Wednesday, October 15

Saturday Drive

As Saturday was such a beautiful day, I decided to go out and enjoy it. I'm quite keen on heading up to the Dandenong Ranges, as it's such amazing scenery, contrasted from the flat areas closer to Port Philip Bay.

The roads are great fun, they range from unsealed tracks winding through the forest and hillsides to ... well, tarmac roads winding through the forest and hillsides, I guess.

One of the best attractions in the Dandenong Ranges is Puffing Billy. I'm still cursing myself for not having been on it yet, since I've been here so long now. But I got pretty close on Saturday. It winds 15 miles through the national park from Belgrave to Gembrook, and from the parts of the railway that are easily accessible from the road, looks like it's a spectacular journey.

There are apparently five original wooden trestle bridges along the line which date from when the railway was first opened around 1900. This one doesn't look like it's from the standard mould of railway bridges, but it's apparently very stable ...

I was lucky enough to be in the area when a couple of trains were headed through. Unfortunately they were going in the wrong direction for me to get the real classic tourist shots, but even so, it's quite impressive to watch.

On the way back I took some of the back roads and came out at Aura Vale Lake, which is very picturesque.

Over the main road from the lake is Cardinia Reservoir, or at least it's supposed to be there according to the map. There wasn't really anywhere to stop and take pictures but I was shocked how low it was. We're supposed to be at about 30% in our reservoirs at the moment; it didn't look anywhere near that full to me but then I don't really have any reference points to go by.

I got back to Frankston just in time to catch a beautiful sunset from Oliver's Hill.

It made the waterfront look idyllic - it's nice normally, but there's something about a good sunset that makes things look a bit better in a photograph.

Tuesday, October 14

Rant about the Global Financial Crisis

I'm going to do something I hadn't planned on doing on this blog, I'm going to get suddenly serious and topical. This wasn't meant to be about finance or politics, but I find a couple of the things that have happened over the last few days in particular slightly disturbing.

Firstly, the attitude of some of the senior management in the banks that are lucky enough to still be around at the moment. Take for a moment the fact that Lloyds TSB was one of the potential saviours for HBOS some days ago and is now revealed to be in need of the odd sniff of smelling salts and a good rub from a Premier League Trainer's Magic Sponge to make things better again. What happened there? I can't believe for one instant that there was some seismic shift in the last few days that saw the executives there scratching their heads and saying "Well, Clarence, I didn't see this coming, we'd better get on the Batphone to Number 10".

Clearly one week ago, two weeks ago even, it was possible for these guys to realise that the situation might just worsen a bit and that their bank could be next. I mean, these banks aren't lending each other any money for that very reason. "It's the state of the market, you know," they were probably saying. "How would we know if we'd get our money back? We have to be careful these days."

But when they see a competitor in trouble, circling the great plughole of bankruptcy with all the menace of a mid-west twister, it's suddenly all different. "Break out the wallet, chaps, we can make a killing on this one!" What do they hope to achieve? Seriously, when you look at it, they won't lend money to banks that are still in operation, but they wanted to BUY one that is going down the toilet ... Hey, Einstein, where's the bigger risk in THAT equation? Or were they just making a cynical land grab in order to bump themselves up the Market Share rankings, at who knows what cost to the long-term sustainability of their own bank? "Never fear, we can introduce some imaginary cost savings from the new acquisition onto our balance sheet for this financial year! Oh, and if we get big enough, the Government won't dare let us go bust"

But really, the big question marks in this respect have to be in the American market. JPMorganChase, for example, bought Bear Stearns back in May when (granted) the full reality of this situation had yet to hit home. Today, it's one of the top three beneficiaries of the US bailout. Aside from the possibility JPM didn't see this big crash on the horizon (and if you believe that, then please form an orderly queue, the withdrawal forms are on the counter), you have to wonder at their eagerness to gobble up the company that was at the leading edge of the sub-prime crisis more than 9 months prior to the deal, the company which was coughing up blood long before everyone else went looking for their own white flags.

