Friday, February 7, 2020

The Mirror: Lost in Space

Early in the 19th century, Johann David Wyss wrote The Swiss Family Robinson; a novel about a Swiss family of immigrants whose ship, en route to Port Jackson, Australia, goes off course and is shipwrecked in the East Indies. Wyss' purpose for writing the novel was to educate his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self reliance. The family name "Robinson" is not used in the novel, but as it is modeled on Daniel Dafoe's genre birthing Robinson Crusoe, the title is in homage to the 18th century classic.

Fast forward to the mid 20th century when the inspiration flowed on to produce the science fiction series Lost in Space. John and Maureen Robinson, together with their children Judy, Penny and Will get marooned far from Earth. The setting changed, but the story was the same. A family faced with dangerous isolation has to work together to survive. It's a simple and very appealing idea. 1960's television shows were not renowned for sophisticated special effects, but the science (spaceships and aliens etc) only really had a supporting role.

In 1998, a terrible film adaption of Lost in Space was released. The special effects were a significant improvement on the 1960's television show, but it lacked character. Like many high tech films, it sacrificed substance for style.

When a new Lost in Space series was released in 2018 on  Netflix, I was naturally reluctant to watch it. The original TV series may have finished in the year I was born, but I had seen multiple replays and loved it. I ignored Lost in Space until season one had finished. However, it only took a few episodes for me to fall in love all over again. I've just finished watching season 2, and I'm calling it the best show I've seen since Travelers.

Although, differing in a number of ways from the original series, the Lost in Space reboot triumphs where many science fiction shows fail. Whether it's film, TV or books, I'm mostly interested in characters and relationships, and for me Lost in Space nails it. It has a lot of suspense and breathtaking action sequences which are magnificently supported by special effects, but it's really about the Robinson Family and how they grow stronger and closer together through adversity.

This is the connection: relationship. Leaving aside every imaginable variable, at the core of our existence lies the need for healthy relationships. The quality of our lives has a direct correlation to the quality of our relationships. We were designed to be together and we want that interdependence; we want to belong. Many obstacles and challenges must be faced, and pain is inevitable, but to survive, we need each other.

A colleague of mine criticized Lost in Space because it was 'just a drama in space'. Clearly, the show did not meet her expectations, but for me, I thought 'exactly'. That's why I like it. I feel it. I relate to it. No matter if we, (as represented by the Robinsons), find ourselves lost at sea, lost in space, lost in the jungle or the forest or just plain lost -whatever our circumstances; we grow stronger, wiser and better when we work together to overcome.

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Dog's Eye: absolute power

Google 'quotes about power' and there is one which is sure to appear on every list. Attributed to the nineteenth century Catholic historian, politician and writer, Lord Acton, it is often not quoted in full. He used these words of warning in a letter written to an Anglican Archbishop in 1887. These words became more poignant when Stalin, Hitler and other leaders of their ilk came to power.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men even when they exercise influence and not authority."

I discovered the context of this quote while reading Geoffrey Blainey's brilliant A Short History of the 20th Century  When writing about the mass colonial liberation movement post World War 2, Blainey quotes John Kenneth Galbraith who said "all of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common; it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of the people in their time."

This is not a comment on whether the leaders were or have been effective or not. Nor is it a judgment on their morality or lack thereof. It got me thinking though about leadership. In the 21st century, there seems to be a dearth of real leaders in our world. People are extremely critical, almost hysterically so, of Australia's Prime Minister, the British PM and the US President, just to name a few. I hear many people say we need real leaders, but I'm not sure I know what they mean or indeed, if they know what they mean.

I've been reading the books of Kings and Chronicles in which David, the second king of Israel features prominently. Interestingly, Chronicles has essentially the same content as Kings, but is written in a much more positive light (leaving out the story of David and Bathsheba, for example). I noticed in it some little things David did which showed leadership of a different kind.

Aside from wisdom, intelligence, strength and charisma, I
discovered in David's life some lesser known and often less valued attributes. Grace (mercy), humility and justice. (1 Chronicles 19:5, 21:17 & 21:24). I was reminded of the words of arguably the greatest leader of all time, Jesus Christ. Speaking to his disciples who were arguing about greatness in God's kingdom, Jesus, who is known as the Servant King, said;

"The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, exercising authority. With you, it must not be so. Those among you who want to be great must be the servant of the others." (Matthew 20:26)

What is your idea of a great leader?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Snake Oil: Loose with the truth

Facebook posts ads on our walls based on our previous searches, likes and other interactions. I get a lot of advertising for flights and holidays because I've traveled quite a lot over the past couple of years. Jetstar has frequent sales and they target me for trips to Vietnam. The advertised prices are ridiculously low, and as it always turns out, the flights are only available on a very limited number of specific days...or perhaps not at all, as I've discovered sometimes.

