Thursday, July 31, 2008

A rare and striking flower

It's always great to see people recalling the honourable work of their predecessors.

Many of us (especially in the west) get caught in the cult of the new and innovative. And we often seem to do it at the expense of the legacies we inherit.

(If you are an academic you will be aware of this trend every time you look at a bibliography or footnotes; the proportion of new articles and books to old is often overwhelming.)

When we were in China a few years ago, we were struck by the depth of appreciation for the work of former generations. This revealed itself most often in the disciplines of fine artistry, construction and medicine.

It's quite a contrast to the way many Australians see things. One culture seems to 'add value' by underscoring the 'cutting edge' nature of its new technologies, while the other sees value as enhanced by heritage.

In many ways, the emerging China holds both these things together. With a deep appreciation for history, they are also pressing into a future which insists that they embrace innovation.

It's a challenging conundrum: how to move forward with full appreciation for the past while not being held captive to it.

Which shoulders do you stand on in your work? Your hobbies? Your philosophies? Your way of seeing the world? And how do you honour the good things of the past as you move forward?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Learning to look at things differently

So many things in life seem to pass us by.

We get familiar. We get used to. And we get bored.

We forget that perhaps there might be another angle presently escaping our perception, but begging to be noticed nonetheless.

We miss these alternative angles because we often don't have the eyes to see. We're too busy looking for what we expect to see.

Children have this ability; most of us adults (unfortunately) grow out of it. We see danger; they see opportunity. We see obstacles; they see stepping stones (my neighbour was showing me tonight how he barricaded his television set away from the kids - only to find that they use the barricades to climb on so they can get to the television).

Sometimes something turned a few degrees, or on its head, or in a reflection, or through a shadow, shows a different side of itself, and becomes a new tool for exploration; a tree becomes roots, and the water its earth.

Life is filled with such moments. Relationships, conversations, transactions, disagreements - all of them beg to be viewed from other angles (perhaps richer angles?) if we would but have the eyes to see. And the courage to believe that not all is as it seems at first glance.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Designs that weather the ages

Several years ago the BBC produced a truly excellent historical documentary series called 'Seven Wonders of the Industrial World'.

It was a treat to watch any one of the docos that made up the series. The historical accuracy of 'Seven Wonders' was owed to serious reliance on documents (especially journals) of the time. I highly recommend the series to anyone. It's history-telling at its best.

Probably the one I enjoyed the most featured the Bell Rock Lighthouse, located 18 kilometres off the east coast of Scotland. The challenges of building a sea-washed lighthouse 200 years ago were not insignificant.

Robert Stevenson (grandfather to Robert Louis Stevenson) and John Rennie (no known connection with this manufacturer of antacid tablets) were given the task of overseeing its design and construction.

There were, shall we say, a few creative differences between the two men (especially concerning the curve at the base of the lighthouse, inspired by Stevenson's appreciation of an oak tree holding up in a storm).

Nevertheless, the seasonally-based work commenced in 1807, and three years and 2500 interlocking granite blocks later, it was completed.

The lighthouse's masonry was of such high calibre that in 200 years it has never needed repair. The documentary captures well the frustrations and struggles, but also the vision and tenacity of Stevenson. I don't think the word 'noble' would be inappropriate to describe how he saw his work.

When I see workmanship like this, I wonder if the house we live in now will still be around in 20 years' time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Like peaches and cream

Wood, metal and stone are a most agreeable combination.

I was out on the Nepean River this morning for a meeting with a client. As I was waiting for him to arrive, I took some time to wander around the landscape he had helped to create.

The combination of wood, metal and stone came together beautifully around the landscape perimeter. While it is certainly functional, it also had a rustic beauty to it: it was the meeting of basic, raw, earthy elements. And it works.

The nautical theme seemed to integrate well into the surrounds, even though we were a good hour away from the sea.

Perhaps you, like me, enjoy the atmosphere that lives around old wharves with their ancient steel-ringed turpentine pylons. I know this morning's landscape is not especially ancient, but the effect still works: metal, wood, stone. It's a timeless combination.

When Mark Thomson wrote his book on Australian BBQ's he also tapped into some of the same spirit with the book's title: Meat, Metal and Fire. Some things have always belonged together and always will.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Winning an argument

We've just walked through the process of returning some unsatisfactory goods purchased off eBay.

The item was a piece of child safety equipment, which was advertised as being ten years younger than it actually was. The condition of the piece was also slightly less appealing than the words which described it.

In these sorts of circumstances, it is easy for things to escalate very quickly, and for a war of words to erupt. Before you know it, you're in eBay Disputes.

Dale Carnegie once said the best way to win an argument is avoid it. I don't think he was saying 'Avoid conflict'; what he knew all too well is that when two people are shouting no one is listening anymore.

