Thursday 30 October 2008

Could you carry this all day

I found this picture the other day, showing the sort of load that your average fighting soldier has to carry these days.

That's what I call working hard. Those who complain about working long hours in an air conditioned office in front of a computer should try this once and a while.

Malnutrition in a sea of plenty

Robert Tickner has written an article for the SMH today. He decries Aboriginal malnourishment as a national disgrace. One of the proposed solutions is a return to traditional horticultural practices, whatever that is (and why does it cost $300,000 to get people to return to doing something that they've supposedly done for generations?)

I have a few hippy friends from my uni days - most have gone the ex-hippy way, and are now staunch conservatives. I guess they are neo-cons, since they are hippies who have had their eyes opened to the world.

I was having a beer with one of these neo-cons a few years ago, and he told me the story of one of his hippy friends, and their desire to do good in a remote aboriginal community.

This hippy identified malnourishment at least 15 years before the current government discovered that it is a problem, and he decided the solution was to grow vegetables locally. So he packed up his car with seeds and tools and things, and headed north.

He settled in a community, and set about clearing and planting and weeding and watering a plot with all the usual vegetables that you or I could grow in their backyard (and I've tried growing most of these) - carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, capsicum. beans and peas.

His plot was coming along nicely, until some locals, who got trashed most nights, decided to have a party in his garden. They destroyed it, ripping up the plants and wrecking the simple irrigation system that he'd built.

So he started again, but he put a fence up this time. And then a drunk took umbrage at that, and drove a Landcruiser through the fence and drove around and around the plot until it was destroyed.

He tried a third time, and after that effort was also wrecked, he gave up - broken hearted, and returned to Perth a changed man. Nine months of effort, sweat and his money had all been ruined by people that were intent not only on destroying themselves, but destroying everything around them, and taking their neighbours and families with them.

1735099 left a comment at kev gillett regarding the miserable conditions on Palm Island, and the high turnover and burnout rate for teachers, police and nurses.

I don't know what the solution is, but there is not a bottomless pit of people and money that can be thrown at this problem. Eventually, people are going to say, "Bugger this, I'm not going there - they can sort their own mess out". Whenever I hear calls for more money or more programs to do this, that or someone else, I think, "how will money fix broken social values, and who will they actually find to go up there and run the program?" The media loves to report on how funds are unspent, but that to me simply displays a clear lack of understanding as to how government agencies function. They don't just put cheques in envelopes and mail them out. Someone, such as a project manager, has to get in a car or plane and go out there and do all the administrative and management stuff necessary to get a program up and running. If people don't want to go, the money can't be spent.

I will blog more on this later - gotta go to work. I've got a bucket of money that needs spending on a project, and it won't get spent by me sitting here blogging.

Monday 27 October 2008

Climate change and the shopping trolley highway of death

There are two ways of looking at all the shopping trolleys in this canal (there are three in the photo below, and one in the bottom photo):

  • Climate change is causing more bogans to dump more trolleys into our waterways. Bogans believe that although trolleys are constructed of mesh, if you dump enough of them into a waterway, they will form a levee capable of holding back increasing sea levels. This explains why bogans wear ugg boots in summer, and also why that bogan-made-good "Woin Swan" can't count beyond 7.
  • Climate change is impacting adversely on the mating habits of shopping trolleys. Reduced water flows from the drought means that trolleys are unable to navigate their way up our local canals to the spawning grounds of the trolley. This results in dead and rusting shopping trolleys clogging our drains, and calls by local Greens to build "trolley ladders" in every storm water canal. The Mayor of Leichhardt, a well known Green, has been known to fish trapped trolleys out of drains, wrap them in a wet towel and then drive them to Burwood, which is the local spawning ground of the "Trollus dumpeli".

It should also be noted that Leichhardt Council now employs a trolley whisperer from the local Eora Nation. The Gadigal and Wangal people are close to their trolleys, and they can be seen every pension day conducting a ceremony of Trolley Harmony, where they load their trolleys with plagons of goon, which are wheeled to the nearest park for a Winnie Blue smoking ceremony, prior to the trolleys being released into the wild - or the nearest canal.

Outsiders are discouraged from attending these sacred ceremonies due to the secretive nature of the business being discussed. Anyone out walking alone at night within a kilometre of one of these ceremonies risks being bashed for the crime of intruding on special and ancient wisdom. In fact anyone sitting quietly in their lounge room in front of the TV risks being bashed for the crime of being a white imperialist invader, normally truncated on pension day to the term of "you f^&ckin' white c*&nt".

Eora women who have been invited to attend these smoking ceremonies have also been punished for transgressing the unwritten and sacred traditional laws of the custodians of the drinking tree. A woman caught looking at the menfolk the "wrong" way, or being too tardy at collecting and offering a sacred drinking vessel are regular visitors to the non-traditional healing ground in Camperdown, also know as Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Emergency. Although the medicine of the white man is seen as inferior to the healing arts of the Gadigal people, "f^&ckin' white c*&nts" are quite skilled at removing star pickets from abdomens.

Note that according to Google, this is the first ever use on the internet of the phrase "plagons of goon". You read it here first.

The smell of summer

What are the evocative smells of summer for you? Spring brings the scent of flowers. What do we get in summer?

We get the smell of sun screen. I went for a spin today around lunchtime - the mercury was nudging 31 at the time, so I did the old slip-slop-slap thing. It's been so long since we last used sun screen, every bottle of 30SPF in the house had gone bad. I can understand milk going off, but sun screen?

A fresh bottle of sun screen has that certain smell - a smell of beaches and BBQs and mosquito repellant. It goes with drinking beer at the cricket, or lying on a blowup mattress in the pool, idly floating this way and that, and dreading the moment when one of your siblings will race out of the house and soak you with a bombie.

(As an aside, as kids we used to put our old blowup mattresses in the pool and then throw the cat onto them. The cat would push out its claws to gain traction on the mattress, and then slowly go down like the captain of the Titanic.)

The fresh sun screen seems to have done its job. The thermometer on the bike was showing 39 degrees when I got home, which meant 90 minutes baking under a ferocious sun. I am still as milky white as a Pom just off the plane in Spain. Another day keeping skin cancer at bay.

(In case you are wondering, my $80 bike computer has a built in thermometer. It tells me how fast I am going, how fast I am pedaling - cadence - how far I have ridden since I installed the computer, my trip time, my trip distance, me average speed and my maximum speed. Amazing the number of features that they pack into these tiny little things in this day and age. I have just passed the 15,000km mark on this bike. It's good to know these things).

Sunday 26 October 2008

It's about time sour grapes kicked in

The new Premier of NSW has decided to take an axe to spending on advertising.

THE NSW Government will take a chainsaw to its own advertising, ordering a 25percent cut in spending at next week's mini-budget.

The Department of Health, the Roads and Traffic Authority, RailCorp and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority - some of the biggest spenders of the Government's $125million annual advertising budget - are under pressure to use technology rather than traditional means to advertise.
I have never understood why governments of all stripes are so keen on advertising. I know that there is a theory that it can help make a government more popular, but I don't subscribe to that. We pay for those ads - that's you and me, the taxpayer. Everytime I see one come on the TV, I want to throw a stubbie at the screen, for that is my money going up in smoke.

I have always thought that the only purpose of advertising by a government was to try and keep the media sweet. After all, those fat salaries paid to media executives and talking heads all have to be paid for somehow, and throwing money at them is one way to shut them up.

If that has been the plan, it hasn't worked.

Which is why I am wondering if this announcement doesn't have a sour grapes flavour to it. If I was Nathan Rees, I'd be saying this:

"We've given these pricks a billion dollars over the last 8 years, and has it bought us any favours? No. Well, fuck them. I'm going to pull the rug out from underneath them. There'll be floods of tears down at Channel 9 this week as the axe starts to swing. A few cutbacks will do them some good. And the beauty of it is that none of them will be able to complain - they'll all have to praise me for doing the taxpayer a favour. I hope they choke to death on the shit sandwich that I'm going to serve them".

If I was him, I would have gone for a 75% cut.

This sould soon apply to us....

A good joke about Gordon Brown.

Just substitute "Queensland" for "Scotland".

Saturday 25 October 2008

The ongoing public transport civil war

Thanks be to Kae for this tip-off from Michael Costa.

Many aeons ago, about the time I was still cuddling a teddy bear, there was an organisation in NSW called the PTC - the Public Transport Commission. This bastard organisation, which was formed in 1972, lasted a mere 8 years before it was broken up. During its existance, it ran all the public trains, buses and ferries in NSW, and it was an unlamented pile of poo.

