Dec 31, 2010

Summer by the Pool

Aahh, summer by the pool. No expense spared here!
I learned this summer you cannot use a bicycle pump to short-cut blowing up a big wading pool - it has to be done the old-fashioned way. One hour and numerous dizzy spells later, the kids had their pool:

Dec 23, 2010

Get over yourself Mum

My five-year-old called me out on high-mindedness last night.

We had a lovely night last night with some friends visiting, so we could catch up before Christmas and exchange gifts for each others' kids. After they left my girls were unwrapping the birthday gifts their godmother had given them, and I was using the large kitchen scissors to free the Barbies from the tiny, transparent but industrial strength plastic ropes that bound them in ten places to their cardboard containers.

As M stepped near me to get a closer look I said "Be careful of my scissors!" in that authoritarian voice mums use when we're running the show and sending a warning.

M was not having it. "No Mum, it's not me that has to be careful, it's you, because you're the one waving them around."

And she was right, of course.

Dec 16, 2010

We are family....

...though the number of family members is clearly a matter of opinion...

This one is by A.
It looks somewhat like one of those fake children's paintings you see in movies where you know that someone in the studio has really done it - but this is a real one, honest.
Apart from the colour that is quite an accurate depiction of my hair.

This one is by M. I love the way she always draws her people all over the picture like floating ghosts.
I think the blue and red figure at bottom left is the cat. I'd say Mum and Dad are in front (interestingly Mum on the left in both pictures...clearly the boss of the house, ha!).
Not sure who the extra kid is as I'm sure we only have two...

Dec 15, 2010

Not the right time for banking reform

I hesitate a little to put this out there because SURELY the men making the noise and the decisions know what they are doing and understand all this stuff better than us. Surely... Don't they? Oh that's right - they don't.

Background: Since the "end" (huh!) of the GFC, Australian banks have been moving their interest rates [on loans not deposits!] "independently" of the Reserve Bank. This mostly means that when the RBA raises the cash rate by a certain amount (usually 0.25%), the Big Four banks are these days raising theirs anywhere from 0.10 to 0.50 above the "official" rise.
This has caused shock and anger and there has been a lot of talk about banks gouging customers and price signalling, and the fact that there is limited competition in Australia among banks.
So first the opposition shadow treasurer and then the actual treasurer have proposed various measures to reform the banking system and force banks to be nicer.

All of which are wrong-headed in my mind and doomed to fail.

Now speaking personally, we have a hefty mortgage, which we have made precisely NO headway in reducing, and we are feeling the rate rises - but here's my view.

Yes no doubt the banks are taking advantage where they can - it's in their nature, plus they probably feel compelled to "catch up" for the low interest rates during the stimulus period of the GFC.

Banks face increasing funding costs due to the GFC and tighter credit in the global markets, blah blah blah insert bank press releases here - which is true but it is equally true that the funding processes provide a nice cushiony less-than-transparent way for banks to add a little extra without exposing this to their customers.

Those rate rises get smaller again - at some point the GFC will pass or abate, banks will get less jittery and the normal competitive urges between the banks [limited as they are] will re-assert themselves.

The GFC is a total, global, unprecedented, once-in-three-generations event which has had eye-popping and massive impacts which are still playing out like the ripples from a stone thrown in a pond (or a meteor slammed into the sea). Not a good time to legislate as a reaction to the fall-out.

Both our government finance ministers and the opposition ones are, well, somewhat new, shall we say, to
the worlds of banking and finance and perhaps are not quite qualified to make sweeping reforms...? (Though to be fair I will add that I don't think anyone can manage this very well)

We should keep in mind the law of unintended consequences here; on a small scale look at what happened when the Reserve Bank brought in the new ATM fee system which notified customers using a "foreign" ATM of the fee that would be charged. Transparency increased - but so did the fees. Where some banks decreased the fees or stopped charging them, they started charging others instead.

[I am reminded here of the story of a daycare centre related in the first Freakonomics book which increased late pick-up fines to try and reduce the number of parents running late to pick up their kids. The result of the increase was more parents running late more often - because once they were paying a premium to be late they no longer felt so guilty about it and were happy to "buy" the right to come later when it suited them].

If banks are legislated against applying certain fees, they will just apply others, or increase costs to borrowers in less transparent ways. Obviously. John Locke pointed this out back in 1692.

Banks are entitled to charge some fees. Switching mortgages, paying out a fixed loan earlier than the maturity date, going into overdraft, or basically doing anything that requires extra funding by the bank can reasonably attract a fee.
However there is no doubt banks take advantage. In the old days you couldn't easily go into overdraft - the bank would not honour payments. Now they honour them and charge you an overdraft fee. People are reasonably angry about this. Under pressure, the banks have reduced (and in one case removed) these charges, and to my mind a small (single digit!) charge is reasonable for this "service". But a better way would be giving customers an option when they set up their accounts: do you want payments honoured into overdraft for a small fee, or do you prefer the bank to dishonour any payment which would send your account into overdraft (for no fee). Even better, charge different fees depending on the amount into overdraft, time taken to bring the account back into credit, etc. Most clients would pay minimal fees (a few cents or dollars a time say). Banks have very sophisticated systems and it is not difficult to set up algorithms to manage this type of charge. There is little administrative burden and the charges are not really designed to discourage overdrafts - at least this way the charges would be honest and useful (larger fees for larger overdrafts would serve to discourage overdrafts as well as cover the bank's risk, where the customer had chosen this option rather than the option not to honour payments).

Similarly for switching mortgages - yes the charges to switch are outrageous, but the government is correct to look for adding ways to make switching easier, rather than outlaw the fees. (Some sort of fee is reasonable unless another aspect of switching allows banks to recoup costs from each other - as remember when you pay out a loan early you are [in theory if not always in practice] disadvantaging the bank which has borrowed money to fund your loan using a rate based on the value and time of the original loan life). As well as the amount of the fee, one of the big disincentives to switch is "bundling" - the process banks have of getting you hooked up to linked transaction, saving, credit and loan accounts at the same time as you get your mortgage. Switching would be easier if "unbundling" was as easy as the "bundling". There should also be easier options to set up a mortgage and retain transactional accounts at other banks (though this is not necessarily advantageous currently, what if same-day transfers between different banks were possible without the cost?)

I do believe there must be legislation and watchdogs over banking - but the legislation has to be fairly "light". You can't legislate fairness completely. And you can't concoct fake competition into a market that doesn't have much. New Zealand chose to set up a state bank to increase competition - I'm not convinced that's a solution (and obviously neither is our government as they have ruled it out); we all know how nimble and competitive state-run institutions are (not)!

We do have to accept that there will always be costs associated with banking. There must be minimum legislation to keep basic fairness and retain competition, but in general when it comes to rules and legislation around finance, the required basic rules are already in place. You have to think very carefully about any new ones as after hundreds of years of commercial banking and finance, there is not really anything new and new rules and legislation are seldom actually needed. (Similarly, repealing or removing existing rules is not always a good idea either - there are reasons for rules that have been in place for decades or more).


Here is a great quote to finish off, on the law of unintended consequences:

"The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it."
- Rob Norton, "Unintended Consequences", The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics - at:
http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/UnintendedConsequences.html

Dec 14, 2010

The Working Through It Spag Bol

I was very impressed with myself today so have decided to share with the lucky internet my delicious recipe for a sort of spaghetti bolognaise, invented and ingested today.
Inspiration: We are only a couple of days back from a short break away, and there is not a lot of fresh veg in the fridge, but there were 2 tomatoes and an eggplant sitting there which were about to turn.

