Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Another car through the garden

It was about a quarter to eleven and we were just getting ready to sleep after watching some Highway Patrol repeats earlier in the night. Then we heard the sound of cars hooning around. Then a screech and a loud crash.

Not again.

Almost to the month, four years after a young drunk driver had crashed into the shrubs between our neighbour and us another driver had passed through the same space and crashed into our neighbour's house.

Along the way he demolished our letter box, hedge and most of the shrubs planted after the first incident, then down a retaining wall to land on top of our neighbour's trailer, his car just touching the lower brick wall of the house.

Fortunately the 23 year old driver was just shaken and the house survived unscathed but for a broken window and ruined flowerpots.

It could have been much worse. A couple of weeks ago another young driver in Illawong died after losing control of his car, rolling it and being flung out.

Our driver, from a house just down the street, was undoubtedly speeding in his Volkswagen Golf, as do many on this stretch of road. His brother had been just behind in his Alfa Romeo. Their specialist auto insurer Shannons was indicative of their likely revhead nature.

On the back of the car was an Apple computers sticker. Don't believe them when they say they don't crash.

A crowd of neighbours gathered around the accident. I called the police, but it was the tow trucks that arrived first, then the fire brigade, the cops and the ambulance. The freelance journalists. Then more tow trucks.

The police collected statements, the paramedics gave him a once over and presumably tested for alcohol and drugs. The fireman had little to do. For most of the time it was standing around watching the tow truck drivers attempt to haul the car back up the way it came.

By the way, don't trust any insurance advice tow truck drivers give. They just want your money. The emergency services, on the other hand, were great.

Gradually the crowds drifted away. The freelancers collared me for an interview on camera. I misstated some facts but it was way past midnight by now and I wasn't thinking straight.

The story actually featured on the Channel 9 and Channel 7 morning news, surprisingly.

So now we've got no letterbox, our beautiful hedge has been trimmed far more than I intended (granted it needed trimming) and a pair of lovely callistemon and lilli pilli shrubs is probably gone. Insurance won't pay for the garden and we are wondering if someday a car will plough into Alex's bedroom.

It's not just us. Apparently the house at the corner has had three cars in their yard and the are lamp posts and street signs suffering frequent damage. All because the idiots in this area (like most others) think they have the right to show off their non-existent driving "skills" and put everyone else in danger. I am tired of people bitching about speed limits in residential areas like this when the evidence is in - they aren't the great drivers they think they are.

They are murderous f'ing idiots.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in Concert

I think we just witnessed some real life Harry Potter magic in action with a flawless performance of the score by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House.


Much as I enjoyed both the book and the movie, John Williams' score to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is not one that I frequently listen to. I suspect it is because it fits the movie so well and my life, unlike that of my eight year old son, is far from that of an 11 year old student wizard.

That should taken as a complement and not a criticism of the score and my favourite composer.

The magic of the score was unleashed from the moment that the film began and the orchestra played their first notes. Williams' music danced between delicate melodies to rich orchestral textures utilising the full orchestra. His score is such an important element of the movie that it was rarely overshadowed by the on-screen dialogue and action.

If there was one tiny criticism it's that it was almost impossible to hear the 15 minutes pre-concert featurette with composer interviews over the noise of entering patrons. The folk at the sound desk were too busy chatting and reading to notice until half way through.

American conductor Jeffrey Schindler engaged the audience and encouraged them to feel free to loudly celebrate the on-screen action and heroes. I don't know whether it was him or a shared love of Harry Potter but the orchestra were also at their very best performance wise. I heard no mistakes, especially from the brass section. Haven't heard the SSO play film music this well since their artistic director David Robertson conducted John Williams music back in 2014.

It was magic. Pure magic.

The Chamber of Secrets is coming out later this year. I hope Williams' score, his last of the series, to the Prisoner of Azkhaban will also be performed as it is by far my favourite (and favourite movie of the series too, if you must know).

Perhaps if I wave that wand we took to the concert...

Best not, it did belong to He-who-must-not-be-named...

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Jurassic Park in Concert with the MSO

I had no real intention of watching Jurassic Park at the cinema. I was a second year maths and physics student at the ANU and was busy trying to organise my presentation to the CSIRO Double Helix Science Club about fractals and chaos. I got a call from the Canberra Times to interview me about the presentation and the journalist asked me what I thought about Jeff Goldblum's character, a "chaotican".

Not having seen the movie I couldn't answer, so I resolved to see the Steven Spielberg film before my presentation.

I don't think I'll ever forget that moment in Jurassic Park where Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler see their first dinosaur. Like the characters on the screen my jaw dropped in amazement at the sight of these extinct giants brought to life on the big screen.

The scene was made even more special by John Williams' elegant background score, so I could not pass up the opportunity to relive that moment with a live orchestra. That meant a lightning trip down to Melbourne to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform live in front of the movie at Hamer Hall.

The MSO is my favourite Australian orchestra and has always, in my experience, performed film music with enthusiasm and the utmost respect (unlike a certain other orchestra more local to me).

