11 June 2004

Old dog learns new tricks

A German border collie has surprised scientists with his 200-word vocabulary and uncanny knack for learning new words, shedding light on the evolution of language.

Nine-year-old Rico knows the names of each toy in his hundred-strong collection and can retrieve items called out to him with over 90% accuracy. He can also learn and remember the names of unfamiliar toys after just one encounter, putting him on a par with a three-year-old child.

The dog's magnificent memory shows that canines share some aspects of the language skill that evolved in humans, says Julia Fischer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who reports her findings in Science 1.

But canines' ability to comprehend speech can only have manifested itself after they were domesticated, some 15,000 years ago, and human speech is thought to have evolved 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. So Fischer's findings suggest that the ability to match novel words and items has evolved twice, first in humans and then in dogs.

Everbody else and their dog (sorry) is posting this so I might as well. It's the original extract from Nature, not the subedited version most people are citing so at least I can claim not to be barking up the wrong tree (sorry). If I can dig one up I might post an image of the Best Dog in the Southwest Pacific. I will of course disregard bitchy (sorry) comments by anyone else from the region who claims their miserable fleabag is top dog (sorry).

As INTELLDUMP blogs unfortunately this is not the only dog story today.

It's OK to smoke dope, England fans told

Visitors to Lisbon do not have to try too hard to buy the drug. The city does not have 'coffee shops' in the Dutch style, but tourists are likely to be offered cannabis by street vendors.

Organisers have not restricted the amount of alcohol on sale during the tournament despite the Football Association's concerns. Beer costs just 66p a glass and will be freely available around stadiums and at big screen locations.

Eindhoven police spokesman Johann Beelan said cannabis was a positive influence on public order at Euro 2000. 'Cannabis ... was part of the conditions which meant everyone had a good time,' he said.

British police estimated around 3,000 English supporters had arrived in Portugal by last night, but there have been no reports of disorder and no arrests.

The Lisbon police will follow the Dutch example and concentrate on actual crimes, rather than cannabis. I am sure this is sending the wrong signal to the terrorists.

Arctic Ocean probe to predict ice age

Scientists are to drill the deepest hole yet under the Arctic Ocean to investigate whether global warming would plunge Europe into an ice age.

Cores of seabed sediment will be taken 500 metres (1,640ft) down in an underwater mountain chain called the Lomonosov Ridge, 1,243 miles off the coast of Norway. The scientists aim to reconstruct how the Arctic has altered over the past 50m years.

The region plays a crucial role in regulating the Earth's climate, and the scientists hope that discovering when its permanent coat of sea ice appeared will help with predictions of what the future holds.

'The whole of the deep Arctic Ocean remains unexplored at depth and all of its scientific wonders remain unknown,' said Andy Kingdon, one of the British team involved in the international expedition.

A region of sea ice the size of France and Germany has melted there in the past 30 years and scientists think the inflow of fresh water could affect global ocean currents, possibly shutting down the Gulf Stream, which bathes Europe in warm water - though not as rapidly as in the film The Day After Tomorrow.

'All the climate models you've ever seen are based on assumptions not real data,' Mr Kingdon said.

I guess The Day After Tomorrow at least put global warming into popular consciousness, but I wish they had done a little more research.

George Bush and the abuse of power

However desirable Saddam Hussein's overthrow might have been, the war in Iraq was not principally for that purpose, it was to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

To this point, instead of advancing the cause of liberty, that war has strengthened the terrorist threat and greatly increased the numbers killed.

There is still a large grey area between the authority of the new Iraq government and the American military stationed in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to say that the new government will be truly sovereign, but the US has made it plain that American troops will control their own destinies. How sovereign can a government be if there is a large occupying army within its borders?

Even today, if President Bush were prepared to hand the entire political operation to the UN and the Security Council, the chances of some good emerging from his ill-fated unilateralism would be greatly strengthened.

The joint military-civil operation in Cambodia demonstrated that, when the UN is given the resources and when governments have the will, a great deal can be achieved. Cambodia is a precedent worth remembering.

But whatever happens over the next six months, President Bush will not find his cause advanced by intervening in Australian politics and by supporting one side or the other.