Also finishing on the podium in the great US Bank Bailout Race 2008 is Bank of America, who swallowed up 'troubled' Merrill Lynch for the bargain basement value of $50bn (bargain because Merrill's market capitalization just over a year ago was $72.5bn; Mergers and Acquisitions generally happen for a premium on the market cap as a sweetener to existing shareholders). Almost exactly a month later, Bank of America promptly got $25bn of that back from the US Government in the bailout package. Now that's a deal, folks!

My second concern is that now we, the taxpayer, are guaranteeing the banks. These would be the same banks who "look after" our money for us, ostensibly because they can manage it better than we can. What does this say about the banks themselves?

For as long as we can remember, people have been told that money in the bank is much better than money in the mattress, and that the banks will safeguard your money in a way that nobody else can. But you almost have to smile at the irony when the taxpayer has to step in and steady the ship when the free market system would prefer to drive them into oblivion.

These are the banks that gave out mortgages and loans to people who really couldn't afford it in the first place. I can remember considering a mortgage in the UK when people were starting to talk about 100% of the property value at 5 times your annual salary, and this was seen to be a good thing. The same people would push credit cards and loans with huge no-interest, no-repayment periods onto the people who could least afford to purchase the expensive items that they would be used for.

I wonder if the governments haven't gone far enough, whether they should perhaps be completely nationalising and merging all of the banks together into a single finance centre, where people can go to get a home loan and what have you as long as they meet strict and publicly announced rules. When the taxpayer has to bail out the banks because they screwed up so badly with our money the first time round, you really need to question whether they are even relevant any more.

It is widely held that two things drive the financial markets - fear and greed. We saw the greed in evidence when institutions were trying to buy each other up even whilst in trouble themselves, and we saw the fear when they refused to lend money to one another to continue normal day to day activities. Even though we have had some painful lessons in the markets in the 80's, 90's and even in more recent times, the tenet of "Greed is good" has always held true within Wall Street and the other financial centres. Perhaps now, there will be a radical rethink of strategy. But then again, until all the people who got us into this mess are sacked or indicted, I think we'll be waiting for the Danish Bacon Air Display Squadron to come flying to the rescue.

Ultimately, to me, it looks like if you're not in the market and don't understand the market, you're always going to lose out.


For some interesting background, I urge you to check out this Four Corners episode, Mortgage Meltdown, first broadcast more than a year ago. I saw it for the first time today, and I marvel that while everybody knew the 800lb gorilla called Sub Prime was in the room, nobody wanted to do anything about it, until the very viability of the global financial system, and even the solvency of some large national economies, was in serious danger.

Saturday, October 11

Next door's Kitteh ...

... thinks he owns my place too.

Wednesday, August 20

Olympics meets Data Visualisation

I can't keep quiet about the Olympics any more - what an absolutely fantastic job so far by the British team! As the East Coast of Australia is only a couple of hours different to Beijing, the TV coverage here has been extensive (although because it's not on the ABC most of the events have to compete for air time against the adverts - any given hour of programming could have up to 20 minutes of ads).

These are some of the things I know for sure about the Olympics.
  • I know that London is going to struggle to match the spectacle of the Beijing Opening Ceremony, and probably shouldn't even try to compete.
  • I know that Michael Phelps is a machine, and I know that I've been making the mistake of eating his diet without doing his exercise for far too long. (Joke, by the way. Honest.)
  • I know that the pressure of 1.3 billion people's expectations resting on one man's shoulders is too much for anyone to bear.
  • I know that no other countries need to bother turning up to the velodrome in four years time.
  • I know that despite this, none of the cyclists will get more than a passing mention come December and SPOTY.
  • I know that if we can stay in third in the medals table, and be behind second place by less than one Michael Phelps-worth of medals, there should be an open top bus tour when the athletes return.
  • I know that our success is really winding the Australian media up, though the general populace doesn't really seem all that concerned, as long as Australia is doing well.
On that last point, I was driving home yesterday listening to Will and Lehmo and I was almost crying with laughter at their "The Brits must be cheating, call in with your proof" section (my favourite one - "They must be shipping in good athletes from elsewhere, I saw one of them smile the other day and he still had all his teeth". Followed closely by "One of their cyclists had an engine in his back wheel! He tried to hide it with a cardboard disc and claimed the noise was coming from spokey-dokeys!"

