Sunday, July 19, 2015

Crash, Scam, Repair, Buy, Sell & Another Scam, Police Photo Lineup

Crash
I was driving home at 10:30pm Thursday May 21 after a Royal Arch chapter meeting and dinner in Petersham. I had one small bottle of low-alcohol beer with my modest dinner, and was alert and in good spirits, wearing my dinner suit. I had just turned off Canterbury Road into Wardell Road, travelling South, and driving quite conservatively (one of the few things I do where I consider myself as a conservative).  

Out of a side street (Morgan Street) from the left, going full bore, a motorcycle with no lights on pulled out in front of me. I wasn't going very fast, but at his speed, I don't think he could have negotiated the turn whether I had been there or not, regardless. I swerved right into the oncoming traffic lane and hit the brakes. He ditched the bike and came off it landing himself in the middle of the road. The bike went under my front left wheel, my left wheels rolled over it, it flipped up, and went through the back window.

I got out of the car and ran over to where the rider was sitting in the middle of the road. I said "Are you hurt, are you OK?". He didn't have a helmet on, nor leathers, just some dark clothes.  He was a young fellow, aboriginal features, maybe 20 years old.  He got up, didn't say anything to me, maybe mumbling something, then turned away from me, and walked away down the street.  I called out to him "Come back, you could be hurt!"  He just kept walking.  I called out again "Mate! Please come back!", but he just walked off into the dark and disappeared.  One of the local residents came up to me and asked how I was.  I said I wasn't injured, albeit a bit shook up, and more concerned for the other fellow. He had seen me calling to the other fellow, and had also called out to him.


I was in a slight bit of shock, so he called the police for me.  I regained some of my composure, and called my friend Justin, who had been at chapter with me that evening (Siew Fong was still in New York).  He drove back, and hung out with me.  One of the other neighbours called a towing company.

Quite a few police came, to my surprise.  They shut down the street, interviewed me and the other fellow, who confirmed my version of events, and breath-tested me (all clear).  They called the dog squad to try and track the rider, & informed me that the bike was stolen.  So we waited for the dog squad to come, and also a police tow truck to collect the motorcycle.  The dog didn't find anything.  They said they were taking the bike for DNA analysis! 

Scam
Fortunately, earlier that week I had read an article about tow truck scams.  When the neighbour's truck arrived, he offered to tow the car for $250 to a 'holding yard', I recognized the scam and declined his kind offer to hold my car for ransom.  He left, a bit disappointed. 

I called the NRMA, who informed me they won't provide tows after collisions.  After a bit of negotiation, I convinced the less than helpful operator to put me through to one of their recommended towing companies.  They sent out a truck.  I thanked Justin and said he should go home.  The truck arrived, and the driver informed me his truck wasn't licensed to tow collisions.  He did move my car to a side street.  The police left.  The truck driver called for a collision licensed truck, and said it would be a 2 to 3 hour wait.  I didn't want to wait until 4 or 5 in the morning, so I cancelled it. 

At about 2:30am I collected up all the personal items in the car into a couple of shopping bags.  I was able to catch a cab after a couple of minutes & went home.

The next morning I collected the jumper cables out of Siew Fong's car, and went to a meeting in the city.  I called my boss from the city, who told me she would collect me after the meeting.  She drove me to the car.  In daylight I assessed the car as drive-able, removed some hanging bits, & we jump-started it.  I drove it home.

Repair
My car was nothing special, a bog standard white 2002 Corolla hatch, 148,000 km on the clock, very reliable, very cheap to run and maintain, regularly serviced.  It had a few scratches and little dents, and was the cheapest car my ego would permit.  I had bought it used at the auctions in 2004. Given its age and resale value, I only had 3rd party liability insurance on it.

I called my mechanic, who gave me reference for a reputable smash repairer in Hurstville.  I took it to him, and he quoted me $2500 to do the basic repairs.

I wasn't sure the car was worth repairing, so I called up a friend from my lodge (Jimmy) who sells used cars, for his advice.  The damage had been cosmetic, not structural.  He said the car was definitely worth fixing up & selling. He offered to organise a much cheaper repairer and detail for me, so I drove it out to his yard, left it with him & took the train home.

I filed a claim with my insurance company, because the policy said it would still cover me in some circumstances, and I didn't want them to ever to decline a future claim saying I hadn't been fully forthcoming about driving incidents.  They called me back to say I needed to get the details of the other driver for them to cover me.

Buy
I needed a car, so I went down to the Pickles auction house to see what they had in stock.  They had a few set price cars that worked for me, but nothing for auction.  They wouldn't allow a test drive, so I went to a Toyota dealer with a big sign inviting me in for a test drive.  They also had a used car advertised that fit the bill, but it was already sold, and I wasn't willing to be up-sold.  I went back to the auction house & bought one of the hybrid Camrys I had looked at.


Sell & Another Scam

A few weeks later Jimmy called me and said the Corolla was ready.  He suggested selling it on Gumtree.com.au (similar to Craigslist).  I did some research on similar cars, took some photos, and set the price to $5499 (because I actually wanted $5000). 

The next day I got an email from some guy on an oil rig off New Zealand wanting to buy the car as a graduation gift for his son in Perth, WA.  I emailed him back to advise the car still smelled a bit & had been in an accident, thus not appropriate for such an important gift.  He came back saying he still wanted the car, full price, and was sending an agent to ship the car to WA.  I thought this a bit odd, so I called Jimmy, who said it was a well known scam (a quick Google search confirmed this).

I got lots of text messages over the week. All asking my lowest price. One insisted he would buy the car, to not sell it to anyone else because he had to have it, but never showed up. Then there was this guy who SMS'd me 5 days after the initial posting:
Received from buyer:    Hi        
Received from buyer:    Is your car available for sale
I reply:    Yes it is.  Please come and have a look at it.
Received from buyer:    The last price how Mach  sell
I reply:    $5100 
Received from buyer:    I have 4000 only sell if I bought
I reply:    No
Received from buyer:    4200$
Received from buyer:    ??? 
I reply:    $5100     
Received from buyer:    I can pay 4500$ A da you OK I will get you four o'clock pm 
Received from buyer:    I've got only $ 4,500 and another price I pay you if it agrees Send jQuery
I reply:    Sorry, I have already declined better offers. It is a good car, & I am in no hurry to sell.
Received from buyer:    I spoke with another person is has the same car
Received from buyer:    He told me Come taken
Received from buyer:    4500
Received from buyer:    But you're close to my house you just one hour  and he two hours
At this point he sends me 2 images of advertisements for someone else's similar car.  And the other car was actually much closer to his home in Fairfield.
I reply:    I wish you well with your purchase in Bass Hill. You got a bargain.
Received from buyer:     I Liked so your car 
Received from buyer:    Can you send me your home address I'll pay you 4700
I reply:    You are welcome to come and inspect the car, but I will not take less than $5100. The address is ... ...
Received from buyer:    4800$ Please 
I reply:    I am not a car dealer, nor do I haggle.  The price is $5100. Do not waste our time if you are unwilling or unable to pay the price for the car.
Received from buyer:    Ok
Received from buyer:    I will get to your home 3:30pm
Received from buyer:    Hello      
Received from buyer:    I arrived at the home title

He came with a mechanic friend of his and the other guy's wife.  They inspected the car, had a test drive, and offered me $5000 cash, which I agreed to.  They drove off into the sunset.

Police Photo Lineup
This week I got a call from the police, wanting me to come in to examine a photo lineup.  I agreed.  They filmed me while I looked at the images (I'm not allowed to say whether I picked one or not).  I had to complete a few written statements, and had a nice conversation with one of the constables.  I wasn't expecting the police to put much effort into this event, so I was quite surprised - the constable said they do this for all cases.

Epilogue
So I sold the car for a fair price, the purchaser got a good reliable car,  I now have a new-ish much more fuel efficient ride.

I don't hold any animosity towards the guy who stole the motorcycle & ran into me. I feel sorry for him, disappointed he has made such poor choices in life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Japan, a refreshingly interesting place

Why We Went
A few months ago, We offered Leah the opportunity to choose our next holiday destination. Being a fan of Japanese youth culture, she chose Japan. Knowing very little about Japan, aside from positive reports from friends who had recently been there, and an expectation that everything would be very expensive, we agreed. So we had 2 weeks, with the bulk in Tokyo, some day trips to Nikko and Nara, and 3 days in Kyoto.

Civilization
Japan seems very civilzed. Well organised, clean, and polite. Regardless of some minor discrepancies, it is very pleasant, and feels safe.

Crowds
Some specific places were very crowded, such as Takeshita-dori (the teeny bopper shopping street on the weekend), but for the most part, Tokyo didn't seem like a densely populated space. In fact, at 8:45am Monday in the city, there seemed to be fewer people than in Sydney on a Sunday morning.

Politeness & Consideration
People are generally very polite and considerate, and forgiving of travellers who don't speak Japanese. This differs greatly from the rest of Asia. I would be keen to know where this comes from.

