Author Archives: Russell Cawthorne

A Long Day’s Journey

The surgical and cardiac unit at Frankston Public Hospital still has that new paint smell. I checked in at reception, glad to be out of the cold, wind and rain. A few questions and ID check and I got my green paper and sat amongst the other waiting souls. Surprisingly soon a pleasant-looking nurse with an unpleasantly-thick folder appeared from one of the row of consulting room doors and called my name.

“That’s was quick. A good sign.” I optimistically thought to myself. The admission interview took about half and hour then back to the waiting area for a much longer wait until a white-coated man called me from another door. He introduced himself as the anaesthetist. He had another thick folder and interrogated me for another half hour explaining in detail my anaesthetic options — although it became increasingly clear that the only person with options was going to be the surgeon.

“It depends on how far he wants to go up,” explained the anaesthetist matter-of-factly. “If he only wants to go up to here,” he places his hands just above the level of what I imagine was his navel. “Then I suggest a spinal block, ever had one of those?”

I nodded.

“But if he want’s to go up to here …” His hands moved up to make a line above his rib cage. I will have to change to another option.” That word again. I tried not to shudder. “I prefer the spinal block. Permanent damage is very, very rare and I will be able to communicate with you.”

Rare? Communicate? This time I don’t think I hid the shudder.

Wrapping up he explained he was ordering an ECG and would be taking blood samples for analysis before any anaesthesia. This no doubt related to his questions about my previous cardiac “events”.

“Just wait here. Someone will be with you shortly and I’ll see you later.”

Thus began the long wait!

Hours passed, literally. To break up the monotony — and ease a sore bottom — I persuaded the nurses to do the ECG the anaesthetist had ordered. That done I settled into another long wait. At least now I was horizontal.

Every now and again a nurse would look in, presumably to make sure I had not smuggled in a picnic basket or otherwise broken my fast (not even a drink of water). One of my meds has the side effect of turning saliva into thickly-setting glue.

I kept asking for information about when I would be moving to prep, or for ANY information at all. None was forthcoming but eventually the friendliest nurse relented and trusted me with a cup of water to rinse if I promised not to swallow.

Having anticipated some waiting time during the day I had brought my MP3 player which I had carefully fully charged only to find I had forgotten to bring the ear-buds.

Bugger! Bugger!

Relax. Relax.


I was being tugged out of my music-less daze by a voice telling me to get dressed.

“Get dressed”???

I still had my pants on under the blanket, it was only an ECG after all, but “Get dressed”?

“Sorry, but your procedure has been cancelled.”

These were just about the worst words I could hear — and not only because of a day of food-less, music-less tension. It had been months of uncertainty, anxiety and self-questioning to get this far. The discomfort and occasional pain that went along with it paled into nothingness.

“God,” I moaned. “This has happened to me before. Why this time?”

“I don’t know, no bed available …” she offered.

“I didn’t think I needed a bed.”

“Neither did I. I’m very sorry. The surgeon is coming to talk to you. Would you like tea or coffee?”

I was as grateful for the distraction of the tea as the prospect of swallowing some liquid.

The tea arrived lukewarm in a small Styrofoam cup followed by the surgeon in large white rubber surgeon’s boots. He was a large man. The colourful floral headscarf set off his deep olive complexion. His accent, as often happens with those who learn Australian as a second language, was broader “Aussie” than the locals in the cheapest seats at a country football game.

The explanation was quite rational, although I was all but incapable of seeing logic by now. It involved an operation earlier that had time-consuming complications, the unexpected arrival in the Emergency Department of a critical patient needing surgery and patients not being ready to be discharged as expected. These combined had consumed the small buffer of beds that had to be held in reserve for further unexpected eventualities, including me.

He apologized again, assured me that he and my specialist wanted this procedure to happen as soon as possible and that my case has been up-graded to top priority and would be rescheduled for the earliest available slot. He offered his hand.

I was careful not too squeeze it too hard.

Justice, Beijing style.

Matthew Ng was offered a deal he couldn’t refuse.
But he did — and it will cost him the next thirteen years of his life.

