Saturday, 25 October 2008

Beautiful Botanics

I spent this morning in the Botanic Gardens with my photography course group learning how to use my camera to take close-ups and get the best out of nature photography. It was excellent: I had no idea how much was in the Botanics and you look at things in a different way when you're looking for good photos, so it was a really enjoyable couple of hours. The highlight was seeing hundreds of flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging from the trees while they rested in advance of their nightly hunting. Very cute!

Not sure if this will work but try clicking here for a link to the best of the 250+ photos I took!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Keeping it simple

One of my colleagues in my new job (which I’m doing part time while I finish off the old one) gave me a nice compliment the other day when she said that a tender submission I’d drafted was clear, easy to read and made the points it needed to make without drowning them in waffle. It was good to get that kind of feedback as I do try to avoid writing in jargon and like to minimise the level of b***s**t in my writing. But working in government and policy related fields doesn’t half make that difficult sometimes!

I’ve been working on a series of “issues papers” in my government temp job and because they’ve got to be written in a particular ‘house style’ using policy wonk language, I’m getting heartily sick of writing the same old stock phrases like “in relation to”, “in the context of”, “there are a range of issues”, “evidence suggests” etc.

I’ve also found myself coming up with all kinds of other nonsense in some of my writing, which I think must be the influence of the gobbledegook around me. Today I found myself typing the following with my very own fingers:

“The heterogenous nature of the sector leads to a differential capacity among parts of the sector to conform to regulatory requirements.”

Whaaaaaat!?!?! Thankfully I stopped myself quickly. The revised version may not be brilliant but it’s definitely an improvement.

“The sector’s diversity means that organisations have different abilities to respond to the requirements of regulation.”

It reminds me of being at uni when I became rather fond of using the word “concomitantly” just because lots of articles I read were using it (in case you’re wondering, it means “at the same time as” or “in parallel”.)

On a different note, I also came across this glorious statement in something I read today:

“Of course, one of the biggest accountability controls on NGOs is that if they do not deliver what they promise, in most cases, their revenue streams would be severed either from citizens or other donors.”

This is from an article called ‘An overview of some of the factors driving the development of self-regulation frameworks for the NGO community across the world’ which is available from here.

It nearly made me choke on the cup of tea I was drinking at the time. As a piece of blatant propaganda, I find this one hard to beat. Anyone who knows anything about the reality of the NGO sector knows that revenue streams (grants and donations to you and me) bear almost zero relationship to the effectiveness or quality of the services delivered. It shouldn’t be like that, and lots of people are working hard to change it, but that’s the way it is I'm afraid. A statement like the above is from cloud cuckoo land.

As you may have gathered, regulation of NGOs was the hot topic of research at work today!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Photos from weekend

Some photos from weekend:

Melbourne South Bank & Yarra River

Bridge over Yarra

Wedding photos with CBD in background

The Caulfield Cup crowd

Four seasons in one weekend

Life is full-on at the moment (two jobs, a photo course taking up two evenings each week, a long to do list and long weekends = little time!) But I love it!

Last weekend was K's birthday so we enjoyed a long weekend in Melbourne to celebrate. I joined him and a few work colleagues for post-work drinks in glorious evening sunshine on Friday evening, then we scooted off for dinner in a very swanky restaurant with one of said colleagues and her husband. Then we sped from the restaurant to the Spiegeltent, which was making a guest appearance on Melbourne's South Bank for the Melbourne Festival (kind of like the Edinburgh one but with about 0.1% of the acts). We'd booked to see a band called Husky who turned out to be pretty mediocre, so we gave up the ghost after an hour and spent some time in the bar drinking pints instead!

Saturday morning was a bit lazy and recovery-based, but then the excitement kicked off again as we made our way to the races! Horse racing is massive in Melbourne at this time of year and we'd got tickets for the Caulfield Cup. I'm not quite sure how to describe this experience - basically it was full of p**ed up 22 year olds with tonnes of fake tan, boys with'trendy' hairstyles, girls with huge sunglasses, tiny dresses and big heels, and LOTS of alcohol being consumed. Kind of like what I imagine would happen if Ascot met Eastenders met Hollyoaks - a bizarre lovechild I grant you!

Anyway, once we'd figured out where the hell the racecourse was, had sourced and consumed some food and procured ourselves a bottle of champagne (plastic of course!), placed a bet and even better, found ourselves a seat, we were sorted and settled down to enjoy the action. It was all very silly but good fun and no, we didn't win...

We then got a train back into the city and spent a pleasant evening in various bars in beautiful sunshine and a very nice temperature, watching the world go by, chatting and generally relaxing.

Sunday morning was brunch time - I'd arranged to meet my sort-of-boss in my new job, so we went out with him and his family - always a nice way to get to know people! The weather had turned around completely overnight and the temperature had plummeted from 29 degrees on Sat to about 15 on Sunday - brrr!!!

