Monday, May 31, 2010


I've always had mixed feelings about Autumn. When I was younger - still at school - I disliked autumn because I knew that meant the rain was coming. We'd have to work outside on the farm in wet weather gear, we'd never be dry, and there'd always be mud. It would be like that until October usually.
I like summer, I don't like the searing heat of the really hot days but the milder days of summer are just right for me. Autumn has its own share of beautiful days but it means winter is coming. Shorter days, colder and (with luck) some rain. This year autumn has been like an Indian summer, the days have been warm and sometimes hot and the nights mild. We've had little rain until the last week or so.
For us it's also the time of the year when we can at last grow a decent garden. We only have a small rooftop area and so we plant in containers. The summer makes such an approach very inefficient in terms of water use so we have given up. Instead we focus on getting seeds and seedlings in as soon as the fiercest part of summer is over.
This year we're growing rocket, coriander, lettuce, cima di rapa, curly and flat leafed parsley, buok choy, cavolo nero, radichio, mint, basil and chives. I miss Italian winter vegetables, they're hard to get in the shops and they are closely connected with winter in my mind. So we're taking the opportunity to grow them for ourselves. It's pretty rewarding because the cima di rapa in particular is so fast growing. It germinates in a week and is ready to eat from about 40 days.
It also gives me a real feeling of satisfaction to wake up in the morning and to see the garden, the plants seeming to have grown overnight!
What's been particularly interesting is the lettuce. We planted mixed red and green lettuce. The green lettuce has been a pretty dismal failure but the red lettuce has really boomed away and we've had several lovely salads from it already.
Enough of the garden however. What's perhaps more interesting is that we have the winter parliamentary recess coming up and then sometime soon after that a general election. The incumbent government have done the impossible and despite their substantial majority and first term status it is a real possibility that they may lose the election.
The core issue for this government is performance - or a woeful lack of it to be exact. They're great at making announcements but they just can't carry through. They either try to deliver and completely stuff it up (the insulation program, the aboriginal intervention, the schools infrastructure program) or they simply fail to get off the ground - computers in schools anyone?
I think that part of the issue is that the Australian population is turned off by Kevin Rudd. He's shown himself as, by turns, querulous, ill-disciplined, incomprehensible and arrogant. Not a good mix I wouldn't have thought.
The question is: can we bring ourselves to vote for Tony Abbott? He is too right wing for many, he alienates women, he has the light of zealotry in his eyes and he just appears a little flakey across the board.
Still it will make for an interesting few months. That situation is made more interesting by a state election in Victoria due around the same time. So we have plenty of politics to keep us warm this winter.
Note: If you are interested in getting some Italian vegetable seeds then have a look at the Italian Gardener. They are the Australian agents for Franchi Sementi - a premier Italian seed producer. The range is excellent and the customer service is great. Give them a ring for great advice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Golden Threads

