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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We are up in arms about Libya but what about the world's largest women's prison?

"The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property‹either as a child, a wife, or a concubine must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men."
Winston Churchill

In an article on the liberal website Minbar Al-Hiwar Wal-'Ibra, reformist Saudi journalist and human rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar described Saudi Arabia as "the world's largest women's prison." She added that unlike real prisoners, Saudi women have no prospect of ever being released, since throughout their life, they are under the control of a male guardian - their husband, father, grandfather, brother or son.

Huweidar and other women activists recently launched a campaign against the Saudi Mahram Law, which forbids women to leave their home without a male guardian. She told the Kuwaiti daily Awan that the campaign, whose slogan is "treat us like adult citizens or we leave the country," was officially launched at the King Fahd Bridge, connecting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the women demanded to cross the border without a guardian.

The following are excerpts from Al-Huweidar's article:

Prisoners Can Be Released From Prison - But Saudi Women Can't

"The laws of imprisonment are known all over the world. People who commit a crime or an offense are placed in a prison cell... where they serve their sentence. [When they complete it], or get time off for good behavior, they are released... except in cases [where a person is sentenced] to life imprisonment or death. In Saudi Arabia, there are two additional ways to get out of prison early: by learning the Koran or parts of it by heart... or by getting a pardon from the king on the occasion of a holiday or a coronation - after which the prisoner finds himself free and can enjoy life among his family and loved ones.

"However, none of these options exist for Saudi women - neither for those who live behind bars [i.e. who are actually in prison] nor for those who live outside the prison walls. None are ever released, except with the permission of their male guardian. A Saudi woman who committed a crime may not leave her cell when she has finished serving her sentence unless her guardian arrives to collect her. As a consequence, many Saudi women remain in prison just because their guardians refuse to come and get them. The state pardons them, but their guardians insist on prolonging their punishment.

"At the same time, even 'free' women need the permission of their guardian to leave their home, their city or their country. So in either case, the woman's freedom is [in the hands of] her guardian."

Prison Inmates Are Stripped Of All Authority Over Their Lives - And So Are Saudi Women

"As is customary in prisons throughout the world, inmates are stripped of all authority and sponsorship over their own [lives]. All their movements are monitored and controlled by the jailor. The prison authorities decide their fate and see to their needs, until the day of their release. This is also the usual situation of the Saudi woman. She has no right to make decisions, and may not take a single step without the permission of her jailor, namely her guardian. But in her case the term [of imprisonment] is unlimited.

"The Saudi Mahram Law turns the women into prisoners from the day they are born until the day they die. They cannot leave their cells, namely their homes, or the larger prison, namely the state, without signed permission... Although Saudi women are deprived of freedom and dignity more than any other women [in the world], they suffer all these forms of oppression and injustice in bitter silence, [and with an air of] suppressed anger and death-like dejection. Saudi women are peaceful in the full sense of the word, but so far the Saudi state has not appreciated their [noble] souls, their patience, and their quiet resistance..."

"The Clerics, Whom the State Has Authorized to Oppress the Women, Regard Their Silence And Patience As [a Sign of] Mental Backwardness"

"The clerics, whom the state has authorized to oppress the women, regard their silence and patience as [a sign of] mental backwardness and emotional weakness... Thus they have [allowed themselves] to increase the 'slumber' of oppression over the decades... They suffocate [the women] in all areas of life by means of oppressive laws [enforced by] the religious police, who follow them everywhere as if they were fugitives from justice. The laws pertaining to women have turned them into objects on which sick men can release their violent and sexual [urges].

"These Saudi clerics deny the Saudi women every opportunity to find a job, get an education, travel, receive medical treatment, or [realize] any [other] right, no matter how trivial, without the permission of their jailor, that is, their guardian - [all] based on oppressive fatwas sanctioned by the male [leaders] of the state."

Our "Mothers and Grandmothers...Enjoyed Much Greater Freedom... Saudi Arabia Has Turned Itself Into the World's Largest Saudi Prison"

"[It is interesting to note that] the mothers and grandmothers [of today's Saudi women] had all these rights, and enjoyed much greater freedom [than today's women] - as did all Muslim women in past eras, such as the wives of the Prophet. [None of these women] were subjected to this oppressive Mahram Law, which is not based on the tenets of Islam and in fact has nothing to do with Islam.

"How blessed is Saudi Arabia, the humane kingdom, which has turned itself into the world's largest women's prison. [This is a land] which permits any man, without preconditions, to take the role of jailor, and which has turned its women into prisoners for life, when they have done nothing to deserve it."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Can it be contained?

Completely out of the blue, a couple from Canberra walked onto the property, asking me whether it was still for sale. At the right price, certainly!

They had bid for another waterfront property in this lane three years ago but got gazumped at the last moment. They have since been looking at other properties in this area, most recently at this one along Runnyford Road. It is in their price range but they find its location a little isolated and would prefer something like "Riverbend".

After their return to Canberra, they sent me this email, "Thank you so much for the time you took to show us around your lovely property yesterday. We will discuss our options with our accountant and contact you early next week."

