Monday, 4 May 2015

"Plain packaging" on cigarettes

came into Australia some time ago now. It was hailed as a "success". Sales of cigarettes dropped - or did they?
There is a piece in the paper this morning saying that the amount of illegal tobacco being consumed in Australia has risen dramatically. The cost to the government in lost tobacco revenue is enormous of course.
Surprised? No, neither am I. People won't stop smoking simply because the packaging changes. The last price hike was just so great that people will look for cheaper sources. After all, cigarettes in Australia cost about seven times as much as they do in China and it is pretty much the same through the rest of Asia.
There have to be other ways of encouraging people not to smoke. The "it's legal and therefore I'm allowed to do it" argument no longer makes sense. The medical evidence that smoking is bad for you is now so strong that more of an effort does need to be made. 
The "it's my choice" argument makes no sense either.
Smoking affects the health of the smoker AND the health of other people. I have had to ingest far too much secondary smoke in my lifetime. It has undoubtedly compromised my health and I resent that. I cannot be near cigarette smoke now without finding it difficult to breathe, my eyes water and my nose starts to run. I have never as much as tried to smoke a cigarette and I do not want to. I believe I have the right not to ingest the secondary smoke from other people's cigarettes.
There were heavy smokers at the universities I attended. In staff meetings the non-smokers would sit on one side and we would open the windows - hoping for some fresh air. The smokers still smoked - on one occasion after being told that the director of the research unit had just been diagnosed with a smoking related terminal cancer.
As a student at another university there was a member of staff who chain smoked his way through lectures - until, one year, one of the students pointed out that there was a "no smoking" sign in the lecture theatre he liked to use. Then he would stop the lecture half way through and go out and have a cigarette. It made him abrupt and impatient. He was a "three pack a day" man.
One of his colleagues, who smoked almost as heavily as he did, supervised me at one point. When the arrangements for supervision were made we agreed that we would meet in the library - where he could not smoke. The professor who had organised my supervision had told him bluntly, "You will not smoke around Cat. She is allergic." (He was also unable to tolerate cigarette smoke and had instituted a "no smoking in staff meetings" rule for the staff who did not smoke.)
It's not nice and really amounts to an assault on other people. So, how do we get people to kick the habit? We probably won't because nicotine is incredibly addictive. Many people never manage to do it.
Is it time to register smokers? Should they pay more for health care? Should their life insurance policies be renewed? Should they pay a greater contribution to their compulsory superannuation? 
It is no good making tobacco illegal. We have tried that with other drugs and people will still use them.
We could do more. Perhaps if the government realises how much revenue is being lost they will.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

I woke to the news of a birth and a death

and both of them in far distant Upover.
I am not likely to meet the baby. I am glad she arrived safely and I hope all other babies delivered that day also arrived safely. I also know that is unlikely.
The deceased? Yes, a writer. Ruth Rendell of course. I have read her work. 
She was one of those writers that you would look for each year. The Senior Cat referred to her as a "holiday reading writer". This was in no way meant to be disparaging. It meant that she was a writer he could relax with but still considered wrote well enough that the language was also enjoyable. He preferred her as Barbara Vine I suspect. I haven't asked. 
The problem was that she wrote crime novels. Crime novels? Who takes those seriously? I mean people read those for the story don't they? It isn't serious writing is it? You won't win the Booker or the Miles Franklin for a crime novel.
But, why not? A good crime novel can be every bit as rich and complex as any other novel. 
Rendell's Wexford is a complex character. Of course we can read him as an ordinary policeman leading an ordinary (for his occupation in literature) life. Read the books more carefully though and he is not ordinary. He's a man concerned about human relationships. 
I wonder what the media will have to say about Rendell? I haven't looked yet.
What will they have to say about Ian Rankin and Rebus? Or Elizabeth George and Lynley and Havers? Or... I could go on. 
But Rendell's death raises a serious question. Why is "crime writing" considered to be a less serious occupation than other types of writing?
Of course there are badly written crime novels. There are people who have produced long series of lightweight novels with cardboard characters. People will read them for their predictable, comfortable story lines. 
But there are many other badly written novels too. Walk into any library and there is row upon row of fiction. People read some of it but there are other books which are borrowed and never read - and even some which are never borrowed. There are books which get shelved in the charity shop that have not even been opened until the man who deals with them creaks them open and looks at the contents. He shrugs philosophically and says, "Well someone thought it was good enough to publish."
Really? He shows me and we wonder why the book was written and how anyone else felt it was good enough to publish.
"It's all about marketing," the former owner of our local bookshop told the Senior Cat last week. (She had turned up with a knitting problem and they were discussing the "50 shades of..." over the teapot.) Perhaps it is - but the book has to be written first, an agent has to take it on and then a publisher.
That is, I suspect, not true of most crime novels. They get read. It seems we like murder and mayhem. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Calvary Hospital

