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Thursday, September 29, 2011

French lessons and the weather

Our French teacher was Miss Parkhill. As you can see by the name, she wasn't French, which was not unusual at high school in those days, as practically nobody in Australia was. Well, not in Gladstone, anyway.

  The Queensland State Department of Education, in its infinite wisdom, had decreed that all students in the Academic class must learn a foreign language. That was really a wise move, because non-indigenous Australia in the 1950s was practically monolingual until European migrants came and worked on the Snowy River Scheme. With monolinguality comes a certain attitude of mind, and not a good one.

  Little did we know that this language requirement was forced upon high schools because the Department of French at the University of Queensland had powerful numbers on the Secondary Schools Curriculum Board, and secured the imposition of what in its effect was quite a good regulation. Their reasons were less educative than mercenary, but it worked out for the best.

  You see, the particular genius of this was that it secured a stream of Arts students into French at the University of Queensland, where, if they were lucky, they unlearned the French they were taught at high school, and some of them learned real French. This regulation guaranteed employment for a number of academics who had no special (dare I say it?) raison d'être in the Australian education system, unless you wanted to go to New Caledonia - and you'd be amazed at the number of Australians who had absolutely no desire to do that in 1961.

  It was an educative cul de sac really, but learning about the pens of our aunts was good for us. To be truthful, I enjoyed French and wasn't all that bad at it.

  Not German language? No, the war has ended only 15 years before, and there wasn't much enthusiasm for it. Other European languages? No. Asian languages? Don't be ridiculous. They were spoken only by Asians, and though they were our closest neighbours, why would we want to converse with them? No.... Just no. Bad enough that the French used words other than English ones, but Asian scripts? No way.

  So French it was, thanks to the Head of French at Queensland University, who once a year threatened his entire staff with horreurs unimaginable if they didn't turn up at Faculty on that one meeting of the year to ensure that the foreign language requirement stayed on the books for all Arts students.

  French was a subject often given to the youngest teachers at high school, because they were lowest in the teacher pecking order, and were generally only one lesson ahead of the kids they were supposed to be teaching. The teacher might have been explaining molecular bonding in Chemistry for one 45-minute period, and wrestling with Gallic mysteries teaching French to unenthusiastic fifteen year olds the next.

  That's why most kids in the 1960s learnt French with an accent both indescribably bad and totally incomprehensible to French people.

  Indeed, French as spoken by the French was incomprehensible to most of the students in the Australian education system. The only form that was generally understood by most of us was the pidgin variety that we spoke to each other, thus reinforcing our spoken incompetence in the language however much vocabulary we knew.

  Miss Parkhill now, she was different to those other French teachers. One day she brought a gramophone and a record of real French people speaking French, and we were quite astonished at how badly they were speaking their own language. We could have taught them a thing or two about French pronunciation.

  But, she'd lived in France and actually knew what she was doing. Saying. She taught us a tolerable French accent. And oh!!! did she look like a French teacher should! Every pimply gangly adolescent boy studying French longed for the opportunity that they would never have in a million years; for some private lessons in the French language by Miss Parkhill.

  She was five foot nothing (i.e., short) and was extremely comfortably off in the mammary department; possibly too generously so from her own point of view, but just right from that of half our class - i.e., 100% of the boys.

  In truth I should point out that for a fifteen-year-old boy, 'just right' on that score was pretty elastic in scope, but no woman teacher was just righter than Miss Parkhill. Usually boys want to sit up the back in lessons of any description, but the front desks were prime locations for French classes; adolescent youths tortured by the sight of those wondrously complementary (or complimentary - both words work in this case!) assets to human biology just inches away.

  Speaking of assets, she was abundantly favoured in that region as well. But this all has little to do with where I started out this morning. Miss Parkhill just got in the way. Not that I mind.

We're right in the middle of this!
  This all started with today's weather. It's been raining all night, and by the look of this, it ain't gonna stop any time soon. Then I thought of Miss Parkhill telling us of the old French soldier viewing wartime footage of men in miserable muddy trenches in France with the rain pouring down, and his remark in disgust, "Mais non! Il pleut toujours!" ("Oh no! Still raining!")

  But obviously when I thought of Miss Parkhill, I couldn't stop at the weather. And you know what - it's only just now, fifty years later, when I wrote "Parkhill" that I just realised the wonderful metaphor in her name. Park hill. **SIGH**

 "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose..." says Mme Très-si Jamais.

  (Google it if necessary. We Francophiles don't translate....)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tip to save data when away from home

Just before I go to rest, here's a simple tip for temporarily saving some item or electronic data to retrieve from anywhere. If you're using a friend's computer and connection, writing from a wifi hotspot with your laptop or using a public computer at some place like a town library, this is for you.

  There's just two requirements: you need (1) to be online and (2) have a gmail or any other web-based email account, like yahoo or hotmail. My personal preference for an online email account is gmail, because it autosaves frequently or you can save manually also, but other online email programs may work in the same way.

  Let's say you need to store something temporarily - an email address, an important URL or an idea. This is great for composing something on the fly or copying and pasting a block of text from an article on the net.

  Open gmail, and hit Compose Mail.

  You now have a space to record any or all of the above, and maybe even more, depending on where you are and what it is. Just write it in the usual space for text, or copy and paste it in that window. There's no need to address it to anyone, even yourself, or bother with a subject header, though you might find the latter useful at a later date.

  This records a draft of your information. As long as it's saved, either automatically by gmail, or you save it manually, it's done! Log out of gmail, close the laptop or the computer, and the next time you open gmail from anywhere, your draft is there.

  Easy peasy, hey?

