Friday 31 May 2013

There have been a number of empty

shops in our local shopping centre for some time now. 
I think the rot set in when there was a fire. The oldest portion of the centre was destroyed in an arson attack and eventually rebuilt. What had been a pleasant, friendly, cosy neighbourhood shopping centre has turned into something different. 
It is larger and, somehow, less interesting. The old bookshop area was destroyed and the new shop is at the other end of the centre. That's fine. It has a new owner and the nature of the shop has changed a little. That's fine too. It is progress of a sort.
But other things have happened too. There have been some "upmarket" entries - mostly clothing shops and a gift shop. The gift shop has, somehow, managed to stay. The "handbag" shop which began opposite has long since gone. There was a small "young adult" clothing shop on the other side of the gift shop. That left more than three years ago and the space is still empty. Two more spaces have been empty for more than two years. They are in a prominent position. Several weeks ago I noticed activity. They are both to be filled by more clothing stores. At the other end of the centre, on the outside, there is the space once occupied by the "Pet Centre" - gone for over a year now. Nobody appears to be interested in it.
There was an interesting little cafe type business in one of the walkways. It opened with much fan fair and it seemed to do a brisk business. The young people who worked there were efficient and friendly - but it folded quite suddenly. They were there one Friday but not on the Saturday. On the Monday word went round that the business was no more. It is apparently to reopen soon as yet another coffee place. 
I have some idea what people are paying for the spaces they lease - and it is high, very high. I have also to confess that I almost never buy the over-priced clothes or coffee so I do little to support those places. (I would mind the price of the clothes much less if I thought the people making them were getting a fair wage.)
I know the price of a lease can be ridiculously high so it was with even more alarm that I saw a plea from my friend Jen Campbell, author of "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops" and, now, "More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops" say that the lease was expiring on the bookshop she lovingly cares for in London. "Ripping Yarns" sounds a marvellous place...stuffed full of the treasure of second hand or pre-loved books of good quality. The shop specialises in children's books. I am sure that, for me, it would be home-from-home. I could spend hours in such a place. I would come out without a penny in my pocket. 
I hope there will be enough people who feel the same way, who can keep the bookshop alive (and Jen in a job) . I hope the person who owns the building will have the good sense to realise that it would be better to have less rent and a thriving book-shop than to raise the rent to the point where years of hard work has to suddenly cease and everyone, not just the owner of the business and the people she employs, is deprived of an essential resource.
If you live in London and love books please go and visit Jen - and keep the place open until I have the chance to visit her! 

Thursday 30 May 2013

"Oh and I've bought a new

cooking gadget," she tells me as we walk into the "cheap and cheerful" place we are going to eat at.
Yes, we went out to lunch yesterday. We do this occasionally with some friends. The last time we did it was on the occasion when the Senior Cat and the husband went to a film - and I trailed around after someone who likes "shopping". 
We did not go shopping yesterday but I heard about shopping which had been done. The cooking gadget was something called an "air-fryer". I was told "it can do chips, not that we eat chips". Right. You can apparently "fry" and "grill" and "roast" and "bake" with this machine - or so she tells me. 
I know their kitchen has other things which will do the same thing. I have seen them. 
Their kitchen is also suspiciously tidy and clean. The appliances all look spotless. Our kitchen is reasonably tidy and it is clean to the point where a food standards inspector would allow other people to eat from it but the few appliances in it - microwave, toaster, bread machine, oven, stove top, blender and mixer - do look as if they are used. I do not own any other appliances. We could, if necessary, do without the microwave but it does heat things rapidly and I do cook some things in it. We could do without the toaster if we used the grill function of the oven - but again that takes longer and needs to be monitored which is not a good idea when the Senior Cat is cooking toast. 
I suppose we could buy bread but it is actually cheaper to make our own...the bread machine has paid for itself by now. I can also make much better bread than that sold locally.  The oven? I think we need that although I suppose I could manage to use just the stove top - our meals would just be less diverse and interesting. The stove top I need unless I go and cook on an open fire outside. The blender was a gift and I use it several times a week, especially in winter. The mixer is used less often and I suppose I could - just - manage to beat anything by hand.
Apart from that I do not own electrical kitchen gadgets. I don't need them or want them. I do not have a lot of other gadgets either. There is the potato peeler and the ice cream scoop - used for scoops of other things as well - and the tin-opener and the egg-slicer (an ancient thing but well used) and the gadget that helps to get lids off jars. I also have a slicer I use when making the marmalade - a surprisingly useful gift - and the most useful "gadget" which sharpens the cooking knives.
I know other people have all sorts of things. I am not sure what they do with them. Somehow I manage without them. I think we still eat well. I try to feed the Senior Cat good, healthy and tasty home-cooked meals. He seems content and as healthy as I can expect a 90 year to be so I doubt I need any of those "gadgets". I am not sure where I would put them anyway. The kitchen is not much bigger than a ship's galley.
But our friend has a new air-fryer and she is very proud of it. She extolled the virtues of it and how useful it was although she did say,
"Not that I do any cooking of course."

Wednesday 29 May 2013

There was a column in

yesterday's paper which, yet again, argued that religion should be divorced from politics. This morning's paper - predictably - had letters in support of that view - and opposing it.  Most of what was said was also - predictable. (And no, I did not bother to write a letter.) 
The "ethics" system of this country (if we have one) is supposed to be free of direct religious influence. Our current Prime Minister claims to be an atheist. The Leader of the Opposition is a church-going Catholic. The Prime Minister - and others - have naturally claimed the Leader of the Opposition will do whatever his church tells him to do. That is of course nonsense - just as it is equally nonsense for the Prime Minister to claim that her values system has not been influenced by Christian values. The issue of religion is being used as a tool to try and denigrate the Leader of the Opposition - despite the fact that the government also has a number of equally devout Catholics in its ranks. (That is neatly ignored by the government and the media.)
And religious leaders - of all persuasions - do of course try to influence government just as they try to influence their flocks and followers. It is simply not possible to say that religion - or perhaps religious belief or lack of it - has no influence on politics. 
Australia is not alone in that. Some of the world's worst conflicts have their roots in differences of religious belief. It is never a happy situation.
I have no doubt it is a topic which will always be debated. Unless we are all going to believe exactly the same thing and behave in exactly the same way then there will be debate. 
I recently gave a child Lois Lowry's book, "The Giver". He was puzzled by it. The idea of living in such a tightly controlled society was something he had problems comprehending. His paternal great-grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Holland. He is not Jewish because his mother is not Jewish. His father has not attended a synagogue since he was a young boy. He claims to have no beliefs. Yet he wanted me to give his son the book and talk to him about it. He wants his son "to think about these things". They have discussed it as well.
And, like the Whirlwind, the boy finally came back to me with the words, "It's all about treating other people right isn't it? It's about loving people."
Oh yes, there is that commandment about "love one another" isn't there? Is it such a bad thing to base our life and politics on? I feel tempted to write a letter to the paper. 

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Australian Indigenous Languages