On the trains, there were announcements to switch mobiles to silent mode. People bowed from time to time.

Bicycles on footpaths
Cyclists seem to avoid the streets, even though traffic is relatively light, & ride on the footpaths instead. This feels very hazardous for pedestrians.

Pedestrian Crossings
There were uncontrolled (no lights) pedestrian crossings everywhere, but they didn't appear to have any effect on whether cars would stop for you. People didn't seem to jaywalk though, & many of the traffic signals were very slow to change, given the small amount of traffic. Many of the crosswalk lights had a visual indicator to show how soon the light would change.

Informative trains & lots of guide maps
Almost all of the train doors had some kind of indicator, showing direction of travel, upcoming stations, which side of the train to exit, time to stations, etc. The video screen indicators often displayed information on disruptions on other lines. There are clear maps showing the station facilities, exits and surrounding areas, including points of interest. Sometimes though, maps were not oriented with North up. Similar maps were frequent in parks and on streets.

Efficient Trains
The trains are very frequent and timely. On some lines, trains come every 3 to 5 minutes, even on a Sunday. Rides were smooth. The Suica tap on tap off stored value cards made ticketing brainless, displaying balance & charge when passing the barriers, but also made it too easy to ignore the sum costs of travel.

Shinkansen
The 'bullet' trains. Very smooth and quiet when you are on one, but quite noisy when they pass you. Ours was moving up to 250kph, with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, a luggage rack above, tray tables, cup holders, power points, magazines (airline gadget type), and clean & spacious toilets.

Shell "Museum"
At Odaiba island we saw big signs for the Shell Museum, so we thought we might see some information on oil production, or perhaps some history of the company or the industry. This was at the ground floor of the Shell Oil corporate office building, so we expected a significant spin on the presentation. What we didn't expect was a couple of glass display cases (within the staff cafe) with some key chains for sale. That was it.

The "Takoyaki Museum" was a food hall, and the Drum Museum was a drum shop. I'm glad we didn't go out of our way to visit the Luggage Museum. The Parasite Museum, albeit small, was authentic & interesting, and I doubt we aquired any of their subjects.

Pachinko & Slot Machines
We passed by quite a few pachinko parlours on our travels. From outside one could hear a dim rumbling sound. Inside was thick cigarette smoke, along with the loud cacophony of tens of thousands of steel balls bouncing about at once, combined with the electronic noise from the machines. There were also floors of slot machines. The machines just seemed to be some non-sense video, with no actual game.  The patrons had zombie-like attention focus.

Cheap Eats
Food is generally quite reasonably priced, except supermarket food. It was easy to find small restaurants everywhere. Vegetables in dishes were infrequent though.

Ticket Food
Many of the smaller restaurants had ticket machines at the door. At these, one deposits some cash, then selects the meals/dishes desired (often with a photo in the button), and take your change with the ticket dispensed. The staff don't handle cash.

Vending machines
Vending machines are everywhere. They seem to sell mostly drinks (iced coffees & teas) for less than the shops. Machines often sell both hot and cold drinks. No shops or actvities seemed to open before 10am and most things were closed at 7 or 8 pm (except for 24 hour convenience stores).

Cigarettes
There are a lot of smokers in Tokyo, and there are even cigarette vending machines (2nd most prevalent after drinks machines). They have smoking lounges in some stores. The pachinko parlours reek of smoke (as did our room, even though we were in a no-smoking hotel). We had dinner in a restaurant that was all smoking (where the waitress said there were no non-smoking sections)! Another place was no-smoking until 7pm, then it was dense haze after that. Cigarettes must be taxed very slightly, as a pack could be as cheap as 400¥.

Then again, it was rare to see any cigarette litter/butts, or any litter for that matter.

Basic hotel with no chairs
The budget hotels we stayed at were very basic (e.g BYO towels) lacking luxury amenities like chairs or towel rails. They were clean, with reasonably well kitted kitchens, & the toilets had those automatic bidet seats. The ryokan hotel we stayed in was very pleasant. The owner was friendly and helpful.

Lots of TV channels, but can only receive 3
The budget hotel TV was able to tune about 20 channels in Tokyo, but could only receive 3 digital channels. Probably because of all the tall buildings.  The content was abysmal, regardless of the number of channels.

Packaging Waste
Everything has at least one extraneous item/level of packaging added. But there are extremely few public places to dispose of all this waste. For a country where efficiency and conservation seem important, this seems odd.

Shrines
It seems everywhere you turn, there is a shrine. And sometimes, you might just run into a portable shrine. In Nikko, there was a Temporary Shrine (built in 1639, talk about positive thinking).

Saving Trees
There was a clear effort in parks and gardens to preserve trees, where bamboo was used to prop up branches. And in most places you couldn't walk on the grass.

Architecture
If extraordinary architecture could visually yell, the noise in Tokyo would drown out hearing most of the great buildings to be found. The outer suburbs appeared grey, dusty and dire, with little or no green space.

Industrial Suburbs
The suburbs of Kyoto seem to sprawl forever, with no rural area to be found. There were a few market gardens, & the odd small farm to be seen from the train, mostly factories and small, grey houses.

Power Poles
There seem to be power poles everywhere. The landscape outside Tokyo is flat in the valleys, with lots of mountains.

Sumo
We spent half a day watching part of a sumo tournament.  We had only planned a couple of hours to watch, but it was so much fun we came back and watched more.  

Teen Culture
Because Leah had planned the trip, we had a lot of opportunities to experience teen culture.

Idol Band Trucks
In districts with lots of retail geared to teen culture, there were often trucks (pantechnicon) driving around and around with images of Idol bands on them, and the band's new album blaring from within.

We enjoyed the trip.  Japan has many cultural differences from Australia, and is very civilized and pleasant.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Healthy Eating During Dry July


I have decided to participate in Dry July for the fourth time.  If you want to sponsor me, go to https://www.dryjuly.com/profile/briankramer

I am not a dietician, nor particularly well versed in the current scientific knowledge regarding food and nutrition.  I am also somewhat overweight, and my cholesterol level is on the high side of normal.  That said, my recent medical checkups have shown me to be moderately healthy for my age in most respects.  So what I say below should be taken with a grain of salt (but only one grain).

July (in the southern hemisphere) is an optimal month to focus on one's weight and health: no alcohol and low temperatures, so you can burn extra energy to maintain body temperature just by doing nothing.

Fat, Butter, Sugar, Salt and Carbohydrates
Food is made up of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, along with other minerals and chemicals.  Fats aren't specifically bad, but have a higher concentration of energy (calories) than carbohydrates or protein per gram.   We have an over-abundance of fats in our food though.  Carbohydrates (which include sugars) aren't specifically bad either, but again, they tend to get added quite over-generously to products.

I think of the 'bad' components of food (e.g. sugar, sodium/salt, fats, chemistry) in terms of radiation.  There is always some background radiation around, and the odd x-ray every few years is OK, but one must be aware what your level of exposure is in total.  So think that in our foods there is always a certain background level of 'bad' components, but some foods (such as processed foods) can have a significantly higher level of this 'radioactivity'.  But unlike radiation, we do need a certain amount of sugar, sodium and fat in our diet,

There is a rule of thumb that if the item is white, it isn't so good for you.  I extend this to thinking that whitish translucent fat such as butter, cheese or the white fat found on meat is probably full of cholesterol too.  Now to completely eliminate these would make your diet very boring and unsatisfying, so it becomes more a game of managing and controlling your level of intake.  Be responsible for it.

It can be quite educational to read the nutritional labels on products.  They may demonstrate a 'radioactive' dimension you weren't aware of.  Or not.

Drinking Healthy
Most packaged drinking options one has when out and about have significant drawbacks.  Usually high levels of sugar or artificial sweeteners (do you really want to ingest something that was processed in a chemical plant or oil refinery?), sodium, or fat.  Options, worst to best:
  • Energy drinks.  The energy come from lots of sugar, and include some dubious ingredients that sound like they came from a chemistry experiment and can't be beneficial to your liver or kidneys.  Also very over-priced.
  • 'Soft' drinks, such as Coke, have a significant amount of sugar.   The non-sugar versions are chock full of sodium and artificial sweeteners.
  • Alcoholic drinks.  While we won't imbibe these during Dry July, it is important to note that the energy density correlates to the alcoholic concentration: Spirits > Fortified Wines > Wines > Pre-Mixed > Beer > Light Beer.
  • Fruit juice.  Fruit with the fibre, some vitamins and nutrients removed.  No more healthy than a Coke really, considering the amount of sugar.  You are much better off eating the actual piece of fruit.
  • Smoothies and fresh mixed fruit juices.  Basically milkshakes, high in calories, and expensive.  Might have a few more vitamins though.
  • Flavoured waters and teas.  Often as much sugar as a Coke.  I still don't understand why they can't sell a flavoured drink that isn't sweetened.
  • Flavoured milks.  Lots of sugar and fat.  The rotting milk residue in your mouth will make your breath smell horrible.
  • Bottled water.  The packaging (this goes for all packaged drinks) is wasteful.  Also, some media has suggested there is more bacteria present in bottled water than tap water (this is of course impacted by your source of tap water and the container you use).  Expensive too.  Whenever I see people out and about with commercially bottled water, those bottles look to me as badges of ignorance. 
  • Coffee and Tea.  In moderation (i.e. 1 or 2 cups a day) these can actually be a good option, as the caffeine will raise your metabolic rate allowing you to burn calories without extra effort.  The teaspoon of sugar you might add is insignificant compared to the sugar in a Coke, so don't bother with the artificial sweetener.
  • Tap Water.  Hard to find, but the healthiest, simplest and cheapest option.
Oh, and if anyone tells you that you need to consume some ridiculous amount of water per day to maintain health, ignore them.  This nonsense has no scientific basis.  Drink when you are thirsty.  If you are thirsty all the time, talk to you doctor about diabetes.

