Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Dining Out - Australian Style

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to
You would cry too if it happened to you
© Lesley Gore, It's My Party

At Watson's Wine Bar and Restaurant
Another community service announcement

Not all Australian dinner parties take place at the host's home. It is quite common to host a party in a restaurant. Indeed, if we are to believe film director Scott Murden, it may be safer to host your Australian dinner party in a public place.

"You'll be DYING for an invitation" is the tag-line of Scott Murden's new film, The Dinner Party. Released earlier this year, "The Dinner Party" is the story of a hostess who plans to kill her boyfriend - and the guests fail to warn him. Murden denies that the film was based on the Joe Cinque Case (an actual case where a dinner party was organized in Canberra for the express purpose of killing a guest). Mr. Murden explained in an ABC interview last May, that HIS film is based on a "number of events".

Gee, thanks Mr. Murden - that puts my mind at rest!

But back to the etiquette of Australian dining - dining OUT.

A Party Animal
Australians love dining out. They especially like dining out in large groups, where they can be assured there'll be a range of opinions only one of which will be correct.

If planning a dinner party at a restaurant, I recommend organizing a prix fix menu beforehand. If you go for à la carte, when the time comes to pay the bill (check U.S.A.), you will be greeted with cries of, "but I didn't have the garlic bread" and "I gave my soup to Kylie!" As the host, you will be obliged to make up any shortfall, which can make it a rather expensive night out.

In any case, when the bill arrives, even with a fixed price dinner, there'll be cries of, "Oh how can THAT be!" and "Did we really eat that much? Why should we pay for corkage, I opened the wine with my teeth."

Amidst the cries of "My boyfriend is on the dole (welfare U.S.A.), so please don't make him pay" and "My ATM card isn't working and I have no cash", you'll see those colorful Australian bank notes flying through the air, willy-nilly. It's impossible to see who put what in the kitty, so cop it sweet. Put up or shut up, is the best I can say.

We Australians are a democratic and egalitarian lot. Waiters are people too. WE don't get tips where WE work, so why should they? In any case, tipping only encourages the NASTY CAPITALIST restaurant owners to pay low wages, and should NOT therefore be encouraged. If you DO believe in tipping, you will have to put that bit in yourself, but don't worry, it isn't like in America where you double the tax. Just round up to the nearest dollar.

The Party's Over
As well as the boyfriend-on-the-dole and the person-with-no-magnetic-strip on her ATM card, there's the blow-in-blow-out guest. Such guests turn up about one hour late and say they can't stay but wanted to drop by to say hello.

When this happens, everyone shuffles their chair closer to that of their neighbor's to make room, and the blow-in-blow-out guest drags a chair to the table. He or she will order "just one course if you insist" (we didn't). Most Australian restaurants are BYO so not having intended to stay, blow-in-blow-out won't have brought any wine. "Just a smidgen," he/she will say, filling a large red-wine glass to the brim. The GOOD THING is that blow-in-blow-out will not stay long. And if you really DO want him to leave, just ask for the bill ...

Although you might think that your worries are over when the last guest has left - there's always the post mortem. This normally occurs round-robin style by phone late the next morning. Someone will have mis-behaved and the mis-behavior will be discussed ad nauseum. This will cause you to have a head-ache after your phone is finally put down to rest. Drink as much as you like the night before - you'll have a headache either way, the next day.

Tips for hosting your dinner party at a restaurant
  • Do NOT choose your favorite restaurant for the venue; you'll not be going back.
  • Try to invite only guests whose partners have jobs
  • Tell the waiter beforehand that no one will eat the garlic bread so not to offer it
  • Do not use the restroom while the money is being collected and the notes are flying in the air; people are more likely to cough up if they think they are being WATCHED
  • (Applicable to women only) Beware the post mortem. All successful parties have them. Get in first then you're more likely to come out of it lightly, as by the time your round is due, they'll all be too tired to say much.

And above all,


Friday, September 25, 2009

The Art of the Australian Dinner Party

There should be a system that allows us to collect credits for feeding Lou, which we can then apply to Dave and Bill and Steph.
Dinner Party Debt - Readers' Digest, Australia

Dinner Party Guests
This is a community services announcement.

Being Australian and living in the U.S., I'm often asked questions about life in Australia. 85% of the questions revolve around the weather, the most common being, "What's the weather like in Australia?"

But occasionally I get deeper questions and it is such questions that, if I were a mathematician, I could plot as correlation frequencies, on a map - as there's a definite correlation between the type of questions, and geographical location of the questioner.

As I am mathematically-challenged, words will have to suffice.

The "geographically-south" questions are mostly about socialism. Actually, they aren't really questions. I categorize them as such as I answer them. They are really statements. Examples: "It must be DREADFUL to have been born in a socialist country." "Australians worship the Queen of England and pay taxes to Great Britain". "It must suck not being able to choose your own doctor."

