31 January 2007

SA not happy about water plans

In today's Australian , and perhaps other media which I didn't see, the SA government paid for a quarter page advertisement in the form of a letter from Premier Rann to Prime Minister Howard asking for a more collaborative approach between the federal and state governments over the Murray-Darling. The SA government is naturally concerned at the suddenness of the proposed takeover and the implications for South Australia.

Unfortunately the advertisement/ letter is not on Mr Rann's website as I post, which makes me wonder how competent his advisers are, nor does it appear to be anywhere else online.

ABC online has several references to the matter, the first a news item about the letter to the PM, the second a transcript from this afternoon's World Today and the third a later item Rann vows to maintain Murray-Darling fight, which includes a link to Federal Water Minister Turnbull's none too favourable comments about the Premier's request.

This is a very important matter for South Australia and South Australians and I support the Premier in his stand. If nobody resists the risk of the state being at best seriously disadvantaged and at worst damaged beyond repair increases markedly.

Dodge tide

The Double-Tongued Dictionary has mentioned Adelaide in the citation for "dodge tide", its featured word for yesterday.

What is a dodge tide? It's akin to a neap tide where there is very little tidal movement for several hours: See here for more.

30 January 2007

Lawyer at last meets client and expresses concerns about treatment

The Australian, The Age, The Washington Post , The New York Times and the ABC report that David McLeod, David Hicks' Australian lawyer, has visited his client in Guantanamo Bay.

From the ABC website:

Mr McLeod told ABC radio's
PM program that Mr Hicks was chained to the floor of the cell where he is kept for 22 hours a day, and was clearly despairing of his situation."His visage was an extremely sorrowful one," he said."It took us some time to discuss the matters that had occurred in Australia with him, and to convince ourselves that he was in a position to understand what we were imparting to him."

Mr McLeod has likened the US military prison to a Nazi death camp and says he will take his concerns to American authorities."He continues to be locked up for 22 hours per day," he said."He tells me that he's only seen the sun three times since the beginning of December last year when he was moved."
Mr McLeod reports that his client is chained to the floor for 22 hours a day and has not seen sunlight for months.

From The Washington Post website:

"He has no privacy whatsoever ... his toilet paper is rationed, he hasn't been able to comb his hair since going there because he's not provided with a comb or brush," he [ McLeod]said.

Tonight the ABC claims that Attorney-General Ruddock has asked for a further report:

"I've asked that an assessment be carried out and that be dealt with as a matter of urgency and I think informed views on this matter should await some more detailed assessment," he said.

A few days ago Foreign Minister Downer was satisfied with a comment by a US embassy media officer that Hicks was in "reasonably good shape". Now a more detailed assessment is required. When and where will it all end?

If you don't like our trains, don't board them

Two items about rail safety.

The Metro reports that the UK Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) , the body which is responsible for safety on trains, claims that overcrowded trains are safer:

An ORR spokesman told the Standard: “Research in the late Nineties... found that where there was a crowded or overcrowded train carriage there was no detrimental effect to people involved in crashes. In a lot of cases people were better off in train carriages where there was overcrowding.” A spokesman added that the ORR had no say in setting the number of carriages on trains or the level of service. “Service levels are set by the Department for Transport,” he said. “We are the safety regulator for the industry. However, there is no legal limit on the number of passengers that can travel in any given train. There is no safety law regarding the maximum number of people in a train carriage.” MPs were stunned by the ORR stance, particularly by seeming to defend overcrowding on the basis that it may protect passengers.

This was followed by advice to a passenger from one rail company: if you don't like packed trains, get off.

Tony Richards complained to First Great Western about his nightmare journey on a packed train from Reading to Penzance in Cornwall. He said: 'We were shoulder to shoulder and you could not move an arm. There was a lady with three young children, a suitcase and a buggy. She ended up holding one child. Another child was sitting on someone's suitcase and her third child was on the lap of a stranger.'

Customer service adviser Calvin Abelar responded by e-mail, saying: 'If a passenger boards an already crowded service, they are in effect saying to First Great Western that they agree to travel in those conditions. 'Ultimately, if a passenger feels the travelling conditions pose a safety risk, then the responsibility lies with the passenger. As well as First Great Western maintaining a responsibility to ensure safe travel, each passenger must use their personal discretion.' But rail watchdog Passenger Focus said: 'Passengers often don't have a choice about when they can travel so can't simply get off.'

Closer to home The Age reports that some of the most sophisticated class of train in the Melbourne suburban fleet have been withdrawn because they have failed simple brake tests:

One of the most sophisticated passenger trains in the Melbourne fleet has failed the simplest of tests.On Saturday a Siemens train could not stop when soapy water was poured on the tracks in a test to try to solve a braking problem that has crippled 31 Siemens trains. Even after the driver pulled the emergency brakes and pushed the emergency stop button, the train would not stop.So he pulled the key from the train's ignition, which caused the train's computer system to shut down and activate the park brake...Now almost half the troubled Siemens fleet have been withdrawn, forcing Connex to cancel almost 40 peak-hour services a day. Over the past fortnight another seven trains have been removed, bringing the total number of trains out to 31.

The Age

Reading for pleasure when there's not much pleasure to be had

Cricket has a reputation for fostering fine writing, yet most followers of the game probably don't know (or care) about the leading players' reading tastes (or whether they read at all). It therefore comes as a surprise to read on Cricinfo that the troubled England team has set up, apparently at the instigation of Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff, a book club:

"They bring their own books in to discuss and exchange them with the others. Fred has just given me a new book to read," said a team spokesman, "he felt it would be a good idea to help the guys talk and think about things not associated with cricket."

Speaking of good writing, David Fine, the poet of the Ashes, is negotiating with a publisher about producing book of his poems.