Monday, September 26, 2011

"I don’t have time"

'I don’t have time to do that.'


  What we mean when we say this is, 'I'm not prepared to make the time to do that. Or at least, not right now.'

  There's nothing wrong with this, in essence. It's common sense. In our lives, we have to prioritise, and that means making decisions about what we do and when we do it.

  Yet let's not fool ourselves. Take the test.

  If I ask you to stop whatever you're doing right now, and read the telephone directory from cover to cover, there's a fair chance the kindest response I'll get from you is, 'I don't have time (and/or the inclination)!'

  There will, I'm sure, be rather less polite suggestions as to what I can do with the phone book.

  Yet as you know, I am a person generous beyond belief and have more cash than Bill Gates. If I were to say (and you were either foolish or optimistic enough to believe me) that I have a briefcase crammed full of $100 bills that I would like you to have, and that all you have to do to keep them is open the case immediately and look at the contents, I get the feeling that you wouldn't say, 'I don't have time. I'll just make a cup of tea instead.'

  I think you'd most likely make the time. Offer me the same deal and even though you're interrupting my movie, I'd probably manage to squeeze in the task of opening the case.

  It's like the classic joke, which I, and almost certainly you, will have heard in many different forms.

  An old man sidles up to a pretty young woman on a park bench and says, 'Would you come with me for a million dollars?'

  She looks askance at him but says, with some hesitation, 'I suppose so.'

  'Ahh,' he says. 'Would you come with me for one dollar?'

  She is very angry.

  'Never! What kind of girl do you think I am?'

  'We have already established what kind of girl you are,' he responds. 'What we're negotiating is the price!'

  Without wanting to offend you, that's a bit like what we do with our time. We negotiate its price. We do it constantly. It's not that we don't have time under most circumstances, it's that we choose to do some things and not others, or not just now.

  I always think, when I hear 'I don't have time', that whatever it is simply isn't at the top of that person's priorities. If those words come to me when someone asks me to do something, it always makes me think whether or not I should be making the time, and at least not to kid myself as to the reasons why I won't do it right now. What are my reasons? How valid are they? Am I using that as an excuse when the reason may be entirely different? Are my priorities fair?

  It is, almost always, a matter of personal choice. Some of those choices, admittedly, can be difficult ones.

  I'm not going to read the phone book, that's for sure. But I am interested in that briefcase you have there....

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Text abbreviations for baby-boomers

William Sorensen, in the New Yorker, compiled a list of handy phone texting abbreviations for baby-boomers, should they get brave or foolish enough to tackle the difficult and more-or-less inexplicable process of text messaging.

My mobile phone.
You may cease
sniggering.... NOW!
OK, I admit I can text message. Slowly. At last, I understand the principle of predictive text on my ancient mobile phone, even though I have to type every character anyway. I am very good at 'OK'. I answer OK to everything, or 'No'. Erasing is a mystery if I make an error. Sometimes I just say OK even when I mean 'No' as it saves heaps of bother. 

But why put myself through 10 minutes of torment on a screen I can't read anyway when I can just press one button to bring up the number of the person I want to call, and say, "OK"? I could even add, "I love you" in a real voice, as long as I got the right number. Watto would be bemused, but not amused, should I leave a voice message for him telling him so when I really thought I was phoning my beloved. 

Not that he would stand for having one of the infernal things. They to him are Satan's work - or perhaps, as he says frequently, 'I blame it on Whitlam.'

It's not like I don't have plenty of credit. This is pre-paid, but if I don't keep adding more money, I will lose the thousands in credit I've got stored there. That's what happens when you turn on your phone only once every three months or so. 

Anyway, if I use the phone to phone someone, it works like a charm. I'm outa there in 5 seconds. Yet people tap in the equivalent of War and Peace, the unexpurgated version, on their fancy colour screens in about 20 seconds. 

That, I have to admit, is predictive text at its best....

I have pinched Sorensen's best ones for an international readership, as I, e.g., don't have a clue what Caddyshack or Mojitoville are. His abbreviations are in italics. You probably could have guessed which are my additions anyway!
80/20 = Spouse doing more and more of the talking
EVAC = Finished Avastin infusion, come and get me 
DITMP? = Did I take my pills?
JDTV? = Which channel has a Judi Dench movie tonight? 
NSR = Need some roughage 
T4W = Time for whisky 
TN2WMP = Trying not to wet my pants 
TXT L8R = Can’t find reading glasses 
WILMA! = Lost my keys 
WSWS = Wearing socks with sandals 
WTFW? = What is that word I'm trying to think of? 
WWID = What was I doing? 
WAID = What am I doing? 
WWIS = What was I saying? 
X2EZ = Crossword puzzle too easy 
ZZZ = Going for a rest 
YOFFCOMP! = Yes, I’m getting off the computer right now 
7X = I’ll always love you and I will until the day I die, even if I don’t tell you often enough
(That last one is going to rack up heaps of good karma for me! Just as long as I send it to the right person....)

Read more:

Friday, September 23, 2011

I am so grateful

This is a subject I intended to write about many months ago, but I guess the execution yesterday of Troy Davis in the State of Georgia USA has forced my hand, because I can’t get it off my mind until I do.

  This isn't about Troy Davis in particular. I don’t want to go into the details of that case, as they’re all there online. Davis is dead, going to his execution pleading his innocence, and in the face of strong revulsion by vast numbers of Americans and others round the world. Nothing that happened yesterday has changed my mind about the death penalty.

  There have always been two very contradictory things about capital punishment for me. One is this. If anyone did something that deliberately caused the death of someone close to me, and even worse, did so in a cruel and abhorrent way, my immediate reaction would be that I would want to see them dead. I would want to do terrible things to them. I would want them to suffer just like my loved one did, or worse.