What he has done is an abuse of power.

Malcolm Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983.

George Bush did not have a sudden rush of blood to the head and endorse a vote for the Howard government at the next federal election. Press conferences at that level are scripted, at least to some extent. Bush has given Howard his endorsement before, most famously in his address to the Australian parliament where he assured a breathless Australia that 'Man of Steel' is Texan for 'fair dinkum'.

The Man of Steel is, I suspect, deeply out of touch if he thinks this presidential endorsement is going to play all that well in the Australian electorate. Foreign policy is about national interests. Ours converge with US interests in most cases. That, not the personal relationship between the Man of Steel and the Great Dubya, is what drives the alliance.

10 June 2004

Record-Breaking Ice Core May Hold Key to Climate Variation

An international collaboration known as the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) recovered the nearly three-kilometer-long core from a region of the East Antarctic ice sheet known as Dome C. The bottom of the10-centimeter-wide cylinder dates to some 740,000 years ago and nearly doubles the reach of the next-longest ice core, which was drilled at Vostok, Antarctica, in the 1980s and spanned the past 420,000 years. Temperature records for eight ice ages are documented in the new core. Of particular interest to climatologists is the complete record of the interglacial time period known as Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS11), which occurred around 400,000 years ago, a time when our planet's positioning was similar to its current orientation. MIS11 lasted 28,000 years--considerably longer than the next three interglacial periods before present--and understanding its progression may help scientists better predict what's in store for the earth's future climate.

The core also reveals that not all ice ages are created equal. From the Vostok core, scientists deduced that those that occurred in the last 400,000 years were very intense, lasting around 80,000 years each. The new data suggest that earlier ice ages were shorter and the longer-lasting interglacial periods had lower temperatures, a finding that agrees with lower-resolution marine sediment cores. Because they have not yet reached the bottom of the ice sheet, the researchers hope that they will be able to extend the climate record even further back in time through continued drilling at the same site. Notes White: 'The possibility of a million-year ice core is out there and a million years ago is a really significant period in the earth's climate history.'

There is no truth to the rumour that somewhere in the EU science bureaucracy they are designing a really, really long shelf.

Higher status leads to a longer life

Marmot cites the contrasting situations of Cuba, Japan and the US as an example. The US is a rich nation with a gross domestic product per person (GDP) of about $34,000 and a life expectancy of 76.9 years. But Cuba, with a GDP of only $5200 almost matches the US lifespan with an average of 76.5 years. And Japan, which has the longest life expectancy at 81.3 years, has a significantly lower GDP than the US - about $25,000.

Social arrangements, education and social cohesion may be crucial factors. Japan may enjoy better health because of factors like low crime, better care of the elderly, higher industrial productivity and a smaller gap between rich and poor than countries like the US.

Even within a country the impact of social status on health can vary with time, says Marmot. For example, the difference in life expectancy in the UK between the highest and lowest social classes jumped from about 5.5 years in the 1970s to 9.5 years by the 1990s, after years of Thatcherite government policies.

After seven years of government by the UK's Labour party, the gap is narrowing again and is currently about eight years now, he says.

The reason that low status may translate into poorer health is lack of control and fewer opportunities for full social engagement or participation, he believes. A person in a seemingly stressful top job may not be that stressed at all if the stress is predictable and within their control, and their status brings more support and more outlets.

We could have a whole new principle, that government governs best which has the least gap between rich and poor in terms of life span. Anthropometrics are as interesting as life span studies.

The Roots of Torture

Today there is no telling where the scandal will bottom out. But it is growing harder for top Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld himself, to absolve themselves of all responsibility. Evidence is growing that the Pentagon has not been forthright on exactly when it was first warned of the alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib. U.S. officials continued to say they didn't know until mid-January. But Red Cross officials had alerted the U.S. military command in Baghdad at the start of November. The Red Cross warned explicitly of MPs' conducting 'acts of humiliation such as [detainees'] being made to stand naked ... with women's underwear over the head, while being laughed at by guards, including female guards, and sometimes photographed in this position.' Karpinski recounts that the military-intel officials there regarded this criticism as funny. She says: 'The MI officers said, 'We warned the [commanding officer] about giving those detainees the Victoria's Secret catalog, but he wouldn't listen'.' The Coalition commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and his Iraq command didn't begin an investigation until two months later, when it was clear the pictures were about to leak.

