Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Hope Among The Poorest - Orissa, India.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually 6 months, I was back in India last week. I spent all but one day in Delhi progressing the two projects that comprise the largest part of my role with Opportunity International. I want to talk about that other day, when I journeyed more in curiosity than purpose, but ended up with a real need to ‘do something’.

I’ve seen a lot of the Indian subcontinent now, the North (Punjab, Nepal and the Himalayas), the South (the big cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka) and even a little of the West in Gujarat. But I’d never been to the east. The east is a whole other realm of India again. Different languages (Bengali), very different cities (Calcutta) and states that have more in common with neighbouring Bangladesh than with the rest of India.

Orissa stretches along hundreds of miles of India’s eastern coastline. Its population of 37m makes it middling in terms of Indian states, and therefore pretty devoid of outside interest. Of course, you wouldn’t expect this place to gain much international attention, even if its population is greater than either Australia or Canada, two perennially newsworthy parts of the world. But how excluded and remote is a place when a 1999 cyclone (Cyclone 5B) could kill 10,000 people without even being considered important enough to warrant a name?

Despite vast mineral reserves, that are only now being tapped by international mining companies, Orissa is marked by having possibly the worst development stats of any Indian state. Life expectancy is shorter, education levels lower, infant mortality rates higher than anywhere else in a country which generally performs very poorly on the Millenium Development Goals. And that’s why Opportunity International have more partners based in Orissa, than in any other state.

If you want to tackle poverty, this is the place to come.

I was the first person from Opportunity to go to Orissa. Though I didn’t perceive any risk in the areas I went to, the state does have a reputation for lawlessness. A headline in this week’s Indian newspapers read “Maoists blow up guesthouse” (though no-one was injured) and there’s a lot of socialist activity and civic unrest.

Of the three microfinance institutions that we work with in Orissa, Manas and I visited Peoples Forum – one of our newest partners – to review their work generally, and to make a visit to a very interesting new development project there.

We met two groups of women who are part of a microfinance program that has been running since 1989 and now has 25 branches and 35,000 clients.

The first group of 10 women make saris. They have borrowed Rp10,000 (about $250) each from Peoples Forum to pay for materials. They will repay the money over 18 months and then be eligible to borrow more money and expand their business. It was important to see where the women work – each of the rooms is barely bigger than the loom it accommodates. The rooms are dark with small windows, which are lit by light bulbs even in the middle of the day. And the work is hard, physical work. There’s a lot of effort needed to operate the machines.

And what do they get for this hard work?

Before Peoples Forum came along and provided the group with a loan, each of the women saved around Rs50 per month, and over a period of 18 months they had saved Rs1050 each in total, or about $25 in total.

Imagine where you were 18 months ago and then imagine you had spent every day since then working 8 hours a day in a small, dark room in a tropical environment, just to earn as much money as the typical Australian would spend on a round of drinks or a couple of cinema tickets. It’s staggering.

But the MFI is trying to change this. By giving the women training and business support, they can earn more for the saris and increase their income and the amount they can save.

The second group was even more interesting. The women here make ropes from raw material, again working 7-8 hours a day in the tropical heat, where peak temperatures can be 47C.

They purchase about $30 of raw material and it takes the group of 10 women 3 days to turn that into ropes which they sell for about twice as much. All told, this gives them an income of about $1 each per day. But again the MFI is giving the women hope of improving their lives. Through a loan, they will purchase an additional machine that will allow them to work more effectively, and they are even building a ‘factory’ of sorts that will let them work indoors in the monsoon season.

What is really remarkable about this group is that the majority of them used to be lepers (they are ex-lepers as Monty Python would say). The houses that they are building with the profits from their rope making business are being built virtually next to a government-built leprosy mission. And they used to live in the mission, until they were cured.

It is remarkable to think of the obstacles these women have had to overcome. Not just issues of caste, poverty and their status as women in India’s poorest state, but also the stigma attached to leprosy. They are now running their own business and earning money that they are using to improve their lives.

This is something that microfinance has always been about –demonstrating that people who are poor and excluded still have value in society. The work that Peoples Forum are doing is just taking that one step further.