I made this this afternoon while working from home and it passed all my just-invented busy-working-mum tests: it used enough fresh ingredients to make me feel virtuous, used all ready-at-hand ingredients to make me feel economical and clever, was easy to make, incorporated a good serve of veg, and was liked by 3 out of 4 family members - that's good enough for me!

Ingredients:
  • olive oil
  • 400g lean mince
  • one eggplant, diced
  • 2 very ripe tomatoes
  • bottle of commercial bolognaise sauce or other variety (mine was Dolmio Red Wine pasta sauce) (and cut me some slack on the sauce, I'm busy)
  • one celery stick, chopped (I buy celery and cut up each stick and put them in ziplock bags and keep them frozen for soups and sauces - so in my case this is one bag of frozen celery pieces)
  • one packet of frozen spinach
  • one sachet, or about 2 tablespoons, tomato paste
  • squirt of tomato ketchup (if needed)

Method:
  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium heat
  2. Add the mince and brown it
  3. Add the eggpant, celery, spinach and pasta sauce; mix so the frozen vegs are in the middle of the pot covered with sauce. Turn down heat to low, cover and simmer for 40mins plus, checking and mixing occasionally to make sure the mixture doesn't reduce too far.
  4. When the sauce and veg are well cooked, mix in the tomato paste and leave on low heat uncovered while spaghetti is cooking.
  5. Cook and drain spaghetti, mix in with meat sauce in the pot, and taste.
  6. If a little extra flavour is needed, or if kids need enticement to try it, then at the table add a squirt of tomato ketchup.
Delicioso!

Where are my jacaranda flowers?

We have a beautiful jacaranda tree in our back yard, which flowers every October. Every springtime like clockwork, as a lovely birthday present to me (!), beautiful clusters of purple flowers appear all over the tree, and each day over the next few weeks are shed to form a gorgeous lilac carpet over our lawn.

This is not our tree - but you get the idea
Image by Thierry Caro, from Wikipedia,
copied under license Creative Commons
Except this year.

All through October, November and into December, we had no flowers!

THIS is our tree  :-(

Can I blame global warming? The end of the drought...? Are we in an El Nino year?  (On that - what happened to El Nino and La Nina? Not many years ago they were all the rage, an El Nino was identifiable and talked of every 3 to 4 years - now very seldom discussed. Have they really disappeared? Or do they not fit the climate change paradigm...?)

I tried Google and Ask.com. I googled "Jacaranda flowers" and asked Ask.com "why hasn't my jacaranda tree flowered?"  Unusually, both let me down - no info other than a summary of where Jacarandas come from (South America and the Carribean) and when they flower (spring).


I have heard since that there is a bit of a thing in Melbourne this year, where jacarandas have flowered later than usual, and no one knows why.


This week, we have got a few flowers - a very tiny number, but perhaps we'll see a full flowering soon. Fingers crossed.
Our tree with this year's first flowers - two months late!



What Jacaranda litter usually looks like
Image by Peter Greenwell, at Wikipedia,
copied under license Creative Commons


Our jacaranda litter -
not exactly the sea of purple we were expecting

ADDENDUM, 1 January. We got our flowers - in mid-December?! Tree looking more respectable now.

Some Beauty

Lakes Entrance, December 2010

 








Dec 13, 2010

Sixty (Off Topic)

This questionnaire comes by way of Princess Pandora Queen of Denial, Blurb from the Burbs, and The Plastic Mancunian. Filling this out was a nice way to keep posting while I was on holiday and my mind had turned a bit mushy.
Image: Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes at
Flickr Creative Commons

1. Are you happier now than you were five months ago?


Oooooh, yes. Definitely. Five months ago I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, stressed and sad and yelling at my kids, and wondering what was wrong with me. Since then I have had a very helpful prescription, had stress leave from my job, talked to a psychologist, had a holiday, and am a different person.

Interesting Dangerous Idea

More on a topic I love, correlation vs causation.

Michael Agger from Slate Magazine has been soliciting ideas for how to use data from online sources such as social networking sites, for making improvements in our lives.

One of the suggestions was The Correlations Project, which proposes:

"I want to see a website that lets me keep track of something simple for a set period of time, and then compares it to a database to search for correlations. For example, over the course of a week or month or year, or even on an ongoing basis, it could ask, "What did you have for breakfast today?" or "What color shirt did you wear today?" or "How many calls did you get on your cell phone today?" Maybe a daily e-mail would remind you to log in with the answers. Then it would compare the answers to other things that are already tracked such as the stock market, phases of the moon, sports scores, etc., and spit out some correlations. It could tell you "On 93% of the days on which you ate eggs for breakfast, the stock market went up." Or, "When the moon is waxing, you are 88% more likely to wear a green shirt than when it is waning." Or, "On days when you get more than 7 phone calls, the Yankees win their games."


Agger explains: "The point of the correlations project, according to the submitter "IronicSans," is to demonstrate the axiom that correlation does not imply causation." He points out the ubiquitousness of coincidences and our tendancy to see links and cause where none exist, and he quotes the case of Paul the Octopus as one example.

A really interesting idea. I have a feeling though that the correlations brought up would become the point in themselves, the site would become a mecca for people believing in its power and accuracy, and in the end it would achieve the complete opposite of what it set out to do!

Kids spoiled much??

Somehow my kids have ended up with three birthdays this year.

Being mid-December babies, birthday parties are a bit difficult. December is very tricky for birthday parties - you have to schedule around your own family/work/friends parties and year-end events, plus everyone else's committments, and also make sure you don't set up anything on the same weekend as the Wiggles concerts. I learned this the hard way...

Thirty Minutes a Day

Today's exercise: Greek dancing at the Melbourne Pontian club Christmas party!
A good work-out for waist, arms, knees and soul.

Dec 10, 2010

Thirty Minutes a Day

Today's exercise:
  • 7am: one 50 minute walk (normal pace) to and around the foreshore walk at Lakes Entrance.
  • 11am: one twenty minute walk around and on the beach, and 5 minutes of running through sand with the kids
  • 2pm: 10 minutes leisurely swimming
  • and planned for the evening: another 20 minute walk around the esplanade.

 
All still very sedate and nothing compared to the exercise I used to manage in a day, but pretty good going for me these days!

Thirty Minutes a Day - Thursday

Okay, I admit it - my thirty minutes a day have not happened the last few days. The first 2 because it was so HOT, the third because we were in the car en route to our holiday and the fourth because, once again, it was HOT. We did do a bit of walking and swimming on these days but nothing that would even add up to 30 minutes, so I'm not counting them.

I'm getting back into it now.

So yesterday's exercise was:
  • thirty-five minutes in the pools at our holiday park, mostly lazing around or playing with the kids, but I did do a few laps - I will count this as five minutes' exercise to keep honest
  • two twenty-minute rather leisurely walks (no other kind when with kids) - one around the Esplanade and one around the Foreshore Walk
Leisurely as it was it must have done something - I retired for the evening pleasantly spent and with that slightly smug satisfaction one feels at the end of a physical day.

Dec 6, 2010

Work Life Balance

I have found the balance! I am on holiday. Holidays for parents provide the perfect work-life balance. You don't completely chill out because you're looking after your kids, and kids have ENERGY and want to DO STUFF - and they also still want to eat, be clothed, washed on a regular basis, etc.
So life on holiday is a beautiful balance between the "work" (see above) and the absolute fun or relaxation in between.