A much used term over the last decade has been "integrated public transport". It is the holy grail of many of those that work in the public transport sector in NSW, and it is the reason why we (the taxpayer) have been lumped with the fiasco known as Tcard. Integrated public transport is a fetish for many transport academics, who continually pump out research papers asking why we can't have a public transport system like Singapore.

There's just one thing getting in the way of an integrated system, where the buses, ferries and trains all work together in harmony.

The people that operate those three modes of transport hate each others guts.

You might think that the common enemy would be the RTA, with its fondness for building an ever increasing mileage of freeways, but the people that the railways really like to hate are the bus companies. And the loathing is returned with a passion.

For there is one continual problem that the three face, and that is revenue sharing.

Now you, as a taxpayer, might think that public transport is paid for out of one big bucket of money, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each agency gets a certain amount of money from the Treasury, and has to raise the rest of its operating budget via fares. The more customers a company has, the more money they'll rake in, and that will make the most important people happy - no, not the customers - but Treasury. For you see, being a success in the public transport business is not about making the travelling grockles happy - it's about not having your throat torn out by the maniacs in Treasury.

So the aim of the game is to grab as much of the public transport patronage pie as possible, and if that means knobbling the bastards running the buses, or sinking a few ferries, then so be it. When ferries started running aground or running into boats on Sydney Harbour last year, I assumed that a crack team of bus drivers had been sabotaging the ferries, Rainbow Warrior style.

The greatest opponent of new rail lines is not the great unwashed who are addicted to their cars - it is a certain Sydney academic who has a bus fetish. Everytime a new rail line is proposed, he trots out a paper showing that it will be the greatest disaster since the Hindenburg, and why a bus transitway should be built instead. The papers that he puts out really are akin to being shot in the back by your own side.

The RTA of course stands there on the sidelines, watching the rail, bus and ferry people gouging each others eyes out, and then walks off with all the cash to build an incredibly stupid bridge like the Anzac Bridge (stupid, in that it is much taller, and thus more expensive, than it ever needed to be).

Tcard turned to shit for a number of reasons, but it was hobbled at the very beginning by the SRA and Sydney Buses engaging in ferocious haggling over how revenue would be shared. It then went down the toilet when the SRA refused to see sense and revamp their ticketing system to produce a simpler fare structure. It refuses to do that because a simpler fare structure might have cost it a few million in revenue at the fare box, and it was more important to protect those fares than to give Sydney an integrated and simplified ticketing system. Each agency was only interested in protecting its own turf, and to hell with the bigger picture.

Costa is right in that our urban planners are living on another planet. We should just ship them all to Mars and let them develop their new utopian fantasies on an untouched world. But the other thing that hobbles thinking about rail transport is that in Sydney, it is totally and utterly focused around transport to the CBD. People will make noises every now and then about "nodes" such as Parramatta, but no one really gives a shit about moving people to Parramatta. You know why?

The head office of RailCorp is in the CBD. Well, okay, it's on the southern fringe of the CBD, behind Central Station, but pretty much the entire head office personnel of RailCorp works in the CBD. Until the mid 1990's, they were all housed in Transport House above Wynyard, but that was sold off and a new set of buildings thrown up behind Central. Paradoxically, even though the SRA (as it was then) was shrinking in overall staff numbers, more and more seats were required for people working in head office.

When the great breakup of the SRA occured in 1996, the CEO of one of the newly created offshoots thought about moving their offshoot out of town. Various options were canvassed, including North Sydney and Parramatta, but the groans of horror from the staff were too great to overcome - they had to stay in the CBD. Have you ever seen the movie Van Helsing? If you have, think of the screams of the female vampires when denied their prey - that's the kind of racket that the staff created.

It's funny how, if someone spends say 40 years of their working life sitting in an office in the CBD, that their focus tends to be about transport to and from the CBD. Transport to areas "out there" are not really a concern, especially if your job is such that you never need to visit one of the far flung offices of the public transport empire.

Sydney Buses has many bus depots scattered across Sydney, and RailCorp has hundreds of office sites (some are a simple demountable beside a bit of track somewhere, housing a small team working on a project). The head office of RailCorp now hosts thousands and thousands of what I would call "support" personnel - they are there supposedly to support the people in the field - those that clean and drive trains, staff the stations and bang the track with hammers. If you did a survey of those thousands of head office wallahs, you'd probably find that an amazingly high percentage have not left their head office ivory towers in years to visit the field. Some might get out once a year, and brag about how they're getting out and "mixing it with the boys with mud on their boots".

For you see, not only do the rail people hate the bus people, but the head office people really don't want to go anywhere near the field people - possibly for fear of catching something nasty, like a desire to wear ugg boots all the time and to call your kids Wayne, Narelle and Kylie-Jane.

I see that I am getting off track as usual.

The rail people see buses purely as a feeder system to the railways. If the rail people had their way, every bus trip would terminate at a train station, regardless of whether you needed or wanted to catch a train. Rail people get frustrated at the "waste" of allowing buses to pick people up from close to where they live and dropping them off close to where they work, go to school or shop. They think you should get on a bus, get off the bus at a train station, wait for a train, catch the train, then get off at the other end and catch a bus for the final leg.

As if anyone is ever going to do that. But that is the fantasy being pushed by the integrated public transport tribe. Here's my response - when I get on a train or bus, I just want to sit down and not move a muscle until I get to where I want to go. I do not want to have to get off my bus or train and fight for a seat on the next leg. I am comfortable where I am, reading my magazine and listening to my iPod. Just leave me be and take me to where I want to go.

The beauty of that sort of system, from a rail perspective, is that it delivers most of the fare revenue to the railways. The rail people would argue that if the journey is 35km, and 30km of that are done on a train, then the rail company should get 6/7 of the revenue, and the bus company can go suck on a rusty pipe. The bus people absolutely hate that idea, so they fight it tooth and nail. They even fight it when it does make sense to setup a feeder service, because there are times when it might make sense, but they hate the idea, so they oppose it whether it is sensible or not.

So you see, the whole problem with an integrated transport system is that each operator does not want their passengers to get off their bus/train/ferry and travel on another mode - they want to capture them and keep them entirely within their orbit, because then they get to keep 100% of their fare revenue.

Which is why I started with the PTC, which was an attempt to overcome this by rolling them all into one big company. The outcome was that the managers fought so much, it was like watching 10 cats tied in a bag. I have been told that their infighting pretty much destroyed the company, which was why they had to break it up.

And don't think that you only get fighting between buses and trains. Back when the SRA ran country, urban and freight trains, the three groups fought like demons as well - and they still do. Each wants new rollingstock, or priority train paths through Sydney, or whatever, and they go at each other hammer and tongs. And then they all fight with the engineers who maintain the track - which is why back in 1996, it looked sensible to split off the people who maintained the track into their own company (RSA), because they hated the wankers that drove the trains along the track.

In short, public transport is a maelstrom of festering hatreds and fetishes, combined with a lust for power and revenue that makes Bill Gates look like a girl guide.

Which is why I ride a bike to work.

Friday 24 October 2008

Cool letterbox

Check out this letterbox, nestled in a hedge. The hedge is about 10 feet tall. This place is for sale, if you are interested in buying this hedge-nestled letterbox.

Thursday 23 October 2008

How the public sector eats your taxes

Let's take a real world example of what happens to salary levels and staffing numbers in the public sector.

I have blogged earlier about the convoluted splitting apart and re-merging of the railways in NSW. Now, consider what happened to salaries during that time.

In the old days, working for State Rail didn't pay a lot of money. In fact, they were tight-fisted, miserly bastards, which might explain why the unions were so strong. It provided a reasonable level of pay in return for job security - you could bugger the Premier's dog whilst robbing a bank and not get the sack. But no one ever got rich working for the railways - unless you found a nice way to commit fraud (and not get caught or gamble all you ill-gotten gains away).

Then the SRA was split into four chunks, and 3 of them were put onto a "commercial" footing, complete with Boards of Directors, shareholders and all that malarky. Instead of employment for life, staff were employed on contracts. At one point, RAC had around 100 staff, of which over 80 were contractors. This led to some embarassing questions in parliament, and a crash effort was undertaken to convert them to permanent employees.

The thing is, those contractors didn't want to be taken on and paid at public service rates, so they ended up being paid 80-90% of what they were on as contractors, which was up to 50% higher than what an equivalent position in the SRA would pay.