Now more charges are coming. Intelligence officials have confirmed that the CIA inspector general is conducting an investigation into the death of at least one person at Abu Ghraib who had been subject to questioning by CIA interrogators. The Justice Department is likely to open full-scale criminal investigations into this CIA-related death and two other CIA interrogation-related fatalities.

As his other reasons for war have fallen away, President Bush has justified his ouster of Saddam Hussein by saying he's a 'torturer and murderer.' Now the American forces arrayed against the terrorists are being tarred with the same epithet. That's unfair: what Saddam did at Abu Ghraib during his regime was more horrible, and on a much vaster scale, than anything seen in those images on Capitol Hill. But if America is going to live up to its promise to bring justice and democracy to Iraq, it needs to get to the bottom of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

See also The road to Abu Ghraib by Human Rights Watch which lays out in some detail the steps by which George II let himself be persuaded that he is James II. What's left? The Saddam is worse defence. The Nuremberg defence. That really is not much of a shining city on the hill.

8 June 2004

Chain Of Command

REPORTER LIZ JACKSON: It has now emerged that an Australian lawyer, Major George O'Kane, worked in Colonel Warren's office, and was involved in preparing that response to the Red Cross concerns. Four Corners has obtained a copy of this. It's dated 24 December 2003. It's apparent from the Army's response that the Red Cross had raised concerns specifically about the prisoners deemed to have 'ongoing intelligence value' - those they found naked and in total darkness in Tier 1A. The response that Major O'Kane helped draft explains to the Red Cross that the condition of these prisoners needs to be seen 'in the context of ongoing strategic interrogation', and, under the circumstances, it says, 'we consider their detention to be humane'. It concludes that, in any event, the Army takes the legal view that 'where absolute military security so requires, security internees will not obtain full Geneva Convention protection'. The letter was signed by General Karpinski.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT: In Iraq, all security detainees, internees and prisoners of war are treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. There are no exceptions.

LIZ JACKSON: Well, why would a letter that was signed by Brigadier Karpinski make a special point of saying that security internees will not necessarily obtain Geneva Convention protections?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT: I can't, uh, speak to why General Karpinski would raise those charges, but that is not correct.

LIZ JACKSON: And I understand that was drafted by the Judge Advocate's Office, by Marc Warren's office.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT: Again, I haven't seen the letter so I can't comment on it.

KEN ROTH, PRESIDENT, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: I know that a number of the senior commanders are saying they didn't see the Red Cross reports of abuse until quite late, and that may well be true. But that again obscures the fact that many of the abusive interrogation techniques didn't have to be discovered via the Red Cross - they were the orders. They were the official interrogation practices the Bush administration was authorising.

LIZ JACKSON: In the glare of public scrutiny following these photos, the army high command was pressured to produce the actual list of interrogation techniques that was stuck on the wall of the interrogation centre at Abu Ghraib in October last year - the so-called 'Interrogation Rules of Engagement'. Scott Horton is from the New York Bar's committee on international law.

SCOTT HORTON, NEW YORK CITY BAR ASSOCIATION: We had been asking the Department of Defense for a year for a better description of the rules of engagement and interrogation. They had steadfastly refused and then suddenly at this hearing, out pops these rules of engagement, and I think we looked at them and there was a collective expression of shock.

LIZ JACKSON: The techniques included sleep management - that's being kept awake; sensory deprivation - that's total darkness; stress positions - that's pain; isolation for more than 30 days, and the presence of military working dogs.

SCOTT HORTON: It's possible to give explanations for some of them that might be consistent with the Geneva Conventions. Possible, I'll say that. But when they talk about stress positions of 45 minutes and they talk about sensory deprivation, they talk about sleep management potentially for three days, they talk about the use of military working dogs, these sorts of tactics are effective only when pain is involved, and when you cross the threshold to pain you have violated the Fourth Geneva Convention.