Before I had kids I was appalled at the average "family holiday" as it appeared to me. Camping, caravan parks and the like seemed to me to be a holiday for dad and the kids and just uprooting the domestic chores to a more difficult place for mum. I couldn't believe that women could really be happy with these "holidays".
As a result, when we had our girls, having only got over the hard bits of looking after two babies by the time they were around two, I was not keen on the standard holiday park getaway for some time, imagining the worst. When we finally did it, it was wonderful. WONDERFUL. Two days in Sorrento (Mornington Peninsula, not Italy) staying in a huge old fibro shack were two days of absolute, easy, relaxing bliss - with two happy, relaxed toddlers.

Since then we have done one a year and I am a complete convert. Give me a cabin with a deck near a playground and trampoline or pool (or both - o joy!), a suitcase full of colouring books and Barbie accessories and a fridge full of fruit and wine, and I am in heaven.

The only drawback - it's still hot, sort of. It's very breezy where we are near the beach and not quite warm enough for really satisfying swimming, but it is humid and I am STILL bathed in sweat and mopping my forehead from morning to dusk. You can see what I am like in the heat here.

But - we are on holiday; no work or responsibilities outside of our family unit for a week.

And life is good.

My Grandfather and the History of Seat Belts in Victoria

Today is my grandfather's 90th birthday.
He's my only surviving grandparent and this is not surprising - he is a big, tall man and has always been as strong as an ox.
At 49 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had three-quarters of a lung removed. He and my grandmother moved from Melbourne to the Central Coast of New South Wales for its milder, wamer climate, after his operation.
In those days there was just the operation - no radiation, no chemotherapy, nothing else. I have no idea what the cancer survival rate was like for this type of operation back then, but no doubt my grandfather was lucky to stick around.

Today my father and aunt and my mother hosted a birthday for my grandfather. Though the family is small, five generations were there - the only time since my grandparents' 60th anniversary that all the family had got together and the first time my daughters had met some of their family.

My father made a speech which praised Pop's skill on the golf course - three hole in ones - and his feats in business. Pop worked most of his career for an Australian car part company which used to be a big manufacturer and these days is a chain of retail outlets. In the 1960s and 70s Pop was in large part personally responsible for getting seat belts made mandatory in cars in Victoria (and by extension, later Australia). Recognising the need to get seat belts backed by legislation to make them profitable, Pop got his company together with the other two companies that manufactured car parts in Australia at the time, and suggested they pool resources to get legislation happening. Through a canny mix of government lobbying, advertising and public relations campaigns he and his colleagues created something which has become a natural part of driving in this country, and which has also saved many lives.

We all joke with Pop as we know, and he readily admits, that the seat belt campaign was a business strategy to secure a market and make money. But, as he campaigned and lobbied and demonstrated the effectiveness of seatbelts, and as he worked with the manufacturers to improve the technology, safety and comfort of the belts over time, it also became something he believed in very passionately, and he spent a good part of his ensuing career continuing this work and advocating for the safety and necessity of seat belts.

He has some good stories to tell. He had a couple of colleagues who demonstrated the selt belts' effectiveness at trade shows by being human crash test dummies, driving a car into a barrier then jumping out and exclaiming something like "I'm fine! Thanks to my seat belt!" At one show the guy limped out moaning "I think I've broken a rib" and Pop said "well keep quiet about it for god's sake!" and got him to wave to the crowd. Aah, the good old days...

It was interesting to hear about the science that went into the development and improvement of seat belts.
I know that sentence could sound strange when read alone - but as my mother taught me, everything is interesting when you look into it.

In the beginning the seat belts were lap sashes only, and made of nylon.
Very quickly it was found that another strap was needed, as test dummies and real people were still hitting their heads when strapped in at the waist. The strap diagonally across the chest was added as a compromise between safety, cost and convenience - in those days they were not yet mandatory and so had to be saleable, which meant they had to be comfortable and able to be put on with the minimum of effort.  Tests had shown that the double harness seatbelt (similar to what goes over your head and chest on a roller coaster) was the safest seat belt possible - but it was too expensive to produce and off-putting to consumers, who at that time wanted to just get in their automobiles and enjoy a drive as a carefree and stylish experience.

In the 1960's cars were still not designed to take seat belts, so belts had to be designed to be fitted to the cars. Thus the major challenge then was to design belts that were safe but also comfortable. With the addition of the diagonal strap across the chest, because of the way the belts had to be attached to the cars, the new strap tended to dig into the throat - so the challenge was on to design something more comfortable. It was also recognised that cars had to be designed to incorporate the seat belts, for real advances to be made.

Seat belts were invented in the US in the 1880's, but Volvo introduced the modern seat belt in 1959. Extensive research and development went into seat belts, using people and technology from aerospace engineering. Pop told us how the buckles were designed with the press-release technology using just the right amount of give, as it was found that the most that a human being could comfortably press with one finger was 37 pounds pressure. He told us how the straps had to be designed to withstand 400 pounds of pressure which is what is brought to bear by a human body in a crash.

The improvements continued. The nylon was found to deteriorate over time from exposure to sunlight, so other materials were tested and tetralene was adopted, eventually replaced by the polyester or polypropylene used today.

As Pop's company was heavily involved in the development of seat belts in Australia, they had access to overseas developments but as a manufacturer they also did their own research and development, and made continuous improvements to the belts to get a workable balance between safety and marketability. After seat belts were made mandatory in Victoria in 1970, they continued to improve the belts in response to consumer and vehicle manufacturer experience, to improve safety and cost, and to convince the rest of the country on their necessity.

Pop travelled to Detroit for trade shows (as my brother-in-law observed today, imagine the excitement and beauty of all the new cars in Detroit in the late 1960s!). In Australia he appeared on a television talk show where the host argued against the mandatory adoption of seat belts, using an anecdote about a friend of his who had run off the road and was thrown from his car before it crashed - which would not have happened had he been wearing a seat belt. Pop responded, "If you want to design an accident, we can design a seat belt to suit it."
Another argument often made was that seat belts were inconvenient or uncomfortable; people asked, "Do you have to wear it all the time?" Pop's response was: "You don't have to wear it all the time. You just have to be wearing it a few seconds before you crash."

Funny how things bring back memories. When I was a child in the 1970s there was still some occasional argument about seat belts, and in 1979 when we moved to the States (where belts were not mandatory but the conversation was taking place), the same arguments came up - the belts were uncomfortable and inconvenient, and in some accidents you would be safer without one. (In the US there was an additional argument that we didn't have in Australia: making seat belts [or anything] mandatory was an infringement on freedom of choice).

Those arguments belong mostly to history now. It is an accepted notion that seat belts save lives and must be worn while driving. Victoria was the first jurisdiction in the world to make the wearing of seat belts in cars mandatory. Other states and countries followed as the safety benefits became clear, and the wearing of selt belts is now mandatory in most industrialised countries.

And my Pop did that!


From Wikipedia, courtesy of Ask.com:

"In Victoria, Australia the use of seat belts became compulsory in 1970. By 1974 decreases of 37% in deaths and 41% in injuries, including a decrease of 27% in spinal injuries, were observed, compared with extrapolations based on pre-law trends.
...By 2009, despite large increases in population and the number of vehicles, road deaths in Victoria had fallen below 300, less than a third of the 1970 level, the lowest since records were kept, and far below the per capita rate in jurisdictions such as the United States. This reduction was generally attributed to aggressive road safety campaigns beginning with the seat belt laws."