I do online surveys, and have done for some time. I earn points and redeem the points for Paypal dollars with which I buy books. It's a sweet little pocket money generator. Facebook started hitting me with ads for another online survey mob called Surveyworld. The thing is they didn't advertise themselves as an online survey company. They were looking for males in my age group to test products. (Wow! How did they know my age?) I clicked the link and was forced to join an online survey company. There was nothing on their website or in the flood of emails which followed about product testing.When I could not unsubscribe, I had to block the address.

A final example involves an immigration agency which advertised free consultations with their lawyers. It was free until they actually connected me to a lawyer and then they dropped the fee on me. I declined and told them their advertising was dishonest.

Having won the lucrative broadcasting rights from Channel 9, Channel 7 has boasted of being Australia's home of cricket. Australia's old home of cricket-the only one I'd ever known- used to show all the international cricket matches in the Australian domestic season. The new home of cricket only shows test matches. It also purports to be the home of the very popular big bash T20 league (now in its ninth series), but it doesn't show all the games. This is advertising; the false or only partially true claims of those trying to sell us something.

Television programs are always promising the best of everything;
the scariest, the funniest, the most exciting or entertaining. The word 'ever' has suffered a thousand deaths and still suffers abuse as a zombie adverb.

That advertisers and television promoters at best exaggerate and at worst lie about what they are offering is a given. We know that. However, people are loose with the truth as well, and sadly we expect that now. We hope people tell the truth but often suspect they aren't.

Is it any wonder that truth is now so flexible? So situational? So relative? Why are we surprised by this prevailing lack of honesty when we are surrounded by lies in the media, both the terminally ill traditional media, and surging social media. Most thinking people have a default doubt setting nowadays.

I rang the ATO to tell them I had mistakenly received thousands of dollars. They were shocked and promised to investigate. Nearly four months down the track nothing has happened. The same government department took money off me every fortnight for nine months before admitting the error and assuring me they would return my money within four weeks. That was in November. Guess what? I'm still waiting. When I switched to Dodo mobile they promised me 'all systems go' no more than three days after I activated my SIM. Two weeks later, I finally had a fully operational handset.

I could go on with many more examples, but I trust I've made my point. I want to be believe everyone who tells me something, but I can't. I want my default setting to be trust, but I know that will likely only hurt me.

It's very sad that the concept of relative truth is so entrenched in our thinking. In the 21st century, most people echo Pontius Pilate's famous 1st century words. On the day he was crucified, Jesus challenged Pilate to accept the truth of what he was saying and who he was. Pilate's answer: "What is truth?"

Well? What's your answer?

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Dog's Eye: More than meets the eye

Many of our students are refugees who suffer what is known as complex trauma which is a result of long term experience of traumatic events, including torture and other acts of violence against themselves and their loved ones. On the surface, they don't appear to be traumatized. Generally, they are very friendly, happy and grateful people.

We also have quite a large number of students who are migrants; predominately Asian women married to Australian men. Many of these marriages are abusive and half result in divorce and ongoing hardship for the women. They don't appear to be traumatized either. You wouldn't know from looking at them or even talking to them that their lives were in turmoil and their hearts were broken. Generally, they are very friendly, happy and grateful people.

I went to see The Rise of Skywalker.* The film had been running for at least half an hour when a man came in, wearing a backpack, and found his way into the middle seat ten rows in front of me. Less then five minutes later, he got out of his seat, the illuminated screen of his phone in his right hand, and left the cinema. He didn't return.

Later, much later and further into the film, a couple of women entered the cinema and walked up the steps of the right hand side aisle looking for their seats. Evidently deciding it would be easier to access their seats from the other side, or that their seats were on the other side, they walked to the left hand aisle. Not more than five minutes after they sat down, one of the women rose from her seat and left the cinema. She did not return. Maybe ten minutes later, her companion also left; never to return.

A bus driver once pulled alongside me, opened his passenger door and began to abuse me for some alleged traffic offense against him. He held his position right next to me, keeping only half an eye on the road and continuing his verbal tirade for several minutes.

I don't know any of these people well; the cinema people and the bus driver, not at all. It's hard to interpret external behaviour. Who knows if outwardly happy people are really happy? Or if road ragers are really angry? Who knows why people would enter a cinema long after the movie has started, and then leave long before it finishes?

This is exactly why the Bible warns us not to judge people. We simply aren't qualified. We don't know enough. Yet, we do it, almost automatically, all the time. Even though we expect grace and understanding from others, we find it hard, sometimes too hard, to dispense it. There's always more to the story. There's always more than meets the eye.

