My new best friend

For years I've had patchy wifi internet coverage in my long narrow inner city terrace house.

The connection with the Optus cable is at the front. It is very fast, usually between 60 and 100 mbps. That's faster than I'll get when the NBN arrives. I consider myself very lucky.

However by the time the wifi signal gets to my living room at the back, my connection has been very weak, often as low as 2 mbps and therefore practically unusable. I've tried various gadgets to try to strengthen the signal but none of them has worked. Until now.

Google Wifi

Last week I read about Google Wifi, a small round white box which was being released in Australia on Thursday. At first I was skeptical and did not pay much attention. But I was passing by Officeworks and thought that I would take it home to see if it worked.

It turned out that it was as easy to set up as they said in the advertising and it worked spectacularly. I now have between 60 and 100 mbps in every part of my house. I was so impressed that I went out and bought the other Google product that was released on Thursday, the Google Home speaker.

That is Google's equivalent to Apple's Siri personal assistant, in the form of a neat cylindrical box. She doesn't have a name but I suspect she's even better at her job. She has an Australian accent and can readily understand mine.

She's there on the shelf beside my bed, to answer questions and to play music and other content from the radio and from streaming services such as Spotify. If I ask her, she'll even turn on my wifi enabled Philips Hue lights.

Google Home

Hey Google! What's the average temperature in Tokyo in August? Do I need a visa to enter Japan? How do I get from Narita airport to the city? What's the population of Tokyo? How bad is Tokyo's air pollution?

Just as Google's wifi signal makes it into every crevice of my oddly proportioned house, it seems its helpful assistant gets into every corner of my life. She's there, paying attention to my every sound and utterance, in order to help me live my life.

But I'm not the only one she's helping. If I open the Google Home app on my phone, I can see a transcript of everything I've said to her. That's a reminder of what she knows about me. Moreover what she knows, so do her real human colleagues at Google and whoever they choose to pass my details on to.

So Google heaven is not necessarily the heaven where I'd like to be. My privacy is up for grabs, and so is my independence and natural human resourcefulness.

But Google's goodies are part of the convenience of modern life. Few people will say no to things that appear to make their life easier. Including me.

I won't be breaking up with the Google assistant anytime soon. But I have discovered a command that can deliver a surprisingly pleasing result: 'Hey Google! Can you give me silence'.

Feeling comfortable in the clothes I wear

I'm always fascinated by comparisons between Sydney and Melbourne. On the weekend I came across an observation about men's street fashion, from blogger Giuseppe Santamaria.

'Melbourne is a lot more experimental, more artsy - its arts culture is reflected in the people who live there, and how they express themselves. They take more risks. Whereas in Sydney, you see more of the trends.'

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

Wherever we live, the clothes we choose to wear are a form of self expression. They say a lot about our values and who we are.

I don't wear suits. I bought an Aldi suit about ten years ago for a particular occasion. I wore it just once or twice before discarding it when I was culling my wardrobe. My previous suit had been bought for me by my mother in the 1980s. I discarded it only a couple of years ago, and surprisingly it still fitted me.

Nor do I wear ties. I bought one from an op shop for an event in 2012, and I have only one or two others in my wardrobe that date from the 1980s.

Occasionally I receive invitations to functions that my old school holds in Sydney. I always rule out attending because it is compulsory to wear a lounge suit.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I don't own a lounge suit and feel strongly that I would not want to buy one for a function like this. Moreover I think the particular dress requirement is a sign that I don't belong there.

That is something I used to resent. But now I think it's just a sign of who I am, or who I have become. I have moved on from the cultural norms of my old school, even though I respect those who still feel at home with them.

Dress is perhaps our clearest and most socially apt form of self-expression. If I wear clothes that I feel I do not feel comfortable in, it is self-censorship rather than self-expression.

In the past I've paid little attention to what I've worn. Fundamentally I've been risk averse and timid (that in itself has made a powerful if unintentional statement). But as I've moved towards a greater degree of self-possession, I've begun to make more deliberate and striking choices. I'm less reliant on comments and advice from friends.

My choices are in the interest of uninhibited personal definition more than style or fashion. I'm proud of having lost weight, so I tend to wear skimpy clothes to show that off. I also wear Icebreaker merino clothes that rarely need washing, for environmental reasons and also practicality when I travel.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I like bright colours, but I'm only beginning to pay attention to aesthetic and ornament in the way that I dress. I've never ever worn jewellery, and haven't even considered how such details as belt buckles and the style of my watch can influence how I feel about myself.

