22 December 2005

War on Christmas

When Santas go bad
A group of 40 drunken people dressed in Santa Claus outfits went on a rampage through New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, robbing stores, assaulting security guards and urinating from highway overpasses.

Auckland police are searching for men of Christmassy appearance. The Australian parliament may be recalled in a rare holiday session to ensure the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 includes threats to the extravaganza of consumer spending.

17 December 2005

Beware the echizen kurage, my son

Giant jellies attack Japan
They are 6ft wide and weigh 450lb (200kg), with countless poisonous tentacles, they have drifted across the void to terrorise the people of Japan. Vast armadas of the slimy horrors have cut off the country's food supply. As soon as one is killed more appear to take its place.

Finally, the quarrelsome governments of the region are banding together to unite against the enemy.

I'm just waiting for the shots of masses of people running across bridges while sirens sound in the background.

15 December 2005

Buffy fans invade Kuiper Belt

'Buffy' challenges solar system theories
Buffy is the temporary name given by the team for the object, whose official designation by the Paris-based International Astronomical Union (IAU) is 2004 XR 190.

Its orbit is in a relatively narrow range of between 52 and and 62 astronomical units (AU) from the sun.

An AU is a standard measurement, being that of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, of approximately 150 million kilometres.

By comparison, another 'extended scattered disk' member called Sedna swings out to as far as 900 AU before coming as close to the sun as 76 AU.

I've seen from fairly explosive exchanges between Buffy fans and Xena fans. Is it responsible to give these tribes rival territorial claims in the outer solar system?

13 December 2005


I hated seeing the Australian flag being waved by a violent mob.

Sadly enough, this week's Background Briefing (no transcript yet, although they do have audio) carries any number of thoughtful voices from Muslim youth in Australia. Sunday's riot is obviously indefensible as is the conduct which allegedly provoked it. That should not mean it's open season in the blogosphere for anyone of 'Southern Beaches' or 'Middle Eastern' appearance.

Flashmobs are not all that rational, and if you wait until the mob has formed (and got itself drunk on a hot day) you've already lost the plot. A week of inflammatory nonsense from talk-back should have rung alarm bells. There really was not all that much work left for the usual white supremacist trash. Carlyle said nothing was as unexpected or as predictable as the French Revolution.

Now we're seeing revenge attacks across the southern beaches and rumours are getting texted across the city faster than they can be answered. People were hurt tonight and there's an unconfirmed rumour of a fatal shooting. There are some signs of hope, like the meeting between Keyser Trad and Koby Abberton. Hopefully, next Sunday the pubs will be shut and perhaps Cronulla's mobile phone transmitters should be shut down for the day.

I was amazed by the Man of Steel's statement, that this is not a racist event, was absurd. The straight line being drawn by people on radio between terrorism and the Lebanese community says the government has a way to go in making its terror campaigning more responsible. The Man of Steel might like to look at the mote in his own eye before he does too much more preaching.

8 December 2005

torturing the truth

Condi's trail of lies
'As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States' obligations under the CAT [U.N. Convention Against Torture], which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment -- those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States,' Rice said at a press conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

The press should stop asking if the US tortures prisoners. The US will always say no, but they will be using their own tortured definition.

The press should ask if the US waterboards. prisoners.

Equally there is no point asking about extraordinary renditions.

The press should ask if the US holds prisoners without charge or trial.

There is no point asking such questions in Australia. Holding prisoners without charge or trial is the law here, a law passed with Labor's support.

Apophilypse Now

It's called Apophis. It's 390m wide. And it could hit Earth in 31 years time
In Egyptian myth, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness.A fitting name, astronomers reasoned, for a menace now hurtling towards Earth from outerspace. Scientists are monitoring the progress of a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered last year that is potentially on a collision course with the planet, and are imploring governments to decide on a strategy for dealing with it.

Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036, would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.

'Space tractor' to avert asteroid ArmageddonOnline
No need to send Bruce Willis into space with a nuclear bomb: The best way to deal with a killer asteroid hurtling towards Earth could be a 'gravity tractor'.

Two NASA astronauts, gently mocking the solution offered in the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon have come up with a deceptively simple plan to pull asteroids off course.