Well, I won't hold my breath but if it does come to a sale, I also have to consider my options. What will I do with all the things accumulated over the past ten to twenty years? Should I walk out with just a suitcase as I did so many times during my wandering years, or should I buy a 20ft. shipping container and at least keep my huge collection of books and other personal mementos?

Buying my own 20ft. container seems a convenient solution as I could gradually fill it with all my stuff. At a length of 6.06m, a width of 2.44m, and a height of 2.59m, it has a storage capacity of 33 cubic-metres. And it can be purchased with optional extras such as a proper sidedoor and windows to give it many other uses at its final destination --- wherever that may be!

Let's see what happens next week!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Douglas Adams' Guide to Australia

The author of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" gives an amazing insight into Australia:

Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the Bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the girting sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the “Great Australian Bight” proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can’t spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.

The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even the spiders won’t go near the sea. Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on), under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.

Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the Odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weight lifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (Road Trains) have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes a symmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described. The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a Wombat hole, the Wombat will feel the disturbance and think “Ho! My hole is collapsing!” at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the Wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don’t talk about it much.

At this point, we would like to mention the Platypus, estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter’s tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all ‘typical’ Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.

The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: Some time around 40,000 years ago, some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man’s proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories. Then, around 200 years ago, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent, with a few deranged and stupid people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in Autumn (failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died. About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since. It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilised culture they say) – whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick. Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on Extended Holiday and became Australians.

The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories.

Be warned. There is also the matter of the beaches. Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill just from the pain) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk.

As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly and look for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.

Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the ‘Grass is Greener on the other side of the fence’ syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land “Oz”, “Godzone” (a verbal contraction of “God’s Own Country”) and “Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth.” The irritating thing about this is they may be right.

There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though. Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer. Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and Politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don’t care too much about either) but Sport is a minefield. The only correct answer to “So, howdya’ like our country, eh?” is “Best {insert your own regional swear word here} country in the world!”. It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will ‘adopt’ you on your first night, and take you to a pub where Australian Beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul-taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and waive off any legal difficulties with “It’s his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub.”, to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.

Most Australians are now urban dwellers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.

Typical Australian sayings:

* “G’Day!”
* “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
* “She’ll be right.”
* “And down from Kosciusko, where the pine clad ridges raise their torn and rugged battlements on high, where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky.

And where, around the Overflow, the reed beds sweep and sway to the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide. The Man from Snowy River is a household word today, and the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

Tips to Surviving Australia:

* Don’t ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever. We mean it.
* The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.
* Always carry a stick.
* Air-conditioning.
* Do not attempt to use Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fist fight.
* Thick socks.
* Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.
* If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.
* Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore.

Both governments and diapers need to be changed often and for the same reason!

Yesterday's state elections in New South Wales have resulted in a historically huge win for the Liberal/National Party Coalition, with the Coalition winning 68 seats and Labor reduced to 22.

The biggest swing away from Labor was about 36 per cent in Bathurst and the party lost seats in its traditional strongholds of the Hunter Valley, Illawarra and Western Sydney. The defeat looks set to tip state Labor into the abyss of a political dark age, with dozens of MPs losing their seats.

One can only hope that this will be the beginning of the end for the Federal Labor Party and the end of the Australian welfare culture.

"I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little..."

So writes Somerset Maugham in The Gentleman in the Parlour. I, too, am tired of myself and "Riverbend". It's time to lose myself in some strange places and, in so doing, find myself.

As soon as the bathroom renovation is finished and the BHP buy-back safely behind me, I shall take the bus to Sydney, and from there the train to Brisbane, to board the Sunlander to Cairns. 1700km and 31 hours of contemplation, reading, sleeping, and fine dining and w(h)ining. Travel light, travel alone, travel by train!

The romamce of train-travel won't end there as I continue my travels on the Savannahlander and Gulflander all the way up to Karumba.

After a few days at Karumba, back to Cairns with Trans North Bus to hire a small car for a "pub crawl" across the Atherton Tablelands, from the Kuranda Hotel to Herberton's ROYAL HOTEL to the Club Hotel at Ravenshoe and the Tolga Hotel. Those small country pubs are thick with local characters and their tall tales.

Other than quaffing beers with the locals, I want to take in some of the local sights: historic Irvinebank, the Undara Lava Tubes, and Chillagoe.

Back down to the coast for a stop-over at the Babinda State Hotel to catch up with an old mate from my Thursday-Island-days, David Richardson, who has since retired in Babinda. Then Cairns again but not to stop - when you want to stop moving, you're dead - but merely to hand back the hire car as it's too boring and tiresome to drive on my own all the way up to Cooktown. Instead, I shall let my old friend Allan of Country Road Coachlines drive me there.

Perhaps I stop over at Mt Carbine which holds some old memories for me: back in 1977 the newly-opened Mt Carbine tungsten mine had offered me a job as an accountant. They had flown me down from Port Moresby for the interview but one look at the desolate landscape and one whiff of the dead kangaroos in the scrub told me there were better things in life than climbing the accountancy ladder at Mt Carbine. The mine closed in 1987 but has since been reopened by Icon Resources.