*The Rise of Skywalker is a terrific film. Very entertaining. Some really nice story line gaps filled in. A couple of wow moments and scenes. A bit or humour. First rate special effects as expected. A very worthy addition to the Star Wars saga. As an aside, I still don't understand why parents take young children to M rated films. There's a lot of violence and some horror in The Rise of Skywalker, but there were children as young as five in the cinema watching it. I don't like that, and ironically, am being judgemental towards those parents.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Life X 4

Most people are familiar with the concept of seasons in life, but these are really more aptly called stages. And stages have within them seasons. Periods of time. Happy days where everything seems to be smooth sailing and strawberry fields. Some stretches of months or years where nothing goes right. Spring seasons full of energy, new endeavour and lots of action. Others where nothing happens at all. Our emotions rising and falling as we experience the highs and lows of human existence.

For eighteen months I was a house sitter. During that season I never stayed in any one place for more than four weeks, and usually nowhere near that long. I chose this form of homelessness as a remedy to financial woes. It was mostly a terrific experience about which I have no regrets bar one little one.*

As the grant of a partner visa for my wife and children loomed on the horizon, I decided to act in faith, believing that God would not let us down. Having always been faithful to us, I had no reason to doubt his provision. I bought one way tickets for them to get here in time to celebrate Christmas and New Year. I enrolled my daughter in school and I took out a lease on a three bedroom apartment for us to live in. We started talking to one another and making decisions as though the visa had already been granted. Seven days before they were due to arrive they had no visa; neither a partner visa nor a tourist visa, which we had applied for as a bit of insurance. 

The transition out of the season of house sitting and waiting into  the 'oh man, I'm paying rent again now and I have a family to feed' season was not gradual. On December 16, my wife and two children arrived in Darwin and we jumped into the deep end together. My two eldest children are young adults now. It's been a long time since I lived with them and cared for them as children. I kind of forgot how noisy, messy and inconvenient children are, but I'm not complaining. I'm not complaining, I'm adjusting. We're all adjusting to this new season of living together as a family.

We've been waiting for some time for this new beginning. My wife had this dream of what the future would look like long before she met me. When we learned that we shared this dream and believed God had brought us together to make it happen, we were grateful and excited. We still are. 

We're in a new season now, a new chapter in the book of our lives. It's not just me now. It's life multiplied by four. Four times the people. Four times the problems. Four times the food. Four times the fun. Four times the electricity bill. Four times the joy.

* My final house sit, which I had arranged long before we began our faith steps, ended up not working out for us. Had it just been me, it might have been okay but with the four of us having been catapulted into family life, the house where we stayed presented one too many challenges so we pulled out half way through. Of course, we notified the home owner and arranged a satisfactory replacement. It is the only time I ever let a home owner down, but I felt I had no choice other than to do what was best for us as a family.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Snake Oil: Up to 70% off

A special price used to be...a special price. A once a year sale used to be...a once a year sale. Back in the day a product could outsell competitors on the strength of a good advertising campaign alone. There was once much less competition; much less choice, much less confusion and much less danger.

I recently searched for an NBN provider for home WiFi. Initially I used an online comparison website, but it only told me that each of up to a dozen companies offered basically the same thing for roughly the same price. I figured out exactly what I needed, and that NBN was available at my place. (FTP:fibre to the premises to be precise). I then called each of the companies to ask why I should sign with them. I'll give the two extremes. Company A answered with silence. Company B offered me $5 dollar off the advertised price for the particular plan I wanted, waived the delivery fee for the free modem, and offered me a month's free internet if I switched my mobile phone to them. Their phone offer was the same price as my existing plan, but included more data, unlimited SMS overseas, as well as 120 minutes overseas call credits.

To get more customers, companies offer all sorts of deals, but to do even better than the advertised specials, you just have to ask. It's totally worth a call. I do the same thing for my insurance policies. Various companies also run event sales: End of Financial year. Halloween. Christmas. Boxing Day. New Year. Australia Day. I'm writing this on December 1. Most of the Black Friday sales are winding up today and tomorrow. Black Friday is on December 13, but never mind. Close enough. Any excuse for another sale.

The fact companies can offer all these special prices and special sales indicates that by and large they are overcharging their customers. In bricks and mortar stores, crazy prices are often advertised. Some places are always having sales and perpetually offering special prices. You will never enter a shopping mall and not find most of the shops having sales. In supermarkets, the sale items rotate but there are always a huge number of items on sale. My supermarket of choice always sells a large variety of products at 20-50% off. Clothing stores boast of half price, or two for one offers. I've seen shops selling products at 75%. If all this is for real, they can't make money, but of course it isn't. It's snake oil: a barrage of clever marketing tricks which most of us have fallen for at one time or another.