  I would crave revenge.

  Everything dark and destructive in me would rise up and I would embrace the worst possible torture I could think of.

  I would become a mirror image of the murderer.

  That would destroy everything I value about myself as a human being. I would become no better than they. No, not one iota. However poisoned such an event would make my life thereafter, there is nothing in revenge that would satisfy me for more than one brief moment.

  Don’t try to tell me that would be enough, because I know it’s not. Argue that this would be my right, and your logic is that he is no more culpable for what he has done than if I had got my revenge, because he has been made what he is by his past, just as I would be by his action.

  That’s why I captioned this ‘I am so grateful’. What I’m grateful about is that I live in a country that saves me from that fate. In a case like this, assuming I didn’t get to the perpetrator(s) first in my rage and grief, the law would save me from the blackness of my crime that would dog me the rest of my life.

  If the perpetrator were arrested, the law would deal with the matter. It would be out of my hands. Cooler heads would prevail. The court would decide on the penalty, and that penalty would not include the destruction of my status as a human being.

  That’s a society that has at least one of the pillars of civilisation. This is why we have a legal system. It is never up to individuals to take the law into their own hands unless, like Gandhi, they do it knowing the penalty and are prepared to pay it.

  The lynching party is never justified. When the shockjocks call out the citizens to take matters into their own hands, they should also tell them they are responsible for everything they do when they break the law (as, indeed, are the shockjocks for incitement).

  Civilisation depends on this principle – that the law decides the punishment, not the individual. It is the bedrock of civil society and without it society teeters on the brink. Yet its decision to include the death penalty implicates every one of us in state sanctioned murder of the most cold-blooded type. 

  It might be argued that the legal system could still do its job and have capital punishment. It could take the responsibility for the penalty away from the individual. 

  I’m not interested in the arguments in favour of this, as I know them off by heart, and none of them should ever convince a sensible human that the coldly calculated execution of a human being does anything uplifting for humanity. None. It does the reverse.

  What I find staggering is that those people who call themselves Christians and invoke the Old Testament to justify an eye for an eye, forget everything Jesus taught about the destructiveness of revenge. I know well that the principle is ingrained in the Judaic and Muslim traditions – here I part company with them as well as a minority (I hope) of Christians who have the blindness to ignore their own New Testament precepts and still justify the virtues of revenge. 

  The abandonment of the death penalty is one of the great hallmarks of civilisation. Those states that use it when it serves no moral purpose don’t have the right to call themselves fully civilised. State sanctioned killing as revenge for a crime is as inhuman as the act for which it is made the penalty. 

  Even worse is the travesty when an innocent person is executed. Thanks and glory be to the wisdom of our past political leaders on this. Most of the time they drive us mad with their antics, but that time they got it right.

  The last person hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan, in 1967, and there was a huge outcry at the time. It took till 1985 to get it removed from the legal code completely. Yet still we have those who would bring it back. It is no deterrent. It doesn't even save money, as the appeals process costs more than a life term in jail.

  They probably would have hanged Lindy Chamberlain if they could. Hanging was still legal then, but humanity prevailed, as did the law, which finally set her free. 

  The stench of Troy Davis’s state sanctioned murder is still in my nostrils.
NOTE: there are other cases I would like to have mentioned here, but I decided against it. They include the gruesome murder of James Byrd by Russell Brewer, executed in Texas the day before Davis in Georgia, Australians currently on death row in Indonesia, Barlow and Chambers in Malaysia (1986), Ronald Ryan, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), the multiple travesties in Southern USA, China.... but it’s too much for now. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One fine day

We've just been for a walk round the block. It's a stunner of a day. The temperature for walking is perfect, and, even allowing for a light smoke haze, the sky as blue as you could hope for. The spring leaves on the deciduous trees are all coming back now. 

  We walk on the road. One of the advantages of a country town!

The path we tread
  Our walk starts with an uphill climb. I'm not being very ambitious. I've done this before a couple of times, holding on to Tracey's arm. This time I've decided not to hold on. 

  My theory is that it makes me too dependent, and my sense of balance is waning rapidly. The more I have to rely on my own balance, the more I will be able to walk without too much danger of falling.

  Still, it is a gamble. Though it looks pretty level to anyone else, the road is uneven, and a small change of height of the road surface can upset things. If I fall, Tracey probably won't be able to catch me, so I have to be very careful about the mini-terrain ahead. 

  Walking on the footpath would be even harder, with grass having hidden pockets of depth - nothing that would present any problems for a walker or runner, but which loom large for me. I must keep my body as vertical, as erect as possible. 

  And there's the right arm, which swings uncomfortably as I walk. I solve that problem by walking Duke of Edinburgh style, hands clasped behind my back. I can feel balanced then. But I still have to remind the right foot to lift, to raise the toes with every step. If I don't, then the foot drags, like that of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The danger of tripping increases.

  So many things I have to think of consciously, trying to reprogram the brain to walk more normally. Concentrate. Concentrate! Foot, lift. Toes, up slightly. Body, straighten. Every step of the way....

  With the uphill over, I can look around and enjoy the scenery a little more, and we can chat. Going down a gentle slope reminds me how much easier this would all be if I could lose the steroid kilos. With this weather and concerted effort, that might be possible.

  As we walk down Belle Avenue, a large flowering tree is starting to bloom. 

  I thought at first it was a bauhinia, but there's no doubt it's a magnolia.  As we walk in by our own gateway, the Cootamundra Wattles are all flowering madly. Gold and reds and all shades of green surround us.

