Thursday, December 29, 2005

Doreen Hector Tanner - my grandmother

I'm the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter - at least that far back, and possibly further. For that reason, I've always been more interested in my distaff ancestors (there is probably a technical term for that). But when my cousin (my father's sister's daughter) came to visit this year, she commented that she had always been proud of coming from a long line of feisty women, I thought I should take more interest in the women on my father's side. So, here is a little something about my father's mother.

Edith Emily McKenzie was born in 1895 in Hora Hora in rural New Zealand (which I think is now part of Whangarei). Because she was the 7th Edith in her small rural district, and as she said "Emily was a cow's name", she was called Doreen all her life. That district was full of scottish immigrants, and very into patronymic nicknames, so she was called Doreen Hector Tanner most of her life, even though her official surname was McKenzie.

Her father (Hector) was a tanner (inheriting the business from his father (Tanner)), and she had one sister Marjorie. In their teens, they used to join their father during school holidays on what would now be known as business trips - riding a horse going around all the little settlements in Northland buying good skins from butchers.

Scots in those days were into education, even for women, so Doreen managed to go to Whangarei High School, with a Country Bursary of 10 pounds a year. Whangarei is now a town of about 50,000 people. At the end of her high schooling, she sat for a University Scholarship, an exam for the whole of New Zealand, to decide who got put through university by the state. That year, nine scholarships were awarded (all to boys), and she came 10th. The year before and after that, there were more scholarships awarded (also all to boys), so it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the power that be weren't willing to waste a scholarship on a girl. Her father, very disappointed for her, supported by two maternal aunts was prepared to support her through university anyway, as she had done so well.

Instead, she left school and went pupil teaching at her local (probably one or two room) school. The first thing she bought for herself was a piano. In those days, you could get a teaching certificate by training on the job with a high school education, and she was a qualified teacher after two years. Then she went to teach as a Junior Assistant at Hikurangi (a little mining town north of Whangerei) on 120 pounds a year. In one year, at different times, she had 38-58 pupils in her class, in Standards 1 and 2 (ages 7 and 8 roughly) in the porch of the school, as there was no proper classroom for her.

When her father died, he left his property including the tannery and a number of properties to her and her sister, so she gave up teaching to manage the tannery until they could sell off the business and the properties and pay all their debts.

She turned 20 in 1915, so World War I must have considerably disrupted her life. New Zealand lost nearly 2% of its population in that war (mostly men around my grandmothers age) so it must have been a huge blow to the social structure of the time. I don't know if she lost anyone dear to her, but she must have lost many good friends.

She married my grandfather at the relatively advanced age of 30. They moved into an old schoolhouse on the family farm, which was 10 kilometres on bad roads from the nearest small town. It was also next to a beautiful sandy beach, which made it a beautiful, if isolated, place. Their first child, a girl born at home, died after a day. It's hard to imagine what that must have been like. She would have had a midwife for the birth, but after that she would have been on her own with my grandfather, and the grief of losing a baby. They then had five children in seven years, and lived in what we would now think of as grinding poverty. But then, it was nothing special. They made their own soap, used sacks as pillow cases, and ate (among other things) shellfish that they had gathered from the beach.

By the time I met her, my grandfather had died, and she had moved in with one of my aunts. To me, she was a quiet matriarch sitting in the corner at Christmases. With 20 grandchildren, of whom I was one of the youngest, she certainly deserved the matriarch title. Every now and again something would flash through of the feisty woman she once was. She eventually died at 96, after 5-10 years of gradually degenerating Alzheimers. I last saw her a few years before she died, when she vaguely knew (after a reminder) that she was related to me.

When I sit back and reflect on this story, it's amazing what a hugely different life from me my grandmother had. But if we had met at the same age in our lives, we would probably have got on well. She was a strong, smart, feisty woman and I'm proud to be descended from her.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Water crisis

Sydney Water has a section of their website which has become a must-read for me - the Bulk Water Storage and Supply Report. It tells you how close Sydney is to running out of water.

I don't actually do that much to save water (except live in the innercity without a garden), so the fascination to me is something like a slow motion train wreck - it's clear that the alarmist articles about Sydney only having two years of water left are false (even getting to this point we've had more than zero rain in the last two years), but on the slope of the curve since 1998, we've got about five or six years left.

The most recent week (to December 22) had 280 megalitres of water a day going into the catchment, and Sydney using an average of 1583 litres a day. You had to go back to December 1 for a week with significantly more flowing into the dams (7000 Ml a day) than was being used. And that was the first big rain we had had for six months.

