December 10, 2006

Just peachy

Now that I am able to clonk about on crutches in my giant metal boot thing (feeling like Frankenstein's monster), I have resumed my former computer position near the French doors at the back of the house.

These open out onto the deck with the home-made but very pleasant water course trickling past. We all enjoy sitting (or lying) here, particularly in the mornings before it gets hot.

There's an old peach tree here, that was close to death when I bought the house, but has responded to my inexpert but well-meaning efforts at pruning by being laden with fruit each year. Unfortunately the last few years the whole crop has fallen victim to fruit-fly, so this year I set aside my principles about not using toxins in the garden, and sprayed. It really should be done several times, but once was all I was prepared to do, and it certainly made a difference. There are still lots of fruit-flies, but only about half the crop is affected this time, leaving plenty for me to share with local birds, lizards and the dogs.

The tree is so close to my chair that I can take photos without staggering to my feet, which is just as well, because crutches are not a very effective way of stealthily approaching wildlife. I've uploaded some of my favourite photos from over the past 2 weeks, and they can be seen here.

This female Red-capped parrot has been particularly entertaining, because despite being perfectly able to feed herself, she maintains a constant plaintive chirping which eventually persuades her mate to fetch the best bits for her.
But an awful thing happened 3 days ago. She took off from the tree and flew straight into the glass of the kitchen window with a sickening noise. She flopped to the ground and was making pathetic efforts to fly, but unable to co-ordinate or gain height. By great good fortune the dogs were inside, so I hobbled out as quickly as I could to try to throw a towel over her so she didn't injure herself some more. She managed to lurch up into the tree, however, and I couldn't reach her. She was calling piteously for help and it was all very distressing. I watched her for ages as she sat there panting and crying, until something startled her and she flapped off in a very wobbly fashion. I did not expect to see her again, but to my huge delight I heard her petulant chirping yesterday and sure enugh, she was back, tucking into a peach with gusto. It made my week!

December 05, 2006

"When is hungry not hungry"

I subscribe to a monthly e-newsletter from The Word Centre, a group in the UK who promote the use of plain English. In today's edition is this scary item:
When is hungry not hungry?

Answer: when the US Government decides to replace one easy-to- understand plain English word, with a decidedly unclear four-word phrase.

From now on the new phrase used in a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be 'very low food security'.

Why? Because the word 'hungry' is not a 'scientifically accurate term' for what the annual USDA food security survey looks at: how many American people have gone without food during the year.

This year's survey found that 12% of Americans, around 35 million people, could not put food on the table for at least part of last year. Of these 35 million people, 11 million said they had gone hungry at times. It is to this group of people the phrase 'very low food security' will apply.

The USA has set a goal of reducing the number of hungry households to 6% or less by 2010, or to half the 1995 level. But it is finding this target difficult to achieve as the number of people going without food has increased over the last 5 years.

'Anti-hunger' advocates say the new words 'sugar coat' a national shame.

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group, says:
"The proposal to remove the word 'hunger' from our official reports is a huge disservice to the millions of Americans who struggle daily to feed themselves and their families.'

In other words, if a goal is not being met, move the goalposts. Or if that might attract unfavourable comment, call the goalposts impermanent target-indicative markers instead.

Mind you, I think the "anti-hunger advocates" could have chosen their metaphor with more care.

Stir Crazy

I was gently chided by a friend today for not having posted here more often, when I have had so little to do since breaking my leg nearly 7 weeks ago. A justified comment, because there have been a great many hours when I did very little except feel sorry for myself, or stare disconsolately out of the window, but as I am now at last able to move around (albeit haltingly, and on crutches), my horizons have expanded and mood has correspondingly improved.

The 4 weeks I spent confined to chair and house were a very unsettling glimpse into the lives of those who are not simply waiting for a bone to heal, but for whom such confinement is a permanent and usually involuntary condition. I was prepared for a certain amount of boredom and frustration, but not for the interminable dreariness of days spent completely inside.

However, I am very fortunate to have an expansive view, and even when confined to the couch for days on end, I was able to gaze out over the coastal plain to Perth city and beyond.

