Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Pope Blesses Rubber Dingers

The Pope's recent comments regarding the use of condoms must have prompted an almighty Alleluia! from all those who own shares in condom-making companies (I hope someone checked for any pre-announcement plunges on such stocks from the Vatican Bank).
At  last the Catholic Church is moving into the 18th Century. This is just another step towards ridding ourselves of all the stupid edicts in this world centered around sex and obsession.

There are about six billion of us on earth right now. We’re all individuals with varying views, attributes, hopes, wants, needs, expectations, flaws and talents.
Yes, we come in two varieties, those with a penis and those with a womb -- tackle in or tackle out.
Just to be absolutely clear, those with the gear hanging in space are male, and those with the gear tucked away are female.
Women can do things that men can't – give birth, breast feed, collect shoes, have multiple orgasms.
Men can do things that women can't – piss up a wall, write their name in the snow.

Throughout history there has been continuing debate about how men are better at this and women are better at that. You know the stuff – men are more physical, men can read maps, men are stronger, men can run faster blah, blah, blah. But in reality we are all individuals with varying abilities and talents.

Remember, I’m a man, yet Florence Griffith Joyner would have no trouble whatsoever in thrashing me over a hundred metres, even if I had an eighty-metre headstart.

The majority of this “better than” bullshit has traditionally come from men, because let’s face it guys, it’s really just pissing up a wall.

Should women be allowed to be priests. This, and pretty much any gender-based argument, is phallic bullshit.
Unless the job description specifically includes tasks that require the use of genitals, or a womb, there is no place for gender arguments in the 21st Century. Therefore, unless the priesthood involves some secret rituals, like pissing up walls or inseminating altar boys, there is no reason to even discuss whether or not women should be allowed in.
I use this priesthood issue, but it is not an exception. It empitomises the millions of fallacies that handicap humanity. Just look at how much time, energy and emotional angst goes into this question even today. And for that matter all the similar bullshit questions of the past – should women, be allow to vote, get equal pay, should slavery be banned, is apartheid OK, should blacks get the same rights as whites, is the earth flat or round, should we allow same-sex marriage. We could fill libraries with the reams of these, at-the-time all-important fallacies, not to mention the physical and emotional energy, the suffering and pain, that has been wasted on them. There is one vital ingredient common to all such debates, and that’s ignorance.
For example, let’s examine this ridiculous “why priests must have a dick” argument.  Like so many fallacies wasting our time today, it relies on a misunderstanding of scripture. It’s an argument perpetuated by people who assume that old books are closer to the truth than today’s writings. The older the book, the more important its messages, so ancient scripture must therefore be venerated.
Whereas I say if the printing press had pre-dated Christ, we would have a very different sense of Christianity today. We would have a much greater understanding of how people thought and how they communicated at the time. We would have a plethora of books espousing all kinds of pluralist views. We would have critical reviews of the books of the day, including the Old and the New Testament.
We would understand what Jesus really meant when he said, “This is my body”.
 This is my body” is bullshit. Beautiful bullshit, certainly, just like Ich bin ein Berliner.
We know Kennedy was not a Berliner because of mass media. Therefore we understand what he really meant.
Could you imagine if the Bible was published today. Would it outsell Harry Potter? I doubt it.
Although the Bible has many authors over many years, imagine – as many Bible “experts” still do – if it was written by one person. How would it stand up to peer review? How would the author go, for example, facing media questions?
“So Mr God, are you expecting us to believe that Mary was a virgin? And if so, what exactly did she and Joseph do on their wedding night?”
“If she gave birth to your son, doesn’t that mean you must have committed adultery, that is, broken one of your own commandments as referred to earlier in the book? What exactly do you mean when you say you did not have sex with that woman – Mary?”
“What terrible sin did Joseph commit to deserve a wife who doesn’t put out?”
“If the marriage was not consummated doesn’t that mean it’s annulled?”
“If you are in all living creatures, doesn’t that make you personally responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world?”
The Bible is littered with contradictions from cover to cover – and remember the Old Testament is fundamentally the Koran and the Tora.
But they are only contradictions if you take the text literally. The fact is the Bible was never written to be taken literally – it’s beautiful bullshit from cover to cover.
Scholars today understand a great deal about these documents and the people who wrote and edited them. But this information is unfortunately more ignored than understood by those with a vested interest in forming their own interpretations of scriptures.
It’s these ignorant views that form the basis for most conflict and debate about things religious. That’s the Cuckoo's Egg.
Churches are often far more preoccupied with their own preservation than their purpose.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why is Australia still waiting for a fast, reliable train?

