First Answer Badge!


I worked in Ethiopia many years ago, and carried sweets in my jacket pocket.  When an official gave me information that I needed I gave him or her a sweet.  This was light-hearted on my part, but after a while my counterpart told me, very seriously, that people might feel they were being treated like children and take offence.

I have just converted to Windows 10 and had occasion to ask Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri, how to restore the ‘search box’ that had disappeared from my screen.  Instead of simply putting it back – as a human assistant might have done – she whizzed me to a Microsoft website where fellow-sufferers exchange information.

To Cortana’s credit, it turned out to be the right place.  Lots of people had had the same problem and someone had worked out a solution.  I tried it and, with a bit of a tweak of my own, got my search box back.  I wrote a Thank-you note and described how I had tweaked the solution to suit my own set-up.

Leaving a reply entailed registering as a member of the Microsoft Community.  Almost immediately I received an emailing announcing that I had won my first Answer Badge!  For some reason my thoughts turned to Ethiopia and sweets.  Here’s a picture of my Microsoft Community badge, alongside a lot of other badges that I haven’t got yet:

JObadge1 merit-badges-v2

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must write a glowing review of the Ankyun Restaurant.  I’m working towards becoming a Level 3 Trip Advisor Reviewer!

Two Statues


Yesterday two statues were unveiled in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. I saw one about to be erected as I walked to a meeting. When I came out of the meeting it was in place but shrouded, with workmen putting the finishing touches to its installation:

YerevanStatue_3  YerevanStatue_1

The subject is Garegin Nzhdeh, born Garegin Ter-Harutyunyan, an Armenian national hero, soldier and statesman who took on the Ottoman and Russian Empires and the Soviet Union during his 69-year life (1886-1955). The photo below (which I borrowed from that admirable fount of knowledge Wikipedia) shows him as a proud, armed and decorated warrior.


But there were two unveilings yesterday.  The other was a seated statue of Marshal Hamazasp Babajanian, an acclaimed tank commander for the Soviet Union in the Second World War.  It has been criticised on aesthetic grounds.  Judge for yourself:


When I first posted on this topic I mistakenly reported that the second statue depicted Anastas Mikoyan, known in Armenia as ‘the executioner’.  A proposal to erect a statue of Mikoyan provoked such negative public reaction that it did not go forward.  My original text is reproduced below in italics.


The other was a statue of Anastas Mikoyan. He was Armenia’s highest profile Soviet politician, serving under Lenin and all subsequent leaders up to and including Brezhnev. He was instrumental in carrying out Stalin’s bloody orders in his homeland, earning him the nickname ‘the executioner’.

Predictably, many people have been surprised to see Mikoyan honoured with a statue, albeit in a less central location than Garegin Nzhdeh’s. The most plausible explanation that I am aware of is that it is a sop to Russia, on whose good will Armenia depends, neatly balancing the honour given to a nationalist who tried to liberate at least a part of Armenia from Soviet rule.

Armenia is a small, poor, landlocked nation with two hostile neighbours: Turkey and Azerbaijan (with whom shots are being exchanged on the border as I write). Armenia cannot afford to anger its one powerful friend.

As a postscript, Anastas Mikoyan had a famous brother Artem, an aircraft designer. The ‘Mi’ in Mikoyan combines with the ‘G’ in the name of Artem’s partner Mikhail Gurevich to make the famous acronym ‘MiG’.

King Tut’s Trumpets


People who read my blog probably have a wide range of interests. These may including historical musicology, archaeology, Egyptology, metallurgy and the early days of the BBC. If any one of these excites you, I recommend this article about two trumpets that were found in the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amun (also known by other variants, and Tut to his friends). In particular, if you have 15 minutes to spare, do watch the video clip at the end of the article and hear the first sounding of the trumpets for 3,000 years.


The article appears at another blogsite: that of the musicologist Luís Henriques.

Windows 10


A few days ago a friend forwarded this little spoof to me:


Then yesterday, as I was shaving and listing to ABC Radio National on my laptop, I received a pop-up announcement from Microsoft to the effect that I would be updated to Windows 10 in 2 hours! There was a tiny thing to click saying “I need more time.” I gave myself until 1900 yesterday, when Mrs SG and I would be at the theatre.

