Author Archives: Greta

Gardens and vineyards

After a leisurely breakfast at the same cafe as yesterday we went to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a large park with the Avon River running through it. It’s Autumn in Christchurch and in this cooler climate the deciduous trees are a riot of colour.

We also went into an exhibition of whimsical dance costumes, all based on floral themes. Created by Jenny Gilllies, each costume takes three months to make. I don’t doubt it. The inspiration to create the design is amazing, and then each component piece must be sewn individually before it’s all put together. A screen at the back of the exhibition showed the costumes being worn in dance. That really brought the whole thing to life.

I loved the water garden with its strategically placed trees reflecting their Autumn splendour in the water.

We enjoyed a glass of wine in the gardens, and a simple wine and cheese meal at the apartment.

The following afternoon in brilliant Autumn weather we went on what turned out to be a private wine-tasting tour in the Waipara valley, just north of Christchurch. Our driver, Graham, picked us up in a Volvo SUV since we were the only people who’d booked. Touring in comfort – I’ll take that any day. He was much the same age as us, and he told us stories about the quake, as well as about the countryside we passed through.

We had lunch on the veranda

A simple platter full of variety

First stop was at Waipara Springs, where we enjoyed a wonderful, very welcome, lunch including fruit and salad. We sampled their wines, mainly whites with a final pinot noir. That was pretty much the pattern – whites, then maybe a light red and or a dessert wine. Our server here was an American.

Then we crossed the road to Greystoke/Muddy Waters. As the name suggests, two wineries were combined, one on limestone soil, the other on clay. Because of the soil differences, the wines from the two areas were quite different. The vintner here was Fergus, who is as Irish as his name suggests.

From there we went to Waipara Hills, dominated by a truly magnificent building. Graham explained it had been built by an American, using stone imported from the US. Unfortunately, the man’s wife became homesick, so they sold up and went back home. This winery also had vines in the Marlborough area, so one of their offerings was a Marlborough Sav Blanc, We tasted a couple of sub-varieties of Chardonnay, then we were offered a late picking riesling. I don’t normally like sweet wine, but I reluctantly gave it a whirl. It was absolutely delicious, a treat with cheese.

The last winery was Pegasus Bay. This property has a beautiful garden and would be lovely for picnics and concerts on the grassy slopes above the little waterway. Back in the main building our server was a lovely German lady. This property had its wines on tap, which apparently reduced waste and spoilage since the air didn’t get into the wine. After the usual sav blanc, chardonnay, and pinot, we were offered a drop of muscat. It was very, very nice.

After a slow drive back to town caught up in traffic after an accident somewhere, we rolled back to the apartment. Dinner was a delivery of pasta, followed by an early night.

Tomorrow we’re off to the mountains.

 

The remains of a ruined city

Sunday morning dawned blustery, with scudding clouds interspersed with sunshine. My friend and I found Procope, a lovely little coffee shop, open on a Sunday morning for a welcome coffee and an excellent bite to eat, then we walked into Christchurch’s CBD. Every street had empty blocks, traffic cones, detours, wire fencing, cranes, and construction sites.

The wrecked cathedral is the outstanding reminder of the earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010/11, around 7 years ago. There used to be a spire where that metal brace stands. For the rest, the town is full of large open spaces where buildings used to stand. All these years later, the scars remain – although new, modern, (ugly) earthquake-safe structures have started to rise.

The first earthquake struck at 4:35am on 4th September, 2010. The magnitude 7.1 quake damaged many buildings, but only one person died and a few were injured.  For the following year the area was shaken by thousands of shocks and after-shocks. A serious quake on Boxing Day 2010 caused more damage, and then another serious earthquake occurred on 22nd Feb, 2011, taking down buildings already weakened by the previous activity. 185 people died in that quake, many of them inside buildings that collapsed.

It’s not just the damaged buildings, though. When the earth moved it destroyed sewerage pipes and water pipes, took down power lines, and buckled railway lines. Soil became mud and roads and buildings sank into the ground. All the fabric of modern society was destroyed. Portaloos were distrbuted and water was a problem for months.  Understandably, many people moved away from Christchurch.

I think you can’t get a feel for what has been lost unless you talk to people who knew, and loved, what was there before. Everybody has a story to tell about the quakes. I mentioned the bus driver who had managed hostels destroyed in the CBD. She was grateful no one she knew was among the 185 people killed. I spoke to the cleaning lady at the hotel, who said she still lives in her damaged home, and she’s still waiting for some sort of repairs through her insurance company. I remember hearing about the quakes on Facebook, all those years ago. One of my friends was forced to leave her home because it was unsafe – but that didn’t deter the looters. She lost valuables, but also irreplacable mementoes. She certainly wasn’t the only one.

Street art is common, as are parking lots on rubble

This city block looks okay, but look at the next picture

This building is obviously unsafe and abandoned

B had friends in Christchurch – we’ll call them W and S – and they took us on a city tour. They filled in the holes, so to speak, telling us what used to be in the empty spaces, or what was where that horrible piece of modern architecture now stands.

Nature bounces back. That basic fact was underlined as we drove past tracts of what we thought were extensive parkland that were actually places where suburbs had stood. The land has been cleared, but you can still see the streets, the trees people used to have in their gardens, the edges of the properties. In many areas people still live in their damaged houses, with the holes and damage covered up as best they can.