  This is my Spring. My Spring!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Breakfast in Bloomsbury

In the early 1970s it was possible to rent a habitable room for two in Gower St for ₤5.50 a night, including a hot breakfast. This was just round the corner from the University of London and the British Museum. I was doing research for my Ph D thesis in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, where my mentors Damodar and Devahuti had both done their British degrees. SOAS was then headed by Professor B N Pandey, after Professor A L Basham left that post to go to the ANU in Canberra.

  Every morning the guests of the Gower St hotel trouped down to the kitchen/dining area in the basement for breakfast. We were sitting at a table with an American couple who'd been staying at the hotel for a day or two. They were a very friendly, pleasant people on their first trip to London, with the informality we were used to as Australians, as opposed to the rather stiff upper lip attitude of the Brits, even the kitchen staff.

  'We went to the British Museum, as you suggested,' she said.

  'Oh, did you enjoy it?'

  'Well....' There was some hesitation in her voice. 'It closed at 4 pm and we got there at 3.45. So there wasn't much time. But -  I did the ground floor, and Otto did the first level, and we made it through just in time!'

  I've heard apocryphal stories in this vein but I never thought I'd hear this with my own ears.

  As we were finishing our toast, more people arrived and put the kitchen staff under a bit of pressure. Just as we were about to leave, there was one hell of an explosion in the kitchen.

  Everything fell silent for a few seconds, and then came the sound of a baritone voice of calm British authority from the kitchen.

  'Ladies and gentlemen - no further toast will be served this morning!'

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Things worth pondering

Nobody really cares if you’re miserable, so you might as well be happy. (I'm not sure that's true, as people DO care, but you really must make the most of things.)

Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right. Henry Ford (Best thing Henry ever said!)

The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake. - Meister Eckhart (I'm not so sure about this either, but it's not a bad general principle.)

Loving someone means you should be ready to experience heartache and happiness at the same time.

The amount of fear in your life shows the extent to which you are in agreement with the enemy of your soul.

And last but not least....
I drank all the beer in the fridge because of a power outage. Tracey said it wouldn't spoil, but that's a risk I wasn't willing to take!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Grammar nazis revisited

A good friend commented wisely on this topic. I decided to make my response into a posting rather than a comment. Here's what Bob had to say:

My pet hate is the term 'a number' - as in television reporting - when a journalist looks earnestly into the camera and with heavy emphasis says: "There were a number of incidents in which a number of people were injured."

Why should they not give some indication of how many? 'A number' can range from one to infinity. 'A number' is an excuse for sloppy research or downright laziness.

Language legitimately changes but I feel the place of older 'language Nazis' is to slow down the rate of that change, to give everyone pause to consider and to prevent complete chaos. What starts as a seemingly reasonable relaxation may all too soon cause language to become incomprehensible.

God knows, communication between humans is difficult enough, so we should try and keep some sort of uniformity in how we express ourselves.

I am always reluctant to enter into any debate on language - I am not literate enough myself to presume to lay down the law for others but, before I retired from newspapers, I found a handful of sub-editors worked ceaselessly to make sense of the work of young, university-trained reporters in the field.

"Language is not important, one told me" (after I had red-pencilled 40 spelling and grammatical errors in one of his news stories). "Does spelling or grammar matter as long as the meaning is clear?"

Alas, due to the havoc he had wrought on the English language, the meaning was far from clear.

And if we want to look at the potential of this downhill slide, just follow the comments of our grandchildren and their friends on Facebook - that is, if you can.

Bob: you mean like these FaceBook entries? (NOT my grandchild, by the way! No-one in my family, but an intelligent 20 year old nevertheless.)

Is so out of it right now didn't evan realoze i was pumpen leta get loud by jennifer lopez in maccas xar park what haa become of me ,,:'( Is gonna take his deseased self to bed so he can curl up in the fetal position and sleep bleh sick day tomorrow one thinks Is feeling like 8 cans pf shark shot .... hope i aint getting sick i dont wanna get sick fml ave q rocks though

So here we go. These are great observations, thanks, Bob. I take your point about the rearguard action against degrading the language; indeed, my friend Watto, a chap who can put together a flawless written piece on the spot, banged my head mercilessly against the brick wall of literary ignorance over me an' Mr Fry's declaration in favour of unlocking the handcuffs.

  There's the point. I wouldn't allow 'Me and Mr Fry' either, but that's on the grounds of etiquette rather than grammar. Turn that around out of politeness and the bad grammar is less likely to be an issue. But should “Mr. Fry and I” also have that full stop in Mr.? If so, is Mr? as a question all right without the full stop? Is alright all right? (I hate alright infact, but don't tell anyone. In fact? Any one? Why is anyone OK when any one isn't? (**My hands are in the air!** I know there are times when 'anyone' and 'any one' have separate meanings, and a reasonable distinction for the sake of clarity may be needed!)

  All of the above can be resolved readily by most people reading this, but for others less used to negotiating the nuances of language, it's a nightmare.

  do we always need capitals? in many languages, there are no capitals. the full stop or its equivalent is sufficient. in the olden days of handwriting, capitals removed any doubt where a sentence ended when a hand-written comma and a full stop might look too similar. not any more, with a keyboard. i'm struggling with it too, i admit, but given that using a shift key is a two handed operation and i have only one, I'd rather like it for the sake of my personal convenience if we dispensed with capitals!

  That's also why, for inverted commas, I use single ones instead of double. No need for the two-handed shift key operation, or caps lock. But this is just ummm... me. I?

  I'm not advocating open slather. Far from it. Anything that creates ambiguity or misunderstanding is objectionable. Capitals can serve a useful purpose. Think of the confusion in Australia over Liberals and liberals, Labor and labour....