We had to find a way of (a) returning the seat (and quickly, as the seller told us he already had another buyer!); (b) getting a full cash refund; (c) expressing the reasons for our return of the item.

I think we both knew that the trickiest part would be (b): getting our money back.

Cara and I had a few good discussions all through the process about how to deal with a person who clearly didn't want negative feedback left, but who still had our cash and was trying to extract positive feedback out of us.

What was plain from the outset was that aggression was never going to achieve a good outcome. For anyone.

So instead we kept our cool, kept speaking calmly and with civility as we worked with him, kept referring to facts, tried to see things from his perspective (he didn't want the headache any more than us), and never referred to 'eBay Disputes' (which is an incredibly inflammatory term, whose mere mention heats up a conversation).

In the end, the item has been returned, we have our cash back, and the seller understands why we cannot leave him positive feedback (but he will at least get neutral for choosing to honour the refund, which we were grateful for).

It's a good outcome, I think. But I don't think there would have been any winners if we'd done the natural thing and followed our anger. It's good we had time to work through how we were going to respond.

Life doesn't always give us the luxury of that. So we need to act graciously and truthfully, seek wisdom, and hang on for the ride. And know there'll be times that we probably won't do any of those things well!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Windows of opportunity

Eureka! A brief window of opportunity to post - our wireless internet appears to be working for now. Better make the most of it.

Life is full of 'windows' like these: brief moments when we are given an opening into another possibility. And at that time, we either walk towards the opportunities or we walk away.

A window can be the coming together of a few friends. It can be an idea begging to grasped NOW. It can be like that time my dad drove my mother to the airport for her trip to New Zealand, and didn't come home (he decided to join her, as the rest of us discovered later that morning).

Life is full of windows of opportunity. If we expect opportunities to wait for us like wide open doors, we're likely to live disappointed lives. There comes a time to seize a moment, not even having enough time to fully process all the implications of walking into it.

Which window of opportunity is before you at the moment?

Carpe momentum!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wireless is great - when it works

Our wireless broadband service has just about forced me to break my commitment to blogging daily.

At the beginning of the year, we signed on with Virgin broadband, and the whole experience that followed has been fraught with headaches.

Yesterday our broadband decided to stop working. Occasionally - just occasionally - you get a brief 30-second window and you have a network. And then it's gone again.

So if this blog doesn't appear at some stage, then you know I probably haven't been hit by a bus; most likely I've just been hit by very poor internet provision.

Maybe if I get desperate I'll cruise the street, laptop open on the seat next to me, hunting for an unsecured network so I can post the waffle you stay up to read each night. (Or else do the ethical thing and go find a Telstra Hotspot.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lessons from unexpected quarters

I am a salesman. There – I said it. Despite the fact that my business card says ‘Regional Manager’, we all know the unvarnished truth.

Okay, there’s a bit of (a fair bit of) support and technical advice thrown in there too. But your boss doesn’t enrol you in a course called ‘Sales Advantage’ when you’re primarily a technical adviser.

What’s comforting to know is that there are other people out there who carry a label even more despised than that of mere ‘salesperson’: try ‘used car salesman’. How does that wash with you?

Nevertheless, I take heart that we can learn even from used car salesmen / salespeople. I was reminded about this today as I was driving along Parramatta Rd. Passing by yard after yard of seasoned jalopies, I realised that to survive in this industry a person has to be among the world’s greatest optimists.

They seem to be able to find something good in every car – which then becomes the key selling point: ‘Air conditioned’, ‘One owner’, ‘Low kms’, ‘Leather seats’, ‘Just serviced’.

Sometimes it appears that the hunt for something nice to say has fallen on hard times – so the selling point becomes ‘Automatic!’ (it may just as easily say ‘Manual!’). When it gets this bad you’d probably get more interest if you signed ‘Wheels!’ or ‘Engine!’

Still, you gotta admire the tenacious spirit of those who always find something nice to say, especially when no one else is thinking nice things.

It's certainly a principle which can carry over into other areas of life: to always seek to find something in other people that you can compliment them on. But then it'd better be genuine - and backed up by something more truly meaningful than a 'five-year extended warranty' from a salesyard.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fly away

As I was driving back from work in the ACT today, I noticed these paragliders crusing along the escarpment that skirts Lake George.

('Lake' George is a little generous at the moment, as the tide seems to be out and cows were happily grazing well below the high water mark.)

The area is well-known for its hang gliders and ultralights. In the right conditions, when easterly winds are blowing, these guys can cruise along the 25km length of the lake.

As I watched the paragliders, it deepened my yearning to be able to fly. I was reminded of how many dreams I have where flying is a central feature. I seem to do a lot of dream flying. And I really enjoy it.

