Monday, December 15, 2014

Life After Work

About 7 months ago  I left the organisation I had worked with for 25 years. I turned 60 two months later. Until late last year (2013) I had assumed I would continue working in that job until around 65. But things moved rapidly and 6 months later I was unemployed. I chose to leave. I did not retire. Between jobs as they say. And I learnt a great deal very quickly about myself and life.

Initially, for a brief time, the freedom of being unattached was intoxicating. The intoxication was slowly replaced with a far more sober reality that took me a few months to work through. What follows is in no sense of regret. I'm glad I left my job. But realisation #1 was I MISSED THAT JOB! In truth this was no great surprise. I had often told people I had one of the best jobs of anyone I knew. But it had reached a point where I could no longer work for my employer with a clear conscience.

Realisation #2 - my world shrunk. I had a reasonably high profile job that meant that I was in contact with a lot of people in the average week - via email, phone, or face to face conversations or meetings. I'd guess around 50-80 people each week. When I stopped working I had contact with less than 10 people a week. My job was also quite mobile. I would routinely visit several locations a week across the whole city. In the weeks after I quit my job this often was reduced to 'the shops' , and nothing else. Many many fewer people and many fewer locations. My world had shrunk quite drastically.

Realisation #3 - hobbies were no longer hobbies! I have never had a problem filling in my time. Throughout my working life I had to squeeze in music, gardening, travelling, sport, theatre, writing, walking, photography, technology. ....Mostly I did manage to fit these extra-curricular activities into a busy and full life. Now subtract the job. You'd think I'd be rapt to have all this extra time to enjoy these other pastimes. And initially I did. But you see, like I said, I hadn't  retired. I wanted to keep working - I just wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do. So something unexpected happened to my hobbies. They stopped being something I did in my spare time, and became the things I did! And, consequently I began to see each one of them as a potential job, or at least a money earning activity. So... I should practice this guitar piece more, or I should take this more seriously, or I spend so much time doing this I need to work out how to turn it into a part time job, etc. Nothing was purely for pleasure anymore. Things I had enjoyed doing for decades whenever I could fit them in had become weighed down with a sense of responsibility. Quite sad, and all in my own head I realise, but that's what happened.

Realisation #4 (and perhaps the most important of them all) - I had become a creature governed by the recurring rhythms of terms and semesters and holidays - all with their own annual reliability. Always a few weeks holidays at the same times each year. But one always worked in May. I worked in education, and really had no idea how much I had become a creature of its annual cycles. I have always worked hard. But there was always a break just 10 weeks away even if you didn't take it. But psychologically it was there and you could take it if you wanted or needed it. Go  away for a couple of weeks at the end of September if you wanted. And you knew when these breaks were years ahead so you could plan to travel at a set time. Or again, if you felt like making a snap last minute decision to go somewhere there was no stressing about when you might go - that was already decided for you by the pre-ordained holiday dates. But now you're between jobs. What if you decided to take a week off or  book a flight to somewhere and someone offers you work at that time?

The longest break you get in the education world is 5, maybe 6 weeks. (Yes I know much longer than most get but that's another story...). So about  6-8 weeks after I left my job I was ready to work again. 25 years of conditioning had unknowingly  turned  me into this creature who needed to work because I'd had a 6 week break.

Realisation #5 - my identity was intimately connected with my job. I began to feel like I didn't matter so much; that I was less significant than before. I wanted to work and couldn't. I looked longingly at people who had jobs - any job - and thought how lucky they were! I wasn't as important to myself anymore either because I was getting no validation from others that I was doing something worthwhile for them. No pats on the back; no requests to help out with various tasks; to address a meeting; to join a team for a temporary project. Very few people were asking me to do anything. There was no expectation that I would do anything. So all  the  motivation to keep abreast of current practice, look for work, maintain contacts with your persona l learning network had to come from within. Only intrinsic motivation was left to keep you moving. All those people you saw in the average week of your working life had moved on and no longer required your assistance.

Realisation #6 - I was not as self-contained as I thought I was. I needed the company and recognition of others to keep me performing. I'd had it for so long I had ceased to recognise its importance in my life. I thought I was driving myself along kind of under my own steam and that was far from the whole story!

Realisation #7 -no matter what you say people will consider you  'retired.' And assume you are loving all the extra spare time and having a ball. But (back to realisation #5) I only enjoy spare time if I've worked really hard and feel like I've earned it. But it won't a matter a toss to others - they will consider you retired.

Realisation #8. Actually this is more of an assumption than a realisation, and it may not be entirely accurate. I assume that people who plan to retire, and who have known for some time when they will stop working, would not go through all the angst that I have experienced  these last 7 months. They would be planning what they  were going to do and anticipating with great pleasure a time when they can realise their post work dreams. When post work life is upon you suddenly it is an entirely different ball game. I now have a greater appreciation for what those who are suddenly made unemployed must feel.


I have found bits and pieces of part time work that I am enjoying and this has helped me establish a new rhythm of life. I accept that I have to make things happen on my own, and that I can't rely on the inbuilt supports (people, activities, projects) that a long term job provides. And I am now feeling like I'm ready to take on something new - whatever it may be.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Joan Armatrading in Adelaide

Apologies for the blur. I was interrupted by 'security' as I was taking
the shot (no pix allowed) and was not allowed to reshoot.

Joan Armatrading
The Gov, Sun Dec 7

Joan Armatrading burst on to the music scene in the mid seventies as a black woman who didn't sound like a typical black singer. She had a unique sense of melody and phrasing that was all her own. Born in the West Indies, she moved to Birmingham in the UK at the age of 7. I, like millions of others, was smitten by her self-titled breakthrough album in 1976, and after her performance at The Gov here in Adelaide, I'm still smitten.

Her music crosses an extraordinary range of styles - folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz - and while she is equally at home in all of them, she doesn't actually belong in any of them. Joan Armatrading is one of those rare artists who simply sounds like herself. Whatever style she is experimenting with, she dances on the edges of it. So you get her interpretation of blues; her interpretation of jazz. Except perhaps for rock. When she veers down the rock path she, surprisingly, is a classic rocker. A couple of guitar solos sounded quite Hendrix-esque. And then she's just as likely to follow that up with a soft melodic ballad on piano.

