30 September 2007

Third world rail system?

Last Thursday Adelaide commuters were, as the picture below shows , inconvenienced by a peak hour Noarlunga line train derailment just outside the Adelaide station . For reports see here and here.

The derailed Noarlunga bound train.

On Saturday The Advertiser published (not online) a letter from a passenger on the train who described the local railway system as of third world standard. IMO this is not an unfair comment as the system has been allowed to run down to the point where old rolling stock (see photo) and either decayed infrastructure or signalling or both impedes its smooth operation.

For example, see the photo below, which I took on 22 August this year. The window is typical of many on the rail cars: somehow the outer layer of glass/ plastic becomes corroded or scored and obscures passengers' ( not the driver's I hope) view. In the photo only a small portion of the window (on the right) is unaffected.

A view from TransAdelaide's window

I'm not aware that either Premier Rann or Transport Minister Conlon has commented, let alone apologised for or, radical thought, offered to upgrade the system (a plan for electrification would be nice) .

Update/ correction 2 October

There's a letter in today's Advertiser (not online) which refers to a comment about the derailment by Transport Minister Conlon: "accidents happen sometimes". The writer comments that this "is typical of the arrogant, pig-headed attitude of the state Labor Government. You were lucky this time, Mr Conlon. Next time, you may have blood on your hands." Strong words, but not unreasonable.

28 September 2007

The sorrow of Burma

It's hard to imagine what's going on in Burma aka Myanmar but, thanks to the courage and determination of many people inside the country with the technology and internet access, we in the outside world have been kept reasonably well informed of developments.

At least until now. After holding their fire for a few days the government has moved both on the streets of Rangoon aka Yangon and in cyberspace. The international media, including the BBC , ABC and Al Jazeera , are trying to keep up with developments but it's becoming increasingly hard to do so, at least for the moment because the government has, or is trying to, cut off internet access to the outside world.

Some bloggers, such as ko-htike have been reporting from the virtual (and real) front line, but they too are now finding it hard to keep posting:

Burma time 14;28

Thousands of protester are on the street of YGN, now.

Dear All,

I sadly announce that the Burmese military junta has cut off the internet connection throughout the country. I therefore would not be able to feed in pictures of the brutality by the brutal Burmese military junta.

I will also try my best to feed in their demonic appetite of fear and paranoia by posting any pictures that I receive though other means (Journos!! please don’t ask me what other means would be??). I will continue to live with the motto that “if there is a will there is a way”.

We probably need to lobby the Chinese government or UN envoy to Burma to ask the junta to switch on the Internet. Please!

And this:

This ..... so, who is making violent.

27 September 2007

Brief mentions

Marcel Marceau

The media reports about his death reminded me that I'd seen him perform many years ago.

The Guardian 's obituary was one of several good summaries of his life, while The Australian's tribute included an extremely succinct yet appropriate editorial: a vertically oriented :-( . For a photo see Boing Boing .

How would you fare at this interview?

Try these questions which have apparently been asked at Google job interviews. Some of the commenters have a crack at answering them, as do others at Times Online, where I first saw it mentioned.

Disappearing hyphens

The BBC (and others) report that in the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary more than 16,000 words have been dehyphenated (or should that be de-hyphenated?) . Some changes result in two previously hyphenated words combined into one (eg pigeonhole) , while others have been separated into two (eg pot belly). I also think there's an element of catchup/ catch-up here: I can't recall ever seeing "pigeonhole" hyphenated".

Why the radical surgery? Largely because of, the SOED people claim, the proliferation of modern communication methods like email: though the BBC and a few other stick-in-the-muds are hanging on the traditional "e-mail", as you'll see if you read the link.

IVF produces unexpected consequences

Some forthright comments about the case currently before a court in Canberra. In today's Advertiser (not online) Ross Buckley (UNSW law professor) has a piece "Canberra case confirms the law is an ass" which among other things points out that such a claim would be permitted in other jurisdictions inc SA and NSW. Earlier The Australian had a trenchant editorial while Caroline Overington (herself the mother of twins) spoke her mind.

Bollywood comes to Poland

Try this (from Boing Boing) for something different.

24 September 2007

Worth a few thousand words

In the last few days The Australian has published some interesting pictures, including

# John Howard ostensibly "adjusting his glasses" when facing Kevin Rudd in parliament. The photo has disappeared from The Oz's website but you can see it (minus Rudd) here.