[Also posted at Nudges and Deflections]

29 January 2007

Perils of the information age

At a weekend barbecue the conversation, while not stopping proceedings, briefly turned to the perils of letting young people succumb to the temptations of the internet and other technology. In today's Australian Alan Gold (perhaps he was at a similar function?) picks up on the topic and asks "where will this computer generation be if they have to figure out things for themselves"?

The omnipresent mobile phone, computer screen, Google, Internet Explorer and all the other gateways to the entirety of human knowledge are all wondrous developments and will be of great benefit to us all, but each is diluting this generation's self-reliance.Why seek the truth yourself, why climb to the top of the mountain to see the view, why spend hours in a musty library, and why speak to somebody person to person when you can do everything with a mobile phone or a search engine on the internet?

He has two children, of whom his daughter is still tolerably well-acquainted with a pre-internet society. His son, however, is a lost cause: when his in-car GPS malfunctions, the perplexed young man, rather than trying to find his own way home, rings his parents for directions.

As a society, we are becoming so reliant on suckling at the breast of the internet that we are in danger of becoming helpless in the face of adversity. In previous generations, the questions whose answers we needed to know often formed a broader inquiry that was satisfied by books. The very nature of a book seduces us into browsing, cross-referencing and flicking through pages in order to find sections or paragraphs. This enables the specific to be widened into the general: unexpected knowledge is gained and inquiry skills are learned. But because of the unearthly power of search engines, today's youth are led straight to the answer instead of contextualising question and answer as part of the richer and wider tapestry of knowledge.

Increasingly this generation is losing the joy of studying books, maps, papers or other non-electronic devices: they are missing the framework of reflection and the joys of browsing and inquiry on which our society has been built. One day they will have to learn the new adage that data isn't information, information isn't knowledge, and knowledge isn't wisdom. Previous generations learned to learn through trial and error, through research, through questions and uncovering the answers. Once, students had to be like Sherlock Holmes, observing and pondering and sifting through the evidence to find the answer; today, students are more selectors than detectors, and download the answers in the absence of clues.

I worry that the instant answers of the internet might lead to some sort of Darwinian devolution of our brains and rob future generations of developing those abilities that raised us above the animals in the first place. Because if we do devolve as a species through the loss of those abilities that helped us find our way out of Africa, how on earth will we navigate our way back?

While IMO Gold overstates his case to make his point he does make me think about the extent to which some (by no means all, at least among those of my acquaintance) people seemed to be hooked, beguiled, besotted or whatever by technology, so that the devices they embrace so avidly become their master. Of course I'm not like that... but I'd be interested in what others think.

28 January 2007

Pig headed Alex

Foreign Minister Downer has, as News.com.au and The Age report, once again resorted to attacking the ALP for what he perceives to be its longstanding foreign policy shortcomings. This is from The Age :

"Australian Labor wants to retreat to fortress Australia," he told the the Young Liberals' federal convention in Melbourne. "Its natural instinct has always been isolationism, and its cut-and-run policy in Iraq is the latest incarnation of that tendency. It is madness to think we can retreat from this crucial battle for civilisation and hope the terrorists will leave us alone."

Arguing Australia could not leave the fight against terrorism to others, Mr Downer warned of dire consequences if the United States retreated to its own borders. "Terrorists in every part of the world, including in our own region, would be emboldened," Mr Downer said. "We would be inviting the violence ever closer to our own homes."

He said that coalition failure in Iraq would be catastrophic, leaving the country to terrorists and insurgents who would try to install a Taliban-style regime, with terrible consequences for Iraq, the region and the world.

In defending the Government's commitment to the war in Iraq, Mr Downer launched a broad attack on the "self-loathing" of the left, which he said argued the West had brought terrorism on itself and which always sought the "seemingly easy option of avoiding conflict, negotiating concessions with the enemy and hoping the threat will disappear".

"Historically the left has always looked for soft options - from appeasement of Hitler, accommodation of Communist expansionism and unilateral disarmament in the Cold War," he said.

This is at best disingenuous, at worst arrant balderdash. Most Australians with any historical knowledge will recall that the best known Australian appeaser was R G "Pig Iron Bob" Menzies, who in the 1930s insisted on selling scrap iron to the expansionist Japanese empire. And who were his most vocal opponents? The waterside workers. And their position on the political spectrum?

Mr Downer is merely President Bush's mouthpiece, except for some limited freedom of action in the South Pacific -Melanesia region: and how stable is that at the moment? All his huffing and puffing about the ALP is simply laying down a smokescreen. Unfortunately for him the winds of change are blowing his smoke away as quickly as he can produce it.

In contrast to Mr Downer's rant, Attorney General Ruddock has, as News.com.au , The Age and the ABC, report refused to ban a radical Islamic group which is, as these sources claim, advocating the establishment of a strict Islamic state with sharia law. It's hard to tell from the reports whether this is intended to be a call to jihad in Australia, or a more general statement of a medium-long term goal. On this occasion I'll follow Mr Ruddock's lead and be alert, but not alarmed.

I wonder what Mr Downer thinks of it all. His department must have provided some advice to the A-G, but has Mr D for his own political purposes (or whatever) disregarded this and blamed the ALP?

How censorship disables democracy

In The Australian Brendan O'Neill, deputy editor of sp!ked, has written a good piece about how passing laws against Holocaust denial, which has already happened in several countries and is being proposed in several others, is counterproductive.

However much we might detest Holocaust denial, it's a big mistake to outlaw it. The only beneficiaries will be the deniers. Overnight these handfuls of wacky historians and far-Right losers will be granted the moral authority of martyrdom. Forced underground, they will become more convinced than ever that their arguments (or, rather, lies) represent a truth so frightening that the authorities cannot handle it. Blanket bans on Holocaust denial will only strengthen the deniers, while gravely undermining free speech and rational debate.
In calling for European-wide censure of Holocaust denial, Germany is using a sledgehammer to crack a bunch of nutcases. It is also attacking the very basis of our democratic right to free speech. Support for freedom of speech relies on the belief that adults are ultimately capable of deciding what to think for themselves: that we are rational beings possessed of free will, and very often good sense, who can distinguish a good argument from a rotten, rancid, racist one. The argument for banning Holocaust denial takes the opposite starting point: that people must be considered incapable of resisting even this ludicrous idea, and that we must be protected from evil words by the caring authorities.