Processed Food
I have a personal distrust of most processed food.  This doesn't include basics such as flour and pasta.  It just seems many manufactured food items have some mysterious components I should know about, but don't want to.

Processed foods often include ingredients that should have stayed in a chemist's lab.   The processing involves the expenditure of energy (more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere), which might have better been expended by your digestive system.  They almost always taste worse than the original ingredients, but do come in colourful packaging!  Very often these have added sugar, salt/sodium and fat.  Sadly, the vast majority of items available in our supermarkets and shops are processed or manipulated in some way.  Some notes:
  • 'Diet', 'Low Fat', 'Low Sugar', 'Low Sodium' Labels: These labels tell me there is something very wrong with this item, either flavour, or the component being reduced has been replaced with something even worse.  Avoid anything with these labels.
  • Sauces such as sweet chilli or soy have high levels of sodium.
  • Salad dressings.  Once you have tasted a low-fat salad dressing, you will wonder how they sell them at all.
  • Take away salads.  Why must shops glop on lashings of greazy, salty, crud onto wilted ingredients?
  • Sausages are processed food, and usually have high levels of fat and sodium.
  • Packaged snacks and candy bars.  Envisage these being produced in a chemical factory.  Even the fats are fake.  Lots of sodium, sugar and fat.  Nothing good will come from consuming these.
  • Yoghurt.  This isn't much more healthy than some milk with sugar.  Not much better than a glass of flavoured milk.  But the bacteria in it might be good for your gut (there is some debate as to whether it survives passing through the stomach), but you only need that once a week or so.  Still, I always have some after a round of antibiotics.  And it does contain needed calcium if you don't like milk.
  • Tofu and other soy products.  These are not specifically healthy, although vegetarians like them for questionable reasons.
  • Anything in a 'health' food shop.  If our species managed to survive millions of years without the nonsense they sell...
  • Shellfish have lots of cholesterol, and eat sewerage.  Can be high in dangerous heavy metals.  Avoid any sourced from outside Australia.
  • Pre-prepared 'deli' items, such as gunk coated chicken skewers, don't have ingredient labels for a reason (and it isn't a good one).
  • Fast foods and take away foods.  These should be fairly obvious to minimise.

So, What Is Good?
  • Unprocessed food, because:
    1. You know what you are eating
    2. No added gunk
    3. Probably more dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals
    4. It may take more energy for you to consume and digest
  • Meat (chicken, beef, pork) with the fat trimmed off.  
  • Steamed fresh vegetables retain most of their vitamins, fibre & flavour.  A tiny touch of sauce or butter can make them more palatable.
  • Salads with a touch of simple, freshly made dressing.  It takes about a minute to make a basic vinaigrette, and costs a fraction of pre-made dressings.  Also you really only need a tiny amount if it is tossed into the leaves properly.
  • Whole fruit.  Takes more energy to chew and digest, so are better than juice.
  • Rice and legumes.  In moderation.  These convert to sugars when digested.
When constructing your meal, try to go heavy on the veg, and light on the meat and starch.

When out and about, the healthiest lunch options I have found seem to be the basic Subway sandwiches, but you need to strongly direct the assembler to not glop on so much greazy sauce.

It is important to consider even good food must be consumed in a balanced and moderate manner.  And one cannot avoid processed and 'bad' foods completely.  But you can reduce your intake of the 'bad' items to a small proportion of your intake, and maintain a diet consisting of a variety of ingredients.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011, A Year Before 2012

What can I say about 2011 that would be interesting, pertinent, and accurate (e.g. what I actually remember)?

Leah enjoyed year 9 at her school, which is very competitive and has high standards. Being a selective school, her cohort is a tough crowd to study with. She performed above average in her subjects, so we are quite pleased with her performance. She doesn't put as much effort into studying as Caelin, but has broad interests and activities, including a new penchant for manga (reading and drawing).

Caelin was in year 11 at school. We didn't see much of her, as she holes up in her room, presumably studying, from the time she arrives home to when she leaves, only slipping out for meals. She had a number of accomplishments this year:
  • Her team won it's debate in a model UN in Canberra (they were representing Israel, and were accused of being Jewish, which is pretty funny given that they were mostly girls of Asian descent attending a Presbyterian school). She also got first prize for public speaking at the event.
  • She passed an assessment for a speaking qualification that allows her to put some official letters after her name.
  • She is the captain of the speech team, and won an award for maths.
  • She also placed first in her year.
This coming year she is preparing for the HSC. There is no indication of a career preference yet.

This week Siew Fong is finishing 23 years at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. She is moving into private consulting (project management). It is a bit daunting, becoming a contractor, but she has always had successful experiences with her clients, so her reputation has some value.

Craft has been a significant distraction for Siew Fong. Many quilts were produced, a supply of pottery manufactured, and garments sewed/knitted/crocheted. Her craft group is a very vibrant and warm collection of ladies.

I continued my masonic journey, being passed to the third/sublime degree of Master Mason in November. It is a lot of fun, I have met numerous interesting people, and have experienced some great cuisines (such as haggis, complete with sword, bagpipes, recitation of 'Salute to the Haggis', and a whiskey bearer).

I started my new job at Jobsupport in earnest. I am a Vocational Training Officer in the Transition To Work (TTW) program. I train people with moderate intellectual disabilities (IQ < 60). In TTW, we do on-the-job work experience training, train independent travel on public transport, and eliminate barriers to employment in the regular workforce (endurance, behaviour, response to supervision, personal presentation, etc.).

My new career is very satisfying, although the pay is just above minimum wage. Most of my clients this year moved into employment, and I have contributed to creating some new opportunities. My IT skills have also been utilised from time to time.

Also I wasted a lot of time developing Android apps for myself. I don't really want to maintain them for the general public, so I am unlikely to release them on the market. I wrote a Yahtzee game, a password generator, a tool to help find lost clients, a flashcard/hymnal app, and a tool for filing my timesheet/planner at work along with recording my travel expenses.

I still do most of the cooking. My new pie is very tasty.

So that was 2011. There were some dramas, none worth mentioning though. Time passes quickly now. What's in store for 2012? The HSC effectively precludes us from taking any big family trips. I hope to create some good opportunities for clients, and perhaps some effective tools to assist in their training. Siew Fong's career change may be a bumpy ride, so we are being financially cautious/conservative. I feel the world as a whole is on the edges of some large social, economic and environmental changes, so I feel safe to make the following predictions:
  1. Hollywood will release a number of comedy and action films that are neither funny nor exciting.
  2. Industries (energy, gambling, tobacco), businesses (News Corp), and political groups ('The Right') that do great harm will continue to lie.
  3. Justin Bieber will release a new album.

If you want my Christmas card this year, I have put it online for you to print yourself, because:
  1. I don't want to waste paper, postage & carbon for those that may not want it; and
  2. I'm cheap & lazy.
For those intrigued, here are the options:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Freemasonry

In August last year I joined a masonic lodge. Technically speaking, I initiated into the 1st/Entered Apprentice degree, of a Blue/Craft lodge (Lodge Southern Cross, #91 of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory).

A friend from my board gaming group had, during some gaming sessions, occasionally mentioned his masonic lodge. As I have come to know him better over the years, I trust and appreciate him. He is someone who consistently displays creativity, compassion and integrity. He is much younger than me (not an unusual occurrence these days), and displays a very different personal style from mine. When I thought about masons, he was far different from the image that first came to mind, so my curiosity was piqued.

He invited a few of us to the dinner following his 'raising' to the 3rd/Master Mason degree. It was gratifying to be invited, and I wanted to honour his achievement (though I didn't know what that achievement was). I went to the dinner with a few other friends. I was impressed by the warm welcome from the lodge members, and the comraderie they enjoyed. I was intrigued about what Freemasonry could offer me.

