Modest Expectation – There is Much Binary in the Math But Not With This Base.

There are a select few who try to work out the association of the Modest Expectations number with the accompanying narrative. The title of 158 is a take from an old BBC comedy show. “There is Much Binding in the Marsh”. The association is so old that only those who lived in the early post-wars would remember, but the series was very well-liked in Australia.

The series was originally set on a mythical RAF base modelled on the real-life Moreton-in-the Marsh RAF base. It featured a number of English comedians, such as Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne. Their audience thought them funny as their binding – that is grumbling – was undertaken with a comic air. As was said about Horne, “a master of the scandalous double-meaning delivered with shining innocence” – the basis of much English humour.

However, this is one of three puzzles based successively on the numbers 158 (as in this case), through to 159, to ultimately 160, all produced by guest numbers man, Rick McLean.

One clue: the answer to 158 has nothing to do with the BBC series, just a convenient pun – really a double pun if that exists.

The Political Leak

I have never been a member of Parliament, but as the Principal Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition as I once was, I was one who was privy to confidential information.

It was also 1973, when much was happening in Canberra. Let’s say it was not a boring year in politics. Given that I lived in this different era in Canberra, on several occasions Gough Whitlam’s speech writer, Graham Freudenberg, invited me around for a drink in the Prime Minister’s office after stumps were drawn, and on at least one occasion we were joined by the journalist, Laurie Oakes.

Graham Freudenberg could approximate Gough’s cadences; and I could do an adequate Freudenberg imitation. It was not that we were bosom pals, but in the Parliament House environment, we got on well. Freudenberg enjoyed berating me for my political affiliation in his best Gough voice and I returned serve in my best imitation of him mimicking Gough.

However, among the jollities there were rules; one was to keep the discussions general and I would never go near Gough’s desk. On one of these occasions, Freudenberg left me alone. Nevertheless, the Leader of the Opposition’s Principal Private Secretary apparently alone in Gough’s office late at night was not a good look if Security came by.  In those days, it was more relaxed admittedly. Nevertheless, there were some sensitivities because in the previous year a journalist, Barry Everingham, had been found lurking in Whitlam’s office.

In my situation, Freudenberg was in the toilet; something had disagreed with him and he needed to hurriedly decamp there.

When I reflect on this exchange, I must have engendered enough trust that I could be invited for a drink in foreign territory. Even to this day, I have no idea whether Opposition apparatchiks were regularly invited to have a drink with Freudenberg under such circumstances, and although I did not talk about it with my colleagues, I doubt it was a regular occurrence.

In a Parliamentary system which is constructed as adversarial, there are many friendships which cross political borders. These friendships are ephemeral, but if you want to maintain even such ephemera, you needed to be trusted.  Leaking the other’s confidential material is a sport. There appear to be two major ways to leak – one is to leak to inherently lazy journalists, a process which Bjelke Petersen called “feeding the chooks”; the other is to leak against members of your own side, mostly to try and destroy them.

I had one experience of being accused of leaking to Laurie Oakes the contents of a sensitive meeting between Bill Snedden, Jim Carlton, then the general secretary of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party, and then Premier of the NSW, Bob Askin. I was taken to lunch – I remember by Tim Pascoe, then a Liberal Party operative – and he passed on Jim Carlton’s concern that I had leaked the details to Laurie Oakes. Why? Because I was seen as close to Oakes at that time. I did not know what he was talking about, as Snedden had not mentioned the matter to me. When I confronted Oakes, he admitted it was Askin. Carlton would not have believed that such a luminary as Askin would leak – after all, he was the Premier. It was just one accusation used in undermining my position. I informed Snedden of my conversation but otherwise kept quiet. Now, so many years on, who cares about revealing the leaker – but remember the lesson, never pick the obvious.

Many of those who leak are very skilled, but not all! Morrison has more than a touch of McMahon, but more a watering can than a simple leaker.

Remembering Albright

Madeleine Albright died last week. She was the first woman US Secretary of State. I reckon she was worthy of noting. I don’t know whether her contribution to diplomacy will necessarily be more than a historical footnote, but she epitomised one thing to me – when you viewed her performance, you never thought about gender. She was a top diplomat, full stop.

She was born a Czech and as a Slav was looked down on as an inferior race by the Germans, who partitioned her country in 1938. Her early years were thus against the background of a War not far away. Her family escaped from Czechoslovakia after the War. I was once married to someone, younger than Albright but who endured similar traumatic childhood years in Europe. She grew up with a strong sense of morality – what was right or wrong, rather than just whether something was acceptable and something not.  I suspect that Madeleine Albright was not that much different.

Below are random quotes mostly garnered from the Boston Globe.

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Bush’s proposed “surge” in U.S. troops in bloodied Iraq, she responded: “I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect.”

Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London.

As Secretary of State, she played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. “My mindset is Munich,” she said frequently, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.

She helped win Senate ratification of NATO’s expansion and a treaty imposing international restrictions on chemical weapons. She led a successful fight to keep Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term as secretary-general of the United Nations. He accused her of deception and posing as a friend.

In her U.N. post, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia. And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Albright’s comments almost made him have an “aneurysm”.

An aneurysm? Really, I have never thought of somebody inducing an aneurysm. An aneurysm of Generals? I would have thought more appropriate “an aneurysm of politicians”, you know, prone to leaking.

The Floods – The Clarence River

I am fascinated by the lack of national funding for flood mitigation works, but then the levers of power are firmly in the hands of the climate change deniers. Whether that changes if the current Government is defeated is not known, because of the intrinsic influence of the fossil fuel industry and the nostalgic attachment to coal that the Labor Party has, is strong. The Russo-Ukrainian War has provided the climate change deniers, albeit sceptics, with a reason to stick to the old fossil formulae.