More Dinner Partiers
As you go north, either north-east or north-west the questions become more interesting (as well as more grammatically correct). Examples: "Why do Australian women put up with the men there?" "Why do Australians travel so much?" "Do you have a president?"

I usually brush people off with a monosyllabic reply, which is, I suppose a bit rude. So now I will try to make amends.

A feature of middle-class life in Australia is the DINNER PARTY. If you visit Australia for any length of time, you will no doubt be invited to one.

An Australian dinner party consists of three to six couples, although singles are always welcome. It's drinks at 7:00 - 7:30 and the meal some time after. "Some time after" can mean anything from 8:00 p.m. to 11p.m. depending upon how much wine the hosts have drunk.

Once I went to a dinner party where the hostess went out to buy some ingredient she'd forgotten, and while out, actually FORGOT she was having a dinner party, and did not return for several hours, by which time her guests were so inebriated that they'd forgotten who she was. Things have a way of resolving themselves - amazing.

Dinner Party Guest
Australian dinner parties normally last three to four hours and take place around a table. There's no leaving the table after the food has been consumed - the last course is always very late as by the time mains are served, the hosts have begun to relax and are in no hurry to leave "THE DISCUSSION".

The "DISCUSSION" normally resolves upon some current affair (news) of the day, such as unemployment, illegal immigration, or U.S. politics. Usually the majority of the guests take one stand, and one couple will disagree. That's what makes it "fun".

Dinner Party Host
If you are in the minority at a dinner party, prepare to be RIDICULED. You may even find yourself leaving, sobbing your way to the front door while the host stays put at the table saying, "how come I never realised X was so politically suss?"

Choose your dinner party with care - if you do not like being temporarily ostracized - I say "temporarily" as the ostracism never sticks - do not attend. However, if you are the odd one out, you will for sure be invited back again. After all, you contributed to the life of the party.

If you are a fence-sitter type be prepared for TROUBLE. People will point at you, ask you what you think. They will NOT take no for an answer.

It's best to have very firm views. Make them up as you go along. No one will care.

Of course you can always elect NOT to go to dinner parties. If that's your preference, then life will be like living in Manhattan, where there are no dinner parties to speak of.

I have lived in Manhattan for fifteen years and have been to only one dinner party. People in Manhattan don't do dinner parties.

The one dinner party I went to was ten years ago, and most of the invited guests had done the Manhattan thing of "cancelling". "Cancelling" is a GOOD THING in Manhattan, and much preferred to TURNING UP, as it shows you are BUSY.

Cancelling is NOT a GOOD THING in Australia. Turning up is mandatory.

Miscellaneous tips for attending Australian dinner parties

  • Bring Jacob's Creek wine but don't let anyone see the label. Hide it in a dark place and forget about it
  • Quickly survey the guests and work out who is "It". Stay away from that person and disagree with him/her at every opportunity
  • Don't tell sexist jokes if women out number men. Otherwise it doesn't matter.
  • Say you voted Labor in the last election.
  • Admire the renovations even if they are non-existent

If all this is a bit much, prepare yourself by renting, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Lots of tips there!

So you can see, there's nothing to it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mad Men

Don Draper: Let me ask you something, what do woman want?
Roger Sterling: Who cares?
From Mad Men Season 1, Episode 2: "Ladies Room"

Cartoon drawn from an actual New York scene
If you aren't watching AMC's Emmy award-winning Mad Men you are missing out on some very fine television.

On its official website the show is described as "Set in 1960s New York, the sexy, stylized and provocative AMC drama Mad Men follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising, an ego-driven world where key players make an art of the sell."

The "Mad" in Mad Men is short for Madison Avenue and it has spawned a series of spoofs, my favorite being Meshugene Men where the tem's challenge is to sell mayonnaise to gentiles. I like the way the falling-down mad man in the credits is holding a bagel.

I'm a real Mad Men fan. If there was a fan club I'd probably join it. I love thinking about Mad Men - I've certainly known my fair share!

I once went out with a man who shaved his face with a wind-up clockwork razor. I kid you not. And this was before we knew there was an energy crisis.

That was some time ago and it's the only thing I remember about him. He must have had something going for him, god knows what it was though.

I thought of him yesterday when I was writing about father-of-the-person-who-had-been-going-to-attend-the-rehab-back-in-January - the man-who-doesn't-believe-in-washing-machines. It struck me that there are some very strange men in this world, who go through life accepted as normal people.

It's not that I attract these men. I know of other women who have hitched up with men with strange habits. One woman I know was married to a man who communicated with her through the cunning placement of meat pies.

My own mother looked up an old boyfriend once when she was well into her sixties and discovered he lived in a tree. She was shocked. I used to have a photo of him pre-tree days and he was a most handsome and well-balanced looking man. One never knows.

The man-who-doesn't-believe-in-washing-machines once decided to break up with his girlfriend when he was stopped at an intersection. "If the light changes to green in one minute," he was known to relate, "I'd decided to ask her to marry me". It didn't. Lucky lady. Saved by the light.