My grandfather had been a mason in a small town in Wisconsin. He died when I was quite young, before I was mature enough to know or appreciate him. I remembered him as a very upright and conservative man (I don't know what his politics were, but he had sound values and strict morals, unlike today's political conservatives). He was the sort of person who would never involve himself in something sinister or untoward. I didn't find out he was a mason until well after his death, when my brother mentioned that he thought the masonic ceremony (which was probably a "Lodge of Sorrows") his lodge had for him was much nicer and more thoughtful than the actual funeral.

I attended further masonic dinners. I was never promised anything, but I observed warmth and generosity. While there was some mystery surrounding what actually happened in a lodge meeting, it all seemed OK, and the brotherly love was clearly evident. Still intrigued, I applied to join the lodge. There was an application form, some interviews, and a little paper to write about myself. A few months of waiting. The guys in the lodge voted on my admission, and I guess I hadn't offended anyone, so they allowed me to join. I took part in the initiation ceremony in August 2010, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

As an Entered Apprentice Freemason (EAF), I constantly found myself either over-, or under-dressed for functions. Much of the ritual was confusing. I often made the wrong gesture, or didn't know the words to odes (short hymns) that were sung. I reasoned that the purpose of apprenticeships is to learn from my mistakes, so I wasn't too worried. Fortunately my brothers quite freely forgave my transgressions. I was sometimes corrected, but never chastised.

I do put some effort into learning the various things I am expected to learn and/or memorize. As I have not been a member of another lodge, I can't say what they require of their members to move forward, but I suspect for some it may be just a process of memorizing a couple of question/answer phrases and a few gestures. My lodge puts some emphasis on it's members experiencing personal growth as part of the process of moving through the degrees. So we have to learn a bit more history, visit other lodges and see how they do things, memorize a few more things, demonstrate masonic knowledge, and write some papers. The papers are structured as questions with long answers, but are really a hint to start a personal inquiry into the personal benefits available from the lessons of Freemasonry.

Lodge Southern Cross is quite successful, with growth in membership, and a long list of guys wanting to join. We are a mostly very young group of fellows, of quite a variety of professions, backgrounds and interests. I put the success down to the focus our lodge puts on personal growth.

Freemasonry has been around for hundreds of years, so it must offer some personal benefit to people. At this point the reader (yes, this means you), might be thinking about the networking aspect (i.e. corruption). I have not seen any evidence, or had any benefit of that sort, and I don't expect to. While I have met many extraordinary people in masonry, and a small number that hold or have held significant positions in society, most I know or have met have just been average Joe's (tradesmen, clerks, workers, etc). None seem to have benefited in finance, position or otherwise from the network. That said, given that much of the masonic lessons seem to involve honesty and integrity, I might be inclined to ask around the lodge for a masonic tradesman I can more likely trust when I am in need of a skilled person/service. I haven't ever been offered any special deals. Many of the guys I have met outside my lodge are well and truly retired.

What is it I like about Freemasonry? The fraternity is fun. The term fraternity brings with it imagery of the American college fraternity, where drunken, misogynistic clods find ways to cheat on their education. Wrong image for my lodge, or any lodge I have visited. We kid around, we share meals, we treat each other equally, we honour and respect the women around us, we enjoy each other's company.

One of the things I enjoy in Freemasonry is the public speaking. Within lodge, and in toasts at the 'South'/'Festive Board' (post lodge dinner) afterwards, I sometimes get to speak, present a paper, or just give or respond to a toast. In high school I had been in the speech club, and in later years a Toastmasters club (which is nothing like Freemasonry), so I actually enjoy getting up and talking in front of a group of people.

Freemasonry has history. The rituals are interesting, and sometimes intellectually challenging. I have seen them presented in monotone, and with colour & vitality. There are gestures that have a theatrical formality, and allow us to communicate on a physical level that displays equality.

Freemasonry isn't a religion, isn't based on religion, and isn't in competition with any religion, although there are some non-masons around who know nothing of Freemasonry, who think it is some sort of competition to their religion. I have seen Jews hugging Muslims, Zoroastrians embracing Christians, just the sort of thing that fellow Jesus would have liked to see. Some of the allegorical lessons have a religious source, but they are really just a story/framework to present the lesson, rather than a promotion of any particular belief. I am allowed my own spiritual beliefs, which are never discussed, which is all well and good as I personally find most organised religions reprehensible.

Politics aren't discussed. I have very strong political convictions, as a humanist. I know that from evidence outside the lodge, that many of my masonic brothers have very different political views. Politics never gets in the way of me enjoying their company.

I look forward to lodge night. We meet on the level, as equals, and just enjoy each other's company. There is a clear focus on not just bettering ourselves, but contributing to society and charity.

It appears that some people view Freemasonry with distrust. Yes, there are some masonic secrets. And if I were to reveal them to you (which I won't), the most likely result would be a very emphatic "so what?" from you. The secrets are nothing to get excited about. I suspect most have been published anyways. The rituals are veiled in a bit of mystery, but that just makes them a bit more fun and interesting. Christmas wouldn't be as much fun if we knew what presents we were going to get. I do think some of the mystery is about focusing on, experiencing and learning from the journey of Freemasonry, which might not hold as much weight if we knew ahead of time exactly what was to be revealed.

Masonic craft lodges don't accept women as members. This seems to be a big problem for some people (mostly women I guess). In the last few decades there have been many initiatives in our society to promote equity for women. Some have been successful, others, less so. I think in some ways women are still disadvantaged in western society, although in my experience this is sometimes not solely the fault of men themselves, but women too. Should every aspect of the world have complete equality, or can we say that some institutions may be better served as separate? In lodge, there is no pretense, or sexual competition, or concern for appearance. In lodge, one is comfortable, and can focus on the task at hand. There are some organisations that women can join, such as 'Co-Masonry', that apparently follow similar rituals. They aren't too popular, but are available for anyone who feels left out. Also there are some organisations allied to Freemasonry which allow female members, such as the 'Order of the Eastern Star', but one must be related to a mason to join. And frankly, women just don't look good in a dinner suit.

A sad fact is the popularity of Freemasonry has been in decline in the last few years. Visiting a suburban lodge, most of the members are very old. They haven't done anything to bring in new members for many years. They are lovely guys, have done much charity work, are very friendly, but dying out. My guess as to the reason for the recent decline in membership has more to do with how baby-boomers and gen-x/y/z have a habit of rejecting anything their elders value. Hopefully this is just a hiccup, as Freemasonry still has a lot to offer society.

Freemasonry has been around for hundreds of years. It has survived many social and technological changes in society. The lessons and benefits it provides are no less pertinent today than they were 50 years ago. Will it fix all the world's problems? It hasn't so far, but that is not to say that it hasn't made (or won't make) significant contributions to the betterment of men & society.

In February I was passed to the 2nd/Fellow Craft degree at a ceremony in Kiama. The ceremony was held by Lodge Highway (a biker lodge) in a 120 year old masonic building. It was moving, interesting, and a lot of fun.

My journey continues.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was! Royal Wedding Pie


In honour of the impending Royal Wedding, I have created this pie

Base
250 g Scotch Finger Biscuits
125 g Butter
Filling
3 Tbsp Smooth Peanut Butter
125 g Cream Cheese
1/4 tsp Vanilla Essence
2 Tbsp Brown Sugar
2 Eggs
125 ml Hershey's Syrup
  1. Melt butter, pour into food processor with biscuits, and blend. Press into pie plate.
  2. Spread peanut butter as a thin layer on top of biscuit base.
  3. Warm/soften cream cheese in microwave for about 20 seconds. Place cream cheese in food processor with brown sugar, vanilla essence, chocolate syrup and eggs. Blend until smooth. Pour mixture into pie crust.
  4. Bake at 150°C for 40 minutes. Let cool, and place pie in fridge.

Servings: 8
Degree of Difficulty: Very easy
Oven Temperature: 150°C
Cooking Times
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes
Inactive Time: 1 hour

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lost and Found

2010 was a year of lost and found. I lost some friends, and found some long-lost ones. I lost a job, then found a better one. I lost my direction, then found new focus.

My business progressively slowed during the year. This wasn't a major drama, as I was finding it not as enjoyable as previously, so letting it go seemed the thing to do. I was increasingly enjoying the volunteer work in disability care at WALCA, so I decided to do a Certificate III course in Disability Work at Tafe in June. It is a 1 year course, but I decided to do half online so I could finish in 6 months. After the course started, I went on staff at WALCA as a casual key worker. The pay was just above minimum wage, but I enjoyed the work and the clients.

Throughout the year I continued to do volunteer work at both Leah and Caelin's schools, and pursued my hobby of boardgaming. Siew Fong pursued her hobbies of craft: pottery, quilting, and knitting. Her work was mostly consistent, although there was a worrisome slow period. Leah became enamored of manga and online self-published novels. Caelin continued her academic, artistic and musical endeavors.

Caelin performed a solo of 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on the flute at her school's May Fair.