And the last program we visited on the day is arguably yet more ambitious.

Mission Ashra is Peoples Forum’s project to provide care and shelter and rehabilitation to women who have ended up abandoned on the streets because they are mentally ill.

Why do they end up on the streets? Firstly, there is a real stigma attached to mental illness in India. When someone develops a mental illness, their family often aren’t able or willing to take care of them. And they are just dumped by their families. It may seem unimaginable, but often these women and girls – one-third of the ashram’s patients are teenagers – are taken to the city on the pretext of a holiday. And at the end of the holiday their families will just leave them in the hotel room.

The natural reaction to this is horror and disgust. But understanding why this can happen is important to understanding why the small ashram that Peoples Forum is running could have a transformational impact far beyond its doors.

Attitudes to mental illness are shaped by education and experience. A lack of education and community awareness in the poorest parts of rural India, mean that mental illness is often thought to be incurable, a curse, and something that dehumanises people. This leads to a situation where the family feels that abandoning the individual is the only option they have.

The second reason that so many mentally ill women languish on the streets is that, once they are in that situation where they’ve been abandoned, they have very limited capacity to help themselves. If you’re suffering from depression or schizophrenia, you find it difficult to seek help or to even look after yourself. And these women are very vulnerable. When the ashram rescues women, many of them have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Almost all of the 150 women at the Ashram are from a very poor background. Many have been rescued as a result of a call to a public helpline that the Ashram provides. When they arrive at the ashram the woman will find herself in a site about as big as football field, maybe a little longer, and a little narrower. The facilities are limited. There isn’t even enough space in the rooms for beds. The beds have now been taken out and mattresses placed on the floor to accommodate the women.

There are a formidable list of mental conditions here (depression on its own would rarely be enough to see someone end up at the Ashram) and I feel sure even the best resourced facilities would find this patient-load challenging.

But, despite limited space and resources, the Ashram does appear to have great success in looking after patients. Drugs are part of the answer – they have a full time pharmacist – and psychiatric care is available from nurses and a part-time psychiatrist. At the same time its obvious that drugs and medical attention are only part of the rehabilitation process. Perhaps just as important is the love and care being provided. On top of that, the Ashram makes stimulating activities a key part of the women’s daily experience. Yoga, music, gardening… these all provide some routine and stability to the patients’ lives, something to fill their time, and to give them some meaning.

But of course the ultimate goal is to treat the illness and make the women well again and able to go back to their families. That’s absolutely the aim of the ashram. And reuniting women with their families is a key part of what they do.

And they have mixed success, which is perhaps not surprising. You can split the women into a couple of different groups. There are a group of women who have ‘gone missing’ – perhaps run away from home, or been abducted. In many cases their family will have thought they were dead. Often they are overjoyed to find their daughter or wife. But in many cases, because there is such a stigma attached to mental illness, that they don’t want the person back even when they have recovered. And that can cause huge rejection issues for the patient, and a relapse into depression and further mental illness.

But mixed results does not mean the Ashram is not successful. Over 250 women have been reunited with their families in the last 6 or 7 years. With limited resources Mission Ahra is providing an absolutely essential service.

And really, although it was very upsetting to see people in a distressed condition, in what I perceived to be a bleak and comfortless environment, actually these women are the better off. What is really heartbreaking is to think of the women out there who aren’t getting even this basic care and shelter.

There are only 2 sites like this in the whole of India. The other is in Chennai in the south of India. With government resources for mental health extremely limited, there are thousands of women with mental illness in India who are left vulnerable with no support. It is no exaggeration to say that the life-expectancy of these women is very short, and quality of life is desperate. It really does break my heart to think about this.

But there is hope here too. As with their microfinance programs, Peoples Forum are demonstrating something really powerful. They are demonstrating that mental illness does not make someone less than human. These are human beings too. And they deserve care and love. They are also showing that, with care and shelter, many of these women can recover and go back to their families.

Before I’d even left the ashram I’d started to think about what I could do, and what Opportunity could do. We have expertise in two things that gives us a real possibility of helping here – we can sell a story to people when we find something truly inspiring and we can leverage something that works to expand that solution and maximise impact.

