondary school subject? Do you mandate teaching of the history of Europe? How do you frame the various strands of history that go together to make up the complex of institutions and ideas that, assembled, enable us to protect our freedoms against the forces of Darkness? Do you teach courses in the Enlightenment? Do you tell people they'll be more interesting at dinner parties if they enrol in your school? Where do you start?

It's like the plethora of fact-checkers that have sprung up of late as the quantum of effort in the public sphere tilts away from journalism to public relations. We all need someone who has access to the truth to be able to pull up the lying scum as they spew forth filth, and reveal the nature of the matter that come out of their dreadful faces. We need a new type of geek-hero who can deconstruct the lies and falsehoods of Capital as it moves inexorably forward like some monstrous Kraken of the depths, a world-devouring beast that must be checked by the polis lest we lose everything.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The ubiquity of morality through social media

Even though social media has penetrated into our lives to a remarkable degree we still see the media using terms such as "narcissism" to denigrate it for various rhetorical purposes. This has been going on for a long time. One of the first stories I wrote for publication, back in 2009, was about Facebook and how it could be a useful instrument in society despite the bad press it was receiving, and I still think that way. Social media is enabling a kind of radical transparency where not only are our actual daily activities receiving publicity so that people know a significant amount about what we are doing at any given time, but those who want to increase their popularity on the relevant software platforms are finding that they must project themselves in a positive way.

One possible downside is that people might just edit events to fit an overarching positive narrative, but that takes a lot of effort and work. It's much easier - if you want to increase your followers - to just become more positive and collected yourself, and the benefits will just follow. In a real sense social media is changing the way we live because we have to actually make our lives fit that overarching positive narrative. It's not just a matter of continuously masking the reality by putting a positive spin on things that might actually have been relatively less satisfying or rewarding. We are starting to behave in ways that would anyway receive a welcome from our friends and acquaintances.

And in making the hive mind thus visible, we are becoming more aware of how we fit into society. No longer essentially atomised and alone, but rather now included, cared for, and looked after by legions of similar folk. We are subject to a ubiquitous morality that regulates conduct through radical transparency and might even stand as succour like the comfort we get from a personal God. Endlessly connected, we are not just gratified by inclusion in this uber-organism, we are an important part of it, too, and so we contribute to its proper functioning by rewarding others just as we are rewarded.

Some might point to anonymous accounts to show that there are faults with this model thus proposed, but it is important to remember that those who operate such accounts will have difficulty realising the full potential of participation unless they put their real names to them. You think of people whose identity has been released by some quantity of sleuthing for example, on the part of a media organisation intent on distributing retribution, and what invariably happens is that that account's stock-in-value increases, and the real owner of the account subsequently benefits as well. It pays to be transparent. You can snipe from behind the facade of a bogus name for as long as you want but you are actually pedalling against the wind. If you want the full value of your participation to be released you have to be open about your identity.

Others might point to how anonymity works in repressive regimes where freedom of political speech, for example, is curtailed by onerous laws. It's true that not everyone is allowed the liberty of full participation in the radically transparent world, but we can console ourselves when we remember that countries that force people underground will have trouble participating fully in the community of nations. See how long it has taken Turkey, for example, to become part of Europe. Its treatment of problematic players in the public sphere is a large part of its PR challenge in that regard. It pays countries, just as it pays individuals, to be open and inclusive, otherwise they, likewise, cannot fully participate in the broader community.

Radical transparency is not just good for our individual mental health, it also opens up new avenues in the fight against crime. How can we pretend forever to be someone we are not? The burden of such a fate outweighs by a huge amount the rewards of ethical participation in society. If we want to receive the benefits of that participation we have to become better people ourselves. As we improve ourselves we will become happier and our increased popularity in social media will enable us to help more people in the broader community to become happier too. The ubiquity of morality is a virtuous circle of good.