Yesterday was the kind of day that often comes along in autumn and winter here. A high pressure system had parked over the top of us. When we arrived at the boat the fog was quite thick and there was a light northerly blowing - maybe 2-3 knots.
There were 11 of us on board for the day and as others arrived the fog started to slowly lift. We got underway and as we motored out we raised the yankee and the main. There was just enough breeze to keep us moving very slowly but there were large glassy patches as well with no wind at all. So up went the big asymmetric, our speed picked up slightly and we trickled away to the east nearly close hauled!
The wind was pretty fitful. It had gone to the east as we got underway and it came and went. It was the kind of day where the helmsman could both steer and trim the asymmetric. The crew settled on deck and down below, chatting, lazing and generally chilling out. This was a very special crew. The links were long and deep.
Reaching the eastern side of the bay we tacked and again came as high as we could, following the lifts along the edge of the bay. The wind freshened slightly and a fog bank well to the south made the air slightly chilly. We tacked again and headed southwest, this time with eased sheets. The breeze was still only 5-7 knots, a gently zephyr. We brought food on deck and ate as we chatted and sailed. Finally we eased sheets even further and headed for home.
I came back to the dock feeling happy, and deeply contented. Connections do that to you.
Nearly forty years ago, in my second year in high school, my parents sold their house and moved to one far extremity of the country. We bought a block of land and lived in a tent and caravan whilst we built a house. It rained, and rained then rained some more. I was one of those children who felt very keenly any difference from my peers and living this way was pretty different. I also disliked school intensely.
The thread of gold in this situation was D, he was one of my new teachers and he was the first teacher who had ever treated me like an individual and a real human being. We called him by his first name. He taught me to sail, to canoe and generally how to live as an adult. He trusted us deeply. The only time I, or anyone else, ever heard him raise his voice was when I clowned around and knocked all the freshly cooked sausages - our camping dinner - into the dust. The response was short and pithy!
They were golden years. We would go sailing every Thursday afternoon, sometimes not returning until Friday morning - going direct to school. We had fun, we learned stuff and we began to grow up. D had a wonderful capacity to get alongside young people and to challenge them to learn and develop. He was well educated, had impeccable manners and a ready sense of humour.
D, his wife and two small children, lived for a start in a school house behind the school. Out the front of the house was a 28 foot yacht which D was building. The lucky amongst us were recruited as labour on the project.
I left school and moved a long way away, later I moved to another country and still later shifted to a new city in that new country. Nearly 30 years passed until someone told me that D's son, T, lived in the same city. I had first met T when he was about 3 years old and hadn't seen him at all in the intervening time. We began to sail together and I renewed my contact with D as he visited T.
We attended T's wedding, he and I shared rough and windy Bass Strait crossings and we sailed together when the opportunity arose. Each time D and his wife visited we'd get together and try to do some sailing. It was a satisfying thing, sailing on our boat with the person who taught me to sail. D was now retired from school teaching but still working incredibly hard as a sailing coach.
Yesterday our crew consisted of my wife and I, our daughter and her friend, D, his wife, T his wife and their two sons and another great sailing friend of ours. We talked and learned from each other, I realised that much of my seamanship - such as it is - was learned during that time with D as a child. We remembered scary incidents and I realised, perhaps for the first time how D had gone out on a limb, probably often, to let students take the risks that they need to take to grow.
This connection is one of the longest in my life and it's one of the golden threads that connect me to who I am.
It was a very satisfying day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jessica Watson - The Picture!

This snap, taken at 9:19 am local time today, shows the current position and course of Ella's Pink Lady. She's the "purple" vessel almost directly off Curl Curl on a NW course.
So close!!

Economic Inefficiency

Imagine that you are a coal buyer, a ship owner or just someone who is affected by the cost of coal or the sale of coal. The picture above (which was a snapshot made at 8:57 am today) tells a story of your pain.
Each of the green squares represents a ship at anchor. Each of the green "ship" shapes represents a ship moving. The "moving" ships in amongst the anchored ships are likely to be either coming to anchor or getting underway.
That picture is not unusual and shows at least 21 ships at anchor off Newcastle. They're waiting their turn at the Newcastle coal loader!! Every hour that a ship sits at anchor costs someone something. Ultimately the cost of steel or power is increased because these ships are sitting idle. This goes on week in, week out. There are always ships at anchor off Newcastle simply because there is insufficient coal loader capacity.
The other "cost" is that each and every one of those ships is at risk of being driven ashore in a gale (think Pasha Bulker), a fact that the ATSB commented on in their report on the Pasha Bulker. So there is an environmental risk to them sitting out there like that.
My question is this: Why, with historically high commodity prices for a number of years (despite the hiccup of the GFC), has Australia not invested effectively in the infrastructure to enable it to efficiently export its product? Why does the ACCC continue to allow a monopoly situation with the Newcastle coal loader?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Jessica Watson's Position

About 2 hours ago, at 10:42:01 UTC, Jessica was at 33.94 degrees south 151.81 degrees east, she was on a course of 017 degrees and doing 3.6 knots.
For those without the means to decipher that, that position is about 25-30 nautical miles off the coast near Sydney and a little south of the harbour - roughly between South Head and Botany Bay. That UTC time is 8:42:01 pm Sydney time.
Home soon!!
An update on Saturday morning:
During the night, Jessica sailed in a NNW direction to a position about 10 miles to seaward of Palm Beach. Then she turned and began sailing back along her course! It must be frustrating for her playing this waiting game! At 19:08:04 UTC she was a 33.65 south and 151.62 east, on a course of 148 degrees and at a speed of 4.4 knots. That position is about 12 or so miles off the coast and only just south of her most northerly point off Palm Beach. With the wind offshore as it is, Jessica will be able to smell the land. That's one of the things I always remember about making a landfall - smelling the land for the first time.
I imagine that Jessica will quietly trundle SE during the morning and at some point around 9:00 local time begin her run into the harbour. What a great achievement!!!