Restricting speech on the grounds that it might inflame hatred and even stir up violence is an insult to us, the public. Such an approach calls into question the existence of free will itself; it treats us as unthinking automatons who must be protected from our own worst instincts, from our latent hatred and propensity to violence, by the blue pen of the gracious censor. You, like me, may have no desire to hear Irving and the rest spread lies about the Holocaust, but we should recognise that the proposed ban on Holocaust denial is premised on the idea that we're fickle and easily influenced and in need of guidance from the powers-that-be to make the right decisions and believe the right things. Such a sentiment attacks the very core of freedom and democracy.
Holocaust denial cannot be defeated by brute censorship. Suppressing lies only allows them to fester and spread. It is only in the loud and rowdy court of public opinion where we can disprove and dismantle the deniers' lies once and for all, and let historical truth win out.

For more by the author see his website.

27 January 2007

How young can a bridesmaid be?

The Sun reports on the forthcoming nuptials between Steven Gerrard a (the?) Liverpool soccer player and Alex Curran (a woman if you don't already know), which are planned for later this year. The Sun seems to have had its nose put out of joint because the couple have signed over their wedding photos in a million pound deal with "a downmarket glossy mag", so provides a less than flattering description of the bride to be "[s]he has ditched her long hair extensions and toned down the orange permatan she once sported in favour of a much more sophisticated image".

Having fired this shot off the paper informs us that " [h]er two daughters by the Liverpool star — Lily Ella, two, and nine-month-old Lexie — are expected to be bridesmaids."

Hang on, is there a minimum age for bridesmaids? If Wikipedia (see link above) is correct that Lexie was born on 9 May 2006, this makes her eight, not nine, months old now. She will therefore be only 12 or 13 months old when the wedding takes place. Will she be able to accompany her mother down the aisle or will she have to be wheeled in a push chair? The full details of the ceremony have yet to be confirmed, and probably won't be, given the money that's changing hands for the photos, but I wonder how healthy it is for one year old children to be subjected to the kind of treatment which the DmGM (downmarket glossy mag) has in mind for her?

25 January 2007

A prophet with honour (at last) as government throws money at Murray

Congratulations to Tim Flannery, 2007 Australian of the Year . He is a most deserving recipient of the honour. The National Australia Day Council website says: "Tim helps us understand the predicament we face, carefully laying out the science and showing us the likely effects of human-induced climate change. But he also offers us hope of a solution to stop and ultimately reverse this trend." I've not always agreed with everything he's said but usually find his arguments (including that in support of nuclear power as a means of countering global warming) cogent. I particularly admire his ability to convey his ideas lucidly both orally and in prose.

Tonight on The 7.30 Report he spoke which characteristic eloquence:

KERRY O'BRIEN: Tim Flannery, a former governor general once said he saw his job as holding up a mirror and reflecting the nation to itself. I wonder what you see in that mirror?

TIM FLANNERY, AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR: I suppose what I see in that mirror is a people who are coming to terms with the land that supports them and really defines them, who don't yet understand it particularly well and understand its sensitivities, and therefore are sort of like squatters. We're squatting on the country rather than being true ones who have a long term future here through a careful caring for our land.

KERRY O�BRIEN: If we've been slow learners in that, it would be in part at least, wouldn't it, because of the kind of iconic images that we've drawn for ourselves as being hardy pioneers of the land, and the land and our development of the land, working of the land, has been so much a part of the ethos.

TIM FLANNERY: That's right, and that grand illusion, if you want, came from a particular history where our ancestors came from an overcrowded and impoverished Europe into this, what seemed to be an open continent, that seemed so easy to exploit. You could put the sheep on the land, you didn't even need to knock down the trees and all of a sudden you were a wealthy landowner. And that pioneer phase is due to a naivete both on the part of the land about us and us about the land and what it can actually contain. It was as if we ate through the wealth of the continent in just a few decades rather than carefully shepherded it. And those images and icons made it harder to realise the reality of the situation for us and I think it's only now, as people look at the country with new eyes and see that it is limited, that we need to take care of it and that it will define our future, that we're starting to see a new reality.

KERRY O�BRIEN: You wrote an Australia Day article, as it happens, five years ago in which you talked about how Australians tend to define themselves culturally as opposed to how they should define themselves; can you remember your argument?

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, I can, I remember thinking about it, why we imagine that meat pies and football and Holden cars are important when the true underpinnings, the one thing that we all share as Australians, is this land. It's what gives us our water and our food and our shelter and defines us as a nation. Why isn't that the basis of our common sentiment about what it means to be an Australian? The rest of it seems to me to be sort of randomly chosen bits of icons that we just happen to like.

If you'd like to read more of his work, I'd recommend The Weather Makers: The history and Future Impact of Climate Change (ISBN 1 920885 84 5), Country
(ISBN 1 92088 544 7) or his shorter 2003 Quarterly Essay Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia (ISBN 1 86395 339 6).

Last year he also featured in a TV Documentary Two Men and a Tinnie about a trip down the Darling and Murray Rivers in a tinnie ( a small aluminium boat powered by an outboard motor normally used on sheltered waters such as rivers) . He drew attention to the environmental degradation of the system.

This brings me to today's other big environmental story, where the Prime Minister has pledged $10bn to solve the water crisis. Mr Howard will be using the big stick he'd promised a few months ago not to use to take away powers from the states. Admittedly the states haven't exercised their powers as effectively as they might have, but I'm not convinced that having Canberra dealing single-handed with the Murray-Darling basin problems is wise, despite Mr Rudd's support for a bi-partisan approach, which presumably includes support for taking away state powers.