- http://www.ask.com/wiki/Seat_belt_legislation

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dec 5, 2010

Hot

It's hot in Melbourne.
It's only the early days of summer, but as always in this fair city, the first few days of summer knock us for six and leave us wondering, Is it always this hot so early? Surely it wasn't like this last year? Imagine what February will be like...  and so on.

It's not actually that hot - I know - but it is humid, which is awful. Makes everything hotter.

I have to get used to the heat every year. I've been the same since I was a kid - useless at handling the heat.
At home I wander round opening windows and turning up the evaporative cooling, changing my clothes, swigging water and looking for something to fan myself with; my husband wanders round behind me turning down the cooling (or even turning it off - when he dares) while smirking at my suffering like the cruel heat-tolerant person he is.

When I was in my twenties I lived in Greece over 3 summers, working morning, day and evening seven days a week from May to October each year. I never got used to the heat in August. I remember walking the ten minutes to my house in the next village one year, literally and pathetically sobbing from the heat.
But May, June and September were gorgeous - mild, dry heat that even I could sit outside in. In Italy and Greece I discovered the joy of the beach.
As a child in Melbourne I didn't like the beach, hated the inescapable, burning heat, the march flies, the sand that got everywhere, the crashing surf, the inevitable sunburn, and the fact that everyone except me seemed content to stay there for hours.  In Italy and Greece for the first time in my life I enjoyed the beach. Swimming in gentle, warm clear blue waters, lying comfortably on smooth pebbles or large-grained crystals of sand, and the very civilised practice of lying on a reed mat instead of on one's beach towel (thus always having a dry, sand-free towel at one's disposal). And the sun: warm, gentle, dry heat, without the stinging burning sensation on arms and face, or the need to cover your face in zinc to preserve your nose's natural colour... I could happily lie sunbathing on the beach for hours, even in the middle of the day - unthinkable for me here.

One of my daughters has inherited my heat intolerance. By the afternoon she is red-cheeked, damp hair plastered to her forehead, while her sister, like her father, remains dry-haired and cool to the touch.


Nine o'clock this morning, the kids and I had icy-poles for "morning tea" - bliss, sweet short-lived bliss.

I am such a heat wuss I know - anyone reading this in Melbourne will be chuckling because as I am well aware, it is not even truly hot yet. But it is hot enough for me!

Oh, and "thirty minutes a day" has been on hold for the last 2 days - just...can't...do it.
But will get back on track in the next day or so - promise!

Dec 2, 2010

Thirty minutes a day

I'm on holiday from work and today's 30 minutes are done! 10 minutes on the exercise bike, 20 minutes of "pilates" (floor exercises we used to call them). I am on a roll, baby!
I need a shower.

Dec 1, 2010

Thirty Minutes a Day

I have decided to make myself do 30 minutes of exercise a day.
I know that's no big deal for a normal person, but it is for me considering I have pretty much been living on a conveyor belt between home, my car and my office chair since I went back to work full-time. Three years ago.

This is not going to be easy.
Firstly because I have NO time, and secondly because I have got so far out of the habit of exercising.
But I will allow myself to break up the day's exercise into 10 or 15 minute chunks, to get me going.

Today's exercise:
  • one fifteen-minute power walk around the local shopping centre (It's true - I wore my sneakers)
  • one more leisurely twenty minute walk window-shopping for shoes (yeah that counts - I'm starting from zero here)
Feel the burn!

Nov 17, 2010

Parenting as Addiction

Okay, so this is a blog quoting a blog quoting another blog, but I don't want to make it look like I found this item all by myself. This is a new post at Freakonomics that I like.

It's a theory that says parents continue procreating even though parenting is hard/miserable/stressful/etc, because they are addicted to the rush they get when their children do something lovely.

I love the economists.
I read stuff like this and my reactions are: recognition, partial agreement, amusement, and exasperation (bloody economists! Have to boil everything down to incentives!).

But it is a funny and clever take on parenthood from a behavioural economics-style perspective.
(Though the original article they quote is by a journalist, not an economist, and is a wonderful read)

I think it's partially true but I do think that the "addiction" to the joyful moments is actually a side-issue, tangentially related to why we "continue to procreate". Isn't the real reason just that it is such a strong biological imperative? This is enough of a reason because it is the basis of all life. All life wants to exist and then pass itself on, that's pretty much what life boils down to in its essentials. No one has to explain or defend procreating, to my mind, when it's such a basic, compelling biological urge - we often feel we more or less have no say in it. 
[Which is not to say everyone has to do it, or life is nothing without it. Not at all.  I don't think anyone needs to explain or defend either state - having children or not having them - both are completely natural states].
The "addiction" factor probably kicked in somewhere along the way as an adaptation that helped the process, but I don't think it is the reason.
It probably is the reason we don't always give into despair and depression at the daily grind, because we do remind ourselves about these "rewards" to balance the hard bits.

But anyway have a read, because it's good. Here's a sampler:

 “The unexpected, kind, and loving things that children do produce chemical surges in their parents’ brains like the rush of the pipe or the needle. Like addicts, parents will sacrifice anything for the glimpses of heaven that their offspring periodically provide.”
-  Shankar Vedantam at Slate, quoted at freakonomics

I like the "periodically" !

Nov 16, 2010

The Feeling of Being Stared At

When I started this blog I was intending to spend more time "researching" (i.e., web-surfing) varied questions and phenomena in the worlds of science, economics and psychology. Then I quickly found that (a) I have no time, and (b) there are thousands of people out there doing this already. Also (c) my knowlege in these areas is even more limited than I thought, and I have a fear of posting about something that it turns out I have completely misunderstood or missed reams of research which has resolved any questions I thought were still outstanding.  It's a long time since I was in the halls of academia...

Case in point:
One of the things that has intrigued me for years is that thing where you "feel" someone watching you, look up and see someone staring at you, or vice versa.

Image: Graur Codrin, freedigitalphotos.net

My mother alerted me to this when I was a kid; she told me that when she was a teenager hanging out with her friends if one of them liked a boy they had a trick where they would stare at the back of his head and he would turn around.

This has interested me for years, because it sort of makes sense (evolutionary advantage, awareness of predators etc) and most people have experienced it, but there also seems no physical explanation for it. It's not like you can be picking up subliminal cues* of any kind, unless you are facing a mirror.
Another interesting point is that it only seems to "work" when people are not distracted on things that require a lot of concentration - no matter how much you stare at someone arguing on a telephone or watching the last stretch of a horse race, you will not "make" them turn around.

I had not come across any articles or books on this or even any mention of it in studies in other things, and I wasn't sure how to search to find if any research had been done.

Obviously I hadn't thought to Google "the feeling of being stared at".

Because it turns out there has been lots of research on this (see here and here) and while "the jury is out" to some degree, the non-fringe consensus is that this "phenomenon" has been debunked.

I came across the fact of this research while reading a fantastic book, The Invisible Gorilla (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, Harper Collins 2010). In the chapter "Get Smart Quick!" they assert that this belief, held by 65% of people, has been "thoroughly debunked" with research going back to 1898. Who knew?!

I'm a bit torn here. Logically speaking I do love a debunking - if it's done well and out of good scientific intentions and not gleeful vindictiveness.
And it's always embarassing to be caught out believing something weird for which there is a simple and natural explanation. (The Invisible Gorilla puts belief in this phenomenon in the same chapter as beliefs about brain training, the Mozart effect and the belief that we only use 10% of our brains. Not great finding yourself in that company).

On the other hand... like a lot of people, I feel like I have tried this and found it to work.
I know it's easy to believe something using selective memory especially when the belief is a seductive one (handy skill, to know when being watched). But still it's hard to resist the feeling that this is a real thing.