Misery, Distress & Disappointment

Increasingly in places like the UK and Australia it seems that the voters are prepared to give the government of the day a fair shot at it. In NSW a Labour government has been in power for 13 years. Ditto in the UK where the conservatives have just come to power. John Howard and the Liberals (conservatives for those overseas) were in power here for 11 years.
That means that over a period of time the country (or state) moves towards the direction of the party in power. I mean that in an institutional sense. Appointments of judges tend to reflect the political persuasion of the day, laws and policies reflect the ideology of the mob in power.
When governments change we, the voters, expect that the new mob we elect will stamp their mark on the country. In so doing the pendulum, which may have swung too far one way, now gets the opportunity to swing back the other way.
What it also means is that governments can expect voters to support them as they make those changes. Voters in Australia do not vote a party in. Rather they decide they've had a gut full of the mob in power and, if there is a half reasonable alternative, they throw them out.
That brings us to the current mob. They came in - on one of those moments of change - with a sizeable majority. That's normal and expectable. But that's where the fun ended. They've proved, in their first term to be a massively ineffectual disappointment.
Here's why:
  1. Instead of carving a path, and delivering on it, they've inherited that Howard era sin: they've sniffed the wind at every step and sought to follow a path that they think will displease the minimum number of people. In so doing they've made no meaningful change to the way the country runs and displeased the majority.
  2. They have demonstrated an utter incapacity to deliver on anything. Computers in schools? Emissions trading and climate change legislation? The NT "intervention"? The insulation scheme? Meaningful and humane changes to asylum seeker policy? NAPLAN - a shambles? Health reform - nothing to show except words? All trumpeted loudly and all not delivered on.
  3. A massive belief in their capacity to "spin" anything. To the point that the Prime Minister speaks only gobbledegook. The only person who comes close to speaking in a straightforward manner and giving the news, good or bad, is Lindsay Tanner. By the way Lindsay, don't think that's a compliment - it's not, you're simply better than your colleagues.
  4. An arrogant failure to understand the political imperatives of an unfriendly senate. If you want to implement things then you'd better do your deals before you go mouthing off in public and alienating the people you need to pass your legislation.
What it amounts to is a massive and unacceptable failure. We get a Labor government less than twice a generation. My son was born during the Hawke/Keating years and became a voter in the Howard years.
What right do you, Kevin Rudd, have to fail your country in such spectacularly miserable form? Where is the tough team of reformers that you need in order to make real change? Where is the self discipline and humility that delivers real leadership?
Just for completeness: I acknowledge that Australia has weathered the "GFC" remarkably well. I don't give you much credit however. I think the credit goes to Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens (although Glenn's too quick on shifting rates) and our mineral resources.
Just as a bit of a score card. Here are the nearly-competents:
  • Lindsay Tanner - at least he seems to nearly speak his mind and he has got one;
  • Greg Combet - It's a pity he's relegated to cleaning up other peoples' messes;
  • John Faulkner - It's a credit to John, strangely, that the Defence portfolio has gone silent since his arrival. Things must be working;
  • Stephen Smith - dull as ditchwater, but maybe that's a good thing in a foreign minister. At least he appears to be a safe pair of hands;
Here are the failures - at least the most obvious ones:
  • Kevin Rudd - Start delivering, that's all, stop spinning, stop being arrogant, and start delivering;
  • Nicola Roxon - A term as health minister and we've seen what change precisely? What is the benefit of your latest excursion into health funding exactly? If you can't articulate it then why are you bothering?
  • Jenny Macklin - You're a nice person, but the aboriginal population need more than a nice person. Deliver some real change in those communities Jenny and stop trying to take everything over;
  • Wayne Swan - The Henry review, the opportunity of a lifetime, and the response from you is a great big fail. As for the mining super-tax, who haven't you alienated?
  • Julia Gillard - you have delivered what Julia? What precisely? And attended by what ructions and disharmony? We expect much more.
  • Peter Garrett - as a government minister you make a hell of a good singer. To the backbench and soon.
So Kevin and team. Are you going to be the ones who do the impossible? Are you going to be the ones who lose an election, after one term, to Tony Abbott? I mean losing to Tony Abbott for goodness sake - you'd have to really be trying to do that. But that looks like where you are going right now.
Or are you simply going to shrink your majority to a wafer thin irrelevance and lose a few more senate seats in the half senate election so that you can achieve even less in your last term than your first?
Or are you going to stop trumpeting announcements and then failing to deliver on them? Are you going to get fair dinkum, in the way Hawke and Keating were? In the way John Howard did? Are you going to deliver real reform and real change?
If not you might as well go at the next election because you are failing to deliver what we elected you for.
That is such a bitter, bitter realisation.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Political Extremism?