We are starting to change behaviour in Sydney. Driving back from the south coast a few days ago, I noticed a few businesses that wouldn't have existed 10 years ago - selling water tanks for your backyard. Even in our house, we've reduced our water use by 20% in the last year (mainly by buying a low flow showerhead, which I hate). But I'm starting to wonder whether we're going to change our behaviour fast enough.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Weird habits

I'm just back from a great beach holiday (I recommend taking the week before Christmas - the traffic is much better, and you get a much better choice of places) to discover that Susoz has tagged me with a weird habits meme. I didn't think I had any, but I realised that I'm often saying to workmates "I'm a bit weird, but this is what I did/do", when offering advice of any kind. So I'll translate it into weird things as well as habits:
  1. I refused to have an engagement ring, as a symbol of ownership, but instead we bought a painting together
  2. I very rarely used a pram for either of my children, preferring a backpack, as they liked it much better, and it was much easier to get around (I still carry D, at 2.5, in the backpack occasionally, but make him walk most of the time now)
  3. I hate driving, and use public transport if at all practical, and refused to take up the Sydney CBD car spot that came with my current job
  4. I obsessively read newspapers, and being able to read five different readable newspapers is the thing I miss most about living in London
  5. When I sit, I always curl my toes underneath my feet so that I get calluses on the top of my toes.

All the people I might tag have been tagged already, so Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Shire

The riots in Cronulla made the front page of Google News today. And deservedly so. The part of the extensive, and horrifying, coverage that struck me the most was this passage from an eyewitness account on Crikey:
While I was on the phone I saw a young Middle Eastern Australian kid walk through the carpark, about ten metres away from me. I'd seen this kid on the news earlier this week defending his right to swim at his local beach. It wasn't long before he was being screamed at ("Leb c*nt", "Get off our beach" etc) and surrounded by a group of flag draped p*ssed idiots. The kid screamed back, fairly insistent on getting to the beach, for all of about ten seconds before he was hit by one of them and had to turn and run across the park toward Northies. The crowd of people up the slope to the Wall had noticed what was happening and all of a sudden it was on.

The mob chased this kid into Northies, straight through the traffic which was brought to a sudden standstill with the now thousands of people surrounding the entry to Northies. Imagine a group of thousands of people, and I really do mean thousands of people, all chasing one kid into a pub and then standing outside screaming the most hateful and violent trash talk, throwing bottles, jumping on cars containing children that were stuck in the crowd. The kid they were after was about 17 and would weigh in at a huge 60kg. I could not believe my eyes that a lynching like this could happen anywhere, let alone Cronulla beach.

Last week, when there were murmurings in the press about race violence in Cronulla, I dismissed them. I grew up in the Shire (something I'll be keeping even quieter from now on), and remember that Cronulla has always been a WASPY place, that hates anyone from outside their beloved "Shire". Mind you, the Northern Beaches (the Insular Peninsular) is just as bad. It's just that Cronulla Beach has the best public transport of any beach in Sydney. Anyone who has read Puberty Blues knows that there have always been huge tensions between the westies (once wogs, now Lebos) and the surfers of Cronulla. And they (the Cronulla boys) always claim it is about protecting "their" women, even though (see Puberty Blues again), the surfer culture is not known for being the most feminist in the world.

So it all seemed a bit of a beat-up last week.

But this week, I'm stunned at what thousands of my fellow Australians can cheerfully organise. A carefully premeditated race riot.

Lavartus Prodeo has a roundup of the blogger views. But of the ones I have read, Jason Soon of catallaxy in his post Pogroms in Sydney sums it up my views best. While nobody was killed, the image above of a 17 year old kid being beaten up purely for the crime of looking arabic chills my blood.

Andrew Norton at the same blog disagrees. But I don't see how you can avoid the racist element of these riots. They were deliberately targeted at people who looked middle eastern/ arabic. His view is that because these riots were in response to a specific incident, not deliberately organised by a pre-existing racist group (just piggy backed by some) that they will soon blow over. Maybe he's right (I hope so). But to me, these riots seem much more racist than Macquarie Fields or even Redfern. If there isn't an organised group yet, there may be one soon.

Maybe Tim Blair has it right when he says

Round ‘em up—all of them, from both sides—charge ‘em, convict ‘em, jail ‘em.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Book Review - Against The Gods - The Remarkable Story of Risk

Today's book review is Against the Gods - the Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L Bernstein. I bought this a while ago, when it was first published, and for some reason didn't finish at the time. I couldn't believe it when I read it again recently, as (unusually for a non-fiction book) I kept reading it in bed until my eyes were drooping.

This time, I enjoyed it. It is a book about the history of managing risk in a financial, quantitative sense, which meant that I had studied most of the mathematical theories in the book, and still use quite a few of them in my day to day work. It also validates the usefulness of managing risk in today's financial system; if we didn't have very sophisticated ways of managing risk, we would probably allocate capital to foolhardy ventures, and the world of today wouldn't be as well off.

Of course, the byproduct of all those clever ways of managing risk is the big swinging dicks of the financial markets and the sometimes stupidly big swings in financial markets, but I am firmly convinced that on balance, the world benefits.