Clearly I need to re-experiment with my new perspective and keep a faithful tally of the times people don't turn around, or all the times I look up and don't lock eyes with someone staring at my head.

I shall repair to the lab and report back in due course...


Interesting footnote -
*Just today I came across some research in a related topic, which DOES have a logical, "subliminal cues" explanation: "gaze-following".
There is an interesting post about this on the ScienceBlogs site, about Gaze-Following in Red Footed Tortoises

Nov 15, 2010

How to Put Off Going to Work

Sit in car at carpark.
Pick up phone.
Play move in online scrabble game.
Check blog. Check friend's blog. Check friend of friend's blog. Read comments on blogs.
Consider updating status on Facebook; decide against it.
Day-dream briefly about high-paying part-time job in suburb near home.
Fret briefly about how to manage when kids start school next year.
Shake self out of unhelpful reveries.
Do make-up.
Re-organize contents of bag. Look for whatever is making it so heavy.
Change into work shoes.
Lock car.
Look at other cars and wonder why people bother to back into carpark spaces.
Go up lift to ground floor of building. Cross forecourt to coffee shop and buy half-litre of coffee.
Go back to lift and to office floor.
Walk in.
Sigh.

Bad Parent Dreaming

I woke up this morning sweaty with anxiety, tangled in sheets and the remnants of a mix of disturbing dreams.

I had one dream that I sent one of my girls out to work. As she's only five, I went with her to make sure everything was okay, then I dried her tears and pepped her up and sent her on her way.

In another I took my girls out for ice-cream and couldn't control them. One stole something from a shop, one ran out into the middle of a busy road, and neither would do what I asked, commanded, begged, bribed or cajoled. Then I hit them both until a passerby ran up to stop me. I still remember the feelings of rage, shame and helplessness that I was feeling at that instant.

In a third dream one of the girls was declared a dead ringer for our prime minister (though she looks nothing like her), and I was a pushy star-struck mum who agreed we should all hang out in the PM's entourage (?!), even once I found out that my daughter was being used as a body-double/decoy due to her uncanny resemblance to the PM.

I cannot think of any situation in real life that triggered these dreams. Though we did go out for ice-cream yesterday, the girls were good and no one stole anything or lost control. I have never hit them. No one here resembles the prime minister and I don't want my girls to do anything except be pre-schoolers.

But these dreams do all have the "bad parent" theme in common.

What does this mean - am I anxious about the direction things are going? Or do I secretly fear that maybe I am a bad mother?

Probably the second and I would bet that this is a secret fear that most mothers hold, even when they believe they are doing a good job - as they most assuredly are.

Spring Cleaning

We spent most of yesterday cleaning. Having walked in the door on Thursday to the realisation that "our house smells", we decided Sunday to tackle it. We wacked in a DVD for the kids and got to it.
We moved furniture, threw out junk, bagged clothes and books for giving away, tidied toys (by far the biggest task), did 6 loads of washing, folded and put away the clothes sitting in laundry baskets these last 4 months (suddenly I have lots of "new" clothes!), vacuumed, mopped, carpet-shampooed, cut flowers for a vase on the dining table, mowed lawns and nature strip, and whipper-snippered the weedy edges of the lawns and flower beds.

And there is still lots more to do.

In the afternoon I took the girls to our favourite park and we spent a happy 2 hours while they learned to climb the climbing frame and ran around like two kids who had been cooped up watching DVDs all day.
Then we went for an ice-cream and picked up a pizza for dinner.

All in all one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Sundays we've had in awhile.

Nov 10, 2010

Germs

Hmm, long time between posts.
And what has inspired me to retrieve my forgotten password and dust off my account?
Germs!
Germs in advertisements, which are the same as germs in the corporate workplace: everywhere and extremely dangerous.

I always like those little facts and quotes which talk about how many germs are on given surfaces or in a given environment.  These facts are beside the point in most cases because what they miss is this: in most of the examples given, our body can cope with these germs!

It's disappointing when a "trusted" brand uses this nonsense. Like Dettol. I love Dettol. I am loyal to Dettol. Raised on Dettol baths I have passed on this custom to my kids and I still love to suck the Dettol water off a bath facewasher. I'm not into hand sanitiser, but I bought Dettol hand sanitiser when my girls were in nappies for those messy times out where soap might not be handy.
So imagine - just imagine! - my chagrin when I saw the new Dettol product on TV: a liquid soap dispenser where you don't have to touch the hand-pump, which "could harbour hundreds of germs!"
So it's not good to touch the pump on a soap dispenser because of the danger of the germs. Huh.  As well as being over-the-top worried about normal levels of germs it doesn't even make a lot of sense. I mean, even if a normal soap pump is laden with germs from your toilet-hand when you pump it to get the soap, once you have the soap you then wash your hands, and you don't touch it again (unlike the tap for example). So where are these germs going to go anyway?

Now I'm not a complete cavewoman and I have taken some of the germ advice on. I now put down the toilet lid before I flush, and wash my hands after sneezing or blowing my nose; and when someone is sick in our house, we wash our hands more or less constantly - not out of paranoia or fear of illness itself, but out of hoping to avoid the hell that ensues when parents and kids are sick together, or when each kid falls sick one after the other.

But I really can't bring myself to care - much - when I hear my desktop harbors more germs than a toilet seat. I don't get sick much, so it must not be affecting me!

Now I know this is subjective and everyone has their own approach, so it would be interesting to know: what do you find disgusting, and what doesn't bother you, germ-wise?

Sep 25, 2010

Another One of Those Days

I find I'm having much much fewer of Those Days now my kids are nearly five (yes I know, it's a lull between difficult patches), but when they were babies and toddlers and upwards I had plenty of them.
There is a great post here at a blog called Seeking Sanity which I thought was a beautiful, eloquent and honest picture of life with small kids.
Loved it.

The Lazy Garden(er)

It's a sorry roll-call to be sure. It's springtime, and after record rainfalls and the end of the 12-year drought, these are ALL the flowers I have in my garden.



But that's better by a long shot than the rest of the garden, which generally looks like this:










Again, I ask you - who has the time???

Sep 24, 2010

Just Believe!

How do you know when your daughter has watched too many Barbie movies?
(Real answer: When you know she has watched at least one...)

Here's how I knew.

A broken toy, a request to fix it. Knowing the toy was beyond repair, I answered that I couldn't fix it.
M. looked at me and said, "Did you try to fix it?"
"Yes," I said (lying - it was completely beyond help). "I tried, but I couldn't fix it."
M. looked at me earnestly. "You can Mum, " she said. "You just have to try. And believe in yourself!"

"Well, " I said, "sometimes, there are just some things you can't do, even if you really believe in yourself!"

Aug 30, 2010

Parents, you were right about what your baby or young child knows...

Here is a link to Alison Gopnick's website.

I love love love this woman's work. She has turned notions of what young children comprehend and how we learn to see the world, completely on their head.
One of the most interesting findings in 'The Philosophical Baby' to me is the study where really young babies look longer at objects performing feats outside the laws of physics, showing they are surprised.

We have always been told that young children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, and I had not questioned that until I had kids. The truth is more complex. Yes, sure, they can get confused. When my girls were in the first 6 months of being four they would still sometimes watch a cartoon they liked and ask me if we could "go there". Now they are closer to five, they know TV is not "real" but they will still sometimes ask about places they see on ads or movies (not cartoons anymore though).
On the other hand, even from a very young age (2, 3), they were well aware of what was funny in cartoons because it is not real, and what can and can't happen in real life. I was often surprised by how much little kids understand of what is going on around them.