It’s a sad fact that if you live long enough you will eventually get cancer. And that, I’m afraid, is what has happened to Australia’s railway systems. We have entered the 21st Century with a 19th Century rail system.

Everything about our railways from our rolling stock to the way we treat our passengers is Dickensian. The system has cancer and it’s dying.

Meanwhile rail travel in the rest of the world is enjoying a renaissance, with fast trains competing with airlines for inter-city passengers. They can be faster, they are much more energy efficient and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I’m sitting on a Victorian regional inter-city train listening to the all too familiar barking rage of the conductor blasting a passenger for being late and not having time to buy a ticket at the station. The conductor can sell tickets on the train, but he doesn’t like doing it. Like Basil Fawlty, he is angry because the passengers won’t get their lives organised to suit his agenda.

The “customer service” woman at head-office is totally on side. “Oh I know, we really wish they wouldn’t talk to customers like that. There is absolutely no reason they can’t sell tickets on the train – they have the facilities. It’s just some of them are lazy – it tends to be the ones who live in the city.”

She leaves the impression that this problem is as old as time and there’s not much she can do about it, because it is and she can’t. It’s an infection that has spread into the bones of our rail system. It dates back to the 1800s, the heyday of rail travel when there wasn’t much else. Rail travel was a privilege – but not anymore.

The same sanctimonious conductor who was blasting the passenger for his poor punctuality is now on the PA delivering the ritual, canard apology on behalf of the railway. Today it’s because, even though we have arrived at our destination only 10 minutes late, it will probably be at least another 10 minutes before we will be able to get off the train. You see someone has parked another train in our spot.

It’s the same the next day – different conductor, same apology, same excuse. The fact that most of the 14 platforms are empty at our brand-new metropolitan station doesn’t seem relevant. To allow us off on “another” platform would require a change in “procedure”, some lateral thinking, a morsel of concern.

Day three, same outcome only this time the excuse has changed – it’s that old reliable “signal fault”. You see the fault, the problem, the reason and, therefore, all the responsibility for this terrible recurring situation lies with “the signal”. If only those damned signals would get their act together.

For every awful conductor, ticket seller, ticket inspector on the railways there is one who is polite, courteous, helpful and extremely efficient. Sadly they are swimming against a tide of institutionalised incompetence and inconsistency and a culture of apathy.

To all those Australians who like to brag about how we “punch above our weight” on the world stage, I say take at look at our railways.

My thoughts drift back to a particularly pleasing risotto I had with a fine glass of woody Chardonnay in an exquisite restaurant in France almost 10 years ago – and bear in mind I’m a risotto purist. In this restaurant the waiting service was impeccable, the table decorations were pleasant, the wine list, although a tad limited, nevertheless included only quality. But what really made this meal special was the view. You see, the restaurant was on Eurostar, travelling through the green fields of France at around 300kmh on its way from Paris to London.

Eurostar today can cover the journey carbon-neutral in a little over two hours, even though for safety reasons it has to slow right down to the speed of the fastest trains in Australia as it travels under the waves of the English Channel.

In Australia we consider 160kmh wow-speed for a train. But in the real world 160kmh was considered fast for steam trains 100 years ago.

Today world-class trains are getting close to the 600kmh mark.

China, which remember is still a developing country, is rolling out fast train lines like spaghetti. It already has the longest fast-train network in the world.

You can now go 968km from Wuhan to Guangzhou in three hours. That’s around the same distance as Melbourne to Sydney, a journey that takes our ambitiously named XPT (Express Passenger Train) over 11 hours.

Shanghai’s 30.5km airport link – that’s around the distance of Melbourne to Tullamarine or Manly to Mascot – takes seven minutes and 20 seconds, with a top speed of 431kmh.

Oh we have tried to join the 20th Century.

Back in the ‘80s some of Australia’s leading companies – BHP, Elders IXL, Kumagai Gumi, and TNT – got together on a bold plan to build a fast-train network linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. When all the sums were done, the investors considered it a goer provided they could get some tax concessions from the Government.

When this was put to the Government, the answer was “computer says no”.

In 2008 a world-class fast train service was proposed for Melbourne’s metropolitan area, running from Geelong right around to Frankston. But once again the answer from government was “computer says no.”