Just for the record, there are three major river catchments broadly labelled the Northern Rivers, which lie between the Great Dividing Range and the Coral Sea. The Tweed near the Queensland border, the Richmond River tributary where Lismore is situated and the Clarence River Catchment, south of the Queensland border, the biggest catchment area apart from the Murray River. Apart from the Clarence River itself, it has 24 tributaries and creeks – including the substantial Nymboida and Mann Rivers.

Lismore floods

The ongoing Northern Rivers flooding has left us with images of devastation with particularly Lismore almost completely submerged by the Wilson River, a tributary of the Richmond River.

Yet Grafton on the Clarence River was barely affected. It was not that there was not the same huge volume of water, but Grafton has a 17 km long levee running through the city; the levee is 8.13 metres in height. The flood reached 7.66 metres, and therefore if there were any breaches, they could have been sandbagged relatively easily. Where there was flooding in Grafton it was just the direct amount of rainwater falling within the levee, and the pumps unable to remove it quickly enough. It was suggested to me that those living here are acutely aware of the town being prone to flooding, and the cost of pumps to prevent such limited flooding are prohibitively expensive. That is the key word to describe the level of risks that a community should bear for a particularly flood prone area.  In blunt terms, with the climate in flux should we encourage re-construction on water?

I was informed by a hydrologist that there is a finite capacity of clouds to hold rain, and if this was calculated out in terms of how high the levee level in Grafton should be, it would be 9.17 metres. Thus, Grafton is still not completely flood proof. Therefore, the question arises as to whether raising the height of the levee another metre is worth the expense.

By contrast, South Grafton mostly escaped flooding because it was built on a hill.

Lismore, Grafton and Maclean were originally built as ports when there was no other feasible way of getting produce in and out of the region. Ships could be loaded and unloaded and it was in the interest of the populace to keep the rivers dredged – but that did not stop floods occurring. The population was smaller and the memories of past floods were sufficiently fresh for the building floors to be kept as clear as possible.

In a previous blog I talked about the expertise the Dutch have developed in dealing with floods since the disastrous North Sea flood of 1953. I wondered whether we had ever tapped into such expertise. In response to this question, I was directed to the 2017 Report entitled: Flood Safety in the Clarence Valley Feasibility study into flood mitigation measures to make ‘Room for the River’”, prepared for the Clarence Valley Council.

In this study, six post-graduate students from Delft University of Technology (Delft TU), one of the top universities in the world across a wide range of technologies, were part of the collaboration. Part of the Dutch solution is to maximise the ability of the floodplain to absorb the excess water – hence the name “Room for the River”. It is not a universal panacea but minimising the number of trees, not to mention housing, on the flood plain does help in a flood where the detritus such as tree logs can cause immense destruction, especially if there are barrages across the river that may be vulnerable to fast flowing detritus ramming into them. Also, if there is a lot of such detritus, houses on stilts – the typical Queenslander – are not immune but also may be knocked over by the combined force of the water and uprooted vegetation.

The Report concluded by saying that the impact of flooding in urban areas of the Clarence Valley can be reduced by making use of the storage capacity of floodplains. Currently, no urban flooding occurs for the 5 year average recurrence interval (ARI) flood events. The urban flooding during a 20 year ARI flood event, can be mitigated by using only the storage capacity of the Southampton Floodplain.

To prevent urban areas from flooding during the 50 year ARI flood event (and higher order flood events), more extensive measures need to be taken. The combination of heightening the levees around Grafton and making use of the Southampton Floodplain, Baker’s Swamp and the Clarenza Floodplain should be investigated. Around Maclean, no scenarios were modelled but some upstream measures showed a reduction in the impact of flooding of Maclean as well.  

For the Swan Creek Floodgate, more research into the cause for the occurring stability problems is required. In order to maintain the floodgate’s function in the future, one could apply one of the proposed solutions. For the Maclean Levee Walls, piping problems are identified, which could lead to stability problems. This report shows the possibility of using floodplains as flood mitigation strategy in the Clarence Valley. Agricultural areas can be inundated in case of high discharges.

The most common strategy nowadays is increasing levee heights, which only solves the problem locally. By using the storage capacity of floodplains, one could solve flooding regionally as the storage of water influences downstream areas too. An example is the upstream measures taken near Grafton, which also reduce flooding in Maclean. However, to implement the strategy of creating more ‘Room for the River’, a shift in mitigation strategies is needed. This shift in mitigation strategy could be a long-term solution to reduce flood impact in urban areas in the Clarence Valley, and possibly other flooding-vulnerable areas in Australia.

Having said that the Report was open about its limitations in saying “The financial aspects have not been taken into account for any proposed simulation or solution in this chapter. For example, information on execution costs, material costs and project costs is unknown. If a budget-objective would have been taken into account for the multi-criteria analysis, possibly other scenarios would have been assessed in more detail. Due to the limit time of this study and lack of knowledge no financial assessment has been made.

The reason I concentrated on this Report was because of the Dutch contribution and how Grafton has been relatively unscathed, unlike Lismore. On reading another 2017 report on Lismore about the prospect of flooding, there seemed to be an attitude more of defiance rather than admitting a need to do anything radical, apart from saying that the town centre was historically placed right on the river, no longer important. There were many photographs of houses on stilts in this Report, which said that 13 metres was the height limit, as if to say, such housing provided immunity. Lismore, with its topography of hills and valleys, presents its own problems, but perhaps the solution is to move the whole city centre, especially as it becomes uninsurable.

For Governments with grand designs and recognising the Northern area catchments are combined into a crucially productive areas of the State, perhaps it is worthy of expenditure rather than the umpteenth sporting stadium or having an inland railway stretching from Boondoggle 1 to Boondoggle 2.

There have been many Reports. Given that climate change is altering the narrative to a need for urgent action, why is the whole area of flood mitigation not a prime expenditure item foreshadowed in the Federal Budget just handed down?