Walking home from the theatre I was in a state of nervous agitation, as you can imagine. I saw “Welcome to Windows 10” on my screen with a mixture of relief (no demands for money from a hacker) and trepidation (would I still be able to access my files and run my accustomed software?).

So far, 15 hours later, I can report that Microsoft seems to have done a good job this time. Everything looks and behaves pretty much as it used to. The same icons appear on my desktop and along the bottom of the screen. I’ve kept my default apps for editing photos and the like. Office 2003 still works and so does Outlook Express.

I am as surprised to be saying this as you may be to be reading it. We Windows users have been trained to expect everything to get worse with each new version, and Windows 10 may yet disappoint; but at least the transition has been painless.

Bigotry of Low Expectations


We rarely go out on Monday nights because we don’t want t miss ‘Q&A’, an hour-long ABC TV programme with a panel of interesting people and a live audience.  Usually there are two Australian politicians from opposites sides, but this week the panellists were all foreign writers who were attending Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The most interesting, I thought, was a woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  As you can see from the screenshot below, she is remarkably beautiful.  And as you might guess from her name, she was born a Muslim.  She writes about the need for reform in Islam.  One of her books is called ‘Heretic’: I haven’t read it, so I can’t personally recommend it.


I was particularly taken with her accusation that white liberal infidels are reticent about criticising Islamic dogma and custom, even those aspects that stand in stark contradiction to the ideals of liberal democracy – including forced marriage, devaluation of women and persecution of homosexuals and religious minorities. She used the phrase “bigotry of low expectations,” referring to a failure to hold Muslims to account because they cannot be expected to meet the standards we demand of our own kind.

This resonated with me. I am guilty of this kind of bigotry and so are most of my fellow-citizens.  For example, Aborigines are not expected to succeed in the mainstream world of study and work.  They are patronised, subsidised, favoured and cosseted in ways that guarantee a continuation of low achievement from generation to generation.

By the same token we make excuses for unconscionable conduct for which perpetrators claim a religious pretext.  I am thinking, for example, of halal and kosher slaughtering of animals and opting out of the general obligation to vaccinate one’s children.  There was even a case, reported this morning, where a group of accused men refused to stand when the judge entered the courtroom.  Their lawyer claimed that their faith forbade them to stand for anyone but Allah, and cited precedence.

Perhaps it’s our legacy of colonial guilt that makes us unwilling to demand as much from people of other races and faiths as we demand from ourselves, but I agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  This is bigotry and we should shrug it off, and tell people to pull their socks up and behave like decent, responsible citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Hijab and Pants


I just read an article about an Iranian model called Elham Arab, who was hauled up before the Revolutionary Court for posting pictures of herself in which her hair was visible – and dyed blonde.  This is how she looked in court:


The article included this interesting snippet: “In Islam, hijab can refer both to the headscarf women wear to cover their hair and the principle of modesty that underlies the practice.”

I wondered whether there were parallels in our own culture, and I think I found one: “to be caught with one’s pants down.” In our culture to be without pants is as immodest and shameful as it is for a woman to be without a headscarf in Iran.

Can you think of any more?

Smile !


For years I was reluctant to smile in a full-scale, open mouthed, toothy sort of way. Now I do it all the time – so much so that people are reluctant to sit next to me on buses.

Why? Last year I had some dental work done, of a frankly cosmetic nature.  The pictures below show what can be done by an expert over a dozen-or-so sessions.  I haven’t labelled them ‘Before’ and ‘After’ but I think you can work it out.  I’m amazed at how bad my teeth got before I succumbed to pressure to do something about them.  I’m equally amazed at the extent of the transformation.



You will want to know the name of the miracle-worker, and if your teeth are half-as bad as mine were you’ll want to know his address too. He is Dr Vatche Kishmishian, Oral and Dental Surgeon at the Avanta Dental Clinic at 5 Zakyan Street, Yerevan, Armenia.  The ’phone number is +374 10 521195.

What Vatche did in my mouth cost about US$2,000. If you live in Australia or the USA it could be worth an airfare and a month’s rent for a Yerevan apartment to let him work his magic on you too.

Level 2 !!!


At last, I have scrambled up from the Level 1 floor of the TripAdvisor hierarchy. My review today gave me the 100 points I needed to reach Level 2.  I suppose I’ll get a more exciting badge than the pencil tip logo that I’ve been virtually wearing on my virtual label.