  At the same time, I don't see that anything petty is worth making a fuss about. (No, I won't dare try defining 'petty' at this point. Should I have said 'now' instead of 'at this point'? Darn right I should have, just because it's cleaner and more efficient. Should we allow 'should of'? Perish the thought, because that's just an awful illiteracy and could distort meaning.)

  These are questions of grace and subtlety in language more than beating kids round the head with grammar rules. I don't want to lose those kids altogether. We are in danger of that.

  Kids learn grammar through good conversation, not by a book of rules. Speak to them grammatically and they'll learn how to express themselves clearly. If you say, 'Bill rung me this morning', you can bet that's what your kids will say. And they will fail at job interviews because of it!

  Pronounce words correctly, and they have a better chance of spelling them. If we say 'lightening' when we mean 'lightning' then that's probably how we - and they - will try to spell it.

  Bob, your sub-editors are like gold. It is a tragedy that the Murdoch press is sacking heaps of them right now on cost-saving grounds, because they are indeed the last warriors engaged in trying to keep the written language as pure as possible. Newspapers and books should be exemplary in written expression - literally! Online newspaper articles should be scrutinised painstakingly by subs to ensure meaning is clear.

  The blogs I read are better written than many online articles rushed on to the news website and grammar-checked by grammar-bot. That's what's happening now. Boot off the subs and you allow a grammar computer program the right to mediocritise your flight of fancy, if the program gets it right at all.

  Now you may say this is hopelessly inconsistent contradictory. One minute I'm screaming for flexibility, and the next I'm demanding purity.

  I'm actually asking for a double standard, for now at least. ('actually' in that last sentence is redundant, but I want it there, so there.) I'm asking for a double standard because this whole debate is going to be swept away, and we might as well have the best of all worlds while they exist.

  The bibliophiles tend their libraries as most of us do, with those loved books, each of which has a personality of its own. We started collecting them when we started reading, or being read to if we were lucky, and we are used to a high standard of English expression. We can be cheeky and violate it because we know the standard we start with. We literarily superior beings can jostle with the hoi polloi if and when we feel like it. (Literarily? Oh my.... From what damaged portion of my brain did that sneak out?!)

  Long may our books be with us. They'll always be there in some form. They'll always have their guardians. Right now they're us. We. We're the guardians of our books at the moment.

  Theatre as a device for teaching has always been around. Text is still a very efficient form of learning, but it now competes with film, TV and computer based teaching. Now, if teenagers want to find out how to do something, they go to youtube. How to change a spark plug on a lawnmower? It's there. How to insert a RAM chip into a laptop. How to open the back of the bloody thing! Yep. There it is on youtube. Nearly everything is.

  If we don't allow for a double standard, then we'll end up having only one, except for a group of antiquarians whose numbers will rapidly decrease through time within a generation. That's because a new era of learning is almost upon us, and it's unstoppable. Text messaging, ebooks and youtube or websites as we now know them, or blogs, are only the razor-thin end of an enormous wedge. It's far bigger than these. They're nothing but the crude first wave. The illiterate who can't read because they lacked the opportunity will be joined by the illiterate who choose not to if the latter are made to feel antipathetic towards text and reading. And both these groups will not necessarily be the ignorant ones. On the contrary. They might turn out to be the ones with the real knowledge that builds a controlling power base.  

  There's barely a village in Bangladesh that doesn't have an internet connection, and mobile phones, and only the barest minimum of literacy is needed to gain access to them. Look again at the FaceBook comments above. How literate to you need to be? Third grade, maybe - to get online.

  You may think I'm off my rocker. Lost it completely this time. No, not yet. Read this, posted online just today. Reading levels in the US have declined dramatically. This is no coincidence, and the reasons are more complex than most can imagine. They're also irreversible. New tribes are forming in modern society. New castes, maybe.

  Yes, power is currently in the hands of the literate. Some societies value literacy above practically all else. The Chinese and the Japanese know its power and aren't likely to compromise it for a long time, but they have genuine traditions immersed in millennia. When the first Ch'in emperor in the Third Century BCE had writing standardised throughout China, its first revolution (the only one it has had till the twentieth century), cemented the Chinese political landscape in place.

  Power in our society currently rests with the literate. The disgraceful provisions sneaked into the Patriot Act in the USA were placed there by those who drafted the legislation, not the politicians. When they passed it in Congress, practically none of them knew what was in it.

  But, as I said, this is going to change more rapidly than most of us can imagine, because we think in a particular way. I can't envisage a society where literacy doesn't dominate as the tool of power, but the sources of power are changing. Look at what's happening in the world around us even now.

  I'm not advocating this change, by the way - I'm just saying it's going to happen. And this is where I wanted to start this. The rest will have to wait!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing, pens, ink and bad boys

I haven't forgotten about tackling God in my continuing journey through my mini-series on personal philosophy. The mood will strike and it will come oozing out of the remainder of my brain.

  Maybe that's not the best analogy, but you get what you paid for today. And this is what came to me. Part of it was in response to the charming blog by a writer called Alex, whose work you can see here.

  Because I went to primary school in the 1950s (Queensland, Australia), we learned genuine cursive writing; flowing running writing that you never see today. We practised in copybooks, and our wooden pens had long steel nibs. We had inkwells in our desks.

  The State Department of Education sent these nibs to schools by the thousand, so they weren't the expensive sort you see on sale now. The best fun was snapping off the point of the nib and using the pen as a dart. If you didn't snap off the point and just used them as darts as they were, they wouldn't stick in the ceiling when you threw them, but our modified versions did.