was once run by nuns - the Little Sisters of Mary.
It is where Middle Cat is currently incarcerated. She hopes to slink back to the rehabilitation place very shortly. The food, she tells me, is better there. Yes, hospital food does tend to be dire. I took her some grapes and mandarins yesterday because there is no fresh fruit to be had. ("Fruit salad" comes out of a tin.) Why?
The hospital itself is, quite frankly, old. The bathrooms were last redecorated back in the fifties and must be a nightmare to try and keep clean. Middle Cat's room reminds me of the only episode I ever saw of an American medical drama with "doctor" someone who was supposedly a neurosurgeon. That would have been in the early sixties - my maternal grandmother thought it was "lovely". I was bored but I do remember the decor. 
My paternal grandfather had one of those essential male operations there. I can remember going to visit him. The place was staffed by nuns then - nuns in full habits. We children, just Brother Cat and myself, were very, very well behaved at the sight of these alarming women. I remember however that my grandfather, a staunch Presbyterian, saying they were good to him. It is, of course, highly likely his reputation had gone before him. 
There was no nun in a habit in sight yesterday. The only reminder of their existence are the ward names and the small plaque on the pillar in the foyer. It tells people of the beginnings of the hospital. The hospice next door still has some nuns working in it. I know one of them. She wears "sensible" slacks to work these days. Her life has been spent tending to the dying.
Middle Cat was having her BP taken by a lively young nurse with a Greek-Cypriot background. They were discussing the nurse's forthcoming wedding and laughing about the fact that the nurse was "eloping" so as to avoid all the traditional fuss my sister had to endure.
The "vampire" from pathology turned up too - to take a blood sample - a male vampire. He and Senior Cat agreed that the role had once been "women only". 
It's certainly different now. When my grandfather was there the only male staff were doctors. I suspect that everyone employed there would have been a Catholic. Yesterday one of the nurses was a rather good looking young man. The specialist talking to a nurse at the nurses' station is Jewish. I know because I once did some work for her.  She gave me a wave of acknowledgment as I passed. The sense of self importance seems to have diminished. I wonder if it makes them better at their jobs?

Friday, 1 May 2015

So what should Nepal repair first?

Apparently there were over a thousand injured people waiting to see Doctor T when he eventually arrived at his destination. More were coming - as they could bring them in from other villages. 
That means bringing them across terrain which is difficult to cross at any time. It is even more difficult now when the rough tracks have been blocked by landslides and some of those bringing others have been injured themselves.
Even when they arrive there are problems - no medical supplies, no food and almost no water. They are still waiting for the helicopters they can see overhead to drop something to them. 
T has apparently sent some terse orders to the authorities and something should arrive today - but he knows it won't be enough. 
Yes, people have to be repaired first. Without man power Nepal can do nothing else.
After that there are arguments raging. Does Nepal repair the temples and monasteries and other places of historic interest - or do they use aid money to build roads and schools and hospitals?
It is not a simple question. 
Nepal's economy is almost one hundred per cent reliant on tourism. Some of the buildings which have been demolished were hundreds of years old - some perhaps as much as a thousand years old. Others which have been badly damaged are also very old. Those buildings were not merely tourist attractions, they were an integral part of the daily life of the Nepalese. Their culture and religion, one of the things that attracts tourists to Nepal,  is also the thing which binds their society together.
It is easy to say "Nepal needs hospitals, schools, roads and housing." Yes, of course they do. All societies need those things but they also need more than that.
If Nepal does not repair the things that make it unique then it will simply cease to be a destination people care about. There will be no money build anything new in the future. Repairs will provide employment for years to come. Building new structures will also provide money. Money must come from elsewhere - without strings attached, especially strings from communist China which views Nepal with great strategic interest.
If the Nepalese choose to repair their temples and monasteries first then we should not condemn them. For them it will be part of the long and difficult healing journey. 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Rather than a credit card

I have a "Load and Go" card from the post office. It works like a debit card. You can put money on to it at any post office and then use it wherever  you would use a Visa card within Downunder. There is a different sort of "Load and Go" for use overseas.
It is a good idea. It is a cheap alternative to a credit card if you only need to do a couple of transactions a month or you don't want a business to have your bank details.You can put just enough on to pay the bill or buy something.
Or rather, it should be a good idea. My card got "blocked" yesterday. It got "blocked" for the second time.
No, it was not my fault. I went online to try and check to see that the balance was what I thought it should be. I typed in all the necessary information very carefully...and was told that it was wrong. 
Now I was extremely careful. I didn't think I had done the wrong thing but there is always the possibility. You cannot read the dots and check so...I did it again. The same result came up. 
I knew if I tried again the card with the same result the card would be blocked. So I changed the password, received the requisite e-mail, and then tried again - twice. Still "wrong". 
Now, at this point, I have gone into the security and given the computer at the other end the "word" that only I know - and it is not a word that anyone else would know because I made it up. I think about it. I have nothing to lose. I change the access number as well and receive the requisite e-mail. 
Then, ultra carefully  - hesitating over each letter and number as I type them in I try again. I tried twice. At the end of the second time I was "blocked".
By then I had actually tried to access my details not three but six times. And yes, I had typed in the correct details - more than once.
There is, I think, something else wrong. I will have to contact them later this morning. 
I am not impressed. It reminds me of why I do not use a credit card on line. I remember the horror tale of my friend R who had a call from the bank. Had she, they wanted to know, just bought a car in Singapore? 
Of course she had not. She had not been anywhere near Singapore for several years. 
Her credit card was stopped. It was stopped in the middle of a holiday weekend. Frantic phone calls ensued and she was at the bank when it opened on the Tuesday morning.
The Senior Cat once had to borrow some money from a friend. They were at a conference together and the teller-machine swallowed the Senior Cat's card and refused to give him any money. He had to go into the bank the following morning too. It was his good fortune that he had other ID and a friend willing to see he could eat something.
I don't like this "card" business. I know it is the way the world is going but sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn't work!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Recalling an ambassador