Armatrading took us through a representative sample of a musical canon that spans four decades. There were plenty of her best known numbers - Me Myself I, Drop the Pilot, Love and Affection, All the Way from America - and a selection of songs from her more recent forays into jazz and blues influenced offerings.

From the outset she was gracious and witty. I loved the way she paused at the conclusion of each song long enough to allow us to show our appreciation, and for us to see her smile warmly in enjoyment of the moment. Quite endearing.

Midway through her performance we were treated to a slide show of her career highlights - musical and personal. It felt like we were in her lounge room at home sharing precious memories. It was a nice touch.

Several songs featured pre-recorded parts to fill out the sound. At times this worked really well. It allowed her to play nifty jazz lead parts on songs like Stepping Out, and have us enjoy the brass embellishment on the classic Love and Affection. She told us she's played this song in every concert she's ever played, and you can see why. It is indeed a classic. ("Sing me another love song but this time with a little dedication.") On other songs like the reggae influenced Rosie I found the extra overlay intrusive.

Drop the Pilot was very funky, and Me Myself I once again revealed Joan the rocker. She finished with the gentle Willow, and invited the audience to join in. We all sent ourselves home singing in unison as Joan sat, smiling again, at the keyboard.

It was a privilege to finally see Joan Armatrading in person. She's still pushing boundaries and her voice still sounds as rich and mellifluous as it ever did. Like 'massage for the brain' someone commented. Swapping seamlessly between electric guitar, piano and her trademark 12 string Ovation, she generously shared forty years of original music and few were disappointed. Most in fact were rapt.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Susan Greenfield Rings The Alarm Bells Again

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been giving talks on the dangers associated with Internet technology for some years now. I have worked in the field of educational technology for the last 15 years and often read her reports on her research and subsequent disparaging grand conclusions about technology so I admit that I probably went to hear her recent address at the University of South Australia with a degree of bias. Nevertheless I wanted to hear her for myself and make up my own mind.

In broad sweep I actually agree with much of what she had to day. Like her, I am concerned about how mobile and Internet technologies may be rewiring our brains, and redefining us as a species. I get no joy, and a degree of angst, when I see a 20 something person buried in the screen of their phone and not once look up to see what might be happening outside the train window during a 45 minute journey through superb scenery.

My problem is how she reaches her conclusions. There was fleeting reference to articles and research whose titles contain words like 'brain', 'technology', 'growth', etc but zero discussion about these works. Instead, in the talk I attended, she was openly dismissive about whatever gains new technology may have brought us. Pandering to the prejudice of the crowd, she went for cheap shots: Twitter - "why would anyone want to know about what your cat is doing?" I have never seen that kind of trite message on my Twitter feed because my feed is cultivated. I carefully select who I follow. She would know that thousands use Twitter as an intelligent means of exchange but she chose to ignore that fact for the sake of her sensationalist and simplistic argument. Another chestnut - how could anyone think that social media connections could be as rich as face to face contact in the same room? Here she is being ignorant or devious, and I suspect it's the latter. I suspect she, like me and countless others, has enjoyed a degree of freedom as a result of being a disembodied entity on the Net. Very early in my days on the Net I became aware of a liberation I felt to express ideas when no one knew if I was young or old, academic or truck driver, physically disabled or deliciously attractive. I was a brain without all the clutter that physical presence brings and my ideas were judged as just that - ideas. Not a product of the casing they came in.

Yes Internet and mobile technology is changing us - no one disputes this. It does rewire our brains. But by the same token, as Greenfield would agree, the moment we decide for example to go off the Net and learn a new language or play a new instrument our brain changes again. Brain changes are not permanent. Our brain will happily accommodate whatever we choose to pursue - right though to old age.

Another writer who has bridged this same territory is Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr also came in for plenty of flack from the technology community  for his provocative questioning of the value of technology, but at least Carr was not sensationalising his case, or demeaning those who lived by the Internet. All Carr was suggesting is that we need to debate this issue of what's happening to us as a result of our (near) addiction to the new technologies. No argument from me there, and I think really that is all Greenfield ultimately wants to see happen as well. But her pandering to ignorant prejudice is unhelpful and merely reinforces the opinions of those who don't understand the advantages of new technology.

To be fair though Greenfield in the main was talking about children. Baby Boomers like myself can delve deeply into the new world of technology, then stand back and compare the process with other previous means of processing and distributing knowledge - books, writing on paper, face to face discussions. We can evaluate the benefit of the new against the old. Children don't have this affordance. Very young children only know the world of screens and multiple distraction. And older children may not have known a time when reflection, time alone, thinking absent-mindedly, daydreaming, and reading silently for long periods were normal occurrences, and crucial determinants of our mental and emotional health.

I keep thinking that educators need to have these discussions with their students - children and adults -  as part of a digital literacy program. Have them compare reading print text with screen text and evaluate the difference. Have them multitask as they research a topic and then try reading one or two books or articles on the same topic and compare the two experiences. (I have referred to this elsewhere as horizontal versus vertical learning.) We are the first generation in human history that can actually observe the changes that are happening to us as we adopt new technology. Neuroscience has advanced to the point that we can almost measure these changes in real time. So rather than sound the clarion calls of alarm as Susan Greenfield likes to do, let's collectively engage in an exploration of how we're changing, and be aware and mindful about it.

Greenfield's style earned her a near thunderous ovation from the non-believers, but she was preaching to the choir. And it isn't very helpful in encouraging dialogue between opposing factions of this new technology dilemma. She seems more interested in polarising opinion and selling books. If you want to read a book asking intelligent questions about how technology may be changing us, read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows instead.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Dramatic Look at China-Australia Relations

State Theatre Company - Kryptonite
Space Theatre, Fri Oct 24

In the space of my lifetime China has changed from a being pariah state to one that Australia relies on heavily for its economic well-being. The recent death of Gough Whitlam reminded us all that the change began in the seventies when he had the wisdom to open relations with China. China itself has changed a great deal and Beijing has become a modern metropolis. Outwardly it has become much like any other modern city. But as Kryptonite reveals, what goes on behind the scenes or under the surface of the apparent changes in China can still leave the rest of the world mystified about what really drives this vast nation.