Mission Ashra has the capability to not just help a few mentally ill women, but to change perceptions of mental illness. Peoples Forum would like to move to a new, larger site with better medical facilities – effectively something more like a hospital. This may start locally, and modestly, but I believe it can grow fast. I’ve already made this presentation to colleagues and we are taking the first steps to make things happen.

This last picture may appear to sum up how bleak the Ashram is, but actually these women are relatively lucky. The ashram is giving hope. The alternative is hopelessness.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cappuccino for a Cause

Cappuccino for a Cause: As much as fund-raising, we're hopeful that this gets a lot of coverage for what we are doing, and we're seeing signs of some press coverage already.

Work is a world of excitement today!!! As mentioned before, Opportunity have teamed up with Gloria Jeans for Cappuccino for a Cause. This is something really new for us - we've never had a big campaign like this before, so the team are really buzzing... and that's only partly from the coffee we've been drinking today to support the cause.

Also, we have our big annual event tonight at Kirribili House which is a bit like renting out Ten Downing Street for the night. We'll have 150 movers and shakers in the room. Despite losing my voice (what a time for a bug to strike!), I'm really looking forward to it. It's a great opportunity to bring our message to even more people. Though I might have to pass the message on using sign-language.

This kind of exposure is really exciting. Sometimes this side of things is just as exciting as getting out to the field, though with 10 days to go, I've definitely got one eye (one bum-cheek?) on the flight to India.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Revisiting My Favourite Place in the World... via the Economist

One of my favourite pictures, from my time on Easter Island.

In all of my travels, and of the 50+ countries visited, Easter Island is still the most mystic and exotic. A little clod of earth way out in the Pacific Ocean still pops into my thoughts and dreams... and I make no apologies for romanticising about somewhere that would capture the imagination of the most cynical traveller.

Despite UNESCO World Heritage status, the island and its 5,000 inhabitants rarely make the news, so it was quite a surprise for me to see an article on Rapa Nui in this week's Economist magazine.

To be honest the article is a bit of a non-event - too short to do any more than list the current issues threatening the island environment, but long enough at least to bring attention to one of the world's most important historical sites. I believe such attention can be a positive thing, if it helps encourage Chile and La Isla Pascua develop a long-term plan to protect the place. But that attention could, I suppose, be negative, if it simply encourages people to visit.

I would love to go back, and would love more people to be able to have the experience I had there. At the same time, it's that type of attention that risks doing as much environmental damage today as the island's original inhabitants did hundreds of years ago. But there's no harm in reading about it, and if the economist article isn't emotional enough for you, you can always check out the effect it had on me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spring on the Rooftop

In the past two weeks, the exceptionally calm winter has given way to a rather unsettled Spring. Such is a perfect description of our weather here in Sydney. But I could equally be talking about my own personal circumstances!

The weather has been bizarre even by Australian standards. Last Tuesday, saw the worst dust storms to hit Sydney since 1944. Being unfamiliar with dust storms – except for during my annual flat clean – I was at a complete loss to interpret the scene that greeted me when I woke up at 5am to see my room completely bathed in red.

Imagine waking up in the morning and seeing this view out of your window. This is an undoctored shot of my view at 5am on Tuesday 22nd September. Now I can say that, though I’ve never been to the outback, the outback has come to me!

It’s hard to overstate how odd things looked as I peered out of my window. Nuclear attack, meteor strike, or the Rapture... all seemed like plausible explanations. But by lunchtime the skies had cleared to a familiar blue, and the only puzzling thing was how the global news networks saw fit to drag the story out across the rest of the week. ‘Sydney brought to a standstill’ was one of my favourite headlines. Sydney is always at a standstill at 5am! But the press love to talk up a dust storm in a teacup.

Let's get this barbey started. The Keith Foreman Grill cranks into action.

The high winds were back for my big party on Saturday. This was the much anticipated ‘Spring on the Rooftop’ celebration. Some cold beers and cooked sausages helped the 30 or so punters forget the chill-wind for a while, but eventually we had to beat a hasty retreat to the local pub.