  This was, needless to say, a boy thing, but you had to be careful. Firstly, you didn't want to get caught throwing them. It was an offence instantly punishable by four cuts with the cane. The other was not to sit under one that was stuck into the high wooden ceiling. Gravity being what it is, what went up eventually (or quickly, depending on certain variables) did come down. You could be unlucky enough if sitting or standing under it to have it drop points first and spear you in the top of your head. At the very least it could leave two bloody wounds as if you'd been bitten by a carpet snake.

  The ink came powdered in large sachets, and a couple of the most responsible of the boys were despatched to add the right amount of water, stir it well, put it in the ink-jug and fill the china inkwells in the desk. When I got this coveted job on one occasion, I remember the headmaster saying,

  'Now you chaps, be careful making that ink. Don't get your hands dirty. Just... use your heads!'

  Everyone burst out laughing, including the Headmaster.

  But back to our copybooks. The script was completely different from that of printing. It was designed to flow, and it did. Generally we didn't lift the pen from the paper from beginning to end of the word. Dotting the i and crossing the t were done last, of course!

Cursive, but not quite OUR cursive!
  This illustration isn't quite what we learned, but it's close enough to give the idea. Our script was more graceful than this, but I don't have a steady enough hand for it these days. An attempt now would be as bad as it was when I first attempted it. Perhaps Jan might still be able to do a fair one - I don't know. Lyn - you weren't much better at writing than I was!

  Now this was hard enough for right handers to learn, but I was left handed, and right-handers have no idea of the extra problems we encountered. Ink is wet and runny stuff, and left-handers would smudge ink from the newly written characters if we held the pen in a 'normal' way. I don't remember anyone getting caned for that, but some came close. Mostly we put our left hand right around the top of the page and wrote as if we had a crab-claw instead of a hand. It was ugly and the writing was usually awful, but at least smudging what you had laboured over was avoided. Sometimes.

  Worse was that these letter forms were all designed for right-handers, with their nibs angled the way they do. Left-handers tended to accidentally spear their nibs into the paper, and the steel tip would release with a flick, and you'd have a series of spots appear on your copybook that Jackson Pollock would have been proud of.

  Maybe that's how he did Blue Poles. I wonder if he was left-handed?

  What surprises me is how much better at writing our grandparents were than we slovenly critters. I suspect they did a lot more of it and got a lot worse punishment than we did for penmanship deemed sloppy. Postcards sent back home from the Front in France in WW1 from my grandfather and uncles were written in elegant script that put most of ours to shame. (Yes, we had uncles, my father's older brothers, who fought in Europe in that war!)

  We use computers now, to compose what we write. If we don't like it, we can make adjustments. This means that the thought processes that go into writing by hand are quite different. When you write it down with pen and ink, you try to do it just once, so it has to express the thought as clearly as possible. Even the lovely prattle that my old aunts engaged in when they wrote letters to each other was like a river of thought, often inexpertly punctuated but beautifully penned. They must have enjoyed the experience of writing, and maybe the lack of punctuation was appropriately Hemingway. Very stream of consciousness.

  Yes, this art will go, except amongst the diarists with pens in their hands, the antiquarians and the calligraphers. Artists like Watto and Alex, Joan and Carl. A computer cannot create a personal touch like the hand and eye of a calligrapher, no matter what typeface is used. It will never have quite that connection.

Monday, September 12, 2011

One Year Anniversary

Just a couple of observations for today.

  1. It's a year since I began the Avastin treatment. Without it, I would have had a very short time to live at a reasonable quality of life. The calculations were October 2010. Avastin is both extending my life and contributing to an increasingly delicate state of health. That was the trade-off. It has to be thought of as a dangerous form of life support that has to remain in the ON position, and become progressively more dangerous as the weeks pass.

  2. It's a year since I began this blog. I had no idea where it would take me. I still don't, but I'm glad I made the journey.

  I began it then because after the Avastin reprieve I felt I had something to say, and a reason for saying it. I still do, and feel that I have more things to say than ever, but time will run out.

  As I write this, the blog (or 'blob', as a good friend calls it) has had more than 40,000 views.  There are nearly 300 postings, totalling some 100,000 words.

  The poor old blogship is badly in need of some heavy duty maintenance, mainly to catch up on a few things and standardise the format a bit more to ensure better navigation. Maybe I'll get round to doing that. It's not vital if I don't.

  It's serendipity, but that's how I wanted it. I've discovered a strange fact, looking at other blogs. Blogs can be too orderly. Order is sometimes overwhelming.

  That's my rationale anyway! Thank you for accompanying me on at least some parts of the trip. It would be a lonely journey without you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nazi-free zone

For 35 years, I was forced to be a grammar and spelling Nazi while assessing university essays, and I was pretty good at it. Being a literacy Nazi, that is.

  Sadly, I didn't need all that much persuading. God knows some students needed it, and it didn't hurt them to discover how bad their English was.

  Yet I've always maintained what is obvious to everyone who thinks about it - language changes with time, circumstances and use; and what's acceptable - even conventional - changes as well, and I think the pace of that change is accelerating.

  So... I am going to try not to get annoyed when someone writes that a person was decimated, when they mean annihilated (decimation being the act of reducing numbers to one in ten, although authorities don't even agree about that!)

  I'm not going to get hung up on whether someone uses it's when they should use its, and try not to groan when I see tomato's for sale - or tomartoe's, for that matter. I guess I'll even get used to singular criteria and phenomena. **Groan** We all have our pet hates when it comes to the Grammar Goosestep. (Goose step? Goose-step? Goostep?) STOP IT!!