Victoria now has a new Transport Minister, Martin Pakula. After his swearing in January he said: "The public of Victoria expect a public transport minister who’s going to get in, roll his sleeves up, and work as hard as I plan to work, to do everything I can to improve the system as much as possible."

Those in their salad days might take this as a message of hope. But experienced punters will recognise it as the traditional call of the new minister. It’s not so much a statement as a noise they make just before leaning back in their chair and putting their feet up on the desk.

The cure for our rail cancer is simple, brutal, but costless to the community.

All we need to do is bundle up our railways – infrastructure, rails, rolling stock and real estate – and give it to Richard Branson. Just imagine what Virgin Rail would look like in 10 years time. For starters it would have staff who would, to quote from V/Line’s Customer Commandments, “provide friendly personal service and the information I need to make my journey enjoyable”.

So that would mean the end of the historic Barking Conductor Corps. They’d just have to retire and go home to kick their dogs and watch TV.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Valē Peadar (Peter) Joseph McDonnell, 1930-2010

Eulogy delivered by his eldest child, Stephen, at St Jude’s, Langwarrin, Australia, April 9, 2010

Some of us are dreamers, we have a fantastic, creative imagination and can believe anything is possible. Dad was an engineer, they’re the ones who turn dreams into reality.

He didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. He dealt in algorithms,

disciplined planning, correct procedures. But at the age of 22 he fell in love with Nadia Cooperman, a dreamer straight from cloud nine.

They were married in London in December 1954 and the magic-carpet ride began.

Dad provided the stability that gave mum the freedom to indulge her imagination.

Peadar (Peter to most) Joseph McDonnell was born in Leenane, Ireland, in October 1930, the 5th of Captain Peadar and Tilly McDonnell’s eight children. The family later moved and settled in nearby Galway, where Dad served out much of his youth and schooling. He continued on to Galway University where he studied Civil Engineering.

He was also mad about sports – Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and rowing; He was selected for the Schoolboy fifteen to represent Connaught against Leinster in the Rugby Interprovincial one year. He also represented Galway Uni in the All Ireland Rowing Championships.

Like his mother and father before him, Dad was a devoted Catholic and in his diary at this time, every entry starts with ‘I went to Mass’.

After graduating he worked in England for the British construction company Wimpy and Co. and the Crown Agents office, seconded from the British Government.

However, adventure and travel was in Dad’s veins. Before long he and his young wife headed off to a life of adventure in Nigeria where the first of his 10 children was born – that would be me. When my sister Katie confronted Dad one day on why he went to Nigeria of all places rather than the more genteel Kenya with its established community of expatriates, he replied: “I fronted up at the civil service office for overseas postings and said you can send me anywhere.”

When an engineer constructs an all-weather road to an otherwise remote community they change the fortunes of the people in that community forever.

With his slide rule and theodolite, and of course his cinecamera, Dad built many roads and bridges connecting communities in Nigeria. These were primitive times, remote from the modern world. There was no ready-mix concrete to call on, nor a phone book of tradesmen to lend a hand. Concrete for piles and struts was mixed and moulded on site using teams of local labourers with improvised facilities. It's a task

that required exceptional innovation and ingenuity. As did the task of raising a young family in a primitive, tropical country, rife with exotic diseases and increasing political turmoil.

Two more children later, Mum and Dad finally left Nigeria just before the British colonial rulers did the same. Another short two-child retreat in England and Ireland our now, family of five children with one on the way, set our sights down under.

Dad must have wondered what he was thinking when he brought his young family to the wilds of the Pearcedale bush surrounded by wildlife and sword grass. There were many failures and triumphs in those early years, like the orchard he planted where the family home now stands, or the failure to catch a wallaby he had by the tail – an event watched repeatedly with much mirth on many a family movie night, or the failure to burn the sword grass, or even the failure to keep our horses fenced

in, none of which deterred Dad. But then there was the triumph of building a limestone house and successfully raising a family of 10 kids. A family I knew Dad was very proud of.

Many would agree that mum ruled the roost but Dad always had

the final word.

Dad continued his career providing utilities for the community. First it was water with the State Rivers and Water Supply and then it was homes for those who needed them most with the Victorian Housing Commission.

As I mentioned, Dad was deeply religious and caring and gave much to the community and asked for nothing in return – unless you happened to be eating some chocolate around him.

