That’s Life: Formal delight

What more can you say about school formals that hasn’t already been muttered through pursed parental lips and furrowed brows?
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Heaps actually, and most of it’s pretty good.

As Malcolm Fraser once said, life wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor was getting ready for formals.

But with a dash a luck and a bucket of product, it can be all right on the night.

Yes, there is a touch of pressure to be supermodel level, be they colt or filly.

And people can get strung out if the hairdresser’s answering machine keeps saying they’ll be closed for Melbourne Cup and we’re already into the second Tuesday of November and the formals on like TOMORROW!

You suspect deep down the hairdresser will be open, they just haven’t worked out how to adjust their message bank.

But talk about anxiety. Arrrrrr, my nails.

And when I say nails, I mean my nails, scratching down a blackboard, channelling the suspense that is choosing a dress, shoes, hair design, jewellery, blue steel facial expression.

And assurances my booty is poppin’ in this outfit, but not in a slutty way.

There’s so much to achieve, and yet so much nanny-state legislation requiring students to attend school in term four and do things like exams rather than roam the boutiques seeking out ‘IT’ items which will forever – like Carrie’s fire-starting telekinetic powers – set them out from the pack on prom night as being hot.

But not in a supernatural homicidal way. Just a look to die for.

Dudes perhaps get it a tad easier. Most brush up fairly well with the addition of, let’s face it, clothes.

A suit propels them far beyond that to fashion areas most haven’t been to since first communion or sports prezzos.

The arrival of metromania has done mountains to lift the bar in that department to the point where it seems like they almost care.

The gals on the other hand, need to learn about pain.

In so many ways it would be better if our society bound their feet from an early age, like the ancient Chinese, so they developed grotesque and malformed.

Or perhaps bash the soles of their tootsies with baseball bats.

Or drive hot nails through them in the manner of crucifixion.

Only then could they prepare for the delicious agony that is heels and take their first teetering steps into the realms of high fashion, and I mean high.

Talk about attack of the Amazons.

The modern day female formalite could quite well suit up favourably in the WNBL such is the tall factor.

But it’s no good being able to stand on stilts.

You need to walk, or something approximating that word. Land stride? Vault?

Not sure, but it takes some mastery to get from dining table to dance floor.

And you don’t want to know what happens after that because someone could lose an eye, or an ankle.

Formals weren’t so formal back in my day.

“Irresponsible events fraught with liability” would probably better describe what went on.

And even today that thought is ever present.

But well organised with a collegiate sense of togetherness, school formals can be wonderful reminders we’re all on a journey together.

And that should be celebrated from time to time, Gangnam style.

Furry work: becoming a theme park costumed character

Eri Suzuki is serious about her goal in life – working in a theme park as a character mascot, one of those oversized, fuzzy creatures that dance and cavort with children.
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So she came to the Choko Group mascot school in Tokyo for instruction in the myriad tricks of the trade, such as how to move in giant feet and a furry animal head.

“Where are your eyes? Where are your ears?” said Choko Oohira, the school’s founder, gesturing in front of a recent class on moving in costume that included students dressed as a giant panda, cats and sheep.

Herself a 20-year veteran of the mascot arts, Oohira founded the school – the only one of its kind in Japan and, quite possibly, the world – in 1985. Her goal: to help mascot wannabes perfect the art of moving and playing the characters.

“When I see places where someone’s hand is coming out between the costume’s hands, or they take off their mask in front of people, or show their skin under the mask, it’s very disappointing,” Oohira said.

“I just want to tell them that’s not how to do it. I want to show the world how to fully become the character and explain that’s how to make children happy.”

Students are taught everything from traditional dance, to help with actual dance routines as mascots, to different walking styles that illustrate different ages while wearing costumes.

Other lessons include how to interact with children while wearing a costume, how to present a kind or even scary aura, and training to make sure the mascot’s gestures work when people are unable to see the performer’s face.

There are roughly 25 students, ranging from those just giving it a try for fun to others, like Suzuki, destined for work in theme parks. They range from those in their 20s up to those in their 50s.

“I had been doing this in my own sort of style, so I wanted to try and actually learn from professionals,” said Eiichiro Sakaida, a 21-year-old who has worked as a mascot part-time and came from more than 900 km away to try the class.

“I realized there’s a lot of things that I didn’t know, so I hope to use what I’ve learned this time going forward.”

Once students graduate, work is unlikely to be a problem since Japan, which idolises all things big-eyed and cute, has been experiencing a massive mascot boom.

Mascots exist for everything from individual companies to theme parks, government offices and tourist sites such as Tokyo’s eponymous Tokyo Tower. Each has their own character and is pulled out for promotional events.