There was a general consensus that the venue was pretty spectacular, and that this was an event to be repeated in a couple of months, when good weather would be guaranteed.

But this might not be possible…

I’m hoping to move apartment soon. Much as I like my studio apartment, living in just one room does get a little tiring. On better days I like to think that a studio is great because ‘every room you are in is a large spacious room’ (!), but that makes Polyanna appear like a pessimist. And since I’ve started looking for somewhere else, I’ve been more unsettled where I am. The grass has started to look greener…

Unsettling too are my travel plans for the next couple of months. I am still no clearer on when I will next be in India. I hope it will be within the next month or so as work is always easier when I can keep strong connections with colleagues abroad. And thoughts of travel aren’t just restricted to India. I would really love to pay a visit home to see the family. I’m hoping to get these trips worked out in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, a much smaller trip beckons. The next event on the Spring calendar is Ed’s stag weekend. Fifteen of us are going to the Gold Coast for a weekend of wholesome fresh air and exercise. Or something like that. This must be the most anticipated stag weekend of all time. Expect limited reports and blurry photographs.

This is the first day’s holiday I’ve had for six months (oh poor me!) and an interruption to my training routine, which has been going superbly. I’ve never felt fitter. I ran my first half-marathon last weekend and clocked 98 minutes. This was way better than expected and a similar pace to my best run for 10km – half the distance – some 8 years ago!

I wish I could push myself as hard in the pool, but I’m nervous about the injury returning. Still, running has been a great alternative. At the start of the half-marathon, running across the harbour bridge, with thousands of other Sydneysiders, under the giant Australian flags... I started to well-up! And there can’t be many more inspiring locations to finish a road-race either - running round Circular Quay and up to finish under the opera house.

Sydney’s weather is only rivalled in unpredictability by Melbourne. After my last update, I travelled down to Victoria’s capital to attend a two-day conference. I stayed an extra night to catch-up with friends and go to the Dali exhibition at the National Gallery there. My 7pm flight was then delayed as all flight operations were temporarily cancelled due to a storm passing the airport. Not ideal when I had to get up at 5am in Sydney the next morning for the half-marathon! I eventually got five hours sleep, and another reminder of why I prefer Sydney!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cappucino for a Cause

Hi All

On October the 16th and 17th, Gloria Jean's Coffees and Opportunity International are getting together to help people living in poverty. Buy a cappuccino from Gloria Jeans across Australia on those days and 50c will go towards Opportunity's Microfinance Programs in India, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Enjoy a caffeine high, and a buzz from helping others, at the same time!

(Update on the Sydney Half Marathon coming up shortly...)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Great times

The mercury topped 32C today. And according to my friend Olivier it’s still winter. I reckon Spring started on the 1st of September, but this is awesome, even for Spring!

It was a nice day out for Olivier, Sandra and I today. We took the train and then a little ferry south of Sydney and after a short walk along the coast we found a secluded beach in the national park. It was a great beach for swimming, only later did we realise that it was a nudist beach. And I can report that – as has been said a thousand times before – it’s never the really fit people that you find on nudist beaches. Oh well, each to his own.

The freakishly warm winter has made for some great weekends. I went back to the Blue Mountains with ‘the Irish’ last month.

Again it’s been such a long time since the last update, and when I apologise for that I do mean it – I wish I would find the inspiration to update more often these days. Maybe it’s partly because nothing particularly momentous had happened recently (until this week) while life has still been busy, and just so enjoyable.

There have been a hundred and one things on, with some highlights since my last update being…

- Last month I was one of 75,000 Sydneysiders taking part in the City2Surf fun-run. This annual event is the largest fun-run in the world. That’s largest as in number of people, not longest distance, obviously, though it’s still quite a challenge with a long uphill stretch in the middle of the 14km distance, before a long sprint downhill to the finish at Bondi beach. I was made-up with a time of 69 minutes, and it inspired me to enter the half-marathon (22km) next Sunday. I was absolutely done-in afterwards though, and the traditional post City2Surf drinking session nearly killed me! Thank goodness I cut my losses and escaped from the pub in the late afternoon and was in bed by 7pm.