  Any one of those would get the message across just as good well. Or as badly. **Sigh** I just can't quite help myself....

  I'm damned if I'm going to write “It is I,” when I would say, “It's me.”

  Or worry about whether the comma or full stop should be before or after the inverted commas. Or whether the Microsoft corporation demands that I consider whether I really want incomplete sentences like these.

  Stuff 'em I say.

  I'm going to declare language to be free, as long as it gets the intended message across without ambiguity. Mine, anyway.

  It's not the first time I've made such a declaration in this blog, by the way, but I've not always managed to keep the jackboots off. Frenzied self-kicking up the bum must look quite funny, especially when only one leg works properly.

  I've sworn off it before, but never quite got out of the nasty uniform.

  Still, I feel the need to place the following caveat at the end of each story. “I am very good at spelling and grammar and anything that doesn't look right is deliberate, so there.”

  Pathetic, hey?

  An absolutely brilliant and much more forceful declaration of this was made by Cambridge educated entertainer and scholar Stephen Fry, and you should have a look at it. It's wonderful, visually clever, and if it doesn't rip those swastika armbands off your pedantic sleeves, nuthin will.

Original source:

  I will, however, steer clear of clichéd expressions like the plague, and avoid at almost all costs text messaging shortcuts. I'll use 'however' when I please, even though I threatened immediate execution to any student using that graceless word in an essay. But the one I'll never use is gr8 for great, because it truly gr8s on me. 

  Lastly, I won't use <3 to signify love, or a heart. Sideways, it's quite cute really, but with my schoolboy mind, the only thing I can see in it is what used to be doodled all over the toilet cubicle walls in 1961 at Gladstone High.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The South Tower chocolate shop, 12 September 2001

Why my last two stories have involved chocolate is pure coincidence. Maybe I was reminded of this one by all the discussion about it when I thought of the sad case of the debummified Easter Bunny. But so near this 10th anniversary of 9/11, this is a sombre memory rather than a light-hearted one.

  It's frustrating that the closer the date of an event is to today, the less I remember the precise details. This must have been May or June 1996. We had been with friends in Philadelphia and then took a couple of days to stay with another friend in New Jersey.

  She wanted to show us some of the sights of New York that she enjoyed the most, so we took a short train trip into the heart of the city from her apartment in New Jersey. We had never been to NY before.

  Not far from the train station were the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I wouldn't use the word “awe-inspiring” unless I meant it, but these two buildings were. Their dominance of the skyline was complete, and their symmetry more than doubled their presence. There was something about that duality of solidity, strength and soaring precision that made it so imposing.

  We walked to the towers and gazed upwards, as you do, but there's only so long you can do that. Our friend wanted us to see something in particular, at ground level of the South Tower. It was a tiny chocolate shop. I can't recall its name and I guess it doesn't matter now.

  It was beautifully presented, as were its wares; a boutique of delights that would send chocolate lovers into raptures. As I said before, although I enjoy chocolate, I don't have quite the passion for it that many do. In this case, it was that orgasmic adoration which attracted a steady stream of devotees to this little establishment; people prepared to pay large sums of money for minuscule amounts of utterly decadent but delightful chocolate creations.

  Even for me, each chocolate was so enticing that I would love to have tried every one at least twice - once to taste as a novelty, and a second of each to confirm that these sweets had really been sent from heaven. But this was not feasible for a variety of reasons, all of which I am sure are obvious to you.

  'You're from Australia - or New Zealand? I can never tell which,' said the dark-haired young assistant tending these objets d'art, all securely locked away behind sparkling clear glass as if they were diamonds. She was more friendly than I expected. I don't think we looked like the sort of customers who would be buying pounds of these delights, but it didn't trouble her.

  'Yes. Australia. Not New Zealand. We always tease the Kiwis about their accent.' 

  I don't think she understood why or how that was possible. Only a Kiwi or another Australian would get that joke, anyway.

  'I couldn't go to Australia. The sharks....'

  It wasn't the time for a discussion of why Australian sharks are no more voracious than the Californian ones, or those Pointers of the Caribbean  - or indeed why sharks might pose a problem in many places in Oz - at Uluru, e.g., several thousand miles inland. Nary a Grey Nurse in sight.

  We bought a few morsels, savoured the sight of the others that would never pass our lips, and walked out into the bright sunshine.

  Fast forward now to just after midnight, Australian Eastern Time. The date had just clicked over to 12 September 2001. I turned on the little radio to hear the ABC news, as I always did at midnight. Something strange was happening. Instead of the formal and precise tones of the midnight newsreader, a description of an event in real time was taking place. Just after 9 AM, 11 September. WTC North Tower... aircraft.... crash... burning... explosion... flames... smoke.... What was happening? A terrible accident?

  I listened for a minute, no more.

  Tracey was in the loungeroom, reading. I had a thought - this seemed so dramatic that it might be on the TV. I jumped up and went to the lounge, and turned it on. The North Tower was burning, high up. Within seconds, we heard the cry of the reporter. 'WTC2 has been hit!'

  I don't remember if we actually saw that happen. We've seen it so many times since that I might be imagining we did. All I know is that we could soon see both towers in smoke and flames.

  What we saw were long-haul commercial aircraft full of fuel flown deliberately into a commercial yet highly symbolic target, exploding on impact, as we now know. Utterly devastating. It was happening right before our eyes.

  There's no point in my describing what we saw in the next few hours, as everyone knows the story all too well. Suffice it to say that about an hour after turning on the TV, watching frantic people escape from lower floors, and others try without hope to do so from upper ones, we saw the South Tower sink to the ground, and half an hour later the North Tower met the same unbelievable fate.