B’s friends’ house was also badly damaged. The house had two solid chimney stacks, and the rest of the building more or less twisted around those two structures. They were fortunate to be able to relocate to their holiday home at Akaroa – and they had insurance. We admired the house as it is now, a lovely, bright home with a gorgeous, productive garden. But S talked about what she’d lost, what used to be there, small things like tiles over the fireplace, large things like reorganised rooms.

S in particular still mourns for the beautiful buildings lost in the town. She said she never goes to the city now, and I can understand why. Some buildings have been restored to their former glory and there’s talk of restoring the cathedral, but W says there’ll be many arguments before that happens.

Every person we spoke to about the earthquake said the situation had been poorly handled, with everyone pointing a finger at somebody else. You can’t stop mother Nature – but rebuilding is something that must be done by people. Contrast the city of Napier, also devastated by earthquake, which took that unfortunate event as an opportunity to reinvent itself. The city has been rebuilt in Art Deco style (which it was not) and is very popular with tourists. In contrast, while there’s talk of restoring the old cathedral, nothing has happened so far.

One of the restored buildings giving a feel for what was here before 2010

Ongoing restoration

One of the lovely bridges over the Avon River

The epicentre of the earthquake was quite a distance from the CBD near Lyttelton, Christchurch’s main harbour. Our hosts pointed out coastal features which had been changed forever – rocks split, collapsed Maori caves, whole hillsides that slipped onto the road or into the sea. I remember seeing footage on TV of houses balanced precariously on the edge of precipices created when the land collapsed beneath them. Here, too, people are still waiting for the insurance companies to do something.

But through all this, the countryside is beautiful. We drove up winding roads to admire views over the harbour and the city, spectacular despite the gale force winds. Wind surfers – braver souls than me – rode the wind and waves, and we even spied a board rider out there.

Having seen the sights, we adjourned to B’s friends’ lovely home for drinks, nibbles and an excellent dinner – with superb NZ wine. Much of the meal incorporated home grown fruit and vegetables. The quince crumble dessert was lovely with ice cream. They make their own olive oil, too, which appeared in a hummus made from chick peas, fresh peas – and the wonderful olive oil.

Uber took us back to our accommodation. Tomorrow we’ll do a little more exploring outside the city.

Wind-blown waves in the harbour. You can see a brand new cliff just behind the beach.

From up here, the harbour is beautiful

B and G’s excellent adventure – getting there

I was off on my own (ie without Pete) for a short adventure with my oldest friend, B. She and I go back fifty years, when we first met at high school. We became firm friends at university and shared many a scrape and mistake and wonderful times back in Perth, where I grew up. These days, she still lives there with her large family and plenty of responsibilities, whereas I’m a retired layabout on the other side of the country. So we planned a short escape to give her time to refuel the engines, and give me a chance to see a small part of New Zealand’s South Island. And gossip and reminisce over a glass or two of good New Zealand wine. Of course.

Needless to say, we didn’t travel on the same plane. B booked a flight from Perth which would have her arriving in Christchurch well before me. I flew on a morning flight from Brisbane, which meant a 3-4 hour drive from Hervey Bay to the airport. Rather than get up at midnight to drive to Brisbane, Pete and I drove down the day before and stayed in a hotel overnight. It was pretty ordinary, but it was a bed for the night. Breakfast was pretty ordinary, too – we had a sort of Eggs Benedict, overcooked eggs on a slice of ham on a slice of bread, covered in rocket leaves, drowned in far too much (bought) sauce.

Hey ho. Pete dropped me off and headed for home while I worked out how to do the self-service check-in. Much as I poo-pooed the whole procedure when I first encountered it, I have to say it has speeded up the airport experience considerably. No more conga line of people and bags snaking around in front of the airline desks. I’m not sure what they can do about the security screening, though.

It has been many years since my only previous flight with Virgin, so it was going to be interesting. Although it’s no longer as cutprice as it was when it started in Australia, Virgin is still a bit spartan. I paid the extra to pick my own seat, and get a meal. But you use your own device to watch movies etc, having downloaded the Virgin app. There were no usb ports. The food was ordinary – penne in olive oil and breadcrumbs on top with gluggy potato salad. The chocolate mousse wasn’t bad.

We got off to a bad start when the flight was delayed for an hour. These things happen, of course, but when the pilot did the routine apology, he explained that the delay resulted from two factors; first, the crew had arrived from New Zealand that morning on another flight, which was late getting in. When they arrived, they had to go through transit security. NZ flights seem to leave from the gates furthest away from the main airport, so they had to go all the way in, then all the way out again. It must have taken 20 minutes. Bureaucracy gone mad, in my opinion.

It’s a boring flight most of the way. The plane crosses the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, known to us as ‘The Ditch’. I played Solitaire or dabbled in a book until we crossed the NZ coast. The alps were spectacular, with snow dusting the mountain peaks and turquoise rivers swirling through the valleys. Yes, the camera was up there in the overhead locker. I had more leg room in the row behind business class – but there was no seat in front of me to put my camera bag. But I did my best with the notebook.

I’d organised a super shuttle for the trip into the city. It’s a shared mini-bus service, costing $25 – much, much cheaper than a taxi. The driver was a refugee from North Carolina, a big, bluff woman who said she used to manage backpacker hostels in the city centre – until the earthquake (there will be more on that). Her job vanished with the buildings, so she bought into this franchise. She was the first and by no means the last person to tell me how frustrated she was with the lack of action in addressing the devastation caused in the earthquakes in 2010-11.

I arrived at the hotel (complete with 2 bottles of sav blanc from duty free) around 5pm, expecting my friend would have arrived well before me, around 10am.

She wasn’t there.