Dr Edward Lu and Dr Stanley Love propose in today's issue of the journal Nature that a rocket be launched into space, effectively to act as a giant magnet.

Landing on an asteroid, which is no more than a spinning pile of rubble, is very difficult to achieve.

Instead, the gravity tractor would hover alongside the asteroid, with its thrusters pointing outwards so the exhaust does not affect the surface.

The tractor would then gradually pull the asteroid off course, using nothing more than the gravitational pull between the two bodies.

'This saves you from having to land on the asteroid and then trying to stabilise yourself on a flying pile of rock and debris which is spinning all the time,' Dr Love said.

In Armageddon, a doomsday asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear bomb.

Instead, the scientists calculate that, with sufficient warning, a 20-tonne gravity tractor could safely deflect an asteroid 200 metres across in about a year of towing.

I doubt the Guardian's derivation of the name. There is more than one Apophis around and about the time of an unofficial push to name 2003 UB313, the putative tenth planet and its moon Xena and Gabrielle the discoverers named the asteroid formerly known as 99942 after an Apophis, apocryphal or not.

Still, demon of the ancient world or Goauld system lord, it's a relief we won't need Bruce Willis to save us.

7 December 2005

Brokeback Mountain

The New Yorker has a free download of Annie Proulx' short story, but only for a week. Lot's better than the Penguin price of a single short story for $16.95.

Bookslut has An Interview with Annie Proulx on the short story and the movie. The New West Network calls it Best Contemporary Realistic Western Ever?

6 December 2005

march of the Phytoplankton

About 34 million years ago, the Earth's climate transitioned from a 'greenhouse climate' to the 'icehouse climate' of today, forming a massive ice sheet on the Antarctic continent. A new study by Linda Anderson, an ocean sciences researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that oceanographic features in the Southern Ocean--the intensity of current flow and the amount of stratification (the formation of distinct layers at different depths)--may have played a key role in the transition.

Anderson will present her findings this week at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Anderson analyzed the chemical properties of seafloor sediments laid down millions of years ago to piece together a picture of how Southern Ocean circulation may have looked deep in the past. The periods covered in her study include the transition from the Eocene to the Oligocene epochs about 33 million years ago and a similar transition between the Oligocene and Miocene epochs about 23 million years ago. These transitions coincided with a configuration of Earth's orbit around the Sun that facilitated ice growth. Some additional factor on Earth, however, amplified the climate response during these transitions.

The geological record suggests that this additional factor was a reduction of greenhouse warming due to a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Southern Ocean may have played a role in the drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide through its influence on the global carbon cycle, Anderson said.

Her study suggests that, unlike today, the mixing of the Southern Ocean around the time of the climate shift was neither as intense nor as deep as it is now. As a result, the ocean was more stratified and regional characteristics of deep and intermediate waters were maintained. This layered structure may have had important consequences for global carbon cycling, setting the stage for the transition from greenhouse to icehouse.

Phytoplankton--tiny plants growing in the surface waters--use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform it into organic carbon. When the plants (or animals that feed on them) die and decompose, most of the organic carbon is recycled but a small amount is buried within the deep ocean. In a layered ocean, dead organisms can drift into the deeper layers before they decompose, effectively burying the organic carbon in the depths.

Shifting continents have gradually changed the Southern Ocean over the past 30 million years so that water now whips around Antarctica in a strong current known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The strength of the current blocks the influx of nutrient-poor surface water and, as this current squeezes through the narrow passage between South America and Antarctica, it mixes the water from top to bottom. As a result, most of the organic carbon formed within the Southern Ocean today is oxidized before it can be buried.

The impact of organic carbon burial on the atmospheric carbon dioxide depends on the relative burial of organic carbon to total carbon. The types of organisms that fix organic carbon are important, because some form shells of inorganic carbon in a process that releases carbon dioxide. Regional characteristics of the water affect which organisms are favored ecologically by controlling the nutrient content of the surface ocean. The integral relationship between biology (the organisms that fix the organic carbon) and the physical structure of the ocean (both the delivery of nutrients and removal of organic carbon for burial) ultimately control the atmospheric carbon dioxide, Anderson said.