But in the mild start to summer that we have enjoyed, it was immensely frustrating not to be able to negotiate the previously unnoticed door frame and move out of the house and onto the verandah, let alone to manage the subsequent step down to the garden. To be thwarted by an obstacle no higher than a matchbox was as infuriating as it was instructive.
I'm sure those of you without problems walking will look at this picture and fail to see the problem. Believe me, I would have too, a couple of months ago.

I will be forever grateful to the friend who arrived on day 10, armed with a simple picnic lunch, and declared her intention of helping me get the wheelchair over this lintel, through the just-too-narrow doorway and out onto the verandah for an hour or so. The sense of release was intoxicating!
It was certainly a turning point, even though I could not go further than that, or indeed manage it unassisted, for another couple of weeks.

November 04, 2006

Sticks and Stones

It's been a rough few weeks, so if I start sounding the least bit whiney, please turn away immediately and go look at some pretty pictures instead. Thanks.
As proof that exercise is indeed bad for one's health (something I have long suspected), I was striding energetically along a bush track when my previously trusty hiking stick slipped on the loose gravel and I skidded gracelessly and with increasing speed down a hill. Even without medical training, the quiet but nasty snapping sound and the extremely rude word that I suddenly shouted were a good indication that all was not well in the leg department.
Being neither suitably dressed for a live interview, nor overly keen on publicity in any form, I was unwilling to lie there until winched out by a search and rescue helicopter in time for the evening news. So there was no alternative but to extract my leg from underneath me and persuade it to carry me a further kilometer or so to the main road. Fortunately I was able to call a friend to collect me there.

A few nights later, as the result of some astonishingly self-destructive muscle spasms while I was asleep, I had to call an ambulance to take me and my even-more-broken leg to the emergency department where I spent an eye-opening night experiencing the shortcomings of the public hospital system. I spent 6 months working in that department as a new graduate, so I know very well how stressful and busy it is, but I'm afraid there is simply no excuse for some of the regrettably uncaring behaviour I saw towards many patients. It takes only a second to draw a curtain or pull up a sheet over someone whose nakedness is obviously causing them added distress, and privacy guidelines alone (let alone basic consideration) should ensure that someone's diagnosis or results are not shouted across the room.

On the other hand, I also witnessed amazing restraint by some nursing staff. As it was after midnight on a Friday night, and this was the inner city public hospital, there was a steady stream of drunk and/or drugged and/or aggressive patients. Security has been hugely upgraded since I worked there, with an assortment of burly individuals wandering around to help prevent and quell unruly or dangerous behaviour. They were seldom needed, thanks to the calm and patient tolerance shown by some nurses. I was particularly impressed with the lone individual in triage, responsible for deciding the urgency of each new case. He spent well over 15 minutes calmly talking to a very agitated but apparently uninjured woman who refused to be either seen by medical staff, or to leave. I would have called in the "troops" after she first started hammering her fists on the glass screen of his cubicle, but he managed to talk her down and she eventually wandered off into the night.

So now I'm confined to couch and wheelchair for a month, the novelty of which wore off in less than 24 hours.
Still, the enforced inactivity means I might post here more often than once every few months.

July 22, 2006

Dirty Deeds

I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to acquiring tidbits of information (usually useless), but I confess that an intimate understanding of the workings of a septic system was not even on my distressingly long list of Things I Still Need to Find Out. For those fortunate readers whose homes are connected to municipal waste water systems, the concept of actually keeping effluent on the premises must seem a little bizarre, but there are many places, even in technologically advanced countries, where this is a fact of life. However, the situation is usually not something we think about, and like most people my interest in the subject ends as soon as I flush.

Well, all that changed last week, when during the course of some fairly routine and minor bathroom renovations, the whole issue came (ahem) to the surface. Within the space of a day, the cost of the internal improvements was eclipsed by the unplanned expenses outside, my back yard and garden were transformed into a smelly version of a mining site, I was introduced to a whole new subculture, and I learned more than I really wanted to about post-flush events.