The Murray-Darling basin covers a significant area of four states where there are a variety of activities competing for water. South Australia, especially Adelaide, depends on the system for its water. But how, if the PM and Mr Rudd's wishes are implemented in their most extreme form, will the voices of urban householders and small horticulturalists and viticulturalists be heard over those of the large agribusinesses upstream and the carpetbaggers everywhere who'll come flocking to see how much can make for themselves while professing to support "market forces"?

Tonight, also on the 7.30 Report Malcolm Turnbull, the newly appointed Minister for Environment and Water Resources, outlined some of his opinions, rather more circumspectly I thought than his party colleague (and PM's good friend)Senator Bill Heffernan on ABC Radio's PM.

Not surprisingly the state premiers aren't over enthusiastic about the proposal even though, according to the ABC,environmental groups and farmers are broadly supportive of it.

As with so many broad brush proposals the devil is in the detail, which we've yet to see.

23 January 2007

ABC board member appears as commentator on ABC program

I'm surprised that yesterday's appearance on ABC RN's Breakfast program by Janet Albrechtsen (spelt "Albrechtson" on the program website) hasn't attracted more comment, given that Ms A is an ABC board member.

The program website describes her as "Columnist for The Australian Newspaper, Janet Albrechtson" (sic), but does not mention her ABC directorship. This raises several questions, including whether she was paid, what if any policies the ABC board has in place about its members appearing on the Corporation's programs (especially opinion ones) and why Ms A's board membership was not disclosed. Perhaps there's a job or two here for the ABC's new Director of Editorial Policies.

OARM (On a related matter) I think it's misleading to describe the Breakfast segment on which Ms A appeared as "Brekkie blog-spot". Many of the contributors, including her and Julian Burnside, who featured there today are not what I consider to be bloggers , as they do not maintain their own blogs. They do have platforms for their opinions Ms Albrechtsen has(apart from her seat on the ABC board) a column in The Australian was drawn, while Julian Burnside has a website which reflects many of his diverse range of interests.

22 January 2007

Ascending Mt Lofty

Yesterday, when the temperature reached 18 or so, was too cool and wet to walk but today, which was sunny with only light winds and a 24 degree max on the plains, was much more suitable for my first ascent of Mt Lofty this year.

Having previously posted about the floods of November 2005in the area, I was keen to see if there had been anything like another 1-in-200 year "event", as the authorities had deemed the 2005 surge.

There hadn't. I may have been a day too late but there was little evidence of First Creek having been in spate, and none of any damage to the homes on Waterfall Gully Road (though I noticed that several of them are on the market) or in Cleland Conservation Park itself.

My ascent was a little slower than usual, as I hadn't done it for a couple of months and was not as fit as I'd imagined wished I was , as I needed to take several mini- and micro-breaks en route. I should be able to do Waterfall Gully - Mt Lofty in about an hour: 63 minutes today told me that I need to do some work on my fitness. Getting older is not sufficient excuse.

Kennett adds another Liberal voice in support of bringing Hicks back

The Age reports that former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has added his voice to those calling for a swift resolution to the David Hicks affair. The print edition also claims that Senator Marise Payne (Liberal NSW) has also reiterated her concerns about delays in bringing the case before a court.

Another story posted at smh.com.au suggests that there may be some flaws in the case against Hicks, as two of the US embassies he was alleged to have staked out were apparently abandoned at the time he was supposed to have done the staking )or staking out).

21 January 2007

Australian political knights: a disappearing species

The funeral of Sir James Killen, a former Liberal defence minister, has produced several reminders, notably Gough Whitlam's eulogy, of a less adversial political world. Perhaps the occasion produced a softening of old antagonisms, but from the extract I saw on the TV news, Whitlam's tribute looked and sounded genuine enough. Perhaps time does heal all wounds at least for some people.

The records of the occasion include some good photos and video footage, especially a black and white photo by David Sproule on p3 of The Weekend Australian which unfortunately I can't find online. It's similar to one by Paul Harris published in The Age accompanying a piece by David Marr which, while characteristically acerbic for the most part, also acknowledges that the age of the Australian political knights is coming to an end.

BTW the Sproule photo reminds me of the famous David Moore one of a group of migrants arriving in Australia in the 1960s.

AFTERTHOUGHT later on Sunday: for another, less deferential, assessment of Sir James, see this letter from Tuesday's Australian . I shall add VB (vacuous blowhard) to my acronym list.

Black hole or vital tool? More on Guantanamo, Hicks etc

The question comes from a recent BBC report. A partial answer has been provided by today's report from a delegation of British goverment MPs

MPs who have visited Guantanamo Bay have called on Britain and the international community to do more to help the US close the camp.Seven Foreign Affairs Committee members visited the detention centre for "enemy combatants" in Cuba in September. In a report they were critical of the conditions there, but said many inmates posed a threat and the world needed to find a "longer term solution". Opposition MPs and human rights groups called the report "disappointing".

The chairman of the committee, Mike Gapes, told BBC News: "The problem is if you closed it straight away what do you do with the people that are there? Some of them no doubt could be released - sent back to their country of origin and be of no threat to anyone. But there are people there that are dangerous people...The international community as a whole needs to look at finding a longer-term solution."

The MPs spent only one day at the camp and had no direct access to detainees. Their report says food was plentiful, medical care good and the facilities broadly comparable with a British maximum security prison.But they said the camp did not meet UK guidelines for recreation and education facilities nor for access to the media, lawyers and the outside world.One area apparently was closed for repair after detainees had been found dismantling the plumbing to make weapons.Electric lighting was kept on 24 hours a day. Some detainees were reported to be clinically obese; two were being force-fed and 20% had some psychiatric condition (emphasis added).

The MPs said prisoner abuse had "almost certainly" happened there but the added that this was "unlikely to be taking place now".