Currents in Climate Change
But that doesn't mean that climate change isn't happening--ice core data stretching back 650,000 years show that current greenhouse gas levels of 380 parts per million (ppm) are about 80 ppm higher than any other level in that period, and still rising. And it doesn't mean that the results of such a weakening in currents couldn't have a profound impact. Between 12,800 and 11,500 years ago, the Earth experienced a temporary setback in its warming up after the last ice age. The creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway filled the North Atlantic with an excess of cold, fresh water, preventing North Atlantic salt water from achieving the density needed to sink. As a result, the conveyor belt shut down and Western Europe and North America became colder and drier. We may need that dramatic sweater mission after all.

All this just makes the international effort unfolding in Montreal this week even more important. In that freezing cold, Francophone city, diplomats from 157 countries continue to discuss climate change and what to do about it. Already last week, they ratified the Kyoto Protocol--our first, timid attempt to cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with global warming--despite the best efforts of the U.S. and its allies to derail the global treaty. Next up for consideration is what to do after Kyoto runs out in 2012. After all we've got 80 ppm or more to shed from the atmosphere, a process that would take hundreds of years if we stopped all emissions today. The U.S. and others are adamant that such effort is not needed--or, at best, misguided, something I shall address in more detail in a future post. Indeed, some of our illustrious leaders have called climate change the 'greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.'

Climate change is not a hoax, nor is it a conspiracy. It is a giant scientific experiment human beings are running on the only planet we currently have: What will happen when we bring greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to prehistoric levels and beyond? Perhaps nothing, perhaps inundation of low-lying parts of the world, perhaps a flood of environmental refugees, perhaps an increase in disease, or perhaps the loss of oceanic currents that help regulate the present conditions of our world. Maybe all of the above and more. We can't control the outcome of this experiment. We can, however, choose not to run it.

Scary thought that the likes of Bush and the Man of Steel are experimenters-in-chief.

3 December 2005

the morrow after today

Alarm over dramatic weakening of Gulf Stream
The powerful ocean current that bathes Britain and northern Europe in warm waters from the tropics has weakened dramatically in recent years, a consequence of global warming that could trigger more severe winters and cooler summers across the region, scientists warn today.Researchers on a scientific expedition in the Atlantic Ocean measured the strength of the current between Africa and the east coast of America and found that the circulation has slowed by 30% since a previous expedition 12 years ago.

The current, which drives the Gulf Stream, delivers the equivalent of 1m power stations-worth of energy to northern Europe, propping up temperatures by 10C in some regions. The researchers found that the circulation has weakened by 6m tonnes of water a second. Previous expeditions to check the current flow in 1957, 1981 and 1992 found only minor changes in its strength, although a slowing was picked up in a further expedition in 1998. The decline prompted the scientists to set up a 4.8m network of moored instruments in the Atlantic to monitor changes in the current continuously.

Yikes. I'll just have to shut my eyes really tightly, clench my fists and incant: 'Global warming has no economic impact" six times quickly.

2 December 2005

somebody tell the Man of Steel and the shadow attorney-general

Constitutional Court of South Africa
The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage was not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represented a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples. The intangible damage to same-sex couples is as severe as the material deprivation. They are not entitled to celebrate their commitment to each other in a joyous public event recognised by the law. They are obliged to live in a state of legal blankness in which their unions remain unmarked by the showering of presents and the commemoration of anniversaries so celebrated in our culture.

If heterosexual couples have the option of deciding whether to marry or not, the judgment continued, so should same-sex couples have the choice as to whether to seek to achieve a status and a set of entitlements and responsibilities on a par with those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. By both drawing on and reinforcing discriminatory social practices, the law has failed to secure for same-sex coupes the dignity, status, benefits and responsibilities that it accords to heterosexual couples. Although considerable progress has been made in specific cases through constitutional interpretation and by means of legislative intervention, the default position of gays and lesbians is still one of exclusion and marginalisation.
Sachs J stated that Judges would be placed in an intolerable situation if they were called upon to construe religious texts and take sides on issues which have caused deep schisms within religious bodies. In the open and democratic society contemplated by the Constitution there must be mutually respectful co-existence between the secular and the sacred. The function of the Court is to recognise the sphere which each inhabits, not to force the one into the sphere of the other. The objective of the Constitution is to allow different concepts about the nature of human existence to inhabit the same public realm, and to do so in a manner that is not mutually destructive and that at the same time enables government to function in a way that shows equal concern and respect for all.

