Monday, 30 June 2014

28 June

As reported quite widely, 28 June 2014 (Saturday) marked the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo by Gavriol Princip.   I am no historian, but while this may have been one of the events in the lead up to World War 1, it was by no means the only factor involved, as discussed here and also here.

Latin Bridge
For Serbs, the day is also of significance, as it is Vidovdan. (St Vitus Day) .

Plaque marking the spot from which the shot was fired




Friday, 27 June 2014

By train from Sydney to Melbourne


We took the train from Sydney to Melbourne.  In hindsight, I'm not quite sure why, but I suppose I wanted to be able to say that I'd done it.  And, I admit, there was a good fare available!

Well, there were a couple of positives, but there were a whole lot of negatives.

On the positive side, departing from Central involved just a short taxi ride from our accommodation, and the taxi pulled up almost next to where the train was.   No security, no hassles, just walk on board.  On the train, the seats are comfortable with a seat pitch of a metre (and that's in economy).   You can walk around and you don't need seat belts (out of force of habit I kept trying to do one up!)

On the negative side, it's a long trip.   Yes, XPT trains “can” run at 120 km, but for a lot of the time they don't.    There are stations to stop at, speed restrictions, curves and hills.  The trip from Sydney to Melbourne (about 960 kms, according to Wikipedia) is “scheduled” to take about 11 hours, which means the average speed is less than 90 kmph.  For a while, I enjoyed the ever-changing view, but once we got about half way, I did start thinking that perhaps I could have made better use of my day!  Fortunately, I had a good book to read.

There's food (and beer and wine) available for purchase, but although it's adequate, it's pretty basic.   There's no lounge car or even a place to eat what you buy except at your seat.

I was aware when I booked that the train only ran as far as Broadmeadows because of infrastructure work interfering with the run into Southern Cross.  I guess this should have sounded warning bells, but they weren't too loud, so I thought, oh well.

On the outskirts of Sydney, our train obviously got stuck behind a suburban train, which meant slow running for a while.  Then when we ought to have been powering up the hill to Moss Vale, things weren't quite as fast as I would have expected from an XPT train.  Somewhat later, we were informed that, yes, we were behind schedule, because one of the train's power units was not operating at full capacity.   Result, by the time we reached the outskirts of Melbourne, the train was over 30 minutes late.   Then, just before Broadmeadows station, where we were to disembark, to come to a stop.   We were told that, sorry, coz the train was 35 minutes late, it had missed its “landing slot”, and there would be a further delay of 30 minutes before we could get off.   So near, yet so far.  Finally, after waiting nearly 35 minutes at a place called Roxborough Park (actually, Somerton Loop for the gunzels) we got to the Broadmeadows platform, a grand total of 75 minutes late.  The transfer to buses went smoothly, and I suspect that the time the bus took to get into the city, down the freeway, was probably on a par with the time the train would have taken negotiating Melbourne's western suburbs.  Just the same, it wasn't the best end to a long day.

Bottom line?   I've ticked the "been there, done that" box, and will leave inter-city train travel in Australia in the future to the main users of the train, who are people travelling to and from the towns along the way to the "big smoke".


Thursday, 26 June 2014

West Head and Palm Beach

We had a lovely dinner with M and G at their home, and next day they were kind enough to take us to West Head for the view and then to Barrenjoey restaurant at Palm Beach for lunch.

View of Lion Island from West Head
I had never been to West Head, overlooking Pittwater and the Hawkesbury, and it is many, many years since I had been to Palm Beach (and could hardly remember it), so it was a day of great interest and discovery (and, of course, good company).

Whale Beach

Pittwater

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Manly to The Spit Walk

I was unsure whether to start at The Spit or at Manly, but it turns out that my decision to start at the Manly end was a good one.  The section of the track from Sandy Bay to the The Spit is closed, and although an occasional shuttle bus is provided from the Clontarf Reserve, it apparently goes back towards Manly.   What provision is made for people who arrive at The Spit looking for the path, I don't know.

