Monday, June 30, 2014

Columbo - or How Things Have Changed

Recently on Foxtel here there was a season of the LA based police detective series, Columbo, starring the late Peter Falk. There was a later revival from 1989 - 2003 but the episodes I was watching were from the original 1968 -1978 series.

While we know "whodunit" right from the beginning - we see the crime being planned and committed - it's how it's solved that keeps us entertained. Lieutenant Columbo is intuitive, intelligent, crafty and decidedly scruffy - he claims he can't think without his old and very worn raincoat and he resists attempts by the never seen Mrs Columbo to smarten him up - and he interviews in a polite, bumbling - sometimes apologetic, sometimes obsequious - manner that leads his suspects to think he's stupid. He's anything but that, of course, and he aggravates even more by completing an interview, letting his suspect start to relax then, just as he leaves the room he turns around or comes back in with "Just one other thing…" which inevitably shows up a weakness in the carefully planned cover up. The suspect flounders around trying to find an explanation as to why this happened or he or she is pushed into a foolish mistake as they try to fix the problem.

Columbo was extremely popular and deservedly so. Much of its success stemmed from Falk's clever characterisation and the show attracted a host of well known actors of the day like William Shatner, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Patrick McGoohan, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh as the killers.

Set as they are in the era in which they were filmed, it would be easy to think that these episodes would be dated - and, I suppose, if you're worried about fashion that could be an issue - but the quality of the storylines and the acting mean that this doesn't matter. They are as real in their portrayal as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple murder mysteries originally set in the 1930s but changed to the 1950's for the TV versions or her Poirot mysteries that mostly take place in the years between World War I and World War 2.

But there was one thing that kept reminding me of how much things had changed. It was how people communicated and, particularly, how much more isolated people were. Where we would grab a mobile phone (cell phone for those in other parts of the world) the only options then were a public phone box - good luck finding one of them now, they're becoming more rare by the day and if you do you can't get a mobile number on it - or asking if you can make a call from someone's home or office phone.

I'm old enough to remember when every shopping centre - even the smallest - had public phones and everyone carried enough change to be able to make a call if needed. Even when the first mobile phones came in their bulk and awkward shape meant they weren't popular. Then they started to shrink into something that would fit in a pocket or the smallest handbag and public phones began to disappear. In a time when almost everyone can afford the cheapest pay as you go phone I wonder just how long it will be before they simply vanish completely.

Who knows, with technology getting smaller and smaller maybe at birth we'll end up having to be microchipped with a voice activated, reprogrammable phone connection powered by our movements and we'll see a world where we're all part of a vast interlocking network. Now that is a truly horrifying thought. I think it's time for me to go and try to work out how to use my new phone, which, despite being very basic, requires downloading a many paged user manual before I can even start. Wish me luck.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Here Comes the Night

I came across this extraordinary collection of photos through my friend Dorathy who is kind enough to send me links to all sorts of fascinating websites. I don't know how she finds so many things to excite the imagination but it's a rare day that goes by without something amazing slipping into my inbox and I really look forward to them.

Here Comes the Night, a series of photos all taken just before or soon after sunset, appears on the ABC Open website, along with many other projects where people tell their own and other's stories. I think it's well worth a visit if you're a writer because it's full of images that inspire creativity and we all know how important it is to keep our creativity primed. As writing prompts go it would be hard to beat these photos for sheer beauty.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ouch! Oooooh! Ohh! OW!!!

Did you guess? I'm just back from my Pilates class. Pisces and I decided we needed to add an extra class a week - in his case to try to strengthen his lower back so he can do a bit more and in mine to avoid hip surgery. It's good -  really. It's just that as soon as you reach a level and you're cruising along the physiotherapist ups the ante. This class is more a general one and the fact that the other three women in it could be my daughters - and don't have the same number of physical issues I have  - does make it a tad intimidating but, yes, it's good.