In June we were blessed with a temporary extra teenage daughter, from Senlis, France for 5 weeks. Jos├ęphine was Caelin's school exchange sister. She was very pleasant, and seemed to enjoy all the activities we organised, including a road trip to Melbourne.

My high school class had it's 30th reunion. Much of the organising was done through Facebook, so I was able to reconnect with quite a few long-lost friends and acquaintances. It was a bit much for me to travel there for the party, so I posted a video cheerio online instead, and enjoyed the post-function photos afterwords. There were a number of people I had fond memories of, and was able to catch up to answer those mysteries of how their lives had transpired.

In August, my friend Ulli left our earthly domain. We were very sad to lose him.

Leah performed at the Opera House.

I joined a Masonic lodge. My maternal grandfather had been a Mason, but I know very little about that. One of my gaming group friends invited me to the 'Festive Board' after his raising to the 3rd degree, where I found the camaraderie engaging and the mystery compelling. So far it has all been quite enjoyable. My lodge is mostly made up of fellows younger than myself, and the lodge focuses on accuracy and vitality in the rituals. I have also visited a few suburban lodges where the average age was around 80.

In September I wrote a memo of programme suggestions to my supervisor at WALCA, which unintentionally and apparently, impaled a few of the CEO's sacred cows. I was given the heave-ho the next day. They were quite abusive, and I was very shocked, given that I had no intention of criticizing anyone. A valued lesson in tact and politics.

I made a YouTube video of some of the local wildlife on our balcony.

In October my father-in-law came to stay for 3 months. Usually when he visits Australia, he stays with Siew Fong's sisters in Melbourne, but we were lucky this time for him to come and stay with us. He has done all the gardening and weeding I should have done.

The lady who sat next to me in my Tafe class passed away in her sleep one night. She was only 2.5 months older than me.

November had Caelin boarding an A380 to fly to France to stay with Jos├ęphine's family in Senlis for 7 weeks. She reported that she had a delightful time.

One of my masonic brothers, a man who I had just begun to know, and really liked, died. I visited him in intensive care a week before, and thought he was improving, but no. He was an impressive fellow, and well liked. He lived respected, and died regretted.

One of the requirements for the Tafe course was some work experience. The work at WALCA would have qualified, but my teacher suggested I try an unpaid placement at a different kind of service. After a week or so, they asked me to interview, then offered me a job as a vocational trainer. In January I start working with school leavers that have a significant intellectual disability, training them in skills to enable them to gain meaningful employment.

We went to see Jersey Boys at the Theatre Royal. Much better show than expected, and in the audience was a friend I hadn't seen in 7 years.

If you want my Christmas card this year, I have put it online for you to print yourself, because:
  1. I don't want to waste paper, postage & carbon for those that may not want it; and
  2. I'm cheap & lazy.
For those intrigued, here are the options:
For you, I want you to repeat and live the following oath: "I, YourNameHere, will have the most wonderful 2011 for myself, my family, and my community".

It is now mango season, so I must go.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Federal Election Fun

I worked on the election today. I was a 'Polling Assistant'.

Note: For American readers, much of what I am about to describe will be difficult to understand, as the Australian preferential voting system is quite different to most others in the world. Here is some useful info on Australian elections and voting.

A friend sent me a note a few months ago advising that one could apply for jobs with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for upcoming elections. So I applied online, and was sent a letter of offer shortly after the election was announced. The pay wasn't overly generous, and it was for an open ended 14+ hour day, but it was some work nonetheless. It turns out they had difficulty filling all the positions needed.

There was some training provided, which was delivered online. I think it would have been better to have a printed manual sent out, as reading lots of little PDF files isn't conducive to review. I decided after completing the training a few weeks ago to review the materials on the day before the election, which was useful.

There were a number of items that were supposed to be provided at each ballot distribution station, which were not there, such as the foreign language phrasebook, the preference voting guide, the script, etc. The Officer in Charge (OIC) did say that there had been some problems with supplies. There wasn't any uniform, but I did get a tag to wear that said "Polling Official".

I was given 3 different tasks/jobs while the polls were open: Ballot issuing officer, queue controller, and ballot box guard. I decided to approach each task with alacrity, bringing some respectful and honorable cheer to what a lot of voters seemed to being suffering. I smiled, and cheerfully welcomed people, and said things like "Its a glorious day for an election", "If you vote in an election today, you should certainly vote in this one", or "Welcome to the Federal Election!". I also had to actively ignore some leading political comments from voters.

Once while I was 'controlling' the queue, an older woman got to the front, and there was a gentleman just behind her, of a similar age, but they didn't seem to be interacting. I directed her to a ballot table, and asked the man if they were together, to which he responded: "Of course we are, I am her husband, you idiot!". I thought this was very funny.

From the training materials, I found out that there is a book available at the polling station that tells you how all the Senate groups have allocated their preferences for above the line voting. The AEC doesn't advertise that it is available. When I asked the OIC for a look at it, she told me that in all the elections she had worked on, I was only the second person to ask to see it. The first had been earlier in the day, and that turned out to be Siew Fong (who I had previously advised of the availability of the book). Using the book, it was the first time I voted above the line in the Senate (because I then knew how my vote would be preferenced out). It was a shame that only 3 other voters voted for the same Senate group as me at my polling place. Here is how people voted at my polling place in the Senate: http://vtr.aec.gov.au/SenatePollingPlaceFirstPrefs-15508-32.htm, and the House: http://vtr.aec.gov.au/HousePollingPlaceFirstPrefs-15508-32.htm

I was quite dismayed with the quality of some of the other staff. Most were OK, but a couple weren't too fussed with doing quality work. One girl got bored, so she stopped giving voters instructions on how to vote, instead just saying things like "Voted before? Fine, you know what to do." Then there was the young guy who decided to just play his phone game while he was supposed to be monitoring the ballot boxes (I was surprised the OIC allowed this).

It was quite busy most of the day, but the last couple of hours were slow. Then we had to count the votes at the end of the day. There were a few scrutineers from the various parties around, but they didn't remain until the very end.

We only counted the primary vote. If preferences were counted for the House of Representatives seats, I didn't see it. It wouldn't have taken very long though, so perhaps the OIC did it while we were counting the Senate ballots. We had just over 1200 ballots for each house to count.

There were lots of informal (invalid) votes (about 14%). Some were blank, some were plainly stupid, and some were intentionally informal. A few rude messages were found, and one vote for 'Humphrey B Bear'. One of the more amusing Senate ballot papers was a formal (valid) vote for the Australian Sex Party, where the voter had drawn a crude penis to indicate their intention.

For the Senate, we only counted the above the line votes. The below the line votes (all 10 or 15 of them out of 1200), were just bundled. It still took over 2 hours to sort and count the votes. The very large ballot papers (about 1200 mm wide) had to be unfolded, examined for formality, sorted, then repeatedly counted. The House of Reps papers only took about an hour.

It was an interesting experience. I will probably do it again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Goodbye Ulli

Walter 'Ulli' Colman was a friend of mine. He was 93 years old, and died today.

His son Tony advised me that he probably didn't have long to live. Ulli had been in and out of hospital a few times in the last couple of weeks, and been diagnosed with bladder cancer. But he had stopped eating, which was his real health issue. There had also been some issues with the care he received from the Montefiore Home in the last few weeks, which may have made his last few days more difficult than they needed to be.

I went to visit him two weeks ago to say goodbye. Ulli was dressed, and sitting upright in a chair in the Special Care Unit common room. He didn't appear to be in pain, but he seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. He cried out a couple of times: 'hello, hello'. He briefly asked me where he was, and why was he there. His voice was weak. I know his hearing had become impaired in recent years, so I don't know if he could hear me much. I told him that he was very special to me, and I was very grateful to have known him. I told him his son would be visiting in a couple of days, and said goodbye.

His son Ron arrived a few days later, dedicating the next few weeks making Ulli as comfortable as possible, and dealing with some problematic care issues.

One could say he was a distant relative. His son married my father's cousin's daughter. Both his sons had moved away from Sydney, one to London, the other to eastern Canada. He was my closest 'relative' in Sydney, but more a friend. I had actually never met my cousin Lou before she visited us in Sydney, and I came to know Ulli and his wife Liesel through Lou's family, along with Ulli's other son Ron's family.

Ulli was an amazing man.

Ulli was born in Germany. His parents had a successful retail store in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and they lived just off the Kurfurstendamm. His parents decided he should have a trade, so they sent him to Belgium to learn textiles/knitting. After training, he thought Australia might be a good place to find work, as there was lots of wool here. He had the foresight to organise for his parents and immediate family to emigrate to Australia when the Nazis came to power in Germany (being Jews, many of their distant family and friends perished). He met Liesel in Sydney at a social dance.

He served in the Australian Army during WWII. He could recite his service number to me from memory. He seemed quite proud of his service, although I believe the army at the time didn't fully trust German-born servicemen, so he was given duties in rural NSW. After the war he taught textile technology (specifically knitting technologies) at Tafe.