Acknowledgement by the state of the right of same-sex couples to enjoy the same status, entitlements and responsibilities as marriage law accords to heterosexual couples, is in no way inconsistent with the rights of religious organisations to continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. The two sets of interests involved do not collide, they co-exist in a constitutional realm based on accommodation of diversity. Granting access to same-sex couples would in no way attenuate the capacity of heterosexual couples to marry in the form they wished and according to the tenets of their religion.

The silent obliteration of same-sex couples from the reach of the law, together with the utilisation of gender-specific language in the marriage vow, presupposes that only heterosexual couples were contemplated. The common law and section 30(1) of the Marriage Act are accordingly inconsistent with sections 9(1) and 9(3) [equality] and 10 [dignity] of the Constitution to the extent that they make no provision for same-sex couples to enjoy the status, entitlements and responsibilities they accord to heterosexual couples.

The full judgment (large PDF) is available as well. The sections of the South African Bill of Rights the Court speaks about are:


9. (1) Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.

(2) Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.

(3) The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

(4) No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3). National legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination.

(5) Discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair.

Human dignity

10. Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.

It's obviously a dangerous business, putting equality and dignity into the law.

death in Singapore

Nguyen hanged in Singapore
Masses have been held in cities around the country to mark the execution.

In Melbourne, the bell tolled 25 times at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Richmond - once for each year of Nguyen's life.

Members of Victoria's Criminal Bar Association gathered outside the County Court in Melbourne to observe a minute's silence for Nguyen.

Stephen Shirrefs, the vice-chairman of the association, says they support the fight against the mandatory death penalty.

'We are here to demonstrate our opposition to capital punishment, as a mark of respect to the family of Van Nguyen and as a mark of solidarity for two of our members who in the fine tradition of the Victorian Bar have acted pro bono and for the last three years fought to save the life of Van Nguyen,' he said.

At Martin Place in Sydney, a Vietnamese gong also sounded 25 times.

A crowd gathered and maintained a silent vigil.

Churchgoers in Brisbane have also prayed for Nguyen and expressed hopes the events of today are not taken for granted.

Fr Peter Dillon led the congregation at St Stephen's Cathedral in a prayer calling for an end to executions.

Fr Dillon says he fears today's execution will have little impact on the drug trade.

'I sadly think, unfortunately, and this is the insidiousness of the drug culture, I think it's just another dead body for the drug world. And there's thousands of them everyday, so I don't think they're going to be moved by all this,' he said.

This is desperately sad for the country as well as Van Nguyen's immediate family. That the most Singapore can bring itself to allow is for Nguyen's mother to touch him through a wire grill speaks volumes about the degree of compassion they have exhibited.

Singapore is entitled to its own laws. So is Australia. In future dealing with them, especially on criminal matters, the Australian government should remember that Singapore maintains this repugnant law. Capital punishment is wrong in itself. Capital punishment as a mandatory sentence should shock the conscience of everyone. Singapore has not ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

ICCPR Article 6

1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

2. In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.

3. When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

4. Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases.

5. Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.

6. Nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.

The federal parliament should make laws to prohibit police assistance where capital punishment is a possibility or where the other country has not signed and ratified the ICCPR. Article 6 is now the minimum standard in any decent nation. Article 6 should be the only standard on which we will extend criminal assistance to other nations and Section 8 of the Mutual Assistance In Criminal Matters Act 1987 should be amended accordingly. Anyone using Optus or Singapore Airlines should find another company that is not owned by executioners.

12 other Australians face the possibility of execution in Bali, Vietnam and Kuwait.

pass the methane

Scientists cook up cure for cow flatulence

Cows belching and breaking wind cause methane pollution but British scientists say they have developed a diet to make pastures smell like roses, almost.

"In some experiments we get a 70 per cent decrease (in methane emissions), which is quite staggering," biochemist Dr John Wallace told Reuters.

Dr Wallace, the leader of the microbial biochemistry group at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, says the secret to sweeter-smelling cows is a food additive based on fumaric acid, a naturally occurring chemical essential to respiration of animal and vegetable tissues.