The thing I find interesting, on reflection, is that for a book about risk, it is very obsessed with the quantification of risk. That's a weakness I share - I tend to think that if you can't quantify it, it's not worth thinking about. The book talks a bit about trying to quantify the risks of weather events and other natural disasters, but terrorism, stupidity, fraud, and other man-made disasters (think the National Australia Bank's recent foreign exchange losses) are less quantifiable, and hence don't get much time in the book.

It's very much a heroic book of the "great march of human progress" mold. But for all that you can poke holes in its coverage, and its idealisation of the financial markets, it is immensely readable, and covers a broad sweep of history, particularly economic history, in a way I haven't seen done before or since.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

An ambition fulfilled

I learned the piano all the way through school. I wasn't bad, and I enjoyed it, but the one thing I always regretted about it being the piano was that it wasn't an ensemble instrument. So ever since I was in my teens I've had this 19th century fantasy about playing the piano while everyone sang Christmas carols around me.

Tonight, I played Christmas carols on the piano for three other adults, and five children. At one point (jingle bells, of course), I think I had all of them singing (possibly excluding the two year old). One of the four year olds afterwards came up to me and said very seriously that that was the best christmas party she had ever been to.

I realised that all these years, to make it happen, all I had to do was start playing. Everyone just joined in.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Switzerland of the South

When we were in Spain a few years ago, we started to realise what a risk-averse society Australia had become. It became a bit of a standing joke on the trip - "that would never be allowed in the Switzerland of the South".

I forget, not having been overseas for a few years, but remember again, whenever my english neighbours (my suburb is full of english expats out here on a corporate gig for a few years) express polite astonishment at my unwillingness to let my children in their car without a proper car seat.

Australia is full of rules and regulations about safety these days. Car seats, seatbelts, no smoking indoors, playgrounds with softfall everywhere, enforced drink driving laws, signs warning you about cliffs, signs warning you about hot coffee, trains that won't let the doors open between stations in case you accidentally jump out...

I'm generally in favour of all of them - I like living in a safe country, and I like not having to breathe other people's smoke - until occasionally I stop myself and wonder how much real difference all the regulation actually makes to the chances of accidents. But then what should the trade off be? If you save one life (say someone who won't fall off a cliff because the sign stops them) is that worth the annoyance to everyone else at the beautiful mountain retreat who can't look at the view without a sign?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Philip Gomes has a post in Lavartus Prodeo a couple of days ago about Michael Duffy's dummy spit about Sydney cyclists. Read his post, and the comments - a depressingly familiar tale of bike riders being blamed for riding in the only ways that are left to them by the way the road system has been set up.

I had a similar experience when talking to a local councillor of my acquaintaince about why the cycle pathways were so bad. He explained that because no-one uses them, he doesn't feel he can spend rate-payers money on a luxury item for the few. The trouble is it's a vicious circle. If no-one uses the bike paths (because they don't go anywhere useful, or occasionally have a tree in the middle of them that you are supposed to walk around, or most stupidly on the Harbour Bridge, three flights of stairs) then cyclists are blamed for them not being used, and no more are built. It's like public transport only worse.

And then the cyclists go on the footpaths, because the roads are unsafe, and everyone complains about the anarchic cyclists.

Sydney is not as well built for cycling as Melbourne - it's not as flat, and our streets are narrower. But there is scope for good cycling paths, as you realise when you occasionally find one (my favourite is from Darling Harbour to Leichhardt, which required very little actual infrastructure, just some imagination about which roads to put it on) and realise it's possible!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is part time harder to manage?

Both Susoz and Elsewhere commented on my previous part-time post that they didn't understand my comment about administrative burden - that having someone working less than full time did create an administrative burden for the management/company. Their surprise did make me wonder whether I'm too much on the side of management these days, but I thought it was worth my explaining a bit more what I meant.

Having thought about my previous comment, I think the main administrative burden revolves around your interaction with other people, and how much of your job revolves around that. Elizabeth at Half Changed World wrote about this a while ago that the best part-time jobs are those where there is only a part-time job to be done. Now except in the smallest organisations, I'm sceptical about this, as most organisations have some larger amount of work to be cut down into bite sized chunks. And the bite sized chunks are currently assumed to be full time. So why is the chunk only one size? It all comes down to other people.

If you manage other people, it's hard to be less than four days a week. If you are interacting on projects with other people, it depends on how frequently. If you have the kind of interaction which is doing tasks by yourself that take a week or so, I would have thought that would be pretty flexible (just make sure you get the deadlines right in the first place). But if (which happens a lot at our place) you are reviewing someone else's work, or if you are the main expert on the particular topic that gets questions from people, then it's harder to manage. And if you are trying to market to clients, then it's harder to get the meeting organised if you're only there three days a week.