There's so much to do and see in tropical North Queensland that at the end of the trip I hope to be able to say as Somerset Maugham did, "I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The arrogance of political freaks who make rules for everyone except themselves

Thousands of investors have been hit hard by big tax penalties for contributing too much money to superannuation.

Today's Weekend Australian Financial review (page 2, Taxpayers lose appeal avenue) reports the case of a 65-year-old woman who received a $69,754 penalty notice after going over her contribution caps by - wait for it! - a mere $10.30 !

So there you have it: rape, pillage and burn but don't exceed your superannuation contribution limit even by a single cent!

(Trish Power also wrote about this daft tax regime in her SuperGuide SOAP BOX.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Zeitgeist indeed!

Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nature Coast Plumbing

After the Plumber-from-Hell came the Plumber-from-Heaven: Brett Fairbairn of Nature Coast Plumbing.

All the mistakes and omissions left behind by the Plumber-from-Hell, the unconnected kitchen hotwater, the greywater connection left undone, the not-properly-flushing new toilet pan, the wrong thermostat setting in the new hotwater system, the insecure wall-mounting of the vanity unit, and - most important of all - the non-existent cold-water connection to the vanity, all this the Plumber-from-Heaven fixed in just a few hours.

Which included the 'open-heart-surgery' he had to perform on the wall to fix the coldwater connection 'forgotten' by the Plumber-from-Hell but it was all done by Brett with such professional aplomb that I never felt it couldn't be fixed. Thank you, Brett Fairbairn, for being such a knowledgeable and hard-working plumber and thank you, Nature Coast Plumbing, for employing such an efficient and proficient tradesman!

Need a really good plumber?
Nature Coast Plumbing on 0407 924 889.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Anyone who thinks a joke about a plumber is funny hasn't had a tap replaced recently.

Wait for the Australian version starring my Plumber-from-Hell

I've really taken a bath on my bathroom renovation: I have paid out $22,000 so far (and counting!) and it's still not finished.

And my Plumber-from-Hell has just resigned!

Resigned? I should've sacked the b%^$%#@ when he pulled the 'spa-pump-in-the-living-room' trick on me two months ago!

To my total horror I have just discovered that the cold-water supply to the vanity is non-existent. No water! None! Zero! Zilch! Nada! Maybe the pipe inside the wall isn't even connected! I won't know what the full extent of the trouble is until we open up the already-tiled-wall again. What a mess!

I almost think that he had already discovered this latest problem and quit before I flipped. I mean, why else had he not connected the wastepipe from the vanity? The absence of a wastepipe had so far stopped me from testing the waterflow.

I have called in a real plumber for tomorrow to fix whatever can be fixed. Whatever cannot be fixed I will have to live with until I've taken my last bath.

In the meantime, I may send a copy of MONEY PIT to my Plumber-from-Hell - as soon as I have found out where he lives.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why we should be afraid - very afraid - of Julia Gillard's fantasies

We were given two highly instructive insights during the week into Julia Gillard's thinking on her carbon dioxide tax. It proved an extremely disturbing revelation.

The first came on the ABC's Q&A program on Monday. The second was her speech to the Don Dunstan Foundation in Adelaide..

The combination was particularly valuable. For while she might have "mispoke" on Q&A, the spontaneity better captured what she felt on the emotional level, genuinely or otherwise.

While the prepared speech gave us the considered, for want of a better word, substance on which the greatest change in the entire economic structure of Australia, bar none other in our 223 years of European settlement, was based, we were left with two alternatives.

If she actually believes the nonsense she spouted, spontaneously first and then with consideration aforethought, we have a leader with all the save-the-world enthusiasm and profound ignorance of a junior high school student.

And what would that say about the battalions of advisers on which she presumably relied? Or indeed, as in the joke about Maggie Thatcher, the sheep otherwise known as her cabinet colleagues?

If she doesn't believe the nonsense, we have a leader who is setting out to impose real pain on every Australian and cause serious damage to the national economy, for utterly no positive purpose.

I would suggest it is an inchoate mix of the two. That she actually believes we have to cut our emissions of carbon dioxide to save the planet. She knows it can make absolutely no difference. And she has a sort of vague expectation that we will emerge into some, literally, sunlit prosperous carbon-free future. All this was captured in her comments on China.

On Q&A she asserted that it was simply not true that we were the only ones moving to attack carbon pollution (sic). China was closing down a dirty coal-fired power-generation facility at the rate of every one to two weeks, she asserted. And it was putting up a wind turbine at the rate of one every hour, she added.

Read the rest of the story in the The Weekend Australian

Watch it before they censor it!

Friday, March 18, 2011

A geographical eponym ?

First it was the residents of the Greek island of Lesbos who began court action to stop gay women calling themselves lesbians.

Lesbians - that's residents of the Greek island of Lesbos - are fighting for exclusive right to the name.