- All this running has gotten me a lot fitter and I think I can finally… with some conviction… say that my shoulder is cured (and never let it be mentioned again!). I was swimming in the sea today for the first time and hope to start with the ocean swimming club on Saturday mornings now that Spring is sprung!

Right: the girls putting the 'fun' into 'fun-run'. :)

- I’m just about to book my next trip to India. This is the longest I’ve been without a work trip (4 months) and I’m really looking forward to getting back to the field. But before that I’ve got Ed’s stag weekend, and then Ed and Dace’s wedding in October, which I think I’m MC-ing, after which I’m MC-ing a work event too (how am I getting MC-ing jobs with my Scottish accent… what the hell’s going on here?!?). Got a trip to Melbourne next week too, followed by ‘Spring on the Rooftop’ – a bbq event at my place which should go gangbusters, given the level of excitement generated so far!

All of which means that there will be no shortage of more exciting news for the website between now and Christmas!

Right: Ed’s surprise birthday party. Not a surprise was Ed getting very (very) into the partying spirit. ‘Enough scotch to sink a battleship’ is the expression I reckon. Here he is getting into Dace’s hen night accessories. Almost topped recent antics at the Abercrombie…

Lastly, the momentous news is that this week the immigration department approved my application for an extension of my working visa. The extention takes my visa up to 2011, which is rather more reassuring than my old visa which would have run out in a month’s time.

A sincere thanks to Graeme and Fraser for badgering me to update. It’s effective… eventually!!

Monday, July 20, 2009

What’s worse – 105 Days in a Windowless Capsule or 3 Days in Canberra?

With my shoulder still recovering slowly, I’ve decided to do a bit of running again. Here’s a shot from a run across Sydney’s Anzac Bridge – one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world. I’m hoping to run the 14km City to Surf run in a few weeks time.

CAUTION: I must warn readers who are sensitive to sarcasm and sardonic wit… …as this update follows a recent trip to Canberra, a city deservedly famous in Australia as a national centre of dullness.

I’ve been to Canberra three times now, twice at gunpoint. Not literally at gunpoint of course, but being work trips I didn't have any influence over the choice of destination. This time I had a three day stay in Canberra for a microfinance course. This constituted my longest stay in the city yet, by two days, and about three-days longer than anyone needs to stay in the ACT, as Australia’s Capital Territory is known.

But before I really let rip on Australia’s capital city, something far more interesting caught my eye in the news in the last week. With all the focus on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the surface of the moon, a rather less stunning milestone in the history of manned-space travel has been reached.

Six volunteers have just emerged from 105 days locked in a windowless capsule intended to simulate the cramped and inhospitable conditions that astronauts would have to endure on a manned flight to Mars. As incomparable a moment as Armstrong’s first step on the moon was, I have doubts about whether manned space flight is still relevant in these days when all the spectacular science is being done by unmanned telescopes like the Hubble (admittedly serviced by humans), and the newly launched - and criminally under-celebrated - Herschel telescopes.

But even supposing for a moment that manned space flight does have a future, would you really volunteer to sacrifice 105 days of your life to such an experiment? Sure, these men could also say they were contributing to the scientific advance of mankind. But wouldn’t it grind you down to know that you were locked inside a glorified tin-can pretending to be an astronaut. In fact, mightn't there be something fundamentally abnormal – geeky, unimaginative, passionless (isn’t it telling that all of the volunteers were men) – about these people?

Surely it’s only reasonable to ask: what on earth (a rather appropriate construct I’m sure you’ll agree) leads people to volunteer to be shut in a fake space-capsule for 3 months? Even more unfathomable is that this 'adventure' will now be followed up by a repeat experiment, identical in every respect except that it will last 520 days…

Well one thing’s for sure – at least the experiment is far less dangerous than an actual manned voyage to Mars, where at any point in the two year journey, a rogue chunk of rock could careen into your space capsule, spilling you out into the atmosphere-less expanse of space.