Lian, played by Ursula Mills, was one of the very first Chinese students to grace our shores in the 1980s. She meets Dylan (Tim Walter), a fellow student on campus and they are immediately intrigued by each other. What follows is a series of meetings over the years as their lives change radically and they attempt to reconcile the feelings they have for each other. These meetings are set against a backdrop of changing relations between China and Australia.

The infamous events of Tiananmen Square are a watershed for their own relationship and that of their respective countries, and is the first in a series of hiccups that both draws them together and pushes them apart. This tension is central to the play. No matter how much they are attracted to each other cultural differences always manage to render an ongoing relationship difficult.

The scenes early in the play where the young students make fun of each other as they explore their different backgrounds are quite endearing, and more importantly, this mutual fascination is authentic and believable. We  want them to be together.  Mills' accent is cute and fetching and contributes to an air of naivete about her new land, and Walter is appropriately awkward as the young student. Lian makes fun of Dylan's lack of ideals and he tries to get her to lighten up. But try as she might her ties with family back in China work against that. Dylan however, inspired by Lian's search for meaning and blessed with the freedom of being Australian plunges into a life where he strives to realise his ideals about the environment and he  enters politics.

In time he finds that politics is a grubby world of self-interest and muck-raking that drags up innocent details of your past to make you look unfit for office. Did Lian (China) engineer the sharing of confidential information for her own gain? Has Dylan (Australia) been caught in a honey trap? Kryptonite is a complex work, and it feels important. It could easily be used as a text book for an entire course on intercultural relations or international politics. It is rich with cultural nuance and political intrigue.

Both  Mills' and Walters' performances are quite wonderful. They quickly had the audience on side, feeling their pain, and caring about what happens to them. By the time we reach the present day Dylan's future is squarely in Lian's hands. Her destiny however is constrained by loyalty to a set of traditional values that conflict with those that might bring them and their two countries closer together. Sadly, after decades of close contact they and their countries are still dancing around the cultural chasm that yawns between them, and are no closer to knowing what values really drive their respective cultures.

Well written, great set, and clever direction. Instructive, enlightening, entertaining, important, and also quite funny in parts.

(also published at The Clothesline)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sleeping at Dubai Airport

On a recent return trip from Australia to Europe via Dubai I discovered quite a bit about sleeping options in Dubai airport. On the way over I decided to try a Snoozecube. It was a reasonably long trek to gate C22 in terminal 1 but I found the Snoozecube people friendly and efficient. The room and bed were clean and within minutes I was out like a light. I got 4 hours solid sleep (@$36/hr), then made my way back to the lounge feeling quite refreshed and ready for my next flight.

The return journey was not quite so smooth sailing.  If you're flying with Qantas or Emirates and your wait time in Dubai between flights is more than 8 hours you are eligible for what is called 'Dubai Connect' on the Qantas site. This may depend on your frequent flyer status - I'm not sure - but as a Gold member this meant was I eligible for free accommodation in a hotel at the airport 'subject to availability.' No one at Qantas or Emirates seemed to know exactly what this 'subject to availability' meant in practice. On boarding the Dubai flight in Amsterdam I was given an accommodation voucher for a hotel outside the airport.

I landed in Dubai 90 minutes late partly because there was an abnormal amount of air traffic around the airport. That it, it was busy! Immigration queues in Dubai can be exceedingly long at the best of times and I figured I would lose at least 30 minutes getting through customs and getting to my 'Dubai connect' hotel outside the airport. Ditto in reverse. So with the late arrival and exiting and re-entering the airport my 8 hours was now down to 5 and a half. I explained all this to the staff at the Emirates lounge and they thought I'd probably be better off just finding a quiet corner of the lounge and sleeping on their kind of recliner seats but they were too high and slippery so I made myself comfortable on the floor and enjoyed another sound 4 hours sleep.

So next time round I'll either make use of Snoozecube or sleep in the lounge. And now I know that the 'Dubai Connect' option involves exiting the airport and immigration, etc I'll only use this if I have a layover for 10 hours or more.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the fields of eastern Ukraine......

When I see images of the recent Malaysia Airlines disaster I cry. I felt even more moved today when I saw the cavalcade of hearses taking the bodies to somewhere in Holland to be identified. I didn't know anyone on this flight, nor am I connected or related to those who lost their lives in any way. So why am I feeling like this?
Is it because I've been to Holland many times, have lived there, have many friends there, my son lives there?
Is it because I'm a traveller and frequently use planes to get around?
Is it because there were so many Australians among the dead?
Is it because I have flown Malaysia Airlines many times and they fly into my home city of Adelaide?

It's probably all of these things on some sub-conscious level, but from the outset of this disaster I have been quite frankly gob-smacked at the stupidity and callousness of those who shot this plane down, and patrolled the fields of death in eastern Ukraine like cowboys. Keeping those with authority and expertise from properly investigating the site, picking through the ruins, standing on  the tail of the downed plane, removing parts of the plane from the scene, displaying souvenirs of the dead passengers, looting their belongings, and most offensively of all leaving bodies out in the elements and then dragging them around when it finally occurred to them that they should do something about it. 

I just find this whole litany of ignorant activity beyond the pale for the 'civilised world' of 2014. This is Europe for heaven's sake. Where is the respect for the dead? Where's the sorrow? Or an apology even? It doesn't matter who did it - Russian backed separatists or other Ukrainians - no one involved has expressed sorrow or regret for the death of 300 innocent people who had nothing to do with this conflict. But I guess I'm not surprised at that. What has amazed and shocked me is the fact that the guns weren't buried and disagreements put aside immediately to take proper care of the dead. Instead both sides maintained a stand-off, played the blame game, rifled through the possessions of those they'd killed, and left bodies to rot in the sun. The world watched (well I did anyway) in disbelief and tears.

But today we saw a different story. Each survivor was taken off a plane in Eindhoven by people in uniform in dignified and solemn fashion, and each of them rode alone in their own hearse through streets lined with people marking their passing in silence, shedding tears, and strewing flowers on the passing hearses. It didn't matter who they were or where they came from - they could have been Dutch or Australian or Malaysian.  What mattered is they were human; they were like us, and this is how the dead should be treated. 