For example, if someone at the SRA was on $60,000, a contractor would be paid maybe $100,000 - $110,000 to do that role. When they became permanent employees, they would sacrifice a bit of pay, but would not drop back to $60,000. They'd probably start at around $90,000. Plus bonus.

This put a lot of noses out of joint at the SRA, but of course the contractors worked 3 times as hard for double the money, actually made decisions, took responsibility and made stuff happen. They generally knew how to motivate people, rather than just shitting all over them. That didn't cut any ice over at SRA - as far as they were concerned, if two people had the title of HR Manager, then they should be paid the same, regardless of performance, responsibilities and outcomes.

Which is why although the SRA employed some people with a strong work ethic, they usually gave up a few years and joined the herd of grey-cardigan wearing drones, doing just enough to get by and nothing more.

Anyway, most of the staff at RAC were employed on a contract of some sort - in short, they could be fired for non-performance, which was a first for the railway sector. (And to the horror of many, the first rather ruthless CEO, Judy Stack, did just that to a few dud managers). They were also paid a straight salary, with no penalty rates, allowances or overtime. This was incomprehensible to a lot of people at SRA, because you might be on a base salary of $50,000 but take home $80,000 after overtime etc. But they were comparing apples with oranges - they saw someone down the road being paid $80,000 when they were being paid "$50,000" (even though they took home $80,000) and they wanted their base salary upped to the same level - but without giving up any of the allowances, overtime and penalty rates!

So after a few years, RAC and the RSA were merged to form RIC, and it was found that salaries right across the board were out of whack. It was the same story - RSA staff had a lower headline rate of pay, but in some cases, took home more pay than their RAC equivalents - but they wanted the same base pay as the RAC staff.

It was not a good time to be an HR manager.

Many of the RSA staff just couldn't get it through their heads that if they wanted the higher base pay, then they had to give up the overtime and other goodies. Their TRP (total remuneration package) would stay the same, but the way their pay was calculated would change.*

What happened of course was a debacle.

HR decided to move all the RSA staff to a straight salary, but their salary would be based on their total remuneration for the previous year. So some lucky bastards, who had been doing a stack of overtime, saw their base pay increase hugely. Some went from a base of $40,000 to a base of $70,000 overnight - with no requirement to give up the overtime that boosted their total pay in the first place! So if they kept doing overtime, they could find themselves earning $80,000+.

All that did of course was annoy the utter crap out of the RAC staff, who were suddenly being paid a lot less, and who had no contractual rights to overtime. It torpedoed their morale, and their productivity, which had been much higher than that of the RSA staff (which was one reason why they got paid more in the first place) went down the toilet.

The same thing happened again when RIC merged with SRA to form RailCorp.

And the other thing that happened along the way is that the salaries of the top managers exploded. RailCorp currently has around 750 managers earning over $100,000, and a fair swag of them are earning a lot more than $100,000. Now compared to Macquarie Bank, that's small change, but we're talking about a public enterprise here. Those 750 managers probably cost over $100 million per year, especially when you factor in superannuation contributions and other on-costs. And if you consider that most of them would have an office and an Admin Assistant (earning anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000), plus laptop, mobile phone (or Blackberry), car, parking spot and so on, you can see where a big chunk of the rail budget goes.

The salaries of managers were boosted by several factors. Consider these....

When the railways were broken up, managers suddenly had to become "commercially focused", so their salaries were bumped up to what was considered to be private sector levels. A job that might have paid $60,000 in SRA paid $100,000 or more in a "commercial entity".

When the first merger happened, pretty much every department was enlarged as a result. If you had 10 people in HR on one side and 50 on the other, then the new General Manager suddenly found themself managing 60 people - and they had to be compensated for the "added responsibilities" because they now had a "bigger" job. That $100,000 salary suddenly went to $120,000, without much of anything changing. Then downsizing would come along, and they'd be paid more for the stress of having to manage a smaller organisation. They were paid more when their staff got bigger, and paid more when their staff shrunk. Every management fad or restructure somehow fed into fatter pay packets.

The same thing happened with the next merger. Senior jobs that might have once might have paid $140,000 were now paying $280,000. An $80,000 job now paid $180,000. A $60,000 j0b paid $120,000, and so on.

The only people that missed out were those on the front line - those running the trains and cleaning the stations.

When you consider that this has probably happened in just about every government agency over the last 10 years, you can suddenly see why the NSW government has squandered and blown all the fruits of the boom, and the budget is now up shit creek.

I do want to make the point that I am not against paying people for performance. I have looked at the annual reports for the railways, the health department, the police and the education department, and worked out that last year, I took home more money that all but the most senior executives in those departments - but I worked my bum off for it, and I had to perform at a very high level to earn that kind of cash.

The problem with everything that I have talked about here is that the higher pay was not accompanied by a commensurate demand for higher performance. If you ask me, about 5% of managers should be sacked each year for poor performance - partly because it encourages the others, but mainly because it gets rid of the idiots, and allows someone else the opportunity to do a better job. You can't have a system of paying for performance unless people pay for non-performance - by getting the boot.

If you went through all the big government agencies, the ones with the big salaries, and asked how many managers earning over $100,000 were sacked over the last 5 years for non-performance (rather than fraud, assault, sexual harassment etc), you'd find the answer would be very close to zero. The public of NSW would have been better served over the last few years if those higher salaries had been accompanied by some well-publicised sackings - and sacking without any golden handshakes or redundancy payments. A simple, "You're no fucking good - now fuck off!"


*If you want to know how complicated some of the public sector awards are, consider this.

RAC employed over 300 staff, and had one person to run the payroll and perform all HR functions. That's because everyone was on a straight salary, so the payroll run was pretty straightforward). The payroll guy spent a lot of time at the pub, playing pool and goofing off. He really only worked one day a month - the day the payroll ran.

Although the SRA had 40 times the staff, they had hundreds of payroll clerks, and a massive HR bureacracy. They needed a huge number of payroll clerks in order to process the hideously complicated timesheets, which were all filled out by hand, signed and then faxed into a central office. The timesheets were so complicated, they were longer than a normal A4 page - you couldn't fit enough boxes onto a normal A4 sheet and make it comprehensible.

The payroll staff also ran this wonderful system where they'd goof off all week, pretending to work, and then state that if they didn't work overtime over the weekend, the payroll couldn't be run. They'd then work Saturday (at time and a half) and Sunday (at double time).

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Who was the mystery conscript?

I got this comment last week:

BOAB, My husband served in Vietnam with the son of the then Minister for the Army. This guy was a conscript (no choice there) like the rest in the intake. Did his basic training, corps training, shipped out with everyone else, served his time, came home with the rest. All still mates today.

Another was the son of a wealthy Perth business family, another came from the Northern Beaches, private school rugby player. My boy was the son of a tradesman.

That got me wondering as to who it could be. I made a few calls, including one to retired politician who was in federal parliament during the time in question. He racked his brains trying to figure out who it could be, because from his memory, the kids of all the Ministers were too young to serve.

We are talking about 40 years ago, and memories might not be what they once were. There could also be the complication of a son from a first marriage, and him only knowing the kids from the second marriage.

Conscription ran from 1965 to 1972. During that time, the Ministers for the Army were:

Jim Forbes Liberal Party 1963–1966
Malcolm Fraser Liberal Party 1966–1968
Phillip Lynch Liberal Party 1968–1969
Andrew Peacock Liberal Party 1969–1972

Jim Forbes was born in 1923, so he would have been 40 in 1963. If he started having kids when he was 20, they could have been the right age.

Malcolm Fraser was born in 1930, so he was 36 when he became Minister.

Phillip Lynch was born in 1933, so he was 35 when he took over to portfolio. He had 3 sons, but he would needed to have had the first at age 17 if he is to be a candidate.

Andrew Peacock was born in 1939, making him 30 when he became Minister. I know Peacock was a randy old goat, but to have conceived a kid at 13 is a bit of a stretch.

So we expanded the search a bit, and my political insider tried to remember if any serving MPs at the time had kids in the age bracket for conscription, and he couldn't think of any.

The mystery deepens. He could have been the younger brother of the Minister - I've known families where there is an age gap of 30 years or so between the youngest and oldest siblings. I went to uni with a woman who had enormous gap between herself and her older sisters. Her eldest sister had kids who were older than she was - an aunty younger than her nephews and neices.

Still, this one has got me beat. More information required.

Continuing the "soldiers" theme

It's only a week late, but here are my remaining comments on the Counterpoint podcast on soldiering in the modern age.

For those that came in late, Michael Duffy interviewed the founder and editor of Defender magazine, and some rather interesting things (from my point of view) were said in that interview.