Mathew and Niki Ng
In 2006 and 2008, Ng’s travel company, Et-China, bought a controlling interest in a company called GZL, a subsidiary of the Communist party-run Lingnan Group. Lingnan later asked Ng to sell the shares back at the original price but Ng, a Chinese-born Australian citizen now had an offer from Swiss travel group Kuoni , to sell the entire company for US$100 million and refused.

In November 2010, Ng and others from GZL were arrested and detained. Chinese prosecutors accused Ng of illegally transferring money between Et-China and GZL, and bribing GZL officials.  Australian consular officials, Ng’s lawyers and family, were all told the hearing was to be merely procedural but prosecutors turned up with fresh evidence, giving Ng little chance to contest the evidence before he was sentenced.

Ng’s wife, Niki Chow, told The Australian newspaper in Guangzhou: “According to the notice from the court it was just going to be the presentation of new evidence, it was totally outside everybody’s expectations that the judge would read out the verdict after a 15-minute break.”

According to The Australian,  Mrs Chow said the defence evidence was ignored by the courts and the judges paid heed only to the prosecutor.

Ng was given eight years for embezzlement, two for corruption, two-and-a-half years for a false capital declaration, and two for bribery after being detained for  thirteen months from when he was originally tried last August.

Ng has been receiving Australian consular assistance.  “We have made clear to Chinese authorities our strong interest in Mr Ng’s case,” said the Department of Foreign Affairs in a statement quoted by the BBC. The department said Prime Minister Julia Gillard had talked to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Ng’s case, and other officials had spoken to the Guangdong government.

Australian officials indicated that they were constrained from commenting further as they expected Matthew Ng to appeal his harsh sentence. However an expert on Chinese legal affairs interviewed on ABC 24 News this morning (7/12/2011) said that the success rate for such appeals was about 1% and and so diplomatic representation seems the only option. 

There are two other obstacles between Ng and justice: first, Chinese courts are far more likely to serve the interest of the Communist party and its officials than any semblance of natural justice and second, the concept of nationality and citizenship does not seem to exist in Chinese law.  If you are ethnically Chinese you are subject to the whims of the flimsy Chinese legal system as if you were a Chinese citizen — regardless of where you were born or what passport you carry.

In China, ethnicity trumps nationality, a race-based concept that would scandalise any developed system of law or justice.

And yet this is a government with which Australia nurtures diplomatic, trade and even military cosiness.


Rumour, Fear and the Madness of Crowds

Scanning TV and radio yesterday was like watching a mob of yokels milling around a railway crossing waiting for a train wreck.

The rush was on to be the one to deliver the first, worst, and most bad news about a world-wide stock-market crash and a new global financial crisis,

For some commentators, their ghoulish excitement was so ill-concealed they were practically drooling as they strained for the first rumble of wheel on steel.

Today, so much news is not news, it is speculation; pre-news if you like.

Enough speculation, and god knows there is more than enough of it, creates news; it makes things happen.

Some people have worked out that many major events that sweep society are not driven by fact or reason, but by rumour, fear and the madness of crowds.

Not enough people, unfortunately.

Take any opportunity for misfortune or catastrophe, add a few dubious experts, apply heat, stir continuously and, voila, the sky falls!

“See, we told you so!” chortle the commentators like a ghastly Greek chorus.

The mob as an organism

There is a point at which individuals linked by circumstances, accidentally or by design, give up their individuality to be totally absorbed by the mob. The Borg in Star Trek was a cosmic example.  They no longer think or act or reason as a person, but exist solely to serve the mob.

I saw it once. It both fascinated and frightened me.

A Hong Kong night in 1981 or 82:  my wife and I together with another couple were walking in Central district. We were leaving, or possibly enroute to, or even between Christmas/New parties.  From somewhere in the streets lining the canyons between tall buildings came the sound of many voices. Not happy, holiday voices, more  a chorus, deep and course, swelling and ebbing.

I was curious but pretty much ignored it. Not so my companion — or his Chinese wife.

He froze, like a stalked animal, head scanning side to side, jaw slack, his usually pink cheeks now chalklike.

This was odd, I thought. All the more so for a man who was an experienced officer in Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Actually that was exactly what made his behaviour not odd at all. For one thing a requirement of his position was fluency in Cantonese. For another was that he had been a uniformed cop during the lethal riots of 1966 and 1967.  He had heard that sound before.