I have been to a number of these concerts now at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing to a screened movie. This was my first in Melbourne with the MSO, in fact my first visit to Hamer Hall. The venue was certainly more modern than its internationally famous northern cousin.

Media personality Myf Warhurst introduced the show, exhorting the audience to whoop and holler along to the movie. Then conductor Ben Northey took to the podium and the concert screening began.

If I was ever to create my own John Williams concert I would start with "Journey to the Island," beginning with a playful and adventurous music as they approach Isla Nublar by helicopter and then moving on to the elegant Jurassic Park theme as they catch their first sight of the dinosaurs.

I'm not a huge fan of screening the movie and dialogue at the same time as performing the music as I'm there for the latter. I can always watch the movie at home. But something I liked about this performance was that the music took priority over the dialogue, making it much easier to focus on.

There were some surprisingly long passages without any music and others where it consisted of frenetic action. These are often less enjoyable pieces to listen to at home, but it was thrilling to watch the percussion and strings go at it live.

I noticed the brass section made a few mistakes and it was a pity that a live choir wasn’t used, but overall the performances were very impressive.

Alex the eight year old complained that he was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel for much of the movie, but by the end of it he was transfixed. When they finished playing the final credits he was clapping as hard as anyone in the hall.

We had been warned there would be an encore and I was delighted (though not surprised) that it was the Flying theme from another Spielberg/Williams collaboration ET. When I was stuck living in Central Queensland the soundtrack, my favourite, always made me think of my home in Melbourne. To hear it played there was very special.

All in all I was very glad we made the long trip down from Sydney to this performance of Jurassic Park. Next up is Harry Potter with the SSO - should be no complaints from Alex about that one!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Clouds and red jackets

I woke this morning from a horrible nightmare where our team had been taken over by an extroverted marketing type whose idea of an introduction was to make us wear glittery red jackets and sing company songs. Uggh!

The day was filled with spectacular clouds as an offshore low sent huge cumulonimbus formations our way. I watched aircraft fly around these white and grey terrors which towered over the Sydney skyline.

All they needed was some thunder and lightning.

Late tonight, as I took the dog out, there were still clouds around the horizons. I saw a bright orange meteor fall relatively slowly down towards the west.

Eyes open in my dreams and reality. It's an amazing world!

Friday, January 06, 2017

Out of gas

The Summer school holidays are traditionally a quiet time at work when, with so many on leave, one can focus on those small personal projects that you never have a chance to do during the rest of the year. You take things a little slower and wind down after the usually hectic period leading up to Christmas.

I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home over the Summer holidays, allowing me to keep an eye on Alex whilst still doing work. The lack of a four hour daily transit to work and the need to worry about school lunches and homework means there are more hours in the day to both work and play.

That's the theory. So why am I so bloody knackered?

After dithering for most of the year a certain fracking (and I use that as an epithet) group demanded that we make their website for them by the end of January. And I am off on holidays for most of January.

I never wanted to do this site. We should be decarbonising, making this research redundant. Plus it's industry funded so they can pay for an external site and developer. It's not like energy companies pay their fair share of taxes.

The only consolation is that at least much of the research is focused on mitigation and preventing damage to the environment from the operations.

But they didn't listen to me. Nor did they employ people with web experience to manage the project. So not only do I have to develop the site, but I also have to handhold the authors. And I and the rest of the team already have a lot of work on my plate.

We have a new graphic designer replacing the one I worked with on last year's fantastic Utopia project. This new guy is perfect for the organisation as he has a tendency to overcomplicate everything. I try to use WordPress' inbuilt functionality and structure as much as possible, allowing users flexibility at the expense of centralised control. Simplicity and flexibility are my mottoes.

It's one reason why our WordPress sites are far more popular for authors than our Sitecore websites.

User flexibility and control is an anathema to corporate operations.

So I'm presented with the need for a large number of templates, custom post types and fields (using Advanced Custom Fields). And there's no time to argue because they've been approved and the graphic designer is off on leave. And our front end developer has only a short time available too.

Naturally a lot of the elements and styles don't fit into WordPress' default generated HTML. So that means things like custom menu walkers and archive pages.

I find I have to do almost no training to get users up to speed with vanilla WordPress but customisation means additional training and the people responsible are on leave.

There's no way I can do everything in time, no time to train a contractor up and get them permissions, so I tell them they'll only have a subset of pages available for the initial launch lose the fancy searches for now.

And I begin working flat out before and after Christmas. I give them some custom page types so the authors can start entering content while I work on listing pages. I solve problems and churn code out. What I did was petty awesome, even if I do say so myself. Not just reusing other people's themes and plugins like some commercial developers do (because my clients are "special needs" so virtually nothing works out of the box).

I'd like to work on this on the evenings and spend time during the day looking after Alex. But no, in come the phone calls. Sometimes every ten minutes or so. Help entering content, changes to be made to templates, the odd bug discovered. One day I counted to ten and was about to open the door on a hiding Alex playing a game of hide and seek when the phone rang. Again.

You see, when a manager or communicator signs off on something it means very little. They want changes. Limitations are unacceptable.

But I want to spend some time with my kid. The year is too busy and he grows up so fast that any time together is precious.