He often spoke about teaching. He would lament while in the Montefiore Home that he had lost his confidence to teach. Ulli loved being a teacher, and having that sense of control in front of a room.

He was passionate about music, in particular he liked pre-war jazz, which he called 'happy music'. He also liked to play Skat, a German card game which he called 'the chess of card games'.

Ulli and Liesel bought a small 2 bedroom flat in Bellevue Hill after the war. He stayed there until he moved to the Montefiore Home. She passed away in the late 1990's. They raised their sons there, and both boys went on to great personal success, one a lawyer in London, the other a brilliant economics academic in Canada.

Until the stroke when he was about 85, he regularly played tennis a few times a week, and was quite socially active. He traveled to Israel, and drove his 1970's rusty yellow Toyota Corolla around Sydney. He was fit, and friendly. On New Years Eve 2000, he let my family watch the fireworks from his flat in Bellevue Hill while he had gone out to a party with friends.

About 8 years ago he had a stroke. This was quite debilitating at the time, as his vision was severely impaired, and he acquired a short-term memory defect. He could not read (this eventually sorted itself out, and his vision corrected itself, but the memory thing made reading functionally problematic). His friends and family in Sydney formed a roster to visit him at home, and assist him in being independent. This didn't work out for him, so he moved to the Montefiore Home in Hunters Hill. As aged care facilities go, the Montefiore Home is of a very high standard. But I don't think he liked it there much. The home is clean, bright and cheerful, and there are plenty of diversionary activities, but some of the attention to personal well-being can be a bit uneven.

With the memory problem he couldn't remember anything before the prior 60 seconds. He would constantly ask where he was, and why he was there. He usually sort of already knew the answers. He couldn't remember anything that had happened since the stroke, but could remember much of his life before the stroke. Sometimes he would remember something like the weather from the previous day. We could still talk about his family, career, and other things, and he was still very intelligent, and funny too.

He complained that his greatest problem was that he didn't have confidence and was unsure of himself. He said he couldn't teach without confidence. I imagine it must have been truly awful for him, living in that purgatorial memory loop.

I would visit him at the home. Our conversations always included quite a few rounds of the same questions from him, but I tried to direct the topics to current events, his family and past. The visits became less frequent over the years (only once every few months or so), and his physical and mental facilities became less strong (although he did wear out a couple of girlfriends). I don't think he really knew who I was for the last year or so, but he did always remember his real family. He did maintain his sense of humor.

Ulli had an amazing sense of humor. He often made jokes, sometimes about his condition (although he would forget that he had made the same joke about 5 minutes before), and he would kid around with my children.

Ulli was my friend, I have truly enjoyed knowing him, and I will miss him.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reunion

I was recently invited to attend my 30th anniversary high school reunion (yeah, I'm that old). I wanted to go, but I wouldn't justify the expense of flying to the other side of the planet for an evening's partying, so I missed it. It was a one-off, once in a lifetime opportunity that I passed up. I have since been pondering the question: Why did I really want to go?

These were a group of people that I was forced into a shared experience with, some for up to 12 years. It was a relationship I had no choice in. As an adult, I can pick and choose the people I spend time with (outside of work), as a child/student, I didn't have that choice.

Are these people special to me? They aren't really now, as I really don't have any contact with any of them. In fact, prior to this week, I had only infrequently communicated with less than 10 people from my school days in the last 25 years (with the exception of the 10th reunion, which I attended). But something in the back of my mind sees them as special.

History
I wouldn't say that school was a tragic period for me, but it wasn't exactly happy either. Over the years in school, I experienced quite a bit of bullying and teasing (mostly with regards to my appearance, which I had little control over). Also there were those that vicariously enjoyed all the teasing and bullying from the sidelines. Even at the 10th reunion, there were some that wanted to persist in that old style of interacting with me. I recognize that they were just children at the time, and had little idea of the impact of their actions, and I am not bitter. I have forgiven all those people now, although I really am not interested in reconnecting with the perpetrators again.

I didn't have the emotional tools to deal with all that effectively at the time. I do now, but some minor emotional scars remain.

I didn't have many close friends at school. In fact, I used to seek out friends from other schools, hoping that they would see me for who I was, not the teased, bullied kid. I wasn't in any of the cliques: I wasn't a jock, or a rich kid, or a druggie/burnout, or a fashionista, or a cool kid, or even in the nerd group. I had/have very different political/social views from most of my classmates. I guess I fit into the outsider nerd mold, although I did socialize & participate in school life, and I went to some parties.

It wasn't all bad, there were successes, some fun times, and a few laughs. There were quite a few people I got on well with, and many that I admired and respected. These were all people I wanted to reconnect with. But why?

There are also the people who seemed to have disappeared. I feel incomplete not knowing their story. I was also saddened to hear that some had passed away. I wanted closure on their lives, but I doubt this will be forthcoming.

Why go?
Some people think reunions are about finding ways to dominate old classmates. This could be through shadenfreude, or some other attempted domination. I consider myself successful in life, but not in a financial or political way. My successes revolve around my relationships, and my accomplishments (most of which would be of no interest to, nor would they impress, anyone else). I haven't won any significant awards, I am happy with how/who I am, have no need to dominate others, and can't see why I would want to. I am more of a supporter of 'mudita'. Besides, I have spent too much of my life watching TV.

I have heard that some others go to re-live or complete old romantic agendas. Or they go to prey on lonely souls. This was of no interest to me.

Some may go to re-live the joys of the past. Not a lot of juice there for me.

Years ago I lived and worked in Europe one summer. One of my close friends was a Dutch fellow. At the end of the summer I went to visit him in Eindhoven, and we reminisced about the great time we had. I suggested we organize a reunion sometime of all the people we had spent the summer with, but he said: "No, you can never go back". He meant that we could never recreate the best of the past, but should live for the now and for the future. This was an valued lesson for me. I lost contact with him, and if we were to cross paths again in the future, I think I know what he would say.

Nostalgia
I had mixed feelings about the results of the 10th reunion. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the stories of the folks I reconnected with, but noticed that I was still annoyed with the others whose irritating personality traits hadn't changed.

After 30 years I don't remember much from that period, and I don't even recognize some of the names or faces. What difference would it make to my life to reconnect with these people? What is the power of this nostalgia?

Over the years I have become close to, and lost contact with, many wonderful people. I would love to reconnect with them too, but why? Perhaps there is a function of humanity that increases your nostalgic need for connection with the increase in shared experience.

There is also something about living so far away. Modern telecommunications, cheap travel and the internet have lessened the distance, but I still am separated from a lot of what happens around my family and friends. Perhaps if I still lived in the Twin Cities it would be no different, but distance seems a good excuse. I am not lonely, as I have a warm, loving family and great social network around me, yet there seems to be a certain loneliness living so far away from my place of origin.

Facebook
The organizers of the event used Facebook as one of the communication tools. I found it worked quite well for me, even though I didn't go, as I could still connect with some people, in some ways even better than face to face.

I posted a video message, with some minor comedy. From this I received quite a bit of positive feedback.

I also received quite a few 'wish you were here' messages, which were quite touching and welcome.

Photos of the event have been posted online. As I browse the photos, I notice that I feel quite nostalgic. I don't recognize many of the faces, they all look like real adults now, some wider than others. 30 years has softened my outlook, and I long to ask "What have you been up to all these years?" (in a good way).

A Guess at the Answer
I don't think that my experience in this is unique.

I think what I want is the stories. I prefer the happy stories, but the sad stories are real and provide connection with humanity. I want the people who have touched my life to have success, and they are fine however they are.

Without the stories, there is just an incomplete past. I am whole and complete, and the stories provide me with the past's future that I missed. They are like dessert after a multi-course dinner. I like dessert.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why am I here?

If you are looking for existentialism, you've come to the wrong place. Perhaps Roger Nygard's new film would suit misguided souls: http://thenatureofexistence.com/

On 17 July 2010, I will have been residing in Australia for 25 years. More than half my life.

I arrived in Sydney on the morning of Wednesday 17 July 1985. I came in on a Qantas flight, where I got to sit up in the top part (very lucky given I was on a student ticket). I remember the stewardess gave me a whole bottle of red wine, because I was the only person on the flight drinking it. It was a chilly morning, about 5 degrees out, but after being on a long, stuffy flight, that had gone via Honolulu, and experiencing the Australian Quarantine Service welcoming aerosol disinfectant spray, I thought the weather was really pleasant. Two students met me at the airport, Scott Donald, and Rob McKay. Rob drove us, with reckless abandon, to Sydney Uni, where they had to attend some lectures before I could be guided to my temporary accommodation with Scott's family. I thought the scenery along the drive from the airport to Camperdown abysmal. Fortunately that happened to be just a small ugly part of the city, most of the rest turned out to be very pleasant.