Holland showed its class today. On behalf of the civil side of humanity they enacted a ceremony of great respect that showed that human lives are valued in a way they were not as they were left lying in the fields of eastern Ukraine. 

So, as I watched the cavalcade carrying the unknown dead through the streets of Holland, I cried for a different reason. I cried because at last someone had realised how important these last rites are for all of us, not just for the families involved, and acted on it with dignity and grace. Bedankt Nederland (thanks Holland) for restoring some dignity to the world today. 

A Stunning Night of Strings

Adelaide International Guitar Festival Gala - Australian String Quartet with Pepe Romero, Maximo Pujol Trio, and Slava Grigoryan plus special guests: The Aurora Guitar Ensemble

Festival Theatre, Sat Jul 19

This was a case of the support act nearly stealing the show. The curtain opened on the glorious sight of 26 guitarists in brightly coloured shirts seated and ready to play. Their composer and musical director, Paul Svoboda, raised his arms for quiet, waited a few appropriate seconds, then launched the Aurora Ensemble. What a beautiful sound. Svoboda himself is mesmerising as he choreographs his players with precision and grace. If I closed my eyes I could hear an orchestral string section. At times I heard wind instruments, and a piano. But I'd open my eyes again and there were just guitars. Beautifully played guitars and superb arrangements. Quite simply some of the most uplifting music I've heard in years.

Enter the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) and Slava Grigoryan to play a piece by Australian composer Shaun Rigney. Modern and experimental, it took some getting used to. It seems a difficult piece to play, and I imagine it might be one of those pieces that is more fun to play than to listen to. ASQ were not so much playing together on this disjointed and occasionally discordant piece as keeping out of each other's way. As violin one swapped parts with violin two who handed over to cello who had its lines completed by viola it bounced around quite frenetically at times, and in the quieter moments or gaps there was the guitar holding it all together. Fascinating to watch and enjoyable to listen to, but more music for the head than the heart perhaps.

Spain's classical guitar superstar, Pepe Romero, joined ASQ next and treated us to Luigi Boccherini's 'Fandango' from the late 18th century. In contrast this was a much brighter and more harmonic interlude with the guitar parts more integrated into the composition. There were also fine moments that showcased the difference between bowed strings (violin, cello) and plucked (guitar), and how deliciously complementary they are.  

The Maximo Pujol Trio from Argentina were the final featured act and delivered sensuous moments of tango. The interplay here between Pujol on guitar and Eleonora Ferreyra on bandoneon, a type of concertina, was a joy to behold and listen to. It was just like the instruments were talking to each other. It also felt European, but it was actually music from the 'Paris of the south' - Buenos Aires.

A wonderful evening's entertainment.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Adelaide International Guitar Festival - Late Night Session

Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni, Simon Hosford
Space Theatre, Thursday July 17

Who would have thought that wild and untamed electric guitar from the rock gods of the seventies and eighties would still be with us in 2014 (my mother told me it would never last), and would even be featured at a high profile cultural event in the city's premiere theatre?  But so it was last night at the Late Night Session of the Adelaide International Guitar Festival.

Three guitar shredders took  the stage in turn to demonstrate the power of the electric form of guitar. Whether you like it or not, the electric guitar is a remarkable instrument. As  well as being able to weep (George Harrison) , talk (Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road), Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni,  and Simon Hosford got their guitars to wail, scream, screech and soar in a powerhouse display of guitar wizardry.

Local lad, Cam Blokland was up first. Looking every bit the rock star with long hair and sunnies (he's  the guy in sunglasses on the festival's promo poster) he reeled off a number of original 'songs' with occasional glimpses of melody (I liked the one his Mum liked), that were mostly showcases for his incredibly nimble fingers. His self-deprecating send-ups of the body language of rock guitarists was a nice touch too. Marcel Yammouni followed with a slightly less frenetic  performance that involved less notes and more space, more moments of what might be called melody, and indeed some subtlety. He dedicated one of his songs to Johnny Winter, the legendary Albino Blues guitarist who had sadly died earlier in the day. But then Simon Hosford  blew all notions of melody and subtlety out of the water with an onslaught of speed and a percussive style that was not so much music as an exploration into the power of electricity.

Seeing guitar played by these three maestros of this genre was an assault on the senses, and one can't escape the fact that guitar played like this is an extension of ego - how can one person make so much noise/be so loud? But as Simon Hosford said, "this is about as much fun as you can have standing up!"  I really enjoyed the show, but it was strange to see and hear this kind of music where no one was dancing (there was barely even any discernible rocking of torsos as I looked around the room), there was no superstar hype surrounding the personas of the guitarists, and no screaming fans. It was all very serious and studied. It seems wild metal shredding guitar has come of age.

And kudos to the fantastic band members supporting the guitar tyros - they were a show in their own right. Keyboard and bass and drums all got to do solos, but it was the drum solo that took me back - vintage!

Now for a little classical baroque at the other end of the guitar spectrum.......

(also published at The Clothesline)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is cabaret?

Till now I've ignored the annual Adelaide Cabaret festival. I figured it was something beyond my sphere of enjoyment and would feature music that I have difficulty relating to - principally jazz. But this year I took the plunge and learned a great deal, and have seen some awesome shows. Cabaret it seems is an all embracing genre that does not have a set format. I thought there'd be a lot of singer standing by the piano singing type acts. There was some of this, but there was plenty else besides.

Wikipedia defines cabaret as "a form of entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation or drama. It is mainly distinguished by the performance venue (also called a cabaret), such as in a restaurant, pub, or nightclub with a stage for performances. The audience, often dining or drinking, does not typically dance but usually sits at tables." So it doesn't really matter what's happening on stage. As long as people are seated around tables it can be cabaret. It's the type of venue that matters, not what's happening on stage. I have seen funk, pop, rock, blues, jazz, comedy and burlesque this week, and most of it has been brilliant.