But I was interested to browse through the photos of Giuseppe Santamaria in his blog Men In This Town, which I've copied here. Inspired by the New York Times' unassuming longtime street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who died last year, he is a street photographer who steals photos of male passers by whose dress attracts his attention.


Links: comparison blog Cunningham

Aboriginal strange creatures in museum's photo studio exhibit

On Tuesday I had a few hours to fill around the South Bank cultural precinct in Brisbane.

A few days earlier I had walked past the Queensland Museum. I was not interested in the current exhibition Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum, which I assumed was there to attract the attention of school children, particularly boys.

I had just decided against paying to see Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe comic superheroes exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), which was seemingly presented to lure fans of popular culture.

Dina with Nina and Bert Cameron Moray Downs

On Tuesday I walked inside the Museum, hoping that I would find something else that would appeal to my particular interests. But no, it was mostly ancient and natural history.

There was the Lost Creatures exhibition. 'Meet strange creatures, including our very own dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles and megafauna, and marvel at the diversity and immense size of creatures from our prehistoric past.'

I challenged myself to specify exactly what it was that I wanted to see. What came to mind was social history. So I sought out the attendant, asking her if there was any social history in the museum.

She could understand exactly what I was asking and I had the sense that her taste corresponded much more with mine than that of the school age majority clientele. She said that regrettably there was almost no social history at the museum, except a few 'leftovers' from past exhibitions.

Man and woman with dead kangaroo inside a photo studio Grafton c1873

This was what I was looking for, particularly the fragments from the well received 1991 show Portraits of our Elders. It was a collection of photographic studio portraits of Aboriginal people from the late 19th and early 20th century. It was intended to demonstrate the shift from awkward and patronising depictions of 'exotic' or 'noble savage' types - a variation on the strange creatures in the natural history exhibits - to confident poses of indigenous people more in command of the situation.

There is one photo in the original collection of an Aboriginal man and woman with a dead kangaroo that was taken inside a studio in Grafton around 1873.

The most memorable print in the selection I saw was the portrait of Katie, Lilly and Clara Williams, the three aunties of curator Michael Aird's grandfather. They inspired him to create the exhibition: 'I was struck by the photograph; the beauty of my grandfather's aunties, and the confidence they demonstrated'.

Katie Lilly and Clara Williams

The well-dressed, confident Aboriginal men and women walking into studios as paying customers was set in contrast to the bare-breasted Rosie Campbell of Stradbroke Island. Aird wrote in the exhibition's book of the more dignified covered version of Rosie in photos he saw when he visited the homes of her grandchildren on Stradbroke Island.

'Not only is she fully clothed in the photographs held by her relatives, but the families have much information and many personal memories of Rosie as a person. Among the numerous photographs the family has of Rosie from the same era in which she posed bare-breasted is one of her fully clothed in the same studio setting.'

A mid-winter visit to Brisbane

I'm most of the way through my week's stay in Brisbane. My purpose is to catch up with friends and cousins, to enjoy the 24 and 25 degree mid-winter temperatures and to become more familiar with a part of Australia that is thriving culturally and economically.

Mt Coot-tha Forest

I've slowed down much more than I normally do when I travel. In this respect, last Wednesday's relaxing 16 hour train journey from Sydney set the tone. Then there's the digital detox effect of staying in a house with no internet access.

I've been able to go online only briefly by using mobile phone data, which is not a bad thing. I've walked in the nearby bushland at Mt Coot-tha, listened to the radio and read books. Most of all, I've appreciated the cluster of cultural institutions at South Bank and the nearby inner city ambience at West End, which is Brisbane's answer to my own home ground of Newtown in Sydney.

Queenslander homes

Being a frequent traveller, I naturally gravitated towards the Travellers temporary exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. The words at the entrance described well the experience and purpose of travel as I see it:

'Travel can capture the imagination, liberating us from the confines of the familiar... By exploring and learning more of others, near and far, a traveller might come to know themselves better'.

A theme of my travel at present is varying the speed. In other circumstances I might 'do' Brisbane in two or three days. This time I'm spending a full week here. In my two previous visits to Tokyo, I've given it just a few days. Next month I'm going there for five weeks, choosing to stay in the one location.