I'll paraphrase what was said here, but it was about "viewing the actions of soldiers from the safety of their couch in Glebe."

That is, if a patrol in Afghanistan brasses up some civvies in the middle of the night, the commentariat arises the next morning from their nice, warm beds and dumps a bucket of shit all over the "incompetent" soldiers who opened fire. (Note that the media never directly accuses our soldiers of being incompetent, but that's how it looks to me when you read between the lines).

Those comments of course are made by people that have probably never done any real manual labour in their life, let alone picked up a rifle and strapped on some webbing and body armour and gone out on patrol in temperatures that would have most running for the comfort of a swimming pool or air conditioned house - and patrolled through an area potentially littered with mines that will either take your foot off, half your leg off or your balls off. They've never slept on the hard ground, or had their beauty sleep interupted by incoming fire, or the need to stand watch for two hours in the middle of the night. They get to shower two or three times per day if they want to - using unlimited hot or cold water. They have no idea what it is like to function in the sort of heat that drops marathon runners, carrying the equivalent of a mid-sized child on your back, and operting with a complete lack of sleep.

Fatigue is one of those things that most westerners don't have to deal with any more. We don't perform back-breaking labour in the fields, bringing in the harvest or tending to herds or flocks of animals. We don't dig coal out of seams with picks and shovels. We don't have stokers that shovel coal into boilers on ships or trains by the ton in order to make things move. Grain is moved on mechanical elevators, not in sacks carried on the backs of men. Pallets of groceries are moved into supermarkets on forklifts or pallet jacks. Ditches are dug with backhoes, not shovels. Even leaves, the lightest of things, are moved around with blowers, rather than raked up by hand.

The only time most people get a glimpse of fatigue is when they are driving long distances, and that is brought on by the banality and boredom of the drive, rather than the physical effort required to move a power-driven steering wheel a few centremetres from side to side every now and then. Fatigue brought on by a hard days work in the hot sun, followed by a few hours of broken sleep on a concrete floor, is a completely different kettle of fish.

I read of parents who get so frustrated with their crying children that they shake them to death. The only way I can see that coming about is if the parent is so tired, they just can't take it anymore - they crack under the strain. I know what it can be like to be kept up all night by a sick child - it happens every few months, and I'm pretty knackered by the end of it.

But I never lose my rag, because as bad as it can be, it is nowhere near as bad as what I went through in the Reserves. I saw people so tired, they got into fist fights at 3am because they didn't want to take their turn manning the gun.

I saw one bloke get so fed up with a mate who refused to get out of the farter (fart sack = sleeping bag) that he butt-stroked him - bashed him in the face with the wooden butt of his rifle. I had to take Mr Sleepyhead to hospital the following day to get his nose bent back into something approaching its original shape. I don't remember anyone getting terribly upset about any of this, because everyone went through it. I think the incident was written up as someone tripping over the sleeping person in the middle of the night (you don't use a torch as light will give you away) and kneeing them in the face by accident.

The thing the inhabitants of Glebe can't comprehend is that you can be so knackered, you can start to hallucinate, and then all sorts of bad things can happen when you've got a loaded weapon in your hands. I once got so out of it, I found myself talking to people that weren't there. Most people just don't get how knackering soldiering can be, and how that can affect your judgement. The fact that a lot more people aren't brassed up by mistake is a testament to the training and preparation that our soldiers go through - when you hear talk of soldiers being "highly trained", that includes being trained to make snap decisions about whether to kill someone or not when you're at the end of your tether from heat, exertion, dust, lack of sleep, flies, mosquitoes and a thousand other irritants. I suspect that most of the critics in Glebe would either freeze in panic or mow down a flock of nuns if faced with the sorts of situations that Western soldiers face on a daily basis when on operations.

I liked the comment in the interview that we are "divorced from fear today" and that "the world is no longer the same after facing fear". I don't know about the second part, since I've never been shot at, but I can appreciate the first part. The most that I had to fear today was being half an hour late to work because of the rain. Imagine what it must be like to be a civilian in Afghanistan, having to deal with the Taliban, disease, drug buyers, land mines, drought, a corrupt government and a pernicious military and police force. I suspect that western armies, who operate according to the rule of law and strict rules of engagement, are the least of their problems (unless someone operating a drone mistakes you for a Taliban and laser guides a 2000 pound bomb onto your location). You'd really wake up each day, wondering if it might be your last. That's fear.

We don't have that anymore. The Grim Reaper does his reaping somewhere else most of the time.

The discussion on ROE (rules of engagement) was fascinating - especially what went on in East Timor. Back when I was half a soldier, if they weren't wearing our uniform, you double-tapped them and that was that. There was no crap about "hostile intent" or waiting for them to shoot first. It was, hello, BLAM, goodbye.

Towards the end of the interview, Duffy trotted out the old saw about the US Army being a haven for the poor, the minorities and the unemployable. That might have been the case when they used conscription during the Vietnam War, and all the wealthy, educated pussies took off for Canada, but it is not the case today.

The problem that many people have is that when they meet a Yank, they gain the impression that they are stupid because they don't know much about what goes on in the world outside the USA. A lack of desire to follow the political situation in Belgium or the economic situation in Malaysia does not necessarily make you a thickie. It just means that the yanks have little interest in what happens in the wider world, because their own country generally generates plenty of newsworthy stuff internally. How many Australians would be aware today of the outcome of the recent Canadian elections?

"What Canadian elections?" would be the answer from many. I was watching the news in the cafe at work this week and Obama was speaking. The woman next to me said that it was a choice between "Him and the old guy, and if the old guy dies, that woman gets in". She was unable to name McCain or Palin - and we call the yanks thick?

We had a bloke in our regiment that was academically fairly bright but completely and utterly lacked common sense. Unfortunately, there was no way to get rid of him because he had passed all the standard intelligence and psych tests, so he was deemed smart enough to be a soldier. Trouble is, he didn't have the right sort of smarts. He was so thick in his own special way that he was a menace. Here's an example...

When you are doing combat drills, or fire and movement drills, you have to be really careful that you don't end up being in somebody else's line of fire. You practice and practice and practice to ensure that you never end up getting shot by your own side. You start by practicing on something flat and open (like a footy oval) - and feeling like a complete dick - and then work up to do it out in the scrub, where visibility is limited etc etc. After you've done it a few hundred times, you can be fairly confident that your section or platoon can go through a contact with only the enemy being hit by your own bullets.

Except for this idiot.

He ended up in my section for a while, and he managed to run right across the front of my machine gun on several occasions - thankfully, we used blanks 95% of the time, so he lived. This guy needed to be hobbled when we did it with live ammo - you just couldn't allow him onto the range for fear of him shooting someone else, or being shot up himself - or even him shooting himself with his own rifle. I don't know how someone can run in front of an M-60 when it's up and running - it's the noisiest and most obvious thing on the battlefield when you have light infantry shooting at each other - but he somehow managed to fuck up in the most glorious way. We swore that if we ever did get deployed somewhere, and he came with us, we'd shoot him ourselves in the first contact - we'd be safer with him out of the way.

The interview ended with a story about how the Australian soldier is now better equipped than most other armies, including the yanks. I almost choked and ran off the road at that point, because I served when Bomber Beazley was the Minister for Defence, and most of the budget was spent on feeding him lunch. All our kit was left over from Vietnam - our uniforms, webbing, packs, weapons, trucks, radios, tents and even the food we ate. Some of the ration packs that we were issued were produced before I was born. Everything was worn out, old and crap.

When we finished recruit camp, most of us went straight out and used our first pay packet to buy a good set of boots, some spare uniforms, a good lightweight sleeping bag, a raincoat that kept out the rain, thermal underwear, gloves, a proper pack and maybe some better webbing. I had two piles of kit at home - the crap the Army issued me (and I never used), and the stuff I paid for (and used all the time). The idea that the Army could issue equipment that was useful or serviceable was laughable. Even cleaning cloth - the small bits of cloth that you use to clean your weapon - was unavailable. We used to buy teatowels and take them on exercises and cut them up so that we could clean our weapons properly. Even gun lubricant was almost unobtainable - we used to buy that ourselves as well.

So to hear that the modern soldier is amazingly well equipped just rocked my world. If even the Infantry is getting good kit these days, then it means that the Howard years must have been good for Defence, even if a few high profile projects got fucked up.

The thing is, your average grunt like me couldn't give a bugger about whether a submarine worked or not. We cared about whether we could get a little one inch square of flannel in order to pull it through the barrel after firing in order to get all the carbon out. We cared about getting a machine gun that wasn't so worn out, it started to double feed after firing 5 rounds. We cared about being issued enough blanks so that we didn't spend the weekend doing contact drills and having to yell "bang bang bang" on Sunday because our ammo had run out.

