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There are a number of myths which appear to have captured the collective imagination here in Australia. The idea behind the slogan in the title is that all newcomers get an equal opportunity to make something of themselves in this, the “lucky” land.  It is not dissimilar to the notion that drives the dreams of Americans.  Mark Watson, a historian from this country who spent a long time in America, found it deeply embedded in the psyche of just about every individual he met there. It amazed him that someone living inside a box on Broadway could still believe in the American dream, and tout the glorious opportunities at hand in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The mythology is a little more mundane here.  Perhaps the lack of a Hollywood dream factory, Silicon Valley phenomenon, or “Horatio Alger” myth (Australian readers will have to look that up) dilutes the dream of the yellow brick road.  But the idea of equal opportunity does have a certain amount of credibility in this country.  A recent survey by the OECD gives Australia high marks for social mobility.  Surprisingly, parents’ incomes and education had little bearing on the success of their children, and the gap is actually narrowing between rich and poor.  That is not something Americans or Canadians can claim.

Australia funnels cash benefits for the disadvantaged to low income households better than any other country in the OECD.  It is not a good place to get old, however.  Half of Australia’s singles over the age of 65 are living in poverty.  That may be why is almost impossible to immigrate here if you are over the age of 40.  This is a land for the young and able.

Like many Australian television viewers, (albeit a distinct minority). I have been captivated by a new series on SBS called, simply, “First Australians.”  I read that it was patterned after an American series documenting our natives.  What astonished me was the surprise registered by reviewers of this fine series.  No Australians appear to have learned any of this history in school.

It is almost as if a collective denial has taken place in the educational system, along the lines of Japan’s denial of the atrocities of World War II.  It is understandable that descendants of the white settlers of Australia would want to absolve their ancestors of cruel, bloodthirsty behavior, but the atrocities did  happen.  What happened to the aboriginals of Tasmania was tantamount to genocide.

The treatment of natives in Victoria was no less cruel, simply more measured. The numbers tell the story.  In a very short time, the aboriginal population of Victoria dropped from 60,000 to 2,000.  The “Protection Board” had Orwellian implications.  Its purpose seemed to be tormenting the handful of aboriginals who survived.  You can download all the episodes of the series at:  http://www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralians/

Some years ago, when we were living in New York, an odd series of circumstances took me on a journey to Newfoundland.  I visited a band of Micmac Indians living a hardscrabble existence in the South of the island.  Their people had come from Nova Scotia.  The first people in Newfoundland were called Beothuk. It is believed their use of ochre to paint themselves is the reason we call native Americans “red” Indians.

They were hostile to the Europeans, and their encounters with fisherman from England, France, Spain and Portugal often led to bloodshed.  By 1829, the Beothuk had been wiped out.  I suspect that most people today would be as horrified as I to learn of the casual genocides that were conducted by our ancestors on the natives of these lands.  So, perhaps we have made some progress.  “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives,”  said Abba Eben.  I’d like to think we have come to that point.

We need a future that is no longer claimed by the past. The natives of our planet need a fair go from all of us.


The Spring racing season has begun.  An English horse called All the Good came galloping in ahead of the rest of the pack at the Caufield Cup on Saturday.  To say it was an upset is a bit of an understatement.  The odds were fifty to one.  The horse is owned by a company called Godolphin, based in the United Arab Emirates.  I’m sure the Sheik can use the money.

I am ashamed to say that I have yet to attend one of these horsey events, not even the Melbourne Cup, the race that “stops the nation.” I did make an effort to expand my horizons when we lived in Hong Kong, but that occasion was prompted by an invitation.  Still, I did the whole thing, getting the form and placing bets (on horses I liked the names of), promptly losing whatever winnings came my way.  I just couldn’t see the point.  Perhaps if I rode a horse, I might be more interested, but I doubt it.  I ride a bike and I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch a cycling race unless the riders were all naked….or wearing burqas.

The summer cycling season has begun.  It was kicked off yesterday by the big event of the year– “Around the Bay in a Day.”  16,450 riders turned out.  I was not one of them.  I do have some good memories, like the sunrise over the Yarra, but I was very nervous among riders who were all attempting to go at different speeds.  Negotiating a safe space among cyclists, cars and ‘utes’ (pick up trucks) is quite demanding for those of us whose vision and reflexes are, shall we say, a little rusty.

Cyclists can be as boorish and unpleasant as motorists when they get obsessed with speed.  Last year, the day of the ride turned quite hot and the wind was in my face much of the way.  I was overdressed for the weather and glad to see the city come into view.  This year, the warm front broke early Sunday morning, so the temperature was cool.  Wind is another matter.  It seems like there is always wind.

Two members of our recumbent cycling group headed out before dawn to take on the challenge.  Last year I chose the wimpy 100 km option, from the town of Sorrento back into the city of Melbourne.  The full ride requires a ferry ride across the mouth of the bay from Portsea to Queenscliff.  It is 210 kms (130 miles).  Bike Victoria offers an optional detour of another forty kms for those riders who just can’t get enough time in the saddle.  That makes it a tidy 250 kms.

Each of my fellow recumbent riders took off well before five in the morning and headed in opposite directions around Port Philip Bay.  They are both strong riders, well able to keep up and even pass some of the hot, young lycra-clad cyclists who barrel down the coast road every Sunday morning.  Steve passed an entire peloton of riders wearing BMW T-shirts.  John R, who was worried about his knees, averaged 27 kms an hour (riding time) over the 250 km distance.  Not too shabby.

John had an early lunch while he waited for the ferry.  By this point, the chocolate icing on his dessert had melted, so he had a chocolate chicken sandwich. Nice touch, John.  I almost wish I’d been there.  The picture below is from a previous event.  John K, the guy in the middle, is far too sensible to do this kind of thing.