is a political statement. 
The Australian Embassy in Jakarta will remain open - unless Indonesia decides otherwise. But recalling the Ambassador is intended to send a strong political message to Indonesia that Australia is unhappy with the state sanctioned murder of two Australian citizens.
I need to say two things here. One is that I find drug trafficking abhorrent and worthy of severe punishment. The other is that I am totally and utterly opposed to the death penalty.  The first offence does not justify the latter. Nothing justifies the latter offence. Taking someone's life, even when they have taken the lives of others, amounts to murder. It makes those who use the death penalty no better than those who kill for other reasons. Indeed, in some ways they are worse.
Indonesia is out of step with almost every other country in the world in imposing the death penalty. They compound the problem by seeking "clemency" for their own citizens facing that penalty in other countries. It is an entirely unacceptable double standard.
Australia provides considerable foreign aid to Indonesia. It comes as straight out aid from the foreign aid budget and, more indirectly, in many other ways. Australia also trades with Indonesia - something that benefits Indonesia more than it benefits Australia.
For years Australia has treated Indonesia with kid gloves. Oh yes, be so careful of that very big Muslim country next door. Australia needs to be very careful not to upset them. 
Indonesia is a very wealthy country. It has incredible natural resources. It has man power. The problem is that almost all the wealth is controlled by a tiny portion of the population. Most people are poor. They will remain poor because, even with all the aid that flows in, entrenched power and corruption will ensure that the wealth is not shared.
Sukumaran and Chan might well have stayed incarcerated in Indonesia if massive bribes had been paid. Why those bribes were not paid is a mystery and likely to remain so. (Equally it is certain that bribes were paid in the case of Schapelle Corby and that she was fortunate to be released on parole before President Widodo came to power.) The two men were executed because of another sort of corruption - the corruption that keeps a weak President Widodo in power. 
Indonesia is a political mess but a mess other countries are prepared to prop up in the belief that the alternatives might be far worse.
Indonesia may well respond to the current action by withdrawing their Ambassador to Australia. They will almost certainly respond by withdrawing support for the border protection measures - and the state sanctioned people smugglers will be back in business.
Nobody is going to win. I have just one word of advice. Don't go to Bali for any reason at all - no matter how attractive the holiday prices, how exotic the location or how beautiful the beach.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Nepalese medicine

was the topic of a two part documentary the Senior Cat and I saw last year. 
We watch almost no television and we miss the wonderful Global Village programme that was used to air this documentary. Trying to remember the details is frustrating. 
The documentary looked at "amchi"- also the name of the shamans who use it - a form of traditional herbal medicine.  It is used in the western area of Nepal and is not, as many people like to believe, superstitious nonsense. It is firmly rooted (if I may use that term) in tradition that has been found to be or is believed to be effective.
Of course there are spiritual practices which go with it but the plants which are used do have pharmacological effects. (Yes, they do us cannabis sativa but they do not abuse it in the way that some in the west do.)
The spiritual practices which go with the use of these plants are also interesting. They require a belief in the efficacy of the use of the plants. If you do not believe then the healing properties of the plants will not be as effective. It is a common idea in traditional medicine of course.
T - the doctor I have been talking about -  has had to learn something about traditional medicine. When he goes there he works with the village amchi. It is part of the reason for his success. He has been willing to listen and learn from a man who knows the villagers well.  T also needs his help in a place which has only the most basic of operating equipment.
The village amchi looks after almost a thousand people in the village and the surrounding area. He also has to collect the plants and make the medicines. He now has an apprentice but it will be some years before that young man is considered fit to work alone.
Here we call and make an appointment to go and see our GP. We grumble about having to go there and wait. We grumble when the doctor is late. We grumble at the price of filling the prescription. We grumble when we are not almost instantly better. 
There the amchi will often go to the home of the person after a message has been taken to him. People will wait unless there has been an accident and urgent assistance is required. They do not, so I am told, grumble. The medicine is given to them and they pay what they can later  - and sometimes not at all. They know that recovery takes time - and thinking positively.
Our approach to our health is quite different. T says he is a better doctor for having to learn to work in other ways. 
Perhaps the rest of us can learn something from it as well.