And in Australia...The Age puts the report into an Australian context, following on from earlier statements that Foreign Minister Downer had relied upon a cursory assessment made by a US diplomat without medical expertise following a three minute or five minute visit (depending whether you read The Age or The Australian). Having weighed up the evidence thus obtained Mr Downer has expressed the opinion, as The Age states, that " there was no suggestion that David Hicks was suffering from mental illness".

Territory architecture

A contrasting yet complementary brace of reports from the NT over this weekend.

The first, from the Weekend Australian, relates how surplus to requirements transportable huts ("dongas" as they're known in the Territory ) have been transferred from Woomera detention centre to Alice Springs to provide emergency accommodation for homeless Aboriginal people.

The second, from
Radio National's By Design program (in fact a repeat of a broadcast last year) has a segment about Beni Burnett, an architect who designed buildings in both Darwin and Alice Springs from the late 1930s on. The website has some photos which enhance the program, in fact give you a very good idea of Burnett's work and how he was able to adapt his principles to both the Top End and Centre environments. Those who've lived or visited both will know that they differ considerably.

20 January 2007

A well earned award, but with a quibble about terminology

The Australian has announced its Australian of the Year " Join us in saluting the Aussie Digger"
says its front page article, accompanied by a photo of two soldiers in Afghanistan.

Alas, the paper isn't clear as to just who it's bestowing the award upon. On page one it defines "Digger" as "the men and women of the Australian Defence Force", while in its editorial on page 18 it ambiguously states:

Today we define the Digger more broadly than the Australian infantry on the Western Front in World War I, who took the name for themselves. Now the title is rightly taken by the men and women of the army, navy and air force. And this morning we honour the 2900 among them who are on active service, providing forward defence of our democracy against the threat of terror attack.

How far does this broader definition extend? Who are the recipients of the award: all members of the ADF or just those who are serving overseas? If the latter then this reopens one of the oldest sores in Australian military history, the distinction between those who in the two world wars served overseas and those who didn't. True, all present ADF members are volunteers, but not every member would have the same opportunity to serve overseas.

The Australian also acknowledges that the ADF consists of three arms: the front page story highlights the army, but there are separate items on p 8 about the
Air Force and the Navy . How, for example, does the RAN with its rich traditions feel about being rebadged as "Diggers"? If the broader meaning of the term takes root this will amount to a dumbing down of Australian history.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the award itself, only of the woollyish thinking which has created uncertainty when a simple statement that all members of the ADF are being honoured would clarify matters.

19 January 2007

Does it go with the territory? Some unresolved matters from the NT

Another Australian piece reminds us of people other than Peter Falconio who've gone missing in the Northern Territory:

The father of Jamie Stephen Herdman, 26, who was last seen on November 30 at the small town of Daly Waters, flew into Darwin yesterday to talk to police about the case.Jamie Herdman, from Whakatane in New Zealand, had spent the previous 18 months working for a furniture-removal company at Broome in Western Australia, and was travelling to visit family friends at Roma, in Queensland, when he disappeared.Police discovered his abandoned van, containing his personal property, including mobile phone and cash, near the Highway Inn at Daly Waters, about 600km south of Darwin.

Stories such as these seem to be swept under the carpet until something horrendous happens. Much as I like the Territory for the friendliness of (most of) its people, the subtle changes in landscape on the Stuart Highway and the
Top End weather, I always try to travel sensibly, eg no night driving, stopping for large groups of people who seem to have broken down (I did this once last year and they only wanted a tow for 5km) or camping by main roads unless there are other people there.

There are also some positive stories like this one, which do something to redress the balance of perceptions.

"Bushwalkers forced to evacuate" in Tasmania...notes on the weather

When I first saw this headline on theNews.com.au website
I thought that it probably referred to a typically authoritarian Greens directive about preserving the environment. I was wrong: the full text of the News story, corroborated bythe ABC , makes it clear that the subject is bushfires in Tasmania, not a proposal to implement Baden Powell's advice.

Since there's been a ring of fire around southern Australia for the last month or more this is hardly news, but it reminds me of when I visited Cradle Mountain in January several years ago. The peaks were covered in snow, but I don't recall hearing that the Overland Track was closed then .

Oh, and as I post it's raining in Adelaide. The long arm of the Top End monsoon, with its combination of preciptiation and humidity, has reached down here. Such is the Australian climate.

PS Today'sAustralian has a good story (and an even better photo which may not be online) illustrating the effects of the south-central Australian monsoon. On a slight tangent this piece by Nicholas Rothwell isn't monsoon-related but worth a look anyway to show that the paper does give a good run to the centre (even though the paper doesn't arrive there until - air schedules permitting - the middle of the day and costs twice as much as it does in the big smokes).

Disingenuousness still rules in the Foreign Minister's bailiwick

Just as I'd come to think that the Prime Minister and Attorney General Ruddock had taken over responsibility for public comment about David Hicks, Foreign Minister Downer comes out with all guns blazing:

ALEXANDER DOWNER: A visit took place just a few days ago and an informal meeting was arranged during that visit at short notice and apparently Mr Hicks agreed to the meeting. And the report of that meeting was that he was healthy.

PETA DONALD: And what of his mental state?

DOWNER: Yeah. There was no suggestion that he was suffering from mental illness, though no doubt he doesn't like being in Guantanamo Bay and, of course, so… but that wouldn't, I suppose, be a definition of mental illness. But there was no report of him suffering from mental illness. You know, in the conversation he had with this person, who is from another country who was visiting Guantanamo Bay at that time, he seemed quite healthy.

DONALD: And who was this person that you refer to?

DOWNER: Well, I don't want to betray any confidences, but he came from another country and he was visiting Guantanamo Bay and one of the people he did speak to was David Hicks. I don't want to make too much of it though, but only to say that he did talk to David Hicks and the report back is that he was healthy. Now we had a consular officer visit, and we've had 17 consular visits to David Hicks since he's been in Guantanamo Bay and we had a consular officer visit relatively recently and the report from that consular officer was that he was healthy as well.