Jeffrey Smart The Reservoir Centennial Park 1988

At the entrance to the Travellers exhibition there's a Jeffrey Smart painting that contrasts the swift strides of two runners with the laboured steps of a woman carrying a bag. It's presented as a reflection 'on the different speeds at which we navigate modern life'.

The others whose lives I've learned more of during this trip to Brisbane include my cousins and their children, and my host. He's a friend whom I hadn't seen since I we lived in the same house 30 years ago. We've both faced various challenges and grown older and wiser and more seasoned professionally.

What we don't want to know about the Frontier Wars

When I was studying Australian history at Melbourne University in the 1980s, the now legendary Professor Henry Reynolds had just published his landmark book on the Frontier Wars.

The book was titled The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European invasion of Australia. It was the most thorough attempt by a professional historian to document and interpret the massacres that led to the deaths of many tens of thousands of indigenous Australians at the hands of British colonists in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cover of Henry Reynolds The Other Side of the Frontier

It precipitated the politicisation of history in what became known as the 'history wars' of the 2000s.

On the other side of the argument was Professor Keith Windschuttle, whose book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was discredited by a significant number of other scholars. This did not prevent his lionisation by conservative politicians during the Howard era, who subsequently gave him cultural approbation by appointing him to the ABC Board.

What was effectively an officially sanctioned minimisation of the Frontier Wars coincided with their non-recognition by the Australian War Memorial. Correspondingly the fading Anzac legend was rejuvenated and promoted by conservative politicians beginning in the the Howard era and lasting to the present day.

Scholars including those represented in the Honest History coalition have continued to call attention to this misrepresentation of history. Earlier this month, media attention was given to work on the mapping of massacres of Aboriginal Australians by Professor Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle.

Frontier Massacres Map

In view of the Australian War Memorial's continuing non-recognition of the Frontier Wars, I have speculated on whether it is valid to make comparsions between our refusal to talk about the Frontier Wars and the Turkish Government's denial of the Armenian Genocide.

As I travel around the countryside, I often wonder about the indigenous people's dispossession of their lands and the fact that the while locals don't seem to know anything about it. Many towns have museums where you will see agricultural implements from the 19th century but no evidence of indigenous occupation and dispossession, violent or otherwise.

When I was growing up, I would reflect on what our farm in north-eastern Victoria would have been like before the white settlers came to clear the land and 'open it up' for productive farming. We were never told anything about Aboriginal dispossession or massacres.

I notice a yellow dot on Lyndall Ryan's map representing a massacre at Thologolong, which is about 70 kilometres by road from our farm.

DJ Duggan Illuminated Manuscript 1894

There is no yellow dot on the map at Bandiana, the location of our farm. But I would like to know what kind of hostility there was towards Aboriginies that would have driven them away from the land which became our family's farm between 1935 and 1975.

On a wall in my house in Sydney, I have an illuminated address given to my great grandfather D.J. Duggan when he was leaving the north central Victorian town of Tarnagulla in 1894 to relocate to Melbourne. He would subsequently become a politician and hold the office of Minister for Lands in the Victorian colonial government at the time of Federation.

My mother would tell me that he held that position, but I never understood what it involved. I imagine the duties would have included upholding an official policy that would have not have supported Aboriginies remaining on their lands.


Links: Reynolds mapping Honest History

Exhibition combines the erotic with the spinsterly

Last week I passed a very satisfying hour and a half viewing the O'Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Margaret Preston Self Portrait 1930

In going, I was a bit half hearted, as I thought I'd seen enough of Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith in the past. They're both well known women artists from the first half of the 20th Century who spent most of their time on Sydney's North Shore.

As for their US contemporary Georgia O'Keefe, I'd never heard of her. Such is my ignorance. The Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald says she's one of the most famous female artists of all time, with an auction record of $US44.4 million for a flower painting.

Not that he thinks much of her. He finds her 'mechanical and deliberate' touch 'unexciting', with there being 'something so drab' about exhibition itself.

Georgia OKeeffe Blue Line 1919

A few other grumpy critics are unimpressed with the show. The Australian's Christopher Allen dismisses Preston and Cossington Smith as 'minor' and O'Keeffe as 'niche'.

But he struck a chord with me when he praised O'Keefe's 'erotic vitality' in contrast to 'the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians'.

Georgia OKeeffe Pink and Green 1960

I went into the exhibition before reading this but instantly recognised and appreciated the magnetic eroticism in the shapes in her paintings.