It tends to look a little more like the latest Honda Accord ad, without slavish encumberments like parachutes. Sadly, no matter how good rocket backpacks become, or how much weight I lose, my dreams of flying will remain that: dreams. Dreams that I will continue to enjoy.

A desire to fly seems to be ingrained into most human beings (at least the strange ones I've met and talked with over the years). Why is it? Perhaps it's seen as the ultimate expression of freedom, of movement, of vitality.

The birds make it look easy. And as poor a substitute as a paraglider is, I would have rather been up there with those guys today than down on the ground snapping some frantic photos.

It's my birthday next month. Some wings would be nice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Big screen - and that's just the ad!

If you can't afford a 42" HD plasma TV at least you can console yourself with the almost lifesize advertisement for it (okay, I lie - the screen in the ad is only 23").

The advertising page in question measures 95cms wide by 57cms high. Massive. And one product is advertised on it.

The opposite of this is the advertising brochure produced by Franklins supermarkets. Franklins' philosophy: jam as many products onto the one page as you can. It's not so much advertising as assault.

Of course, one company is selling big screen televisions, while the other is selling tuna and frozen peas.

It's not unusual to see both of them meet in some sort of 'advertising middle ground' where they attempt to flog around 6-8 products per page.

While the inside of a Franklins shopping catalogue might look like the inside of our pantry (packed to the rafters), the average electrical wholesaler's catalogue doesn't look like the wall of our lounge room (we only have one television; not six).

Someone obviously thought that a big screen television deserved more than 10cms of advertising space. Big screen impact deserved big impact advertising. It's impossible to imagine any supermarket ever dedicating a whole double spread to a single toothbrush.

I wonder if the strategy will pay off for Big W. I guess they wouldn't be pouring massive dollars into ads like these if they weren't expecting lots of cashed-up customers.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The play of light with water

Pristine. Fresh.

I took these photos a month or two ago up at my parents' farm, the morning after some rain. It was one of those magic mornings where beads of water glisten and dance in the sunlight.

It's a fascinating relationship that light and water enjoy. I love the freshness, crispness, softness that one encounters walking around after the rain.

Everything feels so alive. The birdsong seems crisper and cleaner, the munching of the cows on the grass seems more audible. The air feels cleaner.

But I don't need to tell you that; you already know it just looking at the photos. The play of light with water tells a much richer story.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sleep: watch me fight it, mummy!

As Cara has mentioned on her blog, we presently have two small sick boys in the house.

Sick children are about as fun as a piece of surprise gravel in your breakfast cereal (ask Cara).

Along with the pleasures of sickness, Caelan has decided that lunchtime sleeps are a force to be reckoned with - and he is attempting to do some of that reckoning. He has really fought his last two lunchtime sleeps - with a victory yesterday, and a stand-off but eventual loss today.

Two-year-olds have been known to do this before. Unfortunately, the human body is not designed to operate without recharging. And when the recharge is too short, or non-existent, the results are not pretty (picture Edward Norton's demeanour and appearance towards the end of Fight Club).

Meanwhile, dad and mum (especially mum) would happily cash in some of Caelan's sleep credits. But, unfortunately, the tickets seem to be marked 'Not transferable'.

He seems to be acquiring a few 'frequent awakener' points lately, and it'd be nice to think he might start to redeem some of those soon, and give his body and his parents what they need.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ladder to nowhere?

Or stairway to heaven?

I thought this a rather intriguing feature of our local landscape.

Perhaps the crew who demolished the upper storey of this building had a curious sense of honour, and decided to leave behind this testimony to what once was.

Perhaps it was too challenging to remove, or unnecessary to remove.

Perhaps there is a future purpose for it, and a new level will be built which will harness its usefulness.

Perhaps some local 'Jacob' makes his bed at the base of the stairs each night, waiting for a visit from heavenly sojourners.

Perhaps there's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold.

Friday, July 18, 2008


If you live in Sydney then you already know what WYD08 is; it’s all around you. On every train station, in every bus, on almost every street corner you see them: young, boisterous, backpack-carrying pilgrims.

The flags and faces of many nations are among them, as many of them make the trip of a lifetime. They will long remember the time they came to Sydney to gather with hundreds of thousands of other Catholics, to celebrate together, and to see the man who is the head of the Catholic church.

(Where else would you ever get thousands of teenagers giving the 'rock star' treatment to an 81-year-old man? It’s an extraordinary phenomenon - no offence intended with that last comment.)

This is my second taste of what it must be like to live in Mecca: the first time was 8 years ago when the world came to Sydney for the Olympics.