I don't know if those worries have all been banished or not, but I certainly hope so.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Cheap, at $65 a litre

We did a little road trip to Canberra a few weeks ago - a family get together type trip; mum, dad, my brood and my sister and her beau. We were staying in some serviced apartments, and although I am a big fan of eating out, I am not a big fan of eating out with a 3 year old that is not yet restaurant-broken. That meant whipping up our own grub in the apartment, and that meant having to make a salad.

Last time we did this trip, I took a boot full of food things. This time, I swore we would travel light, so we didn't pack anything that would assist meal preparation. Which was fine - we were close to a great market, and the apartment had a good kitchen, so what could go wrong?

We couldn't find any bloody salad dressing - that's what went wrong. I tried every shop at the market, and it appeared that not one of them stocked dressings of any kind. Well, the health food shop stocked a thing that they called "dressing", but it had no oil in it. That's not salad dressing in my book. Only fucking hippies could fuck up salad dressing.

I did track some down eventually - it was the only bottle in the entire bloody market. I gasped at the price tag, but it was that or nothing, so I bought it.

It was a 200ml bottle of Tetsuya's salad dressing, at $12.95. If my maths is correct, that is pretty near to $65 a litre. Not bad going, if your name is Tetsuya.

After all that, it's a bloody marvelous dressing (as you'd expect for $65 a litre). I wonder if the economy tanks and everyone has to cut back on spending whether I will be the last person to buy a bottle of that for the next few years. If Rudd ever eats at Tetsuya's (and only people like him will be able to afford to do that), I hope that Tetsuya fronts him and says, "You bastard - no one buy my dressing anymore! I sell last bottle in Canberra! What type of fuckup shit is this country!?"

The best thing about it? I'm not running my car on it.

Monday 20 October 2008

John Murphy MP flies to Queensland for free food

The office of John Murphy MP was today forced to deny rumours that Mr Murphy had used taxpayer funded flights for him and his wife in order to obtain free food from a church in Logan.

Although an official inquiry at Parliament House has determined that the stroganoff portion sizes are "adequate", Mr Murphy has continued to grumble about "not feeling full".

The Tribe of Judah church has noted that it is serving more food than ever, but an audit found that only three more people than usual were turning up for free meals.

Pastor Terry Walker noticed that two newcomers, obviously a couple, wearing sunglasses and hats pulled low over their faces, were returning for thirds, fourths and fifths. When he fronted the male and demanded an explanation, he was met with a barrage of complaints about small portion sizes and "poor value for money".

When Pastor Walker pointed out that it couldn't be "poor value for money" as the food was free, the unidentified male mumbled something about it being "fucking poor money for the taxpayer when they have to fly us up here from Canberra first class".

Jack the Wino, who has been stumbling drunkenly to the free nosh-up all year also claims to have noticed a 3rd person in the group.

"He weren't eatin' nothin' though. He'd put his feed into a plastic container like, and then pack it into a suitcase. I saw 'im tucking away at least 6 feeds", said Jack, holding up three tobacco stained fingers.

"He then lugged the suitcase over to a fancy white car, which was parked over there - or was it there?" Jack said in a state of some confusion, as he pointed first to an island in a fish pond, and then the middle of the Logan Expressway.

"The car had a driver an' all. He sat there all the time, in his uniform, wiv the engine runnin' and air con going full blast. Bill wen' over and asked him wot he was doin' there, and he said somethin' about 'studying the artifacts of climate change'?"

"As for the bloke nicking the grub, all I caught was 'is last name - something like 'advisor'". He didn't seem too happy to be here. I 'eard him mutter that if 'the press gets wind of this, we're fucked'. He gave me these little bottles of wine to shut me up - I never knew there was a brand of red called "Qantas first class complimentary drinks" They're a pathetically small size though - barely more than a mouthful. Someone orta complain about the size of these drink portions. A man couldn't get pissed in a week drinkin' these."

Bill, who was discovered fast asleep under a tree, said that he remonstrated with the woman about the amount of food she was taking.

"She just laughed at me and said something about, 'there's no baggage limit for us, dearie', before she went back for a ninth serving", which Bill illustrated by holding up four fingers and his left foot. His foot, although adorned by a well used sock, had three toes poking out of it.

As Bill blew his nose on his sock, Pastor Walker made a final statement.

"We've got a ton of food left over this week. Those three no-shows certainly put a lot away".

When questioned on the exact amount of food that the three interlopers had consumed, Pastor Walker re-iterated, "A ton. Before they showed up, we went through 50 tons a week. Once they started coming, it went up to 51 tons. We served 51 tons this week, and have exactly one ton left over.

"Anyone for a corned beef sandwich? Or some stroganoff?"


Conservatives can stop reading at this point.


*All references to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. That was supposed to be satire.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Missing the Spring Cycle

I had to give the annual Spring Cycle a miss this year due to other commitments. What I didn't expect was that we'd get caught up in the Cycle on the way to that commitment.

Tens of thousands of cyclists partake in this event, which means clogged streets for most of the morning whilst the slow moving hordes wander past. Most intersections are manned by the Police, which keeps the aggro drivers in check. If you get caught up in the stream, your only option is to bumble along in first gear at about 15 km/h, as there are enough of them to completely fill the cycle lane and the car lane, and about half the lane on the other side of the road.

Having done it twice, I know that the best thing to do is to be at the starting line in North Sydney at or before 7am (which is the official start time). That way, you have a chance of getting out in front of the sluggish family and eldster groups, which allows you to complete the 50km route before the sun goes down. Whilst it's good to see so many diverse groups doing the ride, the speedster in me has to put up with the frustration of dawdling behind people who obviously cycle on a very casual basis, so they don't have the fitness and strength to power up the hills, or to get up to a good clip on the flat.

These are the sorts of people that shit motorists to tears when they take to the roads at peak hour on work days. I figure that if you are going to ride on a main road with lots of other traffic, you owe it to those motorists to not slow them down too much, which means being able to rip along at a good pace. If you can't hold 30 km/h on a flat road with no headwind, then you should go away and train somewhere else until you are capable of doing that. Otherwise, find another route.

I usually find that if I am giving it my all, and obviously doing my best to go as fast as humanly possible, then most motorists seem to respect that and they don't get upset at being delayed for a few seconds. However, I can understand them going berko when trapped behind some birkenstock wearing, hemp clad feral who is weaving from side to side as the try and balance several shopping bags of soy milk and vegetables on their handlebars - and all the while proceeding at the stately pace of a funeral carriage.

That said, I still wish I could have done the Cycle today. By now, I'd be home, having ridden to North Sydney, then to Homebush Bay, had a rest (after riding through the olympic torch fountain to cool down) and then home again; a trip of about 80km. Remember how the torch rose up around Cathy Freeman after she lit it at the Olympics? It's now mounted on a stand about 20 feet high, and it's a working fountain most of the time. It's great to ride under it on a hot day (so long as all your valuables are wrapped up in plastic bags).

Saturday 18 October 2008

Where Paco leads, one must follow

Boy on a bike - supporting the freedom of voters to question candidates since 2007.

So, how did Costa bugger the railways?

In order to answer this question, we need to scroll back to the first days of the Greiner government.

Greiner inherited a right mess when he became Premier. The state finances were a disaster (as usual, when Labor gets the boot). He setup a Commission of Audit (the Curran Commission), with a remit to look into how the major enterprises of the state were functioning. The Commission looked at electricity, water, the railways and lots of other areas. It is at least 10 years since I last saw a copy of the report, but it went something like this:

State Rail will bankrupt NSW unless it is reformed.

That was about it.

At the time, the SRA had something like $4 billion of debt and was losing money hand over fist. It was borrowing more and more money to cover the losses, and it was clear that it would spiral out of control unless it was stopped. If it kept on losing money the way it was going, it would not be long before it totally wrecked the finances of the entire state.

Griener did a couple of things. He installed an accountant as the new SRA CEO - someone who understood money, rather than bits of track and trainsets. He corporatised the monster, with the aim of reducing political interference - because meddling by Ministers was a big cause of the disaster that the SRA had become. The SRA debt was also handed over to Treasury. All that kicked off a new era of reform.

That reform was of course about as popular with the unions as whaling is with Greenpeace.

The reforms continued after Labor won power in 1995. The railways were now a total mess (rather than an utter disaster), and the introduction of a national competition policy meant that a breakup of the SRA was required in order to provide a level playing field to private sector rail operators.