Another man I knew once ate a Melbourne tram. Not in one sitting of course. It took him some time and he used a chain-saw for the really tough parts. But still ...

Then there was the Swedish Mad Man I met a couple of months ago. You can read about him in You Probably Think This Blog Is About You, Don't You who seemed to think that Australian beaches were something to be sneered at, and that Australians had no culture. How mad can you get!

At one stage I even thought that my own bro was mad. When he bought a MAC and put it on a table covered with green felt in the center of a room. It was (apart from the table) the only object in the room and it was dimly lit by a soft green light suspended directly above it. I suspect he made rice offerings to it every morning. But I've since changed my mind. There's nothing wrong with buying a MAC, Timothy.

These people make the apple-eater seem almost normal.

Who is the maddest Mad Men I've ever known? It's a hard call.

Next week I might do "Mad Women". Watch out gals!

Monday, September 21, 2009

I Am Woman Hear Me Cry

According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier.
Maureen Dowd in Blue Is the New Black.
"How was your weekend?" a co-worker asked today over lunch. I hesitated.

Should I tell him? I remembered my resolution about not picking up the phone ("In praise of the solid citizen"). But this wasn't a phone conversation, so I blurted out a précis of my weekend of woe.

Turned out he'd read my blog. I asked him in that case, why did he ask, but he just mumbled some man thing which I decided not to follow up.

Then I read Maureen Dowd's Blue Is The New Black and all was explained.
Ah, I realized I had a lousy weekend because I AM Woman. And it's true. Absolutely spot on as usual Ms Dowd.

But before I go on, let me tell you dear reader, that I am becoming a little nervous. First there was the apple-eater from 1969, referred to in "She'll be apples". Three people recognized him from my brief description. Possibly more as for everyone who writes in, there are approximately ten others who think the same thing but do not bother writing.

And then there was the friend's husband of "In praise of the solid citizen". This morning I received an email from a woman in France. "Is that my dad?" it said. It was.


So I'm going to be VERY careful from now on, and no one will recognize either themselves, or anyone else. Apart from me, that is...

Last Friday I checked my Australian bank account online. I saw a debit that I did not recognize - September 1 for $1,074.82. The notation indicated it was a check. So I looked through my check book and saw that I had indeed written a check for that exact amount, early January 2009. It was to a rehabilitation center in Australia. The purpose, to pay for someone's daughter to attend a residential rehabilitation program.

Unfortunately the person in question flunked the pre-requisite - Detox 101 - and was barred from entering the program. I'd called the rehab center back last January, and they'd said they'd tear the check up.

So WHO had cashed it? And why?

Ad for Windsor Jewelers (from New York Times 1998)
I called a number of places, including the bank and the rehab center but it was the weekend and I could get no answers.

I then called the father-of-the-person-who-had-been-going-to-attend-the-rehab-back-in-January. A very strange man who doesn't believe in washing machines or telephones and whose life's ambition is to die without ever having written a text message. He's also VERY tall and lives near the sea. Did I mention he plays golf?

I gave him a brief outline of the situation and then said, "Perhaps she got the check and cashed it. What do you think?" "HaHa," he sneered, "And I bet she got a pick axe and attacked your fridge". Clunk.

I should explain, he doesn't believe in phones but he has one. A 1992 mobile with a three feet antenna you have to pull out of its Bakelite housing, given to him by someone who wanted to keep tabs on him no doubt. It broke circa 2001 and he took it back to the shop, demanding it be fixed. When it was explained that it was an obsolete model he became quite unraveled, muttering about how consumerism was ruining society and that in his day pies cost tuppence.

I listened to the Australian dial tone for a while, thinking how there was nothing else I could do. I am forbidden to contact the rehab almost-patient who flunked detox. I had to wait till Australia woke up and ambled to work around 7:10 pm ET USA Sunday night. Two days to go.

It seemed an eternity. But time happens as they say and at 7:11 pm ET USA, I called the bank,

The phone was answered by a young man called Jason. I knew then that I was in BIG trouble. One third of all Australian customer service reps are called Jason. They are easily recognizable not only by their name, but because they talk with their mouths closed and have brothers called Damien.

I explained the situation to Jason. The check. The nine month interval. The drug rehab. The supposed tearing up of the check. The name of the drug rehab place, Windana.

Jason answered as quick as a flash, "It was cashed by Windana!"

I was relieved. BUT then I remembered his name.

"Jason," I asked, are you saying that because you can SEE an image of the check, or because that is who I made it out to?"

"Because that is who you made it out to," replied Jason proudly. "Checks are cashed by the people you make them out to," he added, raising his mouth-muffled voice one decibel, as if to a hearing-challenged moron.

"Hmmm," I thought, "that lad's going to make great career strides at the Commonwealth Bank.

"Get me a supervisor," I snapped, forgetting briefly that I was not talking to a New Yorker, but to an Australian male. Would he hang up?

But no, he put me through. I think he thought I was going to recommend him for a well-deserved promotion.