  The great landmark of the NY skyline had disappeared, taking with it thousands of innocent lives.

  In the midst of grappling with the implications of what had happened on that scale, I couldn't help thinking of the little chocolate shop, now pulverised and buried. Not a recognisable trace of it would remain.

  It was the one spot in the whole complex where we had made human contact, so I am sure this is why it stuck in my mind. No doubt the occupants would easily have escaped. I thought of the smiling, shark-fearing, dark-haired girl behind the counter, and could imagine her turning towards the building as it came grinding downwards, and not being able to comprehend. Who could, at that moment?

  None of us could. I could recall no country in 'peace' time having so many of its citizens and others from around the world wiped out in such a ruthlessly calculated fashion, within two hours and with hell yet to come for so many.

  I knew the world would never be the same again. It may have been 12 September 2001 here in Eastern Australia, but 9/11 was the date, and the calamity that would be etched in history in all our lifetimes. It would also have fearful consequences far away from American soil.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The chocolate easter bunny caper

  A dear friend invariably gives each of us an Easter Bunny of the species rabbitius cuniculus chocolatus, tastefully tinsel-coated as you see here.

  The joke is that we give her one of exactly the same species in return. It's triple treat in our case, but she fares badly in the exchange, getting only one for three. She doesn't seem to mind. I suspect her generosity outweighs by far her dollar mathematics.

  She doesn't know, I'm afraid, the size of the dilemma she causes me. Humans come in only two kinds: those who cannot bear the sight of uneaten chocolate, and the rest of us, who seem relatively few in number. We are happy to pick away at something chocolately bit by bit over weeks, invoking a radically different law of human choc dispersal from those with zero self-control.

  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins the beautiful Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina. Our family fits perfectly into the first category most of the time, but when a household is composed of both chocoholics and people of restraint and propriety, a gaping chink in the family armour rears its ugly head, if you enjoy a spectacularly mixed metaphor. One that could lead to a loss of family amour.

  So it is that certain family members take their Easter goodies deep into the burrow and gorge on what is on offer until only the tinsel remains. This is not a long time, but it pleases them.

  But the other (singular!) one is content to eat one little egg at a time, or part thereof of a full-grown member of the cuniculus chocolatus species, and leave my Easter goodies until the time of a sudden whim, possibly weeks later.

  Perhaps I'm just not very religious.

  It stands in its glory in full view of all, on the desk, smiling happily at the certain prospect that it will be taken suddenly at some point and decapitated - or at least completely deafened - and the remainder of its corpse broken up and consumed in equal measure, more or less, by the entire household.

  Look, I don't mind sharing my chocolate, not in the least. It happens every time and it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. The problem is that my rabbitius excites ... feelings ... on behalf of a nameless other, who looks with covetous eyes on my bunny long before I am ready to dissect him.

  I do not want to be the cause of this sin of envy, but at the same time there used to be a moment - a precise and mysterious moment weeks after Easter - when the fancy took me, and the deed was done, starting with the biting off of the ears ceremony.

  In the end I forwent (?) this moment of pure selfishness and with great care, bore my bunny out to the lounge, in all his tinsel glory.

  'It's time', I said. 'He doesn't quite know it yet by the ridiculously delighted look on his face, but he's cashing in his chips. Or I am, on his behalf.'

  Beloved affected delight and joyous anticipation, though I know she was really thinking, 'It's way past bloody time, if not his Use-By Date. Let the sacrifice begin!'

  But on this occasion, as I carry him out carefully by the waist and present him for inspection, a look of horror comes over her face.

  'What's happened to the back of his legs? Why is he completely devoid of an arse?'

  Puzzled, I turn him round, and discover that the question is a fair one. Although from the front he is a model of entirety, from the side and rear I see for the first time that his back side, right from gluteous maxima to heels, is no longer extant.

  There is only one explanation, apart from a scurrilous and unworthy one; namely, that Beloved has snuck in on some occasion and surreptitiously committed a grievous assault on his person. I reject that one immediately because her amusement and surprise are too real, even for the seasoned actor that she is. The look of amazement on her face at my standing there believing I have an entire bunny in my hand, and not one that has been interfered with, is too genuine for any foreknowledge of the circumstances.

  So I go back to the study and examine the scene of the crime. It is all too obvious from the little calling cards. A sticky-pawed but highly intelligent mouse has been sneaking up nightly to my bunny's rear end, and with extraordinary care not to destroy the illusion of rabbitius intacta from front view, has been feasting on his body, starting with his Achilles heels.

  Not only that, but rodentia musculus has a degree in physics and mathematics, for s/he has eaten in such a way as to retain his upright posture and perfect balance for the entire time.

  We figure a mouse that smart can't be all bad, and a good 70% of the bunny is still in its pristine, smartly wrapped condition. Necessity is the mother of not worrying too much about trifles, so the bits shared with musculus are removed, and the remains of my rabbitius cuniculus chocolatus are despatched to their final resting places, so to speak. In our stomachs.

  But... she can't resist a final dig, can she?

  'See? That's what happens when you don't eat your Easter Bunny at the right time!!'

  Leave me alone. All I know is when a box of chocolates the size of a shipping container is opened at the Hocking family's gatherings, it's like the sharks are circling, and if I don't get in on the feeding frenzy along with the other White Pointers, that's it. I just get to smell it, if I'm lucky.

  When we were little, we considered ourselves fortunate to get one MacRobertson's snack bar more than once a year, amongst six of us, and that had to last a fortnight.

  Tell that to kids these days, and they won't believe yer!

MacRobertson's Snack Bar, 1950s style