Starting at the Manly end, the walk from Manly to The Spit is a sealed path along the beach front and past quite dense housing, but further along the track ranges from scrambling over rocks at Forty Baskets Beach (I wasn't sure that I was heading in the correct direction but fortunately was able to ask), up and down quite steep steps in parts of Debroyd Head national park and along bush tracks of various types. Signage is a little inconsistent and while it's quite good in parts, in other parts, even with my map, I took a couple of wrong turns and at one point missed a whole section, walking instead along suburban streets.

The views are very good, as I had expected, and in parts of the Debroyd Head park, you could be in the middle of remote bushland (save for the occasion intrusion of beeping from reversing construction equipment in the distance).  A lot of the vegetation is coastal heath, including banksias and the like.    Even in June, there were some wildflowers in bloom (not too many, though).

As mentioned, the section of the track from Sandy Bay to the The Spit is closed, so I took quite a lengthy detour along the streets to come out on the main road above The Spit, where I was able to catch a bus.    There was an hourly free shuttle from the Clontarf Reserve back to somewhere, but I didn't bother with this as it would have involved a 50 minute wait.

I had hoped to stop for a coffee along the way, but if there are any coffee establishments at the beaches I passed, they're off the track and I didn't see them (I ws later told I ought to have looked harder!).   The walk took a little over 3½ hours, which was definitely time well spent.
On the path near Manly


Manly ferries passing  just inside the heads






Steps in the Debryd Head section








Harbour view

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

To Sydney

We booked a while back to spend a few days in Sydney, so we flew up on Monday. The Jetstar computer permitted me to check in on-line – but of course we still had to wait in line to drop our baggage (no do-it-yourself bag drop for Jetstar) and answer the “dangerous goods” question. So I don't know whether Qantas/Jetstar have got over their issues with me yet, or not. And everyone in front of us at the baggage check-in seemed to have issues of some sort. However, we had adequate time, so we couldn't complain. There was another long queue to board the plane, but I was pleased to see efforts (even if somewhat token) to enforce the carry-on baggage size limit. I guess when when an airline charges extra to check-in a bag, it serves as an incentive for everyone to try and carry as much as possible into the cabin with them.

The train into the city from the airport in Sydney was pleasant (of course, this line does have the newest trains), and we ate dinner at a casual Italian restaurant in The Rocks area. Impulsively, we jumped on the Manly ferry to occupy our evening and were rewarded with a nice view of the bridge by night but little else (in particular, Manly is very ordinary after dark)!


One lesson I've re-learned: re-activate my mobile broadband account before leaving home. Yes, we arrived in Sydney, and I found I hadn't brought with me the necessary log-in information!   As good luck would have it (certainly not good management), somewhere deep in my emails was a message with just enough information to get me going.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Speechmaker

We had to change our booking for MTC's The Speechmaker, but on attempting to do so, we were told it was fully booked.   There was only one future performance at which two seats were available, and they weren't together.  We took the seats and had no regrets because we quite enjoyed it, but we were able to see for ourselves why there has been a lack of critical acclaim.

It's a satire with some good one-liners, although perhaps overly-reliant on Australian clich├ęs about the US, and the outcome has a sense of inevitability about it.   Not far beneath the surface is a serious theme about the power exercised by the United States security agencies.

It's been created by the Melbourne-based Working Dog team, and presumably it is this connection that resulted in the production being sold out before opening night.

Many of the reviews haven't been complimentary, such as the Herald Sun, which was critical of the lack of depth and rather frantic movements at times (such as, does the revolving stage really have to be used so much?).  Other reviews are here. and here.

Perhaps the best description came from a friend who has also seen the play, who suggested that there was sufficient content for an enjoyable 30 minute TV satire, rather than the 90 minutes (no interval) that are it actually takes.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Credit charge surcharges and "drip pricing"

It's interesting that the ACCC is looking at the "drip pricing" techniques used by some airlines.  Presumably this is primarily directed at credit charge surcharges, of which I have recent personal experience.  There are other charges such seat allocation charges (on Jetstar but not Virgin or Qantas) and baggage charges (usually fairly well displayed?), but these don't seem to be such an issue.