I stayed with Scott's family in Turramurra for about 10 days, just long enough for me to organise a flat with Dave Milligan in Neutral Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated staying with Scott's family, who were welcoming, warm and helpful. Scott's parents took me out on a drive to Bobbin Head.

I had come out on an AIESEC traineeship for 1 year working for Pioneer Concrete in St.Peters as a concrete plant manager. I was active in AIESEC for about 4 years throughout my university education at the University of Minnesota. We would go out to local companies, and try to get them to take on trainees. For every traineeship we organised, one of our local members could apply for an overseas traineeship. AIESEC took care of the visa, meeting the trainee at the airport, assisting the trainee to settle in, and other basic details, while the company only had to pay minimum wage. In 2003 I had a summer traineeship with a company in northern Finland, after which I backpacked around Europe for a few months.

Before I arrived, the wise management folks at Pioneer decided that I would be better placed in the Information Systems Department, given my skill set, and I was the cheapest qualified IT worker available in the country. The IT department management was not quite so happy to see me, as I was foisted upon them, and they wanted to hire someone of their own choosing. At my induction interview, I was told "we don't like clock watchers here".

Pioneer was not the most pleasant place to work. The office was located in St Peters (which a cab driver at the time described to me as the 'armpit' of Sydney). Cars were stolen from the street in front of the office during business hours, and the local sewer backed up into our office one weekend. My boss Roger was an OK guy, but he had this inferiority complex, due to his not having a university degree, though I thought him quite bright and competent. His boss was a pompous idiot, who spent his time writing memos, copying pointless newspaper articles into the email system, and promoting his Christian youth Nazi scout group. Once he called a full staff meeting so that the staff would be forced to listen to his description of his most recent holiday. The up-line managers often used language not usually considered appropriate for polite company.

I had youthful enthusiasm for my work, with lots of 'big ideas'. I also seemed to have a big mouth. Roger once told me I should consider the art of 'tact'. I thought it good advice at the time, although I have never quite got the hang of it.

I shared a furnished flat with Dave Milligan on Wycombe Road in Neutral Bay. Dave was a tall and gonzo guy from Long Beach, California. Our flat was only a couple of blocks from the Oaks Hotel, where the all the AIESEC trainees would meet for drinks. We lived there, in one of the coolest parts of Sydney (with little money) for six months. It was really cool to take the ferry across the harbour in the morning to catch the train. We bought a second hand TV out of the Trading Post. It had all of 7 colours, most of them green. We had a thanksgiving party. Our guests didn't appreciate the turkey neck in a condom.

Then I moved in with Grant Noble from Canada into a flat in Kirribilli. We were in a ground floor flat, a couple doors down from the Prime Minister. There were fireworks on the harbour every few weeks.

I met this girl at a party. We fell in luurve. Although, she wasn't as much in luurve with me as it turned out. My traineeship was coming to an end, so we decided to have my company sponsor me for a permanent residency. Pioneer agreed, and did all the paperwork. Then she dumped me. I had to leave the country to get the visa/residency processed. So I went back to the US, via Asia, and a bus tour around the US, then Europe on the way back to Sydney. I had a meeting with a friend of my stepmother's in Minnesota to discuss advanced software research opportunities there. He said I could stay, get the high paying job, the house, 2.5 cars, kids, wife, dog, etc, or continue for another year in Oz, which I would never get the opportunity in my life to do again. I chose Oz, as I had made a commitment to Pioneer, and more adventure sounded good.

I came straight back from the airport to work, e.g. I changed clothes at the airport. For 3 more years it seemed I never left that crappy office. I did other stuff, but never had much money for much fun. I was probably one of the lowest paid IT workers in the country.

Grant decided to get married, so he moved out. I got another guy in, who was British, but a complete jerk, and we never got on. When the lease expired, I left.

I found a share flat advertised in Coogee, overlooking the beach. I did the interview, and loved the place. The guy called me back, and said I couldn't have the room, and hung up. I was stunned, then realized it was the place I really liked. I called him back, and insisted it was the place for me, and he agreed to give me a trial. Joe Montano taught artistic painting at TAFE, and the other flatmate was a seriously gay guy. Joe was divorced with 3 boys who mostly lived with their mother. The flat was magic. Richie Benauld lived in the same building. He drove a little convertible, but that has nothing to do with my story. I could see Coogee beach from my room.

Joe often mentioned this course he had done, and by coincidence, my mother had mentioned the same course. It was called "The Forum". I didn't make the connection, but asked him to take me to an introduction. It sounded pretty flaky, but I figured if I got 10% of what they were promising, it would be worthwhile. I figured I could get rich (although that never happened) from the course, so I did it. What I got was so much more. I got a new understanding of myself, and my relationship to others. I did quite a few more courses with the company, over the next 2 years.

My life for that time revolved around the courses. I have no regrets about that, and still have many friends from that period. I grew personally in many ways. Once I stopped with the courses, I decided to do no more.

The bicentenary passed, with associated functions and parties, and I had a pretty full social calendar.

One night, Joe and I went to a party. There I met a girl. I moved in to a share house in Northbridge with her subsequently, and we got engaged. I figured that given all my recent personal training I could overlook all her faults (which included drug use, obesity, crassness, and stupidity). I discovered I couldn't. We broke up, which was a good thing. I moved on to a share house in Darlinghurst, and a new job with Coopers and Lybrand as a consultant.

I didn't enjoy consulting as much as I thought I would. It certainly wasn't quite what I envisaged, and I never quite got the hang of the politics at C&L. I stayed there for two years, until I got an assignment doing some work for the Qantas Staff Credit Union, who offered me a job as their IT manager.

On one of the C&L staff development weekends at Leura in the Blue Mountains, I met Siew Fong, who was working for a different partner in the Parramatta office of the firm. We started dating, I soon moved in with her, and we married the week I left the firm.

Around 1994 I decided that I had been in Australia long enough to know that I was going to stay. I knew I could make a lot more money in the US, but money had become a very low priority for me. There was nothing calling for me to return to the US (other than my parents), I had a growing family, a good job/career, a nice little house, a strong social network, and a lot of psychological inertia. Having traveled around the world, I knew that where I was was pretty nice, and somewhere else wasn't going to be particularly better. I also found that I was increasingly being alienated from the US, with its growing conservatism, fundamentalism, commercialism, consumptionism and trite culture (sure, Australia is no less trite). Too many ism's over there, and the view from outside looking in wasn't so pleasant. I decided since I was going to stay, I should make a proper commitment to my new home, and become an Australian citizen.

I worked at Qantas Staff Credit Union for 13 years. I had a lot of professional successes there, and a couple of small blunders. My boss loved me, and my staff loved me. Then my boss retired, and was replaced by someone I have nothing good to say about. He decided to replace all the senior staff with cretins of his own choosing (and he went about this task in a particularly reprehensible manner), so I had to go.

I set up my own company, and started work on a product idea I had that I knew would be commercially viable. I developed a working prototype, and started to shop it around to companies that could market it effectively. The product was a unique gadget for the gaming/gambling industry. From the interest I received, it was clear it was going to make a lot of money. In experiencing that industry, and witnessing its participants, I began to become increasingly uncomfortable with my product. I saw that I was becoming a vector in promoting an industry that causes a great deal of harm. I called off my contract negotiations, and canned the product.

Knowing that this looked a bit odd after nearly a year of unpaid work, I wrote an email to everybody I knew describing what I had done, and why I had thrown it away. It didn't occur to me that some of the recipients would be impressed with my strength of character, so I was quite surprised that the email was forwarded to a much wider group than I intended, and quite a few people I didn't know read it. One of them was a parent at my kids' primary school, who was impressed with my integrity and technical skill, and offered me a job as a contractor to his 2 person software development company, Premier Street. I have been working with him since.

One of the benefits of having a home-based business is flexibility in time management. I can start work really early, or work really late. There is no commuting, or waiting in line for lunch. I can ferry the kids to and from school when needed. I probably work longer hours, but get more done with fewer interruptions and distractions. I rarely get sick now. I also can manage the household, with cooking and other home tasks, which relieves Siew Fong to focus on her career (she is a bit of a star at her firm). And I can work in my underwear. The main drawback is lack of social interaction (not a bad thing when working in my underwear).

So with time flexibility, I started to do volunteering around the kids' primary school Ferncourt. This provided a great social network, and allowed me to participate in my children's lives more directly. My involvment in my children's schools has turned out to be one of the most beneficial actions in my recent life. It has led to my recent hobby of board-gaming, professional benefits, significant social benefits, and great self-esteem. I personally know the principals, serve on staff selection panels, and know many of the teachers.

So that is some of my Australian story, briefly from a few angles, and ignoring a few dimensions.


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Monday, June 7, 2010

Contrail 2010, with Additional Wildlife

Some things are better left unsaid, but this isn't one of them. It was a weekend of games, games, and some more games, a bit of food, some wildlife visitors, and then more games to fill.