All sorts of things went through my head. Illness? Problems with the grand children? A sick dog? I sent her a text message. “You’re not here. What happened?”

The last thing I expected was aircraft dramas. The direct Perth – Christchurch flight she was supposed to take was cancelled due to maintenance problems. So she caught a Qantas flight to Sydney, which would connect with an Emirates flight to NZ. Except that after about two hours the cabin lost pressure. You know all that stuff they tell you in those safety briefings? Masks come down from above, put them on and breathe normally? Yep, all that.  She said there was a noise and all the lights went out, then a repeated announcement was made – ‘this is an emergency’. But the lights came back on, the pilots said a fault in the air conditioning caused the cabin to lose pressure. The plane descended rapidly to 10,000 ft, where oxygen is not required. B thought there was also a medical emergency in the cockpit, with a woman passenger she thought must have been a doctor running down to the cockpit. The cabin crew kept stressing that they were trained in dealing with the situation and to keep calm.  Since B flew business class, she would have been shielded a little from events in the rest of the cabin. It must have been heart-stoppingly scary, but B said after she accepted that there was nothing she could do, she watched the cabin crew, who wore masks attached to oxygen bottles they carried, doing their jobs calmly and efficiently. There were 297 people on the flight. It must have been a helluva job keeping all those people from panicking. Although I expect there would have been a few who panicked, anyway. Here’s the news report about it.

The plan had been to land at Adelaide, but Adelaide couldn’t accommodate the aircraft, so they flew on to Melbourne. There was no gate available there, either, so they stopped at a hard stand away from the terminal and waited until ground staff brought over a ladder for all the passengers to disembark. Then Qantas staff had to arrange new flights for everybody. My friend was put on an Emirates flight. But her luggage (and about 10 other people’s) hadn’t made it off the plane. Staff did their best, giving stranded passengers Qantas pyjamas and rudimentary toiletries. B spent 5 hours in the Qantas lounge and arrived in Christchurch around 6:30pm, suffering from lack of sleep – but with a great story to share. Just as well I bought that wine in duty-free.

B told me it was almost as if she had a premonition something might go wrong. Although she’s a great traveller, she doesn’t like flying. Apart from the usual hugs and kisses for the dogs (in case she doesn’t see them again) this time she packed an extra dose of her medication and a pair of knickers in her carry-on luggage – something she doesn’t normally do. At least I didn’t have to lend her a pair of knickers.

Dinner was a bottle of lovely NZ sav blanc, and a (delivered) gourmet pizza. Even that was a tale in itself, involving issues like how do you call an 0800 number from your roaming mobile, why won’t the online apps recognise the hotel address, and ringing pizza joints that no longer deliver. But with a bit of advice from the hotel staff, all was well. After that, both of us passed out for a much-needed sleep.

The trouble with possums

This is a female. See the pouch under her belly?

It’s been quite the saga with our local possums lately. For my non-Australian readers, possums are native Australian marsupials about the size of a cat. They are mainly vegetarian, eating leaves, fruit, flowers and grass. But they’re not averse to insects and bird’s eggs, and have become opportunistic foragers in towns. They’re nocturnal and sleep away the daylight hours in a dark place such as a hollow log.

And that has become an issue. With increasing urban sprawl, trees are being cut down in record numbers. This has led to a serious shortage of hollow branches for parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras and the like, which use them for nesting, and for possums and other nocturnal creatures who need them as homes.

When we arrived in Hervey Bay we found a large hollow log in one of the out-buildings. It seems a previous owner of the property had been a wildlife carer and I think the log had been used as a nesting box for something like a sulphur-crested cockatoo. We like birds, so we put a lid on the log, fitted a perch, and hoisted it up onto a palm tree near the house.

What are you doing in our house? Note the board to try to limit the size. And the chewed edge.

All was well. The nest box received almost immediate interest and a couple of lorikeets moved in. But after some time this up-market accommodation attracted the attention of a possum, which moved in and has been there ever since, despite our attempts to discourage it by reducing the size of the opening. The tenant just chewed the edges to fit. So we gave up and constructed bird boxes. They were never as popular as the real thing, though. And I confess I enjoy watching the possums in the evening. One regular visitor was a female who brought her latest baby on her back to see if there was anything on the bird table. I often put a mandarin or a piece of orange out for them.

Mum and Bub

A few months ago we returned from a trip to find the possum peering at us in daylight, from inside the log. That’s unusual because they’re nocturnal, and also, they attract the fury of many of the small birds – butcher birds, noisy miners, magpie larks and the like, who gather around the box and yell. The reason for the possum’s appearance became apparent when we noticed the base had fallen from its house. So Pete took the log down (sans possum), fixed it, and put it back.

All was well.

As I sat in my office some weeks later, I heard a very loud crash from outside. It was unusual enough to cause me to check on the reason. The whole possum house had fallen to the ground – with the possum inside. I saw a little pink nose and a swarm of mosquitoes which must also have had their slumber (or their dinner) interrupted. Pete and I looked up the tree and decided we weren’t going to try to get the log back up there. After some discussion we closed the hole with a piece of tied-on wood (keeping poss inside) and took the whole shebang to a different tree in a more heavily wooded part of the garden and hoisted the log up there. Not as high, but safe and sound within the large pool enclosure.

All was well

Not long after that we noticed thumps and noises from the ceiling just before dawn, and again after nightfall. Possums have learned to live in suburbia. They had to. Ceilings are a popular housing site, and a homeless possum had found its way into ours. There are two problems with that. Possums are not house-trained, and they have been known to cause electrical fires (by damaging wires etc). So, much as I like wildlife, poss had to be evicted.