Some observations I love to remember:

My cousin's little girl E, is one. At a recent family gathering, my sister was there with her baby. My sister set her baby down in a rocker in a corner and little E was fascinated. She toddled over to look at him at regular intervals. One time when she came over, unknown to her, someone else had picked up the baby and he wasn't in his rocker. Little E looked at the rocker, looked surprised, then immediately turned and reached a hand to my sister for a moment before walking off.  She had never met my sister before, but this one instant showed that she expected the baby to be in his rocker, and that she knew the baby was connected to my sister and my sister should know where he is.

My girls are getting a growing knowlege of cause and effect. Very often, to my astonishment, they get cause and effect right, even if I can't remember having told them about how something works. Sometimes they get it wrong of course. Recently one evening it was very windy and the girls were a little uneasy at bedtime hearing the howling outside the house. A hadn't eaten much dinner, and at bedtime she said to me "Mummy when that wind is blowing it makes my tummy so hungry!"
(Yeah the classic rookie mistake - causation vs correlation!)

M loves to classify things. When we started to put a more sensible bedtime routine in place this year (i.e., an actual bedtime routine), we went through a phase where I would sit by her bed and she would ask me the same questions every night, starting with the names of her cousins and aunts and uncles and who was married to whom, who was parent to whom, and who lived with whom. Her current questions go through the days of the week and what routine we follow on each particular day. Obviously these things comfort her, and are also a little bonding bedtime ritual for us, but she also takes a lot of pleasure in learning these things, then moving on to the next phase of questions once she has mastered them. (Though these days, AT LAST, we are able to kiss them good night and leave the room within a few minutes instead of the hour this took at the beginning).

Last weekend I spent some time with my girls at my mum's place babysitting my sister's baby. He is a beautiful laid-back boy, always very happy and very interested in everything around him. As he gazes at various objects you can almost see wheels turning in his head, a slight frown of concentration on his brow. When you hold him and talk to him he gazes right in your eyes and when you sing he errupts into smiles and gurgles. It is definitely a form of communication. M was fascinated with him and spent a lot of time talking and laughing with him, and as she moved around the room he watched her intently, interest and expectation all over his face.

It's a wonderful wonderful world...

Betting on the Federal Election Vs. Following the Opinion Polls

The Australian Federal election is still undecided with each party on 72 seats and 4 independents about to decide the "winner". (Poisoned chalice that it will be).
Interestingly throughout all this "uncertainty" the stock market hasn't skipped a beat. People are saying this is because there is no real uncertainty because the vote is between two parties with very similar policies (or similarly unknown policies); or each party offers some good and some bad for business so each is cancelling the other out. Or as more than one radio commentator has put it, it appears we don't need a government at all...

What's been interesting has been the rise of the "betting market". You can bet on anything in Australia, and for the last few weeks the betting in the election outcome has been tracked as keenly as the opinion polls. In fact more keenly, as there is a general belief that the betting market provides a more accurate predictor than the polls.
Why is this?
Today according to SportingBet the odds are $1.45 on the Coalition and $2.65 on Labor. The "market" is "pricing" the Coalition to win.

Why would betting odds be more accurate than opinion polls? The theories go:
  • bets are placed by insiders in the know
  • people lie in opinion polls but not with their betting money
  • predictive markets with two choices tend to mirror a "mean average" result which mirrors reality, where the beliefs of the participants are evenly spread out, and the participants are betting to win
The last theory, if true, would mean the current election situation - voting split just about down the middle, and lots of people betting - would certainly favour a predictive market. So perhaps the betting markets are especially accurate this time because of the nature of this particular election.

For more - and better informed - information on the nature and accuracy of predictive markets see Wikipedia at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prediction_market


ADDENDUM, two weeks later: Labor finally won, and there has been less talk lately about the accuracy of the betting markets! This was a uniquely weird election though, so hard to say.

Aug 29, 2010

When science is diluted... or just wrong

If you live in Australia you will know that for the last 20 years it has been a crime or at least a horrific sin againt society, health and right thinking to be outdoors for any length of time without being covered head to foot in 30+ sunscreen and a hat - and that's just at nighttime!
We have been told to wear sunscreen every day regardless of sunshine or temperature, and to avoid being in the sun between 11 and 3. (That puts rather a dampener on most summertime activities.  On the other hand it's a good excuse to stay inside days over 35 degrees if you are heat intolerant like me).
Earnest advice from most quarters has been advising for so long that the sun is unhealthy and dangerous, that most of the extreme advice above has been accepted more or less without question.
But the truth is rarely at the extremes. (I had written "never" but that's an extreme...)

Now it turns out that Australia is experiencing an increase in cases of rickets, with a University of Melbourne study finding significant numbers of people in its study to be vitamin D deficient, and the Paediatric Surveillance Unit finding nearly 1300 Australian children under 15 develop rickets each year.
Rickets.
In a first world country, in the twenty-first century.
Rickets!
Because, it seems, people have taken to heart the very strong, long-standing, scary and persistent advice to stay out of the sun, to the point where they or their children are not getting enough vitamin D.

Yes we know that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and no one wants to go back to the days when I was a kid, when we would all get so sunburnt every summer it was a regular evening activity to peel each others' skin off our backs, and you'd graduate each summer with a few more freckles and a redder nose than last year. But why do we go from one extreme to the other?
Why does the general wisdom on what's healthy and what's not seem to do back-flips and see-saws between different positions, when logic would say that a middle ground must be best?

We know that scientific findings are always being challenged and extended, modified, or overturned, but in the areas of health and well-being the changes are dizzying. Usually the blame is laid with the media for watering down or sensationalising scientific findings, or science outfits after funding publicising their work prematurely or following a popular angle. These things are a factor. Is there something more?
For some reason we don't seem to be able to get a handle on the most basic aspects of what's good for us and how much of things we need (such as sunshine).

Weight and nutrition are other ones. How much meat should you eat? How much dairy? Should you eat dairy at all? I remember a comedian years ago saying "Here is a question you cannot answer. Milk: good or bad?" It was funny. It was true. Years later we still cannot answer it, officially. But unofficially, inside most people's heads, the answer is obvious: good, in moderation.

Here are some other bits of common wisdom, all derived from valid scientific studies, where some part of the finding has been stripped out and repeated for years until it has become something most of us accept as truth - until the next study, some time in the next 2-10 years, flips it on its head.

Drink at least two litres of water a day and more in summer.
Thirst often masquarades as hunger; if you think you feel hungry you may actually be thirsty.
Obesity leads to cancer, heart disease and diabetes and is a huge cost on the health system.
Raw food is better for you than cooked food [and yet humans have been cooking food for millenia].
Organic vegetables are better than intensively farmed vegetables [and you know what, they probably are. But seriously with 7 billion people, what are we going to do].
A glass of red wine a day promotes longevity.
Blueberries, broccoli and others are superfoods which contain antioxidants which cleanse the body and flush out toxins.
A Mars a day helps you work rest and play. Just kidding - that one did not come from a scientific study. But it was acceptable as an advertising jingle for a long time, hard as that is to believe now.