As the group of young people in the photo above wandered past a bloke selling ‘The Big Issue’, he hollered, “Where are you guys from?” As it turned out, they were a bunch of locals: “Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand” came the cheerful reply.

Has your life been marked by a pilgrimage of some kind – perhaps one you’re yet to make? For Muslims, it’s Mecca. For the ancient Jews, it was Jerusalem. For Mormons it seems to be anywhere overseas you can ride a bike.

For most Australians, it seems to be trip to ANZ Stadium or Subiaco or the MCG (or, for a generation of older Australians, a trip to ‘Mother England’). For some it’s the Apple iStore (you know who you are!).

Have you noticed that it seems to be something basic to our human make-up that we are programmed for pilgrimage? Most people seem to have a deep longing within them to go to a certain location – and they know a journey (or a long wait in a queue) will be involved.

What characterises most of the pilgrims in Sydney this week is colour, and I have to say it, happiness; they look like they’re having the time of their lives.

What characterises you in your pilgrimage?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gotta dig down to build up

Great ideas are like great buildings: they never simply 'sit' on the landscape.

A well-grounded building has to go down before it can go up. The building above is one I've had some involvement with over the last few years. And as any engineer knows, a lot of work goes into securing the base of a building before anyone even starts thinking about going 'up'.

Anyone can generate shallow ideas that appear impressive on the surface, but that aren't grounded well. Any idea that plans to endure in the marketplace has to go deep first.

It seems sadly common to see people building great edifices of ideas on the flimsiest foundations. It pays to dig well first, and to see what it really is that we intend to build on.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The right ingredients

It's late. Okay, maybe I'm just old.

I've just enjoyed an evening with a good friend, some great coffee (and tiramisu) and some wonderful conversation.

The time carried very easily. Normally I'd be punching z's by 11pm, but the conversation was still in full flight.

It's one of the most magnificent aspects of being human. I love what great company, great conversation and great coffee all do for the soul when they come together!

A most excellent synergy. And now time for some of those z's.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My blog begs to be taken indoors!

The garage is not such a good place to write a blog entry. Cara is meeting with some friends in the house, and so I've taken a low profile in the garage for a while.

Have you ever tried using a laptop while sitting on a tall stool? Torture.

The cool night air and the strains of Libby Gore on 702 in the background probably aren't providing the necessary inspiration.

Why is it that some places are great to work in, but not so hot to write in? I love my garage workshop, but I've never tried to type in it before. Despite the excellent company of old tools (see yesterday's entry), I'm finding it hard to write.

I've never been prolific enough a writer to understand things like 'writer's bloc'. But perhaps tonight, with my freezing ears and aching legs (and my still sore, cracking fingers), I'm getting some sense of it.

For me, the cure will be simple: type up tomorrow's entry in a place that works for me! Has anyone else noted this phenomenon?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Old dogs tricked up

I think handplanes are pretty cool - especially old ones.

One of the things I love doing with old handplanes is breathing new life into them. The quality of these grand old tools means that even a plane with 100 years of life behind it can still have a long useful future ahead of it.

At one stage I bought a lot of these planes and slowly restored them before selling them.

There's real pleasure in giving a new lease of life to something old. Whether it's a car or a plane or a piece of furniture, there's something wonderful about seeing old things appreciated, and used.

It flies in the face of a 'throw-away' culture like ours.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

One day

The coming together of friends
The meeting of hearts and minds
The joy of remembrance and anticipation:

The laughter of small children
The laughter of those well-travelled
The clinking of glasses and the clinking of words:

The awkward moment of silence or tears:
To speak or not to speak?
The challenge of differing viewpoints:

The word that begins a journey
The word that soothes and sears
The Word around Whom we gather:

The mystery of strength in weakness
The greatness of something small
The grace that grows our mustard-seed trust:

A family, a field, a building
A body, a gathering, a flock
Each face a picture of dignity given:

One day this house will be silent
Another house filled with delight
One day our trust superseded by sight:
One day

Saturday, July 12, 2008

If a tree falls in suburbia will my hands still hurt?

I chopped down a rather large tree today the old-fashioned way: with an axe.

This article explains what happened (to me, not the tree). It also explains why this blog entry is about to run out.

Design principle no. 1: painful fingers not so good for typing.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Can't tell his right from his left

Today's blog is very simple: there are arrows on the road for a reason.

A straight-through arrow isn't the same as a right turn arrow.

It's nice to know that even at the ripe old age of 32 you can still learn something.

(Thanks to Laurel, my partner in 'the dance of the cars' for donating the front end of her Daewoo for this lesson.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cutting edge technology: hand, brain, pencil

This is a sight you don't see so often these days: a drafting table and drafting machine occupying a central place in a design studio.