Space isn’t the only place completely lacking in atmosphere. During my work trip I took an early evening constitutional around the streets of central Canberra. Though I hadn’t expected it to be like the last day of the Rio Carneval, or the banks of the Seine in mid-summer, I was still shocked at how much Canberra’s streets lack any joie de vivre.

It was like Edinburgh’s Princes Street at 10am on the 1st of January (though without the smell of rancid beer). Worn down by the soporific feel, I retreated to my hotel room, where at least Aussie Tv might provide some distraction.

Passing reception, I picked up a rather thin publication called “This Week in Canberra” on the off-chance that the town’s streets were so empty because people were having a rip-roaring time at any number of exciting Canberra events. And yes, it is possible that people were cramming themselves into ‘An A to Z of Animals in War’, an exhibition promising “stories of horses, donkeys, camels, dogs and other creatures used by military forces from the First World War to the present day”.

Or maybe there was a run on the unself-consciously named ‘Cockington Green Gardens’ with its “fascinating display of meticulously crafted miniature buildings”. Regulars at Cock Green - as it may or may not be known - must be reassured to learn that 30 years of the Gardens have not subdued the spirit of innovation there, where you can now find a “newly constructed Syrian arch, complementing the original English village”. Not sure those are traditionally considered to be complementary architectural styles, but clearly, as in Canberra, anything can happen at Cockington Green Gardens

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Gen-X-er's Take on Tech...

So I got a new iPhone 3GS. And its an incredible piece of kit. It's hard to resist the temptation to go on about it at some length. But how dull would that be... There must be thousands of 3GS reviews out there already. Dull, dull, dull.

So instead, I got to thinking, how great is technology today? Is this really a life-changing piece of kit, or just another toy? Is it even conceivable that this could be laughably out of date in just a few years...?

As a Gen-X-er of a certain age, (old enough to remember the Sony Walkman, young enough to be uber-enthusiastic about new kit today) maybe I'm uniquely placed to get some perspective on this wonder-gadget with a cheeky wee look back on the technological hits and misses in my Gen-X life.

1983 Nintendo Game and Watch – Donkey Kong Jr -HIT!-

For me, this is where it all started. Nintendo have had a long history – from making a primitive kind of pub pinball machine in the 19th century (yep, Nintendo are older than Winston Churchill and the penny-farthing) to the mass-mass-market fun of the Nintendo Wii. But I will always be nostalgic for the Game and Watch. The first hand-held video-game system, it was essentially just a large LCD- watch style screen (hence the name), limiting game play to platform-games and a very small set of possible actions. But it had that ingredient essential to all great games – an increasing level of challenge to match increasing expertise, and was thus perfectly addictive.

I still have mine, though its whereabouts haven’t been definitely confirmed for years (probably under a mountain of lego somewhere), and so I became all dewy-eyed when I found the above picture on the net. The hours and hours of fun the 9-year-old me had with that thing. And yet it could have all been so different. Within hours of buying it on holiday in Spain (I was quite possibly driving my folks bonkers on that holiday), I was having palpitations as it appeared to have packed in on the flight home. Little did I know that 1984's LCD panels just weren't happy in a pressurised air-cabin. A major tearful episode was avoided when the game started belting out its zippy, blippy little tune (haven’t Nintendo always been great at that?) back on terra firma.

1984 ZX Spectrum + -HIT!-

The warbly tapes. The dodgy sound and graphics. The bizarre but fantastic games (was it just me, or was Ant Attack genuinely scary?). And nothing was more memorable from those first gaming days than Daley Thomson’s Decathlon. Battering that keyboard for all it was worth (all RSI, no Wii) and then hitting the spacebar to throw a javelin (a single line of pixels) through the air, where it would hang for about 3 minutes like a cruise missile, before landing on an unyielding and unconvincing electric-green square… many a sunny afternoon was wasted on that one.