at the time of the first white settlement were many and varied. Some estimates go as high as 750 distinct languages. Other estimates are much lower. Many of those languages have been lost. There are perhaps around 20-25 which are not "endangered" - that is, spoken by so few people on a daily basis that they are not likely to be lost.
Even those languages which are not endangered might not be recognisable to the people who spoke them when white settlers first came to Australia.
Yesterday I had one of those brief, unsatisfactory Twitter "conversations" with someone about indigenous languages and the teaching of them. I am, still very briefly, enlarging on it here for his benefit. I hope other readers might find it interesting.
I heard Pitjantjatjara spoken when I was a child and then at university - where it is a subject of study. I have also heard Kaurna spoken at a funeral. Apart from that I have not heard indigenous languages being spoken in urban areas. The vast majority of indigenous Australians living in urban areas do not speak an indigenous language. It is likely most do not even know for certain which indigenous language their ancestors spoke.
At the same time we have no less than 17 schools in our state which use indigenous languages. Some of those schools are very small and, like many schools for indigenous children, attendance is erratic. Other schools use the indigenous language only part of the time. The teaching of indigenous language and efforts to preserve them are surrounded by fierce debate, issues of political correctness and - if we are to be honest - an awareness by some that what is being "saved" may be far from accurate because indigenous culture may not encourage the sharing of something so personal with people of non-indigenous backgrounds or even with one another. 
In one case a language was spoken by just two people - a brother and sister - but it was taboo for them to speak directly to one another. The language has been lost. 
In another cased an aboriginal elder told me that her father and other elders had deliberately misinformed missionaries about words and meanings. They saw it as none of the white men's business. Some of the work of missionaries is now being used to try and revive the language but the question has to be asked, what is really being revived and taught? 
There are also aspects of indigenous language that sometimes make it difficult for teaching to take place entirely in the language in question. Some indigenous languages do not have a means for counting - as we know it - beyond two or four. That does not mean they do not have a means of indicating other numbers - they are normally indicated in relation to parts of the body - but the way in which the numbers are used is conceptually different. It makes no sense to them to add their thumb to their wrist or their wrist to their collarbone. 
There are other concepts which simply do not exist either. They either have to be imported or taught in other ways. 
Add to that the fact that some parents would prefer their children be taught in English because they see it as the way forward and the key to better jobs and the push to teach indigenous children in their own  languages has not always been successful. There are of course good schools and good teachers but even they have limited resources compared with the resources available in English. There is still the question of the need to learn English unless you are going to isolate the community. There is no written tradition to keep the languages alive and there are still cultural taboos about usage.
When we lose a language we lose a way of thinking. We lose a way of seeing the world and of creating within it. We somehow have to balance the need for preservation against the need to live in the world. It is very difficult and there are no easy answers.

Monday 27 May 2013

Apparently there have been 42,800

"boat arrivals" since the present government came to power. By "boat arrivals" I mean people who have boarded a boat in another country in order to come here as "refugees". 
They are those who succeeded. There are others who have not. A few have been turned back and others have lost their lives. Nobody knows how many people have lost their lives. Those who attempt to smuggle them to Australia are not going to admit it and those who endeavour to come this way are often lost forever to family and friends. They have no way of finding out what has happened. 
Nobody seems to know what the answer to the problem is. The present government certainly does not want to acknowledge the dramatic rise in people attempting to come here might have anything to do with its policies. Reports that there are many more boats than usual planning to leave Indonesia before the September poll are viewed with resignation rather than determination to do something that might genuinely help. 
Argument rages - and will continue to rage - about what should be done. Yes, the problem is an immensely complex one and the answer has to be complex too but there are things that could be done.
Someone who works in the area was talking to me yesterday. He came to see me about a particular individual. Like many other "refugees" who reach our shores this young man was sent out as the advance party. His family paid the exorbitant amount demanded by people smugglers, put him on a boat and sent him to Australia with the idea in mind that he would work here and bring out the rest of his family. It is a very common scenario. Families try to migrate in this way. 
This time things are a little different. He was granted refugee status about six years ago. He spoke a little English on arrival. He caught the eye of one of the many members of the community who try to assist refugees. This time it was someone with the power to make things happen. He was given the chance to learn more English and made the most of it. He was then offered the chance to do more study - and took it. The terms of his arrival meant he was able to work part-time and study. He has worked and he has studied. He has skills his country can use. 
Things have quietened down considerably in his home country. He's going back to help. One of the organisations I work for is interested in using his skills to help some of the professionals who volunteer their time. He is interested in helping them. What he needs is to know that he will be able to support himself when he gets there. The person I was talking to thinks that is going to be possible. The last negotiations are taking place. 
It will almost certainly happen and I hope it does. I think this is the sort of thing which should be happening - and happening often. I believe it is the sort of outcome we should be aiming for. We should welcome those who are prepared to learn English as well as their first language. We should train them if they have no skills or upgrade their skills if they already have them. When the situation has changed for the better - as it almost always will - then they should be given assistance to return and do something for their own country. 
His family is, I am told, not happy with the situation. They believe he should stay here and bring them out. It is what they had planned. It is not going to happen. It worries the young man but, even if he stayed, his family would not be granted permission to come. 
I have been looking at the paperwork. There are documents in just two languages this time. His home country is not making it easy for him to go back or for his new qualifications to be recognised. This happens frequently. Paying some bribes might help, almost certainly would help, but this will be done "by the book".
I think we need much more of this. We should be offering much more education to those who claim refugee status. We should be saying to people "we will train you in skills your country needs and when things calm down we will repatriate you and help you use those skills to rebuild your own country".  
Because yes, things almost always do quieten down to the point where it is "safe" to return. If we simply allow the young men, and they are almost always young men, to come and settle here then we deprive other countries of one of their most valuable resources. It will simply increase the problems they are experiencing.  It is a good way of providing assistance to other countries inside our own and getting more people involved. 
And yet I am being told over and over again that it cannot be done.
I hope you get there Sefu - your country needs you.

Sunday 26 May 2013

There were just six

of us at the library knitting group yesterday. Normally there would be fifteen or even eighteen. Where everyone else was remains a mystery. 
Those of us who were there did not need to assist each other as often happens so the conversation was wide ranging. One of our members had made some interesting mittens. You start at the top of the thumb and work around until, eventually, you come to the end of the cuff. The design is clever and interesting but also practical.
I thought of that as I pedalled home. 
A friend of mine was clearing some of the debris which falls from the gum tree on the footpath outside his property. He does not need to do this but he believes, rightly, that it constitutes a hazard to passers by. It is typically thoughtful of him. He is the sort of person who puts the bins out for elderly neighbours. I know he has occasionally taken them to medical appointments and provided other assistance.
He just happens to be "gay". He has lived with another man - the same man - for about forty years. They do not make an issue of this. You do not see them, as he puts it, "holding hands in the street".
Yesterday it was clear my friend was upset. The debris was being attacked with vigour.
He waved me to a stop as I came up to him. It seems the "gay marriage" issue had come up yet again the previous evening - and ended in a furious argument. 
Like many of their gay friends he and his partner are happy with things as they are. They feel no need to "get married". If a "civil union" of some sort was available they agree they would take advantage of that but they are apparently not, despite popular belief, looking for more. 
I find his attitude interesting. His partner feels the same way. I have met some of their friends who also live in same sex relationships and it seems that they also feel the same way. Not one of them has ever directly asked me what I think - they would not regard it as any of my business - but they know I have a first cousin who is in a civil union with another man.  My cousin's partner also happens to be one of the nicest people I know and very much part of our extended family. Marriage is not an issue for them either. 
My friend does not yet have the option of a civil union or marriage here. As he says, "all it would do is make our relationship formal in the eyes of the law".  
I suppose I know several dozen people living in same sex relationships. I don't know them well but none of them appear to want to get married. They certainly do not campaign for marriage or attend the rallies. Some of them might take advantage of a formal civil union if it was available. Others would not even bother with a civil union. 
I don't know whether the people I know are exceptions to the rule or  if the campaigners are the exceptions to the rule. I do know it is a divisive issue.
Perhaps the solution needs to be like the mittens though. Perhaps we need to start at another point and work out something practical and interesting and different for everyone where adjustments could be made to fit a particular relationship. 
I just wish I knew what that solution was.  

Saturday 25 May 2013

There has been a disturbing lack of

balanced reporting in our local media of late. It has been noticed even by those who support the side which has been getting positive attention. Many of the supporters do not mind of course. They believe "it shows we are right" and "there is nothing to debate". 
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
It is interesting therefore to note that a columnist who appears in a number of papers (and has a television show of his own) wrote a piece critical of what is usually considered to be "his side" of politics last week. Even more interesting is that apparently nobody has commented on this. 
I say "apparently" because I feel certain there would have been letters to the editor. I may be wrong but the column in question usually produces more than one letter deriding whatever he has said.
Perhaps it is one of those issues that, no matter however hard people try, the media just refuses to put up that point of view. It is just not available for debate. 
Yes, those views do exist. I have actually been told that by not one but two very senior members of the press - one the editor-in-chief of a major daily paper. There are things they simply will not touch and things they simply will not allow.
I can understand this when the topic relates to national security. Nobody wants to compromise that. I can understand it when issues like pornography and violence are under discussion. Pieces written in support of such things would be as dangerous as they would be abhorrent to all but the vile minority who indulge in such things. 
There are other topics though that lack balance in reporting. There are opposing points of views on some topics that are apparently simply not acceptable. Some of them are not considered to be "politically correct". Other points of view are simply considered to be "wrong" or "silly" or "ridiculous" or "invalid". They never get an airing.
This bothers me. Failing to offer a different point of view for consideration - or offering it in such a way that it is clearly meant to be ridiculed, dismissed or ignored - is a form of censorship. 
If someone believes the earth is flat and only three thousand years old then there is no harm in that. It becomes harmful when it is stated as a fact and taught to children without alternatives being offered. This is, in a sense, precisely what the media is doing.
We have an election coming up. There will be a great many topics raised between now and election day in September. I hope the columnist I mentioned at the top will continue to write his columns. I hope other columnists will write other pieces. I hope there will be more letters to the editor. I hope all these things will present many points of view - not just what some have decided is the politically correct (and therefore only acceptable) point of view. 
I hope above all else that there will be some balance in the media - but I am not hopeful.