The supervisor said his name was Paul. What a relief. He immediately looked up the check and said, "No worries mate, she'll be apples. Cashed by Windana, no alterations, all square and above board, have a nice g'day".

I then called Windana to see why they'd not torn up the cheque as requested and what the $$$ were being used for. "For the person you paid them for," said Nadia, a polite non-Jason kind of person. "She's at the rehab now. Would you like me to put you through to see how she's doing?"

And so it was all cleared up. Except for ONE thing. The man-who-doesn't-believe-in-washing-machines. The tall man who lives near the beach. The father of the said person - the rehab patient, the person with whom she'd been living up to her admittance to the facility. He knew she was there. He'd have known why my check was cashed.

"Now why didn't he tell me?" I wondered.

For the life of me, I can think of no sane explanation.

So Ms Dowd, I suppose the reason women aren't a ball of laughs MAY be because there are men like the man-who-doesn't-believe-in-washing-machines in this world ...

Oh, and one last thing ... how DID he know about the fridge?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In praise of the solid citizen

Ohhh, sweet Caroline, good times never seem so good
From Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond

I've had a bloody awful week.

The awfulness has come as it usually does, from the place of my birth, Australia. Personal problems. Family problems.

And what do I do? I pick up the phone to call my Australian friends. Remind me, dear reader, if I have a problem with you-know-who - tell me - DO NOT pick up the phone. I'm relying on you.

Last night, when I received news that I was $1,100 poorer and had not paid for anything, I did the WRONG thing. I picked up the phone. And dialed.

And from then on, FRUSTRATION reigned supreme.

Friend #1 "Well she's only stealing from you because she hates you."
Me: "NO. She's stealing as she wants to buy Horse. To stick in her veins,"

I take some sort of sick pleasure in using the junkie-speak for heroin. But Friend #1 should face the facts. Nevertheless I feel really bad after her comment and get off the line ASAP.

I start to feel like I'm losing my grip on reality. Why would friend #1 say that? Was I dreaming? Is it a cultural thing? An American would be more sensitive. Have I been away from Australia too long? Or not long enough ...

Well THAT was helpful. Great. With friends like these.... And I dial friend #2.

Friend #2 - husband of - Me: "Is M there?"
Friend's husband (FH) "This is a terrible line."
Me: "I'm sorry, is M there?"
FH: "This is a terrible line."
Me: "I know but is M there? Just say 'yes' or 'no'"
FH: "No she's gone to .. to to, to ... " (is he thinking? I'd better not interupt and disturb his thoughts or I'll NEVER find out. But after half an hour has passed my self-control fails me.)
Me: "Where has she gone?"
FH: "This is a terrible line."

I call it a day.

Me: "Nice speaking to you."
FH: "This is a terrible line."

Friend #3: "Well you can't be sure it's her. Wait till the banks open."
Me: "Good advice but I'm depressed."
Friend #3: "Don't be, but I must go now as I want to walk on the beach".

What's the matter with these people? I go to bed and watch crap TV. I sleep and dream of beaches, men who are hard of hearing, and daughters who hate. Fun fun fun.

I wake up. It's only 5 a.m. I eat and go back to sleep. The phone rings. It's C, an old friend from Australia. I've known C since school. She's the most solid of my friends. A good citizen. C is no artist, no drug councilor. She hasn't written a book, dined with Melbourne's upper echelons. I've known her forever. She's a Friend.

When We Were Very Young
We talk about nothing much. The weather. Her daughter. My son.

"How's E?" she asks. I hesitate to speak. Then it comes pouring out.

"I bet you didn't expect to hear THAT when you asked," I laughed. She giggled back.

I tried to relate the story with humour and we both had a good laugh. She listened.

And then

"Don't worry, Kate," C said. "You've done all you could. You've done more than most would do. You've nothing whatever to be ashamed of".

"Thank you C," I said. That's really nice of you to say that."

And I say it again.

Thank you Carolyn, from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The I's We Were

"Oh, aging is ruddy unbearable! The I's we were yearn to breathe the world's air again, but can they ever break from these calcified cocoons?"
Timothy Cavendish in Cloud Atlas
So ponders one of the protagonists in David Mitchell's must read - Cloud Atlas: A Novel.

Calcified is right. I remember the apple-eater, an old date, who I wrote about in She'll be Apples. Until I met him again many year's later, he remained in the outreaches of my memory, as a young slender law student. When I met him thirty years later he looked, as another Mitchell character remarked, as if he must have a portrait of himself in his attic that became more beautiful every year.

I'd written a rather brief portrait the gentleman, and so I was most surprised to receive three days later, no fewer than THREE emails from women - all of a certain my-age - who correctly identified the man.

Now my home town - mine AND the apple-eater's is now around three million strong. And my blog has a loyal but small following. So what are the chances of three people recognizing Mr. Apple as the apple eater of the story? I also (as an aside) wonder, if he thought that exhaling apple breath on young women was somehow erotic. Surely not ...