I have just realised everything I have listed here pertains to nutrition.
One of the key obsessions of our time, and one of the worst areas for yo-yoing advice in pop science.
Much of the stuff we read or are told is from preliminary or incomplete studies and confuses correlation with causation.
Here is a good example.
For some time now it has been said that being overweight hinders women from falling pregnant, and the reason was possibly something to do with the way fat cells interfered with hormones.
Then another study was done, and this time it seemed people spoke to the women or observed their behaviour. Turns out the reason for lower pregnancy rates is actually that overweight women are self-conscious about their bodies and have sex less often.
Like, DER.
How often do you read these "latest findings" and feel angry? How often do you feel cynicism, or fear, or depression or despair? Do you think "Not this old thing again" or "Wow, that doesn't sound right, but I guess those guys know...". Or do you think "Oh no! How will I fit this one in too?" or "Bloody hell, what are we meant to be doing this year then?" Or do you let it all pass over your head and just get on with your life? (Easier said than done).

As the classic - and perenially true - wisdom says: Moderation in all things.

Aug 11, 2010

Work projects done? Check. Shopping and cooking? Check. Time with family? Check. Nervous Breakdown? Check!

Okay, time to be honest.
I started this blog for a few reasons: to get back into practice at writing, give myself an outlet for ideas and creativity, psych myself up to become a "real" writer, and to put together some stuff to provide a viewpoint of a mother who also works full time. Everything in the culture at the moment seems to be about women working part-time or spending their children's preschool years at home. Both options are great, but the commentary and assumptions contained in most of the written stuff I see often don't fit my life. There is seemingly NOTHING about or by women working full time and how they parent and how they cope.
I know there are plenty of women doing this. They are all just too busy to write articles!
However.
Logically knowing something and remaining positive about it are two different things.
It's all too easy to get a bit down and start believing you're in a tiny minority of women breadwinners and full-time working mothers.  I know, boo hoo! I'm not carting water home from a village well, right?
Still - it can get hard.
So I wanted to try and source, and write, some stuff about and for the full-time-working mother, to put a positive and helpful slant on a lifestyle that few portray positively. I do believe there are plenty of women out there living this life who are happy with it, achieving well and simply ignoring the rubbish we sometimes see in the paper and hear from well-meaning people about work, childhood, daycare and the like.
But it has taken me a long time to reconcile myself to how I'm living, and I have not got my own balance right.
I am currently on 10 days' sick leave from work, due to stress and exhaustion. I could use longer, but this time has calmed me and I have booked a 2 week family holiday in November which will tide me over to the end of the year.
After that - new year new job new life...

Aug 10, 2010

Schools

Hmm, what to do?
Having grown up attending local government schools and being big believers in public schools, we have already decided our kids will be attending some sort of local government school.
I also believe in the general idea of "good enough" and that local, close-to-home is the most important criterion for a primary school, so kids are close to friends, feel connected with their community, and are not sapped by commutes every day.
But what do you do when the local school gets "mixed reviews" to put it mildly?
How good does "good enough" have to be?
At what point does a better school outweigh the disadvantages of having to travel further and kids not having friends round the corner?

Our local school: pro's:
  • ten minutes' walk away
  • small, friendly
  • very diverse
  • nice colour uniforms which don't need ironing
  • has a new principal who is making changes and concentrating on data/internet, maths, and encouraging local kids to ride bikes to school
  • our neighbors' kids went there and they were happy with it (if not ecstatic)
  • NAPLAN results on MySchool website seem good (so what's the problem?)
  • before and after-school care the most convenient hours of the 3 schools we've seen (we will need this 2-3 days a week)
Our local school: con's:
  • I have heard from 3 sources now (including a teaching student who just did placement there) that it's not a very good school, grades are not good, teachers are not the best, etc.
  • when we visited today it looked fine except the teachers we saw and the kids we saw in a couple of the classes didn't seem as "engaged" as we saw in other schools (but other classes we saw looked fine)
  • does religious education; then again, no harm in kids having exposure to this as it's part of the culture etc - I can always undermine it from the sidelines the way our mum did for us! (thank you mum)
  • small grounds - but is this such a problem?
  • most of the teachers seem to have been there a long time
I really value the idea of a local school, and I like the fact it has a new principal who is making some changes. Do we take the gamble and go with this one?
Unfortunately we didn't get to speak to the principal; I will do some "research" (i.e., Google searches) and see what we come up with, and see if we can make an appointment to talk with him soon.
I am also comparing our local school to two other schools we have seen which seem FANTASTIC but are further away; one of them, though still in our suburb, is a good 15 min drive away against traffic.
And of course, six years of school is a long time - a lot can and does change within individual schools over the course of six years. Teachers and principals come and go, and the national "education revolution" is bringing changes that should improve all schools.

Sigh. I did not intend to make this a difficult decision. It was always going to be "the local school".
Ah well, we shall see.

Aug 9, 2010

Smug List / Crap List

This is an idea floated by Mia Freedman, author of the wonderful blog Mama Mia - LOVE her, this blog is like a magazine without the silly bits (horoscopes etc). Mia’s suggestion is for more mothers to share those two secret lists they hold in their hearts about how they raise their children: the Smug List (things they know they do well) and the Crap List (things they’re ashamed of or feel bad about). Naturally everyone’s Crap List is longer than their Smug List. The Crap List is the best because reading someone else’s makes you feel better about your own.


So in honour of all that, here are my own lists.


SMUG LIST

1. I ate very sensibly during pregnancy and only gained 14 kilos, even carrying twins (You see, I preferred to put on an extra 15 kilos AFTER the babies were born).

2. My girls were carried to term (2 weeks early for twins = to term), and were a good size and healthy. (Though I know this is actually called “luck”).
 
3. I have always prepared nutricious, balanced and varied meals for my children and model good eating by eating the same foods with them, being enthusiastic about the meals, and we all enjoy our vegies.
 
4. I play word games, sing, dance, do nursery rhymes and read and make up stories.
 
5. I always took my kids for walks from a young age even if it was cold, we just rugged up.

6. Our days follow routines that the girls know and like, and we don't try and cram in too much on weekends.
 
7. We are teaching the girls their "heritage" language in a relaxed and gradual way without putting pressure on them, and using fun things like songs to do it.
 
8. I think I strike a good balance between getting the girls to help with things like packing up and  just letting them play and have fun and not being too strict about it.
 
 
CRAP LIST
 
1. Other than walking or going to the park, I don't do physical stuff very much - very few outdoor games, football, etc
 
2. We've never taken them camping or to the snow
 
3. We have been a bit slack with swimming lessons; luckily, school starts next year with swimming lessons built in.
 
4. My kids tell me whenever they ask me to come to them or help them with something my response is always "Okay, in a minute..."  They also know and use the phrase "You're giving me a headache!"
 
5. We watch DVDs way more than we read books together.

6. Every Saturday morning I leave the girls with cartoons on TV while I read the paper and have a coffee.
 
7. I sometimes finish my kids' sentences for them - very bad, trying to stop
 
8. I have worked way too late on more than the odd occasion, and not been home early enough to enjoy my kids before bedtime.
 
9. When I am tired and over-worked I get mad too easily and I sometimes yell when I can't get the girls to do what I want. Taking steps to avoid this these days.
 
10. We have been hopeless at establishing good bedtimes - see post here on same. Hopefully getting better now.
 
11. I haven't completed any photo albums - not even the baby album.
 
12. I bought the Lady Gaga CD on a whim (without vetting it first) because my 4-year-old girls love her, then had to try and stop them singing "I want to ride on your disco stick..."

 
One could go on...

Some Beauty

A bit of beauty to get us through the day -
These were taken at Bright, in Victoria, in May during autumn.



Post Mortems

Here are some quotes that have appeared in the news media which may be familiar:

“Clearly, there should have been a red flag ...”

"This should never have happened."