I've only got some wildlife photos, but soon there should be some gaming photos and descriptions on the Mind Shaft Gap blog site (our group's official blog site).

Contrail
Contrail is my board-gaming group's annual weekend away, dedicated to spending as much time gaming as possible. Originally it was part of Paul's birthday celebrations, but has moved beyond that. You would have to ask Paul where the name come from (something about a gaming convention on the bush trail, and seeing a aircraft contrail at the same time). Paul schedules the weekend, and books the venue. Everyone brings lots of games. It is a highlight on the group's calendar, and eagerly awaited.

The focus seems to be on longer games that can't normally come out on Sunday nights, and other games that don't often get a regular playing. Newer games also get a look in, as well as old favourites, but really any game is welcome (even the relatively frequently played Power Grid and Brass were opened up).

The Venue
We stayed at the Equestrian Lodge in Del Rio Resort, Wiseman's Ferry, NSW. This was my 3rd Contrail, and I think the venue has hosted 5 so far. It is about 2 hours (2.5 hours in rainy peak hour traffic) north of my place, on the Hawkesbury River. The lodge itself is on one end of the resort, about 950 meters from most of the other accommodation, so we weren't subject to other people's noise, and more importantly, they weren't subject to our raucous commotion at all hours of the day and night. It is situated about 250 meters from the river, overlooking a large field where wallabies and kangaroos graze during the day.

The lodge has 10 bedrooms, 5 on each side, with 2 cots and a cupboard in each, 2 sets of toilets, showers and basins, a well-kitted out kitchen, a wood heater stove, an outdoor barbecue & balcony, parking, and a large open space in the center with plenty of chairs and big tables. It also costs only about $500 a night, so is quite economical with 10 or more people. It is slightly rustic, and more or less well maintained.

We have analysed other venues, but the lodge has proved to be a nearly optimal venue for a weekend of gaming, it is:
  1. Sufficiently remote, but not too remote;
  2. Economical;
  3. Well kitted out for gaming;
  4. Well layed out for gaming;
  5. Accommodates 10 to 20 relatively comfortably.
Because there were only 6 of us arriving on Friday night, I booked a smaller cabin. After booking, I contacted Del Rio and offered them the option of allowing the six of us to stay in the lodge instead at the small cabin price, which would be beneficial for both parties, as we wouldn't have to move in the morning, and they wouldn't have to clean the cabin after we left. They accepted my offer, which was very generous for them, and economical for us.

Food
I volunteered to cater food for the weekend, for the 3rd year running. 2 identical lunches, and 2 identical breakfasts. Most of the guys took up the offer. I make the offer for a couple of reasons:
  1. It frees the other guys from having to plan for any meals, so they can focus on the enjoyment of the weekend;
  2. It allows for more game time for everybody else (they don't have to cook, or drive off to the club for a meal and wait for them to prepare it);
  3. It is very economical for everybody (it works out to about $5 per meal each);
  4. It saves on contention for the limited kitchen resource at mealtimes;
  5. I can make nutritious, fulfilling and hopefully tasty meals;
  6. I enjoy the cooking, and challenge of catering (i.e. I get to play 'Masterchef: The Home Game', and fortunately no tall fat guy in a kravatte made disparaging comments);
For the breakfasts each day I made fresh Bearnaise sauce and eggs Benedict (poached eggs & thin-sliced ham on a toasted English muffin), along with Bircher muesli (boxed toasted muesli, some dried fruit, soaked in fruit yogurt overnight), with coffee, juice, milk. The leftover Bearnaise sauce was kept for lunch to put on the steaks. I have these nifty microwave egg poachers which work reasonably well. I like the eggs Benedict because they can be quickly made individually, so everybody can get up at whatever time they feel like.

For the lunches, to save time & effort (and to ensure I had the right tools and a clean preparation area) I pre-prepared most of the components at home. In the food processor, I shredded some different cabbages finely, and some carrots & red onion finely, then packed them up. I similarly shredded some brown onions for the barbecue. I made & bottled a coleslaw sauce, which was mixed with the cabbage/carrot/onion mixture on-site. I bought some cheap porterhouse steaks in bulk, cut them in half, and marinated/packed them in my homemade barbecue sauce (last year I had full steaks, but they proved to be too much to eat for lunch). I packed mushrooms (which I cleaned and sliced on-site, for sanitary reasons, for the barbecued onions). I also packed some basic condiments (ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, butter, sugar, etc).

For bread I got some bags of Lebanese bread at my local Lebanese bakery. This worked really well, because they were fresh, flat & very cheap (7 pieces for $1.30). I didn't need to worry about them getting squished either.

We had 2 vegetarian eaters, so for their lunches instead of the meat I purchased a couple of bags of frozen pastizzi, which were quite simple to just throw into the oven in a pan. Any extras were gobbled up by the meat eaters.

Everybody also brought lots of crisps and other snack food (I previously advised that I wouldn't cater snacks or fruit), along with moderate amounts of golden beverage.

For dinner on Saturday the tradition is to go to the Del Rio Club, so that's what we did.

The Timeline
On Friday afternoon Richard collected me at home, and we drove up together. We stopped at the pub at Wiseman's ferry before crossing the river. Don and Al joined us at the pub for dinner.

We inhabited the cabin, set up extra lighting from the rafters, claimed our rooms, loaded the fridge, arranged the tables and chairs, Don started a fire in the heating stove, and we started some games. Andrew soon arrived. We played a number of games (including Atlantis, Power Grid {the Korea board, which I led most of the game, and came last in one of our closest games ever}, Geshenkt/No Thanks {with a full deck}, and others) until about 2am. Andrew made some coffee around midnight, which must have been quite strong, as I had great difficulty getting to sleep (Richard later reported he also had trouble getting to sleep that night). Ed arrived from Canberra around 12:30am.

I woke early, cleaned up a bit and made breakfast. After breakfast the games started, and the other guys arrived in dribs & drabs. Lunch was had, and we played more games. It was quite a nice day outside, but I don't think anyone noticed that. I got in a nice game of Endeavor outside on the balcony just before sunset (Euhan made a bold strike against my network of colonies, but I managed to sneak in the win).

An hour before dinner we started a deduction game of Mystery Express, which Don brought still shrink wrapped. It ended in a 5 way tie for the win a couple hours after dinner. The others may have enjoyed it more, but I found it to be a slow game with limited scope for interaction or decisions, although it was very well produced. Because this game was so long, others had started some longish games (including what turned out to be an epic playing of Dune), we had a go at my $6 bargain purchase from the Salvation Army Store of an unused copy of Last Chance. The game was really very ordinary, a kind of Yahtzee with lots of betting. But this was an absolute scream, because we all just wanted to be silly and stupid, and made enthusiastic bets with lots of cheering and hollering at the die rolls. Probably didn't help the rather serious game of Dune next to us. We continued playing various games until around 1:30 I was exhausted, and turned in, this time quite able to fall asleep almost immediately. The others continued on til 2am or 3am. Somebody tidied up before retiring.

I woke early again (around 7:30). Andrew was up and preparing to leave. I made breakfast again, and almost everybody was up by 9. Pat was the last to emerge from his room. Another blur of games and lunch. After lunch Pat very generously indulged me in a 2-player game of 1960: The Making of the President, which I had requested he bring, as it was something I had wanted a first playing of for a long time. As everyone knows, Pat only plays blue in games, so he was Kennedy, and I had to be Nixon (although red is my gaming color, I have very different political views from that particular president, and once forgetting during the game that the donkeys were the opposition). I thoroughly enjoyed the game, and surprisingly managed to win (it isn't often I beat Pat at anything). After that a number of us played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has never been one of my favourite games, and it didn't help that when I became the villain in the scenario played, the rules were somewhat unclear and incomplete. I tried to play with good spirits irregardless, so the others could enjoy the game.

Suddenly it was time to leave, so we packed up, tidied the place, and left. Neil joined Ricard and I on the drive back, as he lives quite close to us, and there was now plenty of space for him in the car since all the food was now eaten. We all chatted about our individual experiences of the weekend.

Wildlife


















Here we have Steve not observing the vista from the front balcony (he isn't the wildlife). Most of the mobile phones didn't have coverage, but those on Telstra could get one bar of reception. Just before I took this photo there was a Kookaburra sitting on the rail across the path behind Steve.


During the day there were usually 3 or 4 wallabies browsing around the paddock.


While Steve and I were chatting, a large mob of around 100 kangaroos came hopping towards us into the paddock, chasing the wallabies away.
Here you can see a wallaby on the road, with some roos protecting their turf.
A moment later they turned around, and moved quickly towards the lodge. I don't often get the opportunity to get a photo of wildlife coming in my direction.

They split into 2 groups, and ran past the lodge on either side up into the bush.
Then some sat at the tree line observing us.
Later they dispersed, and a few stayed in the paddock. I think they may have wanted to get into our game of Ghost Stories, but it only takes 4, and our session was fully subscribed (I killed the most ghosts I think).