And this got me thinking. There must be millions of people who remember former dates, lovers whatever, as they were. Both of them. The remember and the remembered.

Who was it who wrote,

"O wad some Power the giftie give us
To see ourselves as others see us!"

Some Scottish fellow by the sounds of it. But he really SHOULD have said, "O wad some Power the giftie give us
To see ourselves as others SAW us!

And then my mind ticked away.

I've been looking at the way the web has expanded to reach into the homes of even the most computer-unaware people. I nearly had a heart attack the other day when my old friend Carolyne sent me a message via Facebook. Carolyne who is far too sensible to use a computer, let alone Facebook - or so I'd believed. And I thought to myself, if the web has come to Carolyn, then perhaps even George Bush II knows by know that Internet can only be a singular noun.

Thinking of George Bush II I'm reminded of King George III of England (1738 1820) and his loss of the American colonies, and it struck me that Georges have influenced the nation of America out of all proportion to the popularity of their given names. There was also George Washington, who we should perhaps number as George 0.

But enough of these ramblings and back to the apple-eaters. I've decided to take the idea of memories of dates past and to run with it.

By George, I've got it. I'll make a Facebook app based on it. Which past date are YOU? I do hope this hasn't been taken.

It will appeal to people who HAVE heaps of past dates, so that'll rule out the youngsters. This will give me an advantage as there are more old people than young people and I might even have my "app" go viral.

Now, all I have to do now is to think of a name and to code it.
Inner Roo, Roo Mondrian
for people who compartmentalise
I did write an app once. It was all about finding one's "inner roo". A dismal failure.

I've got more hope about for the date-of-years-past, or should it be "past lovers I have known biblicaly"?

I'd need a variety of 'activities' and 'gifts'.

I could have the app players (is that what they are called?) tend each others memories.

"Here is a message from a past lover for your Memoirs. Could you help me by sending a memory back? Together we can fight off Alzheimer's" Non?

"Rachel slept with 10 lovers in half a decade in the "WENT TO BED CHALLENGE", and wants to see if you can beat her score, or even just, score."

And so on.

Suggestions are welcome.

Oh, and following from the LoL blog of last week, I noticed in an anti-AIDs ad today the following slogan,

"There's no LoL in HIV"


Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Dreaded LoL

You can use an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence instead of a full stop. You then start the next sentence with a capital letter.
Writing for University Courses - Punctuation

Part of a letter circa 1990
I remember when I saw my first smiley. It was in ASCII and I had no idea what it was. I thought it represented a typo - a colon a hyphen and a right parentheses.

This was circa 1992 when I was introduced to email. A friend explained it to me. He said it was an American invention to show that the content was meant to be humorous, adding that Americans had problems with written English.

Well I don't know about that. But certainly things are in decline on both sides of the Pacific.

Actually I am quite taken with American shorthand in spoken English. I like the way they say, "The cat wants out," when it mews at the door. "Don't even go there" is another great Americanism that we all use now. There's nothing wrong with the language evolving. It's when it evolves backwards (is there a word for reverse Darwinism??) that I get concerned.

I first noticed the dumbing down (another Americanism) of the English language when one of my children referred to quotation marks as "talking marks". Then came the smilies. But at least, in the beginning, these were confined to brief emails, text messages and online chats.

It was with some horror that I learned last week, that the use of these symbols and social acronyms have crept into business letters.

Particularly ridiculous is the LoL which is being used by people who obviously have no idea as to its original meaning. It's now used as a written pause. "I went to the store Lol. I bought some perfume." "It was hot yesterday LoL so we went to the beach." A sort of longhand comma.

"Dear Ms Juliff LoL, pls reply 2 this letter b4 it is 2L8 LoL ROFL nbsp!!!"

OMG! What's the world coming 2?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An Imperfect Past and a Forbidden Fruit

Go on and eat forbidden fruit
It's mighty sweet forbidden fruit
It's quite a treat forbidden fruit
Go ahead and bite it I bet you'd be delighted
Nina Simone at Newport 1960

Apples in the Apple
"An Imperfect Past and a Forbidden Fruit" - I refer of course to the life and death of Alan Turing (1912 - 1954), one of the greatest minds of his generation, who died by eating a poisoned apple.

The forbidden fruit? Turing had sexual relations with a man. His punishment? Prosecution for being a homosexual, the stripping of his security clearance, and chemical castration.

Turing is famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. He is one of the founding fathers of computer science. He conceived the "Turing machine" and the "Turing Test" which measures the intelligence of computers.

He is now honored by the Turing reward given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery to "an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community". The award is currently sponsored by Intel and Google.

His favorite fairy tale was Snow White. Hence the poisoned apple???

The imperfect past? The British government's treatment of him. It is only now, over 50 years since his untimely death, that there has been an apology. Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins and other notable artists and scientists backed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous apology by the British government, for its treatment of him.

The apology was given. Two days ago.

You can see the petition at Number 10.