But fear not. I do not propose to share my new-found knowledge. The above account is merely to introduce the subject of yet another scam to which the innocent public can easily fall prey.
It goes like this:
  1. Householder notices unpleasant smell (or worse) indicating the septic system may be malfunctioning.
  2. Householder calls trusty plumber, whose exorbitant fees are more than justified by some of the jobs he has to do.
  3. Trusty plumber fiddles around with long bendy rods, plungers, and other mysterious items and announces that "The system must be blocked". Householder nods nervously, thinking back over what could possibly have been introduced to the system to block it, and by whom.
  4. Trusty plumber disappears into the garden and starts stabbing crossly at the ground until he eventually finds the long-buried concrete tank.
  5. Said tank is then excavated (usually by apprentice plumber), with blithe disregard for any plants or paths in the vicinity.
  6. Having refreshed himself with the householder's tea and cake while the apprentice worked, the plumber now rolls up his sleeves, lifts the lid off the tank and investigates.
  7. The householder, faint with horror and embarrassment at what might be discovered, has retreated to a quiet darkened room to await the verdict.
  8. Plumber returns, wiping hands ineffectually on dirty rag, and announces "I found the problem. Your tank's full. You need to get it pumped out as soon as possible - I'll arrange it if you like." Weak with gratitude at not being invited to come and see for themselves, the householder accepts.
  9. Huge smelly truck duly arrives the following day, a long wide-bore hose is unfurled, and distressingly graphic noises over the next hour or so indicate that the household waste is finally leaving the property.
  10. The large account is promptly paid by the grateful householder, who is then left to spend the rest of the day re-burying the tank and trying to restore the garden.
  11. Repeat every few years as required.
So where's the scam? It's brilliantly simple, and relies completely on points 7 and 8 above. Sublimely confident that no householder in their right mind will actually want to look at a tank of effluent, the plumber can claim that the tank needs emptying, and then cheerfully pocket the "consideration" passed to him by the tank-emptying man whose services were not, in fact, required at all.

Here are the true facts, which I learned from someone who opted out of this lucrative arrangement:
  • Provided the system is working correctly, a septic tank for a 2-person household should not need to be pumped out any more frequently than every 10-15 years if at all. For a larger household, the interval may be as short as 5-7 years, but no more often than that. So now you know.
Be brave, breathe through your mouth, and go look for yourself. You might have to find a new plumber, but you'll save a lot of money, and you'll have struck a welcome blow for Honesty.

July 13, 2006


The Girtie song may be our sanctioned National Anthem, but I have recently seen a poem which should get equal billing:

Echidnas can't float on inflatable boats.
Can't lounge on inflatable chairs.
Can't lay on their backs on clear bubble wrap.
They're tragic, but who really cares?
Get called things like Millie.
And names just as silly.
As porcupine hedgehog and such.
And their long razor spikes.
Aren't to get kids on bikes.
But I think that they'd like to as much.
There's just no romance.
For a guy who sucks ants.
And just how many ants can one take.
But if they were able to sit at a table.
I bet they'd love pizza and shake.
So don't take it hard.
If there's one in your yard.
Allow it it's time in the sun.
For despite their odd features.
They're our Aussie creatures.
Echinas, well they're number one.

Briyant, innit?

(Thanks ishtar :-) )

July 10, 2006

Is This The Real Me?

I had a bit of fun today playing around with my appearance, in a free, reversible, and non-surgical way - courtesy of Yahoo's avatars.
The end result is a combination of how I see myself and how I'd prefer to see myself, mixed with just enough truth not to be a complete parody.
Yahoo! Avatars
I'll own up to one inaccuracy (and that's all!) - none of my dogs have any black markings. ;-)

June 07, 2006

Fresh Air and Exercise

Well we've moved from autumn into winter, and I have sadly neglected this journal.
Surely it can't be because I have mellowed to the point of having nothing to rant or be opinionated about? That would indeed be a matter for concern, what with my having so recently embraced this wonderful way of sharing my frequently discontented thoughts.
No, that can't be it, so I'm going to play it safe and blame the weather.
It's been superb.
Far too sunny to stay indoors wittering on about something inconsequential. So I've been going for lots of walks in the bush with one or other of my dogs. (Two is too many to handle when there may be disapproving hikers, or enticingly chaseable wildlife.)