The SRA was split into four bits. The freight arm was privatised, and later swallowed by National Rail.

The ownership of the track was given to a new company called RAC (the Rail Access Corporation). RAC owned the track, and sold access to any operator that wanted to run a train - the same way that airports sell slots to any airline that wants to land a plane. RAC was also responsible for organising the maintenance of the track, which was generally viewed as a totally inefficient and wasteful operation when performed inhouse by the SRA.

The SRA had long neglected track maintenance, leading to the Granville disaster - the track essentially fell apart under a train, causing it to smack into a bridge, which then collapsed on top of the train.

RAC had this idea that they'd start by contracting 100% of the maintenance to another offshoot of SRA - Rail Services Australia, or RSA. Then, as time went by, they'd put packages of work out to tender, and RSA would compete for the work against private sector companies.

The unions hated that as well, since the RSA lost every tender by an enormous margin. RSA was so woefully inefficient, overstaffed and badly managed that it was at a tremendous cost disadvantage. It was also saddled with a workforce inherited from the SRA that would refuse to work in an iron lung, and equipment that would make a Romanian plumber from Goatfuckistan look like he worked for NASA.

The writing was clearly on the wall for RSA. It employed several thousand staff, all very blue collar, and their jobs were about to disappear up the spout. The unions twisted a lot of arms, and the Labor government caved in - the contracting out of rail maintenance work was halted.

That pretty much cut the rug out from under RAC, since half their job was to try and reduce the cost of rail maintenance. If it cost less to maintain the track, then access would be cheaper, which would make rail more competitive with trucks. Trains are much more fuel efficient than trucks, so the more freight they carry, the less oil is consumed, the less CO2 is produced and fewer noisy trucks go tearing down your street blah blah blah.

But the unions didn't see it that way. They were only concerned with protecting jobs that were seriously featherbedded.

Then RAC really found itself in the shit after the Glenbrook crash, although it really had nothing to do with the crash. RAC was used as a scapegoat by the government, and it was merged with RSA. The result of that merger, which was described as "a merger between and watermelon and a grape" was RIC - the Rail infrastructure Corp.

Althouth the two companies had both been spawned from SRA, but the time they merged again, they had radically different corporate cultures. RAC had eschewed the time-honoured SRA practice of only recruiting from within itself, and had instead brought in people from a wide range of backgrounds. It was lightyears away from your typical grey-cardigan inhabited public service slothpit. RSA had also undergone some reform, but it was over 10 times the size of RAC, and did not have the same freedom regarding whom it could hire. It was essentially lumped with a few thousand SRA rejects, and told to make the best of it.

RAC was dynamic, fast moving, open, informal, unlayered and unencumbered by bureaucratic policies and procedures. Shit happened at RAC.

RSA was hidebound, sluggish, insanely paranoid about security, strictly formal, layered like the tower of Babel and awash with paperwork, policies, procedures and auditors that were out to bust anyone that failed to account for all the pencils in the stationery cupboard. RSA was essentially shit.

What do you get when you merge a small, dynamic organisation with a big, sluggish one? Do you get a big, dynamic organisation?


You get an ever bigger, more dysfunctional and more disillusioned organisation.

In the private sector, mergers are often quick and brutal. If there is one job and two people who can fill it, one person walks out the door very soon after the merger.

With the RAC-RSA merger, it took years to sort that out. The main effect of the merger was to inject an enormous vat of bad blood into an already sullen and angry organisation, along with a huge amount of organisation turmoil. Decision making and reform essentially came to a halt for a few years whilst the mess was sorted out. Instead of pushing further reform, enormous turf wars broke out as managers tried to protect whatever turf they had left, and people jockeyed for jobs. Hatred, jealousy, gossip, payback, undermining and backstabbing were the order of the day.

That was not Costa's fault.

What Costa though did was to take RIC and then merge it with SRA.

Now if you think that the RSA was the worst example of unreformed, sullen blobs of discontent, think again. It was nothing compared to the stinking corpse that the SRA had become. The kicker was that Costa decreed the merger just as RIC was emerging from the horror years of the last merger, and was actually getting its act together.

Imagine kicking a man in the balls.

He curls up on the floor for a while, puking and crying and thrashing around, and then as the pain recedes, he starts to uncurl and stand up - shakily at first - but eventually he is able to stand up straight and walk away.

Just as RIC started taking those first steps, along came Costa's boot again. The outcome of that merger was RailCorp, but the inside joke was to call it RailCorpse.

Costa thought that the merger would create efficiencies and reduce duplication and waste, and make it easier to drive reform, because there would be one company to deal with instead of two.

Instead, all he got was more inefficiency, triplication of functions, waste like you've never seen before and many of the reforms of earlier years thrown into reverse. RIC had at least moved into the 21st century when the merger occured on 1 Jan 2004. The SRA was still stuck back in the 1950's. The effect of the merger was to catapult RailCorp on 1 Jan 2004 back into about the year 1956.

I think it was at that point that Costa learned to never listen to the unions ever again. 1956 was a sweet time for the unions, but not such a great place for commuters and taxpayers to be.

Since 2004, RailCorp has been painfully dragged into about 1985. However, Rees came along the other day and turned it back into an authority, which will simply return it to the bad old days of ministerial interference, which is what got it into the shit in the first place. It is now stuck in about 1972, and probably going backwards at a rate of knots.

The railways. Going back to the future.

Whether the weather is fine

The weather at the moment is quite delightful for riding - not too hot, not too cold, not too windy and infrequent rain. I went out for a two hour jaunt earlier in the week, and had barely broken into a sweat by the time I returned home. It was not an easy ride, but the light wind and the balmy weather conspired to keep me dry and comfortable - which is such a nice change. The arctic winter gloves and the leggings have gone into storage, but it is still too early in the season to get paranoid about applying sunscreen. I'm developing a lovely cocky's tan - brown forearms, legs and face and a pasty pale body.

There is something to be said for riding in the nude.

Tomorrow looks good again. I know that I won't be up early enough for a group ride - they leave at 6.15am from a location that's about 20 minutes from home, which would mean getting up at oh-dark-hundred. Not a chance of doing that - not when I have a 95% chance of having to get up several times over the next few hours to feed or change one of the kids. I'll just potter out the door mid-morning, or when Monkey is having his afternoon nap, and cruise around the place in my usual solo mode. I do enjoy the company of a group ride - I've never met an uninteresting cyclist - but I'm so used to riding on my own that I find going out with a group of 10 or 20 to be somewhat restrictive. I like to go where the spirit takes me, not where the ride leader directs me to go.

I generally have no idea of where I am going to go when I leave the house. I just hit the first intersection and see where the road takes me. When you spend the week furiously commuting up and down the same stretch of road, there is a lot to be said for just meandering in random ways, and not worrying about being at a certain place at a certain time.

Friday 17 October 2008

Warrior Brothers

I have just finished Warrior Brothers, by Keith Fennell. It's subtitle is "My life in the Australian SAS", so you probably think you know what a lot of the book is like.

It is not a compendium of firefights, derring-do and flawlessly executed operations that saw Johnie Talib scurrying off over the horizon, having been soundly thrashed by our valorous and God-like soldiers. Which is why I liked it.

The book opens with Fennell and some others being tasked to nab some fish poachers down near Antarctica. The operation does not require the poacher's vessel to be stormed under gunfire, nor flashbangs to be tossed down corridors by troopers looking like they have just come from busting into the Iranian Embassy in London. And once they have the boat, they don't send it and the piratical crew to the bottom of the briney deep with a few well placed demolition charges.

Instead, they a stuck on the boat for a few weeks with an obese Naval slob who manages to lose his pistol, and they spend their time alternating between sleeping in a hold full of stinking fish guts and the intensely boring job of guarding the poachers. On the trip down to the Antarctic, the sailor in the bunk above him spends all his time either farting, masturbating or stepping on him. In the end, he has to ask the sailor to wank in the toilet, instead of just above his head.

Yes, it truly uncovers the terribly glamorous and exciting life of an SAS operative. I had a bloke in my section that had a wank everytime we did a gun piquet together. I don't think it's because I turned him on. We always seemed to draw the time of night when the body is at the lowest ebb, and that was his way of keeping awake. These are the sorts of things you have to put up with when you put on a uniform.