# Peter Costello apparently reprising the gesture the next day: see here to compare both pictures.

# Most surprising of all, Bill Leak's cartoon on Saturday , of which this is a sample suitable for workplaces:


Get the full picture here (you may have to scroll through some other cartoons). Titled "The Booby Prize", it shows Mr Rudd in a gentlemen's club. The suited arm on his shoulder belongs to none other than Mr Murdoch, who is saying "Cheer up mate. Look! I've booked a stripper for your birthday...", to which the Leader of the Opposition replies "Yes, but I had my heart set on a tax policy...".

Is this the first time that Mr Murdoch has appeared in a cartoon in any of his newspapers?

22 September 2007

Wikipedia notches 2 million English language articles... and the debate goes on.

The 2 millionth English language Wikipedia article has been posted: it's about a popular Spanish TV show (the one millionth was about a railway station in Glasgow) .

And this is only part of the story: the ABC informs us that the online encyclopedia now has over 8 million articles in a scarcely believable 250 languages.

This is a magnificent achievement and confirms that many people are willing to share their knowledge (and opinions) voluntarily for a common good, even if their goodwill and industry is diminished by the actions of some contributors who grind axes relentlessly or, for their own reasons, butcher the bona fide efforts of others.

To deal with the alleged vandals new methods of monitoring and regulating content are about to be implemented. The New Scientist reports

News of the plans came to light last August when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales announced changes to the editing restrictions on the German-language version. However, implementing those changes turned out to be more difficult than anticipated and has still not happened. Now New Scientist has learned that Wikimedia plans to start the first trial of the changes this month.

The shift is a dramatic one for the encyclopedia. For now, edits to an entry can be made by any user and appear immediately to all readers. In the new version, only edits made by a separate class of "trusted" users will be instantly implemented.

To earn this trusted status, users will have to show some commitment to Wikipedia, by making 30 edits in 30 days, say. Other users will have to wait until a trusted editor has given the article a brief look, enough to confirm that the edit is not vandalism, before their changes can be viewed by readers.

This is sure to ease some readers' doubts. Most malicious edits involve crude acts of vandalism, such as the deletion of large chunks of text. Now such changes will rarely make it into articles.

These benefits will come at a price, though. New users could be deterred from participating, since they will lose the gratification that comes from seeing their edit instantly implemented. That could reduce the number of editors as well as creating a class system that divides frequent users from readers. The trusted editors, likely to number around 2000, may also find that articles are being changed too fast for them to monitor.

Not all versions of the encyclopedia will follow this route, says Erik Moller of the Wikimedia Foundation. While editors on the German version are happy with a hierarchy of contributors, the English editors favour a more egalitarian approach. So English readers are likely to continue to see the latest version of an entry, with a page that has been certified as vandalism-free by trusted editors available via a link.

For edits that are more subtly inaccurate, perhaps because they have been designed to promote an agenda, another tool is in store. It allows select groups of editors, probably associated with specific subject areas, to vote on whether an article should be flagged as high quality. Readers would still see the latest version of an article by default, but a link to a high-quality version, if it exists, would also be available.

As well as relying on trusted editors, Wikipedia's upgrade will involve automatically awarding trust ratings to chunks of text within a certain article. Moller says the new system is due to be incorporated into Wikipedia within the next two months, as an option for the different language communities.

The software that will do this, created by Luca de Alfaro and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, starts by assigning each Wikipedia contributor a trust rating using the encyclopedia's vast log of edits, which records every change to every article and the editor involved. Contributors whose edits tend to remain in place are awarded high trust ratings; those whose changes are quickly altered get a low score. The rationale is that if a change is useful and accurate, it is likely to remain intact during subsequent edits, but if it is inaccurate or malicious, it is likely to be changed. Therefore, users who make long-lasting edits are likely to be trustworthy. New users automatically start with a low rating.

The Australian via The Times also reports this. The Times has also printed an update:

Jimmy Wales said that changes to the online encyclopedia which meant it would now be overseen by a group of 'trusted editors' did not mean that ordinary users weren't free to edit the site, only that they had to have been registered for 4 days before making a change.

This would hopefully lead to a reduction in the number of high profile pages - such as George W. Bush's - that suffered from spontaneous vandalism, he said, as well as improve the reliability of the site, which has been shown to be untrustworthy on several occasions of late.