Something else which seems to be de rigeur for cabaret, based on what I've seen over the last two weeks, is that there must be significant interaction with the audience. This may be jokes or humour, narration of a story or context that pieces together the musical interludes, wandering among the tables singing to or having fun with people, or getting people to sing along. So it's not just about playing the music. More is expected. You have to be an entertainer. I saw one show which fell down in this regard. Musically the show was wonderful. It would have been perfect as just a concert. But in this case the performer's entertainment skills were week. In a couple of others the entertainment aspect was great, but I didn't like the music! Not to say that the music wasn't any good - I just didn't like it. In fact it must be said that the standard of musicianship was outstanding.

Every show featured a lead performer, and they typically had brought a pianist with them, who was often the musical director, or other key musician. The remainder of their musical ensemble was made up of local musicians who may have had just one or two rehearsals before going live. This made the standard of musical performances even more impressive, but also resulted in some shows where the local musicians seemed a little disengaged from the stage act. They didn't laugh at jokes, or even look at the star act between songs. They were only concerned with making sure they had the right page of the score ready for the next song. And this is a bit weird when the entertainer is being very funny or outrageous and the reaction from the support musicians is zilch!

I learned along the way that this semi-impromptu method of doing live shows is quite normal for cabaret. The main act is often imported from out of town, and has to go live with a band they barely know, and vice versa. So there is always an element of uncertainty about the quality of the show. And some performers switch from other forms of theatre when you have practised being in character, and rehearsed everything down to the last detail, over months in the lead up to a live show. So cabaret always has this edge of the unexpected and unrehearsed. This was sometimes evident on the technical side of things too. The technical crew are always local, and have had precious little time to rehearse lighting, audio cues and the like. It all sounds a little stressful, but probably contributes to cabaret being a dynamic genre that is always evolving. But it also assumes an extremely high level of professional skill where participating musicians and technical crews need to execute their skills with minimal preparation.

With my minimal exposure to cabaret thus far I'm not sure how applicable this is to cabaret in general, but there seems to be a leaning towards the risque. I saw several very suggestive performers, and one who was outright erotic. But it's an intriguing genre where sexual or other bohemian behaviour is showcased in quite subtle, classy fashion. It can occasionally be crude, but generally this kind of behaviour from the edge of acceptability was suggestive, or naughty, or implied. It was not explicit or cheap. As Sven Ratzke said, cabaret is about sex with class, and where you don't need to be naked with a wrecking ball to be sexy!

Sven Ratzke's show, Divas Diva's, is one of two I'd like to mention as the highlights of what I've seen these two past weeks. You can read my full review of it here, but it was camp, sexy, a little outrageous, funny, reflective and musically outstanding. The other was Rocket Man by Rod Davies. Again, the review here tells the fuller story, but this was a masterpiece of entertainment combining music and narrated stories of Rod's life journey through music. The man should be regarded, and maybe already is by some, as a national treasure.

So now I know a little about cabaret. I know it is classy, that the standard of music is exceptional, and that it can vary widely in format and style. Each new show brought a different way of being cabaret, and from an audience point of view this is quite exciting because you're not quite sure what to expect. But I'm sure of one thing, if it's on the Adelaide Cabaret Festival program it will be very good. I may not like it, but it will be very good.

(PS Thank you Catherine :) 

Lots more Cabaret Festival reviews at Adelaide's newest online arts magazine:

Thursday, June 05, 2014


Some notes on a day of legendary speakers.

Sugata  Mitra - From a hole in the wall to the cloud: engaging your students to fulfil their sense of wonder and passion for learning 

Most people will know of Sugata Mitra because of his now famous hole in the wall experiments with computers in India. I knew of these experiments but more recently latched on to his work when I came across this quote that he offered to explain how education globally has come to be in such dire straits:

He maintains that the old (and still current) educational system was designed to produce people who obeyed orders;  people who could, read, write and count, but it was not designed to produce people who were creative or think for  themselves ie it is now obsolete

Is KNOWING (not Knowledge) obsolete?

He revisited this idea of asking whether we actually need to know/remember things anymore,  given that the Internet is constantly at our finger tips, and that the more important skill may be knowing where to find information when you need to know it. I was intrigued by Larry Sanger's refutation of this proposition some years ago, and offered my own comments in this article.

Mitra referred to the Reptilian part of the human brain that is concerned with threat and punishment and is the state of mind in which you learn least effectively; this is how we feel when we are tested in exams!

A new model of learning: 
  • SOLE: self organised learning environment = broadband Internet + collaboration + helpful adult (guide/facilitator)
  • Self Organising systems > the edge of chaos > emergence (RIP Marie Jasinksi - a former colleague who was well ahead of her time in identifying chaos theory as a explanation of how creativity and innovation come about.)

Mitra has funding to build 'schools in the cloud' (5 in India; 2 in the UK)

This was an inspiring presentation from someone who is daring to challenge traditional thinking about how students learn, and is refreshingly humble about his achievements. Several times during his presentation he said "I'm not sure" or "I don't know" but I think he's right about a great deal.

PANEL SESSION  Higher Ed Congress

Just caught the tail end of this session. It was great to hear the renowned Elliot Masie talk in person. A few snippets:

·       unis don't necessarily meet the needs of industry; degrees aren't all that valuable (echos what employers often say about TAFE qualifications in Australia)
·       corporations want continuous learners, and more emphasis on evidence than ritual (eg PPT is a ritual and does not promote cognitive transfer)
·       wants 'aggressive learners'
·       the world does not present 'disciplinary problems'; so we need cross-disciplinary experts. (A theme Ken Robinson has often addressed. If we want to solve complex problems like climate change our education systems need to produce people who can contemplate such problems from multiple perspectives - scientific, sociological, economic, etc)

John Daniel and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic -
Post traditional Tertiary Education: Exploring the challenges of diversity and quality

Wonderful to see another legendary educator talk in person! But as you can see from my notes below this session presented several questions that need further exploration.

·         just 25% of uni students are recent school leavers
·         Aust youth unemployment currently 12% (one of the world's lowest)
·         OER came to be via UNESCO in 2002
·         only one uni getting ROI from MOOCS and open content: Open University UK (need to find out more on how they do this)
·         MOOCS are like battle suicide - only a few students survive/reach the end
·         MOOCS may be increasing gap in access to education (how???) and degrees
·         [see for slides - but out of date. Nothing from later than 2012 there.]