I was visiting a client today who is a landscape architect; let's call him Andrew. As we walked into his office I was shocked to see the above; it's become so normal to behold the office setting adorned with CAD machines.

Andrew and I got into a discussion I've had before with several architect friends: what is the place of manual drawing and writing in an age of CAD?

Whenever I've had these conversations with architects who prefer to work manually, the conclusion is almost always the same: too often there's something that gets lost in translation between the mind of a designer and the clicking finger of a CAD operator.

Andrew (still in his thirties) spoke very passionately about his deliberate avoidance of CAD for the older 'technology'. (He has worked in CAD-saturated contexts previously.) In his mind there is clearly some sort of invisible line that connects the mind and imagination of the designer with the pencil in his hand.

He also spoke of the tactile benefits of working with real paper, real pencils. Of the way they bring contours and sweeping lines to expression. Of the ability to stand back from the drafting table and get a bird's eye view over your A1 workspace - and not a flat 22" screen. The fact that he does most of his drawing standing up allows him to 'zoom in and zoom out' with only a footstep or two.

As I looked around his office, I was also struck by the amount of hand-writing evident everywhere. Covering the wall above his desk was a massive collage of photographs he has taken over the years - every one with a date and a brief description. And all in his tall, tidy print.

"I'll bet your wife gets you to write out all the Christmas cards," I joked. "Actually," he replied, "I don't write on pre-made cards; I prefer to print off one of my many photographs and create something from there." "You have stunning handwriting," I remarked. "Yes, he responded, "I really like writing. I've done all sorts of calligraphy over the years." "And drawing?" "Oh, I really love drawing."

And as I looked over Andrew's work, it was obvious no lies were being told.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Interview No. 3: Words, words, words - and a few more

My mother has often affectionately described my sister as 'afraid of having a spare moment'.

Erika is also a person who packs a lot into life. Teaching, studying, mothering, exercising, and the preparation of gustative delights are just some of the components that make up a typical day for her.

She is presently engaged in doctoral studies in linguistics, and kindly agreed to take a short break between teaching and cooking dinner to answer a few questions.

Erika urged me to exercise freedom in the editing of the responses, but I'm far too lazy for that.

Celebrating Design: You're a person who has a serious love for language. You are competent teaching German and Bahasa Indonesia, and you're presently working towards a doctoral degree in linguistics. What is it about language that keeps drawing you in deeper and deeper?

Erika: I suppose I am a “language oriented” person. I find all that stuff about learning styles/brain types really interesting, and over the years I have come to understand a few things about myself though teaching it to students. I am quite logical-sequentially oriented, extremely language oriented, quite linear in my thinking (although some may not think so!). In the end I think it is part of my make-up.

I have always been interested in language and what makes it “tick”. Traditional linguistics, the type most people think of when they think of grammar (eg nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases etc) has always held a fascination for me, and then I discovered Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) which actually looks at how language works in use and is a descriptive and paradigmatic theory which is derived from actual contextual language use rather than a proscriptive set of “rules” based on the grammar of Latin.

Studying and using SFL really excites me, because it makes the choices people make in their language use both visible and able to be theorised, which in turn gives us an insight into how we use language to enact social relationships.

As an educator and a Christian, and a person concerned with social justice, this is really important to me, because if we can make language use explicit, we can explain it and teach it, and help people to improve their literacy abilities in all sorts of ways.

CD: Your father was a native German speaker. What influence did his personality and heritage have on your decision to pursue linguistics with the passion you have?

E: Quite a large one. It started off just as a focus on language learning, not as “linguistics” as such. Dad was the reason I started learning German at “German school” from 9-12 on a Saturday morning from the age of 8 till the age of 16. Not that he pushed me into it in any way, I just wanted to learn the other language he could speak and “maintain my heritage” so to speak.

I studied Indonesian basically because my mother made me. When I was choosing my electives in high school I wanted to study German, art and home science, to which my mother replied “I can teach you to cook, you can do Indonesian”. She had noticed that I seemed to enjoy and do well at Indonesian when we did the year 7 “taster” course and so encouraged me in the direction in which she saw my talents lie.

Later on at University I studied a bit of Welsh in Celtic Studies and that’s where I found out about Linguistics as my Welsh teacher kept banging on about bilabial plosives and dental fricatives. Linguistics 101 in the third year of my BA got me firmly hooked, and when I discovered SFL in my MA in Applied Linguistics I was on a downhill slope toward the inevitable PhD studies!

CD: What has your study of several foreign languages and your work in linguistics taught you about the links between a language and the culture out of which it arises?