Qualifications required to survive in Australia: Sense of humour (check).

I also know that the New York Times medal map is one of the most visually pleasing ways of representing data that I've ever seen. And believe me, I've seen some web dashboards in my time!

Tuesday, August 12

Ahh, memories ...

I saw one of these pulling out of the basement car park at work yesterday:

It's a Maserati Quattroporte IV. I was very tempted to get one of these instead of the Ghibli, because it's far more practical, but in the end decided that it was too ugly. Having now seen one in the flesh up close, I have to say it looks a lot better in real life than it does in photos.

Cheap, crappy digital cameras seem to be able to get things all out of proportion.

Anyway, perhaps it was for the best, I have enough trouble with the Ghibli's ground clearance, imagine that plus an extra foot or so in the wheelbase and that's just asking for trouble.

Also on the way back home, I followed a Ferrari 360. I can honestly understand owning a GT car like the Ghibli, or a luxury sedan like the QP over here in Australia. Distances are huge, comfort is a big factor. But the Ferarri? C'mon. The speed limit is 60mph, and the standard of the roads is pretty awful. I can't imagine that it would be a pleasant experience to drive a supercar in Melbourne. Especially given that over here, every hoon's first car is a V8 that's older than they are, and they're all going to want to try it on at the lights.

Timesheets suck

Actually, I'm not sure if it's timesheets that suck, or my old umbrella company that I was using whilst at Deutsche Bank, but it turns out that I have unclaimed time from that contract. I like the way this comes to light nearly a year after the contract has ended. It's not a huge amount, but still it's better for the money to be in my account if you ask me.

The thing that gets me, though, is that the people who told me about it are the outsourced HR department, who run the timesheeting system. Now, I admit that I always used to suck at entering my timesheets on time (Hi Toby!), in fact I used to suck at getting pretty much anything administrative done on time (Hi Carl!). One thing I do know for a fact though is this: once I did get round to entering these timesheets, I always, without fail, sent it off to the umbrella company.

Now I'm here in Australia and my PC is at home with all my timesheet records on it, so we'll see how this saga goes.

Wednesday, July 30


Sometimes, you need to take your mind off things. I went for a walk at lunchtime the other day and took a trip up to the Skydeck at the Eureka tower.

The tallest residential tower in the southern hemisphere, it's got some amazing views of Melbourne from the 88th floor.

South East over the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance:

North West over Docklands and the Telstra Dome:

South over Albert Park and St Kilda:

East over the Royal Botanical Gardens, Olympic Park and the MCG:

In fact, despite the cold temperatures early in the morning, it's really pleasant in the city at the moment. I'm not sure how to describe it, I guess it's just like an English spring really with some beautiful crisp bright days, and the odd grey, rainy, soggy day. Well, I say 'like', as in, we have the same kinds of days, but in slightly different proportions.

Flinders street looking East:

The Yarra towards the MCG, with the Boat Houses on the southbank:

It's a very pleasant place to be :)

It fell off the back of a truck, Guv'nor

You may or may not have heard of my interesting experience back in March involving a refrigerator, a trailer and the tarmac of the Frankston Freeway.

While I was looking for the essentials for the place I'm renting, I managed to find a place in Moorabbin selling factory seconds, and they had some very good value refrigerators and washing machines. Deciding that they were a good deal, Les and I went up there to collect them with Lea and Peter's trailer.

Despite our discussion with the salesman who said that I could lay the fridge down as long as I let it stand for a few hours before plugging it in, when another guy brought it out for us he insisted it had to stay upright. I guess at this point I should have realised what would happen and ignored him, but we loaded both the washer and the fridge into the trailer and lashed them as tightly as possible.

Everything went well on the way back, as I was trying to be as careful as possible, but faced with the choice of stop-start traffic lights (and the likelihood of cars being right behind me when accelerating away) or the smooth tarmac of the Frankston Freeway, I chose the freeway. Unfortunately, despite me only doing 80km/h, the inevitable happened. We hit a dip and the trailer bucked the back of the car. Looking in the rear view mirror, I could see the fridge flipping over the back of the trailer, and had visions of the fridge exploding into several hundred one-dollar coins all over the freeway.