"There are no plans to restrict anybody's status," Mr Wales said. "Anyone can make an edit, but if the user hasn't been registered for at least 4 days, then it would have to be approved by someone who has been registered before going live."

Mr Wales acknowledged that Wikipedia's reliability had come into question following the discovery that some organisations, including political parties, had been tweaking their entries to improve their image.

But he dismissed the idea that the changes - which will initially only affect the German site - were a response to a planned competitor to Wikipedia, ' Citizendium', which will solicit entries from the public but be edited by a group of experts to root out inaccuracies.

Mr Wales said that it was Wikipedia's aim to "protect the public from goofballs doing bad things" whilst at the same time allowing the "spontaneous acts of goodwell", which were a valuable feature of the site.

I assume that "goodwell" should be "goodwill", but what would a Wikipedia article (or an article about Wikipedia) be without at least one typo?

I should also mention John Quiggin's recent post. Quiggin is a longstanding albeit not uncritical supporter of Wikipedia. What he says about the encyclopedia ( is it time to come up another word which describes the scope and now the scale of the enterprise?) is worth reading. Extract:

The most obvious change in the past eighteen months is the way attention has shifted from the extensive margin (more articles) to the intensive margin (work on existing articles, metacontent such as categorization and classification schemes, and internal process such as the development and enforcement of policies on biographies of living persons, prompted by embarrassments like the Siegenthaler hoax and by the increasing propensity of politicans and others to edit their own entries).

There’s a natural economic logic here. With two million entries already, the typical new entry (ignoring the many short-lived attempts such as this one) is going to be something like List of state leaders in 1390s BC or Kitaƍji Station. The marginal benefit of adding an entry is declining, though certainly not zero. On the other hand, the demand for internal improvements builds on itself. A stroll through Wikipedia using the Random entry function shows that the great majority of entries are tagged as needing improvement of some kind.

This process of cumulative improvement is resource-intensive, but not nearly as much as the dialectical processes that operate for controversial entries (and on Wikipedia, anything and everything can be controversial). Edits are made, reverted, reverted, tagged as needing support or violating some Wikipolicy or other, until a single sentence can consume dozens of hours of work. Still, the result is often a drastic improvement in quality compared to a starting point in which one point of view or another is taken for granted. One obvious manifestation of this is the vast increase in referencing of claims, and the increasing pickiness of policy regarding sources for such claims. Blogs have been a particular victim, with only a handful of expert-written blogs being accepted as reliable sources on particular topics. Despite the merits of the process, it’s easy to get burned out defending an article like Global warming controversy against the sustained efforts of delusionists to include lengthy and uncritical presentations of their latest talking points.

One thing is clear though. Complaining about Wikipedia now is like complaining about the Internet. There isn’t going to be any alternative for quite some time to come.

I'm not (having myself made some extremely modest contributions to the genre) one of those who thinks that there are too many articles about railway stations, but I question the justification for entries like Port Road pub crawl, which have no substantial basis in fact (or more than one person's opinion) and are riddled with errors and omissions. As it stands today the article is a bag of chaff with a few grains (which could easily be transferred to other articles) scattered throughout.

Oh, and don't expect the Port Road pub crawl article to remain in its present form for long (and don't call me a vandal if I amend and rename it).

20 September 2007

Two years on...

Two years ago today I dipped my toe in the water and began blogging. My first post was this , a photo of me in the outback. It's still on my front page.

Compared to many other bloggers I've not been very prolific (even if I've sometimes been prolix). Blogging has made me think about what I'm posting, and often whether to post: there are unpublished drafts which, thank goodness, only I can read. Some of my pieces, both drafts and those which see the light of cyberspace, are flimsy: maybe I should collect some of them occasionally in a cuttings or snippets series.

Enough self-indulgence for the moment. I need time to think about what to post next.

19 September 2007

"A match struck in the darkness"

In the last couple of weeks there have been several stories about the adverse impact on the lives of many people.

For example:

To cap it all (at least for now), and closer to home there's the story reported in "> Adelaide Now of the gambler who allegedly knowingly played a faulty poker machine at the city casino and pocketed $22,000. I wonder how much he's lost over the time he's been playing?