E: Where do I start? Language is a semiotic system, so it evolves to a point where it is useful for expressing the meanings that people find important. Of course, it is not the only semiotic system (you have pictures, music, etc.), but it is a very important one for humans. As such, it is almost impossible to separate language and culture. You could say that language can give you a very good idea about what is important to the culture (e.g. Eskimo words for snow). And the systems of language also tell you a great deal about the culture from which it arises. What is really interesting to look at is what you can’t say in a language.

CD: There's a passion for continued learning that drives you. How does being a student affect the way you teach?

E: Well it certainly gives me a good reply when my students complain about getting homework (“You guys have no idea how easy you have it …”). I know what it is like to learn, and to write and to struggle through new ideas and to feel out of your depth. I know what it is to be under pressure from deadlines. I know more about how they feel than they realise!!!

It means I am good at teaching reading skills, writing skills, creative thinking, problem solving, time management skills (I’m the organisation queen!!!), study skills, and I am quite confident outside my direct field (Languages).

Unfortunately, being a “lifelong learner” also has its disadvantages – being almost physically incapable of not giving something 100% and always trying to do my best, it irritates me beyond all reason when intelligent students prefer not to use what they have been given and prefer instead to “bludge”. I can’t understand how someone can not try their best, or how people can be so lazy. I also have a problem with how generation Y seems to be so mentally undisciplined – the majority of them seem incapable of memorising anything anymore (sorry!).

CD: It's often said that people who love the languages tend to possess musical or mathematical abilities. How has an understanding of languages assisted you in other areas of life?

E: Interesting question. I’m not particularly mathematical, although I suspect that was more of a psychological thing at school and that if I went back to it now I’d probably be ok. I am a bit musical – I used to play flute, have had some singing lessons in the past (although I’m very shy about it – don’t ask me to sing!!!) and did learn keyboard for a while, but nothing particularly spectacular.

I suppose the one thing I could say about my talent for language is the fact that I have always found academic pursuits pleasurable. I read well and I write well – I have never had a problem with essay writing or anything like that. I also read a lot for pleasure – sinking into a good fantasy series is one of my greatest pleasures, and I have a good vocabulary too, I suppose.

It has also affected my “Christian Life” (I am beginning to hate that term as it implies that Christianity is separate from the rest of my life, but that’s a whole other interview). I have had the opportunity to study the Bible in a more-or-less academic way through Moore College’s Preliminary Theological Certificate, which I really enjoyed (someday I will do the further 8 subjects and get the full certificate!). Understanding languages is also good for travel!

CD: We live in a world saturated by words, yet we often find ourselves generating at least as much confusion as sense with those words. Are there some basic pedagogical and linguistic principles which might contribute to our words conveying meaning with greater accuracy and effectiveness?

E: Oh dear – this question would take about 100,000 words to answer adequately (the approximate length of my thesis – I currently have about a third of those words!). My research is all about making the language choices people make more explicitly visible and linked to the theory about language that I subscribe to (SFL).

Basically, a lot of the choices we make in our language use everyday are systematic and meaningful, but we do it intuitively. The one golden rule is probably “Think before you speak/write/gesture”. The other thing is, within SFL, language is understood to have 3 simultaneous metafunctions - the ideational (i.e. language is about stuff – the who did what to whom bizzo), the textual (how we organise the text, information flow) and the interpersonal (how we enact relationships through text).

I believe that we need to look more to the interpersonal nature of all our texts (whether spoken, written or otherwise) if we are to communicate more accurately and effectively. That is basically what my research is about, in the context of senior high school writing, but it would serve us well to consider what interpersonal communication is going on every time we use language. What attitudes are we (mostly) unconsciously communicating about the person we are speaking/writing/gesturing to, ourselves, the subject matter we are discussing and so forth?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A good [self] talking to

There are times in life when people close to us say things that both wound us and urge us along.

Today was, for me, one of those times. And the person doing the talking was me. To me.

There are some areas in my work that I've been wanting to grow in. And today, working alone at home, was the time when I drew a line in the sand.

There's never a dull day at work, or one that drags. There's always plenty to do. But as the old saying goes, we've gotta learn to work smarter not harder. That was today's challenge to myself: to work in a way that absolutely maximises my impact.

And so it was a matter of saying, 'Who am I?', 'What is my role?', 'What makes me effective in it?', 'What holds me back from being the best I can possibly be in my role?', and 'How might I continue to press forward into being the best I can be?'

A short manifesto and one rousing speech later, the agenda was laid down. I got some stuff off my chest, and then got into the rest of the day's business - with a clearer mind and a more contented heart.

It was a really good day, and I even managed to get a lamb stew cooking for dinner in there as well - and bought a nice bottle of Coonawarra Cab Sauv / Shiraz to go with it.

The perfect way to finish a very satisfying day!