Just over two years ago I was told that the only chance I had of avoiding major surgery on my hips was a serious, targeted exercise programme - and I hate "exercise". Don't get me wrong. I like being active and until my knees and hips packed up on me - thanks (not) for the inheritance whoever you were who brought this arthritic condition into the family line - I loved walking. The dog and I would go for miles but that's a very different thing from repeating some movement over. "Exercise" bores me witless so all that made me begin Pilates was fear that I'd end up completely disabled.

So far, though, it's working. From someone who was in so much hip pain I couldn't lie on my side, making sound sleep only a memory and exhaustion my constant companion, and so unsteady that I had to hang onto something whatever exercise I attempted so I wouldn't fall over, I'm now able to do an hour session without being ready to collapse at the end, my balance has improved and so has my overall strength.

Do I still hate "exercise"? You betcha. Am I going to keep doing it? I certainly am. I'll never be able to run a marathon but I'm fitter and one of the good things I've discovered about small exercise classes is that you build up a relationship with the others in the group and having a chat as you exercise helps to dispel the mind numbing boredom of the repetition. Who'd have thought it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Compulsory Non-military National Service?

I've been hanging off writing this because it was likely to turn into a rant  - but you know what? I don't care any more. This deserves a rant.

What first stirred me up was an interview with Mark Carnegie (he is a venture capitalist) on ABC1's Lateline last week. Then I watched Q&A on Monday where he was expounding his ideas on the panel. You can also get an idea of what he proposes in this interview with him on ABC radio and the interviewer here raises some good points too.

In summary, as I understand it, he believes that there is not enough social commitment in Australia and  in order to increase this we should institute a form of compulsory volunteering. Apart from volunteering - the obvious misuse of the term volunteer which is inherently something freely done irritated me immensely, he suggests a four pronged approach and specifically suggests that while everyone in the community should be involved apart from the ill and children - and how that can be done I don't know - particular groups targeted should be the retired and students where there would be some undefined sharing of wisdom and mentoring.

The thing is that for most people  - you know those who live on a minimum wage and/or work several jobs - even with the best will in the world there simply is not enough time to do more than they already are. Many parents already work for their local P & C or something similar while there is a lot of good will with individuals helping others without recognition. A case in point: when I hurt my back and was unable to do very much at all apart from lying uncomfortably in bed for three weeks a friend, knowing my husband's ineptitude in the kitchen - he's since learned how to cook, thank goodness - arrived one day with a fortnight's supply of meals for the family.

Then we come to the students. I don't know about you but I've been appalled to hear university students saying, "I'm studying full time and working full time." but it's very common among those without the back up of parents able to support them. The irony is, of course, again the misuse of language. By definition you cannot be doing both full time unless you are attempting to do twice as much as any one person should be required to. And these people don't have enough of a social commitment, do they? I wonder why.

Then we come to the retirees - and this is when I found myself getting really annoyed with Q&A especially when some smart mouth made a crack about how he belongs to Rotary and spends a lot of time with 60 year olds helping them with their computers. How arrogant and insulting. Yes, there are  certainly 60 year olds who don't get on well with computers but I could name - but I won't because they wouldn't ever talk to me again - younger people who can't cope with computer problems on their own but, since they are working, they call on tech support and get their advice that way instead of asking someone else they know.

But that's a distraction. The truth is the majority of retirees who are fit enough are already actively involved in volunteering or are actually providing free services which would otherwise have to be funded by the community.

To prove my point I went to the membership list of a small organisation I belong to. This is a disparate group, mainly women and most of whom are retired. What brings them together is a common interest. Of the twenty or so members well over half are currently providing free day or after school care for their grandchildren on a regular basis and a number are, in addition, caring for ageing parents. Some also assist others in the community who are unable to do everything for themselves. For example they give lifts to those who can't drive or use public transport, they shop for them and they all mentor others in their area of expertise. Pity they're so unengaged with the community, isn't it.