DONALD: But you're wanting us to rely on this information that you've received in the last few days, but you won't say where it's come from?

DOWNER: I'm not asking you to rely on it or not rely on it. I'm just letting you know what observation was made and you can take it or leave it, listeners can take it or leave it. I just… it's just I thought an interesting observation. When I was asked about David Hicks yesterday, I passed on that piece of information. I mean…

DONALD: Now Minister, David Hicks can't be charged until the new regulations to govern his trial are put in place. The deadline for that was yesterday, so that's now come and gone.

DOWNER: I don't think it was a… when you say 'deadline', I'm not sure where you got that idea from. The expectation that we had had and I said this in a… to the media…

DONALD: Well, Mr Ruddock said that the 17th January was the deadline.

DOWNER: Well, it's the 17th today here in America. And our expectation is that the regulations will be promulgated in the next… next few days. I don't think, from what I've heard from Washington, the delay is likely to be of any particular significance. They're just finalising some details in relation to the regulations. Now that having been done, then our expectation, from what the Americans have said to us is, and we've lobbied the Americans very hard for this, is that new charges will be brought. As you know, there were charges against David Hicks. They were very grave charges. We had concerns about that. New charges will now have to be brought. We understand…

DONALD: And Minister, when is that going to happen? It's now five years that he has been detained, how soon until he's charged and then tried?

DOWNER: Can I just say, let's dispense with some of the myths. He was charged. In that five years, he did face charges and they were very grave charges, conspiracy to commit war crimes and attempted murder amongst them. Now let me just finish this. They are very serious charges. We have looked after our consular responsibilities, made sure he's had access to lawyers. We've spent $300,000 of taxpayers' money on legal representation for David Hicks. He's had access to, of course, the high profile Major Mori as a lawyer and he's been a very aggressive lawyer on his behalf. Now in the middle of last year, the US Supreme Court said that the Congress had to reconstitute the Military Commissions…

DONALD: Okay. So how soon until that happens and Mr Hicks is charged and then tried?

DOWNER: Well, so the charges that he was facing lapsed and the Military Commissions have now been reconstituted. When the regulations are promulgated, it will be possible to lay the charges again. The charges can't be laid before the regulations have been promulgated. So new charges are expected to be laid in the next few weeks. That's the commitment we have from the Americans.

This is disingenuous balderdash. It may be part of a wider move to discredit everyone involved with the defence of Guantanamo detainees, but a move in the US in this direction has backfired with a Pentagon official apologising to detainees' lawyers. Is it to much to expect Mr Downer to issue an apology? A correction would do.

PS Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy has kept this issue alive in the Australian blogosphere.

18 January 2007

Judging a book by its cover price, and does Australia have its Lewis and Clark?

The Abe Books list of the most expensive books sold in 2006 bears no resemblance to the Forbes Magazine one. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this as the Forbes people would have connections to the premium salerooms of the book world (I hesitate to say "trade") whereas Abe, by virtue of its online presence, has to deal with the book buying hoi-polloi.

What makes a book important enough to make the Forbes list?

"First, rarity," says Scott Brown, editor of the magazine Fine Books & Collections, the source for our list of highest-priced books for 2006. Since many valuable books end up in permanent museum collections, rarity is determined not just by the number of copies in existence, but by the number--usually much lower--that are still trading hands in the marketplace. "Only a handful of copies of most of these books are in private hands, and collectors know that when they come up for sale, it might be their only chance," he says.The second factor is cultural and historic importance. "Each of these books are among the most significant in their field," Brown says. For example, Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion) by theologian John Calvin, which sold last year for $720,000, "led to wars in Europe and drove Calvinists like the Puritans to the United States," says Brown. "It's easily one of the most influential books in history, yet until 2006, most collectors alive today have never even had a chance to own one."

The condition of the book and changing tastes in literature also play a role in a book's value, says Robert Reese, a rare-book dealer based in New Haven, Conn. Early editions of Ernest Hemingway are more popular than works by his contemporary Joseph Conrad, for instance, simply because Hemingway is more widely read today. British colonial author Rudyard Kipling, a "darling" among literary collectors in the 1920s, fell out of favor for many years, but now copies of his work are rising in price again.

The top 10 list for 2006 includes a surprising number of atlases--five, including three versions of works by Ptolemy. "The market in atlases, maps and cartography has been tremendously hot in the last 10 to 15 years," says Reese. "Values in that field have soared far higher than in some other areas of book collecting." That may be partly because people relate to maps on a personal level--often, for example, collecting maps of the area where they live. Also, Reese says, the rare-book market has seen a general trend toward the visual, with photography and books of illustration also growing in popularity. "I think the taste of modern times tends to be visual rather than literary," he says.

Forbes also reports

Last year also saw a record price set for an Australian book, with the sale of Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales, for $689,000", adding "A seminal work of exploration, the book plays a role in Australian history comparable to Lewis and Clark's History of the Expedition in the United States.

While Hume and Hovell's journey was significant in Australian history it is drawing a long bow to compare it to Lewis and Clark's crossing of North America. H and H travelled from Sydney to what is now Melbourne: if you're not familiar with Australia look at a map and see how how little ground their expedition covered relative to L & C (roughly 1000km as opposed to ?5,000 across North America). True, H @ H passed through (discovered?) a lot of fertile land and cleared the way for short term expansion into the eastern Australian hinterland, but they didn't answer the big questions such as whether there was an inland sea and how productive the land was.

I don't think it's appropriate to compare Hume and Hovell to Lewis and Clark. Nor do I believe that there are any other contenders for that title. Most of the explorers who came after Hume and Hovell were disillusioned by what they found: seeking an inland sea, they found desert. In other words they didn't really "open up" the continent as L & C did, but drew lines in the sand delineating the boundaries of feasible European settlement.