The lowlight of the weekend was the play we saw on Sun eve - Happy Hour featuring Wendy Houston, who combines 'words and movement' in an apparently 'humourous and challenging' one-woman show about drinking. It was crap. But it provided more evidence of the complete cultural starvation experienced by your average Aussie as the rest of the audience were all hee-hawing and waxing lyrical about how fabulous Wendy's insights were (as K pointed out, her only funny lines were stolen from someone else!)

Anyway, perhaps I'm just not getting it...

So after a busy-whizzy weekend, it was an early flight back to Sydney on Monday morning and straight back to work. I can't believe it's Wednesday evening already!

This weekend will be a quiet one, so will hopefully get time to put some more pics up on here...

Monday, 13 October 2008


Here are some pics:

View from our apartment
Lunch on our balcony (view in background)
Me at wine tasting a few weeks ago
Me on a hill & Pacific ocean
Boats at harbour near our apartment

Busy in a good way

It’s Monday evening and I’m typing this after a busy day in my new job, a busy-in-a-good-way weekend and a busy-getting-settled week last week. So, it’s been busy!

A few highlights from the weekend…

Fri eve drinks in the Bavarian Beer CafĂ© with colleagues from my and K’s offices; they celebrate Oktoberfest in reasonable style here!

Sat am – Foxtel technician actually turning up (long saga from week before involving a furious K and many wasted hours waiting for non-arrival) and installing Foxtel – I’m happy because we have BBC World, K is happy because he can now watch premiership matches!

Sat pm drive down the coast, through a simply beautiful national park with lots of luscious scenery, a calmly meandering river and only a smattering of people pootling about in boats and on two legs; followed by a coast-hugging drive with fantastic views of the huge expanse of the Pacific ocean as far as we could see. So good to get out of the city and remind ourselves of how big this place is!

Sat eve seafood dinner at “The Lazy Lobster” in Brighton-le-sands (Brighton meets France without a pier or deckchairs in sight!) followed by Baileys in the hotel bar afterwards (and then another – so moreish!)

Sun am 10K race along the beachfront with the unexpected bonus of a much faster than expected time (sub 49 minutes!) I was running without a watch so perhaps the secret of success is [rich food + wine + Baileys – clockwatching]??

Sun pm navigation around the roads of Sydney, dodging tolls (we didn’t have the right e-pass on our hire car) and managing to find Ikea and then home again, all without a proper map and no major arguments between navigator (me) and driver (K).

So now it’s back to work and all the things that make the weeks pass by so quickly. I’ve started a photography course which is taking up two evenings each week, but hopefully it will improve my photography skills and I will be able to post up some masterpieces (!)

Next weekend we’re off to Melbourne for a long weekend as it’s K’s birthday. Looking forward to it already!

(Tried to upload pics but some sort of prob with site - to follow!)

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Where's the evidence?

Note – this is another policy-related posting which is probably not of much interest to most people!

In conversation the other day, the concept of the “social construction of science” came up, which reminded me, in a slightly tangential way, of a recent article I read about “evidence-based policy”. Evidence-based policy is something that I naturally incline towards – it focuses on asking and answering the question of ‘what works’ in order to develop, implement and resource social policy decisions. So, for example, in my line of work, the question would be ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’. Answers to this question at the moment would probably be based on a fair amount of information which is difficult to compare across programs, a healthy amount of values-based rhetoric and a nice dose of personal bias, rather than systematic, comparable, valid and reliable research – something I think needs to change!

However!! Evidence-based policy is one of these things that sounds good in theory but is actually difficult to achieve in practice. Or at least, I think it needs to be recognised that in practice, one person’s evidence base may be another person’s poison (or something like that). The argument is better articulated by the article I read, which summarises,

“There are three main kinds of challenge to the rational mission of ‘evidence-based’ policy. One arises from the inherently political and value-based nature of policy debate and decision-making…Secondly, information is perceived and used in different ways, by actors looking through different ‘lenses’…The third challenge to a rationalist concept of evidence-based policy is that the complex modern arrangements of networks, partnerships and collaborative governance are difficult to harness to the traditional forms of knowledge management, policy development and program evaluation in the public sector…”

Or to put it another way,

“Policy decisions emerge from politics, judgement and debate, rather than being deduced from empirical analysis. Policy debate and analysis involves an interplay between facts, norms and desired actions, in which ‘evidence’ is diverse and contestable."

From Head, B. W. (2008), ‘Three Lenses of Evidence-Based Policy’, Australian Journal of Public Administration Volume 67 Issue 1

So I guess the point is that even if we want to use rational, empirical evidence as the basis for decision-making, it’s difficult to escape the fact that even the question of ‘which evidence should we consider?’ is ridden with value judgements and inherent assumptions. In my original example, the question ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’ is, of course, based on an assumption that this is a good thing to do (not everyone would agree). Answering the question then involves another set of assumptions about what employment is, what ‘disadvantaged’ means, timeframes for evaluating ‘what works’ (is it as soon as someone gets a job or is it 2 years down the line?) and so on, and so forth. To some extent, this doesn’t necessarily matter as long as it’s recognised, but where it does matter is in terms of building up a sense of ‘truth’. If the question ‘what works in terms of getting people from highly disadvantaged backgrounds into sustainable employment?’ is seen as not worth answering by those in a position of power and with resources to expend on answering it, then the very question may never become part of any “policy truth”.