LIZ JACKSON: Two weeks after the army told the Red Cross that it considered the conditions at Abu Ghraib to be humane, a low-level military police guard working in Tier 1A slipped a letter and a computer disk of photos under the door of the army's criminal investigation division. Specialist Joseph Darby later told investigators it was because 'the Christian in me says it's wrong'. He'd copied the photos from a disk he'd been given by Specialist Charles Graner, who he says had told him, quote, 'The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'' Within 24 hours of the photos arriving, army investigators were knocking on Chip Frederick's door at 2:30 in the morning.

The Australian government has a copy of the O'kane draft. The government refuses to either release that document or have Major O'Kane examined before the Senate estimates committee. If the Four Corners report is wrong they have only to publish the text.

The Australian government has given a plausible (if contested) denial of knowing about the matter of Abu Ghraib. They have not given any explanation why a civilised government in close alliance with the United States, as soon as it became aware of this matter, would not immediately make diplomatic representations at the highest level for these abuses to end.

George II Bush v James II and VII or GWB gets a wig and frockcoat

Who makes this stuff up for the Bush administration?

Lawyers Said Bush Not Bound by Torture Laws

After defining torture and other prohibited acts, the memo presents 'legal doctrines ... that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.' Foremost, the lawyers rely on the 'commander-in-chief authority,' concluding that 'without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the president's ultimate authority' to wage war. Moreover, 'any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of unlawful combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the commander-in-chief authority in the president,' the lawyers advised.

Likewise, the lawyers found that 'constitutional principles' make it impossible to 'punish officials for aiding the president in exercising his exclusive constitutional authorities' and neither Congress nor the courts could 'require or implement the prosecution of such an individual.'

To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a 'presidential directive or other writing' that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is 'inherent in the president.'

Godden v. Hales (1686)
We were satisfied in our judgments before and, having the concurrence of eleven out of twelve, we think we may very well declare the opinion of the court to be that the king may dispense in this case. And the judges go upon these grounds: � (1) that the kings of England are sovereign princes; (2) that the laws of England are the king's laws; (3) that therefore 'tis an inseparable prerogative in the kings of England to dispense with penal laws in particular cases and upon particular necessary reasons; (4) that of those reasons and those necessities, the king himself is sole judge; and then, which is consequent upon all, (5) that this is not a trust invested in, or granted to, the king by the people, but the ancient remains of the sovereign power and prerogative of the kings of England; which never yet was taken from them, nor can be. And therefore, such a dispensation appearing upon record to come [in] time enough to save him from the forfeiture, judgment ought to be given for the defendant.

English Bill of Rights 1689
2 That the pretended power of dispensing with laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Article 2
Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Beyond all this, is it not a tad strange that a government which insists torture is the act of a few bad apples has quite such detailed legal advice on how to avoid being punished for the use of torture?

Ben Oquist on the 'Magic 38'

Only half the Senate is elected at a normal Federal election. So eighteen Coalition Senators elected in 2001 will not face election this time around. As a result of their success in the previous election, the Coalition only needs to win 20 out of 40 senators up for re-election. They will only need to equal their 2001 performance - three Senate seats in each state and one in each territory - and they will reach the �Magic 38.�

To win three seats in any state requires only 42.2 percent of the vote after preferences are distributed. Even if the Coalition loses the election, a vote of that magnitude is more than likely. In fact they may well need a much lower primary vote than that. In each State, the last Senate seat is usually won by a candidate with much less than a full quota.

Normally the Coalition is assured of one Senator in each territory (where there are only 2 spots contested unlike the 6 in each State) but this time the Greens Kerrie Tucker is mounting a substantial challenge to the incumbent Liberal Senator in the ACT. Kerrie Tucker could very easily be the best chance to deny the Coalition their �Magic 38� seats.