In the greater Tokyo area alone, there are some 250 mascots, not counting those used as company promotions.

“I do indeed like them,” said Seiji Uchida, 12, who took part in a recent morning exercise session with a score of characters. “The fact that they’re fluffy and each character has its own personality is quite interesting.”


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A mind’s eye in front of your nose

Next big thing? … Explore Engage’s Augmented Reality See Through Glasses. A heads-up display for cyclists can be used through the See Through Glasses as shown in this grab from a concept video.
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Riding high … Explore Engage’s Augmented Reality See Through Glasses

Battleground … Google’s Project Glass.

Explore Engage’s Augmented Reality See Through Glasses.

The next computing battleground could be on your head, with an Australian company taking on giants like Google and Microsoft with wearable computers in the form of glasses that appear to be straight out of a sci-fi flick.

After conditioning us to walk around absorbed in our mobile screens, the technologists now want to place digital information directly in front of our eyes before we necessarily know we need it.

It’s known as “augmented reality” and analyst firm Juniper believes revenue from augmented-reality apps will reach $5.2 billion in 2017, up from $82 million this year.

“The natural evolution is to take those tablets and those phones out of your hands and put them up there in your field of vision,” said Paul Kouppas, chief technology officer of Sydney-based Explore Engage.

Explore Engage has been around for about three years and specialises in augmented reality, having built apps for Audi, Sony, NBN Co, Angry Birds, Telstra, Paramount and Transformers 3.

Those apps were designed for smartphones and tablets but the company has spent the last two years and $2 million creating prototype smart glasses, recently demonstrating them on TV for the first time.

The company has positioned the camera-equipped glasses as a challenger to Google’s Project Glass initiative, which is essentially Android-powered glasses that users can interact with by voice. Google’s glasses will be offered to developers early next year for $US1500 ($A1445) before being made available to consumers by 2014.

But while Google may be, as co-founder Sergey Brin said, “making science fiction real”, the current version of its glasses still requires users to look at a screen in their peripheral vision, rather than using see-through screen lenses that overlay the digital information directly in front of the user.

This makes Google’s promo video from April slightly misleading, but Explore Engage has released its own video showing some of Google’s futuristic features working on its real-world prototype. Another of its early working apps for the glasses is a version of Space Invaders.

“Because [Google] are not directly augmenting your line of sight, certain things wouldn’t be possible on their glasses,” said Kouppas.

Explore Engage is using crowd-funding site Pozible in an attempt to raise the money to finish the technology and mass produce it and is also seeking venture capital investment. But Kouppas warns that it is still likely a few years away from prime-time mainstream worthiness and the first applications would be industry-specific.

Kouppas said architects and engineers were a particular focus as the glasses could be used to see what a building looks like in situ before it’s built or to visualise underground pipes and infrastructure.

The company is also working up navigation, education, tourism, real-time translation, home entertainment, gaming, medical and sports-event glasses apps. While Google is aiming at the mass market, Explore Engage says it is “more about particular use cases and bespoke design first, and mass marketing second”.

“You could do a bit of a mashup between something like Second Life and a game like Doom, and allow them to co-exist in the real world,” said Kouppas.

The next apps the team wants to make for the glasses include a CPR instructions overlay with voice prompts of what to do in an emergency and a cycling “heads up display” providing route and safety information, navigation, music and communication between riders.

Microsoft is also working on smart glasses, according to a newly published patent application, designed to be used while watching live events like sport and concerts.

Late last year The New York Timesreported that Apple was also “conceptualising and even prototyping some wearable devices”, but the example given was not headwear but a curved-glass iPod that would wrap around the wrist, interface with the iPhone and take commands using Siri.

Another competitor is Vuzix, which has recently launched its Smart Glasses M100 that includes a camera, GPS and motion sensors, microphone, earpiece and a version of Google’s Android operating system.

It looks more like a Bluetooth headset than a pair of glasses and places a small screen in the user’s peripheral vision. The device, expected to go on sale next year for under $US500, connects via wireless or Bluetooth to a smartphone and supports third-party apps.

Vuzix also offers a glasses-style augmented-reality system called the STAR 1200 that features cameras and see-through screens in each lens. The screens overlay information as though you’re looking at a 75-inch flat screen from three metres away. It costs a whopping $US4999.

Kouppas said high-end smartphones with various sensors were finally unlocking the potential of augmented-reality glasses. The Explore Engage prototype still connects via a wire to a smartphone but he said this allows it to offload processing and power requirements to the phone, enabling the glasses to be more lightweight and visually appealing.

“For the consumer it’s just a natural progress of how we interact with our world,” he said.

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Old rail line uncovered by works near Surf House

IT has spent decades under bitumen but a former Merewether beach-front rail line reared its head again today.
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Workers unearthed the old track, which appears to be part of a spurline used in the late 1800s known as the sand sidings, during works on John Parade .