This brings me back to the concept of the “social construction of science” and I guess my thought is that any claim to have an absolute truth is invalid because it fails to recognise that as a society, we make choices about which facts we put resources into developing an empirical evidence base about, and which we don’t. And decisions about resources are influenced by politics, personal relationships, corruption, bias, personal values, imperfect information and who knows what else! Scientific truth may be based on rationality and empirical evidence, but the truths we focus on are entirely subjective.

As a slightly related aside, I came across a headline today that Smoking ‘costs NHS billions’. Shocking huh? Those pesky smokers coughing and spluttering away all our hard-earned taxpayer resources. That’s until you read further into the article, where you come across the fact that smokers pay around three times as much in tax as it costs to treat smoking-related diseases on the NHS. It’s a small but important example of how ‘facts’ can mean different things depending on their context. Interesting that the headline wasn’t Smokers single-handedly prop up NHS funding.

Anyway, my points may not be very well-developed as I’m writing this on tea break at work! But hopefully you know what I mean…

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Are straight teeth a cosmetic luxury?

I was talking to someone the other day whose daughter has just got a plate for her teeth (a mini-brace). Having gone through the horror of “train tracks” on both sets of teeth at age 14, I was sympathising about the indignities of orthodontic treatment. However, it emerged during the conversation that this kind of dentistry is seen as “elective” in Australia’s healthcare system – i.e. it’s not a necessity and is something you choose to have. This has a couple of ramifications. Firstly, it means that even if you have private health insurance (which most middle class families do), you still have to pay for the majority of costs yourself, which for the type of braces I had would be around £3,500. If you don’t have private health insurance (like most working class families), then you have to pay for the full cost.

Secondly, the result is that braces are seen as a kind of status symbol – it means your parents can afford to get your teeth fixed. So the kid with the squint teeth from the poorer family ends up with a double whammy of stigma and bad teeth!!

I was pretty shocked by this. My parents can correct me if I’m wrong but I’m fairly sure that if we’d had to fork out that kind of cash, then there’s no way I’d have the nice straight teeth I’ve got today. Ok, maybe this wouldn’t have been the end of my world but it would have made a pretty big difference to my self-confidence, not to mention my ability to eat apples properly! Makes me glad I grew up in the UK and really makes me appreciate the value of the NHS as an equaliser of people.

Monday, 6 October 2008

A new abode

We moved into our new apartment in Kirribilli on Friday, with a surprisingly minimal amount of fuss and hassle (perhaps because I went to work while K did it all!) By mid Fri evening we were fully unpacked (although we have some more stuff arriving during the week from storage) and so it's been a relaxing weekend of sorting out to do lists, browsing the local area and doing the things you do on weekends anywhere.

Kirribilli has a real village feel to it, which is a bit of a new one for me as I've not really experienced that before. It's a bit like a mini-Stockbridge in Edinburgh, whereas I've been an East End/Leith girl for years! Anyway, it's good to do something different and I quite like it so far - I'm writing this at the local neighbourhood centre where there's also a small library and various community classes (yoga, pilates, parent & toddler classes, that kind of thing). The highlight of the area so far is the Kirribilli Deli, which is a foodie's delight - stacks of cheeses, olives, specialist oils, homemade lasagnes, cakes, breads, the lot. Mmmmm...Even better, it also has all of the things you'd expect to find in any small supermarket (loo roll, laundry powder, a mini screwdriver set - my shopping list yesterday!)

Pics will appear soon of our Opera House view - it's fantastic and I love waking up in the morning to the sight of the CBD and the harbour - WOW!

Apart from moving, I also started one of my new jobs last week, just part-time to begin with while I finish up my temp job, but really good to get into it and to be back in social enterprise-land. Home at last!

Other things we've been doing...

Went to our second Sydney FC match on Saturday evening with K's friend Fraser and his family. 12,000+ crowd which was quite decent, and a good game made even better by a last-kick-of-the-game equaliser for Sydney - found myself leaping out of my seat to celebrate! Funny how loyalties can be born so quickly!

Last weekend was fun too. On Saturday night we went to the Opera House to see flamenco ballet, which was amazing. We were in the main concert hall, a very impressive space indeed. And the dancing was absolutely brilliant. I was mesmerised for the whole 2 hours. See this clip for a flavour of the Sara Baras Flamenco Ballet company.

Then on Sunday we went to the "Taste Orange" wine & food festival at Bondi Beach. It was an absolute scorcher of a day, 30+, when we arrived and really too hot to be in the midday sun drinking wine. We went off for some lunch and by the time I was halfway through my greek salad, one of Sydney's famous "Southerlies" had blown in, the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees and we all had to take refuge inside from the gusts of wind blowing tables and chairs over! I'd been told about this phenomenon but it was bizarre to experience it. Luckily, when we returned to the wine festival, we found half of it in shelter so were able to relax and enjoy a few samples of Orange region wine in comfort! It's such a hard life sometimes (!)