The Island Part II

The view of the Gut from Five Rivers Lookout

This follows on the first part of Bill’s Kimberley adventure from Kununurra and Wyndham to pick up a hire care including his introduction to the Wandjina and describes waiting for the car to be fixed; fittingly the intermission in the most northernmost town in Western Australia, the prime port for the export of livestock.

It was near dusk. They had reached the town. They had found the car and Bill confirmed quickly that it had two flat tyres.

At last, Bill had reached the opening paragraph of his travelogue. There was the vehicle…

They dropped him off at the garage. They’d said: “Why not wait until morning?” But Bill wanted the car fixed.  The guys in the workshops were still working on other vehicles but the boss looked Bill up and down and said “OK, we’ll fix the car. “

They’d seen the car — it had been there for days. And they had the requisite tyres in stock. Bill was somewhat surprised — they had the tyres, and they were prepared and come and change them. Bill was only to learn later that the Avis people had telephoned, and the garage was expecting him. They were only slightly grumpy with him turning up as late as he did, but they were not prepared to do anything until he arrived.

The other doctors had hovered and continued to press him to stay in the Port. Bill again refused. He wanted to get back — no reason except he had no gear with him; and he was a creature of habit. He wanted to wake up in in his motel bed with his own familiar comforts, including his particular non-allergic shaving cream.

The senior specialist’s manner had a slight edge as if he wanted to get to his motel. He had done enough for Bill.

A minor concession: “We’ll drop you off up at the hospital where you can get something to eat, someone will surely be able to drop you off back at the car.” — The garage owner said he would bring the car up to the hospital, because they’d also need to do a quick wheel alignment — and that would give him time to eat.

The hospital was on the edge of town. Once they had dropped him off, he went up the steps and found what passed for a doctor’s lounge.

He sat down and it was not long before a guy whom he recognised from his student days walked in. This doctor had been a few years behind him at medical school. Bill remembered this guy’s name was Graham. It’s funny that people who have a regard for one another, but haven’t seen one another for years can quickly pick up the threads of their intervening careers. Graham had come to the Port soon after his first year residency and liked the area. He offered a Bill a drink. Dinner had been early. There were biscuits and some cheese in the fridge — perhaps a very few pieces of fruit. Bill said no worries — he would eat when he got back to Town.

Graham himself opened a can of beer and sat at the edge of the lounge. He lived at the hospital. A few others moved into the room and went for the fridge. It was very low-key. They talked briefly to Graham about a patient; Graham said he would go and see him later.

Graham was a contemplative man. He seemed relaxed in his body, yet his face bore a serious gaze.

Graham sat quietly looking at Bill in the deepening shadows of the room, still sipping his beer. He worried that Bill would not eat, but Bill said he was more alert on an empty stomach — and he had only a little of his beer.

Graham said, “Watch the night. The cattle come out on the road when you least expect it.” Bill asked about kangaroos. Graham responded by saying, “Watch the cattle; they are complete bastards. Anyway, there are few kangaroos in this area. But the cattle just come out of nowhere. The first couple of kilometres are not too bad. But after the Intersection, the country is alive with the stupid bastards.”

At that point, the garage owner appeared. Everything was ok. As for the tyres that he’d replaced, he said: “Bald as buggery. Rat shit, both of them, but I put them in the boot for you.” Bill said thanks, and took the keys. He thanked Graham for the warning, put down his half empty can, said goodbye and walked down the steps to the car.

The hill behind the hospital had almost disappeared into the night. The town itself was now consumed in its shadows. The garage owner had left with the parting shot: “Hire cars dragged up from the Big Smoke — good for city driving, but shit here! Anyway, if you drive carefully, you should miss everything, as long as it doesn’t move. Thank God, there are no emus in this part of the world.” He departed with a faint laugh.

Bill on the move now. The moon cast a faint light — headlights full on, passing the derestriction sign, he was headed back to base. Still, he felt uncomfortable against the hard vinyl seat back. The white lines of the road streamed under the yellow stare of the car lights. No other light anywhere. The scenery had become amorphous; no longer the sweeping watercolour vistas which had absorbed him during the afternoon. Now he was concentrated on the road and the accompanying distance signs. (To be completed)

Rupert could not have said it better

Ketanji Brown Jackson

One of life’s inexplicable wonders is how Harvard can produce someone as grounded and poised and principled as Ketanji Brown Jackson and also someone as unmoored and annoying and unscrupulous as Ted Cruz.

Jackson’s confirmation hearing start to finish is proved a marathon of high drama and low farce.

Just a comment in the Washington Post, saying it all about the puerile performances led by the Number One Disliked Senator, “the Saurian Cruz Slip”, at the confirmation of Justice Jackson to the Supreme Court.

Mouse Whisper

Invasion of Poland (1939)
Casualties and losses
Germany: 16,343 killed, 3,500 missing, 30,300 wounded Slovakia: 37 killed, 11 missing, 114 wounded USSR: 1,475 killed or missing, 2,383 wounded Poland: 66,000 dead, 133,700 wounded, 694,000 captured

As this blog mentioned some time ago, this campaign lasted 38 days. The Russo-Ukranian War reaches this day on April 3. A month has passed, as the media has noted, but a month is a short time when February is factored into any comparison. Above are figures from Google but even if there may be certain caveats, it is a not bad estimate. At that time, Poland had a population of 35 million; then over 5 million were killed in World War II, including 90 per cent of the Jewish population.

Looking at the above figures, with it coming in late to share the spoils, Russia should not have the emblem of Bear, but more Hyaena.

Final Question

Is Mariupol the Russian’s equivalent of the German’s Stalingrad?

Before the Russo-Ukrainian war, Mariupol’s population was 446,103

Before World War II, Stalingrad’s population was 445,476.