He was always a very active member of his parish. When St Marys Primary School needed some new classrooms Dad did the drawings and supervised the building work. When Hastings Parish needed a church, Hall for Pearcedale Dad once again did the drawings and plans and helped in the building work. You can always tell Dad's churches, they're the ones that look like they were designed by an engineer.

Dad was one of the founding members of the St Vincent De Paul Society here at St Judes attending regular meetings to help out the needy and the poor of the Parish.

There is no question that Dad touched the lives of so many people in Africa, England, Ireland and Australia through his work. And there is no doubt that most of them would not be aware of who he is or what he has done. He never talked about his work or himself. We had to do quite a bit of research so we could tell you what he actually did at work all these years.

He was not one of those married to his career – he was married to Mum and his family. At home with his kids, that's where Dad really lived.

He was a very quiet, gentle and caring man, but never-the-less there was a side to Dad that would surprise many. For example, his adventurous, fearless spirit.

It must have come as a great shock to Mum when he took on the gruelling Murray River Marathon with some of his sons. Ironic that by the same river I was playing Nigerian rhythms on Congo drums at the Down to Earth Festival. Or the time he agreed to accompany Rory on a flight in a light plane to Queensland and back. Rory had just got his pilot's licence and was keen to give it a try. Or the time he went hunting razorbacks on the banks of the Lachlan River. Not with guns – with dogs and knives.

Dad was never a horseman, but his daredevil spirit compelled him to occasionally saunter out to one of the children on a horse declaring it was his turn. On one such occasion, at the age of 55 the spirited horse took off and dumped our poor Dad, leaving him with a punctured lung, six broken ribs and a broken collarbone. He never got on a horse again.

His strength and belief in standing up for what was right came out in unusual ways.

Like the time Mum opened an antique shop in Frankston when Joanne, her youngest, started school. With no allocated parking space and surrounded by two-hour parking zones, Mum had a constant barrage of parking fines which she would occasionally appease with a cheque. Fed up, she went to the police station and demanded all outstanding fines which she would pay, and did. When, in the next few weeks another summons came for some fines they had missed, Dad said “Enough”. He would go to jail rather than pay another cent. Off he went with his book under his arm to the Dandenong lock up. Mum was in the shop that day. She rang home to see what was needed. Jackie answered: “We need milk and bread – and Dad’s in jail”.

Around 1975 when I was working in the city, dad suggested we both do a public speaking course the Knights of the Southern Cross were running, to help me overcome my fear of public speaking.

Dad introduced us to current affairs and British comedy. News and AM in the morning on the way to school, PM in the evening then This Day Tonight, Monday Conference, Point of View with Bob Santamaria and the comedies, At Last the 1948 Show, The Frost Report, Monty Python and others.

Another surprising side of Dad was his eclectic taste in literature – He was never without a book but also read his Catechism, The Catholic Advocate, The Nation Review, National Times, and how can we forget, Harry Potter. In recent years, no book was safe. When visiting his children, he would take any book he happened to find handy. Often frustrating when he disappeared with the book you had nearly finished.

Dad’s legacies to his children and grandchildren are many. Like his father before him, he always had a camera and we have home movies going back to the early days in Africa. He was always a playful tease, delighting those around him with the ‘whiskers kiss’, 'Gee Up a Guppolin', his constant urge to tickle, and tease, particularly the dreaded ‘horse-bite knee tickle’.

Many of you that knew Dad realised that his mind was deteriorating over the past few years and deteriorating rather exponentially. Even though he knew us all and his cherished grandchildren, 32 in all, this period has been punctuated by some rather comic and bizarre behaviour, too numerous to mention here. But when family members would continually lose their keys only to find them clutched firmly in dads right hand after a frantic search we really started to worry.

Dad never had a bad word for anyone. He had a genuine love for everybody he met and he had the ability to make everyone feel special and welcome.

Barrister John Styring captured this perfectly in a tribute he sent to Sally. He wrote:

"I have the fondest memory of Peter sitting in a comfortable chair in your log cabin just across from the open fire, cradling a baby, and smiling at me with a look of utter contentment. There was great noise and movement in the cabin, but for Peter, it was just him, the baby, and by his smile, me."

His Grandson Oscar – also grandson of his best friend in Galway, Mossy Power – said it all when asked by his father “Do you want to be a doctor like me when you grow up”, he answered: "When I grow up I want to be just like Grandpa."

We all miss you so terribly, Dad.