Steve on the left, John R on the right with their high-tech, home built recumbents.  John K in the middle with his one-of-a kind special.


It is hard to reconcile the beautiful weather in Melbourne with the economic hurricane devastating the world economy.  The skies here are pigeon-egg blue dotted with puffy, cotton ball clouds.  The temperature is perfect.  The flies and fires haven’t hit yet.  If it were possible to ignore the media, (which seems to have more than its share of bad news at the moment), it would be an excellent time to be in absolute bliss.

I headed up into gold country a couple of weeks ago to help a cycling friend celebrate his 60th birthday.  He lives on a farm in the country now and there were two lambs, just a few days old, gamboling in the paddock.  The sun was out and it cast a spell of enchantment.  Everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

The birds go berserk at this time of year.  The squawkers get up at first light, but they also make sure you know when the sun is going down.  Magpies dive-bomb cyclists under the mistaken impression that their nests are under attack. Lorikeets and parrots fly in colorful formations, but the bell birds are my favorites.  Riding through trees full of bell birds is like being delivered into a temple in Bangkok.  The tones are resonant and beautiful and stay with you long after the birds have gone.

The Arts Festival and the racing season have just started.  I mentioned in a previous post that this city is simply inundated with events.  I managed to catch two films in the Italian Film Festival but I missed at least two other festivals and the State Fair.  I stumbled across the furniture exhibition of the city’s Fringe Festival (perhaps its least interesting feature), One look at the catalog of offerings put me into a catatonic state.  I was simply overwhelmed.

We did make it out of the house to see some dance/theater last night and we have tickets for an evening with Philip Glass doing the poetry of Leonard Cohen.  We have to give our favorite Montreal poet a hearing. It is a city that has given us many good memories and Cohen is its most unlikely songbird.

I just got a lovely email from a friend there who is soaking up some balmy fall weather, thanks to a warm surge from down south.  He’s a Scot, a golfer naturally enough. Some foxes have been frequenting the golf course of late and a few have become quite tame. Not a good thing for the long-term health of the animals, but it allowed him to get a fine photograph.

by David Robertson

by David Robertson

It is difficult to ignore the local news, though.  It lands on the doorstep every morning and itches like a patch of poison ivy.

The bitter debate on Victoria’s controversial abortion bill continued this week.  The tragic fate of a lovely, 21 year-old Australian girl who disappeared in Dubrovnik on September 18 was just revealed.  Another Qantas flight turned into roller coaster ride when it plunged 1000 feet over Western Australia and had to make an emergency landing.  A quarter of the planet’s mammals are under threat of extinction; Australian mammals are the most at risk in the developed world.  The Australian dollar got hammered.

If you want to come see the wildlife or the race horses, now would be a good time. It’s Spring and the weather is perfect.


Wall street’s implosion has brought an economic thinker by the name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb back in the news.  A little over a year ago, his book, “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable”  garnered a certain amount of attention in North America because of its startling implications on an American mental landscape dominated by ideology.  Taleb’s thesis was that we humans are highly susceptible to getting caught out by random events because we have such a strong tendency to discount their existence.

If you have spent your entire life in the northern hemisphere, you will conclude that swans are white.  And that will be true as long as you never go to Australia, where swans are black.  The difficulty is that we seem to be psychologically programmed to confuse improbability with impossibility.  Taleb suggests that this may be because evolution does not favor probabilistic thinking.  Not every snake is deadly, but those who avoid snakes may have more offspring than those who don’t.  Particularly in Australia.

Taleb is also highly suspicious of historians who analyze events (like the start of World War I or the Great Depression) in great detail and then reconstruct the dominoes leading up to the disaster. They assume that they are reconstructing the reasons for the event, when in fact, they are simply predicting in reverse.  There were plenty of crises in the Balkans that did not lead to World War I.

Taleb suggests that the real world is much messier and less predictable than historians, economists, social scientists or politicians believe. Perhaps my exposure to other parts of the planet at an early age made me less resistant to the black swan, and more skeptical of collective wisdom.  I am inclined to believe that  most conventional wisdom is wrong, but willing to entertain the idea that it may, occasionally, be true.

There are black swans, kangaroos, cassowaries and (the most unlikely of all), platypuses.  The animal with a bill like a duck, that lays eggs like a bird, but is a mammal and suckles its young.  And just for good measure, is venomous.  European naturalists who never visited Australia maintained the animal was a hoax, concocted out of the parts of other creatures.

What is less easily understood is how the wizards of Wall Street did not see this particular disaster coming.  This was not a black swan.  This was home economics.  It must have been obvious to people on the ‘street’ that the financial meltdown was coming.  There was the Savings and Loan Crisis, after all, the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management.  Did anyone really think that allowing the biggest brokerage firms in the world to take on extravagant debt in derivatives was a good idea?  What about selling houses to people with no ability to repay mortgage loans?

I never saw an emu eye to eye until I arrived in Australia, but its African relative, the ostrich, must have been lurking all around me in North America, brilliantly hidden by human forms.  Bipeds with their handsome heads in the sand, blinded by a belief in free markets and deregulation, cutting taxes for the rich, taking on the world’s bad guys with smart bombs and spy satellites, and going shopping to keep the economy strong.

I was born at the beginning of America’s powerful march toward world leadership and I never thought I would witness its finale.  But this may be the end of the American age.  The fate of empires can be sealed by greed, hubris and a blind march down the path of crippling debt and disastrous wars.

It is time for Americans to wake up and resume their vital roles as caretakers, creative thinkers, practical tinkerers;  to re-engage with the world around them rather than trying to control it.  We are all interconnected.  There are black swans everywhere.

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