But before we got around to arranging that, we had a truly memorable morning. I was awake early, jolted out of snoozing by a loud thump from the direction of the kitchen. I didn’t bother investigating because it was probably some critter on the window ledge. Around 5am, with light graying the sky, Pete got up for a pee. He saw an animal dart into our bedroom and under the bed. “There’s a cat in here. Or a possum.”

That was that for an early morning snooze. Picture this, if you will. A couple of people well past their best years, dressed in their night attire, chasing a small furry animal around the house. The possum bolted out of the bedroom and into the lounge. We both followed, closing doors as we went. We opened the front door and the back sliding glass door, then we played sheep dogs, gently herding the little creature out into the garden. It immediately charged up the nearest fence, up onto the roof and dived into the ceiling cavity.

It’s not the same possum as the one in the log. Like I said, there’s a housing crisis for possums. This might have been a juvenile, no longer wanted by mum and looking for its own abode. We several times had junior possums using the nest boxes we’d built for the birds, but they soon outgrow them.

The obvious question was how did it get in? There’s a cat flap in the laundry door, set up so a cat can go out, but not come back in. We don’t have a cat so tended to ignore its existence. We think the possum levered a corner of the flap up. They have long, powerful claws for climbing, and they don’t need much wriggle room. Judging by the paw prints, it wandered around the kitchen, jumping up on benches and fridge magnets to get on the little ledge which was the protruding part of the fridge, just outside the cupboards around it. The thump I heard from the kitchen was the possum jumping down. I suspect it came to the bedroom because it occupied the upstairs apartment and was looking for the stairs.

Pete taped up the cat flap to prevent further visits.

We had one more bit of morning excitement before we got our act together. One morning after I’d brought him his cup of tea (yes, I do), Pete said, “Have a look in the en suite.”

Okay. I did as I was told. There was a reddish mess dripping down the cistern. Thinking Pete must have hurt himself, I asked, “What’s that?”

“Possum shit.”

I looked up at the vent for the exhaust fan which is above the toilet and saw some remnants up there, too.

That, dear reader, was the final straw.

I cleaned the mess up. It wasn’t poo. Possums do little pellets like rats and rabbits, and there was nothing like that in sight. I *think* the possum must have cut itself or something. Either way, it had outstayed its welcome.

Like all native species, possums are protected, so we could evict, but not harm. We borrowed a cage trap from a friend and baited it with an apple. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Pete went up on the roof and put wire mesh over all the gaps into the roof cavity – except the one we knew the possum used. By this time, we had decided there was more than one possum up there. The poss(es) went out foraging after nightfall, and Pete went up and plugged the last hole.

There are no more night time noises in the ceiling.

 

 

I have published a new book

I usually talk about my writing pastime (I hesitate to call it a career) on Spacefreighter’s Lounge, a blog I co-author with four other writers. But writing is part of who I am, so bear with me while I tell you about my just-released latest book.

It’s space opera (of course). Three women from different backgrounds share adventures in space. These books are a spin-off from my Morgan Selwood novels, set in the same Universe. You’ll find all of those books listed here. The women in this society are restricted in several respects. There’s a rigid, paternalistic class structure, which means they often can’t choose their own partners, and they often don’t have much choice when it comes to jobs, either. The three ladies who make up Morgan’s Misfits  don’t fit the social mores.

While the books are action/adventure (with a little bit of romance), they’re also about the women interacting within their society, and with each other. I’m sure you’ll notice some parallels in 21st Century Earth.

The first book, Kuralon Rescue, tells the story of how the ladies save a couple of men sentenced to work to death on a prison planet called Kuralon. It’s how the ladies get together and how they acquired their name.

Kuralon Rescue

Abstract background with magic light. Vector illustration

Follow your dreams. You never know where they might take you.

Jirra’s on the run, Siena’s rescuing her lover, Toreni wants Master Chef status and Chet wants her reputation back. Four women, four goals, and one very small ship. Add a fleet request to free a rebel, the promise of little to no help and a caste-defined society simmering with discontent on the edge of explosion.

Now, on their own, they’re staging an escape from a backwater prison planet and navigating the murky terrain of dreams forbidden by the rigid caste system underpinning their culture. Success demands more than team work. They’ll have to jettison their own prejudices and forge relationships free of the rules and caste lines.
There’s more than just lives at stake. There’s dreams and a possible tomorrow more fragile than gossamer.

Buy the book at  iBooks Amazon Kobo  B&N

In the new book, Rescuing Romila, the ladies become involved in more dangerous adventures.

Rescuing Romila

The Misfits are off on another planet-hopping adventure.

When Jirra and Toreni rescue Romila from a raid on her antiques business the Misfits start off on a mission to uncover a drug-smuggling operation. A new, very potent drug is on the market, hidden in statues of ice warriors carved on a remote world.

But all’s not well within the team. Toreni and Chet have fallen out, Toreni has received an offer that might be too good to refuse, and Jirra has doubts about her future.  When the drug-smuggling operation morphs into something even more dangerous, the Misfits must resolve their differences. If they don’t act together, and quickly, many lives will be at risk. Including their own.

Action and adventure, with a little bit of romance.

Buy the book at  iBooks Amazon Kobo  B&N

There you have it.

I realise that space opera is not everybody’s thing, but you might mention the books to your kids, or neighbours or whatever.

Fair play and censorship. Where do you cross the line?