Modest Expectations – Clive Lloyd

In this lockdown, gazing up through the grate of our oubliette at the caerulean blue sky above, I thought about the place in Australia where I’d rather be more than anywhere else. After all, we love the West Coast of Tasmania and I love driving out from Broken Hill at sunset and seeing the Mundi Mundi Plains spread out below me; the small dust speck of a car streaking across the plain lives in my memory.

I could ramble on and on – Jacob’s ladder in the Indian Ocean at Broome; the total eclipse of the sun at Ceduna and even my first adventure in the bush when I, still in kindergarten, climbed up Little Joe – and so on – wallowing in the reminiscences of being privileged, able to travel around Australia.

No, the place that I would rather be is sitting at the edge of the river where the Darling River empties into the Murray River, near Wentworth. It is the epitome of serenity, where all you have to do is just watch as these two major arteries which maintain life in the Southern Part of the Continent sustain life, come together.

It is not as though being there you are far from civilisation. If you you’re your gaze away from the rivers you can see through the river red gum foliage a collection of nondescript houses, a recreation reserve and even paved streets. The hospital at Wentworth, essentially a nursing home of 22 beds when I was last there, lies on a spit of land near the junction of the rivers – unfortunately the rooms at the hospital do not have a river view. There is also the disfigurement of a viewing tower.  Fortunately, that and the buildings do not contaminate my view of the river.

What is beautiful is being able to shut all that out at the water’s edge. Just watching the rivers move; one having flowed from the Snowy Mountains, the other from Queensland, picking up many a tributary along the way – as a giant imperial force, until it finds that the real emperor with its own of tributaries from NSW and Victoria justly receives its homage as the Darling salutes her, not as a rushing torrent but as a genial meeting of the waters. Yet there is always the vulnerability of the Darling river being bled until in parts it is reduced to pools of water.

I have seen where other giant rivers come together, such as the Missouri and the Mississippi at St Louis and the Rio Negro entering the Amazon at Manaus. The first conjunction is not spectacular – just one meandering around low marsh land as though accidently meeting. The other is more spectacular, bringing its distinctive colour, seemingly black at a distance but in reality umber, to be dissipated by its mighty tawny relative. “Mighty” is the word attached to big rivers. I had a colleague who always prefaced Murray with “mighty”.

River red gum

Shaded by the river red gums that provide the arcade through which one moves towards the other there is a certain tranquillity, which even the sulphur crested and the black cockatoos screeching above, cannot disturb. Their noise enables me to block out the sounds of the dusty dirty city to coin a phase. Their racket is counterpointed by the black swans noiselessly passing by and the wild ducks which move with the merest splash.

Near the open space there is patch of long reed and sedge, which has to be negotiated if you want to wander down the river to get a better vantage point. I have always watched for snakes because water and tiger snakes go together in Australia. Fortunately, there is a narrow path cut through the reeds, but unfortunately I cannot pivot this story. I have never seen a tiger snake there.

I found a relevant scrap of paper to complement the above reminiscence. In the past, I would jot things down, but did not have the time to do anything more with them then. However, I tend to find them tucked away. This is the story of my life. I once wrote a series of short stories, which I labelled Outlines in numerical order. I remember giving them to the late Brian Johns and he gave them to someone to assess. The reviewer came back and said they sure were outlines – implying how little content there was. I thought that somewhat cruel, but I shrugged; I had other outlines that needed attention – and these short stories ended up in my chaotic filing system.

I have been thinking about that criticism as I‘ve being doing an archaeological dig through my existence. Maybe that has been the description of who I am – an outline that has drifted along through a series of those undulating hills – perhaps towards that “green hill far away”. Anyway, enough of that!

This scrap of paper which was obviously written for some long-forgotten speech as it floridly commenced: “I was festooned with gown and caduceus” as the rather awkward opening gambit.

When I worked onwards through my notes, it described a route I travelled very rarely, between Broken Hill and Mildura. Mostly I drove the Silver City Highway, which was a sealed road. That was never a guarantee against the odd kangaroo, so I tried to avoid driving at dusk.  But the early morning was also a dangerous time. I was somewhat shocked to see this grey furry blur disappearing under the left headlight and how I missed it, God only knows – as well does the kangaroo.

The other route from Broken Hill to Mildura is partially sealed. Driving to Menindee, the road is paved. Menindee is a strongly aboriginal township, but without the notoriety of Wilcannia.

When I would reach Menindee, I usually sat down for a beer in the internal courtyard of the hotel. Here was where Burke and Wills stayed, but since that time the pub has burnt down, losing that authenticity, and that single hibiscus which grew in the courtyard.

Burke and Wills campsite

When I was there then, there was water in the Menindee Lakes because rainfall had been moderate in the early 1990s. I since have seen the lakes waterless. I found it distressing because dry Menindee Lakes signal a distressed river. Near the four Menindee Lakes, there is a sign that says Burke and Wills camped there; well, they had taken 18 men with them, and those that had not resigned stayed by the Lakes.  Burke and Wills were ensconced in the inn. The journey from Melbourne had taken two months to arrive there with their wagons, horses and 22 camels. As I sat in the courtyard drinking a beer and looking abstractedly at the walls, I wrote down “…we all have magnificent obsessions, for in the end we are a long time dead”.

In the annals of Australian exploration the Burke and Wills expedition was a gigantic “cock-up”, but as with the Gallipoli disaster, it is a part of the national psyche to not only remember but also venerate these occasions.

From Menindee to travel south, I drove on to Pooncarie, also on the Darling River. The road between the two townships was just bulldust then. Not only does an oncoming vehicle create a sandstorm, but what may appear to be a smooth sandy roadway can be a cover for large craters. A nice little trap for those who want to “fang” along. If you want to deviate away from the delights of Pooncarie, population 48, you can drive towards Mungo National Park, named after Mungo MacCallum whose forefathers inhabited the region before they anglicised their name to Wentworth, that nearby town standing on traditional land.