“Come on! Quick!” he urged and walk-ran in the direction of a multi-story carpark. As the four of us reached an intersection we could plainly see a large crowd less than two blocks away. Close enough for, let’s call him Tony, to comment “Mostly young, no women, come on!”

We did.

The lift seemed to take an age but eventually opened on the appropriate floor. Half running to Tony’s car, the sounds had become more of a roar.  Over the parapet in the street below we glimpsed the swarm, undulating, swelling, joining, moving quickly — as one.

Tony was very proud of his Alfa-Romeo, even though it was a modest saloon and always seemed to have some finicky thing that needed fixing. I had once seen him bring his sweet and gentle wife to tears after she  confessed to acquiring a small scratch in an unavoidable traffic incident.

You wouldn’t think so now.  Even if Tony bothered to look for his parking ticket, it wouldn’t have mattered. He had not stopped to pay it on the way in.  The Alfa’s Pirellis yelped  loudly on the smooth concrete as he charged the barrier, smashing it open and steering hard into the tight spiral ramp to ground level and out into the street.

The news next morning told of the violence; cars overturned, some incinerated; shop fronts vandalised, injuries among both innocent and guilty and the police. No fatalities as best I recall.

On reflection I am pretty sure we all could have got safely clear that night with far less fuss and drama, but Tony knew that sound and its possible consequences. He responded from calm analysis of the situation and weighing of options? Uh-uh. Instinct? Perhaps. Fear based on past experience — his own or anecdotes of others?

That fits.

Whatever the reason I will now remember for the rest of my life that other-worldly sound and the sight of hundreds of individuals becoming willing cells in a powerful and frightening mass mind to wreak what havoc it will.

That takes me pretty much back to the beginning.

E.T., film home?

“Bystanders filmed the incident on their mobile phones and we will bring you the footage after the break.”

Could be almost any newsreader on any day on any channel anywhere in the world.

You have probably noticed that there is no practical way to shove a reel of movie film into your mobile phone.

You may also have noticed that your mobile phone records video on a solid state memory chip which is usually measured in bytes rather than feet.

These facts seem to have escaped Telstra, one of Australia’s biggest telcos. Their current commercial shows a family at a beach as mum captures the scene on her mobile phone which a CGI pelican proceeds to gulp. “You are filming at the beach and a bird steals your phone.” proclaims the voice-over. “Never mind, your footage is safely stored (along with your other important documents for you to retrieve whenever you want.”)

That’s some pelican that can steal a phone,  unload a reel of movie film from somewhere inside it and fly that footage to have it processed in a lab and stored ready for you to edit on your Steinbeck and project on a bed-sheet to persecute your hapless relatives.

Of course mobile phones have never used film and, these days most cameras, amateur and professional, record not even on tape, but on tiny memory chips similar to the one in your phone.

TK-76 ENG camera

An ad for the RCA TK-76 ENG camera

The shift from film to videotape and eventually solid-state recording emerged through news coverage with the first “electronic news gathering”  (ENG) camera, RCA’s breakthrough TK-76.

I previewed (OK, played with) a pre-release PAL model at RCA’s research and development laboritory at Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  It was officially  introduced at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) convention and show in Chicago in 1976 (hence the number in the name) where I got to play with it mounted on another breakthrough presented at that convention,  Garret Brown’s brilliant  SteadiCam.


Garret Brown's revolutionary Steadicam

Wearing that rig for the first time was an amazing experience. It felt as if the camera was controlling me and its operating principle and mechanism totally baffling.

The TK-76 was still tethered to an external  video recorder, usually a Sony U-Matic or  Betamax Professional. Later developments of course combined the videotape recorder with the camera body;  the three vacuum tubes used to record the red, green and blue components of the image were replaced with solid-state chips and the digital image data recorded on digital tape — now on memory chips.

It has been more than two decades, a whole generation, since TV news crews recorded events on film or TV networks handled a foot of the stuff.

It is probably about time that news writers and announcers woke up to the fact.

Love in a warming climate.