Fair Play

Two matters have struck a chord with me this week. The first is the cricket. The vice-captain of the Australian cricket team coached a bowler to roughen one side of the ball using sand paper, and the captain condoned it. It’s called ball-tampering and has happened in cricket over the years. This article explains in simple terms what it’s all about. In essence, there’s a line between fair handling of the ball, and ball tampering, which is cheating. The Australians crossed that line.

I expect many of you are sick of the whole thing, especially put in the context of what’s important in life. But I think it has to be considered against what Australians believe about themselves. As a sporting nation we punch above our weight, given our relatively small population, although we haven’t been quite as successful over the past decades. As a result, Australian teams are expected to win. Australians also have a perception that we Aussies are always fair, that we win by playing better. We’re also very quick to point the finger at other teams we suspect of cheating. So the cricket-loving public has been outraged by this overt cheating by an Australian team. Not just one player messing about with the ball, but a leadership plot to cheat.

It’s interesting to compare the two interviews Steve Smith gave about the matter. In the first one, just after the incident became public knowledge, the overall impression was shrug, we got caught. Sorry about that. Won’t happen again. He clearly did not appreciate the storm that was about to hit him.

When Smith appeared on the news last night the full horror of what he and Warner had cooked up had hit him. Sponsors have abandoned the team, all three have been sacked, and Warner and Smith banned for a time, they have lost personal sponsorships, as well as their contracts with the Indian IPL. Smith was chastened, in tears. I actually felt sorry for him. Smith, to me, has always looked like the top car salesman who is given the job of sales manager. The two jobs require very different skills. Smith is a great batsman, but not a leader. I’m not surprised at the news that Darren Lehmann has also resigned. If he didn’t know what was happening, he should have.

Shock jock commentator Alan Jones is not my favourite person for lots of reasons, but his open letter to Cricket Australia boss, James Sutherland, is balanced, sensible, and well worth reading. Apart from anything else, Jones has been coach of an Australian (rugby) team, so he knows a bit about what happens in a dressing room. For what it’s worth, having been initially rather like the Red Queen (off with his head) I now tend to agree with Alan Jones (please don’t tell him).

Australian cricket will always have to carry this stain on its reputation, just like the infamous underarm incident. Come what may, Cricket Australia has its work cut out to recover the trust of Australian cricket fans.

And now for something much more important.

Censorship.

I’ve spoken in the past about backdoor censorship, where book sellers refused to accept books with what they believed to be unacceptable erotic content. Censorship is stupid relates to a 2017 episode which led to Draft 2 Digital (a popular integrator for Indie authors like me, which formats books and sends them on to sales sites like Kobo and Amazon), tightening up its guidelines on ‘unacceptable’ content. And in The Vexed Question of Censorship in 2013 I waxed lyrical about censorship in general – and this:-

“Recently we had a case where Kobo withdrew ALL the indie (ie self-published or small publisher) titles sourced from Draft 2 Digital, a knee-jerk reaction to erotic material being made available for children. It was Dinosaur porn, you see, and everyone knows kids love dinosaurs. (rolls eyes) Plenty of people remarked on the hypocrisy of the table thumpers, pointing out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not withdrawn. It seemed erotica from large publishers was acceptable.”

What’s happening now is almost sinister. It seems Amazon is trawling through its titles, removing reviews and down-grading rankings for books with erotic content. The process is called ‘stripping’. The ostensible reason is the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or FOSTA, where internet sites can be prosecuted for allowing material that might promote prostitution (and no doubt other things). Read more about it here. My Facebook newsfeed is full of discussion by affected authors. For them, Amazon downgrading a book’s ranking and removing reviews means reducing that book’s visibility andtherefore  potential sales. It’s not just Amazon. I’ve mentioned the Kobo example, and Apple has always refused to sell what it deems to be unacceptable erotica or porn. It seems Google is in on it, too.

I accept that any book-seller has the right to dictate what they will or will not sell. But Amazon  and the other big sellers use automated programs, not people, to process the millions of titles they have on their sites. The results can be totally unfair and ugly. One author I know said, “My teenage books are stripped. Two teenagers falling in love, no sex, nothing freaky, just paranormal. No rank because it’s romance. It’s bloody bollocks.” Another author who normally writes science fiction romance had her perfectly innocent non-romantic Young Adult novel pulled because it had the word ‘sister’ in the book’s description. Presumably the automated process put that story down as incest. This reminds of an email filter management imposed at a place where I once worked to stop emails containing rude words being delivered. Any email with obvious swear words like ‘fuck’ were held. But it swept up possibly innocent words like ‘tit’ (as in blue tit) and allowed words like ‘dick’ and ‘cock’. Processing language is not a precise science.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. A couple of years ago Kobo had a similar purge, tightening up its rules on acceptable content. It’s interesting that these often-draconian measures are applied to writers of (erotic) romance, but any small author who has written romance novels might well be caught up in the ritualistic cleansing.

While Amazon prides itself on customer service, that doesn’t extend to authors. It never enters into discussion about decisions it makes. However, the online sales giant has stated that it is targeting romance titles, especially erotic stories. At least this time, it’s not just small Indies in the cross-hairs. Even EL James’s new books – Fifty Shades of Grey written from Christian Grey’s point of view – have been hit.

I don’t write erotica, let alone porn. (I wouldn’t know how.) I doubt any of my books would be affected, but nobody’s books should be censored in this way.

While we’re on the subject, it seems Microsoft has been forced to appoint itself arbiter of acceptability, as well. Its position is also based on the FOSTA legislation. You will probably have received an email from Microsoft explaining the new terms and conditions, which you very likely did not read. The new terms of service include this clause under Code of Conduct.