I am fortunate to live five minutes from the northern end of a famous 1000km walk trail called the Bibbulmun Track, and in fact the first kilometer of it passes through a local park, so it starts off very sedately. As it starts to wind down from the top of the escarpment, it becomes a well-maintained broad gravel path with rock steps at easy intervals. This gives completely the wrong impression to novice walkers, who can be heard exclaiming at the high standard of the track and wondering why more people don't follow it.
The reason is that within another kilometer, the track looks more like this:

Which is great, actually. There is little enough virgin bushland left, and even the modest numbers of people who use this path have caused erosion, left litter, introduced weeds, removed plants, started fires, and all the other sorts of havoc we humans usually cause to innocent ecosystems. So I think it's just as well that the terrain is not more "user-friendly". Plus of course, I love the fact that I can walk for an hour without hearing another human voice (except on weekends, when one has to be wary of rounding a corner and running smack into a frighteningly well-equipped long-range hiker).

May 15, 2006

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"

The quote is from a poem by John Keats called "Ode to Autumn", and I have just uploaded some suitably autumnal photographs .

May 03, 2006


There are disturbingly many aspects of human behaviour which irritate me, and, in all honesty, quite a few of them apply to me. One of those to which I will not admit, however, is failure to pay attention. Maybe it's advancing age and grumpiness, but I find myself becoming more and more impatient and intolerant with people who simply do not read or listen to things properly, and then disclaim all responsibility for the consequences of their inattention.
As medical students, we all chuckled indulgently when taught that we should tell patients things at least three times, preferably in different ways, to increase the chance that they might remember what we'd said. "How could people not pay attention to important stuff like a diagnosis, or medication instructions?" we asked. "Surely when it comes to their own health and safety, people will listen and concentrate."
Nope. They don't.
I have gradually come to accept that most people have a very efficient input filter, which allows in only those morsels of information which they feel are important. It matters not one jot how serious the matter is to the speaker or writer - it is the listener and reader who determines its importance to them, and this decision seems to be made almost at the instant the information is received, and usually without the benefit of any knowledge on the subject at all. The consequence is that many people in the business of conveying important information have to employ methods that are more suited to a primary school classroom.

Despite having an uncle who has enjoyed moderate fame and fortune as an artist, my drawing skills are at the wobbly "stick figure" level, but in an average working day I find myself attempting to illustrate various aspects of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology in the hope that these scrawls will convey my message better than the spoken word. As a result, most of my patients leave the consultation clutching a diagram, or a list, or a written explanation, or a management plan, or some other piece of paper which they will doubtless lose under the car seat, or write a grocery list on the back of, or give to their toddler to colour in. I'm fighting a war I can't win. If they don't want to pay attention, I can't make them, no matter how many coloured pens I use (actually I don't, but maybe that's where I'm going wrong ... ).

Have you noticed how news bulletins illustrate every single story with images of some kind? If it's a story about a train, there will be a background picture of one, or even a short piece of video. They know full well that if they just had the newsreader telling us about the train, we would turn away from the TV and do something else, and *poof* they'd have lost us before the next commercial break. So even though we all know that the images are stock footage, and not about the actual story at all, we sit there obediently saying to ourselves "Oh, there's a train. This story must be about a train. I'd better listen to what she's saying then."

This is the primary school principle to which I referred earlier. The alphabet is taught not with simple letters, but with colourful cartoons and pictures of apples, beetles, cows, etc. Doctors and news programmes employ the same techniques to try and get people to concentrate.

Today's rant was prompted by a recent written conversation I had with an apparently well-educated person. I expressed an opinion, and quoted some references on which I based that view. I also acknowledged that other people reading those references may come to a different, but equally acceptable conclusion. This person replied in a faintly mocking and antagonistic manner, telling me that my opinion was wrong because I had misinterpreted the references. She had obviously filtered out my mention of acceptably different interpretations, and it was rather irritating to be chastised by someone who did not have the courtesy to pay attention. Now if I had drawn a nice coloured picture ...