Inviting Lord Christopher Monckton to address their conference, the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies in Australia quite declared their hand, their heart and their politics.

Accepting a similar invitation, Tony Abbot declared his.

Agreeing to share a pulpit with this professional fraud, the leader of the Australian federal opposition has disgraced himself and discredited his party.

Monckton, a notorious showman in the cause of opposing climate science, recently publicly accused the Australian government’s advisor on climate matters as having a fascist viewpoint.

“Professor Ross Garnaut, that again is a fascist point of view that you merely accept authority without question. Heil Hitler, on we go.” said Monckton.

It rather occurs to me that it is those who reject the science who “… accept authority without question.” Surely it is science that is constantly open to the most rigorous testing and stringent peer review. While it is anti-science that resorts to rabble-rousing rhetoric.

The authority they accept being big business and big mining. Their maxim being profits now why care about a future they will not be alive to suffer.

Monckton spoke before a banner of a swastika and declared “Heil Hitler”.

Abbot attempts to wash his hands by saying he will not actually speak on the same platform or – heaven forbid – meet Monckton in person.

So that’s alright then?

No, Tony, not good enough, not nearly good enough. Shame.

Double Fault

Maria Sharapova 01

Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2011

Break out the Boli! Scoff down the strawberries! It’s Wimbledon again! Harrah!

While we thrill to Sharapova and Hantuchova grunting it out on the manicured grass of the centre court, in the commentary boxes sports announcers are mangling their names.

What is it that sports commentators do that makes them too busy learn how to pronounce the names of the people they are being paid to inform us about?

Many commentators, notably and possibly most annoying of the lot, are several on Australia’s ABC TV and radio networks who are obsessed with pronouncing any Russian or Slavic name that is transliterated as ending in –ova to rhyme with moreover (more-OH-ver), as in shah-rah-POH-vuh. Wrong. The emphasis is on the second syllable and the POH syllable is given very short shrift: sha-RAH-pu-vah.

The first irony is that Ms Sharapova succumbed to overwhelming ignorance and now mispronounces her own name.

The second irony is that some commentators who actually know the correct pronunciations deliberately mispronounce them less they be thought to be in error.

The Glass Menagerie

These days in Australia, both sides of the parliament seem to be populated by a scrapping menagerie too busy yapping, snarling, lying and nipping at each others throats and ankles to have any spirit for leadership, policy, and, god forbid, oratory.
The government still seems to be constantly wobbling on its training wheels while the opposition skulks and lurks, quivering for any opportunity to lust into a feeding frenzy of point-scoring.
The victims are the truth and the future of the nation.

These are our elected representatives, our freely-elected government.

More fools we!

The Vast Wasteland

I long had the idea that the phrase “vast wasteland” was a quote from Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, or at least William S. Burroughs.

I could hardly have been more wrong – and I should have known better.

It is not from the anti-establishment, boundary-pushing writings of the beat generation. It is from a senior member of the establishment, one Newton N. Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He was addressing the most powerful people in broadcasting in America: the 1961 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Minow’s speech* challenged people to watch, without interruption or distraction, a full day of television, from the breakfast programme to sign off (they did sign off in 1961). What they would see, he assured them, would be a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

So what has changed in almost 40 years?

Fewer westerns and private eyes but more gangsters, more cops, more explicit violence, more so-called reality broadcasting, more amateur talent shows, more and worse commercials, dumber presenters and more mind-numbing mediocrity.

The wasteland got vaster.

* Full text of the speech

Does this ring a bell?

The sound of a phone ringing is being subtly woven into the audio of TV (and probably radio) commercials.

You are watching TV.
A commercial break.
Your mind’s shutters come down.

Ring! Ring!


Your shutters fly up.
You are NOW watching a commercial.

This is the snarliest, sneakiest, most insidious trick to trap you to pay attention to the advertising since the gratuitous giggle of little girls was tagged to the end of everything.

The sound of a phone ringing is being subtly woven into the audio of TV (and possibly radio) commercials. The actual ring tone is even tailored to the target of the commercial. Selling funeral plans to oldies will use traditional bell sounds. Equally dubious products claiming to suck up pimples will underlay the ring tone most popular with teens.

What can we do about it? Not much. There are no laws against this.