In case you’re interested, I reviewed Tatev Monastery (photo below) and the 5+km cableway that takes visitors across a gorge to reach it. It’s in southern Armenia, not far from the border with the disputed territory of Ngorno Karabakh.  I made my 2nd visit last week.  This time I went back by car to the other end of the cableway (the Wings of Tatev) which allowed me to look at the Devil’s Bridge on the way: a natural tunnel, worn by running water.


What I’d really like to do is walk through the man-made tunnel that runs between the monastery, on top of the hill, and the hermitage in the valley. Monks dug the tunnel as a means of escape in the event of an attack.  In the photo you’ll see that the monastery is as much a castle as a place of religious retreat.  Armenians live in a neighbourhood that has seldom been at peace.

As I tried to imagine the physical and logistical obstacles to building a castle-cum-monastery on top of a mountain, and digging a very long tunnel through solid rock, a thought occurred to me. If those Daesh people are as motivated in their religious zeal as those monks of old were motivated, we’re going to have to pull out all the stops to beat them.  Bigger and better Eurovision Song Contests will not be enough.

Peace and Freedom


We have quite a few TV channels here in our Yerevan apartment but most of the time we watch BBC World. The downside is that, in addition to paid advertisements, we get endless repetitive station promos and fillers.  All last week we were getting news highlights of the same week in past years… the same highlights over and over again, every time the BBC had a 30-second gap to fill.

The most annoying highlight has been a clip from Conchita Wurst’s 2014 Eurovision Song Contest acceptance speech, in which he/she dedicates the award to “all those who believe in a future of peace and freedom.”


I’m not against peace and I’m not against freedom, but anyone who believes that there will ever, ever be a time when the whole world will be at peace and in a state of freedom, however defined, should be certified. It is not in our nature as humans – or indeed in the nature of any living thing – to live in peace.  And it is inevitable that when any creature, be it animal or vegetable, occupies a position of power over another it will use that power to constrain the freedom of the weaker party.  That is, as the French say, life!

But maybe that’s not what Conchita meant. Maybe when he/she used the word ‘believe’ its intended meaning was no more than aspirational.  Or perhaps it was meant to be woolly and meaningless, as in “I believe in you.”

Whatever the case, Conchita causes me to have a stroppy fit every time I see the clip.  He/she is guilty either of talking nonsense or of sloppy use of the English language.  Am I being harsh?

Air Travel


I grovel before my readers and beg their forgiveness. I have not posted for two weeks.  What kind of a spiritual leader am I?!  How can people know what to think of the world if I am silent?!

My only excuse – a lame one – is that I was:

  • finishing my 4th novel (‘Bobby Shafter’) subject only to a final read-through-cum-editing and then proof-reading by my sister Peeje;
  • preparing to travel to Yerevan, capital of Armenia, for a 5-week consulting assignment; and
  • undertaking that travel, together with Mrs SG.

So we are now in Armenia.  Getting here did wonders for my stroppiness quotient.  First of all, having taken the time to select two aisle-seats at the Qantas website for our long overnight flight to Dubai, we were allocated two different ones.  Then, when we asked for interlining of our luggage to our final destination, the check-in clerk had never heard of Yerevan.

We’ve been through Dubai Airport several times and it’s always been difficult to find our way to the terminal for our departing flight. Signage is minimal and directions given by the helpful, friendly staff don’t always work.  The shuttle bus delivered us to a building bearing a big sign that included our gate number, so we got out and looked for it.  That’s how we discovered that Dubai has two sets of ‘F’ gates.

From Dubai to Yerevan we flew FlyDubai, which is a no-frills regional airline. The toilet was free but we had to pay to get a luggage allowance that came close to the one we had on the Qantas/Emirates code-share flight into Dubai; pay to get food and drink on-board; and pay if we wanted entertainment beyond month-old screen-shots of the front page of the local newspaper.

Security is always a hassle and we expect that. But why are the requirements at different airports so different?  Some don’t require removal of laptops for screening and some do require removal of belts.  Some others want shoes, hats and wristwatches to be removed.  Why isn’t this standardised?!  If there’s a sane explanation I’d be glad to hear it.  Anyone…?