Then there's another group of twenty I belong to. This one is mixed, mainly couples, with all but two retired or semi retired. Guess who are the free day care providers for their youngest grandchildren, pick up from school and care for older children and step in a child is ill and can't go to school - and many of whom are also caring for elderly parents? As well, several are full time carers for disabled partners who would otherwise need to have services provided for by the government.

The thing is we never see or hear of these people because as a society we don't record this data. Grandparents caring for their grandchildren? That's just what grandparents do. Looking after your old parents? You want a medal or something? You're a full time carer for your wife or husband or disabled child? Well, you did it. You committed. Suck it up.

So while I applaud the idea of encouraging people to give back to the community I have to say that making a compulsory, one size fits all system is in my view ridiculous until or unless we actually look at what people are already doing. Without that we're just running up thought bubbles based on our own experience and, if that experience is one of privilege, we really have no idea of what is actually happening in the wider community.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Birdsongs of Australia

An interesting link came up in my newsfeed today about the birds of Australia. Apparently the early settlers were appalled at what they considered to be noisy, loud and harsh sounding birds as opposed to the softer, more melodic songs of their native England. Really? The perception wasn't helped by the fact that some birds can be aggressive in nesting season, I suppose, but all I can say is they don't seem to have been paying much attention to their surroundings.

Yes, there are definitely some harsh sounding birds. The Australian raven with its loud caw is one as are the deafeningly noisy rainbow lorikeets. Rainbow lorikeets are brilliantly coloured - a flock is a visual feast - but are not pleasant neighbours for other birds because they toss the eggs and chicks out of nests to take over the hollows they like to breed in. Apart from their noise, they're also highly destructive of fruit crops so they're not the most popular of species here in the West where they aren't native but aviary escapes that have established themselves and are pushing out our local ringneck parrots. The red wattlebird is pretty harsh too. Even the famous kookaburra isn't exactly melodious.

But there are some lovely birdcalls too. The local ringneck parrot I mentioned above - known here as a twenty eight because of a distinctive part of its call, is one. I couldn't find a decent recording of it unfortunately. Then there's the Australian magpie that I wrote about a while ago. Its choirs on a moonlit night - they live in a family group of twenty or more - are sublime and, although they aren't nocturnal, they can't seem to resist a full moon. This is only a sample.

Another favourite of mine is the pied butcher bird and then there are the honey eaters, wrens and fairy wrens of which this fairy wren is only one of many. Beautiful, isn't it, and there are so many other different species, all unique and lovely but I'd be writing for hours to cover them all so I'd better stop.

Have a look here if you want to find out more. It's not exhaustive but gives a good starting point.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Duolingo Two Years On

I've been studying French and German for the past two years via Duolingo, a free immersion language learning website. I had learned German at school and even did a first year unit at university, unlike French which I only took for one year at secondary school plus a later one year adult education course in conversational French.

Admittedly, this was a very long time ago and all the German I've had any contact with in the last thirty years - despite having a family member who comes from Austria - has been subtitled programmes on SBS, the Australian national television channel which caters for non-English speakers as part of its remit, and I've had even less to do with French.

Still I thought the basics of German at least would still be there and initially I was right. I powered through the first ten sections, testing out after a few lessons. It was great. Then I realised that I wasn't retaining all the changes in the language - and there were many since I had last done any German study.  Some were subtle variations in nuance but some were more dramatic. There were words that hadn't even been thought of - computers and health insurance, anyone - and others that had changed in usage or even spelling.

French was even worse. I found I remembered very little apart from greetings, counting one to ten and basics like please and thank you. Testing out was a fantasy because, although I often did, it was not based on any real understanding. Actually, it was often more luck than anything else.

So I went back to basics in both languages and started over. Now I resist the addictive urge to keep on doing lessons - one of the most appealing things about Duolingo is the way the lessons are structured so it feels like a game and it's very easy to get caught up - and make myself really learn each section. This means I've slowed down dramatically in my progress up the "tree" but it also means I have a much better grasp of the language. I'll probably take another year to reach the end of the course but that's okay because I'll have a good understanding of the language.