This week Liberal Senator, Cory Bernardi, wrote here that the "burka" should be banned. I understood by the way that the anglicised spelling was burqa.
Bernardi had two points:
  1. That the burqa is increasingly being used as a disguise by bandits and that it also creates two tiers of "identifiability";
  2. That the burqa is "repressive" and "un-Australian"
Let's take these points one by one. I have no evidence one way or another for the "[burka as] the prferred disguise of bandits and n'er do wells", as Bernardi asserts.
On the basis asserted by Bernardi you could also ban the wearing of scarves, bandannas and a range of other items of clothing for "security". Indeed if as Bernardi asserts, "the burka separates and distances the wearer from the normal interactions with broader society" then there is good argument for banning the wearing of any clothing that differentiates one wearer from another. We could reasonably take that to banning the wearing of all clothes. Really it's quite silly and not to be countenanced. It falls into the same basket as the Government's proposed Net Nanny filter. The utterly wrong response to issues best managed otherwise.
To the second point, Bernardi asserts as follows:
In my mind, the burka has no place in Australian society. I would go as far as to say it is un-Australian. To me, the burka represents the repressive domination of men over women which has no place in our society and compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication.
This is now starting to become overtly xenophobic, jingoistic and not terribly rational. Firstly let me be clear that I have no idea what the Qu'ran says about wearing the burqa, and to me that is not an issue here. But Bernardi draws a bow too far when he asserts that "To me, the burka represents the repressive domination of men over women". It's fine that he should feel like that, but not that he should urge change in public policy on the basis of how something makes him feel. How does he know that it's repressive? Has he ever spoken to a diverse group of women who wear the burqa? Does he know why they wear it? Does he know if they are forced to wear it or choose to wear it?
Next we get to the very heart of the matter. Bernardi goes on to say:
Perhaps some of you will consider that burka wearing should be a matter of personal choice, consistent with the freedoms our forefathers fought for. I disagree.
New arrivals to this country should not come here to recreate the living environment they have just left. They should come here for a better life based on the freedoms and values that have built our great nation.
Which values and which forefathers are those Cory? Are they the Afghani camel drivers who opened up the interior of Australia? Perhaps they are the Italian prisoners of war who chose to come back and settle here after the war? Perhaps they are the Vietnamese boat people who came here in the 1970s. Or perhaps it was the thieving Irish convicts sent here by the British government in 1788.
Get over it! Australia is a culturally diverse country. Bernardi's rant is simply ultra-conservative xenophobia. If he feels uncomfortable about women wearing burqas then perhaps he should do something about his discomfort rather than seek to change others.
As a final aside, if we all applied Bernardi's standard "I feel that it's..." then a bucket load of changes in clothing regulation would need to be made. Here's my (tongue in cheek for the most part) list, tell me yours:
  • Police should get rid of their weapons, it makes me feel like the State is repressing me and I feel uncomfortable when I see them;
  • Catholic clergy should get rid of their clerical garb - it's become the symbol of an organisation ridden with paedophiles;
  • Judges and lawyers should get rid of their robes and wigs, they are a sign of 18th and 19th century legal repression;
  • Politicians should be banned from wearing budgie smugglers - they make me feel really uncomfortable - and no I don't intend to see anyone about that. Just lose them!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Medical and Surgical Safety