This was the pinnacle of computer game creativity – there were literally thousands of games, you could even write your own in your bedroom – and, on the creativity front at least, its been a mostly bobbly downhill slope from there. To think that Sir Clive Sinclair then made that obscenely shaped plastic-go-kart-death-trap thingy and then turned into a recluse(ish). If only they’d had reality tv in the 80s he could have carved out an alternative career as a bearded pantomime dame…

1987 Hitachi Ghettoblaster -HIT!-

For about 2 months before Christmas 1987, only one subject could occupy my mind for any length of time – portable hifi. And whilst these-days ‘portable hifi’ might mean something you can stick in your jeans pocket, back then it was something you could barely lift above your head. Undeterred, I would pour over the pages of Kay’s Catalogue, comparing features such as auto-reverse, graphic equaliser (3 or 5 band, 7 band if you were especially posh), bass boost and detachable speakers, this latter feature being something I was especially excited about, for a reason that I can no longer fathom. They were plasticky, they had crap radio reception, buttons frequently fell off at the least provocation… why is it a hit? Well it meant I could play music in my room, and that was revolutionary for me. Since then I’ve been a music freak. Job done.

1990 Panasonic G40 Barcode Reading VHS Recorder -Miss-

Yes, the history of 1980s technology disasters has effectively boiled down to VHS beating up Betamax, and yes we were a Betamax family (wasn’t it great to catch the cat out with that top-loading mechanism?) but that story has been told too many times. Instead, my mention of video-recording tech has to be an example of a laughably bad solution to a (semi) legendary problem.

The fact that not being able to program your video recorder has become synonymous in the English-speaking world with having problems with new technology shows what a major problem this was in the 1980s. But it was a problem that was never going to be solved by scanning barcodes. Not a sensible solution. Obviously. Except that, for a while, all the major VCR manufacturers (including Panasonic) wanted us to think it might be.

Ok, this wasn’t strictly 'my' techno miss, it was one for my parents, but it’s too weird not to mention. Come on – a giant sheet of barcodes where you scan one barcode for the channel, one for the day, one for the start time, one for the length of the program… are you kidding?? After recording just 4 episodes of Baywatch (well come on! what teenage boy didn’t???), I felt skilled enough to give a supermarket checkout lady a run for her money. What was wrong with just typing in numbers? Nothing apparently, as barcode technology was quietly dumped a couple of years after my folks bought the model pictured above. And that’s the barcode scanning pen on the right, which incidentally doubled up as a fairly weak laser-pointer that could be used to distract yourself - and passing drivers - when you realised that you’d accidentally recorded Murder She Wrote instead of Robin of Sherwood.

1996 Sony MiniDiscman - HIT! (and Miss)-

The end of my unwavering faith in technology – a format that I thought would change the world (You can record in digital! You can skip tracks!) but boomed for roughly 6 months, before fading painfully and gradually like the career of an ex-Spice Girl. Even the combination of my unfailing enthusiasm, and an appearance in the Matrix - the most fashionably futuristic movie of the 90s - couldn't stop its demise. I held out much longer than I should have done – though not as long as my friend Graeme has with cassettes, come on Graeme, 2009 mate, 2009! – and I still have about 200 of the little discs gathering dust in my mum and dad’s attic, with titles like ‘Best of Indie CDs!’ and ‘Stone Roses Second Coming’ barely visible in fading biro on their little sticky labels.

But I loved them, and their demise meant I would never fully trust the technology industry again…

1997 Sony Playstation -HIT!-

Yes that’s right – just “Sony Playstation”, not PS1 or playstation 1, and certainly not PS2 or PS3. This was the original. And it kicked Nintendo, Sega and Atari in the nuts and ran away with an entire industry. How? Simply by being a little cheaper, better in almost every area, and most importantly absolutely-top in the fun stakes. And never mind that it looked like a set of bathroom scales. Sony would later undergo collective amnesia in launching the over-priced, under-loved PS3, which has given away that colossal market advantage and apparently cost them all the profits they made on the PSOne and PS2. But who cares. Playstation was uber-cool in ’97 with games like Doom, Resident Evil and Wipeout, the latter featuring songs by Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers - who would have thought it… a video game… with a cool pop-culture tie-in!

2002 & 2006 Xbox & Xbox 360 -Miss-

Microsoft tried to repeat Sony’s industry-grabbing game-play in 2001, but the Xbox (in spite of having just about the best video game ever in Halo) never quite cut-it. I didn’t keep either Xbox1 or Xbox2 for any length of time. Maybe they were trying too hard. More likely the games were just too safe and same-y. And if the Playstation One was a set of bathroom scales, these were the pug-ugly plastic boxes to break those scales.