In fairness, however, I thought the late booking deal on Virgin (which allowed payment by direct debit at no extra cost) was acceptable.   I haven't tried booking on Jetstar at short notice, but I wonder why no mention is made in the news report about the actions of Qantas which is "right up there" when it comes to credit charge surcharges (they give you no alternative but to use a card when you're booking close to the day of travel).

More generally, surcharges when you pay by credit card are increasingly a fact of life.  The Reserve Bank has views on the amount of such surcharges and the ACCC has views on their disclosure.

Clearly an important statement in the ACCC's pronouncement on the issue is that the merchant must "ensure ... customers are aware - before they enter into the transaction or contract - that a fee will apply and the amount of the fee."

In short, at the price comparison stage, this statement doesn't require the surcharge to be displayed - unless not to do so is "misleading", which seems to be the point the ACCC is taking in its recently announced proceedings.

Something else that the ACCC could look at, in a similar vein, is Melbourne Airport's practice of publicising quite prominently their "book in advance" car parking prices with no mention of a credit card surcharge at all until the final payment screen was displayed. 

Given that  there was no option at all except to use a credit card to pay, with a 2% surcharge, their otherwise helpful on-line calculator seems to me to go very close to the wind in terms of being misleading.   

Other players who are fast and loose with  the credit card surcharge, or so it seems to me, are car hire companies.  On our recent trip to Canberra, Avis looked as though it would be even worse than Hertz were in Perth:  in the case of Avis, if you wish to pay by a Visa/MasterCard debit card  (link is to FAQs, so it's necessary to select the question) so as not to incur the surcharge, the website seems to suggest that their rule is along the lines that they would take the whole of the hire charge, plus your excess plus $100 for fuel out of your debit card (that is, from your cash) - and refund it to you when they get around to it, perhaps 7 - 10 days after you return the car!  I didn't investigate whether it is quite as bad as this in practice, as needless to say, I opted for payment by credit card (and in any event I don't have the required type of debit card).  But the ultimate irony was......on carefully checking my final statement, in fact Avis didn't impose a credit card surcharge at all!   

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ticking the wrong box

I went to check in on-line for our Qantas flight to Canberra.  Yes, I ought to have been more careful, but unfortunately on the page asking if we had any dangerous goods, I inadvertently ticked the wrong box.   Result - I was locked out of the on-line check-out process, with no way to go back to the beginning.  Oh well, I thought, I'll ring Qantas, surely it will be easy for them to re-set the process.   After 35 minutes waiting on hold (fortunately I had other things to do while waiting), the operator informed me that, yes, what I had done was not uncommon, but there was no way the process could be re-set.  The only option was to queue at the check-in and explain the situation to a real person.   She was adamant that this was a "safety" issue, and explained that Qantas were worried that having ticked the wrong box, I had to be checked in by a real person.

She was horrified when I suggested that perhaps if I was really out to sneak something on to the plane, I would have just checked the "I aren't carrying anything that I ought not to" box, rather than tick the other box and wait for 35 minutes on the phone to change it.  Ah, airline bureaucracy!

At the airport, the staff were very understanding, and we were checked in without any difficulty.

In fact, with hindsight, I see that the on-line check in process is almost certainly linked in to the database in the same way as the airport self-checkin stands, so perhaps the lack of flexibility is understandable after all.    Just the same, why the check-in personnel at the airport can override the system and the call centre operators can't remains a bit of a mystery.   The cynic in me wonders if this has anything to do with the fact that Qantas (like other airlines, I guess) doesn't wish to encourage phone calls?

However, I was a little unnerved when, on our return flight, the next day, once again, I wasn't able to access the self-checkin process at the airport.  The flight was again on Qantas, but it was a completely separate booking, made at a different time, and with a different reference.  But no, the self-checkin machine refused even to commence the process, and so we had to explain to a real person that we weren't carrying anything we weren't supposed to.

I'm now apprehensive that the Qantas computer has locked me out of the self-checkin process!  Surely, not as a result of my discussion over the phone?   We have a flight in the near future with Jetstar, so time will tell whether we have demonstrated ourselves trustworthy! In the meantime, two lessons have been reinforced:  be very careful about which boxes you tick and don't take issue with anything an airline person says.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Free range eggs

There have been concerns about just what amounts to a "free range egg", and it seems that a standard is to be developed.