Luckily, it landed on the back of the fridge, and despite some pretty major cosmetic damage, it was only in a handful of pieces (most of which would later pop straight back on). If it had landed on the front, then the doors would have been ripped off and it would have been game over.

So, lucky that it was midday and there wasn't much traffic around, we stood the fridge up, moved it to the side of the road, apologised to the drivers who'd just nearly had heart attacks behind us, and lugged it the hundred yards to the car (backing a trailer is bad enough at the best of times, but along a freeway it's just a bad plan all things considered).

I was quite surprised when, after I rewired it, it appeared to work fine. It took a long time to get the temperature stabilised, and it still has the odd strop now and again where the temperature rises or drops to the point of freezing the milk, but I'll throw away a few cartons of milk in exchange for not having to buy a new fridge thank you very much.

So yes, it's a bit more 'second' than it was when I paid for it, but it's doing a good turn.

Monday, July 21


Do you ever have those days where your productiveness should be measured in the number of emails you sent?

Today I racked up 46 work-related emails, none of which were circulars. What do I win?

Tonight's "Monday Night Football", the NRL game between the Melbourne Storm and the St. George Illawara Dragons, descended into chaos when the Dragons started actually pushing in the scrum - shock horror! The resulting mass brawl involved pretty much all the players on the ground (and some off the ground) and saw three players sin-binned. Another push in the scrum soon after saw Jason Ryles sent off for lashing out at Cameron Smith.

To put this in perspective, only 5 players have been sin-binned over the last 19 rounds of the NRL this year!

I far prefer watching League over Rugby Union because of the speed and openness of the game, but seriously, League scrums are such a farce.

In other news, Martin finally realises he hasn't posted pictures from Day 7 and Day 8 of the big tour last year and, 1 year late, uploads them.

Monday, July 14

3-2-1-Clear! *BZZZZZT!*

Ouch. 7 months. That's a long time to fail to update your blog. Well, I'm resuscitating it now and hopefully it'll not get forgotten in future.

So much has happened since I last posted, it's just not funny, and I'm not going to cover it all in this post. I'll try to catch up on things over time.

Anyway, here I am, 6 months into my stay in Australia. "Whaddya think of it so far?" you say - well, I'm having a great time in general. The whole point of coming over here was to see what it was like to live in the country on a day-to-day basis, to understand the social and economic situation and to see if I could live here permanently. I need to give it the full year before I can answer that particular $64,000 question, but I'm very positive about it currently.

I'm being guarded in these comments, and for a good reason. I can see so many parallels with the UK that I'd hoped I wouldn't see, such as a problem with alcohol, a generation of young people that seem to be slightly detached from the reality of the world they're living in, and a new government that can't stop coming up with new initiatives and isn't seeming to deliver anything. There's a chronic shortage of affordable housing in the suburbs (Sydney more so, to the point that young families are sleeping in their cars) and public transport is shocking.

So pretty much the same old same old then? No. Where I'm staying, in Frankston, is about a 1 hour commute into Melbourne by either train or car. Yes, I can commute to work in the heart of the city by car. I've done it a number of times, and the longest it's taken me is 1h 20m, as opposed to 55 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, at some points in the morning (say, if I'm stumbling out the door at 8:00) it's quicker to drive, because of the way the trains work (or don't).

Public transport is so much cheaper than in the UK, for instance, a daily travel card equivalent from Frankston (end of the line) to the city covering buses and trams as well will set me back $10.10, which is as near to £5 as makes no difference. But, while it's good int he mornings, there's annoying gaps in the timetable at just the times I like to travel, and the trains are about as fast as an average Piccadilly line. So it's a bit like getting on at Heathrow and snoozing all the way to Finsbury Park. Oh well.

To be honest, while Australia's got things that are just as frustrating as back in the UK, it's got many good points, and at the end of the day the weather's just that much better ...