But I do have one very funny tale to tell from this. Apparently when my dad told my mum that I had bought the original Xbox, her reaction was “A sex box? What does he want with one of those?”. Yep, hilarious. But why didn’t she ask what a sex box was??? Mysterious. Lol.

2007 Ipod Classic 80Gb -Hit!-

After many years of going French and buying Archos mp3 players, I eventually succumbed to Apple as recently as 2007. Within days I realised why Apple were able to charge more, and for a superficially similar product, with apparently less functionality. It… just…works. It does everything so well, and so intuitively. And of course it comes in such a sexy package.

I loved my Ipod… but I wasn’t IN love with it… and then I got my iPhone. (lmao)

So there we have it – my entirely selective, one-man history of technology. And one last point – anyone who says that the old days were better just needs to spend 10 minutes with my iPhone (if you can prise it from my cold, dead hands). That we might soon have such technology would have been an incredible idea, in fact unthinkable, just half a dozen years ago. And there's no doubt this gadget would have been like an alien visitation to the nine-year old lad with his Donkey Kong Junior Game and Watch.

With this rate of progress there is surely so much to look forward to in the next few years. Might they even get round to inventing… …a sex box?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Amazing Six Months

Sydney in winter is like a date with a hungover Audrey Tatou. N’est pas parfait, but it’s still p-r-e-t-t-y d-a-m-n f-i-n-e…

After a couple of weeks of mixed weather, things brightened up at the start of last week and the temperature was pushing 20C every day. Not bad for winter. Last weekend was the best of all with two full days of sun and blue skies. And there’s so many great places to be in Sydney when the sun is out. I am gradually getting to know them all, but there’s years of exploring left yet, and I’ve probably yet to see some of the finest spots. On Sunday I found a pretty unique spot that I’ve been meaning to get to for some time.

Sydney Harbour is said to be the greatest natural harbour in the world. It is to harbours what the Grand Canyon is to holes in the ground. It's the sheer extent of the harbour, the number of coves and bays and beaches that is incredible. There are 317 km of waterfront in total, a fair portion of which is packed with the most expensive real estate in Australia. But it’s the amount of untouched, natural shoreline that’s impressive.

Some of the wildest parts are at the headlands at the mouth of the harbour. North Head and South Head (which sit on the north and south side of the harbour respectively – nothing, if not informative, this blog) are a couple of hundred metres apart, but separated by almost 25km of coastline (and bridge).

I took ferry, bus, foot to north head on Sunday and had a really peaceful afternoon in the winter sunshine. Wearing just a t-shirt and jeans for much of the time, I spent a good few hours wandering around, admiring the views and watching the whale watchers – who seemed to be having a frustrating, whale-less day (as opposed to a whale of time), which was a shame given the immense beauty of the place.

For me, it was a good time to relax and get a bit of perspective on the first half of the year. In the spirit of talking about ‘we’, rather than I, it's good to be able to say that Opportunity had a really blessed first-half of the year. In spite of the terrible economic climate, and really gloomy outlook at times, we have met our fundraising targets for the first six months of the year. This is immensely satisfying because of the hard work that the team has put in, and because we know how important this will be to the poor, especially given how hard hit some communities will be by the economic crisis. And personally, I’m delighted. I’ve found the past six months the most rewarding of my career. I want to be able to continue to do this for a while yet…

And the chocolate event was a big success! Fanny and Alex’s chocolate creations were the absolute business. Liquid chocolate, mousse, sorbets… fantastic stuff. And my first experience of a panel interview wasn’t as terrifying as I’d expected, though I was perspiring quite intensely – I blame the warm, chocolate kitchen atmosphere hitting my unaccustomed Scottish noggin.

And that's about it for this week. Given such amazing news at work, everything else seems unworthy of reporting.

After another stint of hard work, I’ve rewarded myself with an iPhone. A full review of this work of time-absorbing delivishness will follow in the next update.