A map of the Burwood Estate Railway circa 1887 shows the sidings splitting from the Beach Railway in the vicinity.

Picture: Simone De Peak

The sidings then appear to stretch from near Merewether Surf Club towards Dixon Park.

Newcastle Herald historian Mike Scanlon said the rails’ location indicated they may have been part of those sidings.

‘‘This old railway line is likely to have been part of a once extensive sand removal operation that speared off from the present Watkins Street corner,’’ Mr Scanlon said.

‘‘There were once huge dunes around the Dixon Park area which were heavily exploited.’’

Mr Scanlon said the line appeared to have fallen out of use by 1900 and seemed completely gone following the Depression.

‘‘Possibly it went back as far as 1862 when the Red Head Railway was built nearby along the coast south to remote Glenrock Lagoon,’’ he said.

University of Newcastle archivist Gionni di Gravio said the discovery site’s location indicated it may have been from the Burwood rail network.

Passers-by were split over how significant the discovery was.

Bar Beach’s Louise Ragg said she was unaware of the area’s rail history.

‘‘I think it’s exciting but I don’t think you can do much with it,’’ she said.

‘‘Maybe they could do something [to mark the old lines] like they have with the Honeysuckle foreshore.’’

New Lambton Heights’ Anthony Brodie said he believed the rail line’s long absence was warranted.

‘‘Realistically it’s a non-event,’’ Mr Brodie said.

‘‘I just hope the council doesn’t get involved and cause the redevelopment [of John Parade] to slow down for something as insignificant as this.’’

MAP: Courtesy of Light Railways magazine

Leaders – who needs ’em?

Watching over … do we need a boss to keep us on track?It feels as though we’re part of a culture that loves to worship heroes. The superstar CEO. The rock-star entrepreneur. The trailblazing humanitarian. The fearless editor. The visionary politician. A lot of it implies that we anxiously crave inspiring leaders to follow. But it’s worth asking the question: to what degree are leaders still relevant in a modern world?
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The shift towards a leaderless society can be seen in movements like the Arab Spring and the Tea Party, neither of which have formal leaders but have amassed a significant amount of support. And during 2010 and 2011, Belgium went 541 days without a government leading the way … and yet life carried on just fine.

What’s to suggest that businesses can’t be stripped of leaders in the same fashion? Professor David Day from the University of Western Australia believes formal leadership isn’t always necessary. He tells me that’s because “leadership is a process not a position”.

This means leadership can be produced by a group of individuals who collectively set a direction and then build commitment towards that goal. “This is why people need to be prepared to step up as a leader when needed even if they are not the leader in terms of position,” he says.

In her book The End of Leadership, Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman writes that the leaders of today are weaker than the leaders of yesterday, and part of that can be attributed to the empowerment of employees.

She likens it to the traditional role played by wives. Once upon a time, they were subservient, effectively owned by their husbands within a legal system that recognised the man as the master. Now, it’s a different story, with marriages represented by much more equal relationships.

Similarly, for a long time, leaders were required to be dominant, asserting their power over obedient followers. “No longer,” writes Kellerman. “Now followers, like wives, are far sturdier than they used to be, stronger and more independent.” And that independence means they want to have a greater say.

I asked Professor Gayle Avery from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management for her views on whether leaders are necessary. “I think the point revolves around the distinction between leaders and leadership,” she said.

Leaders are those who are appointed to a specific position of authority, usually with a job title to match, such as Team Leader or CEO. In other words: hierarchy.

Leadership, on the other hand, is what emerges when individuals are perceived by colleagues as the natural influencers of a group. Professor Avery refers to it as organic leadership, which means it has less to do with a boss ordering subordinates around, and more to do with shared decision-making.

A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a profile on a company called Valve Corp, based in Washington, which prides itself on being boss-free. Its 300 employees recruit new workers, determine each other’s pay, and collectively decide who to fire. And, of course, promotions do not exist.

So, just because a team lacks a boss doesn’t mean it lacks leadership. Still, problems remain. One potential risk is the issue of accountability. When someone isn’t formally in charge, it can be difficult to figure out who’s responsible for a team’s under-performance. (You know, who to blame.)

Another downside is that if you have a leaderless team – one that fully embraces the democratisation of work – there’s the possibility of endlessly delayed decisions. That’s why it’s often said that dictatorship is the most efficient form of government. It may not be the most desired, but it’s arguably the most efficient.

Perhaps a similar principle applies in the workplace. Or, could it be, that Tina Turner had it right all along? Maybe we don’t need another hero. You tell me.

Does every team need a leader? Leave a comment.

Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

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