"MI5 let terrorists slip through the net."

"There was a failure to connect the dots."

I've been thinking a lot about this as it is very much a feature of our times. It seems to be something most people accept is of limited use or even a waste of time, but which is somehow required until we come up with something better.
I am talking about the process that occurs after a disaster or near-disaster whereby a lot of criticism and analysis goes on, some blame is apportioned and lessons are supposedly learned for the future.
I am not talking about systemic problems where blame is warranted, such as cases of beaurocratic malaise, bad leadership, corporate wrong-doing or horrible incompetence.  I am talking about those disasters or events which everyone secretly suspects could not have been prevented but which in hindsight look like they could have been, and therefore everyone agrees to agree that they SHOULD have been prevented - ergo, the fact that they weren't means someone must be to blame.

We can all think of examples -
- the US media and politicians (especially the senate) castigating the CIA and FBI after any attempted terrorist attack, as if it should be possible to thwart every single one;
- some of the post-GFC analysis castigating the behaviour of investors or investment banks believing house prices/stock prices "would keep rising forever" (which by the way, no one believed. Everyone knew the reckoning was coming. But no one knew quite when...);
- to some extent, the analysis following the Victorian bushfires of Black Saturday, February 2009. A horrific event, and yes, there do appear to have been some leadership and process problems, but perhaps also a once-in-30-years full-scale disaster which no one could have managed effectively.

On a smaller scale, this happens in the corporate world too, driven I think by the growth of this process in the media. It's made everyone terrified of not being "proactive" or of being "complacent".
At my workplace after every loss or "near loss" (being the ones we quantify as such), we are required to produce a "post-mortem", a process about which I am ambivalent. I don't completely oppose them but think most of them are misguided, don't give any real benefit and give a false sense of security that we are bolstering ourselves against future errors. This is because, where day to day control management is very strong and effective (as ours is), the events that cause grief tend to be "out of the box" zingers or once-in-a-year process failures. You can't really "learn from" them, because (a) they are one-off events which could not be foreseen and won't likely recur, or (b) humans tend to act erratically under stress and while it's always possible to improve process and management style, you can't prevent mistakes.

However, it's hard to argue the "anti" case without sounding like a slacker or a whinger.  This is because there are always one or two points that come out of the post-mortem that seem reasonable and where it feels like a general lesson can be applied, even if you don't accept that the error could have been prevented.
The problem is, there is no possible way to actually prevent the kind of errors that occur. They are not systemic failures but moments where individuals or teams have "failed" to act a certain way in a time of extreme pressure or stress or where information was flying from ten different directions.
Sure it's always possible to point to a behavioural or procedural improvement - such as, "when something new is happening and the stakes are high, we should pull back for ten minutes and round-table with other teams to ensure everyone is operating under the right assumption/same strategy/etc". No one can disagree with that. Also no one can argue that we actually did this or that it would have been wrong to do it - so it seems like this is a lesson we should learn from and accept the validity of the post-mortem exercise.
But the difficulties in applying this in future to prevent any similar problems lie in (1) recognising the event in the moment it's happening [as next time won't look like this time] and (2) knowing when action now or pulling back is the more appropriate [as the answer won't be known until we get it wrong].
In the absence of systemic problems, there are three general problems with the "post mortem":
1 - No matter how tight a ship you run or how good your operations and controls, at some point someone will stuff up. Anlaysing who and how afterwards does not guarantee anything in future, because next time it will be something and someone else. "The human element" in other words; there will always be an element of error

2 - Hindsight is 20-20. Something happens. Something else happens. A lot of other things are happening at the same time around these two things. The two things are related - one leads to the other. Some of the other things appear to be related that are not, or create more noise at the time. Afterwards it may appear the development was "obvious", that there were "red flags" and a "failure to connect the dots" - but however obvious it looks afterwards, there are some events that just do not stand out at the time. Even the participants can forget this afterwards.

3 - Unexpected things can happen which were not possible to predict or guard against, such as an out-of-the-box system bug. As these events are "one-offs", the lessons you learn from them are not applicable to future events - other than as a general lesson to beware of one-off events. (And this is always in mind during a project anyway).

Some good comments on this same theme can be found by:

Aug 2, 2010

Work-Life Balance and Plasma TVs

Article in The Age online yesterday:
http://www.theage.com.au/national/life-balance-still-not-working-20100731-110pg.html

My reaction reading this article, as to most others on this theme, was "yeah that's me". Paradoxically when reading these articles (which I devour, though they offer no solutions!) is at once deflation that the "no work-life balance" lifestyle is still the norm, and comfort that I'm not the only one.  It can be hard at times to remember that you're not the only woman out there working full-time while every other mother is at home or working part-time.

(Yes, it's a "first-world problem", and not the worst thing in the first world by a long shot. But please a little slack - this is the blogosphere after all).

But what dismayed me when reading this article was all the comments afterwards. Like all comments after an opinion piece they were forthright, accusatory, bitter and rude. As always, the participants end up slanging off each other. As always, after a while someone comes in conciliatory or attempting a compromise which unleashes defensive replies or a new round of slanging off... So far so usual.  (Really you should just read the opinion pieces and not all the comments afterwards!) But what was dispiriting was the number of people who commented basically that people who work are greedy and selfish and want wealth at the expense of nurturing their families.
Are we really still in that place?
Still??

Okay - so in the extremely unlikely event that any of those people will read this comment, I will explain how this thing works, with working and childcare and cash.

Some people have to work because of circumstance, even if they have small children.
These people love and cherish their children and want the best for them.
Their children are as happy and as well-adjusted as other children.
Not everyone who is working and paying off a mortgage has bought a mini-mansion.
Not everyone who is working is high-flying their way through a top-tier career.
The people in top-tier careers are working those jobs because they are the jobs they know and are good at - just as we all do the best job we can get for the hours we need to work.
There is not a simple equation of giving up paid work meaning giving up luxuries or giving up a glamorous career. The couple who sacrifice one person's work, or someone's career, to provide a stay-at-home parent are very strapped for cash; they see the working parents going out for coffee or buying something expensive and they think "Well if they just gave up that, they wouldn't have to work."
It's not like that.
In the situation they are witnessing, the dynamic is actually this:
Both parents need to work to pay the mortgage and bills. Neither parent is earning enough to cover these expenses singly. But with the combined salary, after expenses and daycare there is a little discretionary cash available. This is one of the advantages of the arrangement - as every arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages.

Believe me, before returning to work after 8 months' maternity leave, I sat with notepads and calculators and spreadsheets and did every sum you can think of, taking into account bills if at home, bills if out of the house working, benefits, tax incentives, salary, daily expenses while working vs daily expenses while home, part-time work, full-time work, etc.
If I could have stayed at home longer, I would have.

There were also things I was not willing to sacrifice - not because I am selfish but because I trust the cost-benefit analysis in my head. We were not about to sell our house and rent, or try to live with one car. I know people do this, but it would not have been right for us; the stress or added logistical difficulties would not have outweighed the benefit (for us). Every family sacrifices some things and draws the line at those they don't believe are of benefit - every family.

Until recently I used to say "and we don't own a plasma TV thank you very much!" - but I can no longer say that, exactly (it's LCD not plasma). But give me a break, we go digital next year, and prices have dropped.

So please - everyone - a little understanding and respect for our fellow parents. Whether working full-time, part-time, or not at all, the good parents and good-enough parents are all the same: making choices, sacrificing some things and enjoying others, doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt, for the benefit of the children they love.
And don't most of us do a pretty good job?

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