  1. Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity).

From there we proceed to what happens if you’re naughty.

  1. Enforcement. If you violate these Terms, we may stop providing Services to you or we may close your Microsoft account. We may also block delivery of a communication (like email, file sharing or instant message) to or from the Services in an effort to enforce these Terms or we may remove or refuse to publish Your Content for any reason. When investigating alleged violations of these Terms, Microsoft reserves the right to review Your Content in order to resolve the issue. However, we cannot monitor the entire Services and make no attempt to do so.

Microsoft to ban offensive language from skype xbox office and other services talks in more detail about what may or not may be affected by the changes, which come into force in May. But what it means for most of us is that if you write ‘fuck’ in an email, or use the word in a Skype call, Microsoft has the right to deny service. And if you write erotica and store the document on their One Drive system, they can delete it. However, as Microsoft makes clear, it does not intened to vet everything everbody writes. It can’t – the task would be beyond even that giant company’s resources. You’ll be safe – unless you’re ‘investigated’.

I THINK any requirements coming from the FOSTA bill are only appropriate in the US, since it is American law. But the global nature of the internet (in Western countries, anyway) means some of this stuff will rub off on us. I’ve heard that though the US Senate has approved the bill, it may be unconstitutional, in which case it’s likely to be bogged down in the courts. But even so, the damage will have been done. I don’t see the corporations removing their new requirements.

So much of this stuff is subjective. What one person calls a good sex scene is somebody else’s porn. That word “offensive” is so politically correct these days. I find gratuitous, graphic violence offensive, but that never seems to be targeted in these purges. Is ‘bugger’ a swear word? Will my books be banned because some character said ‘fuck’?

And to what end? How is any of this going to help prevent sexual trafficking or paedophiles?

I don’t know. I really don’t. Giant corporations, at the behest of the Government, set up as the arbiter of morals, telling people what they can and can’t write, what they can and can’t read, what they can and can’t say. That’s another line the US Government has crossed, and I don’t like it one bit.

Since we entered the twenty-first century, we seem to be going backwards in so many ways.

Makes me glad I’m 67, not 17.

It’s Easter. For some, it’s a particularly important Christian festival, for others, it’s a four-day long weekend, or a celebration of Spring. Whatever it means to you, enjoy the holiday.

The Problem with Privacy

I suppose the biggest news of the week has been that Cambridge Analytica has sold the data of fifty million or so Facebook users. Am I shocked? Not really. Do I think it was a good thing to do? Not at all. Am I surprised? You guessed it.

I was reluctant to join Facebook at first. I mean, who was going to use this system? Not somebody like me. It’s pretty obvious I changed my mind, and I have no regrets. My FB profile is public. To some extent, that’s because I write books, and if readers (YAY) want to connect with me, they can. But I’m careful about what I post. It’s usually pictures I’ve taken, or links to a blog post or two. I rarely, if ever, post pictures of people, and there’s very little private information in my FB profile. No address or phone number, no interests, no work history. All of that allows FB to target its ads. So old farts like me get ads about meeting suave seniors in my area, lots of weight-loss products (the nerve), retirement homes, beauty products, clothing, shoes… Those last three really show how little they know about me. 😀

I don’t play any of the games. I confess I occasionally weaken and do a quiz, but FB does warn you what you’ll be giving to the people who wrote the (usually stupid) quiz for the privilege of coming up with a stupid answer. If it wants my friends list, I suddenly decide I’m really not that interested in who I was in my previous life. Because that’s the thing. Innocently accept some of these external apps and you’re gifting a pile of info about OTHER PEOPLE to the authors. To me, that’s the bit that stinks.

Everybody’s heard the saying, “If it’s something you wouldn’t want your Grandma to know – don’t put it on the web”. It’s a good suggestion. And I am eternally grateful that mobile phone cameras weren’t around when I was in my ‘stupid’ years. You know what I mean – I look at the photos of passed-out young women during the Spring carnival etc. and shudder.

Will Facebook survive? Of course it will. Like the banks, it’s too big to fail, and it serves a useful purpose. In my case it allows me to keep contact with other writers who I met years ago in the now-defunct Authonomy. I’m also in contact with family and friends in distant parts, and FB can be a terrific source of what’s happening in the world through shared links. Provided you check what you’re told. On FB, Snopes is your friend. Here’s an example.  Bulldog bites pedophile’s penis off as he tried to rape sleeping chlidren. This story was shared on FB. Attracts all the feels from most of us, and comes complete with pictures. A lot of people were sucked in. I had my doubts about any bloke climbing through a window with his pants off, or for the dog waiting until he was undressed before attacking, so I looked it up in Snopes. And here’s the answer. Caution is always wise on any social media. Those stories about Russian hackers? Quite a few were fake accounts on FB, spreading misinformation.

There are risks, of course. Bullying and troll behaviour is rife. It hasn’t affected me, but I recently heard about one young cover designer who was driven to attempt suicide by a concerted attack on her – in cyberspace. It’s not an isolated case, and the perpetrators can hide behind a computer screen, secure in their anonymity.

However.

If you provide personal information to companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple – and let’s face it, you can’t avoid it – there is a trade-off. They can show you ads that might interest you, based on your browsing behaviour. (Ha. Just recently that would be self-defense courses – doing some research for the WIP). Amazon shows me books I might want to read, based on my previous searches. That’s useful. Google will show me restaurants where I am, and gives me directions on how to get there.