Va bene, I have been known to pull the end of a leg. But MacCallum inherited certain of the Wentworth traits.

Anyway, apart from being back on the Darling River, Pooncarie has a pub, a community health centre and an airstrip – but not much more. The fact that the Pooncarie Cup in October is the highlight says a great deal about these tiny settlements. This is not a value judgement, just an observation. If it is not an annual race meeting, it is a rodeo. The next step up are the annual shows or field days – I don’t quite know where to rank the B&S Balls.

Wentworth and Mildura are not that distant from one another – the orange groves surrounded by arid land soon appear. After a drive through the waterless land, citrus groves are civilisation. They have proliferated all along the road. This is the Sunraysia District.

The road is sealed and it has been the work of the then local member of Parliament who, as he always did when he was determined, had the road made some years before, after a time when the township was cut off by floods and a pregnant woman died because she could not be evacuated in time.

The medical service at Wentworth was appalling at the time I was there, but that was the problem with rural medicine. Out there were a number of weird doctors, who survived because they were often in single person practices and nobody was watching them.  Wentworth was one of these captured townships. As I found out, it was almost impossible to get dysfunctional doctors deregistered then.  Wentworth residents had some solace of knowing that Mildura was only 30 minutes away. However, as was demonstrated, Pooncarie was a township too far. Needless to say, its population did not justify a doctor.

Confluence of Darling and Murray Rivers

Then again, I am sitting here in my favourite place where the rivers run together and as I watch silently, I recall what Yeats once wrote:

“…Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence
.”

Snakes alive

I have always been wary of snakes. As I wrote above, I always look where I am putting my feet. The reason is that when I was about 14 years old, I went to retrieve a football which I had kicked over the fence into the long grass. I was wearing thick socks and football boots. I forget why I was kitted up – but fortunately I was, as it turned out.

Eastern brown

It all happened in such a flash. I was about to pick up my football when I felt as though I stood on a pipe, there was this sting in my leg and a saw a greenish brown body of what I presumed to be a snake slithering away.

When I went back over the fence to home, I pulled my sock off revealing two distinct puncture marks in my calf. The ambulance was called; I don’t remember much after that – until the ambulance arrived. I know my father, who was a doctor was not there. Somebody in the house may have tried to tourniquet my leg. There was nobody there to try do anything much with the puncture marks apart from washing it.

As I remember it, nothing much happened. The ambulance drivers arrived with polyvalent antivenene. First, they had to give me a small amount to test my reaction. I had a major local reaction. They did not give me the full dose.  While this was going on, minutes were ticking over and I remained symptomless.

I had been bitten, that was clear. Why had nothing occurred? The snake was later to be identified when a few weeks later, workers clearing the site for the construction of a telephone exchange killed an eastern brown snake.  That would fit the fleeting picture I had.

Ever since I have speculated while I had no systemic signs. Perhaps the football sock absorbed the venom; or as does happen, the first strike often does not contain any venom. The eastern brown snake is very venomous, and even though its fangs are short, they were still able to imprint my leg with the tell-tale puncture marks.

Anyway, that is my snake story. Anticlimactic but true. Come on, do you know anybody who was bitten by a snake?

Not a household name

Allyson Felix won her 11th career Olympic medal Saturday, combining with her American teammates to finish the 4×400-meter relay in 3 minutes, 16.85 seconds for a runaway victory.

The team of Felix, Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu was never in jeopardy in this one. Poland finished second, 3.68 seconds behind, and Jamaica finished third.

Felix, who became the most-decorated woman in Olympic track history when she won bronze in the 400 the night before, now passes Carl Lewis with the most track medals of any US athlete. Of the 11 medals, seven are gold.

No doubt an amazing feat, but she is hardly a household name in Australia. Similarly in USA, who had heard of Emma McKeon, certainly not the NYT.

The Olympic Games has been used by the venal to justify their existence by these fleeting illusions. Unfortunately, it is a drug for politicians to cloak their venality in collaboration with the dark forces of the IOC.

Norman, Smith, Carlos

Yet the Olympic Games has spawned for each nation a pantheon. Even re-telling the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms in the Black Panther salute in the 200 metres victory ceremony, Americans fail to recognise the role of the whitefella on the podium with the human rights badge. He was Peter Norman, and his intrinsic solidarity with the two others was victimised by a spiteful hierarchy which foreshortened his career. When Norman died in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral. Needless to say, these three men have been belatedly recognised for what they did. However, the essential humanity of this trio have been brushed away by the Olympic seigneurs with their “joy-boy” vassals that still roam the upper feudal reaches of the “sporting family”.

Perhaps the man most associated with the Olympic ideals was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The story is well known of his friendship with the German athlete Luz Long, who assisted Owens in his long jump style. Long’s name dissolved into time as he had been killed in World War 11 in Italy. His legacy, a letter to Owens re-affirming his friendship, was written just before his death on the battlefield.

However, there is a lesser-known story about Owens in Berlin where he was befriended by one of the Finnish sprinters, Toivo Sariola. When Owens said he felt unsafe in the streets, Toivo said Owens should join his group and thus the Finns would protect him in the city. Owens greatly appreciated Toivo’s gesture. After the USA’s victory in the Men’s 4x100m relay final, Jesse donated the USA team’s baton to Toivo and wrote on it “With friendship to Toivo Sariola”.

Paavo Nurmi

From 1912 to 1928, Finland was never lower than fourth in the medal count and, in 1924, finished second with 14 gold medals. This was the time of the distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who was always mentioned in the same tone of reverence as Owen. At the 1924 Paris Games, Nurmi made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Over four days, Nurmi won the 1,500 metres, the 5,000 metres, the 3,000 metres team event and the two cross-country events. He was prevented from competing in the 10,000 metres because officials thought it would be too much. Nurmi broke the record for the 10,000 metres very soon after, a record which stood for 13 years.