The analysis is wrong in a couple of details. I am looking up the distribution of retiring Coalition senators by state. The Coalition does not have precisely 3 senators retiring in each state. The numbers are:

  • NSW ALP 3, Lib 2, AD 1
  • QLD ALP 2, Lib 2, AD 1, PHON 1
  • SA ALP 2, Lib 3, APA/AD 1
  • TAS ALP 2, Lib 2, Ind 2
  • VIC ALP 3, Lib 2, NP 1
  • WA ALP 2, Lib 3, AD 1

The real shift in the Senate at this election is likely to be Greens replacing Democrats and the return of the Meg Lees seat to the Democrats. The Greens have a chance at the Democrat seats in New South Wales and Western Australia. Labor has a reasonable chance of one of the independent seats in Tasmania and the PHPON seat in Queensland. I really cannot see the Coalition holding all its seats everywhere in the context of a Labor victory. The one thing I am sure will not change is the Territory senators who will remain Coalition 2, Labor 2.

Promoting an unlikely Green electoral victory in the ACT is not going to save Australia from the Greens' Magic 38. Moreover the Greens have a long and undistinguished record of cutting deals with the Coalition to secure 'maximal' Green objectives at the expense of broader social concerns. The classic examples are the Natural Heritage Trust, by which a tranche of Telstra was privatised in return for a boost to environmental spending that proved to be largely illusory, and their difficult relationship with the former minority Labor government in Tasmania.

The Oquist article also misunderstands how Senate elections, especially the last seat, are decided in each state. Distribution of preferences continues until 6 candidates have a quota (there is a technical exception but it's not relevant). The last senator elected needs precisely the same quota as the first senator.

Tip via Ari on the Web.

Hear me out: lamenting a silent language falling out of favour

Chevoy Brown will never forget her son's first word. At seven months, Jarrod reached out to her, opening and clenching his hand. He was saying 'light' in Auslan - the sign language his parents had been using constantly around him since he had been diagnosed profoundly deaf a month earlier.

Ms Brown rejected the offer of a cochlear implant, concerned that if it failed to boost Jarrod's hearing sufficiently for him to acquire spoken English, he would miss crucial stages in language-related brain development that occur in early childhood.

Today, Ms Brown says, her conversations with the gregarious seven-year-old are every bit as sophisticated as those she had with her hearing daughter at the same age.

But Jarrod's first language could die out within half a generation, according to new analysis - a casualty of changing patterns of deafness and a trend towards deaf children attending mainstream schools.

This is actually fairly sad. AusLan is a distinct language, not signed English. Its grammar is radically different. Languages with shrinking use communities do not have a stable future.

6 June 2004

The police always get their fish

POLICE who let a 9ft sturgeon slip through their fingers after its alleged illegal sale said yesterday they had found it again.

Scottish police must have unusually large fingers.

withdrawing from reality II

Remarks by the President at a Joint Press Availability with Australian Prime Minister John Howard:
Q Mr. Howard and yourself reaffirmed the commitment that Australia and the U.S. have to staying the course in Iraq. But you would be aware the alternative prime minister in Australia, Mark Latham, has promised to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas --


Q -- if he wins the election. What signal --


Q What signal would that send to the Iraqi people and the other members of the coalition?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think that would be disastrous. It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that, we're pulling out. It would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq. It would say that the Australian government doesn't see the hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world. It would embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will. See, they want to kill innocent life because they think that the Western world and the free world is weak; that when times get tough we will shirk our duty to those who long for freedom, and we'll leave. And I -- anyway.

Insiders - 06/06/2004: US alliance crucial to Aust: Downer:
BARRIE CASSIDY: Can you recall a time when an American president has been this critical of an Australian political leader?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think you have to understand the context of this. The Americans have about 33 now allies and coalition partners in Iraq with them. What happened in Spain was a disaster in the sense that it started to unravel the coalition in Iraq. Now at this time when the Iraqi interim government itself wants all of the coalition to remain, at a time when Iraq is moving towards full sovereignty, at a time when things are really starting to get somewhat back on track in Iraq, the last thing the Americans would want is some of that coalition to come unravelled. So for the Americans, there's Australian politics - I don't want to sound too modest about this - but I suspect Australian politics is a bit of a fringe issue. The central issue, is the issue of whether the coalition is going to hold together in Iraq at a time when things are really starting to come together or whether the coalition is going to disintegrate there.

Interview: John Howard
JOHN HOWARD: No. Because there is resolve by the Coalition. Let me say, Laurie, if they were to succeed it would not just give the terrorists a foothold in Iraq, it would deliver them an enormous international victory.