Social media is like most powerful gadgets – used with caution, it’s fine. If you have kids, please, please pay attention to what they’re doing on a computer.

And here’s a picture of an outback suset

Musings on ‘disability’

Sunset

It’s Saturday again. Happens every seven days, regular as clockwork. And that means I write my weekly blog post. This week we had the Ides of March (et tu, Brut?), which conjures up Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, and Cassandra. We had St Patrick’s Day, which conjures up the myths of the Irish, four leaf clovers, and an island curiously devoid of snakes. We also had the death at the age of 76, of eminent physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking.

Hawking is a very famous scientist – which is a rare and wonderful thing. Most of them beaver away in their labs and classrooms, but Hawking was “out there” more than most because he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at 21 and given only a few years to live. But while his body atrophied, and he eventually was confined to a motorised wheelchair, and only able to speak through a computer, his mind carried on without him. He is best known for his book, A Brief History of Time, where he writes about space and time, black holes, and the big bang theory. But while people like Neil de Grasse Tyson and Prof Brian Cox get out there on the telly to tell people about science, Prof Hawking took a different approach. He appeared on numerous popular TV shows, including The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, and Star Trek. It wasn’t just about the science – Prof Hawking wanted to promote the cause of people with disabilities.

This little video from Little Britain illustrates. Be warned – it’s very funny, so be careful with your beverage. And watch to the end, okay?

And that gets me thinking about the concept of ‘disability’. Sure, some people are physically disfigured – missing limbs, burns, that sort of thing. But mental ‘disabilities’ are a whole nother kettle of vegetables. Nobel laureate John Nash (played by Russel Crowe in the Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind) suffered from paranoid schizophrenia – yet he could still function at an intellectual level. Indeed, he said the medication he took for his condition blunted his mind (discussed in this article after his death) and he stopped taking it. Another example is savants. You’ve all heard of the movie Rain Man. It’s based on a real man with severe brain damage. Read about him and nine other extraordinary people in this article.

I ‘know’, through Facebook, several people with mental disorders like autism or Asperger’s syndrome. While they might be poor at social skills, some are highly accomplished in other areas. One lady struggled with her ‘mental illness’ for years before finally recognising, in her mid-forties that she was autistic.  Although she struggles with social skills, she writes beautifully, she plays the cello, runs marathons, and is generally a very smart woman. She has a blog (Finally Knowing Me) where she tells about her experience and struggles with autism and everyday life. It’s fascinating – especially if you start at the first post.

Although we humans are tribal and are very similar to each other, we’re not all the same. ‘Disability’ really means a particular individual can’t do some things as well as others. But it doesn’t define that person’s life.

That’s enough of that. I guess my mind went down that track for two reasons – Prof Hawking’s death – and the birth of my nephew’s baby son. Welcome to the world, little guy. May you live long and prosper.

Sunrise

A third anniversary

Attribution below

Today, 12th March, is the third anniversary of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, a number of books not set in Discworld, and co-author of three books bringing serious science to the masses (The Science of Discworld). He was only 66. During his life he authored many books. There are 41 in the Discworld series alone. He received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, had a number of honorary doctorates from universities, and won a number of literary awards.

 

 

 

The librarian at Unseen University was turned into an orangutan and has avoided all attempts to turn him back into a human

I am a Terry Pratchett tragic. I have all his books in hardback in a glass-fronted book case to protect them from mould (which is a constant problem here in the sub-tropical north). An orangutan keeps watch over my office from his perch on one bookshelf, a job he shares with Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, and Princess Leia, who preside above the glass-fronted bookcase. (Which probably tells you a few Things About Me.) I’m sure he won’t mind me not using his title, though. I don’t think he was ever that kind of guy. Although apparently he was so disappointed that he didn’t get to keep the sword after he got his knighthood, he made one for himself – literally, right down to digging up the iron ore and making a kiln. You’ll find the details of that story here.

Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and departed arm in arm with Death in 2015 – having written another seven books before he succumbed. Although he was a great advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he died naturally. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and I would not wish it on anyone but I find it particularly evil that this man of words had words stolen from him at such a young age (58). While Death is the great leveller, disease is a torturer.

A documentary about him, called Back in Black, was made after his death. Here’s the link to the version on Youtube. Actor Paul Kaye did an excellent job of portraying Terry, complete with his unusual accent. Sure, there were talking heads. His great friend, Neil Gaiman, his personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, Discworld’s illustrator, Paul Kidby, his daughter, Rhianna, and others all contribute information about the man they knew. But a lot of the facts were delivered by Pratchett himself (through Paul Kaye). The stand-outs for me were as follows:

  • Terry wasn’t a child prodigy. When he was six years old his headmaster told him he would never amount to anything. That put a fire in his belly that never left him.
  • He left school at age 17 and never attended higher education.
  • He had an accident as a small child which left him with a speech impediment. And he also had a stutter. As a result, he was bullied.
  • He got a voluntary job in the local library where he read everything he could get his hands on. Books were his friends.
  • Over time he collected all those books he would subsequently write into his head. At one stage he was publishing three books a year. And it seems he also worked on as many as three books consecutively. Wow. Just wow.

Terry Pratchett’s Death – a seven-foot skeleton wearing a black robe, carrying a scythe and riding a white horse called Binky – is among Terry’s most popular characters. He stars in several of the Discworld books – Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, and Soul Music – and has a cameo appearance in most of the others. Death is fascinated by humans and their foibles. Terry can ask himself questions such as what would happen if Death took an apprentice? What if he decided to be a short-order cook instead of doing the Grim Reaper duty? What I particularly like about Death comes from the little cameos where he turns up to take a life. The recently-departed asks about where they’re going. “Will there be [insert folk belief of choice]” to which Death replies, “Do you want there to be?”