But how times change. In 1924, Australia sent 37 athletes; the Finns 121. In Tokyo 2020, Australia sent 472 and the Fins 45.

At the 2020 Olympic games Finland won two bronze medals. Since 2000, Finland has only won one gold medal – in shooting.

Helsinki was due to hold the Olympic Games in 1940 and, although the Finns had built some of the venues, it was a difficult proposition to hold the Games and at the same time battle what we would term today as “the Russian variant”, while the whole of Europe was succumbing to a much more virulent “Hitler variant”. Compare that with Tokyo today, and if the world had been able to visually enhance the virus particles so it could be visible, I doubt if Tokyo would have gone ahead. After all, Spanish flu did not disrupt the Olympic Games cycle in the 1920s for perhaps the same reason. It was unseen.

One the major scandals to have coloured the modern Finn’s view of sporting success has been in 2001 the Finn Nordic skiing team being caught systematically doping. Six top Finnish skiers were caught and disqualified.  They were using a plasma expander to mask erythropoietin usage, for which there was no reliable test at the time. The scandal was covered in the national press as a matter of public shame, and there was a sense of collective embarrassment in the country.

As one commentator said: “For the Finns, the worst thing about the doping scandal was not, however, the scandal itself. The worst thing was that, along with the facade of honesty in sports in general, the myth of the honest, hardworking Finn came crashing down.”

Yet before there had been the Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, who dominated distance running in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He claimed reindeer milk and running long distances in the snow and at altitude was his secret. He never admitted to blood doping, which was then not illegal (until 1986). One reflection:

Scandinavia had helped pioneer the practice for winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing. It was very much in vogue in Finland at the time of Viren’s arrival on the world stage, and that he only seemed to peak at the major competitions added fuel to the speculation that blood doping had to be part of his preparation.

Even though it was legal at the time, to some people it offered a clear and unfair advantage, while others reckoned it was merely a more scientific form of say altitude training, and simply used the body’s own resources in a more productive manner.

Salla, Finland

The Finns are intense people with a dry sense of humour. One of the bids for the 2032 Summer Games was from Salla in the very north of Finland, one of the coldest places there.  The bid for 2032, was based on  the climate with global warming being just right for Salla  holding the Summer Games. One Finnish word for this parodic exercise is ironinen.

Helsinki did eventually hold the Olympics Games in 1952, using those facilities which had been built pre-war. Even now they are impressive. One source has stated there is no way of telling even the approximate cost of these ventures.   One figure was an “on books” cost of 1,580 million finnmarks and the Committee reported a 49 million mark loss.

It is significant that for Tokyo, the Finns sent their Minister for Science and Culture, Antti Kurvinen, who was there to discuss the themes of education and competence, especially from the perspective of the digital transformation, research and innovation.  Not sport. He is a significant figure in the Finland Government, being also head of the Liberal Party Parliamentary Group. The Finnish words for “political junket” are “poliittista roskaa” (literally political rubbish). One would be forgiven for thinking that is the overall Finn view of the Olympic Games.

Over Coates

There is one fact that has got lost in the ebullience of Brisbane overcoming the sturdy opposition of Salla, that Finnish megapolis within the Arctic circle of 50 people.  There has been no announcement for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Yet.  The Washington Post has wryly commented that: “you’ll notice an unprecedented hole, the 2030 Winter Games, still looking for a home. There’s a reason for that. The world has caught onto the ruse and the Olympics need to respond by acknowledging their process is outdated and unnecessary.” To use that new collective noun, it may well be that there is an inadequacy of bidders, or perhaps serious bidders.

Curling, 2030

But wait! What about Canberra? What a great idea!  Could use that Parliament House foyer for curling. Come on, Scotty what about it? Worth a few media releases. Send the hares running up the ski runs at Perisher. But be prepared for those “over coates” to guard against that pending reign.

Mouse Whisper

For Finns, silence is golden; talking is silver.

This was demonstrated to me when I met my cousin Hiiri dragging a large vial of vodka across the sauna floor.

He motioned to me to open the vial, and I poured each of us a thimble. Before each thimble in honour of his presence, I would cry “Skål”.  Hiiri remained mute again. I raised the thimble and again cried out “Skål”. Hiiri said nothing.  Again… and again. Skål. Skål.

Even though he said nothing, I could see Hiiri was getting irritable.

Then suddenly Hiiri burst out: “The trouble with you Australian mice, you talk too much.”

That was ten words.

Modest Expectations – Seaplanes & Submarines

When I was a medical student in the early 1960s, I wrote a novel ostensibly about a day in the life of a medical student. It was not particularly good, but I kept a copy of it. When I revisited it a few years ago, I was amazed at the anger and repressed violence portrayed by the anti-hero who was a reasonable facsimile of myself at that age – rootless, one who read snatches of Salinger, Camus, Kerouac, Orwell, Fanon, Hemingway – anarchic without a clue how to approach women. Boy’s school product without mother or any sisters. I was the heroic anti-hero.  Oh, yeah! I shudder to think how I negotiated my late teenage years.

However, reassessing the novel again, it having laid undisturbed for so many years, I was able to do something that was for me unique, look back on how I thought then. Bit of a worry, but it gave me an insight into what I was saying then; and what was clearly locked into my subconscious now became completely plain to the older me.

The antihero’s attitude to women was appalling. I was the writer. I could not believe that I had written some of the stuff. The plot was OK, if you like idiosyncratic self-absorption. Some of the writing I could now barely understand. Anyway, the rejection note from Rigby’s was very polite. I remember for some reason opening it on a rainy day in Adelaide. Why Adelaide – who knows? One of the mysteries of life. For a long time the rejection destroyed the author in me.

Not that I noticed as the years slipped by. Remembering the oversized cupboard I had for an office in old Parliament House, the relief was palpable when, after a day of claustrophobia, I could escape to the non-members bar.