Friday 24 May 2013

Our news was interrupted last night

to announce the death of Hazel Hawke. If you are outside Australia you may not know her. She was once the wife of Bob Hawke, a Prime Minister of Australia.
I do not like Bob Hawke. I did like Hazel Hawke. She stuck by him despite the fact that he was a heavy drinker and a "womaniser". He eventually divorced her and, the following year, married his biographer. 
But, while he was Prime Minister, Bob had Hazel by his side. She was a good partner. She supported him. She supported the office of Prime Minister. She was involved. She was "hands on" and did things. 
There have been other Prime Minister's wives like that - in Australia Margaret Whitlam, Tammie Fraser and, in her own quiet way, Jeanette Howard all supported their partners and used the office to support other things as well. They could also keep their husbands in check! 
I can remember standing in the dining room of my university hall of residence in Canberra one vacation time. Most of the students had gone home and the place was full of actors and writers - yhere was a big Playwright's Conference taking place. Margaret Whitlam was staying in the residence and Gough Whitlam (by then retired) had come in for a meal as well. 
Suddenly, above the chatter, we heard "Absolute nonsense Gough! Absolute nonsense." Margaret was telling him she did not agree with something. Later that day she introduced me to him so I could talk to him about my hopes for International Literacy Year. "And listen carefully to what she has to say..." You could almost see him snap to attention - and yes, he listened.
I have known many people who need the support of their partners in order to do their job. It is something that is not often recognised. I can remember someone I once knew whose husband thought he had been "called" into the Church of England ministry. Someone else said to me with a smile, "I can't see her on the Mother's Union and cucumber sandwich circuit." Neither could I. She was, quite simply, unsuited to the role. He was not accepted for training and I suspect that she was one of the reasons.
The partners of diplomats get interviewed before they are given a posting. They are expected to play a role too - hostess, host, committee person etc. 
Such expectations appear everywhere. My mother was always one of the teachers in rural schools but she was also the headmaster's wife - and expected to act accordingly. It was the same for many other women and, sometimes, men. 
It is a role still given insufficient attention and consideration in respect of the personal commitment involved. It is a role that can continue even after the death of the partner. The person remains someone else's partner and there is a belief they can still be called on. 
Sadly, Hazel Hawke had Alzheimer's. In the end she was unable to do anything, even for herself. But perhaps some good can come even of that if it raises awareness of the condition. Like the woman in Woolwich who faced up to the young man who had just killed in cold blood she faced death head on. Both of them, in different ways, showed extraordinary courage. I am not brave. All I can do is admire them for it.

Thursday 23 May 2013

There is a letter in

this morning's paper in which the writer claims that "if a study has been accepted by a prestigious peer reviewed journal then that study is scientifically valid". 
Clearly the writer of the letter has not read Ben Goldacre or Imogen Evans on the topic - or a number of other authors. Perhaps they know very little about statistics. I don't know.
It would seem from the rest of the letter that the study the writer quotes supports his point of view on a certain topic. For him it also appears that is an end to the matter. Just one study is sufficient to support his belief and, from the strength of his language, it would seem unlikely that he is going to change his mind on the topic he is so passionate about.
It is a bit like the anti-vaccination campaigners. Much of their strength has relied on one now discredited paper. I do not need to say more about that.
It is hard to keep an open mind when you feel passionately about something. Not so long ago someone accosted me and gave me a very public dressing down because they disagreed with something they thought I had said. It was something I know they feel so strongly about I would never discuss the issue with them. There would be no point in trying to change their mind. It simply is not going to happen. In that particular case I finally managed to get a word in and point out that I was not the author of the article. The response was, "Well, it's still what you think!"
Actually it is not what I think about that issue at all but nothing is going to change their mind. 
I think I can guess what will now happen because of the letter I have just quoted above. People will read it and say, "Oooh, there is a "scientific study" on that issue and it is in a "scientific journal" and other scientists have said it is right so it must be right." 
They will stop thinking right there. It will not altogether be their fault. They have not been taught critical thinking. Emotions can get in the way of critical thinking too. As a friend of mine says, "Smart people can believe dumb things."
Is it dumb not to believe the validity of those "prestigious peer reviewed papers" in the wildest and wackiest social science topics? 

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Why do we build houses

mostly as squares and rectangles and variations on squares and rectangles? Just once in a while people have built houses in other shapes - such as the occasional round house "to keep the devil out".
I suspect the simple answer to that question is "it's easier and cheaper and our things fit more easily into those spaces".  Our house is exactly like that. It is, in a sense a squat rectangle with a longer rectangle on one side or the squat rectangle. 
As houses go it is not inconvenient and it is only about thirty years old. My parents built it for their retirement. 
It has certain features which were designed for their old age. Like most Australian houses it is all on one level. You do not climb the stairs to go to bed. The house is, as we have proved, accessible for someone in a wheelchair. (I cannot say the same of the back garden but you can get to the Senior Cat's workshop.) 
The house itself also has another important feature. The city I live in is built on a major fault line. There was a quite serious earthquake in the region when I was a small child. I can remember it in that I can remember lying in bed and watching the wardrobe swaying backwards and forwards before my father came and carried me out into the night. I can also remember putting my small hand into the crack in the wall of the house belonging to my godmother's mother.  Since then houses are supposed to have more protection against earthquakes. Of course not all of them do but ours was built with a particular type of foundations and the house itself rests on those in a way that is supposed to minimise earthquake damage. How much protection it would actually afford is something I hope we never have to find out. 
But, that is earthquakes. There is no such protection against something like a tornado. We do have tornadoes in Australia but, at least so far, we have not had the sort of appalling damage that they have just had in Oklahoma. 
It is that damage which makes me wonder about the way in which houses are built. The Whirlwind had a school project a little while back in which everyone had to design a house. They were told that money was no object but the house had to be environmentally friendly. There were some extraordinary ideas, interesting ideas, unworkable ideas, sound ideas and strange ideas. The Whirlwind's house was round, looking in on a central courtyard. She knew it would be expensive to build but, apart from that, it was a house that could well have been lived in. A friend of hers designed something that was similar but octagonal rather than circular. Again it would have been expensive to build but it could well have been lived in. 
Looking back on those houses I wondered whether they would be more earthquake proof or tornado proof or something else proof. There is a house not too far from here which is a dome shape. It was an architectural experiment. I have no idea what it is like inside or what it would be like to live in but the architect designed it with the fault line in mind.
And, looking at the horrendous damage in Oklahoma, I am wondering whether we should perhaps start to think about other shapes for building houses. Would round houses help to keep the devil-wind out? I don't know enough about physics but it is something I like to think about.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

"She's a real twenty-first century

child," one of our neighbours told me. She had come over with her three year old granddaughter to deliver a "sick chair" for the Senior Cat to repair. 
Her granddaughter was dressed up as a doctor and was busy examining the teddy bear I keep, among other things, to amuse small children. Her chatter to the bear was about going for a "cat scan" and "pussy will not scratch and it doesn't hurt".
Her mother had recently had a CT scan and it had been explained that it did not hurt but no mention had been made of felines!
CT scans did not exist when her grandmother and I were three. When the Senior Cat was three even an x-ray was a major event. His grandparents did not even know about x-rays when they were three. The human body was even more mysterious then that it is now.
I had also been talking to a friend earlier in the day. She was about to take her cousin to the doctor. This morning there was an e-mail to say that she had taken her cousin for another CT scan in the afternoon. They are now waiting for the results. The results will probably be available today. It is one of the marvels of twenty-first century medicine.
The neighbour and I wondered though - what will medicine be like when her granddaughter is the age we are now? We think medicine has advanced dramatically - and it has - but it may seem primitive by then. 
We are a long way from being able to "cure everything". I doubt we will ever be able to do that. If we could find a cure for everything, including old age, we would surely cease appreciating how precious life is. There is also little point in living longer if we cannot live better. The increasing number of older people with dementia surely tells us this. 
A week or so ago someone was being interviewed on the television news service about some research being done on the brain. He was asked how much we knew about the brain. His reply would probably have startled many people because he said, "Almost nothing."
And perhaps that is one reason why living things are so interesting and why we have so many people interested in trying to find out more. It is because we do not know - and that can be the most interesting thing of all.