Monday, July 7, 2008

The sum of the parts: building a car via FedEx

My boss owns a vintage Packard sedan. Actually, he owns two. And my hunch is, he's aiming to acquire a third one by stealth.

This hunch is grounded on the theory that: (a) one large car is made of many small parts; (b) it is possible to reduce most of those parts down to a size that can be posted; (c) over time, one may gradually (and stealthily) collect all the parts and (d) build the car in a quiet weekend down in the garage.

Barely a week passes without a package from the USA arriving at our office - and this has been going on all year. These packages, we are told, contain all the necessary ingredients to get his last Packard purchase up to scratch. I first saw the car in early January, and it looked pretty complete to me: so where could all these parts be going?

(I've often wondered why he doesn't just have them delivered to his home address 2 kms down the road; I must ask his wife about this ...)

Even when he's away, mysterious boxes from America continue to arrive. Another large one came today. It feels a bit like one of those grisly murder mysteries where one week a finger turns up in the post, and the next week a leg. I keep wondering when the chassis rails will be couriered through the office door, bound and gagged.

Anyway, it keeps us all entertained. And good luck to him, I say. Perhaps at Christmas time we'll hear a honk of the horn out the front, and he'll drive up in his third Packard, the sum of a year's parts delivered to the office.

It could just be me, but I'm pretty sure there's a parable in here somewhere ...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Absence that does something to the heart ...

My folks have just returned from 3 weeks in Alaska and Canada.

This morning we decided to bundle into the car and head on up to the Central Coast to see them. And I've gotta say it: it was nice to be with them again.

I don't typically feel the need for a 'hit' of immediate family too often. It takes a decent absence for me to feel anything like withdrawn.

Some people are family junkies - and that's cool. But me, I tend to be reasonably content working alone in the day, and coming home at night to an adorable wife and two screaming boys. And now and again I'm happy to touch base with those people we call 'dad', 'mum', 'sister'.

It's not that I don't like them - I'm just kind of a 'low maintenance' guy in that regard, I guess.

But I gotta say it again: it was really good to see my parents today.

I wonder what it is about the return of our loved ones from a long trip that makes us glad to look into their eyes again? There's a special joy in seeing someone who's just returned from a long journey, and I'm not quite sure what it is.

Perhaps it is in the word 'journey' - that we know something has changed for this person, and they will never be the same. And perhaps that touches us most deeply when the blood of that person runs in our own veins.

Anyways, I'm blogging at my sister's place tonight, so I'd better be on my best behaviour, or no chicken pie for me. And it's nice to see them too.

Okay, enough blogging! Away from this diversion, and back into the real world of 5 small children at arsenic hour.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chicken mountain

One of the coolest features on my phone is a two-minute video where Sam the Cooking Guy walks you through the making of a BBQ chicken pizza.

Tonight we decided to give the recipe a try. So I took a drive to the supermarket for some ingredients.

When I got to the deli to order half a chook, I was greeted by a massive pile of chickens. The lady behind the counter - let's call her Rosie - smiled at me, and after the perfunctory exchange of niceties, took my order.

As she was attacking this oversized piece of poultry with what appeared to be a tiny pair of scissors, I remarked, "That's quite a stack of chickens you've got there." "Yes," she replied, "but they'll all be gone in an hour-and-a-half. Chickens are a big mover here."

She looked thoughtful for a moment and then asked me the strangest question, and one I've never been asked in a supermarket before: she wanted to know what I thought of the presentation of these greasy, roasted chooks. I said it looked like a giant chicken traffic jam.

She went on to explain that before she came to Australia seven months ago, she had specialised in the art / science of food presentation. And this - this 'chicken mountain' - went against everything she believes about food: what it is, and how people interact with it.

I remarked that I'd had a similar conversation with a chef friend a little while back, as he described the processes our brain goes through when our senses are engaged by food - before we've even taken the first bite.

She went on to say that good food - food that is presented well - will give a man an appetite even if he's already eaten a meal. She said presentation of food is everything - it's like a man meeting a woman. The man is struck by the woman on that first appearance - is she well-presented, attractively dressed, tidy, sexy? (At this stage I was still coming to grips with the fact that I was having this conversation with the chook-chopping lady in the supermarket deli.)

We talked about how the presentation of food reflects the intent of its purveyors. This stack of chicken meat said only one thing: product to be sold in mass quantities; what matters most here is the making of $$$. A chook production line for a chook-eating machine.

She was so passionate about the issue that she walked around to my side of counter, and we both stared together, conversing over the poultry pile-up. I took a photo, and a few other people were standing nearby wondering what the source of our fascination was.

"It looks like a mountain of meat," I said. "Actually, the only thing missing is snow. Next time I come, I'll be sure to bring my skis."