Even The Advertiser, in an editorial ( online at Adelaide Now) couldn't resist a comment, despite the matter being sub judice:

Gaming machines are programmed to pick the pockets of people who play them. Played for any length of time, the machines cannot lose. So when a SkyCity Casino patron discovered that an apparently dodgy machine was paying almost at will, could you blame him for taking the winnings?

We do not presume to comment on guilt or innocence. The law must take its course in this case, which is now before the courts. But it would somehow be nice if the justice system recognised the irony of the gambling David who took on Goliath and - at least for a few delicious minutes - appeared to win.

I'm not much of a gambler. I've never wagered very much at a time, and I've never spent a cent on gambling or entertainment of any kind at the local casino. Even so, I don't think gambling should be banned: doing so would drive it back underground where it was years ago . Nevertheless there's a strong case for regulating it more, especially trying to identify and restrain "problem gamblers". How that might be done I'm not sure but I hope that the media attention of the last couple of weeks will produce more than the "match struck in the darkness", as Tim Costello described it on Lateline tonight.

14 September 2007

Terry Hicks speaks to US Media

USA Today reports (via Crikey) that Terry Hicks, David's father, is still supporting his son. It's maybe not surprising that the story doesn't seem to have been picked by the mainstream Australian media.

13 September 2007

Chaser's war on APEC

Last night's screening of The Chaser's War on Everything screened a fuller version of the fake APEC motorcade/ Osama bin Laden stunt which so discombobulated the security services during the great Sydney lockdown last week.

The video can, at least for the time being, be downloaded from or viewed on the program website. Well worth a look.

Apart from exposing some elementary weaknesses in the security arrangements (eg why wasn't there a running sheet of motorcade details ?) , the whole stunt showed, if last night's estimated viewing audience of around 3 million is any indication, that many Australians haven't lost their sense of humour. Unfortunately most politicians didn't reflect this. Mr Howard, Mr Rudd and Mr Iemma all harrumphed as hard as they could. At least Mr Downer took it more in the spirit in which it was intended:

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denied The Chaser team had revealed a chink in APEC security, saying as they were arrested, the system worked.

But he told an APEC news conference: "Whatever you think of the humour of The Chaser ... they were clearly not going to harm anybody in a physical way.

"They presumably were, as is the nature of their show, aiming to humiliate a lot of well-known people.

"In my particular case on this one, I managed not to see them, so it just shows how lucky you can get,'' Mr Downer said, smiling.

"The point is they were in any case arrested, so I think the security works.''

Mr Downer would recall the then US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's visit to Adelaide last year, about which I posted . The security arrangements then were considerable, but nowhere near as restrictive as they were for APEC in Sydney. And the Chaser team didn't attempt to test them.

07 September 2007

Farewell Luciano Pavarotti

Although he visited Australia several times, I never saw Luciano in person, though I have heard his magnificent voice on CD. My favourite is his portrayal of the Duke in the 1971 Rigoletto with Joan Sutherland conducted by Richard Bonynge. If you get a chance to listen to it (my version is Decca 414 269 - 2) do so. If you're not accustomed to listening to whole operas, try "Questa o quella..." (CD1 track 3). If you don't agree that operatic singing doesn't (cannot?) get much better than this I'd like to know. Oh, and Ms Sutherland is very good, too.

There are many tributes and obituaries online, for example this from The Times,
which has links to some recordings and videos.

02 September 2007

David Malouf on Australian values

A few days after Hugh Mackay gave us his thoughts about modern Australia, David Malouf writes in Saturday's Age about modern values. He stresses the importance of maintaining a sense of neighbourliness or, as he puts it "preserving bonds of trust" in times of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Perhaps I should just recommend that you read the entire piece (which isn't very long), but here are some extracts which I think sum up his views:

There are values that are common to men and women everywhere, whatever their culture or race, and we too share them. A feeling for family and the immediate social group. A sense of personal and group honour. A willingness to sacrifice oneself for the security of others. A sense of the sacred, and of the sacredness of creation itself.

What I am thinking of as specifically Australian values are ones that have grown up here out of the special circumstances of Australian settlement, and the effects on us, individually and in our dealings with one another, of what the land itself presented: a whole complex of values that we might think of as constituting our own New World democratic style.

These would have been well developed by the 1880s and were still in place when I was growing up in Brisbane at the end of the Second World War. My question is whether in the Australia of 2007, with its very different demographic mix and social conditions, its changed economy and technologies, those older values are still ones that we can refer back to and live by.