Monday 20 May 2013

Milk has become an

issue - again.
One of the farmers to the south of us has become fed up with the poor quality of the product available on the supermarket shelves. His cows produce better milk than that and he believes it should be made available. 
Of course there are all sorts of rules and regulations surrounding the supply and consumption of milk so he hit on the idea of selling shares in a cow and allowing people to profit from their share - in the form of milk.  The government is not happy. I doubt he will be able to continue.
The reason of course is that the milk is not pasteurised, nor has it had the cream skimmed off.  People who drink it might become ill - or fat - or both.
When we lived in an adjacent dairy farming area we bought milk directly from one of the farmers. Our family of six consumed a gallon of milk a day. We ate it on cereal or as porridge and drank glasses or mugs of it for breakfast. We consumed more at the mid-morning school break, at lunch time, after school, at the evening meal and before we went to bed.
My brother would go down the road to the dairy every morning, rain or shine or hail. It was about three hundred yards down the road I suppose. He would take the "billy" and, if the farmer was not there, help himself from one of the big churns and then wash the big dipper in scalding hot water and leave the money on the shelf above the churns. 
When he brought it home my mother would heat it in a huge pan on the woodburning stove and, when she judged it was sufficiently warm to have killed off anything that needed to be killed off, it would go in the refrigerator. The cream would settle on the top and she would remove that later. 
As children we just drank it. My parents drank it too. We were all so busy and active that none of us had time to be fat. The only time we saw the doctor was the visit by the school doctor. The local children were almost never ill either. We did not become ill because of the milk and I can only remember one overweight child. He had what I now know to be a glandular condition.
And the milk tasted good. (The cream tasted even better.) It was not white but pale cream in colour. It was not watery thin but creamy thick.  Did it clog our arteries and do dreadful things to other internal organs? Perhaps it has - but we liked it. 
I can understand the fuss the government is making. There are people there who worry about our health. They take on the responsibility for keeping us healthy. It would be impossible to have a lack of regulation and people getting ill. It might lead to law suits and life long injury and... well, you get the picture.
So many other people will never experience the joy of drinking real milk. I have not forgotten it and, although I am good little cat in that I now drink the "light" version, given the chance of drinking just one saucer of real milk, I would drink it again.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Chaos? What chaos?

My sister was supposed to organise my youngest nephew into delivering me and the six large (and I mean large) bags of yarn to the mini-market venue yesterday. Did she want me to remind her? No. She would remember. 
Except that, she didn't. 
My nephew is an "on time" sort of boy. His mother has never been an "on time" sort of person. I think that both her children have rebelled against this. They both tend to be "on time" sort of people.
When he had not arrived I phoned. Fortunately he was home and was up and dressed and, when told what had happened, said,
"Not a problem, be there in five." Well it took slightly more than five minutes but it was pretty close to it.
He loaded the bags in the rear and we went to the venue. He unloaded. Helped put up a few trestle tables for us and disappeared. All that wool was not his idea of fun. As he left he said to me,
"Mum will be home in the afternoon. Ring her if you need a ride home." Right.
A good friend helped me unpack, put what we could on the table and the rest in the open bags (which were more like sacks) on the floor. Fortunately they were clear plastic so people could see they contained more yarn. 
I put up the notice that said the proceeds from this stall were going to the African charity. The Senior Cat's pens went next to the notice. The coned yarn went on the other side. We had full packets of yarn on the trestle. Organised. 
Other people were coming and going with all sorts of yarn and knitted items.  I kept my eyes averted. I do not need more yarn!
We were supposed to open at noon but some people were still unpacking. This was not their fault. The same hall is used for a dance class in the mornings and access to it is always delayed. Several Guild members had brought visitors. They had already begun to wander around. One or two of them helped stall holders. In order to be fair though there were no sales until we opened.
Eventually we did. 
I wondered if I would manage to sell anything at all. The Guild has been given yarn recently. Much of it has come from several deceased estates. It has been sold at low prices and the proceeds have gone to the Guild. Most Guild members suffer from what we fondly call "SABLE" - (Stash Advancement Beyond Life Expectancy). Nevertheless I had hopes of the general public who might wander in. 
And wander in they did. There must have been some word-of-mouth advertising in the adjacent shopping centre because people said, "I was doing some shopping and..."
Good. We were kept steadily busy throughout the day. The twelve pens the Senior Cat had made sold quickly. The yarn was picked up and put down and then picked up by someone else. I had kept the prices low - better to sell it than bring it home? I thought so. One woman bought a big skein of yarn saying, "I have a room full of wool but I have to have this..."  I know she has a room full of wool - more than anyone else I know.
Other people bought yarn when they realised that the proceeds were going to help children. Some bought because they liked it others had a specific project in mind or because they thought a couple of balls might make a beanie or go with something they already had. I think it also sold because it was good quality yarn. I hope people were happy with their purchases.
I went with six large bags and came home with just one. It was mostly coned yarn and just a few odds and ends. We can, I think, do something about the coned yarn in another group. 
At the end, after a 10% commission to the Guild, we had raised $542.  I wonder what the other stall holders raised. I did not dare look at some of the beautiful yarn there. (Yes, it was tempting!) 
My sister was, of course, not home when I tried to call her. 
     "I'll take you home Cat. Your sister will owe me - big time," someone told me. It is out of her way but I accepted gratefully. I will try to do something for her later - or perhaps I should get my sister to do it? 

Saturday 18 May 2013

Today I am planning to spend the afternoon at

knitting Guild I belong to. It is the one formal "social" group I have joined. I lead a knitting group at the local independent bookshop and do some teaching at the local library. The Guild group is slightly different. 
I believe there is a need to contribute to a group if you belong to it so I act as the Librarian for the several hundred books the Guild owns. It should not be a particularly onerous task but, unlike most libraries, I need to know the content of the books because I am more likely to be asked, "Cat have we got a pattern for..." or "I have X wool and I want to make..." etc. Yes, most people knit to patterns. There are very few people who do not. I understand that even though I last used a pattern (and adapted that) when I was in my teens. I am, quite simply, too lazy to use a pattern. It is too much work.
Today though the Guild is having a mini-market open to the public. The "library" will not be open.
I am hoping to sell some yarn, mostly wool and wool/silk mixtures. It was given to me some time ago. It was given to me by someone I did not know at all. A friend 'phoned and asked if she could pass on my number to someone "who's got some wool and stuff they want to get rid of. I suggested you might be able to use it for the kids".  
This sort of thing has happened before. It is usually because someone is clearing out a cupboard, has decided they are not going to knit whatever it was they had started, is going into a nursing home and will not have the space (or perhaps the time and energy) to go on knitting all they have. People give it to me "for the kids" - by which the mean the unaccompanied children my friend in Africa cares for. 
I have no idea how people believe I would actually be able to knit all they give me. I am not a fast knitter, not nearly as fast as people who have more time than I do to spend at the craft. Some people do understand that and I try to explain to others. I tell them I will try and sell whatever they have given me and donate the money instead. Nobody has objected so far. Most people seem more than happy it is going to be used in some way. 
This last time though even I was stunned. There was a knock at our door and someone stood there surrounded by four large black bags - the sort you use for garden rubbish. Each of them was about two thirds full and then tied at the top.
      " are the person who will take the wool?" he asked. I nodded and managed to say "Yes. Please come in."
He hestitated and then said, 
       "I have to get a box as well."
He dumped the four bags inside the front door and dashed off. A moment later he came back with a box, fortunately it was a small box.
      "That's just a few patterns and needles and stuff. If you can't use any of it then just give it to someone who can."
       "That's very generous of you," I told him.
He shrugged and said, "It belonged to my Mum and and my wife. It's nice to think it is going to be used for those kids.  I can't stop."
He was gone. The only thing I knew about him was his first name. He obviously did not want to hang around.
I thought the bags would be full of the usual cheap acrylics that people want to get rid of because they have discovered it is not nice to knit. We donate most of that to people who knit small blankets for animals. 
This time though it was different. There was some beautiful yarn there. Most of it was no more than a ball or two but there were several unopened packs of yarn and some other garment sized lots. I have sorted, labelled and priced. I hope I can sell at least some (and preferably most) of it today. 
I know that, if I do, there will be people who will be asking for patterns and help at our little library. I won't mind in the least. The money will be helping to keep "the kids" warm in other ways.