A 12-month commercial and scientific evaluation of the additive has just begun, but he says if it proves successful it could be a boon to cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.

"In total around 14 per cent of global methane comes from the guts of farm animals - it is worth doing something about," he said.

Other big sources of methane are landfills, coalmines, rice paddies and bogs.

Scientists in Australia and New Zealand have also been working to develop similar products amid growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep.

In New Zealand the Government in 2003 proposed a flatulence tax, with methane emitted by farm animals responsible for more than half the country's greenhouse gases.

I always wondered how NZ tax inspectors planned to sniff out evasion of that tax.

a taste of paradise for a penny a slice

Passing the pineapple
In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, John Locke asserts the impossibility of knowing the taste of pineapple before you have actually tasted it. This is not just a throwaway remark; he returns to the point in several drafts and in several places. In 1671, Locke wrote that the man who has never had pineapple, that “delicate” fruit, “in his mouth” cannot have a true or “new” idea of it. He can only have an amalgam of “old” ideas based on the descriptions of travellers. Later, he wrote that “we see nobody gets the relish of a pineapple, till he goes to the Indies, where it is, and tastes it”. To think that you could relish a pineapple without really experiencing it was like imagining you could see colours in the dark. The person who “from his childhood, never tasted an oyster, or a pineapple” does not know the particular taste of these things. And again: “let him try if any words can give him the taste of the Pine-Apple, and make him have the true idea of the Relish of that celebrated delicious Fruit”. For Locke, who had never tasted a pineapple himself, this was impossible. Only first-hand sensory experience could give knowledge of the taste – the quiddity – of pineapple.

Locke’s choice of the pineapple to make his point was not random. In a sense, the structure of his argument would have worked just as well had he chosen apples instead of pineapples. But who in England in the 1670s was not acquainted with the particular “relish” of an apple? The pineapple, by contrast, was the ultimate in inaccessible luxury fruit. Unless you were close to royalty, or a traveller to the West Indies, you were very unlikely to have been anywhere near one. Moreover, those who had tasted its yellow flesh, described it as peculiarly complex and elusive. Richard Ligon, in a history of the Caribbean, claimed that “nothing of rare taste can be thought on that is not there”. Some thought it musky. Others thought it combined all that is “most delicate in the Peach, the Strawberry, the Muscadine Grape and the Pippin”. John Evelyn, the courtier and salad expert, disagreed. When he tasted chunks of pineapple cut up by the King himself in 1668, he felt the flavour fell short of the “ravishing” descriptions he had read, having a “grateful acidity” but tasting more of “the Quince and the Melon” than anything more delicious. This illustrates Locke’s argument. The earliest European tasters of pineapple could only describe it by reference to other fruits. They could not summon up its full flavour either in words, or in the mouths of others.

The taste of pineapple, however, is only a part of its charm, as Fran Beauman’s engaging “biography” of the fruit amply shows (for once, the application of “biography” to an inanimate object seems justified). As soon as they saw it, men were wowed by the pineapple’s looks, its mathematically perfect golden shell and its outrageous green spikes. In 1535 the Spanish writer Oviedo confessed, “I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other [fruit] of so exquisite and lovely appearance”. In 1702, a Portuguese Franciscan compared the skin of the pineapple to a “brocade of pinecones” and the green top to a “royal crown”. The appearance of the pineapple, so bizarre it seemed to many observers as if it was artificial, would in turn inspire human artifice and architecture, notably the wonderfully absurd jutting stone pineapple at Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire, constructed some time after 1761, which this splendidly illustrated book contains a photograph of. From Georgian times onwards, there were pineapple gateposts and pineapple follies; pineapple mirrors and pineapple beds. Wedgwood made pineappleware, cream-coloured earthenware, knobbly like the body of a pineapple and glazed in green and yellow.

After this, I may never threaten anyone with the rough end of the pineapple again.

the Canadian dissensus 1

According to Elections Canada:

The number of electoral districts is based on the formula described in the amended section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867. This formula assigns seats to provinces in proportion to their population, assuring them the minimum number of electoral districts they had prior to March 6, 1986. In addition, each of the territories is entitled to one electoral district.