Now a French court has banned a company set up by a descendant of King Louis XIV from selling luxury condoms described as from the southwestern town of Condom, the town's lawyer said on Wednesday.

The court in the nearby city of Bordeaux banned "the continued sale of condoms under the brand 'The Original Condom from Condom, France,'" said Caroline Lampre, lawyer for the picturesque town of 7,500.

"It is clear that the use of the name, the image and the renown of the town of Condom, without its knowledge, for entirely commercial ends (is) manifestly illicit," said the judge's ruling, seen by AFP.

French royal descendant Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon Parme and count Gil de Bizemont have been selling their "luxury eco-friendly" prophylactics mainly in the United States since 2009.

The company is headquartered in the medieval town although the contraceptives themselves are manufactured in rubber-rich Malaysia.

Condoms sell on the company's website for $2 (around 1.50 euros) a piece, although the site says they are not available in Condom itself or anywhere else in France.

The site says the two aristocrats "decided to introduce a new kind of 'sophisticated' condom that holds a 'je ne sais quoi'."

"Condoms protect everyone from disease, ours protect from tackiness," Bizemont says on the site.

The town brought the case after Condom Mayor Bernard Gallado learned about the condoms from media reports.

The river Baise (French slang for sex) runs through the popular tourist town which feared the opening of a condom boutique in Condom itself.

Condom is now going to bring a case to get The Original Condom brand banned, lawyer Lampre said.

Now a liitle town in Austria is getting into the act as well!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Will the sun rise again?

Earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear melt-downs in Japan, impending genocide in Libya, uprisings in the Arab Peninsula - it's time to play some music to take the mind off things. Even Winnie has joined in but the only music we can think of to fit the current state of the world is Wagner's Götterdämmerung which is a little hard to play on a four-string ukulele.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


From tales told in hashish dens came the Greek "Urban Blues" called "Rembetiko," which colorfully illustrate the story of modern Greece.

REMBETIKO, a unique and fascinating drama from Greece, uses a heart-wrenching story to explore rembetika music, a form of urban blues that was popular among the lower classes and social outcasts through much of the 20th century. Greek actress Sotiria Leonardou, who also co-scripted, stars as Marika, a rembetika singer whose family immigrated to Greece from Smyrna after the Turks pillaged the city in 1922. The family's hard life in the slums of Piraeas provides a colorful backdrop to explain the origins and meaning of rembetiko. Marika's rise as a singer parallels the political history of Greece, connecting the times to the music.

The movie retells the story of Greece, from 1920 to 1955: the national disaster in Asia Minor, the one million refugees who came to Greece, the World War II, the Nazi occupation, the Civil War. The tragedy and the glory of a nation during the century. A voyage to history of the first half of the 20th century, but also a voyage to the origins of rembetiko. Realistic and dreamy. An original Greek epic which takes me right back to the years 1984 and 1985 when I lived and worked in Piraeus where I spent my evenings in tavernas, twirling my Greek komboloi, drinking retzina, and listening to rembetika.

Nick, get yourself ready for a big movie night, your place or mine!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Only two big facts are known for certain: we are on a large spinning rock hurtling through space at about 67,000 miles an hour, and one day we'll die

"Was this the way it might end for all of us one day... sitting, watching the death of the world.

This was nature at its most overwhelming and deadly. An unarguable, unreasoning and fatal tide. A deadly surging force. Water, mud, wreckage. And somewhere in there, body after body: families, old, young, strong, ailing, vain, learned, dumb, no human accomplishment, skill or vanity could be proof against this sudden solid, liquid wall. All and everything hurled forward on the surge. Picked up like twigs.

And I wondered whether that might be how we would all go, ultimately. Glued to our screens taking in some unfolding ultimate horror in real time until we all faded to black, home after home crushed, or swamped, or razed while the last flickering beams of vision girdled a dying globe. Outliving us probably. A broadcast from nowhere, to no-one.

Weird thought. News helicopters aloft, still filming until at last there was nowhere to land, no base to return to. No fuel. Nothing. News crews ... the last men and women on earth.

But not this time of course. This was a horror isolated to Japan, we were safe; struck dumb, numbed by what we had seen, but safe at last to switch the channel when Friday night's vision slowed to a repeated show reel of deadly real-life horror. Cricket world cup. Night footy final. Life elsewhere went on.

Japan. Great chunks of it crushed. A gleaming industrialised, organised, clever, rich, resourceful chunk of the first world, humanity's finest swept away by the simple inextinguishable power of nature. The coiled energy of the planet itself, suddenly unleashed against... us.

None of our wealth or reason is enough to save us it seems when nature - either unbalanced or coolly in its cosmic stride - picks a time and place to run riot. Or just slip an inch or two this way or that. Or blow harder, rain heavier, grow warmer ... just vary a fraction from any of the small degrees that offer us home and comfort. The earth abideth forever. We may not.