Friday 17 May 2013

I have been roundly criticised

for "criticising the Budget"...except that I did not actually criticise the Budget at all.
Oh yes, there was that letter I wrote to the paper and several people I know whose views lean to the far left of politics were not happy about it. I can understand that they may have seen it as an attack on the man dubbed "the World's Greatest Treasurer".  He can do no wrong in their eyes. 
And then there were some others who are worried it might mean that those nice little handouts and union perks they have been getting might just disappear. Perhaps they have cause to be worried - or have they?
Someone, who was criticising me, complained that the Baby Bonus was going to be removed in the middle of next year and "that means we will have to start a family now so we get it". Muddled thinking methinks...and nature may not allow it anyway. 
It all puzzles me. If I have choice say between buying a loaf of bread which I need in order to feed myself and the Senior Cat and buying a bar of chocolate then I know I should buy the bread. The bread may actually be more expensive - to begin with. Although it may be more expensive initially it will sustain us longer, provide better fuel and allow us to work so that we can earn the money to have the chocolate bar sometime later. 
Governments do not seem to work like that. They want to provide the chocolate bar so that people will vote for them. They are only interested in the short term. 
I said this and I have been criticised for saying it. Criticism comes with the territory if you write letters to the paper. Other people get criticised too. Oh well.
Perhaps I should have said more about the Budget than I did. Perhaps I should have said that I still do not believe the NDIS - or Disability Care - is going to happen in the way that the government is claiming it will. No government is going to find the continuing funds for the level of care they claim Disability Care is going to provide. I also believe that the money they are taking from universities and re-directing to earlier years of education is nothing more than politics. We don't need smaller classes in schools. We need better classes - and that means better teachers and a different philosophy of education. Better teachers are better trained. It means that current teachers get ongoing training and new teachers get a much more rigorous course. It means that schools concentrate on the basic building blocks of learning and that children are expected to work there - and not just be entertained.
And, if we want people to go to work, we have to make it possible to employ them. If dairy farmers need to employ several people for ninety minutes on each milking shift and have no work for them outside those times can someone please explain why they must be employed for a minimum of three hours? If the farmer can find people willing to work those shift times (and some will and then go back to growing blueberries in the district I am thinking of) then surely it makes sense to be able to do it? There are many other similar examples. We have over-regulated to the point of ridiculous in the misguided belief that we are somehow protecting people by "safeguarding their rights". We aren't. We are destroying their chances. Oh yes, there needs to be a watchdog of some sort but it should be a conciliatory one not an armed guard ready to shoot. 
So, there you have it. I think bread is more important than chocolate (although I happen to like chocolate). I know this is very wrong of me and that every flavour of politics likes the chocolate coating most. 
Now I meekly await your criticism.  

Thursday 16 May 2013

It is possible to hear some very curious

conversations in the waiting room of the eye clinic of a large public hospital.
I had a follow up appointment yesterday. I dutifully checked in at the appointed time and then sat down in the waiting area. A few minutes later two women came and sat down next to me. 
One would have been in her sixties, the other in her early thirties. They were talking to each other and I did not take much notice until it went quiet around me. I sensed other people were listening too. The one in her early thirties was very earnestly talking about the need to provide her son, who appeared to be a very small child, with "mati" protection, protection against the "evil eye". 
"He has such beautiful eyes you see. People keep commenting on them and I'm sure they're jealous and they wish him harm. I'll just have to get something..."
The conversation continued in this vein until, fortunately for the rest of us, they got called away. 
The couple sitting opposite me looked at each other and looked at me and the man said, "Poor little kid if his Mum really does it."
I suspect she will.
I suspect we all have superstitions - although we may not always be aware of them. We don't see them as being superstitions. 
Superstitions are particularly alive and well in some sections of the community. I am not sure why this should be so in 21stC Australia but it must give them some comfort.
I was called in by the nurse...a sensible, down to earth woman with a sense of humour and a strong Yorkshire accent. She put the necessary drops in my eyes and I went to wait in the next place. The two women were there - and still talking. 
After some time they were called away. I waited. The door to the Registrar's room was open. I was due to see her for the check and I could see the room was empty. Eventually the nurse came back and said to me quietly, "Sorry, doctor's been called upstairs to a serious paediatric emergency."
I told her that was fine and I quite understood. Like everyone else there I was anxious to get away again but, even if it had meant I had to leave and come back the following day, I would not have complained. An emergency in paediatrics is an emergency indeed. Some child's eyesight was clearly in need of urgent attention. 
It was some time later before the Registrar returned. She looked upset but smiled and called me in.
      "Are you all right?" I asked her as she closed the door.
      "No," she told me and then gave me another slightly shaky smile,"Thanks for waiting - and for asking. It's one of those times when I feel useless... "
To distract her slightly I told her about the woman who had been talking about obtaining protection.
"If only it was that simple," she told me, "I wish we could just buy that sort of protection for the child upstairs."
I do too. 

Wednesday 15 May 2013

"The mattress is halfway

off the base again," the Senior Cat tells me, "Can you help me push it back?"
It is not the first time this has happened - and it will not be the last. 
The Senior Cat is an incredibly restless sleeper. He tosses and turns and flings his arms and legs in all directions. He has always done this. 
As a child his mother used to pin the blankets to the mattress in order to keep him covered - after he outgrew her homemade sleeping bags. In adolescence he would wake in the middle of the night feeling cold - because the blankets were on the floor. When he shared a bedroom with a fellow teacher in one of his country appointments before his marriage he nearly drove his fellow boarder mad - somehow they are friends to this day but it is remarkable.
When he married my mother the marriage survived because they spent (most of) the nights in separate beds. My mother would have been a battered and bruised woman because he is so restless. 
The Senior Cat has been known to find himself on the floor -fortunately no damage has ever been done but I wonder at it.  I do not know anyone as restless as he is.
I am not a tidy sleeper myself. I know I am rather restless but I am not as bad as he is. It is as if he has endeavoured to climb Everest during the night.
Fitted bottom sheets have helped a little, at least the bottom sheet is now more inclined to stay on the bed. These days I sneakily turn one of the blankets sideways. There is more to tuck in on each side that way. The blanket stays on a little longer that way. (Yes, forget an eiderdown, quilt or duna. It would not stay put.)
And today is the day I change his sheets. Today I also have a very early appointment at the hospital. I have left strict instructions for the Senior Cat.
I have said, "Please do not try and make your bed with the fresh sheets. I will do that. That way I will know that, perhaps, for one night the bed may stay together long enough for you to get a good night's sleep."
I rather doubt he is ever going to learn to tuck the bedclothes in properly - and then stay there. Perhaps it is impatience to get on with life?