See, what people have got to understand is that whatever links there were between Saddam Hussein and terrorism thirteen or fourteen months ago, right now the terrorist are investing an enormous amount in Iraq, and they see victory in Iraq as a huge boost to their international cause, and that is why the position being taken by Mr Latham is so wrong, and that is why it is so important that the members of the Coalition should remain firm.

Bear in mind we are talking about two transport aircraft.

withdrawing from reality

Australia has 860 ADF personnel in Iraq.

  1. Australian national headquarters of - approximately 60 people
  2. a naval component embarked on the frigate HMAS Stuart, and command and logistic support elements - about 180 personnel
  3. an Air Force component with personnel deployed with two RAAF C130 Hercules transport aircraft - about 150
  4. about 160 personnel deployed with two RAAF P3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft
  5. an air traffic control detachment and support personnel at Baghdad - about 65 personnel
  6. a security detachment of protecting the Australian representative office and the Iraqi army training - approximately 90 personnel
  7. ADF personnel in the coalition military assistance training team to help train and develop the Iraqi coastal defence force and Iraqi army - approximately 65 personnel
  8. ADF personnel working in the coalition joint task force headquarters - approximately 25
    a logistics element supporting ADF units and Australian government agencies
  9. ADF personnel supporting the Iraq survey group - 12 people
  10. ADF personnel in specialist roles with the coalition provisional authority - a small number
  11. ADF personnel in liaison roles with coalition forces -a small number

Labor has said it will maintain the naval component, the security detachment, and the training group. The air traffic controllers are due home at the end of September. The HQ and the logistics element expand or contract with changes in the size of the other elements. Do the sums. The real difference between Labor and the Coalition is 2 Hercules air transports. If that is the make-or-break of the coalition military posture, things must be a lot grimmer than we are being told.

Rumsfeld: We would have stopped 9/11

The United States would have stopped 9/11 if intelligence had gotten inside information, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says.

Rumsfeld told this to sailors and Marines aboard the USS Essex warship near Singapore Friday. Without directly assigning blame to the CIA, whose director, George Tenet, resigned on Thursday, Rumsfeld told a Marine who asked if Rumsfeld thought there had been enough intelligence information to prevent the attacks that the congressionally chartered 9/11 commission investigating the matter has not finished its work.

'We lacked the intelligence that might have prevented it,' Rumsfeld said, citing testimony given to the commission. 'That is to say, we did not have a source inside the group of people that had planned and executed those attacks. ... Had we had a source inside there, we undoubtedly would have been able to stop it. We did not. It would have been terrific if we had.'

Rumsfeld is fabricating history. The US had Moussaoui.

The 2004 Transit of Venus

On June 8 2004 an event will occur that no living person has seen - the planet Venus will pass between the Earth and the Sun, appearing as a black disc on the face of the Sun. This rare astronomical event is called a transit. The last transit of Venus took place in 1882 and only six have occurred since the invention of the telescope. This year's transit starts at 3:07 pm in Brisbane and Sydney, a minute later in Canberra, Melbourne and Hobart, 2:38 pm in Adelaide, 2:39 pm in Darwin and 1:10 pm in Perth. It will continue through till sunset in Australia although observers elsewhere such as Europe can observe the entire transit.

First observed in 1639 by the brilliant young English astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks, subsequent observations provided the first example of international collaboration for a scientific program. The aim of the program was to observe the transit from widely separated locations so that astronomers could ultimately calculate an accurate value for the distance between the Earth and the Sun. In 1769 Lieutenant James Cook sailed on HMS Endeavour to Tahiti in the South Pacific to observe the transit. Following the successful observation of the event he opened sealed orders instructing him to sail westward and chart new lands, resulting in European contact with New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.

The ABC has a rundown on the controvery over Cook's success in measuring the 1769 transit.

Important safety notice
Do not confuse a transit of Venus with nipples of Venus! Attempts to lick the solar disk can result in severe facial and oral burns, as well as significant muscle pain in the tongue and throat.

The CSIRO is running a webcast.