17 January 2007

A reminder of the risks of outback travel

Today's Australian reports the death of two prominent Aboriginal people in the WA outback. The photo on the front page of the print edition showing their broken down and abandoned vehicle adds to the poignancy of the story
. They were experienced bush travellers, yet they overlooked, as too many people confronted with such a situation do, some of the basic rules about outback travel, including not leaving your vehicle if it breaks down.

I offer my sympathy to the families of the deceased. I'll keep this story in mind next time I travel to remote areas and hope that I never have to make choices like they had to.

16 January 2007

Jaywalkers look out... and hang on to your peppermints

The story about British Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who was allegedly overpowered by five US police officers, handcuffed and charged with jaywalking, has been widely reported in the world media. Apparently even his peppermints were confiscated.

BBC report has a range of reader comments from around the world which reveal both the diversity of laws against (and, in a few instances, for)
jaywalking and mixed views about their efficacy and desirability.

The Professor has struck back with an article in the Times and a YouTube video (which you can access via this link).

The Atlanta police have not remained silent, as a copy of the police report of the incident has, as such things are apt to do nowadays, made its way onto the web.

While I may not always be strict in my observance of the laws relating to pedestrians (whatever they may be), a friend of mine is an inveterate jaywalker. I'll bring this story to his notice in the hope that he'll reflect upon his own behaviour (and its effect upon others who walk with him).

15 January 2007

Death from snake bite

It's sad to read of the death of a young man near Sydney from snakebite .

The media reports appear to have, unlike the incident about which I posted last week identified the snake correctly as an eastern brown. Unfortunately the identification didn't enable the doctors to save the man's life: after being bitten on the hand (I wonder how) he walked some distance through the bush and eventually came to a cricket ground from where he was transported to hospital.

The usual advice to people who've been bitten by a snake is, according to a toxologist quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald , to apply a broad bandage to the bitten area and remain completely still until treatment in a hospital with antivenom can be effected.

This is easier said than done, and I wonder whether there an alternative treatment suitable for for situations where it may not be feasible to wait for help to arrive. An older treatment used to be to suck the venom from the wound before it could get into the bloodstream. This is now discredited by orthodox medical opinion, but might it still be feasible in some circumstances?

100 minutes of history a week for years 8 to 10

According to News.com.austudents in years 8 to 10 will be taught history for 200 hours (at 100 minutes a week), if a recommendation from a panel of experts to Education Minister Julie Bishop is adopted.

As a former history teacher I'm not averse to the idea in principle but I'd like to see more detail, and perhaps to question the methodology which, in the hands of teachers who don't have a feel for the subject, may be counterproductive and cause students to switch off.

13 January 2007

Is SBS in breach of its own advertising guidelines?

Tonight I began to watch "Race to the Pole", a program on SBS TV about the 1911 race between British and Norwegian expeditions to the South Pole . It looked and sounded reasonably interesting (despite being filmed in Greenland because dogs aren't allowed in Antarctica) though I was put off by the number of commercial breaks - three in the first half hour - which (1) disturbed the flow of the narrative and (2) seemed to take up an inordinate amount of time. I didn't time the breaks but my perception was that the SBS Advertising Guidelines were, if not not broken, stretched to the limit.

The Guidelines were introduced about six months ago when SBS effectively became almost a fully commercial network.
The preamble to them states:

Section 45 of the Special Broadcasting Services Act, 1991 (SBS Act) provides that SBS may broadcast advertisements and sponsorship announcements before or after programs and during natural breaks and that run in total for not more than five minutes in any hour of broadcasting.

All decisions regarding commercial revenue are subject to the overriding principle that the integrity of the SBS Charter and SBS’s editorial independence are paramount and shall not be compromised in any way.

Decisions about the placement of advertisements in programs will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will have regard to program content and context. SBS will exercise sensitivity in the placement of advertisements. All advertisements will be clearly distinguished from SBS programming content.

The relevant sections state:

1.2 Natural breaks in documentaries and information programs

A break may be taken when:

(i) there is a change of topic, or

(ii) there is a change of method or treatment, or

(iii) recorded inserts occurring in live programs, or

(iv) new participants in a discussion program are introduced.


2.1 Identification of breaks

SBS will assess programs to determine where, and if, there are natural breaks in content according to the definitions under section 1 of these Guidelines.

SBS will then decide which of these natural breaks will be used to carry advertising based on the five minute per hour limit and other considerations, including viewer experience.

2.2 Placement of breaks

Editorial considerations and the interests of viewer experience will be taken into account when considering the placement of breaks.

Within the definitions of natural breaks and the individual context of the program, the following schedule provides an indicative guide for the placement of internal breaks:

Scheduling Slot

Program Length


Up to 10 minutes

No Break

30 minutes

25 minutes

3 Parts / 2 Breaks

45 minutes

40 minutes

3 Parts / 2 Breaks

60 minutes

52 minutes

4 Parts / 3 Breaks

Where the interests of viewers would be better served by a different format, for example to fit in with a particularly suitable interruption of continuity, there may be deviation from this guide. This will be assessed on a case-by-case basis applying these Guidelines in relation to natural breaks in accordance with the SBS Act.

How are "the interests of viewer experience" determined? By examining the entrails of a chicken? SBS is trying hard to sell its decision to increase advertising within programs : it's now prefacing some programs with an explanation along the lines of more ads, better programs, which is an indication that it's failed to convince viewers.

If it wants to "suceed" (as its on-screen announcement says) it should rethink its practices. Frequent breaks do have one advantage for viewers: they provide an opportunity to change channels or switch off, which is what I did tonight.

11 January 2007

More controversy from the Sheik

According to The Age:

CONTROVERSIAL Muslim leader Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali has savaged Australia in an interview on Egyptian television, claiming there is no freedom or democracy for Muslims and that English people are the most unjust and dishonest.