Perhaps, had I gone back to my flat in the evenings, I would have written my diary and perhaps reflected on the draft novel. However had I done so, I would have missed out on a great deal of gossip relevant for the next day. With the small number we had in the office in those days, there was little time for “hanging out” apart from the bar. It was difficult to go out for dinner, and when you did The Lobby was the most convenient place, but dinner was always rushed.  You had to get back to the House by 8.00 pm.

So, the recent proposal to limit alcohol consumption in Parliament House in my time would have received few votes, but then Parliament House was not the widespread prairie it is now and staff numbers were roughly proportional to the workload.  Judging by the antics by this expanded fringe that are being reported, there were more of us with an IQ greater than 100. Recruitment should be improved, and “friend of my cousin’s son” should not be the prime criterion for employment. That is more important than any attempt to muzzle the “booze culture”.

The only night I remember going home early was my first night in Parliament House; thereafter on the sitting days it was full on, as was socialising, but in those days the opinion leaders in the non-members bar were all men. That was for sure.

Carrie Nation, with hatchet

The booze problem seems to be an enduring characteristic of politics. Carrie Nation developed a notoriety by spending many years destroying bars in the Mid-west. Her weapon was a hatchet; she was arrested and fined on countless occasions as she ran this rugged temperance movement. Her activities preceded the disastrous Prohibition Period.

I doubt whether there is a Carrie Nation character willing to metaphorically take an axe to alcohol in Parliament House. Banning alcohol, breath testing and testing for drugs, all knee jerk responses unthought out, will just fade away like so much editorial fluff.

Nevertheless, Carrie Nation did something which could be emulated by these Parliamentary women looking for a project to which they could all contribute. Carrie Nation set up refuges for women who were victims of abuse where alcohol was the major contributing factor.

When I was in charge of a community health program in the 1970s, the Department was intensely conservative; it could be said that members of the Santamaria Curia, laughingly referred to as the Democratic Labour Party, were firmly ensconced in senior levels of the Victorian public service as it was in some of the health funds. My administrative officer had been brought up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. At that time, it was somewhat confronting when the woman running refuges turned up with spiky hair and leather jacket. We did not bother the senior echelons of the Department in funding for these refuges.

Over to you Senator Stoker, learn something about something.

And moreover

Anonymouse

Every time I get in my car – a modest French model – I curse the car designers who don’t seem to be able to manufacture a car that has a seatbelt that fits.  The same has applied to previous cars of different brands. The adjustment offered is just sufficient to ensure the seatbelt cuts across my neck and neatly tucks under my left armpit. Is this a problem?  Yes, of course it is.

In a recent New York Review article, “Invisible Women: Data bias in a world designed for men”, the problems caused by the data gap are described: seat belts, airbags and wearable electronic devices are designed for the average male and no seat belt has ever been designed to safely accommodate a pregnant woman.  In the US, women are 17 per cent more likely than men to die in a car crash and 73 per cent more likely to be injured in a frontal crash despite being involved in fewer accidents … presumably they are being strangled by an ill-fitting seatbelt.

Only now is the first crash test dummy that accurately represents women’s bodies being developed, in Sweden. America only started using female dummies in safety tests in 2011, but these apparently don’t represent average women. Although 50 per cent of drivers are women, the industry standard is based on “male” crash test dummies in the driver’s seat.

Australian car manufacturers made some desultory efforts to acknowledge that women were a growing part of the vehicle market. Remember the make-up mirror behind the sun visor, colours designed especially for “the ladies”, and “nice mats so the high heels aren’t scuffed” that were once promoted? Fortunately, these ridiculous promotions seem to have vanished, but the seat belt problem remains, grounded in the same failure to ensure that data specifically relating to women are included in relevant data.

The data gap doesn’t just exist to make cars uncomfortable (well, downright dangerous actually).  Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic.  PPE is designed to fit the “average man” however the vast majority of nurses are female, as are a significant proportion of emergency department doctors and new medical registrars; they have to work in PPE designed for men. Ninety-five per cent of women in emergency services say their PPE don’t fit, and that includes bullet proof vests as well.

Medical devices  have been designed for the male body. For example, the design of the metal-on-metal hip implant, supposedly a gender-neutral medical device, disproportionately injure women, who receive more replacements.  The design is too shallow for women’s wider hips leaving it more likely that metal particles will break off the implant, or that it will fail.

The impact of this data bias ends up in court: it is reported that in the US in 2018, 32 per cent of lawsuits pending in the Federal court involved products that exclusively or primarily injured women; at the same time 6.4 per cent of the mass torts involved products exclusively affecting men – Viagra, the male hair-loss drug Propecia and Adrogel, a testosterone replacement therapy. However, a comparison of individual lawsuits starkly illustrates the problem: 9,969 federal lawsuits involved products that exclusively harmed men; contrast 67,085 federal lawsuits were brought by women in relation to pelvic mesh alone.

The Prime Minister has appointed a cadre of female Ministers to improve the appalling culture in Australia’s Parliament House revealed by  multiple complaints of sexual assault and bad behaviour. He has an opportunity to be other than reactionary. There is no doubt that the culture of Parliament House must change, just as the broader culture of Australia needs to change. Government must play its part in that but at the same time the Prime Minister has an opportunity to make a mark – time for data bias to be eliminated, time for women to not have to “make do” with things designed for men.  Australia was one of the first countries in the world to make seat belts compulsory; time to lead the world and make them as safe for women as for men.

So Grace Tame, you are striving to bring about improvement in the lives of women, how about advocating a technology revolution to design women-friendly devices.