April 28, 2006

Good night, sleep tight.

You can be sure that all's well with the world in terms of natural disasters, humanitarian tragedies and political or diplomatic folly when the biggest item on the news this week is about a (wait for it) bed bug "epidemic". (I love the double-entendre of that Reuters title, by the way. I hope the sub-editor got a bonus for that one.)
The original article (PDF) on which all the news stories were based is naturally a little less thrilling and a lot more factual, and is interesting from an etymological point of view, as well as an entomological one. (I'll pause to allow readers to check that I have these the right way around.)

The article refers to
pest control companies ... experiencing a true worldwide bed bug pandemic.
(My italics.)
Compare this to the paraphrasing in all the news articles:
Australia is suffering a bed-bug epidemic ... The Australian outbreaks are part of a global epidemic
(My italics again.)

I can see three possible reasons for this word substitution:
1. The journalists think epidemic and pandemic are synonyms.
2. The journalists had never heard of pandemic and assumed the scientist made a mistake in his article.
3. The journalists thought that their readers would not understand what a pandemic was, or would not be sufficiently alarmed, so they chose a more recognisable and presumably scary word.

In fact the reverse is true, and, not surprisingly, the scientist was using the terms correctly, because a pandemic indicates that both the area involved and the population affected is much larger that in an epidemic. As WiseGeek helpfully puts it,
... epidemics that grow out of hand due to the nature of the disease and other factors, turn into pandemics.

As a footnote, an amusingly parochial interpretation of the term "pandemic" can be found in "The Arizona Republic", which proudly reported that
... the bugs are returning to beds throughout the country, including in Arizona.

April 19, 2006

I spy, with ...

As countless other sticky-beaks have done before me, I frittered away several hours today using Google Earth to swoop down onto all the places I've lived, or visited, or even just heard about. It is rivetting stuff, and quite addictive.
What amused me nearly as much as the vertiginous dips and dives was the apparently random nature of the resolution. Here am I, in a small, semi-rural, outer-metropolitan suburb on the unfashionable side of a vast continent, and I can clearly see my garden shed (admittedly a bit fuzzy, but still identifiable), and the paths where I walk my dogs through nearby bushland, and even the graffiti on a council water tank. Using the tilt feature, I can identify the steepest parts of my daily walk, and make a mental note not to bother exploring that other path because it looks far too difficult. All useful stuff, but surely not of great interest to whoever pays for the satellite?
But when I try to hover over friends in the SW of England, or the NW states of the USA, where the population density is almost unimaginable by Western Australian standards, I find the closest I can get is a blurry distinction between urban and rural land use. Only very large roads and rivers can be seen, and perhaps the suggestion of residential areas as distinct from industrial ones. Certainly no buildings are identifiable at all, and yet these are areas one could imagine being of greater interest, whether for boring urban planning reasons or for intriguing security ones.

Ahh. Maybe that's the answer. I live in a sufficiently peaceful and uninteresting part of the world that the images collected incidentally while on the way to somewhere more vital can be released to everyone, everywhere. Well that's fine by me, and if you tell me when you'll be dropping in, I'll make sure I have the kettle on. :-)

April 15, 2006

Birds and bird-brains

I went to a wonderful talk last weekend, by an entertaining fellow from Birds Australia, and he made one of those observations which are almost universal truths. He said that unless great self-control is exercised, when someone spots a bird (or plane, landmark, or anything requiring the use of the binoculars hanging around the neck), that person will look down at the binoculars before raising them to the eyes. In the process, of course, the object has moved or otherwise become invisible, and it often takes some time to find it again.
His point was that we know where the binoculars are, so there is absolutely no need to look down to "find" them. We should keep our eyes on the bird or whatever, and raise the binoculars to our eyes. Of course! But a quick survey of friends and acquaintances confirmed that we all look down first. This sort of self-evident fact can easily make my day.