The Mufti of Australia said Muslims were more Australian than Anglo-Saxons because they came here voluntarily, that Australians played the "fear card" to keep Muslims down, and that racial prejudice was the reason for the 55-year sentence given to gang rapist Bilal Skaf.

"Anglo-Saxons came to Australia in chains, while we (Muslims) paid our way and came in freedom. We are more Australian than them. Australia is not an Anglo-Saxon country — Islam has deep roots in Australian soil that were there before the English arrived," Sheikh Hilali said.

Australia's most controversial cleric was talking on the Egyptian news program Cairo Today, shown in Australia on the Orbit satellite network on Tuesday morning.

The ABC reports:

[Islamic Friendship Association of Australia spokesman] Keysar Trad says says he apologises for the comments if they have caused offence, but says the Sheikh has been misinterpreted.

"I do understand that some people taking these comments without looking at the full video would take offence to them," he said.

"As an Australian Muslim... I do feel like apologising to these people and also appealing to them to understand the context, it would seem he was trying to explain away that controversy and put it behind him and there were a couple of slip-ups."

Mr Trad says the Sheikh's comments were not intended to be malicious.

"The question was put to him, before making that comment, is that if you're under the spotlight so much why live there, why not come back and live in the country of your birth, and he said we have every right to live there basically we're not shackled to be there, we don't choose to be there, we paid our own way, implying that he loves Australia and loves being in Australia," he said.

The Prime Minister, according to The Age report, has played a reasonably straight bat, though some South Australians and others who agree with his support for more Australian history teaching might be disappointed that he's made the point that SA was founded as a convict-free settlement

Mr Howard was asked about the sheikh's reference to convicts and replied: "I think it will bring a wry smile, if it's true, … to the face of many Australians who sort of don't actually feel the least bit offended that many of our ancestors came here as convicts.

A little straight talking about unemployment figures

The official measuring stick of unemployment in Australia - if a person over 15 works for an hour a week they are counted as "employed" - is preposterous, even though all governments of both political persuasions go along with it.

Fortunately there are a few voices offering a different view. Henry Thornton is one. The link is to his post today, which in turn links to other sources including the Roy Morgan Unemployment estimate (which estimates unemployment at 7.1%, not the official 4.6%), and two other posts from his own site: one last month from Marcus L'Estrange and another from Henry himself last July.

They are all worth reading closely. Each goes into considerable detail so it's hard to summarise them here, but I'll quote a little from L'Estrange:

The OECD reports that Australia is the third lowest spender in the developed world on training unemployed people (Melbourne Age, June 26, 2006).

Many things are wrong with the monthly, or headline, "Labour Force" figures. Some examples are that advanced countries such as Germany and Singapore only count a person as employed if he or she works 15 hours or more. In Australia, you are counted as being employed if you work for as little as an hour.

Currently 400,000 Australians work between 1-14 hours a week. They are counted as being "employed", but in many other countries would be counted as unemployed. The person who works an hour a week in Australia has the same status in the employment statistics as one who works 40 hours! Consequently, unemployment comparisons between countries are largely illusory.

While she doesn't concur with this view, Shadow Minister for (among other things) Workforce Participation Senator Penny Wong has, in a brief media release today, drawn attention to the numbers of Australians who are underemployed or who for whatever reason want to work but aren't included in the official unemployed figures.

It's hard to see any government changing the current flawed definition of "employed", but is it too much to hope that a future ALP government might offer a more varied range of programs aimed at encouraging greater workforce participation by the groups Senator Wong's mentioned? Perhaps someone will come up with an term (preferably one which can be reduced to a snazzy sounding acronym for them). Any ideas?

Is he any closer to being charged?

Recent developments on the David Hicks front.

Following yesterday's reply from Lex Lasry QC to (the Australian) Attorney General Ruddock's "Why he can't return" article The Age today has the case against him according to the chief prosecutor of the US Office of Military Commissions, Colonel Davis. DH's US lawyer
Major Mori replies to this in a piece added to the paper's website this afternoon.

The gloves are off for the military lawyers. Col Davis has (1) asserted that DH "
was a fully fledged al-Qaeda operative who took orders from Osama bin Laden, conducted surveillance on embassies and was armed to battle against coalition forces in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks", and (2) attacked Major Mori "I'm concerned about the health of Australians because he [Mori] comes down there and he blows smoke, which can't be good for your health."

The Major has responded:
"It is disappointing to hear Colonel Davis make derogatory comments attacking my integrity...When a prosecutor's case is weak, he or she often resorts to attacking the defence lawyer ...I am sure it was disappointing and shocking to Australian ministers to hear Colonel Davis say that he hoped David's five years at Guantanamo would not be taken into account if he is sentenced. "

I'd thought that this was one of the issues (another is no death penalty, but maybe even that needs to be checked) on which even the Australian government was firm.

Two ALP spokespeople, Joel Fitzgibbon (Defence) and Kelvin Thompson (Foreign Affairs) have
also increased the pressure to resolve the matter rapidly.

For his part Prime Minister Howard has stated today: "I discussed this matter with the President at some length yesterday when he spoke to me [about the revised US policy towards Iraq], and he's been left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling of the Australian Government" [that DH should be charged by the US as soon as possible].

If the Australian government is to be believed, then they and the US are increasingly at odds. In an opinion piece in today's Australian Leigh Sales, the ABC's national security correspondent, makes just this point:

Do not imagine the Government wants Hicks's repatriation. It does not. It wants him to stand trial at Guantanamo. But it is not prepared to accept more promises without results. When the FBI arrested Nazi secret agents in the US during World War II, their trials via military commission and subsequent executions took less than a month. From capture to execution, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein spent two years and 17 days in custody. Hicks has now spent five years, one month and two days in prison, with no end in sight. The Pentagon must now act quickly and efficiently to fix that. It is said that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. On that basis, the Australian Government must be terrified.