It was no Rainbow

Now that I am firmly on reminiscent road, my second night in Parliament House still sticks in my memory. After the House rose for the evening, I was having a drink with Snedden to celebrate the end of my second day, when two journalists turned up. Snedden had an easy relationship with many in the Press Gallery, and these two senior journalists turned up to see what Snedden had employed as his Principal Private Secretary (PPS), now referred to as the Chief of Staff. In those days, the media cover of staff appointment was perfunctory, but the Press Gallery apparently knew I was a doctor. Incidentally, not being regularly in the media spotlight was a blessing.

The appointment of a doctor to staff was not that unusual. Whitlam’s PPS was also medically qualified. Peter Wilenski had been President of the Sydney Union at about the time I had been President of the University of Melbourne Student Representative Council. Wilenski had branched out of medicine into a career as a diplomat; while I had remained in medicine although I found time to complete the preliminary requirements for a Master of Arts which I never found time to finish the thesis.

Greenstreet and Lorre

Anyway, these two characters arrived – to me, as they entered the room, they projected the imagery of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre just stepping out of a film noir – one large and lumbering but with a touch of menace and the other slight with the delicately honed syntax of the intellectual. They had combined to write a book on the 1972 election of Gough Whitlam.

I had been prepared to pack up and go back to the motel but their appearance and invitation for a drink put the kibosh on that. Snedden had a particularly close relationship with Oakes at that time; Oakes had the ability of making him relax for he was a different person in private from the public persona which was often appeared stilted and pompous.  This easy relationship at that time was demonstrated a few drinks later when Snedden performed his party trick – his standing jump onto the coffee table. Very boys own. At that time, Oakes had a certain presence of honed maturity, which made me forget he was still only 28. When he laughed, it was always suppressed as he tried to keep his response to himself, and to maintain that look which some confused with Buddhic depth – but I always saw Sidney Greenstreet.

Snedden then left me to joust with Oakes and Solomon. About 3am we called it quits, a draw. Laurie Oakes had been a member of the Liberal Club at the University of Sydney, whereas David Solomon was the classic Fabian. Yet it showed the fact that politics circulated around the centre rather than being the preserve of the extremes. Nevertheless, as I have written before, the political centre is like the magnetic pole. It shifts.

I believe reflecting from a long way away but with the benefit of considerable hindsight that if Laurie Oakes had replaced Geoff Allen in the latter part of 1973 as Snedden’s Press Secretary, he would have provided the muscle to dissuade Snedden from precipitating the 1974 Federal election.

I remember being next to Snedden on the flight to Canberra when he read that Whitlam had appointed Vince Gair as Ambassador to Ireland. His immediate visceral reaction was to take Whitlam to the election. In the end, the decision to precipitate the election fractured the relationship between Snedden and Oakes. However, history is littered with the “what could have beens”.

Geoff Allen had been a remarkable Press Secretary with an incomparable ability to reframe people and make people feel good and confident, but after years in the role, he had had enough. The difference being “having enough” and “burn out” is the person recognises the first before the second phase sets in. Being very shrewd, Geoff went on to run a very successful consultancy business. It was a common career progression among those who worked for Billy Snedden.

Cormann – The Golden Point

If there was a more cringeworthy utterance from the Prime Minister it was when Cormann was elected Secretary-General of the OECD. Morrison announced it was as though Australia had won the position by punting Cormann over the black dot to win the rugby league game by a field goal.

Yes, Corman won by a single vote, which means that 18 nations voted against him, and they will be watching him for an even-handed approach, given the activities of his Australian cheer squad – if he really matters in the scheme of things. America put him in the position, changing its initial vote away from the Swedish contender.

This means that Cormann needs to toe the American line if he wants a second six-year term – and with John Kerry calling the shots, Cormann will be expected to echo the Kerry chant, at least for now.

The line to toe

As for the importance of this appointment, I have been scanning the NYT for news of his appointment. It does not seem to have appeared; but maybe I have missed the headline. Nevertheless, a Western Australian did appear in the NYT news this week – a guy being struck in the back by an octopus tentacle in the waters of the coast of that State. I believe his name was not Cormann.

Well done, Us

Over Easter, I sat down to a pub tea in a regional city in NSW. The local football and netball teams had been playing that day, and there was jubilation in air.  The tavern was packed; social distancing was nominal; there was no hand sanitiser on the table (although it was at all the entry doors); we had brought our own. It was as though the COVID-19 infection had never happened. I asked those at the table whether anybody had had a cold or flu in the previous year. Nobody had.

Small sample but perhaps it can be postulated that the level of hygiene within the community has changed. We are less tolerant of people at work with contagious diseases, the so-called “cracking hardy”, or being forced to work while sick by unsympathetic bosses.  The fact that the States have cracked down when even one community infected case appears has people fearful of being group punished if contracting the Virus.

The only one who seems immune from this is the Premier of NSW who has at times been Pollyanna or Don Quixote. She has been lucky. After the near-death experiences of the Ruby Princess disaster, the Newmarch Nursing Home catastrophe and a Chief Health Officer who, in the early days, talked about a zig-zag approach to the Virus, whatever that meant, NSW was then on the nose.

The Premier had inherited the best contact tracing system in Australia and now has a Health Minister who recognises health is the priority in righting the State and not being undermined by the self-interest of some of the business community. These conjunctions of fortune have helped place NSW in a place where the Premier has reaped the benefit, but there is still the vaccination rollout to be negotiated.

Mouse Whisper

Just as tasteless variations  as exemplified by “Schitt’s Creek” (Candian sit-com) or “Up Schipp’s Creek” (AAMI ad).

You know my Cousin Mouse complete with stick and lederhosen climbing out the Bavarian glacial valley gasped:

“Gosh, that place gave me the schist.”

Then there was the tableau of four oblong white fabric figures weaving and then falling onto the stage, and my Cousin Mouse entering off left and declaiming, pointing to prostrate figures with his stick:

“Lo, a pack of dead sheets.”

No, I am not three sheets to the wind.

A glacial valley designed to give you the schist