David Barnett (Pearson) - Higher Ed at the Crossroads

In the US the salaries of degree holders has decreased 14% while at the same time the cost of a degree has risen 72%. (The same is likely to happen in Australia if the current government's planned deregulation goes ahead.)

Ken Robinson  - the usual :) Creativity, the Future, Innovation, Education etc. Or more precisely: Learning to be creative: how to teach and lead innovation, identify talents and revolutionise education

He spoke for more than an hour so it was great value for money. It was entertaining - as are all his talks that many of the audience would have been familiar with via his TedTalks, but in truth it was a little light on substance. That often seems to be the way with keynote speakers these days. They are there more to entertain than inform. Sir Ken did both certainly, and much of the audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation but I had the feeling that it was just as much about acknowledging his contribution to educational debate over the years as it was showing appreciation for his address.

His book Out of Our Minds has been virtually rewritten.

New Technologies:

·         tools (technology) are neutral
·         but new tools and technologies allow you to conceive of things in new ways
·         there are always unintended consequences

In relation to the use of new technologies he made the point that
"If we can, we will." My explorations into cutting edge (and controversial) technologies has led me to the same conclusion. (See Where is the Internet Taking Us?) Consider drones, implanted technologies...

  • 10% of all humanity that has ever lived is alive right now. Most of the population explosion has occurred in the developing world. And for the first time in history the majority of the world now live in urban settings.

He bemoans the fact that contemporary educational administrators and policy makers are stuck on measuring outcomes to the exclusion of all else: "It's all about yield." Elsewhere he wrote:

"The dominant culture of education has come to focus not on teaching 
and learning, but testing...this...leads to a culture of compliance rather than creativity.“

Principles of Organic Farming:

·         culture
·         ecology
·         fairness
·         care

In organic farming the primary focus is on the soil. The educational equivalent for this metaphor is culture.

Children are borne as learning organisms eg witness the way they learn language. This can't be taught.

Cultural Filters:
When presented with a picture of a tiger in the jungle people from  Western cultures see a tiger (focus on individuals). People from Asian cultures see jungle (focus on relationship)

"The power is within our hands; we need to push back against those who wish to just measure yield."

He concluded with a wonderful short video of people in Paraguay creating musical instruments from rubbish.

Lovely to witness such a fine speaker ply his trade!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It's Raining in Suva....

... something which apparently happens on average 300 days a year. It's late afternoon and it's gloomy - almost dark. I'm nestled in the corner of the Air Cafe at a tiny airport. It seems despite the rain the planes will fly and I'll be in Nadi this evening.

Other passengers on this short flight are slowly filtering in so Nasouri airport almost feels busy. There's probably no more than 50 people here. Fiji changes the scale of things. The population of the whole country fits comfortably into Adelaide. It's never really crowded here. It's one of the few places I've visited where it would relatively easy to be alone. It's another of those 'they don't know how lucky they are' situations. It's an island paradise with a gentle climate, ridiculously lush vegetation (courtesy of the around 300 days of rain per year), where people shuffle around in sandals or thongs (or barefoot), wearing sulus and bright flowery clothing en route to somewhere in 'Fiji time.'

'Fiji time' takes some getting used to. It's great that people here are relaxed, but through another cultural lens it can seem rude. Why agree to meet at 4.00 when you have absolutely no intention of being ready at 4.00? It's probably going to be closer to 4.30. So why not just make it 4.30? Because it wouldn't happen till 5.00! So it goes...but it does give people the chance to relax about meeting deadlines, and an excuse to be lazy and inefficient. Your culture will decide :)

Despite the rain (in Suva); despite the low standard living for many - no electricity or running water - everyone seems to have a home and food to eat. Much like Sri Lanka. There's not much fat on the average budget, but people seem generally well and content. There is a percentage of drunken young men (the 18 - 25 year olds again) hanging out on Suva streets with nothing else to do but threaten violence but it doesn't feel too pernicious.

When I was last here about 18 years ago there was another noticeable tension which seems to have dissipated - that between indigenous Fijians and the Indian interlopers. Back then it was being constantly talked about and reported in the media. Such division seems to be a thing of the past for now - the two majority ethnic groups seem more intent on being Fijian rather than for example, Indo-Fijian. They're to be commended for that I say. I wonder if Afro-Americans might ever adopt this approach and just announce themselves as 'American'?

And today I learned about Rotuma. It's an island way off to the north about 500 kilometres away. Pasirio, who I've worked with the last few days, hails from there. He hasn't been there since 2009. It's apparently very hard to reach by air or sea. There's no other speck of land in any direction for 300 kms..And the people are Polynesian. That's all I know. I'm going to go hunting on Google for more information. I'm intrigued. Though he may not have not have been home to Rotuma for 5 years he has a calm about him. An island calm maybe, and an easy personal warmth.

And maybe that sums up Fiji - calm and warm. Though the fake bula smiles/greetings drive me nuts. Most of these greetings are genuine, but you get a few 'bulas' with a fake smile and no eye contact. Please Fiji folks - if you don't want to greet me and say hello that's absolutely fine by me. Ignore me. That's much nicer than a forced fake smile.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Today concluded 25 years of working with TAFE SA. Some reflections on that (mostly) wonderful part of my life...