About time!  Many of us pay extra for eggs that we believe to be produced under (relatively) humane conditions.   Just the same, the "devil will be in the detail", so we await with interest what the standard will prescribe.  And why wait until 2015?  The fact that are ACCC prosecutions in the wind seems a lame excuse.

Of course, even in the absence of some sort of standard, it's always open to the producer to specify what their practices are.   We recently bought eggs where it was prominently stated on the carton that the 1,500 hens per hectare standard applied.   Very commendable.

On the other hand, another brand, well-represented in supermarkets, gives no information at all on the packaging or its website as to how it defines "free range".

It's also important that statements about the source of foods are accurate.   Hopefully  Saskia Beer  now understands this.






Update:   After posting the above, I looked at the packaging of Coles "Free range eggs".  It states a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare outdoors, and that the hens are "free to naturally roam and perch".   I don't know about the density but at least the information is there, and presumably the ability to perch is desirable. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Travelling at short notice

Being "seniors", most of our travel is planned some time in advance.   However, sometimes events arise that require plans to be made at short notice, such as travelling to Canberra for a funeral.
Of course, the only fares on both Qantas and Virgin at our preferred travel time were significantly more costly than the cheapest fares available at other times (including later in the day on which we wished to travel ... but we didn't have the necessary flexibility).  Such is the price of booking close to the date of travel and not having a great deal of flexibility.

Even so, for a single booking at our preferred time, the fare shown was what might be regarded as a "intermediate" amount, so things could have been worse.  But, when I tried to book for 4.....a higher figure was shown!

Hmmm.   I revised the booking down to 2 people, and, yes, the lesser (intermediate) fare was available.   It seems that if a booking is for a number of seats that exceeds the number available at the cheaper figure, then the whole booking will be processed at the higher cost (I've encountered this before).   In our case, the 2 remaining family members travelled instead on Virgin, which fortunately operated a nearly parallel flight (at a nearly parallel cost).



Happily, there seemed to be plenty of accommodation available in Canberra for our night there, and we got a good rate for this.  And car hire rates at the weekend in Canberra seem to be a lot cheaper than during the week. There were certainly a lot of unused cars in the hire car carpark.

But how to avoid the credit card fees charged by the airlines?   Virgin allow you to do a direct debit (via Poli)...there are a few steps, but it's not hard.   But with Qantas, it's much more restrictive.   Within 7 days of travel, Qantas don't allow the use of BPay.  You can only use a Visa or MasterCard debit card, which I don't have (although I'm thinking about getting one), and even that costs $2.50 per passenger.  Use of a credit card attracts a surcharge of $7.00 for each passenger.
 
How Qantas justify their $7.00 surcharge in light of the RBA Guideline eludes me, but perhaps this is an issue for another time.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Sahrana

We went to Canberra for Baba's Sahrana.   The service took place in the church at the Serbian Monastery and the interment was in the cemetery in the Monastery grounds.  The forecast rain didn't eventuate and overall the send off was as she would have wanted it.










Friday, 13 June 2014

Cardless cash

I know that sometimes I'm a late adopter of technology, but at least I'd heard of "PayWave" before it arrived in my mailbox.  But I hadn't heard of "cardless cash" until I read about it.  This enables you to withdraw cash from an ATM without a card, by using your smartphone.  CAB offer the facility allowing up to $200 per day, and Westpac will offer something similar later in the year.

As I understand it, with the CBA, when you want to withdraw money, you use the app to say how much you want.  You then receive two PINs, one via the app on the smartphone and the other by SMS. Both of these are transmitted to your phone.  When you get to an ATM, you enter these numbers.    

I watched the clip on the CBA site and it seems that you don't need to enter your bank PIN either on your phone or at the ATM.   Security is provided by your phone password (which the bank is not concerned with).   True, most phone users set their phone so that this needs to be keyed in after a minute or so of inactivity, but even so, it left me wondering, particularly about the fact that the bank having no responsibility in the process for checking that the phone is not being improperly used (such as requiring a PIN known by the bank to be keyed in).