The advertised special prices and sales are hooks, and we consumers are fish. Sales get you into the store or onto the website where hopefully you will see something you like, and spend more money than you intended. Companies rely heavily on impulse buyers; people who buy things because they are on sale irrespective of whether they want or need the product, or indeed if they had even given a thought to it previously. The bait is dangled and we bite.

Successful businesses know all the tricks and employ them strategically to maximize sales. Knowing this helps me to control the materialistic urges within me. Utilizing my own set of countermeasures, my advertising snake oil anti-venom, means that even if I don't always get the best possible deal, I will at least be satisfied that I haven't been duped. I'll also minimize the risk of PPR (post purchase regret) 

Here are my top five PPR prevention strategies.
  1. Shop around
  2. Negotiate as much as possible
  3. Use shopping lists
  4. never spend more than you planned to.
  5. Don't make spontaneous purchases.
Do you have any strategies of your own? Share them here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Dog's Eye: The Band-Aid Century

I sometimes wonder if people understand the cyclical nature of life. I don't mean birth, marriage, life and death. I'm not talking about the cycle of life because with minor variations here and there, it's basically the same experience for all of us homo sapiens. And people know that. Opinions about the purpose of it all only differ in limited ways. In relation to world views, there is a fairly basic dichotomy. There's nothing new here.

Nothing new. Exactly my point. I'm currently reading The Memoirs of Richard Nixon who is best remembered for the opprobrium of Watergate. What has struck me several times, while reading-skimming quite a bit actually-is how the names change but the issues don't. International tensions have always existed. Wars go on continually. We've never had world peace. Natural disasters. No solutions, just mitigation of consequences. Political shenanigans. Questionable integrity. Frustrating lack of vision and real leadership. Promising economic theories which don't work. Blah. Blah. Blah.

A couple of light examples will suffice to demonstrate my point. Richard Nixon was President of the United States from 1969-1974. coming to power when the US had to get out of Vietnam, but
couldn't. It was the single biggest issue. Protests were frequent and frequently violent. On one occasion, he called a university student protester a "bum". Immediate echoes for me of former Australian Prime Minster Paul Keating in 1995 telling a group of student protesters to "go and get jobs." Twenty years apart, in different countries, yet the comments of these national leaders grabbed the headlines; overwhelming the actual object of the protests.

Early in Nixon's presidency, just as television was flexing its muscles as a monstrous manipulator of public opinion, he wrote about how personalities and television performances were becoming more important than actual policy. Little could he guess, how truly bad it would get. In the US, as here in Australia, what passes for news, as delivered through most media in the 21st century, is an embarrassing collection of prejudiced half truths.

The funny thing is people are still complaining about this all the time. Talk to anyone who's alive and at least partially connected to society. They will say the same things. Finding an original idea is like searching for elephants in an ocean. People whine endlessly about all kinds of things, alternating between shock and outrage, always taken by surprise by the things which keep happening.

The results of a research project into children's attitudes to homework were announced earlier in the year. Guess what? Children don't like homework. There's a new diet guaranteed to shift the weight you lazily allowed to accumulate. No wait, it doesn't work. Shock. Horror. A person on Twitter called me a moron because I misunderstood her. Oh no. I've never been called an idiot by someone who doesn't even know me. I'm devastated. I drank too much alcohol last night. I feel sick today. I can't work. No. Really? I had sex with a guy on the first date now he doesn't want to see me again. I could give thousands of examples of how individual people, and society as a whole, seem incapable of learning from mistakes.

Everyone knows the tongue in cheek definition of madness: repeating an action and expecting a different result. Chuckle. Chuckle. But we all do it. Same mistakes by us. Same mistakes by others. Same problems. Same ineffective solutions, and round and round we go.

Blind and stupid. That's what we are, God bless us. Blind, stupid, and fragile, but loved immeasurably by God anyway. I'm calling the 21st century the  band-aid century because nobody wants to address the root cause of all our problems. Instead of highly qualified and experienced physicians we consult Dr. Google. Don't treat my cancer doctor. It's too inconvenient. Just put a band-aid on it, and I'll pretend it's okay. Nobody does that with their health, but what about the health of our relationships and our society. Don't like that question? Too hard? My apologies.

There's a new weight loss program out now which involves eating a balanced diet and exercising. Wow! Why didn't someone think of that before? Never mind. We'll be okay now. As we say Down Under: "She'll be right, mate." Pass the band-aids please. I just cut myself, and by the way did you know children don't like homework?