Tuesday 14 May 2013

There was an article in yesterday's

Scotsman saying that 48% of parents surveyed for the study believed that their child should have access to Gaelic language medium classes. A friend, knowing my interest in both the language of my forebears and endangered languages, sent me the link
I must say that 48% seemed rather high to me and the article was a little short on details of the actual research. Nevertheless I can well believe that 48% of parents might believe that Gaelic should be taught in Scottish schools. I believe Gaelic should be taught in Scottish schools - and not just because of some romantic idea that the language spoken by my great-grandparents should be preserved.
There was a time when Gaelic was considered seriously endangered - and perhaps it still is. There are, I believe, only about 60.000 Gaelic speakers. Even if there were 600,000 speakers the language would be struggling. 
What puzzles me is the way that so many people say, "It's a dead language" and "Why bother? Nobody uses it" or "What's the point? Everyone speaks English anyway."
While those sort of remarks are being made there are, here in Australia, quite a number of projects going on which are designed to "save" or "revive" any number of indigenous languages. These are languages which, if there are spoken at all, are spoken by tiny numbers of people - often just a few dozen older people. They are often bound up with all sorts of tribal taboos. In many cases it is simply not possible to get an accurate record of the language. What is being "saved" is what older people are prepared to give the next generation or the researchers. What is being "revived" is often what was collected by missionaries - and much of it is notorious for being inaccurate. 
The languages in question do not have the concepts for living in the 21st C. Those who spoke them did not these ideas. They needed other ideas. Their vocabulary for things like kinship and direction and the natural world are much more extensive because those things were important to their survival. They did not know about modern transport, medicine, computers or the rest of the world. Their languages have not developed to include these ideas. Many indigenous languages do not even have what we would consider to be basic mathematical concepts. They did not need them. English has taken over in order for the speakers of these languages to cope with the world around them and the languages have sometimes disappeared altogether. There is no written tradition which might have helped to preserve the language.
The reality is that we cannot be at all sure what it is that is actually going on in indigenous language research. Those doing it will claim that their work is important and that they have safeguards to ensure accuracy - even when they know that is unlikely. They claim it is important for indigenous Australians to feel proud of their language and learn it - even when there is no guarantee that what they are learning is what it is claimed to be. There is, and will continue to be, an insistence that this work is important and that the languages should be saved, revived, taught and even used.
And so, to go back to Gaelic. It is a language with a much more diverse 21st C appropriate vocabulary, one that has grown over the years despite the small number of speakers. There is a written and oral tradition. It has never completely died out. It is, in very small numbers, still spoken outside Scotland and has a close association with Irish Gaelic. There are much more extensive resources for its preservation and the teaching of it than there are for Australian indigenous languages. 
And any language is another way of thinking, another form of creativity, and a way of viewing the world. It adds a particular diversity and particular experience to the lives of those who learn it. It is, just like the indigenous languages of Australia, part of the human experience. Saving Gaelic is important for that reason alone. 

Monday 13 May 2013

Tomorrow will be

Budget Day. The man who received the title of "the world's greatest Treasurer" will get up in Parliament and deliver yet another inept Budget - this one designed to minimise political damage and win another election. 
Although all the polls are against it the Australian Labor Party has not given up hope - and stranger things have happened in politics. Like elections anywhere else in the world our elections can be (and are) fiddled with. 
But, the Budget. There are some savings which could be made to reduce the size of the deficit. They would be unpopular but they were payments given - by both sides - in an attempt to win votes. 
There was the "First Home Buyers Scheme". That should never have started. People thought they were getting a nice handout from the government. It just raised the cost of housing. That may well go in the Budget. It should.
There is the Baby Bonus. Yes, having a child is expensive. I do not think a cash handout is the answer. Perhaps most people spent it on baby related items but not everyone did. There is also the question of whether, even if children are our future, everyone should be required to pay for what is essentially a personal choice to have children. 
There is paid maternity (and paternity) leave - and now a "Paid Parental Leave" scheme is being touted by the current Opposition. All sorts of arguments are offered about why both parents should go back to work - again at the expense of the taxpayer.
When they do go back there is the Childcare Bonus...taxpayer funded money to put your children into daycare so others can be paid to care for them. 
And it does not stop there because, once you start school, there is the Schoolkids Bonus....and so it goes on.
Of course having a child is a huge financial commitment. They are also, we hope, the future taxpayers and those who will care for us when we cannot care for ourselves. 
I do wonder though at the social economics of all these handouts. Now that mothers (or even fathers) are positively discouraged from staying at home with their children we are losing other things as well. We have lost regular home-cooked family meals using at least some vegetables we have grown ourselves. We have lost the capacity to play in the street with our mothers keeping an eye from a distance while sewing the buttons on the garment they finished making that day. The school canteen is run by a professional (and woe betide suggesting anything but "healthy" food is stocked) and not by "Mum". 
I could go on and on because it seems to me that the social consequences of all these handouts have barely been recognised - if they have been recognised at all. Perhaps they do not matter to other people but I cannot help wondering if our taxpayer funds might have been better spent on something apart from changing the way we live. Was it really wisely spent? Was there another way of doing it? 

Sunday 12 May 2013

I found a photograph of

my goddaughter yesterday. It fell out of a book. I had apparently been using the photograph as a bookmark. I am not sure why. I usually use slips of paper.
The photograph shows her at about four years of age. She is wearing the rather extraordinary garment I knitted for her at the time - designed to keep her warm while ice skating in a New York winter. I can remember her earnest instructions to me.
"Aunty Cat I want animals all over it, lots of animals - and birds."
She got her animals and birds. There is a curious mix of koalas, kangaroos, penguins and parrots and other things. It is a veritable zoo. I remember buying the background yarn - cream wool - and hunting through the household stash for colours that might do. It was a challenge to make but it was fun. The Whirlwind got a similar one some years later - something she refuses to part with although she has long since outgrown it.
I made other things for my goddaughter too. I have another photograph of her wearing the blue cardigan with the white angora rabbits around the border. 
For the last few years they have been living in a tropical climate. Woolly garments have not been necessary. Instead I have knitted for a friend who has severe arthritis. She likes lightweight mohair with deeper than usual armholes. The garments are easy to get on and off and keep her warm. I have knitted for the Whirlwind - and tried to persuade her to learn to knit without success. I have made things for the Senior Cat as well. The rest of the family simply does not wear wool. They do not feel the cold. Our winters are not icy cold. They dive in and out of air conditioned houses and cars and do not appear to notice the temperature in between. 
I still knit. There is always a reason to knit. My goddaughter is off to university in September. Oxford will be cold in winter. She reminded me of this. I have been making three garments for her. They are, to my mind, boringly plain. They are what she asked for. I have no doubt that they will be worn. They will be be "everyday" garments.
But then there is something else she wants. It is small and I may manage to make it before she arrives for a two night stay three weeks from now. It is a an owl. She sent me a photograph. There is a pattern for it but as I do not have access to the right sort of wool I will have to make my own pattern. I think I can. It is a matter of some cables in the right places and some little tufts for the ears. 
It was a relief when she asked for this. It shows that she has not quite grown up yet...and animals and birds are still important to her. 

Saturday 11 May 2013

There is a large fire

still burning out of control in the hills behind us. It is out of control because it is, fortunately, in largely inaccessible terrain. That means that the area is not well populated. That is the "fortunate" part. The unfortunate part of course is that this makes the fire incredibly difficult to fight. 
As of last night one house had been lost and others were under threat but the extraordinary men and women of the Country Fire Service were doing extraordinary things - and I do not use the word "extraordinary" lightly. They take risks. Those risks may be calculated but they are nevertheless risks. They do it to save lives and property. It is NOT fun.
I have written a book about two children who escape from a bushfire by hiding in a railway tunnel. It is not the first book I have written but it is the first book I have made a serious attempt to interest an agent or publisher in - so far without success. I know it may never succeed.
It was based on a story told to me by someone in their twenties. At the age of eleven he had, with his sister, packed the family car and then driven out of danger. They were lucky to survive.
Perhaps one of the problems with the story is that, for many adults, this sounds too unlikely. In rural Australia however many young boys in the 1960's (when the story takes place) could drive. No doubt many young boys in rural Australia can drive now too - most of those who live on farms and stations can drive at an early age. It is not just because of the location they live in but because it is a survival skill in remote areas. Girls would sometimes learn as well, although not as often.
My brother spent weekends on a dairy farm at that age. One of the first things he was taught to do there was to drive both a tractor and "the ute" - the vehicle with the open back into which farmers and workers put everything imaginable. I tried to imagine how he would feel with his hands slipping on the steering wheel in the intense heat.
I wonder too whether what I have written is considered to be "too confrontational". Is the subject matter something adults believe children should not be reading about? There is death and destruction in the story - but death and destruction happens during bushfires. It happens in other books too - but often in "fantasy". Is it less real in "fantasy"? I don't know.
The experience of writing it was brought back to me as I was reading the media reports of the fire behind us. We know people in the area. Fortunately we know that they, and their properties, are safe. It might easily have been otherwise. I wonder if I would feel differently about what I had written if they were not. Somehow though I think I would feel even more determined to find a way of letting more children read it. 
Of course it might just be that the book is "not good enough". I don't believe that or I would not have written it or tried to interest others in it. How long should I go before I give up? I think the answer has to be that, like the firefighters, you cannot afford to give up until the fire is out.