We had a little laugh and then she said so seriously, "This is food for human beings, and yet look at it: it's just thrown out here." "Yes," I agreed, "it's a pig trough."

Rosie then shared a little of her hope to gently bring her expertise and passion to bear on her work in the deli. But she finds it so hard to get people to listen - especially those above her who feel the need to pull on their rank.

"It's small steps," I reminded her, and we agreed that people change the world a little bit at a time. As I left I said to her, "Rosie, I like your style. Though the presentation of this food is appalling, your service and attitude has made my day. I'll be keeping an eye out for you next time I'm down here."

I then walked over to the fish section and ordered some seafood marinara from the young man behind the counter. He weighed it and I asked, "Could you please take a little bit out, if that's not too much trouble?" He smiled and as he returned some of the mixture said, "That's what I'm here for, right? Have a good evening, and enjoy your meal."

Don't you love it when the dignity of people rises above their situation?

Friday, July 4, 2008

A picture in pieces

Mosaics: I think they're kinda cool.

The mosaic has its origins in the Mediterranean, and found its way into Christian art in the 4th century, where its popularity as an art form took off.

Though the tesserae were often deliberately manufactured cube-shaped tiles, a mosaic is an excellent way to use up all that busted crockery.

'Mosaic' is an excellent word to describe how many of us experience life, in its brokenness and in its beauty.

Next time one of your teacups hits the floor (literally or metaphorically), rejoice in the opportunity to make a new picture!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Cultural stereotypes ... and soccer (sorry, football)

We live in a world of cultural stereotypes.

Excitable Italians, loud Americans, thrifty Scots.

Dave of Cafedave fame shot me a link to this video.

My own heritage is Dutch. And this video captures a very Dutch moment.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to differentiate themselves from other human beings. One of the ways we do it is through picking the differences between ourselves and people of other races.

We have our own pictures of what it is to be Australian, Swedish, Indian, English, Samoan, Kiwi - and we have words we readily put to those pictures (often in our own minds if not on our lips).

So I wonder, if you could capture the essence of your own culture what would it look like in terms of the scoring (and reporting) of a soccer goal?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Burning fuel and pushing some dirt around

Continuing our theme of playing with dirt, in this post we consider the bulldozer.

On my recent trip to the NSW north coast, I encountered a few long stretches of roadwork. I don't think I've ever seen so much earthmoving equipment in my life.

Graders, excavators, scrapers, off-highway trucks and dozers made up most of the equipment. And there was some big stuff in there, including not of few of the larger CAT dozers: the D9 and D10.

The D10 is over 66 tonnes of machine muscle married to a 1204 litre fuel tank. The price of diesel at the moment is around $1.80 per litre, so when you fill up for a weekend drive, you're looking at nearly $2200.00. The D10 burns through that diesel at a leisurely 75 litres per hour ($135.00) - even the Falcon wagon I used to drive wasn't that thirsty.

Of course, if you had a cool $1,000,000.00 floating around to buy a D10 in the first place, a little loose change on fuel probably doesn't worry you too much.

This is all a long way from the first bulldozer which made its humble appearance back in 1923. James Cummings, a young farmer, and J. Earl McLeod designed and made the first dozer out of the frame of a Model T Ford, some windmill springs and other assorted bits. Its first application was backfilling a pipeline trench.

Simple concept: a blade pushing dirt. Add time, money and market demand and you've got a monster which is near unstoppable. (And the ultimate boy's toy as well, as our friends at Tonka would testify.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Earth-shattering stuff

When our son Caelan had his first birthday, his Opa introduced him to that tool-of-tools, the jackhammer.

On May 19th 1892, Charles Brady King invented the jackhammer - also known as the 'pneumatic hammer' - being only in his 23rd year.

It didn't take too long for the device to catch on - if you've ever worked a crowbar in rock, you'll understand why. Soon hat-wearing men from all over the world were embracing the technology.

The basic principle is of an air-operated piston delivering many blows per second to the drill bit, which in this case is simply moving back-and-forward (if it is spinning as well then the tool in view is not a jackhammer, but a rotary hammer).

I probably first used a jackhammer when I was 18 to dig out a hole for a septic tank. At first, working with the jackhammer seemed cool, manly. But it didn't take too long before I was beginning to feel like Tom Sawyer with his whitewashing task.

If it weren't for the persistent rattling of every bone in your body, and the exercise in endurance of keeping the hammer raised and parallel as you press it forward into a wall, I couldn't imagine anything more relaxing. Oh, and the ringing in your ears for hours afterwards.

The jackhammer is a welcome relief to the blistered hands of the crowbar days. But for all the pain they save you, some designs create new challenges to our humble physiology.

Ah, the price of progress!