Perhaps the weekend, with nuclear reactors poised on catastrophe and a death toll soaring, was too soon to learn from this experience, a horror still in its mad bloody throes. But then the lesson seemed so clear, so present: that natural force would have its day and never mind our feeble squabbles or yelps of protest.

Earthquakes have nothing to do with any of the hot button political issues that continue to touch on the planet's temper. But the past few days have given us a glimpse of possible consequences that might be wrought by the forces ranged either with or against us. Forces that will not be swayed by political point-scoring of bitter tribal contest.

The stuff that nature might sling us will simply be. Our words will be lost in the rush of mud, and fire, and wind, and death. What are we going to do about that? Would we change it if we could?" Source.

One final point: "The reconstruction of Japan will economically help the country and provide more demand for resources." Thus spake an eminent economist. You can see why economics is described as the dismal science.

(GDP only measures the effects of natural disasters on income and that makes the recovery look better than the initial impact. When a disaster hits, GDP falls due to lost income. But GDP doesn’t record the damage to assets such as homes and business premises (that damage would show up on the nation’s balance sheet). However, when people start spending to repair that damage – such as rebuilding their homes and buying new furniture and fittings – that spending boosts income and therefore is fully reflected in an increase in GDP.)

Time to read On the Beach again?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The curse of life

After having been through over 50 jobs in a dozen-or-more countries, I'm often asked how I did it. Well, embellishing my 'curriculum vitae' (Latin for "course of life") certainly helped.

Having (out-)lived all my financial fantasies, I am happy to share with my friends who are still hard at it this useful translator:

The CV Translator

Turned up day after day after ruddy day!Loyal. Self-motivated.
Took as many sickies as could get away with (but not as many as that job-shy Deb in Credit Control – you wouldn’t believe how many she takes !) and worked not a minute more than contractual hours. No way.Ruthless in maintaining a healthy work-life balance
Removed cellophane and put latest accounting magazine in for recyclingQuickly assimilates information. Effective decision maker. Strong green credentials.
Lifted head and grunted ‘alright ?’ to co-workers when asked ‘alright ?’ Occasionally varied response to ‘Not too bad’ or ‘Could be worse’Highly developed inter-personal and communication skills. Displays a positive attitude.
Able to rally a posse of negative whingers whenever the need arises – especially if it's to talk about ‘improvements’. Quick to volunteer the opinion that whatever it is it won't work.Effective leadership and motivational skills. Able to quickly assess key issues.
Sat at a pod of desks – following yet another reorganization - and took 6 months to find out names of the other 3 co-workers.Pro-active team player
Looked for any excuse to go off for a wander. Disappeared for hours on end.Well networked. Outgoing. Prefers face-to-face meetings and prepared to put the time in accordingly.
Found a dodgy screen saver recommended by a mate. Irritated colleagues with the latest really naff and crass ring-tones. Advanced IT skills. Embraces new technology
Managed 4 parallel endless e-mail conversations with mates: Rich in Accounts, Maggie in Marketing, Debbie – the fit one at a major customer you met last year - and that new bloke in HR – Kev - who seems a bit of a laugh. Once got Rich to burn you a copy of the latest Matrix DVD. Adept at multi-tasking. Communicates effectively at all levels. Customer focussed. Gets the best out of colleagues.
Sat in the corner in those pointless team ‘events’ occasionally muttering the same old negative, but not quite decipherable, remark Skilled and active participant in peer group meetings.
Permanent visitor to BBC Sport website, especially the footie tablesPrides himself on keeping up to date.
Always the first in the queue for lunch because your best mate's other half works in the kitchen and texts you. Wicked!Effective time manager. Well-networked.
Communicates anything contentious by e-mail. Presses ‘Send’ at 17:01 and is out of the office before either the little bombshell reaches its destination or the office doors have stopped swinging – like those of a two-bit saloon in some crazy one-horse town out West. Puts in the hours. Keeps superiors informed of major issues.
Begrudgingly helped move a stapler, hole punch and wastepaper bin from your old desk to your new following the floor-plan redesign to fit in Sally who’s moved down from Credit Control.Key player in major reorganisation
Stuffs chaotic wads of paper into bottom drawer at end of the day to reluctantly adhere to the clean desk policy the existence of which is, in your opinion, just more proof that the company is doomedMethodical and well-organised. Embraces change.
Told line manager in no uncertain terms what he could do with the data for his urgent report. Then ended up fudging it, again. (You're not missing the footie for nobody. No way.)Assertive. Prioritises and routinely meets deadlines. Delivers under pressure.
Accumulated vast reserves of stationery – especially those more ‘quality’ items - with a back-up maintained at home just in caseResourceful. Effective planner.
Reluctantly agreed to go on a few training courses – after pestering boss for ages that you never seem to get any training -as part of the annual PDP. After all, it's a chance to wangle a few days out of the office…..Looks to self-develop at every opportunity
Always ready and willing to help peers and superiors, 'but am a bit in the thick of it at present and will endeavour to look at it next week but more likely the week after – you know what it’s like!'Provides a ‘world-class’ service to customers
Unceasingly able to stretch out the task at hand to fill the weekEffective planner. Well-organised
Too busy to wash up mugs and tidy office kitchen area despite huge notice (in bold AND underlined) from the female members of the section requesting such Effective delegator. Always ensures works at the right level
Gets absolutely bladdered Friday night without fail. Most important date in the diaryDisciplined in maintaining a healthy work-life balance
First to moan to boss when Tim was promoted to Assistant Management Accountant without what seemed a fair and open process. Threatened to ‘take it all the way’– just like Julie did in Customer Services - if didn’t get above-average pay increment Assertive. Keeps technically up to date. Starter finisher.
Provided the lead by writing the initial witty comment or smutty inuendo in leaving cardsPopular. Good sense of humour. Provides leadership and guidance to subordinates, peers and - on occasions - superiors
Charges - and collects - interest on money lent to colleagues for lunchCommercially astute