Friday 10 May 2013

There was no "internet"

when I began my teacher training. There was still no internet when I went to university. 
The teacher training establishment I attended had a small library housed in a "double unit" - a "temporary" wooden structure which was twice the size of the classrooms. It served about a thousand students.
I suspect most students never went to the library. Some students may not even have been sure where it was. It was possible to get through your course relying on textbooks, passed on from one year to the next, and chatting to fellow students to find out what should be said in your essays. 
Most of the chat was done over cups of tea and coffee in the canteen - another double unit. Small groups would get together with the question which had been set, decide how it was to be answered according to the lectures which had been given and then write it up. It did not seem to bother the staff that the answers they read were all almost the same and a regurgitation of the lecture material.
The students who did this were the "bonded" Education Department students who were being paid to attend. I was not one of those students. I was working my way through college - as a junior housemistress in a boarding school (which paid me by giving me board and lodging) and tutoring. I used the library. 
One of my English teachers in secondary school had taught me how to write a reference and the importance of acknowledging where I had got my information and ideas from. I think I puzzled the staff back then. They did try to get students to do a certain amount of that sort of thing but I know, from having talked to former students, that many of them never did it. They still passed and that was all that mattered to most of them. The best students (and those who could afford it) were at university. It was the sort of thing that was expected there - but not at the teacher training establishment. 
It seems extraordinary now that the library facilities were so limited and so underused. It seems extraordinary that just a handful of us used the library.
Later I used various university libraries to the full. It was essential. You do not do postgraduate work in my field without reading widely and acknowledging all your sources. Anyone in my position had to spend hours in libraries because there was no other means of accessing the information.
And now it seems that libraries are, once again, not being fully used while the biggest resource - the internet - is being abused. There is a front page complaint in today's paper about students using the internet to "cut and paste" for their essays. They apparently genuinely do not see this as plagiarism or cheating. It is what they were taught to do in primary school, continued to do in secondary school and now do at their tertiary establishments. 
I have also come across it when students have asked me to read their attempts before passing essays in. I frequently question the source of an idea and the words which are used. All too frequently I have to explain that, just because they have found something on the internet, that does not mean it is accurate or that they can use it as their own. It belongs to someone else and they have to acknowledge that.
The Whirlwind and her classmates are taught this at school. It is something her school is very concerned about. The girls are taught about copyright issues, about acknowledging their sources. They are encouraged to use a variety of resources appropriate to their age. It is not easy. Almost all the girls in her school go on to some form of post-secondary education, many of them to university. The school is considered "academic" but there is much more to it than that. The students have been taught from the start. 
I suspect that the front page story today would never have been there if teachers taught students to acknowledge their sources. That is not difficult. What is difficult is using them appropriately - and knowing the difference between using those resources and your own ideas. 

Thursday 9 May 2013

We are apparently going to have a referendum

at the next election. The question will be concerned with whether we should recognise local government in the Australian Constitution.
Australia does not have a good record with respect to passing referenda questions. There have been 44 referenda to date and only 8 of them have been passed. 
One of the difficulties is that the passing of any referendum question requires what is known as a "double majority" - that is the question must be decided by a majority of voters in a majority of the states...a majority of voters alone is not sufficient. 
The last referendum question was on Australia "becoming a republic". It failed to gain a majority of voters in any of the states. 
A previous referendum question on the local government issue was put in 1988. It failed.
Both sides of politics support the idea of recognising local governement and it is easy to see why. It would give the Federal Government a great deal more power. It could bypass state governments to provide local government with finance for a range of things that are now decided on a state level. Voters however are apparently wary of providing the Federal Government with more power.
Putting a referendum question to the people is an expensive exercise. It is cheaper to put it at the same as an election but it is still expensive. Although the issue is supported by both sides of politics it may well fail - because people are wary of giving more power to the government. 
It is also possible that this time we are asking the wrong question. Australia is a country of just 23 million people. It may have a large land mass but it is a small country in terms of population. 
Despite that each state and territory has its own separate government. One state government, Tasmania, has a population of just over 512,000. We also have local government and the Federal government.
It is all ridiculously expensive to run. It was perhaps necessary once when communication had to be by letter and could take weeks. That is no longer the case but we cling to state governments and any suggestion that we do away with them - or the states - is not well received. 
A referendum to remove state governments would fail. It would mean the Australian Constitution would need to be rewritten. Perhaps though it is a debate we should have rather than one which tries to wrest power from the states through a referendum question which might well fail again. 

Wednesday 8 May 2013

It is not "over"

yet. It will never be "over" for some people.
On seeing the news that three young women had been "rescued" from captivity the Senior Cat said to me, "They will never get over it."
He is right. They may learn to live with what has happened to them but it will always be there.
Being kidnapped and held like that would be even worse than being held in prison as an innocent person. At least if someone is held in prison family members will almost certainly know where someone is and that they are alive. 
Kidnapping is different. The questions are different too. Where are you? Are you dead or alive? If you are alive then are you injured or ill? How are you being confined? For writers of fiction it is a scenario with endless possibilities. 
The action usually takes place on the outside - from the point of view of those endeavouring to find the kidnapped person. That's understandable as more can happen there. 
I do wonder though at the mental torture the kidnapped person must go through. "My family does not know whether I am alive" must produce the most tremendous guilt feelings. The girl whose mother has died during her incarceration will almost certainly wonder whether she is responsible for her mother's death - simply because of the worry she caused her mother. All of them will wonder whether if they had tried harder they could have escaped sooner. They may even feel guilty about having betrayed their captors. The human mind does funny things at times.
Returning to the world will not be easy. There will be so many things they are not used to, everyday things like handling money, crossing a road, talking freely to other people, being able to make their own decisions and many more.
It will take months, perhaps years, to sort the mess out and they may always need help. We probably will not learn much more - although no doubt someone, somewhere is preparing to offer a substantial sum for "the story". 
I was reminded however, just as I was reminded when the Dugard and Kampusch cases came to light, of other people in other sorts of captivity we rarely recognise. I remember offering condolences to a woman whose husband had just died. She looked at me and told me she was glad he was dead - and so were her children. They later agreed with their mother. He had held them in a type of captivity for years. He had controlled their every move and watched every cent that was spent. Their house was bare. The children had grown up without toys. He would phone his wife several times a day - at the expense of his workplace. He told her that it was because he cared for her. In reality it was to ensure that she never left the house.
When their lifestyle came to light other people wondered why she had not left him but, now knowing other things, I realise it would not have been a simple matter of walking out on him. He controlled so much it would never have happened. Even now the woman finds it hard to make decisions and to spend money that is not absolutely essential. Her teenage children still do not mix readily but they do have plans for the future.
I know there must be many other families like that, although perhaps few are as extreme. It makes me wonder about the word "captivity". It is a word that few people really understand.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