So, I had a look at the "fine print", as a footnote to the expression about the user not being liable for unauthorised transactions.   
This states, "^This means we’ll cover any loss should someone make an unauthorised withdrawal on your account using Cardless Cash - provided you protect your phone and phone password and immediately notify us of their loss, theft or misuse, and of any suspicious activity on your account."

Hmmm, if you lose your phone, can you be said to have failed to "protect" it?  If someone loses their phone, will informing the bank be the first thing on their minds?   How quickly do you have to notify the bank in order to be able to say that you've "immediately" notified them?   I haven't used this facility (and am unlikely to do so) so perhaps I've missed something, but otherwise it seems to me that there are a few "loose ends" here!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Baba Rosa

Baba (S's mum) died on 10 June.   She was 89 (would have been 90 in September).

Although her passing is, of course, sad, she had a fair innings for a girl born in Bosnia who was taken to a labour camp in Germany during the war. She came to Australia as a refugee in 1950 on SS Nellie, where she spent time at the Uranquinty migrant hostel before making a new life in Melbourne, Christmas Hills and Canberra. 

Her funeral will be in Canberra on Saturday.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Growing Up on the Railway in the South West

I'm afraid that when I see a second-hand book shop, I can't resist wandering in and checking the railway books section.  So it was in Fremantle, where there's a branch of the Elizabeth's chain (pity there's no Elizabeth's in Melbourne).

I'm a bit selective about the types of book that I'm prepared to buy, and especially aren't attracted to generic books (such as "Steam Trains Around the World").  I look for books dealing with specific matters, such as researched histories of particular lines and reference materials (such as timetables).    So, the title "Growing Up on the Railway in the South West" didn't appeal to me when I first saw it, but in the absence of anything else of interest, I bought it.
 
I'm glad I did, because it's quite interesting.   It's a collection of recollections, all in the first person (but I suspect, told to the author) of a wide variety of people associated with the railways in the south west of Britain, especially (of course) the Great Western Railway.   It covers engineers, shunters, signalmen, porters, clerical workers, engine drivers, crossing keepers as well as a passenger and a chaplain.  There are reminiscences  from before World War 2 right up to the  publication date of 1998.  One chapter concerns the clerical worked who started work in 1917!  He retired in 1966, but apparently was still around at the time the reminiscences were being collected.  Thus, it touches on the effects of the depression, war, nationalisation, the passing of steam and the coming of diesels and there are even one or two mentions of privatisation. 


A few impressions emerged.  One is the length of time that some people worked on the railways.   In a number of cases, they started quite young in a very junior role and retired over 50 years later (although of course long-serving employees were more likely to have been chosen by the compiler).   One of the chapters is a daughter's recollections of her father who worked on the railway for over 40 years, but always refused promotion because it would have involved moving to a different town, even though his role was quite  mundane (although there are also instances of people who progressed through the ranks to quite senior positions).  And, especially in the pre-war era, transfers to other locations which today would seem to be quite close were regarded as going to a distant place!

Dr Beeching, and his widespread closures are frequently mentioned.   As I've remarked before, his is a household name, even today in British railway circles!

Another impression was the large numbers of people employed:  a contribution by a person who worked for many years as a shunter at the Swindon workshops refers to the fact that this establishment alone employed between 22,000 and 23,000 people (in the 1950s).  I'm not sure of the basis for this figure, as I see from Wikipedia that the peak employment was 14,000 and the figure in the '50s would have been less.  Perhaps the higher figure takes into account those employed in the proximity of the workshops, such as shunters and the like.  Nevertheless, on any view, the railways were clearly very significant employers.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Italian Masterpieces from the Prado

The exhibition at the National Gallery covers three centuries of Italian art, from the Prado's collection.    Of course, Europe was a different place in those days, with Spanish rule extending at times into parts of what is now Italy.

Titian, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist
I can't claim to know a lot about Renaissance art, but I certainly enjoyed the exhibition, in fact more than I expected.  It covers three centuries from Raphael onwards.
  
The captions are comprehesive, describing both the individual pictures as well as the various themes.
Raphael, Holy Family with St John











We attended on the Sunday afternoon of the long weekend, so of course there were a lot of people present.  Even so, it was not over-crowded, but we were glad we'd pre-purchased tickets as there was a long, slow-moving queue to buy them on the spot (this had eased off later in the afternoon).