Ada Lovelace , Woodman, Tinman and Ironman, Sandman, Pebbleman, Stoneman, Snow White, dining philosophers, poisoned apples - these are not words we normally associate with computers. Yet the history of computer science weaves a complex tapestry and is populated with some of the finest and most creative minds of modern times. Far from being a dry science or craft, computing is a fascinating and compelling discipline. As Djikstra said at his address on the occasion of his Turing Award in 1972, "in their capacity as intellectual challenge, they [computers] are without precedent in the cultural history of mankind."

As well, working with them is a great way to earn a crust.

Woodman Tinman et al were versions of a programming language designed by committee, and named Ada after Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 - 1852), the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron. Ada is said to have written the first computer program - in the 19th century - a program for a computer envisaged by Ada Lovelace's lifelong friend, Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) - before it was built. She also predicted the application of computers to areas other than mathematics, such a the generation of music.

Perhaps the first person to recognise the truth of "garbage in, garbage out" Babbage is quoted as saying, 'On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.'

Then there's Dutch computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra (1930 - 2002) who refused to use a computer for his work, preferring a paper and fountain pen. He named his Volkswagen bus, "the Touring Machine", and on artificial intelligence said, "the question of whether computers can think is like the question of whether submarines can swim"

I stumbled into the field of computing by pure chance. I took computing 101 as an elective at Deakin University in 1980 as part of a Masters by course work.

And so it was that my third apple was Alan Turing's, lying half-eaten on the floor near his bed, lovelessly-laced with cyanide.

And my fourth? New York of course. My adopted and much loved city. The Big Apple.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

She'll be apples!

See that apple over yonder if you'll take a bite
You and Adam both are bound to have some fun tonight
Go on and eat forbidden fruit
It's mighty sweet forbidden fruit
It's quite a treat forbidden fruit
Go ahead and taste it you don't wanna waste it
Nina Simone at Newport (1960)

An Apple in the Apple
My first remembered encounter with an apple was in the front seat of a Fiat Bambino, circa 1969.

It was a bright red Fiat, almost the color of the very apple that my "date" was in the process of crunching into. I believe he was in the process of dropping me home after seeing "Last Year at Marienbad" or some other just as incomprehensible film. Certainly it would have been in black and white. Like New Yorkers, the self-proclaimed Melbourne Uni elite didn't "do color".

Except for apples that is. And Fiat Bambinos. No one could accuse us of consistency.

You would not believe this, but after taking several large crunches of said apple, my date turned to me, exhaling his apple breath and tried to kiss me. Needless to say I hot-footed it out of the Bambino lickety-split. I was not to see him again for thirty years!

By then The Date was a solicitor, almost retired, and I was a computer person. It was at an art gallery somewhere in Melbourne. I was at the opening of an exhibition so eminently forgettable that I have forgotten what it was about.

"Michael S is here," someone (equally forgettable) hissed at me. I assume she told me because she thought he was important. Something like "my son the doctor", "my friend the solicitor".

I looked around. I couldn't see anyone even remotely like him. There were some old guys over in the corner. Paunchy-looking legal types. Was he one of them?

I asked the person who had informed me of her friend the solicitor's presence, and she pointed him out, the oldest looking one of the paunches. I interrogated her in some detail, as the person she had surreptitiously indicated looked nothing like the tall slender young apple-breathing person I'd last seen hunched over his apple core in a red Fiat.

"Yes yes I am sure it's him," she snapped. So I hot-footed it, this time towards the apple eater.

"Michael S, n'est ce pas! I'd recognize you ANYwhere. You haven't changed one bit!" I lied to humour myself, correctly predicting his conceit. He looked chuffed, in that sad way that only old men can. "Where's ya apple?" I asked, doing my best Elaine-Benes-mixed-with-Annie-Hall impersonation.

When it was all sorted out, who I was, how many times we had both been married, what we did after 1969, how many and how old were our children, he asked what I'd meant by the apple remark.

Funny, he had no recollection of the incident.

The next apple I remember was in about 1978. By then I was into color films and was married to a man who didn't believe in washing machines. I used to boil the clothes in a wood-heated copper and heave the steaming stew around with a stick. Don't ask me why. The stick bit, I mean. By then I had also born two children, the youngest of whom was around three year's old when he suddenly developed a phobia about my mother.

Now I'd had one for thirty odd years, but it seemed strange for my little chap to express his at such a young age. When we, our little nuclear family of myself, the man who didn't believe in washing machines, my daughter and little Pog as he was then called, were about to pile into the car to visit my mother, he'd dig his heels into the ground and scream blue murder.

When the car drew up outside her house he'd undo his seat-belt and try to crawl under the seat.

I though of taking him to a shrink but decided that any man who didn't believe in washing-machines was unlikely to believe in shrinks. So I tried my own methods to wheedle out of my little Pog, just what WAS the matter with his relationship with his grandma.

I was patient and it paid off. Turned out it was those shiny red apples she'd polish in anticipation of the grand-children's visits. She was a witch. It all fitted. The trendy whisk broom she kept in the corner of the vestibule. The peacock feathers. Her laugh. The apple was the clincher.