I finally made the site live today. More bugs/changes. Eventually, at 4 pm (and if you think that's skiing off early I'd had 10 minutes off for lunch), when I was supposed to go and pick up Alex from a friend's place another change request came in and I lost it. Privately. My head was so exhausted that I couldn’t cope with any more changes. I told them no. That any further changes ran the risk of further bugs. They apologised, said thank you, and I fixed the last known bug.

Then I found this floating in our swimming pool and fished him out...

Another giant bug fixed!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell 2016

As the clock ticks over towards midnight and the time approaches when I shall rush up to the top of the driveway to watch the darkness midnight fireworks in the distance I'll take this last chance to add a blog post for December.

I'm not in the mood to write much. This hasn't been the most wonderful of years, the kind of year when you lose some faith in humanity. From Syria to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and some of the morons who arrived or returned in Australian politics. The person who punched B in the face when she was walking through Town Hall to finish it up.

On a personal note my fear of turbulence spoiled airline travel, though at least I did something about it. I also feel like I put too much pressure on myself and stuffed up both my latest karate grading and tournament. Relaxing will be a big theme for 2017.

But there were positives as well. I did some pretty awesome WordPress coding at work (though I wish they'd leave me alone over summer). Alex continues to do well at school and outside of it and we all had some fun times together as a family over the course of the year.

I hope that 2017 will not be as bad as we fear and humanity may rediscover its senses.

Everyone else in the house is asleep. Alex finally collapsed in bed after an exhaustion driven "meltdown". Yep, 2016 was that kind of year. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Understanding the anger: Trump and Brexit in a microcosm

Many were shocked at the election of Donald Trump tonight and at Brexit earlier. I'm not. The organisation I work for recently had its own mini revolt against the pundits' expectations and it's a microcosm of what's going on in the larger world.

A vote to accept an enterprise agreement that would have seen many working conditions moved out of the agreement in return for a tiny rise in salary was recently rejected my a seventy percent margin. Soon after the vote I had lunch with members of the corporate team, many who voted for the agreement and expressed disbelief at the result.

Our organisation is divided into scientific and engineering researchers and technicians and corporate management and support staff. The organisation is in a permanent state of flux, constantly restructuring itself. In the last decade the strong trend has been to remove support services from the front line and centralise them at a corporate level.

Support staff that previously had science degrees and worked directly with researchers have now been replaced with employees from the business and marketing world. Decisions are now driven by financial objectives or a desire to partner identifiable names.

Most scientists don't do science for the money, though they need it to survive. They do it for the intellectual passion, to discover something new, to understand or to solve problems, hopefully making the world a better place.

It's hard work training to be a scientist and its difficult to find employment in research, so working for an organisation like ours is very precious. Naturally the researchers and those who love working for a national icon want to keep their job protections.

For many of those in corporate life is very different. The fact that an organisation has long traditions and a reputation built upon solid work over almost a hundred years is meaningless. They are driven by money, power or the thrill of the deal. They could be working anywhere. And at the top level, there are always other opportunities. Many don't hang around long, so job protections are not a high priority for them.

There is strong sense, born by many staff surveys, that those at the top never listen to those at the bottom. Rather than consult staff about the organisations structure and future the management tend to rely on endless external consultants and friends from the business sphere. Or conditions are driven by business or government ideology without the presentation of logical reasoning for the decisions.

So when the staff feel so disempowered of course they are going to lash out. Hence the vote on conditions.

The same thing is happening on national scales. People in a huge range of jobs, not just manufacturing, but in services, farming, mining and others are suddenly being told that their skills, indeed their lives and in many cases their communities, are worthless, that in the name of investor profits that their jobs are going overseas (or being automated). Businesses that could once easily supply a nation are now only profitable if they can produce globally.

On one hand these workers are being told they are worthless and on the other they are being asked to exalt the needs of the corporate investors. Their profits, their lifestyles, their belief that economic rationalism must triumph over all else is supposedly unquestionable. The rich can influence policy, the poor are made to feel unwanted, unimportant. It's okay for the elite to demand that others work harder for less pay ("productivity") while they award themselves greater bonuses and pay less tax.

So what do you expect the ordinary person to do? Suck it up?

It's not new. The world has seen its fair share of revolutions throughout history. One can imagine the sense of satisfaction in a communist revolution when a peasant forcefully introduced the privileged elite to their world.

Fortunately there seems to be an aversion to armed revolution in modern Western civilisation, for they just produce more suffering and a different elite. But the anger remains. And anger isn't rational. It lashes out without thinking, without empathy.

Look at the way that racist sentiment is increasingly being expressed in many Western countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia. It's human nature to be suspicious of difference and it's up to our evolved minds to keep our behaviour in check, to understand what is right instead of right now.

Some people, conservatives, are mentally unable to handle change or that others might think differently to themselves. Their denial of reality can't be allowed to ruin the future for all.

We can't stop change and nor should we. But change must be handled with empathy and be inclusive. It must be rational and not driven by greed so that it only benefits a few.

Otherwise all we will have is anger and that is where we are now.

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