I am in a growling sort of

mood again. The nice person at the Equal Opportunity Commission phoned me after six last night. Yes, she was still working. I felt guilty that she was still there trying to sort out the transport mess.
It is a bigger mess than ever.
Remember? The trains are not running. I need my tricycle to get to the bus. There is nowhere safe to leave my tricycle and, even if I did, at the other end I am without transport. Walking considerable distances in the city to my most frequent destinations (the hospitals where I am often called on to assist people with communication difficulties) and crossing several very busy major roads in the process is not possible. The buses in the city do not go between those places - or even to those places. 
Those responsible for running the trains were supposed to provide alternate transport for anyone who could not use the substitute bus. Ah yes, you remember that too?
For some reason they decided that the only alternative they would provide was what we call an "access" cab. They made the assumption that, if you could not use the bus, then you must need an access cab. I don't. I know several people, unable to use a bus, who are quite capable of using an ordinary cab. The transport people will not provide these. They insist it must be an access cab. 
The problem is that our city does not have nearly enough of these. At certain times of the day the system is overloaded taking children to and from school and regular workers to work. Those things, quite rightly, have to take priority. I have no argument with that. 
I do have an argument with the insistence that these are what must be used by everyone else requiring transport at this time. The cabs are not available when I, or several other people, need them. Their response was, "Apply for the taxi transport subsidy scheme. You will be eligible for the duration of the line closure."
I have now been advised (as I expected) that I am not eligible for the taxi transport subsidy scheme even for just the few months I really need it .... because the transport people "have an alternative in place". The nice person in the Equal Opportunity Commission agreed we are probably not going to get anywhere. The transport people will say what they have provided is "reasonable". They refuse to respond to questions about arrangements for a return journey and the parameters for use as well.
I expected all of this. The system is clearly designed so that, although technically available, it cannot really be accessed. It would be expensive if it was. 
I am really looking forward to the re-opening of the railway line and the resumption of my independence. In the meantime I am growling.

Monday 6 May 2013

An acquaintance of mine was once stopped

by the Greek border authorities and rather roughly dealt with because he was carrying some suspicious looking tablets. Fortunately for him he was also carrying a letter from his doctor stating that these were his epilepsy medication. Once the letter had been translated to the satisfaction of the authorities he was permitted to go on his way with, he said, apologies and smiles.
Unfortunately for him someone else saw him being stopped, recognised him. inquired of the authorities what was going on and then made an unfounded report to others that he had been stopped for drug trafficking.  The consequences of that unfounded report were massive and almost cost him his job because he was later denied entry into America on the basis of the unfounded report. He was never promoted and was always turned down for other positions. His reputation never really recovered. There was always the question in the minds of some people - "did he or didn't he?" 
The person who made the report went on to have a stellar career and it is unlikely that anyone who worked with him even remembers he made the unfounded accusation which led to so much harm.
They were both at a meeting I had to attend on Saturday. They did not speak to one another. There was no reason why they should. The man with the stellar career was, as always, surrounded by his admirers. (I am not one of them.) The other man was taking time to listen to the almost unintelligible speech of a young profoundly disabled person we both know well. They were sharing a joke of some sort. 
Someone said to me, "T's such a nice guy. He's always got time for other people. He should have married and had kids."
He didn't. His sister, with whom he lives, once told me he lost his confidence after the accusation was made. Living with epilepsy is difficult enough without such added traumas. I am only mildly acquainted with both men but it seems to me a good man was harmed by, at very least, careless words.
I did not say that to the person who was talking to me. It is not my place to say it but when I came home to reports of yet another high profile person being arrested for sexual offences I wondered, what if the accusations now being made are not true? Have those making them any idea the harm a false accusation can cause? 
I doubt the media cares very much. Their job is to sell news, preferably sensational news - and that does not seem about to change. It worries me.

Sunday 5 May 2013

"Cricket, and you have to understand this,"

he told me, "Is an intellectual game. You need to know about psychology in order to understand it."
We were about to start the annual game between the disabled campers, the Girl Guides and the Australian cricket team. I had just been introduced to M. He was in his early twenties. 
Someone had brought him up to the campsite at the racecourse for the day - to act as "coach" to the campers. He wore a wheelchair and an umpire's hat and yes, he knew about cricket. M, I soon discovered, was devoted to the bat and ball and wicket. What little I know about cricket is what M taught me. He taught me a good many other things as well.
Yesterday morning the phone rang and another friend, who has quite a severe speech defect, said, "M's gone." It was difficult to understand her when she was almost in tears. "I wanted you to know from a friend, not see it in the paper."
He had died the day before. We had been worried because he seemed to be losing his memory and, whatever his physical problems, M was a highly intelligent person. An inoperable brain tumour was diagnosed. Fortunately he went quickly. He would have hated lingering and unable to see or hear his beloved cricket.
I knew him for almost fifty years. He spent his working life as the "morgue-librarian" for a newspaper. Under him vast quantities of information were filed and re-filed, added to, cross indexed and goodness' knows what else.  All was helped by his extraordinary memory. Reporters would ask, "What have we go on...?" and a short time later M would phone their desk and tell them, "Come and get it." They knew they had to go to him rather than expect him to wheel himself slowly to them. 
One of them, now also deceased, told me "He's the biggest asset we have. He saves everyone hours of work."
He retired early because his body let him down. Getting to and from work was becoming too much of an effort. He lived alone and, services being what they are, he could no longer rely on people to get him to the office on time. He would go home exhausted. Instead he did advocacy work. He sat on the board of a number of organisations for people with disabilities. He was secretary of the local cricket club and a life member of the state one. He collected cricket books - and other books. He played chess. The internet was his lifeline as it became more difficult for him to go out. He played chess on the internet - often against quite highly ranked players who had no idea who he was. He played Scrabble too - against other quite highly ranked players. When our mutual friend J was alive they indulged in games of three dimensional chess and the game of "Go" via computer. 
E-mails would come from M to me, "Cat, I need to send a letter to... what do you think?" His English was always very precise and formal. Or he would alert me to something, "B is in hospital..." or "D is about to...and needs...." and "Can you write a letter to the paper about..." 
We did not see one another often. He lived one side of the city and I live the other. We were however in contact almost every week, sometimes several times a week. 
It grew quieter just before Christmas. He admitted he was "not feeling too great" and there were times when he seemed to forget things. Those of us who knew him wondered whether it was the onset of Alzheimer's but I thought the pattern was wrong for that because he still seemed as sharp as ever. Then there was a sudden, rapid decline. He could no longer push himself around or see the screen properly. His hearing, never the best, seemed to be going. He was no longer batting sixes in the game of life.
And, on Friday, the cricket was over - but it was a wonderful match. 

Saturday 4 May 2013

Our laundry basket

was a wedding present to my parents. It must therefore be at least sixty-four years old, perhaps a little older.
It is showing its age a little but it is still a perfectly serviceable sturdy cane basket which would have been made by a "returned soldier" at the Royal Society for the Blind. 
He would never have seen his work, or at least never seen it clearly. The basket would have been made entirely by feeling the canes and threading them through each other. 
It is work which required strong fingers but those who did it could never read Braille. Their finger tips were simply too rough to feel the tiny raised dots on the cardboard sheets. 
Other men at the RSB made brushes. They spent their days with pots of glue and small bundles of bristles. They put glue on one end of the bundle of bristles and then fitted them into the holes on the brushes.
It is work which is no longer done here. Is it done in other places? Perhaps. Similar things are almost certainly done in "developing" countries where there are programmes for the visually impaired.
I was taught to read Braille by a man who transcribed music for the blind. He taught a small group of us when I was at boarding school. I think he was required to teach a certain number of people about Braille in order to meet the requirements for some qualification or other. 
I know I volunteered for the lessons and so did a couple of others. The rest of the group was undoubtedly drafted in. I know the boys in the group were not too keen. 
We were, of course, taught to read Braille by sight. I think everyone else in the group read it in the normal way - from left to right. I know I turned the sheets over and read it the way it would have been written - from right to left, punched out one dot at a time with a special awl. It was a long, slow process to fill even one page of the light cardboard being used. 
There are other ways of writing Braille now. I have a Braille font and I could, if necessary, write something in that font and somewhere a machine would turn it into Braille which could be read by touch. I admit I have forgotten the finer points of writing it, what most of the "contractions" (used to take up less space and providing faster reading) are and how to write the mathematical signs.
But, I once knew these things and what I have not forgotten is how difficult it was and how, as someone who loved and still loves to read, I wondered how people who could not see to read could possibly manage. The idea terrified me.
It was not until later I came across the men making baskets and brushes. They could not even access Braille and, even now, there is a much more limited range of information by other means if you are unable to see.
Someone asked me yesterday, "Why don't you get a new basket?"
No, I don't want a new basket. I hope it lasts for my lifetime. It is a reminder of how fortunate I have been.