My first teaching appointment in TAFE was as a part time English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher of night classes in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. From the outset, coming from the school sector, I was struck by the amount of trust I was given. Just twice in several  months in those early days in TAFE was I contacted by my manager to check if everything was going OK, and on both occasions it was clear that it was assumed that I was a professional who knew their job and would do the right thing by my students and the organisation. There was a curriculum (no Training Packages back then) and it was up to me how I taught it, what resources I used, and how I assessed students, but support was there if I needed it. Being the kind of person I am I responded favourably to this approach - I felt trusted and respected.
After some months I applied for a contract position on the Education Program for Migrants (EPM) at the now defunct Kilkenny campus. I won the position at interview (at which some people were smoking!) EPM was a ground breaking program. It entailed English language instruction, vocational electives held at various TAFE campuses, and a work experience program. And we had a budget to hold a graduation ceremony that showcased students'  skills and progress that to this day I remember as landmark events . It was common for students to say "I will never forget this day" because they had been afforded for the first time in their new country the opportunity to display their talents in public, and be proud of who they were.
Twenty five years in an organisation is a long time and it's sobering to reflect on the fact that several colleagues who had a significant role in your professional life as friends and mentors are now dead. One of these people was Bron Davis. Anyone who knew Bron knows that she was not always easy to work with but she taught me a lot about how to be an effective ESL teacher and I am forever in her debt. I hope you're resting in peace Bron.
Of course the wheel turned and funding for this very successful program was cut. The ESL program of Western Adelaide Institute, as it was known at the time, was moved to Croydon and the Kilkenny campus was demolished. I became the coordinator of the ESL program at Croydon and held that position for several years. Throughout this time my program manager (of Vocational Preparation) was Brian Jackson. Brian was a delightful man who cared for his staff, stood up for us and the program when necessary, and just quietly went about his business. He didn't check up on you or want to know everything that was going on. But he too was there to offer support when needed. From the bottom of my heart, thank you Brian. I never met your style of manager again in ensuing years in TAFE.
It was during this time at Croydon that I discovered the Internet.  I think it was 1997. I came back to work and turned on my computer. I noticed a new icon on the desktop - a capital N. I clicked on it and I knew instantly what it was. It was the Internet! The N was for Netscape - one of the earliest browsers. I'd heard about this 'information superhighway' and just started clicking. I was smitten instantly. I have often wondered why others at that same point were not immediately smitten. I was used to technology. I had at this stage spent several years navigating the intricacies of Word Perfect, the precursor to Microsoft Word, and had enjoyed learning how to exploit its more advanced functions so it was a natural transition for me to graduate to another layer of technology.
Within weeks I was drawing on the Internet to create materials for my ESL classes. I discovered very quickly that there were significant numbers of ESL/EFL teachers around the globe who were putting their lesson materials online and I happily made use of them. The next step was to organise for my ESL classes to be held once a week in a computer room. I would direct my students to ESL specific sites - the pioneer of them all was Dave's ESL Cafe. There I would set students to work on the many exercises that Dave's ESL Cafe provided. And they loved it. Even students with zero or rudimentary computer skills would work diligently to complete the comprehension and fill in the gap exercises. This was the first occasion when I saw students who wanted to continue the exercises after the lesson was over and I would have to reluctantly insist that students shut down the computer and vacate the room!
The next step was to contact actual students who were online from various places around the world and initiate live chat. I remember the first time a student, disbelievingly, typed some introductory text into the little chat box. We waited and watched and some seconds later some student somewhere in the world replied! My student looked at me speechless and I had to tell them that there was someone online at that very moment willing to talk with them. A magic moment.
Another part of the site allowed for students to leave their details as part of a basic profile that included an email address.  After introducing my students to email via basic conversations with me, some felt brave enough to compose an email to an unknown stranger.  Annie from China was one who was keen to try this out. I set her up with an email address and she sat at the computer ready to type to someone. Before she had typed a word she looked up at me and said, "Is this typing or talking?" Another magic moment! She had realised instinctively that she was about to embark on a new form of communication for which there were no rules - a new genre if you will. I told her it was a combination of both. Something else I have often wondered about is why some people instinctively 'get' this Internet thing - Annie knew she was on the precipice of something brand new and exciting.
Some students of course struggled with the writing requirements of this kind of Internet contact, and the next magic moment in my early days of Internet exploration with low-level ESL students was with an Iranian student. She was from Tehran and I guided her through the process of using a search engine (it was Lycos!) to search for pictures of Tehran. Happily we found some - we found a site that even provided full  screen images so we clicked on a full screen image of a street scene in Tehran. What happened next was nothing less than profound. She was suddenly silent as she gazed at the scene on the screen in front of her and then managed to utter "that's my city." With tears in her eyes she just sat there gazing at images of home. This was the first time I realised the incredible power of this new medium.
So began my love affair with the Internet that completely changed the direction of my career from ESL teacher to Internet and Education specialist. It was around the year 2000 that I was 'tapped on the shoulder' by Deb Bennett and asked if I would like take up a position as a Professional Development Officer in Online Education for the newly formed Online Education Services (OES) unit. I accepted the challenge and reluctantly relocated to a new office in Adelaide TAFE. It was a hard decision to leave the safety and camaraderie of ESL teaching but it was one of the best I ever made.
At that time TAFE SA led the nation in online learning, due largely to the vision and foresight of the manager of the OES unit - Neil Strong.  Neil had quite deliberately assembled a group of people who could take TAFE SA forward in this new and exciting area.  Before long my working life in TAFE became one of a gypsy. Whereas at Kilkenny and Croydon I was located on one campus year after year,  my life became one where I, together with Doug Purcell, would visit and run training sessions in WebCT on several different campuses a week. This included country campuses. Quite frequently Doug and I would set off on road trips and visit campuses in the Riverland, the mid north, and as far as Port Augusta. Further afield we took planes to Lincoln, Whyalla, and Mt Gambier. On all these occasions we would arrive at a regional campus and announce, "We're from the government and we're here to help you." It became our standing joke, but we loved every minute of travelling far and wide across the state to assist lecturers in the new world of online and elearning.


Such was our profile in the Australian VET sector WebCT entrusted us with the planning, coordination and hosting of national WebCT conferences for our part of the world. So the next stage of my TAFE life was to work closely with Deb Bennett to coordinate a program for these conferences. These were incredibly successful events that drew people from around the country and the whole Asia-Pacific region. The work was challenging, incredibly complex,  and immensely rewarding.
The next steps in my journey took me overseas. It's hard to imagine in these cash strapped times how this was ever possible but in those times TAFE was a visionary forward-looking organisation that saw value in promoting our brand overseas, and sending staff overseas to see what others were doing and bring back that first hand experience for the benefit of TAFE SA. Consequently I went on trips to Georgia and Vancouver to attend WebCT conferences and visit other educational organisations.