Finally, be professionally dressed for the job interview:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Whoever you are: some evening take a step out of your house, which you know so well. Enormous space is near ..." Rilke

"Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent or praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe."

So begins "The Book Bag" by W. Somerset Maugham as the author equates the need for books to the addict's need for drugs. The narrator especially cannot conceive of why a traveller might venture out without a large supply of reading material at the ready. Having learned his lesson once while imprisoned by illness in a hill-town in Java without enough to read, he now carries a bag of books with him everywhere in his travels through colonial outposts.

I'm getting my own small collection of books together to read as a night-cap in the sleeper compartment of a train or in the small hours of a morning in an unfamiliar hotel room in Far North Queensland. And what better books to read than Thea Astley's whose writing oozes with North Queensland's sultry beauty and unique strangeness and its collection of misfits and prodigals from the south, hippies, drunkards, and outright "screwballs".

But reality beats fiction any time and the people one meets while travelling could easily fill another book. On buses, there is no escaping those who want to tell you their life stories. Then there are the bus captains who seem to be trained to be sit-down comics. There was one driver who used to say at every comfort stop, "Now don’t forget the number of the bus. Write it on the back of the person in front and don’t let them out of your sight."

Trains give you space and time for some inner travel as well but there's still the personality, the tension, the romance of all travel – of waiting-rooms and tea-rooms and the music of the rackety lurch.

"Take a step out of your house ... Enormous space is near ..."

Friday, March 11, 2011

In my days there, they worried about the four P's

... piss, pork, pornography and prostitution! Now it's social unrest!

Saudi police opened fire Thursday to disperse a protest in the section where minority Shiites live, leaving at least one man injured, as the government toughened its efforts to prevent a wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world from reaching the kingdom.

The rare violence raised concern about a crackdown ahead of planned protests after Friday prayers in different cities throughout the oil-rich kingdom. Violence there could reverberate through the world's markets because of the importance of Saudi oil exports.

It’s been a woeful night on Wall Street overnight and Middle East/North African concerns are mixing with economic data that indicates a slowing China. So could this be an end to the bull run or a buying opportunity?

This is why I think this will be another buying opportunity:

First, I don’t think the China story is about to end anytime soon.

Second, I think the Saudi Arabia issues will be resolved better than Egypt and Libya.

Third, doubters of the US recovery have been wrong for two years, and I’m not going to join them.

Finally, as one wag put it, “Even a charging bull needs to exhale occasionally.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

BATAVIA - a must-read !

Described by FitzSimons as "a true Adults Only version of Lord Of The Flies, meeting Nightmare On Elm Street," the story is set in 1629, when the pride of the Dutch East India Company, the Batavia, is on its maiden voyage en route from Amsterdam to the Dutch East Indies. The ship is already boiling over with a mutinous plot when, just off the coast of Western Australia, it hits a reef.

The Shipwreck of the Batavia combines in just the one tale the birth of the world's first corporation, the brutality of colonisation, the battle of good vs evil, the derring-do of sea-faring adventure, mutiny, ship-wreck, love, lust, blood-lust, petty fascist dictatorship, criminality, a reign of terror, murders most foul, sexual slavery, natural nobility, survival, retribution, rescue, first contact with native peoples and so much more.

While Commandeur Francisco Pelsaert decides to take the long-boat across 2000 miles of open sea for help, his second-in-command Jeronimus Cornelisz takes over, quickly deciding that 250 people on a small island is unwieldy for the small number of supplies they have. Quietly, he puts forward a plan to 40-odd mutineers how they could save themselves, kill most of the rest and spare only a half-dozen or so women, including his personal fancy, Lucretia Jansz - one of the noted beauties of Holland - to service their sexual needs. A reign of terror begins, countered only by a previously anonymous soldier, Wiebbe Hayes, who begins to gather to him those who are prepared to do what it takes to survive . . . hoping against hope that the Commandeur will soon be coming back to them with the rescue yacht.

It all happened long ago and is far and away the greatest story in Australia's history, if not the world's.

Read the book's preface.