In places, the book needs a good editor, but that does not detract from the overall quality of the tome. I trust that after these comments, Fennell will kill his editor without leaving a mark by poking his thumb into the editor's earlobe. There were times when I stopped reading and had to go back over a paragraph a few times in order to make sense of it, but those times were rare. It is not one of those books were you get about 2/3 of the way through and go, "This book has run out of steam, and has nothing more to say - I'll give up now".

If anything, the book could do with a bit more detail in some areas - but that is just the detail junkie in me wanting to know more. Fennell might have put more detail into his early drafts, and had it excised by his editor on the grounds that, "This will bore the pants off the general reader". I disagree with that approach. Think about who buys books on steam engines. The only candidates are trainspotters in anoraks, and other wierdos. They want to know about the diameter of the wheel bearings in the throttle adjustment lever. They want to know about the temperature of the steam at bend four in pipe seven.

The same thing goes for books with a military flavour - these things will be read by buffers like me; people who already have a certain level of knowledge, and are looking for a book like this to add more to our existing set of knowledge. If you get an editor that doesn't know the difference between a safety pin on a grenade and a ring-pull on a beer can, then you end up with a book that is edited, or filleted, to such an extent that all the interesting stuff is no more.

The other way to think about this is to look at text books. Text books are graded in terms of the level of knowledge that the reader should have accumulated by the time they pickup a certain text. You don't start on a level 7 maths book until you have done levels 1 through 6. Fennell might have started with a book aimed at level 7, and had it dumbed down to level 2 by an editor seeking a "wider audience".

That rant apart, it's still a great read. I cracked through it in a few days. The last section, which covers his work in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, is incredible. The second last section, which covers his work as a private security contractor in Iraq, is a complete eye-opener. Given the lack of proper equipment and weapons that the private contractors had to deal with, plus the Walter Mitty types that conned their way into the security teams (and then fell to bits when the going got tough), it's amazing any of them survived. He dispels the myth that the contractors are a bunch of trigger-happy goons who shoot first and never both with any questions afterwards. After reading about several encounters in Iraq with less than friendly people, I was amazed at his forebearance - I would have brassed the bastards up.

I wish he had more to say about the Tampa. I have heard from other sources that there were some right bastards amongst the refugees - some very nasty sorts who should have been tossed over the side at the first opportunity, and never considered for entry into Australia. However, he deals with the Tampa in 2 or 3 pages. I think there is a lot about that episode that the Australian people have yet to hear, and this book doesn't add anything new unfortunately.

Fennell was also deployed to Afghanistan, and whilst he didn't get into any huge firefights, his descriptions of what they went through in order to establish observation posts is gripping. I was hoping that the chapter would end with, "And then we called in a massive B-52 strike and leveled the village", but it didn't, underscoring the frustrating nature of modern war and restrictive rules of engagement.

It was refreshing to read some good descriptions of what a patrol is really like. Most Australians probably think a patrol looks like this (the US Army blundering about somewhere in Vietnam). The fondness that our media have for sourcing footage from US sources, rather than going out and filming Australians in action, has given many a completely screwball impression as to how our military operates. Fennell knocks a lot of that on the head.

Fennell is now studying at Wollongong Uni. I wonder what his fellow students make of him. He's written a good book, full of good stuff. I doubt it will appeal to those looking for a wham-bang action-thriller, because it is not that sort of book. It's worth opening your wallet for this book.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Surefire way to run people off the road

I'm sure I was swerving all over the road on the way home today - mainly because I was pissing myself laughing listening to the Shire Network News.

Why has it taken me so long to start listening to these guys?

Don't trust anyone under 30

For you oldies out there (like me), an interesting Counterpoint podcast on Literacy and the Internet.

For years, I have had to put up with youngsters (ie, those under 30) at work that can't write to save their lives.

This podcast does a good job of explaining why.

It also blows a hole in the whole idea that putting computers into schools is a good idea. I think it sucks.

Pocket vomit

I treated myself to a new pair of shorts yeterday - the old ones were at the stage where if I went commando, you'd be viewing the whole package. I am now the proud owner of the most expensive shorts that I have ever owned; a pair of $99 Columbia "trek through the leach infested hell of Peru" type shorts.

They are beautiful. Well cut, nice fit and soft. They are like chamois.

I'm never going back to cheap shorts.

I had been wearing them for 15 minutes when Number 3 required burping. I put him on my shoulder and was shortly thereafter rewarded with a very wet sounding burp. I checked my shoulder - nothing there - so I put him down and went about my business.

About a minute later, I put my hand in my pocket. It had vomit in it. Even though he was at shoulder level, he managed to chuck into a pocket at waist level.


My brand new, soft as silk, very expensive, just 15 minutes old shorts. With a pocket full of puke.

This kid is going to be a demon when he gets his hands on a Yard Glass.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Did Costa really ruin our train system?

The SMH really has a love/hate relationship with the railways. One day, they'll be promoting a new rail line, and the next they'll be abusing CityRail for some infraction that has caught the eye of a reporter.

Today, they are blaming Costa for stuffing things up - how Costa drove public transport off the rails.

Mr Costa's renowned aversion to expensive rail projects was partly why public transport usage in Sydney had failed to keep pace with the growth in population.

I have my own views on how Costa buggered up the rail system, but it has nothing to do with failing to throw money at it. Tell me this - let's say you have a company that is a disaster from head to toe. It's got weak management, strong unions, creaking infrastructure, corruption, mismanagement, a terrible culture and it fucks up everything it touches. Do you:

a). Give it an enormous pile of money to piss away on capital works, or
b). Give it not one cent of taxpayers money until it proves it won't flush it all down some enormous turd-encrusted sewer

I'd opt for B. Clearly, the SMH would opt for A. I think Costa did the right thing - throwing good money after bad is not the way to run a government.

What political party does this alleged rapist belong to?

Read this article in the SMH and try and determine which political party this MP belongs to. He's accused of rape.

Since no direct mention of his affiliation is made in the article, you can probably guess which side of politics he hails from.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Lots more comments on "soldiers"

Some talking points about the podcast on soldiers. I first listened to this as a podcast in the car whilst driving to work, so obviously didn't have a chance to make notes. After reading a few comments at Sharpe's Sortie, I decided to listen to it again tonight and jot down a few things as I went.

I was intrigued by his description of watching slideshows of photos taken by soldiers who had returned from the Vietnam War, because I only took a camera on an exercise once, and it was not a big, clunking 35mm SLR type camera. For those of you born after the advent of digitial photography, cameras used to be big, bulky and heavy. They were not the sort of thing that your average infantryman would ever lug around. We used to cut down the handles of our toothbrushes to save weight. So just who was it that was taking all those photos? Probably pogues or tankers - someone who didn't have to carry all their crap on their back.

The other thing is that the sort of patrols that the infantry did in Vietnam tended to demand absolute noise discipline. By that, I mean that a platoon of 30 guys could pass you by without a sound. The idea of someone snapping a photo (and those SLR cameras made a lot of noise when the shutter flicked open) and then winding the film..... doesn't bear thinking about. I'd be interested to see what vets would have to say about that.

The modern digital camera is a completely different kettle of fish. Lightweight, silent and even available in black (infantry types are not fond of shiny things that reflect the suns rays and give away your position). I think the advent of the digital camera will enable us to see a much better picture of the "true" infantry life than we've ever seen before.

He then said that the two qualities that you need to be a good soldier are patience and toughness, and I'd agree with that. His reasoning is that most time is spent on tedious and repetitive tasks that require total concentration. I thought that was quite a good description of a lot of military life - a life where you need the patience to put up with "greatcoats on, greatcoats off", and the toughness to put up with the heat, the cold, the rain, the stress, the lack of sleep and the sheer physicality of so many tasks that can't be automated or mechanised.

Duffy then asked if those joining the military had a working class background. Duffy should read "Not as a duty only", which lists some of the many and varied characters that served in one battalion in WWII. Duffy should also look up the background of the author, "Jo" Gullett.

I guess that a lot of the guys that I served with were working class - I can't think of many that hailed from the elite, leafy Perth suburbs of Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove and Mosman Park. But I do get the total shits when people say that the children of the professional classes never serve in the military. I can only give you two examples of that being a crock of shit, because I only have two, but I'm sure there are many more.

My parents once owned a 1/3 share of a house with a Knight of the Realm (that is, a bloke you addressed as 'Sir'). He was quite upper crust - wealthy, a Federal Minister and later High Commissioner. We visited their house when they were living in London, and I went "wow". It was something else. One of his sons was commissioned into the British Army - and he chose to sign up with the Brits rather than us because he was more likely to see action with the poms at that time (Northern Ireland and all that). That's example number one.

The other one is me.

You can stop laughing now.