"It's OK, he doesn't hate you," I took pleasure in explaining to my mother on the phone. "He just thinks you're a witch. Cool it with those apples!"

You'd have thought by now that I'd have had enough of apples. But this wasn't the case. There was another very important apple lurking in my future. This particular apple would be 55 years old if it were around today. It was, in its time, a most mysterious apple, closer in many ways to the imagined witch's apple, yet left half-eaten like the law student's before he lurched so futilely towards me all those years ago. It was an apple both past and future. It pre-dated the season of the witch, but it was yet to affect what is now part of my history. It was let us say, simultaneously a prequel and a sequel.

And it will be THIS apple, past imperfect that will be written about in the future.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Remembering 9/11

It's almost 9/11/2009 - 11th September - 2009. And so I'm posting something I wrote on another of my websites, shortly after "9/11" 2001 - Little has changed.

The Insensitive Australian

"I've seen him in the headlines
And on the evening news.
I saw him on the sidelines
When stones were thrown at Jews.

And marching in Montgomery
Pretending that he cared
I saw him wink
As though some old conspiracy were shared.

He was in the crowd at Dallas
At the close of Camelot.
I spotted him on Campus
When the students had been shot.

In an oriental village
With civilians left to rot
He was hanging out with soldiers
Trading heroin for pot

And he was smiling ... Smiling...
Dory Previn, Dopplegänger

Several years ago, when I was going out with an American, lets call him Chuck, I went to a dinner party in Melbourne. This was around the time of the spate of school shootings in the US.

Now Chuck had never owned a gun, had two children of his own, and was definitely anti-gun. He was no believer in the "right to bear arms", and was ashamed of his fellow Americans who are.

We settled in at the restaurant. It was a lovely balmy Melbourne summer night, the food was excellent and the wine top quality. There was the hum of conversation, and just as I was thinking how wonderful it was to be back home, one of the party shouted across the table,

"Chuck, what does it feel like to come from a society where children kill children?"

In my naivety I expected a stunned silence of embarrassment. Yet it seemed that only myself and my partner were shocked. The other guests wanted to know what it was like too.

I can't remember how Chuck responded. Indeed I'd forgotten the incident altogether until the other day when I was talking to another ex on the phone. One of "they-are-getting-a-taste-of-their own-medicine" breed, this ex (thank god) proceeded to sound off on how Americans deserved the tragedy of September 11.

Somehow Americans are fair game. As another Australian in America commented, "People tolerate slurs against American and Americans that they would be horrified to hear about impoverished, dark-skinned, nations, especially those who consider themselves part of the left."

An article by Melbourne novelist, Olga Lorenzo, a Cuban American on this topic was published several years ago. I remember reading it back then, and an Australian Abroad writer quoted it in a recent net discussion. Olga wrote, "What is interesting, however, about the prejudice against Americans I now encounter because I speak with an American accent, is that it doesn't usually come from the far right, as it often did when I was a child. Then it was most likely to be from ignorant rednecks and Florida "crackers", poorly educated and socially disadvantaged people. In Australia it can come from left-leaning university lecturers of social work, who are so sure of the political correctness of their prejudice that they announce it at dinner parties."

How true. And how sad. Again, "The people I hear say things about "Yanks"such as "I don't understand how anyone can find an American attractive" would never say the same thing - no matter what their private beliefs - about Greeks, or Italians, or Indonesians, or Arabs. Try substituting another nationality for Americans in all the above incidents, and see what I mean."

I have to wonder why my own countrymen have this bigoted attitude. Definitely more pronounced amongst those who consider themselves left-wing and who are university educated, you just have to wonder how they came to almost hate a group of people who are effectively innocent. No one is asking them to like American foreign policy of American culture. I don't particularly like the current Afghani culture and foreign policy. But I would in no way feel self-righteous about insulting an individual Afghani. And I suspect that the Australians who find it so easy to insult the American at the dinner table would go out of their way to be ultra-polite to a Middle Eastern guest. No racism for them!

Somehow it is just plain wrong to be an American. Recently I was accused by a reader for being a "ra-ra American" when I wrote an article about life in New York post September 11. I could not understand it. But then, on talking to the ex mentioned above, and hearing his happiness at our tragedy, I started to understand. These people really don't like Americans. It isn't the foreign policy, it isn't the culture. Could it be part of the tall poppy syndrome? Do they like to see Americans cut down and killed? But even if they do hate Americans, this is a poor excude for rudeness.