It really does depend on the job. But someone who is overqualified for their job can probably do it more easily without as much interaction with the rest of the team (and probably plan that interaction better), so that's why we end up with overqualified people in part-time roles.

As I said at the beginning, I don't know what the answer is. But I think part of answering it is figuring out why (apart from being old-fashioned fuddy-duddys) employers are reluctant to hire part-timers.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Book Review - Everything Bad is Good for You: How today's popular culture is making us smarter

Today's book review is Everything Bad is Good for You: How today's popular culture is making us smarter, by Steven Johnson. I actually bought this book for E, as he is a computer games devotee from way back, and has expounded on their educational aspects before.

In the end, he read a few chapters, and I read it from cover to cover while he was playing computer games. According to this book, that probably makes him smarter than me.

The thesis of the book is that popular culture, by growing ever more complex, has dragged our intelligence up with it. He contrasts popular television shows of today with those of 30 years ago, and shows how much more complicated the story lines and character development have become. He describes at some length the level of persistence and serious thinking that goes into solving today's popular culture computer games, and how your brain is being trained by the experience. And he points out how even television that is universally regarded as junk is far more complex than the equivalent television of 30 years ago.

It would be easy to misrepresent this book as suggesting that all popular culture is good, and therefore kids should be forcefed on a diet of Grand Theft Auto.

This book is a reaction (possibly an over-reaction, but not by much) to all those parents and teachers who are inclined to think of all of popular culture as a dumbing down of the good old days of sophisticated entertainment. His point, forcefully and well made, is that the structure of popular entertainment these days is sophisticated, requires concentration, and forces people to exercise their brains in its consumption.

He gives some great examples from the whole spectrum of entertainment (even Finding Nemo gets its own structural analysis). While anyone who has ever played a video game will find his explanation of your thought processes while doing so a bit patronising, it is a welcome advance to have them taken seriously as entertainment and culture, and not the punching bag of right and left wingers who would never be seen dead actually playing one.

It was an easy read, and it left me wondering whether I should be playing more computer games, rather than wasting my time reading books.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Are all men paedophiles? I don't think so

Air New Zealand and Qantas have apparently banned men from sitting next to unaccompanied children on planes. The airlines say that "their rules reflect the concerns of parents, as well as child safety issues".

How likely is it that an unaccompanied child is going to be abused on a flight? Even a 15 hour one (which is the longest Qantas flight)? I caught trains to school by myself (well with other equally immature friends) from the age of 10. Did State Rail ban men from sitting next to me?

Balance that against the very real damage done to society by refusing to allow men to talk to children who are not their own, and soon children will start to think of men they don't know as potential paedophiles. And child care centres will stop employing men, and fewer men will teach schools, and children will grow up in a world in which they are only allowed to talk to women (and maybe their fathers if they're lucky).

At least 90% of child abuse is perpetrated by people who know the child.

Is Air New Zealand going to ban fathers, uncles, grandfathers and stepfathers from sitting next to their own relatives?

Part timers

I had lunch with two (male) clients today. One (P) has worked four days a week for some time; the other (D) has just asked his manager whether he can also. Both pretty much for family reasons - they want to spend more time with their kids. In both cases, their wives work (I think as an IT person and school teacher respectively). In D's case, he has had a small business on the side which he has managed to sell a bit of, so he doesn't need the money at the moment as much as he usually does. They're both pretty senior - they are easily paid six figure salaries (even when working four days a week).

The manager said no immediately, until D said, "well in that case I'll have to resign then" and the manager backtracked hurriedly.

We had a really good discussion about part-time work, and what is really possible and what isn't. P's experience is that you really have to be proactive to make it work. And constantly make sure that your employer is getting value for money. P's take is that the employer gets value, because you tend to pack more than 80% of your job into four days, but will also lose out because of the extra administrative load associated with having someone who is not there one day a week, and has to be covered. He is grateful enough for the chance to do it, that he is quite happy to take on the chance of managing the process for his employer.

Rebeldad would be very pleased. It's another sign that the tipping point of men taking their family responsibilities seriously enough to make work sacrifices is getting closer.

I'm convinced that any company that manages to create meaningful work for part-timers (i.e. jobs which can legitimately be paid 80% of full time for 4 days, 60% for 3 days etc) will have a competitive advantage in the next 10-20 years. I have quite a few friends who are now doing jobs that are way below their abilities, purely so that they can work part time.

But it's very hard, as an employer. You have to deal with the reality that the world of work is (at least) a five day a week world. It would be easy if everyone worked four days, but having to deal with the administrative burden is real, and difficult. But it will be worth it if you can make it work.

According to the ABS Labour force projections, labour force growth in 2016 will be 0.4% pa (or around 40,000 people). It's currently 1.6% pa (or 170,000 people). Good people will be harder to find in 10 years, so if you find them, you'll have to hold on to them.