Seriously, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of blowing my own trumpet, but I was born into a family that was not working class. My paternal grandfather had totally working class beginnings, even down to helping found a Union. We were comfortable but not wealthy - Dad always wanted to own a Jag, but couldn't afford it. We lived a good life but had to do without the yacht, waterfront mansion and private jet. I had to put up with being born with a silver-plated spoon in my mouth.

The thing is though, although we weren't rolling in cash, Dad spent time at the centre of power in this country. And I mean right at the centre, and well-known enough to feature in newspaper cartoons on a regular basis (you know you've made it when cartoonists start to draw you). I couldn't go anywhere as a kid without people saying, "hey is your dad so-and-so?" (Funilly enough, J was chatting to a bloke just last week and he caught my name and said, "hey is his dad so-and-so?, which gives you some idea of the level of "celebrity" we had to put up with. It's over 20 years since Dad retired, and people still dredge that up).

And I joined the Army Reserves as a grunt. I thought about going Regular, but the period of my service was a generally peaceful one - if I had gone Regular, there wouldn't have been much to do. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the infantry, even if it was only part time. One of the great things about it is that no one gives a fuck what your background is once you get out into the bush. Infantry work sorts out the strong from the weak, and respect has to be earned with sweat and blood. Out bush, patrolling under the blazing sun or the pissing rain, no one gives fuck if you come from a single drug-addled parent on welfare or whether you last name is Packer.

I've kept my mouth shut until now, but I reckon there have to be more out there like me - those that have come from the professional classes, yet have served in the military in one form or another. I find the whole concept of class and the military to be vaguely offensive, because the military is a great leveller. Your background counts for nothing. You get places based solely on your achievements (and I must say, I got nowhere, because I was rather lacking in drive at that age).

Whenever someone says that the elites or the upper classes or the whatever are not sending their sons into the military, my first reaction is to shut my mouth, because the last thing I want to do is sound like e a big-noter (which is also why this is done anonymously, and I've changed enough of the facts to try and stay that way). If I stood up and said, "Excuse me, my father is so-and-so, and I have spent my fair share of time being eaten alive by mosquitos in a night ambush position", I'd pretty much die of embarassment. I just apply the stiff upper lip and keep my trap shut. It's hard enough writing this, but I feel that it needs to be said.

I served alongside plenty of people who had come from the working class, but they had little intention of staying there. Most were studying at Uni, or running their own businesses. They were the go-getting types who were on the up and up. Say what you like about the military, but it is not for bludgers that like to sleep in.

Basically, I feel contempt for the people who even bring up this topic of class and the military, and it shows how little they know about the military and the type of people that serve in it. Duffy gets a free pass, because I don't think he was having a dig, but I've read plenty of nasty comments over the last few years about this topic, and it makes my blood boil. Next time you see some birkenstock wearing, hemp clad wierd beard with a bone through their nose making a snide comment about the Army being made up of illiterate bludgers that couldn't get a job in the real world, just remember that the likes of me will be sitting their, arms folded across their chest, smiling a smile that says, "You don't have a fucking clue, you craphead".

Also, when I hear someone mention the word "chickenhawk", I want to punch them in the face. If the timings had been different (ie, I had been born earlier), and if we had gone to war in the late 1970's (a big if, after Vietnam), then Dad would have been one of those people making the decision to go or not. He would have been sending me off to fight.

It didn't happen of course - I was born 10 years too late, and Dad retired too early for that to occur etc etc etc. But it's worth considering that it is possible for those who make the decisions to commit troops to have some skin in the game. I know there are others out there, because when I attended functions as a youngster with my parents, I'd meet all sorts of people from a similar background, and it turned out that a fair number of their kids were serving or had served in the military. They're out there - but they tend to keep their mouths shut. I for one don't want to get down in the gutter and argue with those ignorant, pig-headed hippies.

Why did I join? In the interview, one explanation is the "intense call to be a warrior - it does not strike everyone, but those that it does strike are compelled to have a go". I'd pay that. There is also the desire to "want to know if you are made of the same stuff as the ANZACS", and I'd pay that too. It's not like I grew up with a military background - the photo of Dad in his sailor's rig from WWII was hung in the basement store room, alongside the photo of his brother in his Army uniform (looking a lot chunkier than he did after he returned from New Guinea). But I saw those photos from time to time, and always wondered if I had the same stuff in me. And there is only one way to find out.

I'll post some more comments later.


A very good podcast from Counterpoint - soldiers. It's about 16 minutes.

I think this guy really nails a couple of topics. Makes me wish I was 21 again.

It will only be on the ABC website for another 2 weeks or so, so get it now.

Monday 13 October 2008

Brother & sister zapped with taser

When I read stories like this, I have only one question to ask:

Are the Police able to dial up the intensity of the Taser to make it more painful? Does it go to 11?

Does the policy manual allow you to keep Tasering a dickhead until the poo themselves? Are you allowed to remove the electrodes from their chest and jab them into their testicles before having another go?

If those were the rules, I doubt anyone would continue to resist arrest after a Police Officer unholstered their Taser and pointed it at the suspect.

Sunday 12 October 2008

V8 super car racing at Homebush

What has this photo got to do with V8 racing?

I've been in two minds until recently about the idea of holding V8 super car races at Homebush. On the one hand, I like to cycle around Homebush - that is where I took this photo yesterday. On the other hand, I like motor racing, and I might go and see it if it's held at Homebush, since it will be easy and convenient to get to. I could even cycle out there to see the races!

My mailbox has been bombarded for the last few weeks with a lot of anti-V8 emails. The opposition to it, as usual, comes from the Greens and other usual suspects. For that reason alone, I should have been for it from the start.

From what I have read, the only impact on me will be that I won't be able to ride in some parts of the park for a few weeks. Well boo-hoo. I'll only be able to use if for 49 out of 52 weeks. Losing 3 weeks is not the end of the world - I lose more weeks of riding to wind, rain, hail, illness, extreme heat and peak hour traffic than I will to the V8 racing.

By the way, the bloke in the above photo was about 70 years old, and I had a devil of a time catching him. Just goes to show what a few months of driving to work will do to you.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Is this the first crap of Christmas?

Photographed today, 11 October.

2.5 months to go until Christmas Day.

A Christmas stocking of lollies from the Natural Confectionary Company.

I love the natural lemonade these guys make, but jeez fellas, do you really need to be putting this crap out this early? Can't you wait another month or so?

People who shit me, volume 87

Check out fuck-face here in his Mercedes CL 500. Redbook tells me that this thing costs $155,000 new.

Why is the driver of this machine a complete cock brain?

Because he is talking on his mobile phone.

It just goes to show that money is no indicator of intelligence or common sense. If I was a cop, I'd arrest the driver on suspicion of car theft. If the driver complained, I'd tell him that the car must be stolen, since if you can afford to pay $155,000 for a car, you can afford a fucking car kit. What a knob-throttling, ball choking wanker.

The above photo shows him still yap-yap-yapping at the next set of lights. Very important people in Mercedes must have a lot to talk about.

Check out the very cool car right in front of me - a Mustang perhaps? It didn't have a name on it. Personally, I find it to be a much more desireable car than the Merc. Sitting behind it at the lights on the bike was not much fun though - engines of that era pump out all sorts of crap, and it was pumping it right into my face. That apart, I like it.

No birds

Snapped on one of my walkabouts this week.

The nice thing about these fellows is that they don't swoop on cyclists as they ride past. I am getting all too used to the "clack" that a swooping magpie makes as its beak collides with the back of my helmet.

Sneaky bastards at the Economist

I decided a few months ago not to renew my subscription to The Economist. If you ask me, it has gone downhill in a big way since it started chasing circulation in a big way. Quality has been sacrificed to quantity. Most of their reports on Australia have been laughable - if their reporting on Australia is that bad, then their reporting on the rest of the world must be suspect.

So I ignored all the subscription renewal bumf that came my way. It all went into the recycling. I must have thrown out half a wheelie bin full of subscription renewal enticements.

The addressing slip that arrives with each magazine also informs me that my sub runs out at the end of October.

Imagine my surprise today when I checked my credit card statement and found a charge for renewing my subscription - over 3 weeks before it expires! I didn't authorise a renewal, so I have written to them and asked for my money back - in full.

How on earth do they get away with this shit? I assume that many of their subscribers are corporates, and they won't mind a charge of nearly $400 appearing on their statement unannounced. But I do mind, and I am not paying for it.

Fuckers. Cheeky, nasty fuckers. It's almost as bad as a Nigerian banking letter scam.