Conflict of Interest

I learnt my lesson in the last big mining boom of the 70s which left me with empty pockets and a pile of worthless share certifcates. The Kambaldas and VAMs and, more recently, PASMINCOs of this world have left a sour taste in my mouth. All I am holding now are the bluest of the blue-chips, with just a minuscule sprinkling of the odd hopeful such as rare earth in Australia and copper in Botswana (and a few Bougainville Copper shares for sentimental reasons).

However, for a bit of light reading, I still subscribe to a speculative newsletter which doesn't cost me much while giving me a lot of entertainment. Yesterday's edition, released after the stock market had closed, had another 'hot tip' which, ever so predictably, meant that said stock jumped 28% this morning.

I sometimes wonder whether those newsletter-publishers make their money from their subscription rates or from the shares they write up!

Of course, the newsletter always comes with the footnote, "Although it would be enjoyable to invest alongside you, it is more important to me to avoid any conflicts of interest. Therefore I own no shares in any of the companies currently recommended."

Far be it from me to suggest anything untoward, but I do notice that it doesn't say, "I and my family and my friends and my drinking-mates down the pub own no shares in any of the companies currently recommended."

Hunting the wild pineapple

Aerial view of Kuranda

"Take a patch of coastline and its hinterland, put it just north of twenty and one hundred and forty-six east, make it hot and wet and sprinkle it with people who feel they've been forgotten by the rest of the country - and don't really care. Where there aren't hills and unswimmable water, plant cane. There's this largish place called Reeftown on the coast and in the purple hills behind there are smaller towns that grow tobacco and maize and stories that ripen and wither and repeat themselves as cautions against being human. Human! Ah! There's the rub! It's not the dreaming that matters, as the poet insisted. He couldn't have been more wrong. It's the reality that rubs. And rubs. And rubs.

Everything is very green here. Very blue and very green, and the depth of its coloration whacks out this response, not only from me but from the rest of us, who, having chosen, ripen and wither and repeat ourselves in stories. Which are re-lived by others. Over. Over. Maybe it's only a second-rate Eden with its rain-forest and waterfalls, its mountain-climbing burrower of a railway and a sea-bitten rind of coast - a kind of limbo for those who've lost direction and have pitched a last-stand tent."

So begins Thea Astley's book Hunting the Wild Pineapple, in which she describes what is quite obviously the little rain-forest village of Kuranda and the Atherton Tablelands. And, of course, "Reeftown" is Cairns and the "mountain-climbing burrower of a railway" is the scenic Cairns-to-Kuranda trainride.

Thea Astley's description dates back to the 70s when Kuranda attracted hundreds of alternative-lifestyle drop-outs. Then the place was awash with unwashed people with no regular employment who in their desperate search for work had been to every surf-spot on the eastern seaboard before settling at Kuranda which was sufficiently remote for work demands never to be made. They'd spent their time watching the sun come up in the morning and tracking its progress all day across the sky while twanging their out-of-tune guitars. Each fortnight, responding like children trained by the Jesuits to the vestiges of ritual, they would hike in to Cairns to pick up their dole cheques.

The few survivors of that era give Kuranda a certain bohemian feel even today although it is mainly a tourist destination now. For three hours each day it is mayhem with tourists coming in by the thousand on coaches, on the "mountain-climbing burrower of a railway", and on the skyrail cablecar. The heart of town becomes a hive of activity with markets, restaurants, shopping and wildlife parks and then, all of a sudden everyone leaves and the place looks like the final reel of "On the Beach."

Over the past ten years I have visited Kuranda several times and even toyed with the idea of settling there - if I ever sold up down here. It's a beautiful part of the world, tucked away in its small pocket of rain-forest, with the tropical coastline just a short drive down the range and the lush and green Tablelands spreading out behind it.

Maybe it's only a second-rate Eden but I like it!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stay tuned !

Texas Dave and yours truly

Just came back from a drive to Moruya where we visited Texas Dave's Planet TX-Music Store to buy another cute ukulele.

The ukulele was made famous by the Hawaiians who, having previously practised cannibalism - to wit, Captain Cook - , turned to playing this tiny four-string 'guitar' and called it 'ukulele' which, very loosely translated, means 'Music to eat your friends by'.

P.S. We also dropped in at our favourite shop, Vinnies, where I picked up a few more books to allay my abibliophobia: Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery, Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Thea Astley, John Mortimer's unforgettable autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage, and Michael Crichton's Travels.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Size does matter

BHP's gigantic $5 BILLION off-market buy-back will be conducted as a tender. Essentially shareholders compete to be involved by bidding at a discount to the market price.

They are prepared to sell their shares for less than the market price because when they are paid for their shares they are deemed to have received a combination of a (small) capital amount and a franked dividend. Thus they not only get franked income but a significant capital loss to set against profits elsewhere.

That makes the buy-backs particularly attractive to shareholders with zero or low tax rates, like superannuation funds or charities, and quite unattractive to shareholders on the top marginal tax rate.

Some critics refer to off-market buy-backs as taxpayer-funded rorts. They are not that. Companies accumulate franking credits because they have paid tax. The objective of the dividend imputation system was to remove the previous double-taxation of profits at the corporate and individual levels.