Of course it can just as quickly be unmade by yet more proof (as if it were needed) that people have more money than sense. I was at a party last night, and one of the other guests (obviously unaware that I was a doctor) was regaling us with details of her "new" diet and health regime. Less than fascinating stuff at the best of times, but I had to snap back from my daydream when she announced derisively that "My doctor tried to tell me that I was wasting my money on these [insert phony chemical name] herbal pills and the special liquid I have to drink before each meal." I was very well behaved, and resisted the urge to shout "Hear Hear!", but fortunately someone asked her what they cost. "Oh, they're very expensive," she replied proudly. "But I think you only get what you pay for." Right.

April 08, 2006

These legs are made for ... money?

Yes I know I have no life. I usually watch Parky on a Saturday night, and tonight one of his "guests" was Michael Flatley (I refuse to link to his self-congratulatory site). OK so he can dance, no question. Good for him, and he's a pleasure to watch. But these figures are ridiculous:
Once recognised as the world's highest paid dancer, earning $1,600,000 a week, Flatley has his legs insured for £25 million.
I'm sorry, but everyone needs their legs, and I don't understand what makes his so special. Car accidents, landmines, war, urban violence ... thousands of people lose their legs each year, and they are lucky to get their medical bills paid for them. Let's get some perspective here.

April 06, 2006

Go milk!

I was very amused to see that a recent study comparing chocolate milk and so-called "energy" drinks is still considered "news" more than 6 weeks since it was first published. Not only is this an interesting comment on what really matters to us (or at least what the media considers really matters to us), but it is also a personal vindication. I have long believed that we are getting too smart for our own good when it comes to analysing what we eat and drink. I frequently tell my patients (usually without being asked) that there is absolutely no need to waste money on vitamins, supplements, tonics, and all manner of other artificial concoctions, when these same "nutrients" (to use the term loosely) are found in cheaper, tastier and more natural form in ordinary food.
Of course there are those who have conditions or diseases which make it difficult or impossible for them to get sufficient nourishment without supplementing their diet, but for most of us, a sensible diet is all that is required.

If you are physically active, whether for work or recreation, you will need to eat more to maintain health and energy. If you are a sedentary person, for whatever reason, you will not need as much to eat.
This is not rocket science.

We are slaves to the marketing industry, who persuade us that we "need" all these products to keep us healthy, lengthen our lives, increase our energy, and no doubt improve our relationships and increase our wealth. It is complete twaddle, and it makes me cross to see people spend their limited resources on these things instead of a better quality cut of meat, or fresher fish, or organic vegetables.

Let's ignore the plaintive self-interested bleats of the "sports drink" manufacturers who protest that it was a small study. It was indeed, but it obviously caught people's interest, to judge by the prolonged media coverage. I say "Three Cheers" for the dairy farmers of the world and I salute them with a glass of their finest!

April 05, 2006

Morning walks and historical talks

OK I admit it. I'm one of those irritating, smug and self-righteous "morning people". I got out of the habit of an early morning walk, but recently decided to pull my socks up and get back into it.

I live wonderfully close to "the bush" as we call it here - National Parks and Reserves of undeveloped natural vegetation, so there is really no excuse for not getting up an hour early and dragging one of my snoring dogs off the bed. Today we went on a 5km walk around Jorgensen Park and were treated to a glorious sunrise. The trouble with being so healthy and virtuous first thing in the morning is that I tend to be lazy for the rest of the day, but fortunately I have a class to attend at the local community centre.
It's called "Personal Views of History", and involves each group member presenting an historical topic that particularly interests them. So far, I have learned about the histories of coffee, Sicily, writing, Petra (in Jordan), Charles II, and an infamous Western Australian public servant called Neville, so it has been a delightfully varied course! Most people bring along books, photographs or travel souvenirs related to their subject, which makes for truly multimedia presentations.

April 02, 2006

Mak's Back!

After a rather disastrous experience with my last blog (hosted by a friend) being completely swamped by spam, and with said friend then vanishing into the icy wastes, leaving me unable to administer the blog and nuke the spam ... well anyway, here I am again.

Not as parochial a template this time, which is a shame, so you will just have to imagine an Aussie theme until I find out how to upload gifs and photos.


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