So is Duolingo the perfect learning system for languages? I can only speak for myself here but, much as I am enjoying my experience, as far as I'm concerned there are a few things I'd like to see changed. Because it is immersion - you read, hear and practise speaking the language and are supposed to learn it from that - very little grammar is explained and, for me, that doesn't always work. There is a comment section and there are knowledgable moderators in each language who answer questions in this section but the answers can get lost in lengthy threads. I need to know why something works as it does and that's meant tracking down other sources. Not an insurmountable problem in these days of internet searches - all Duolingo students have their own favourite links and many share them with the community - but one extra step to factor in. I'd like to see a comprehensive list of all the words I've learned, too, something that was there but has been removed for some reason.

That aside, there's much to like. It's free, there's an inclusive and supportive community, the lessons are fun and I've learned an immense amount in a relatively short time. I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Remembering D-Day

Please don't think I'm using the link I'm giving below because I'm being lazy. It's just because we've had so many remembrances of D-Day lately that I wanted something to summarise what war is and does to people's lives.

The many documentaries we've been seeing over the past week have all dealt with the horror that is war in meaningful ways - the memories of those who survived the D-Day push on to the beaches of Normandy, the mistakes and the successes as the Allied troops fought their way in from the coast and the final capitulation of the Nazis much later - and it's not that there's anything wrong with showing us these things. I'd hope that examining all aspects of the war would teach us something - like maybe not letting it happen again. Yes, that's a forlorn hope I know. That famous quote (by George Santayana, I think) about how those who don't study history are bound to repeat it may be very true but, for some reason, there are always people who think it will be different for them and the rest of us suffer for it.

But, however genuine the attempts of the documentary makers, they are constrained by the medium. They have to cut and edit vast amounts of material to fit their time slot whether it's a one hour one off or a series - and, let's be fair, they also have to keep their audience - a generation that expects brief, quick and pithy comment and demands excitement to keep them from glazing over (Even documentaries have to catch the attention in some way. For much of the past week I've been seeing promo for an archaeological dig with snippets that make it look as if it's full of thrills and resolves a mystery that's been intriguing people for centuries. Trouble is these highlights are stage managed with people racing around and the camera fortuitously focussed on the site at just that moment when something has been discovered - and, for the record, the mystery in question is still just that - a mystery.)

I wanted to show you something that reflects the reality of war but not in a documentary sense. This extraordinary video does that because it's art. Facts are all very well - I'm a history major so I love my facts and evidence - but great art speaks to the spirit. Even if it depicts an event it's much more than the bare bones of what happened. It makes us feel. This artist reduced her audience (including me) to tears. Have a look and see if it does the same to you.

Kseniya Simonova - Sand Animation

Sunday, June 08, 2014


I've been sick - sick enough that all I've had the energy to do is lie in bed and sleep or watch mindless television - except when I've been flicking through my Facebook newsfeed. That is where I found some stunning photos of various clouds, many of which I've never even heard of and that then set me off looking for more. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

First we have mammatus clouds. Then there are lenticular clouds and roll clouds and if you want to see more have a look here and here, where there is a stunning gallery of images. Fascinating, aren't they.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Spam, Spam , Spam

So I made the mistake of removing Word Verification from my blog.  A number of visitors commented that it was annoying and I totally understand that. I find it annoying on other blogs too, especially when it is hard to read and I find myself having to do it several times. As well, I was told by much more successful bloggers than me that "most bloggers" - the blogging equivalent of the "cool kids" - were abandoning it. Well, I thought, they should know so I removed it but a modicum of sense prevailed in that I decided to keep moderating comments.

Just as well, it turned out. Ever since I removed word verification I've been inundated by spam - some vile, most irritating and some simply baffling. So I've had no choice but to reinstate word verification as of today. I hope it improves things and that it doesn't put you off commenting here because I'd love to hear from you.