I also found pleasing familiarity with the arid rocky New Mexico landscapes, which I'd fallen in love with when I did a road trip through that rocky and arid part of the US in 2003.

I think Allen means 'spinsterly sensibility' as a put down. But that's what I liked about Preston and Cossington Smith.

Grace Cossington Smith The Curve of the Bridge 1928-29

Their works were at the same time ordinary and elevated. Still paintings that had a certain 'otherness' about them that evoked the old Australian monoculturalism of Mosman and Turramurra and other parts of the North Shore.

I was keenly aware that they were painting there during the 1930-35 period during which my father's family sold their farm in north-eastern Victoria and relocated to Mosman, witnessing events such as the completion of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


Links: AGNSW McDonald Allen

Taking control of life through bodybuilding

Last night I watched Destination Arnold, a documentary about indigenous woman bodybuilders Tash and Kylene. It was on ABC iview after having been screened earlier in the week on ABC2 and before that at several film festivals.

Still from Destination Arnold

It's a warm, entertaining and completely unpretentious film about setting goals, personal empowerment and overcoming trauma.

Kylene is a mother of three who is picking up the pieces of her life after having lived with a violent partner who once broke her jaw.

'They make you feel like you need them, and in all honesty, you don't. You just need yourself to pick yourself up.'

The two women are working to make it to the Arnolds, an invitation-only bodybuilding competition being held in Australia for the first time. It was a far cry from excess eating as a child.

With Arnold

'Here I was, a fat kid. I thought I could never do that. Now I am doing that.'

In many ways it parallels my own experience of overturning poor body image. In recent years I have discovered the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind as the secret of good self esteem and quality of life.

I was a fat child. Then as a younger adult, I was quite doctrinaire and counter-cultural in my outlook, as I associated attention to body image with the excesses of the consumer society. Lack of attention to the shape of my body and the clothes I wore represented the particular virtuous statement I wanted to make to the world.

Still from Destination Arnold

Now I lift (lesser) weights at the gym most days, but the particular goal that I've proudly managed to achieve and maintain for nearly two years is normal weight and double the recommended number of steps. I have no ambition to make it to the Arnolds.

Mostly what I would like to take from these two inspiring women is their cheerful and honest spontaneity in the way they frequently stumble but always manage to pick themselves up. They don't think too much about what they want to say and do. They just act.

There's also the self-knowledge and the ability to challenge each other. When Tash gets close to dropping out, Kylene tells her exactly what she thinks. Tash knows her weakness for Nutella ('Nutella I love you') and struggles to keep it under control. But in the end she does.


Links: iview Destination Arnold

The rudeness contagion

In a few weeks I will celebrate my fifth anniversary of not owning a car. One thing I don't miss is rude drivers.

Sometimes I'd be driving on a narrow country road at what I considered a safe speed. Impatient drivers would come up behind me and flash their lights aggressively.

I had two reactions. I might meet rudeness with rudeness and slow down to annoy the other driver. Or I would just pull over when I could and let them pass.

Cover of I Cant Believe You Just Said That The truth about why people are SO rude by Danny Wallace

Rudeness is a contagion. You need to go out of your way to short circuit it or it will eventually destroy your relationships and spoil your quality of life.

If you've experienced or witnessed rudeness, you're more likely to be rude yourself. According to British author and comedian Danny Glover, 'rudeness gets into your brain, it makes you less creative, less able to cope with situations'.

Last week I listened to Glover on a podcast speaking about his new book on what he calls the 'new rudeness' - I Can't Believe You Just Said That: The truth about why people are SO rude.

Are you rude

It is a serious issue at the moment because the most powerful man in the world has successfully made a virtue out of rudeness. He's setting a tone that other leaders including our own are following. It's not just everywhere in the Murdoch press, it's right through the policies of our Federal Government.

Glover says: 'Stupid people think yes I can be rude. Because that guy's being refreshing. He's being politically incorrect. He's saying whatever he wants. If he can do it, I can.'

He addresses the trend to put down political correctness.

'It's not something to be frowned upon. It's a system developed to protect people. People in a vulnerable situation, minorities, from not having people in positions of power run their mouth off and do them down and make them victims.'

Comedian Danny Wallace

He says it goes hand with people who disparage so-called do gooders.