Patients expect that when they are treated by doctors, they will be helped not hurt in the process. This is particularly true in developed countries with sound health systems.
Throughout the world however there is evidence that patients can be hurt by the medical care that they receive. There are obvious outliers - such as the current manslaughter trial of Dr Jayant Patel in Queensland. In that case the legal authorities have determined that Dr Patel has a case to answer. Fortunately such cases are rare, and all the more unfortunate because of it.
Of more concern is the day to day occurrence of death or adverse events due to medical care. Most health jurisdictions in Australia have instituted measures to improve the performance of health care. Examples include The Australian and New Zealand Audit of Surgical Mortality. These are good initiatives, they focus on understanding causes and providing educational support to ensure that standards of treatment improve. The Victorian regional section of the ANZ audit, VASM, has only recently begun and is still gathering momentum. Nevertheless the 2009 report has already generated useful data, particularly a suggestion that venous thromboembolism prophylaxis could be improved. In simple terms that's preventative treatment to reduce the number of blood clots that can cause problems after surgery.
Numerous other initiatives are underway and some of these highlight the systems nature of health care - it's not just individuals that influence care outcomes but the structure and function of the system in which they work. These are also important initiatives.
There are however at least two other linked issues worthy of consideration:
  1. As a "health consumer" I have a right to determine, within sensible limits, who I choose to undertake a procedure;
  2. Evidence suggests that publication of performance of individual clinicians leads to enhanced performance.
Let's look at these to points. If I seek to choose a surgeon, to operate on, for instance, my back what are the sort of things I'd want to know? In my case I'd like to know things like:
  1. Does he/she regularly undertake this specific procedure?
  2. How many has he/she done in the last 12 months?
  3. What proportion of adverse events has he/she had in this procedure in the last 12 months and over longer time periods?
  4. What outcomes has he/she achieved from this procedure over time?
This isn't a comprehensive list however it does start to focus in on the particular clinician's appropriateness to undertake the specific procedure. There is strong evidence linking frequency of undertaking a given procedure to the achievement of good outcomes.
Of course there is then the question about the likely outcomes for me, given my specific condition. That question for me comes after the question about who is appropriate to see for my condition.
I cannot know these things publicly in Australia at the moment, I cannot see how doctor X compares to doctor Y. This data is not published. This despite evidence that such publication leads to improved clinician performance. This makes it difficult for me to act as an informed consumer and is in my view an area that requires urgent change. I acknowledge that my doctor will have to fully inform me of risks, side effects and outcomes so that I can make an informed consent. This doesn't provide me with comparative data however.
As a side note I also wish to know about the performance of the hospital in which the procedure is to be undertaken. This will also have a bearing on my outcome and is therefore important information.
So my question is, when are we going to bite the bullet in Australia and publish outcomes data for all clinicians performing procedures and all hospitals in which those procedures are conducted? It is only then that I can be a fully informed consumer and only then that, as a society we can reap the benefits of the performance improvements that would likely follow.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jessica Watson - The Last Slog to Sydney

Well Jesse again came through the rotten weather of the last few days with flying colours. She's now somewhere off the eastern mouth of Bass Strait it appears from her website. Unfortunately the weather isn't going to be too kind. Here's this morning's MSL analysis chart from the BOM:

Those headwinds that Jessica has talked about in her blog will go around to a nice beam or broad reach for the next day or so but then the inevitable will happen - another front. I guess the only question is whether it forges straight through like the one that's currently east of Tasmania or whether it gets pushed away south by those two highs as they move across the country. Either way probably some more headwinds in 36 to 48 hours.
Jessica's support team is predicting that she won't be in Sydney until Saturday 15 May. That's a slow trip by any standards as she only has about 500 nm or less to go. Jessica sounded pretty laid back in her blog so she doesn't think it's a race either.
In fact I'd be guessing that she'll get a little frustrated over the next few days, jilling around at sea when she could be at home...