In fact the existence of the franking credits says that Australian company taxes have been paid and all the buy-back does is bring forward the ability to use excess credits and deploy them more efficiently and to the benefit of the entire shareholder base that, given they are an asset of the company, owns them.

With my superfund being in pension phase and thus exempt from income tax, the BHP buy-back is highly attractive since all - bar a small capital amount of 28 cents - is deemed to be a fully franked dividend.

This franking credit, being 30/70th of the buy-back price (less 28 cents), is a 42.85% "bonus", which is well in excess of the discount of 10% to 14% at which BHP proposes to buy back the shares. Indeed, it translates into an immediate share price gain of at least 28.85% or, at most, 32.85%.

For more information, read the Buy-Back Booklet and to do your own sums, use this Tax Calculator.

I intend to tender all the fund's BHP shares into the buy-back; however, I expect it to be heavily oversubscribed and my own tender scaled back proportionately. But don't take my word for it, listen to Paul Rickard.

Dividend Imputation System and Franking Credits Explained

The Golden Mile

If the Dutch can do it, so can I: reclaim land !

After I had built the "Great Wall of China" retaining wall along the bottom drive, it was time to backfill with soil to the level of the existing tennis-court area.

40 truckloads later and perhaps another ten to go, and the area has almost doubled in size. Then comes the top-dressing and the grass ...

I don't know how many guilders the Dutch spent, but this lot has cost me a few thousand dollars. It shall henceforth be known as "The Golden Mile".

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Half the fun is getting there

It's not what you can say about today's air travel with its congested airports, security checks every step of the way, cramped seating ... the list goes on.

As I plan my escape from winter in the months to come, I've (almost) decided to book myself a sleeper berth on the SUNLANDER to Cairns - Queenslander Class, of course!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Oil is not well with Saudi's oil production capacity

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco's 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as "peak oil".

Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment. He argued that Aramco had badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.

One cable said: "According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described, and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco and energy optimists would like to portray."

It went on: "In a presentation, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco senior vice-president for exploration, reported that Aramco has 716bn barrels of total reserves, of which 51% are recoverable, and that in 20 years Aramco will have 900bn barrels of reserves.

"Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, believing Aramco's reserves are overstated by as much as 300bn barrels. In his view once 50% of original proven reserves has been reached … a steady output in decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. He believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years followed by decreasing output."

The US consul then told Washington: "While al-Husseini fundamentally contradicts the Aramco company line, he is no doomsday theorist. His pedigree, experience and outlook demand that his predictions be thoughtfully considered."

Seven months later, the US embassy in Riyadh went further in two more cables. "Our mission now questions how much the Saudis can now substantively influence the crude markets over the long term. Clearly they can drive prices up, but we question whether they any longer have the power to drive prices down for a prolonged period."

A fourth cable, in October 2009, claimed that escalating electricity demand by Saudi Arabia may further constrain Saudi oil exports. "Demand [for electricity] is expected to grow 10% a year over the next decade as a result of population and economic growth. As a result it will need to double its generation capacity to 68,000MW in 2018," it said.

It also reported major project delays and accidents as "evidence that the Saudi Aramco is having to run harder to stay in place – to replace the decline in existing production." While fears of premature "peak oil" and Saudi production problems had been expressed before, no US official has come close to saying this in public.

In the last two years, other senior energy analysts have backed Husseini. Fatih Birol, chief economist to the International Energy Agency, told the Guardian last year that conventional crude output could plateau in 2020, a development that was "not good news" for a world still heavily dependent on petroleum.

Jeremy Leggett, convenor of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, said: "We are asleep at the wheel here: choosing to ignore a threat to the global economy that is quite as bad as the credit crunch, quite possibly worse."

Mind you, the stock market is climbing new highs. The central reason that the market goes up these days, regardless of whether we are looking at bad news or good news, is Bernanke. The events unfolding in the Arab World should have left much more of a dent in the market but as the saying goes, 'Don't fight the Fed'. As long as Bernanke keeps creating money, it will have to find a home somewhere, and the stock market is a favourite roosting place.

There have been rumblings from Iran and Saudi Arabia this week. These are the big players in the oil world. It seems recently that a lot of the action happens over the weekends, so it's all eyes on the news tomorrow and Sunday. No surprises then that the oil price hasn't eased off at all this week which is the bad news.

It improved briefly last night on news of possible Libyan peace talks. But these were proposed by Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, which is a bit like being offered marriage counselling from Elizabeth Taylor.

So, what I am starting to look ahead to is this: The end of QE2 in mid-year.

If this safety net is taken away, and the US recovery is still wobbling away, with full-blown chaos unfolding in the Arab world ... what will the markets do? Will they tank, or will the bearded one be there with QE3?

Customers say it's the breast!

The shop's slogan is "Lick your addiction!"

Now THAT's my kind of ice cream! Pure and organic - but free-range???

And what sort of toppings are on offer???

Next time somebody mentions ice cream I scream!