He describes the positive community spirit that caused Britons to rally around victims of recent acts of terror in the UK.

'What would you rather have? Do nothings? Do badders?'


Links: podcast book

ABC set to remove punch from religious programs

The Australian newspaper is always looking for an excuse to attack the ABC. But it is on more solid ground than usual this week, with articles yesterday and today criticising moves by management to replace the specialist editor for religion and ethics Jane Jeffes with a non-specialist.

Specialisation is what gives public service broadcasters their punch. It distinguishes their output from the infotainment programming of their rivals, at least by degree.

ABC Religion cuts from The Australian

Specialists are equipped to go beneath the surface and give the public an understanding of issues they would not otherwise get. For instance how to distinguish Muslim fundamentalists from those who are simply trying to live their faith in the Australian community and maintain their heritage.

ABC management has been trying to kill its religion specialisation for at least three decades. I remember battles from my own time there, when I worked in ABC religious radio for four years from 1988. There was a familiar pattern in which religious programs were threatened, church and other religious leaders would vent their outrage, and there was subsequently a reduction in the scale of planned cuts.

Can that happen again this time? Probably not.

With the sexual abuse scandals and the recent Census statistics charting a significant rise in the number of non-religious Australians, church and other religious leaders don't have the authority they once had.

However ABC management would be doing Australians a disservice if it exploited this as an opportunity to kill specialist religious programs. For the religious unit services non-religious 'searching' Australians as much as it does those who are formally religious.

It is been doing this for years. In 1987, the visionary head of the religion Dr David Millikan commissioned Caroline Jones to present the radio program The Search for Meaning.

It was a departure from traditional religious programming that had a wider impact. After it ended in 1994, Caroline was invited back to ABC TV to help foster a reflective, values-based approach to news and current affairs programming in the long-running Australian Story.

This more inclusive style was also evident some time ago in the coupling of religion and ethics in the brief, and formal designation, of the 'religious' programming genre.

While the article in The Australian seems to suggest that this represents a weakening of the religious programming strand, I believe the opposite is true. Indeed the study of philosophy and ethics was an integral part of my Jesuit religious training, as it is in other Catholic and some Anglican traditions.

The idea is that it helps to remove religion from the religious ghetto. The participation and leadership of specialists ensures that there is an informed conversation between religious and non-religious Australians. That is why the ABC needs a specialist to oversee its programs in this area.


Link: yesterday today

Subverting celebrity worship

One of my family's treasures that has been passed through the generations is a set of two watercolour miniatures of my progenitors. They were painted by an itinerant artist on the Victorian goldfields soon after their arrival in Australia from Ireland in the 1850s.

I was reminded of these miniatures on Saturday when I visited the Dempsey's People exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Little John the Colchester lunatic c 1823

The mostly watercolour images of British street people were painted by itinerant artist John Dempsey during the first half of the 19th century. It was the era before photography put itinerant artists out of business.

As the exhibition notes put it, they were 'the real-life models of the proletarian grotesques in Charles Dickens' novels... the kind of people who came to Australia as convicts and as free settlers during the early colonial period'.

The Ayrshire hermit

It is rare and refreshing to see portraits of people from the 18th and 19th centuries who were not the wealthy and influential celebrities of their day. It seems that it was almost an act of subversion to paint street people in a style that made them look as dignified as the nobles and rich merchants that dominate the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In particular I appreciated the paintings of the Ayrshire hermit, the Durham beggar, 'Little John' the Colchester lunatic, the maniac, and the old soldier from Salisbury. Each of them was painted in a way that made them stand tall, not reflecting the crushed demeanour and self-image that you would expect from their lowly circumstance and class. The stigma of the descriptors, lacking modern day political correctness, was turned on its head.

The old soldier from Salisbury

I was interested to read about 'old soldiers' in the notes about the exhibition. After the final defeat of Napoleon, the troops flooded home to an undeservedly less than rapturous welcome. The Duke of Wellington described them as the 'scum of the earth'. There was little work and few prospects for them in the towns and villages, where the derelict Old Soldier become a familiar figure.

This came home to me yesterday when I was talking to an incapacitated former Australian soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan. It seems that the scant regard for 'old soldiers' is still a reality in our time. I think this applies generally to the way marginalised and dispossessed people in our community are stigmatised and represented adversely in the portraits painted by our celebrity dominated media, and - consequently - in our own attitudes.


Link: Dempsey's People