Australian society grew out of an English and Scottish Enlightenment world that had high standards of civic duty and service. These guaranteed the kind of political and social institutions we inherited and the public tone of the place. A reliance on negotiation rather than violence in the settling of disputes. The separation of powers. Freedom of worship, and of opinion and speech. Free universal education. And rather earlier than some other places, first universal male suffrage, then votes for women.

A good many of these qualities of civil life we share with other Anglo-Saxon places; as we do an education system that, generally speaking, prefers facts and "what works" to abstract theory, and uses sport, in a uniquely British way, as a training ground for such civic virtues as team spirit, fair play and respect for your opponent. To this we have added a strong egalitarian sense, and because the grounds of living in this particular continent were hardship and poverty, a strong tendency to hang together and look out for one another in adversity. We have never regarded success as a sign of divine approval, or failure as its opposite. What we tend to say, taking in all the circumstances, is: "Poor bugger, he had no luck."


We still salute those older values and in some ways make a cult of what we like to think of as our Australian style — mateship, laid-back tolerance, an easy-going humour, a hard-headed distrust of large statements and large gestures. We still have a strong sense of civic duty and devotion to the public good. The number of men and women involved in unpaid community service, for example, is larger than ever.

But that said, Australia in 2007 is no longer a mono-cultural place and it is no longer a poor one. My question is to what extent values that grew out of a response to shared adversity can be sustained in a society that for nearly half a century now has known nothing but undreamed of affluence; a society with many newcomers and little now that we could call a shared history. Affluence produces a different style or tone from adversity and leads to other temptations. Greed, perhaps. Complacency. A tendency to look out for No. 1 in a fiercely competitive world and, more subversively, to believe that you actually deserve the good fortune that has come to you. Prodigality in the use of resources. Individual wastefulness. An unapologetic and even defiant materialism. A reliance on credit and on what we call, half-humorously, "shopping therapy".

Then there are those technological changes I mentioned, which, useful as they are have also worked towards the undermining of small-town virtues. Global travel and a global economy. The influence of global media agglomerates on what we watch and hear and think. The complex moral and legal questions that arise from the use of mobile phones and the internet.

The world we live in now is confusing — the immediate present is always that. It is also contradictory. We know more of what is happening around us and in the world beyond than at any other time in history, but because information is part now of a hugely profitable industry, we are also more vulnerable than ever to misinformation. Famines, disasters, political upheavals become spectacles without context that we register, and may even be moved by, but can do nothing about. The way the media plays politics, and politicians play the media, raises serious questions about the role of what we used to call the Fourth Estate.

The media now are players, not simply observers and commentators. Acts of terror, for example, are possible only because the media are there to report them. They happen not in "history" but on our screens, in our heads, and in the shocked voices that sensationally spread terror by reporting it.

We need to remember that the object of terror is just that, terror. Beyond the physical threat to societies like ours is the moral threat of what terror of terror might lead us to: the suspension of habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence, the watering down of the prohibition against torture, old guarantees and rights we might be led to trade away in order to be safe. We know what the absolute answer to such challenges should be; but what of the practical answer, for politicians who have on their conscience the security of their people and will answer to history for what they do or fail to do?


We are all of us — all except our indigenous people — newcomers and settlers here, however far back we go, and to begin with at least, strangers to one another, united only in that by sharing the land we have become neighbours. Neighbourliness is still what holds us together as a nation; that and our public institutions, and the common good, and whatever we have developed, and are still developing, of a national style.

But each day presents us with conditions to which yesterday's values are already inadequate. Staying human means staying alert. We should be wary of what prevailing opinion proposes and thinks right because it is necessary, and beware, especially, of accepting the thinking of others just because they present themselves as men of probity or as "the best minds of the day".


Values are established and maintained, and the civil tone of society created, at the personal level, in the daily exchanges of individual men and women. That is where that neighbourliness was discovered that formed the bonds of our Australian society, and if it is to be maintained, that is where concern for one another, and respect for one another's difference, will continue to be discovered. The tone of a society is established by us; by our individual decisions and acts, and at the most local and personal level.

What this requires is an understanding of what at any moment we are dealing with, our history, and what we have to lose. And, at a local and personal level, a keen alertness to those pressures that in an increasingly complex world have daily, and from moment to moment, to be assessed, questioned, and sometimes, in the face even of general acceptance, resisted.

Highly recommended.