Every one has a right to her opinion, but there are times when a little sensitivity is in order. What I would like to ask my fellow Australians back home, is think a little. How would YOU feel if your city just lost 6,000 of its citizens, and was under constant threat of losing more? Who do you imagine these people are who were killed or bereaved? Do you think they were all rich Wall Street brokers (who surely also have a right to life)? You are wrong. The people killed and affected are people of all different ages and races, of different ecomomic means and social position. Some were working, others were homeless living in the subway underneath the towers. Many had children. And now we have the postal workers. Sure, "only a handfull" have died, I read in the Australian press. One article even stooped to attempt to slur saying we had more chance of getting shot by our neighbours' handgun' (illegal here in New York by the way) than by anthrax. I am sure that would be very reassuring to the thousands of postal workers here, who have good reason for concern. I just hope none of them read the Age online.

As for me, I am finding it increasingly hurtful and disturbing too read the press of my country of birth. It is getting that I am not even looking forward to going home this Christmas. How can I listen to people saying things like "A bit of their own medicine", "they had it coming", "they asked for it", and take it lightly when, like my fellow New Yorkers, I am already upset about what was done to our city and its citizens.

I would ask my fellow Australians to show the people of New York and Washington, the same compassion they show the people of Afghanistan. Think please before you say something that might be very cruel to the listener. And if you are talking to a New Yorker or Washingtonian, can you think first. You just might be talking to someone recently bereaved.

Kate Juliff
New York
October 2001

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
Gerald Manley Hopkins 1918

"Whatever is fickle, freckled ..."

Gerald Manley Hopkins has, for as long as I can remember, been my favorite poet. How was I introduced to him? It certainly wasn't by my parents, true atheists both, and in my father's case, vehemently anti-Catholic and especially anti-Jesuit.

My favorite Hopkin's poem is the very short, "Pied Beauty". With its last line of, "Praise him", its purpose is clear, and so I was surprised to read in a New Yorker review of Paul Mariani's "Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life" (reviewer, Adam Kirsch) that Hopkin's praise of the world's beauty has raised concerns of pantheism.
"He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change"

Apparently Hopkins was aware of "the gulf between his artistic vision and his religious one", and regarded his poetry as self-indulgent.

I remembered "Pied Beauty" as I walked down Second Avenue to brunch, this sunny dappled Sunday. For amidst all the construction that's going on (Smile, You're on Second Avenue) , amidst the garbage, the heavy machinery and the chain fences blocking out half our neighborhood, I indulgently noticed the dappled things.

The phrase, "quality of life" has been used to death - pun intended. It has been exploited to a degree such that it means nothing. "Quality of life", "quality time" - to use a most annoying Australian-ism, "same difference".

And so while I was, as an American advertising captioner might say, "stopping to smell the roses", I couldn't help contrasting the dappled things with the trite, tepid "smell-the-roses" scenario of the CitiBank billboards of a few months ago.

Like "green", "wind-power" and "solar energy", "quality of life" is "in". One suspects that with the almost 10% unemployment figures, that advertisers are reduced to pushing something as nebulous as "quality".

"With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim"
I stop briefly in Rupert Park on 91st Street.

There are people reading books, feeding birds, watching their children play. This is a Manhattan that I, like many others, rarely stop to notice, let alone partake of.

Do these people really need to see signs like this?

Or this?

I look for more dappled things. They are everywhere.

"All things counter, original, spare, strange"
At 93rd Street I turn right, past the ice-cream parlor and right again down the driveway.

There's a man walking his dog. It's a dappled thing!

I smile. "May I take your dog's photo?" I ask. "Sure," he smiles back. A true New Yorker! "Be still Ruffles," he commands. Ruffles ignores him. A true New Yorker.

I take the photo when Ruffles is as still as he's ever going to be and thank the stranger. Like a true New Yorker.

Yep we New Yorkers don't need those CitiBank signs to tell us how to be.

Things cannot be too bad, when even an atheist can say, "Glory be to God for dappled things."

Friday, September 04, 2009

Barong Days

The moisture in the air is just off being water. It's hot and steamy and eight in the morning.

Restaurant workers, tired from last night's activity, are hosing down the sidewalks. Water on dust turns to a murky steam.

Short brown people sweep up last night's mess left by revelers and workers who were just too tired to pick up after themselves.

Flower sellers are arranging their wilting freesias hoping that today's sales will be an improvement on yesterday's dismal returns.

There's a white guy leaning against a wall next door to one of the flower vendors. Out of it. Whether by alcohol or hard drugs, whose to know. Or to care.

Ever bright-eyed, little children frolic by, hair braided and beaded into corn-cob rows. One of them stumbles - the pavement is pitted, pockmarked, pedestrianed-out.

It's noisy. Horns beep. On corners people are handing out fliers advertising new restaurants (not another one!) and clothing sales.

Most of the tourists are still asleep. They'll be up shortly and the streets will be even more congested. Hopefully they'll spend money and help to buoy the economy.

Ah, there are some German tourists. They are up early, hoping to take in the sights before the tourist rush gets into full swing. They are each holding an end of a large map. One of them spots me looking at them.

"Excuse me," he says in heavily accented English. "But how am I getting to Roosevelt Island from Manhattan? This is 59th Street, yes?"

I assure him it is, and give him detailed directions.

He thanks me.

I catch the Q60 on Second Avenue, and head to work.