MIND MEDIA (Douglas  Mawson Institute)
Somewhere in amongst all this giddy activity of organising international conferences and travelling the state training staff in elearning I became part of MindMedia. MindMedia was a mystery to many. What does it do people would ask? Principally its job was to foster innovative practice - remarkable now to consider that that was the brief! But we had to cover as much of our salaries as possible. And led by the inimitable Marie Jasinski, we more or less did. For several years we were the home of Learnscope, a national elearning professional development program hosted by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (the 'Framework'). We hosted the national website (designed and administered by Tim Cavanagh), and saw a succession of national and international guests come through our doors due to Marie's indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit - among them Stephen  Downes, Tom Reeves, and Thiagi . It felt like we were at the centre of the elearning universe in Australia, and I think for a while we were. We hosted international WebCT conferences and the national VET elearning PD program. Everything elearning came through TAFE SA.
I've had the pleasure of working with several great workgroups, but MindMedia was the most stimulating. As I said, our brief was innovation. Marie J was a wonderfully creative thinker and was always coming up with new ideas on teaching and learning. Tim ran the website,  Jeff Catchlove and I facilitated Learnscope projects and ran PD sessions, and it was all held together by the admin skills of Jenni Chappel. (Thanks Jenni!) It was an extraordinary place to work There were other people who were an important  part of MindMedia (eg Lawrence James, Janet McMillan (the most fun manager I ever had!) and a cast of others who came through in the course of the week. And then tragedy struck. Marie suddenly got very ill and had to take time off. It's a long sad story. Marie died and the unit was eventually closed as part of a new TAFE strategy to centralise all media services into one. The rot had begun.
Unfortunately serious illness also played a part in the demise of OES. Neil Strong got sick and had to retire, and the powers that be began to frown on units that were going outside of TAFE to earn money and it was discouraged. Again ironic when you consider the current climate where we are all now encouraged to go out and create business. So the wheel turns!

Leftist activists of the late 1960s in America used to refer to 'Amerika with a K' to highlight the fact that the Anerican ideal of peace and equality was a just a dream for many. They argued that many Americans lived in poverty and hardship, experienced daily racism and other forms of prejudice, and that the system perpetuated these inequalities. Whenever they spelt Amerika with a K it was to remind people of these injustices.
Let me be clear - the AQTF and the AQF are in themselves a good idea. What is not such a good idea in my opinion, and where we have lost the plot, is the over emphasis on assessment, auditing and accountability. In TAFESA these processes have been regularly and stoutly defended as required by a department we now called 'Quality.' I am sure that Quality achieved some things of worth, but I also know that under this guise of Quality I saw:
·         an increasing lack of trust in dedicated professionals
·         a growing obsession with assessment and auditing
·         the amount of time people had to prepare for teaching drastically reduced
·         the amount of time needed for assessment and reporting drastically increase
·         sometimes appalling treatment of staff
·         bullying of staff by managers
·         a noticeable drop-off in attendance at PD sessions (because staff had no time for such things)
- all in the name of quality! I had been annoyed for some time that TAFE had hijacked the word quality and I started silently referring to it as Kwality, because what our 'quality system' had instituted in the name of kwality had nothing to do with quality. In fact I could easily argue that with the ever increasing influence of 'Quality' in our system TAFE life has had less and less to do with quality. What I am absolutely sure of is the regard that the organisation has for its employees is a far cry from the way people were treated when I first came into TAFE. It is very, very sad to see. Accountability, satisfying budgets, and passing audits is about Kwality. Looking after your staff is about quality. As in quality of life. Kwality has more to do with covering your butt at every turn so you can't be sued.


Around this time someone(s) decreed that  the River Torrens would divide metro TAFE into south and north. I fell out on the northern side although I had worked across TAFE for the last 10 years. it was very strange to have to separate from friends and colleagues across the river. I was fortunate though to be able to continue in an elearning PD role. A little while later and the Teaching and Learning Units for each of the three new institutes were born, and I found myself in a workgroup of three. I found this really difficult. For about 15 years I had been part of larger workgroups that had been dynamic, progressive and full of energy, but it's hard to generate that same dynamism between three people. The three were Mark Hunwicks (manager), Cheryl Cox, and me. Over time we became quite close and really felt that we were doing a good job servicing the PD needs of TAFE Adelaide North. And then another door closed. Teaching and Learning units were not part of the new structure that was unleashed mid 2013. Further it was decreed that there would be no TAFE  Act staff doing any PD. Mark decided to leave in September and now I follow 6 months later. I find it difficult to see how I fit into an organisation that appears to have sidelined the education part of Vocational Education and Training.
When I was a novice in my early days in TAFE I sometimes came across veterans who had been in TAFE a long time and were dissatisfied with the way things were changing. (I guess it is ever thus!) But I thought at the time that these disgruntled oldies would be better off leaving. They just seemed to whinge constantly. I had become well aware over the last few years that I had reached a similar stage in my TAFE life. I disapproved of many of the changes and tried hard not to appear as a disgruntled type who just pined for the old days. Only others can judge whether I was successful on that score! I do find it hard to accept the changes. To me the only logical explanation is that the government has embarked on a deliberate policy to dismantle as much of TAFE as they can. All done under the guise of Skills for All. (Sorry - I don't believe in it!)
As it happens, for the first time in my life last week before the recent election I received a door knock from my local member. I asked them why they were ripping TAFE apart and suggested it would be preferable if they were open and upfront about what they were doing. Interestingly, they didn't offer any counter argument.
Obviously I am disenchanted about what is happening in TAFE, and I can be very critical of these changes. But I also want to say that I was very proud for at least 23 of my 25 years here to say that I worked for TAFE SA. I have had an amazing ride. TAFE has afforded me opportunities to develop personally and professionally in ways I could never have imagined. It sent me overseas several  times, enabled me to travel the state and attend conferences all over the country, and gave me the priceless gift of meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful students and colleagues who have enriched my life and helped me grow. It gave me enormous freedom. I have often told people that I have the best job of anyone I know. But times changed, and I no longer share the same values that the current organisation espouses. In fact, I don't know what TAFE stands for anymore. Every decision made in TAFE these days is made for just one reason - to save money. And when that is the case you have arrived in a race to the bottom. I sincerely hope that it survives and that people coming into TAFE now get as much pleasure and pride out of it  as I have done.
Thank you all for your friendship and support. I loved being your colleague, and helping out where I could. But they say on reality TV's time to go....Michael!



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