However, with tickets in hand, there were no delays at the entrance at all.  If you think you may wish to return, ask for a pass-out as you exit into the shop.

Also, on display, just off the lobby, was also a special exhibition of William Blake's works, although mostly etchings.

And, if you go, allow a few minutes to admire the bears in the lobby area.  Kitsch, yes, but amusing.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Are (were) there foxes in Tasmania?

When we were last in Tasmania, on a number of occasions we came across information in motel rooms asking us to report any sightings of foxes that we made.   But we didn't see any foxes.  Now it seems that there may never have been any to see!
Hawley House, Port Sorell - but no foxes?
According to this report, the story that foxes had been deliberately introduced had no firm basis.  The report doesn't even discuss the story about a fox or two that hitched a ride across on the ferry (as told to me).

I guess the outcome, namely that there don't seem to be foxes in Tasmania, is good news.  Pity it's taken this long to come to this conclusion.


Friday, 6 June 2014

D Day - 70 years on

D Day, the day on which the Normandy landings ("Project Neptune") commenced,  occurred on 6 June 1944, seventy years ago.  As is well known, this was the largest ever seaborne landing.

I don't underrate the historical significance nor the challenging logistics of the operation, but I do think the extent of Australia's participation in it needs to be kept in perspective:  there were about 3000 Australians involved.

The context,  as Wikipedia tells us,  is that 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, with 875,000 men disembarking by the end of June and presumably there were many more involved with the air and naval support (I see that most of the Australians were in these areas).

I do find it interesting how particular historical events are commemorated, and others are hardly mentioned.   Perhaps it's understandable that we don't hear much about one of the great turning points in the war, the Battle of Stalingrad, but there are probably other events that also remain in the background (the Battle of El Alamein comes to mind).  Presumably,  an element of selectivity is inevitable when thinking about historical matters, but it is interesting to reflect on how the "selection" process operates.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Autumn leaves

Well, I know it's winter now, but the autumn leaves in our area were, as usual, quite attractive (although they have since fallen). 



















Not so attractive were the leaves of the plane trees which cluttered up the area for a while.  Eventually the Council came along with a team and cleaned things up, doing quite a good job I must admit.




Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Taj Mahal on the Swan

We weren't too far away, so while were in Perth, we just had to drive past the "Taj Mahal on the Swan".   It's still there, unfinished, and little seems to have changed since it was reported 3 years ago to be on the market, perhaps because the Oswal family finances seem to be somewhat "complex" (this link is also to a report some years back).

It is said to be caught up in a morass of legal proceedings!  As to a value of $70 million+?   Well, maybe the land (this is prime Peppie Grove real estate) is worth a bit....but the unfinished structure?    Can't see it, myself.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Upgrading the railway line

There's been some publicity locally about a lot of money being spent on the local railway line.   I previously mentioned this here.  True, I'm aware that some modifications are required on the line so that a wider range of trains can operate on it, although $100 million seems a lot of money.  But there are some marginal seats along the line, and an election is getting closer.  Big amounts of money like this always scare me, but perhaps in the minds of our leaders, big figures are "impressive"?

However, it seems that some of work being undertaken isn't strictly needed, such as painting.  I'm only an observer, but it does appear to me that the paintwork at our local station was in reasonable shape - yet a crew has been here for days, re-painting.  On the other hand, maintenance on other parts of the network is said to be suffering, as Marcus Wong points out.  Is there an issue about priorities here?







Monday, 2 June 2014

Publicity

Reading the local Serbian language newspaper, we were interested to see a photo of Julie Bishop, and an advertisement to the general effect that the Australia government was monitoring how it could assist in the flood relief efforts in the Balkans.

But, wait, what's the advertisement immediately below?  Oh, it's in support of the appeal to pay Captain Dragan's legal costs!   Captain Dragan is, to say the least, "controversial" (see undated but probably a little out of date report here).

This is hardly a cause that the Australian Government would be expected to support!  I'm assured that the placement would have raised a few smiles amongst the readership!