The results are funny, sure. But most of Terry’s books are character-driven. The Discworld is just a nightmare’s distance from our own, but the people are us. He shines a light on prejudice, where trolls and dwarfs substitute for Arabs and Jews or whoever we don’t like at the moment. He talks about women’s rights in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and in fact many other books. He pokes fun at Academia through the (male, celibate) wizards at Unseen University, and contrasts them with the worldly-wise witches, who perform the simple magic of midwifery, medicine and plain common sense.

All that reading Terry did in the little country library stood him in good stead. He often picked up a legend and shook it around to see what fell out. Hogfather, which was made into a terrific little mini-series, is about Christmas – what it used to be, as opposed to what it has become. The Hogfather (Father Christmas) has been kidnapped, so Death (seven-foot skeleton riding a white horse called Binky) assisted by his grand-daughter, Susan, takes on the job of doing the Christmas run, including the obligatory appearance in a department store. Elves are given their treatment in a few books, notably Lords and Ladies. For Terry, they weren’t the noble master race you’ll find in Tolkien. He goes back to earlier times, when they were nasty individuals, prone to playing tricks on people – and not in a nice way.

So today is a day of mourning for me. I’ve read and re-read Terry’s books since that day when I first read the prologue to The Colour of Magic in a newsagency at Perth airport back in the late 1980’s.

I’ve copied this list of his achievements from his Wikipedia page to save you the trouble of looking it up. Not bad for a kid who’d never amount to anything.

Photo by Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org w/index.php?curid=22449958

I watched a few movies

I’m not much of a movie watcher, but there are some films which attract my attention. I sat down and watched a few last week – well – two and a bit, really.

The first was Dunkirk. There was so much hype, so many plaudits. An old man who’d been there for the great evacuation said it was realistic. And, of course, the European world war II was very much a part of my studies at university. I’d seen many of the major war movies. The Longest Day (1962) and the Battle of Britain (1969) are stand-outs. So Pete and I sat in our lounge room and played Dunkirk on the big screen.

What a disappointment.

There are three arcs to the movie – the young soldier under fire who makes it through the French lines to the beach. There’s the spitfire pilots doing their best against the German stukas and ME 109s, and there’s an elderly man who takes his boat across the channel to bring the boys back.

We watch the young soldier try everything he can to get off the beach. Gets on a boat which is sunk at its moorings, is shot up in a fishing boat, is strafed and bombed.

For the spitfire pilots, the point was made early on that after they’d crossed the channel, planes could only be over the beaches for about an hour before they had to head back. Well and good. Our pilot shot down some Jerries and ended up having to land his aircraft after running out of fuel. Boy, those spitfires make great gliders.

The man in his boat picked up a shell-shocked man on a sinking boat and kept going to Dunkirk – much against the survivor’s wishes. They also pick up one of the spitfire pilots who was forced to ditch in the sea before they make it to France.

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? I checked later and the film was as authentic as it could be. But for me there were two things: I wasn’t invested in the fate of the individuals (in fact I thought the pilot was an idiot). And I got no scope of the enormity of the achievement. This was a desperate race to get hundreds of thousands of men off that beach, using hundreds (if not thousands) of small craft. That’s the problem when you film vignettes. You’re too up close and personal. I believe that was the director’s intention. Some of my friends loved it, some hated it, some said they enjoyed it regardless. That’s life, I guess. It picked up a swag of Oscars.

Then I watched Hidden Figures, about three black women who worked at NASA during the race to get a man into orbit in the late fifties/early sixties.

Segregation was in full swing, with even nice white people brought up to think of black people as second-class citizens. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, all brilliant women, had to prove themselves in a white male world. In total contrast to Dunkirk, I cared about all three. I was so angry for these ladies and the way they were put down and belittled. The movie conveyed the impact of prejudice on their lives in a way somebody like me (who knew it happened but hadn’t seen it) could relate. It was a terrific film.

Lastly, I watched a film given to me some time ago, which won an award as best film at a 2007 festival. Crusade in Jeans is a time-travel movie based on a best-selling Dutch book. The MC is a fifteen-year-old boy who accidentally sends himself back to the year 1212, where he is rescued from a couple of thugs by a bunch of local kids. And that’s about as far as I got.

I’ve never been a fan of time travel, especially going back from our time hundreds of years. I can’t suspend belief sufficiently to accept that a fifteen-year-old boy suddenly appearing in a forest (where he expected to be in a football stadium) would not be a LOT more perplexed than Dolf. In fact, everybody acted as if this weird kid wearing strange clothes suddenly turning up was quite normal. And they could all understand each other. That, in particular, would not happen. Language changes over time. Have you tried reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original? Apart from that, the changes in food, hygiene and the like would put any modern person at considerable risk.

I wrote a tongue-in-cheek explanation of my stance in the sexy side of time travel.

I’m almost all movied out for now. Although I will take the time to see The Lady in the Van. (I would LOVE for Maggie Smith to play Granny Weatherwax in a Pratchett movie.) I’ll do my best to see the screen adaptation of Good Omens. Apart from that, I haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet. The DVD should be out soon.

Just a final thought – we still call them ‘movies’ and ‘films’. I wonder if young people (as opposed to old farts) still know why those words are used? It’s all digital images, after all.