The results are:

  • Canada 308
  • Newfoundland and Labrador 7
  • Prince Edward Island 4,
  • Nova Scotia 11
  • New Brunswick 10
  • Quebec 75
  • Ontario 106
  • Manitoba 14
  • Saskatchewan 14
  • Alberta 28
  • British Columbia 36
  • Yukon 1
  • Northwest Territories 1
  • Nunavut 1

Eastern and Western Canada divide at the Ontario/Manitoba border. The Northern region comprises Yukon, the Northwest territories and Nunavut. There are also significant differences within Eastern Canada which is usually divided into 3 more regions – Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes/Atlantic Canada. The best way to measure the importance of regions is to look at seats won by the two major parties in Eastern and Western Canada.

  • Total 213 Eastern ridings, 92 Western ridings, 3 Northern ridings
  • Liberal 118 Eastern ridings, 14 Western ridings, 3 Northern ridings
  • Conservatives 31 Eastern ridings, 68 Western ridings

There are 4 parties in parliament:

  • Liberal 135 seats, 36.7% popular vote
  • Conservative 99 seats, 29.6% popular vote
  • Bloc Québécois 54 seats, 12.4% popular vote
  • New Democratic Party 19 seats, 15.7% popular vote
  • Other 1 seat, 1.3% popular vote

The voting system is single member plurality. This forces tactical voting and explains why the Bloc can get less votes than the NDP and win more seats. The Bloc only contests seats in Quebec while the NDP is spread across the country. NDP voters have to choose between voting NDP and perhaps allowing the Conservatives into power, or voting Liberal and keeping the Conservatives out.

The Senate (which I describe only out of a deep-seated pedantry) is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Senators serve until 75. The composition at least shows how long the Liberals have dominated the federal government. The province of Alberta once held an election for an Albertan senate vacancy but the federal government refused to appoint the elected candidate.

  • Liberal 67
  • Conservative Party 23
  • Progressive Conservative Party 5
  • New Democratic Party 1
  • Independent 5
  • Vacant 4
  • Total 105

If Paul Keating was ready to call the Australian Senate 'unrepresentative swill' and 'proof of life after death' one shudders to think what he would have said about the Canadian Senate.

Tomorrow I should have a pendulum done and I'll talk about the parties and issues.

29 November 2005

Canada to polls

The Canadian Liberal government lost a no confidence vote 171/133 about an hour ago. Outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin told his caucus to get fitted out for snowshoes before launching a fairly blistering (by Canadian standards) attack on the Conservatives and New Democrats.

Election day will be fixed by the governor-general when Martin sees her tomorrow. All 308 ridings (electorates) in the House of Commons are up for grabs. I'll go into a little more detail tomorrow when I've worked my way through the lay of the land when it comes to which seats are at risk. Relatively few ridings are expected to change hands. That would explain why 70% of Canadians believe the most likely outcome is another Liberal minority government.

The last time an Australian government resigned after losing a no confidence vote was 1941. Malcolm Fraser lost a no confidence vote in 1975 but refused to resign. The CBC has a useful backgrounder on How to bring down a government which, given the numbers, would work in Australia.

25 November 2005

a cold election in hell

Harper unveils no-confidence motion
The binding motion appeared on the House of Commons order paper on Wednesday.

It's to be tabled Thursday by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

The House of Commons is expected to vote on the motion on Nov. 28. It is expected to pass because it has the support of all opposition parties.

That would mean Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority Liberal government would fall, triggering an election call on Nov. 29 and a campaign during the holiday season.

The motion reads: 'The House condemns the government for its arrogance in refusing to compromise with the opposition parties over the timing of the next general election and for its 'culture of entitlement,' corruption, scandal and gross abuse of public funds for political purposes and, consequently, the government no longer has the confidence of the House.' The motion stems from a plan to oust the Liberals that came out of talks between Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe on Nov. 13.

This one will be interesting. The Canadian Liberals have been in power since 1993. It strikes me that a winter election in Canada will not necessarily make the opposition parties all that popular.

18 November 2005

semiglobal warming

News in Science - Global warming models 'biased' - 17/11/2005
What's wrong?
The largest global climate models today, called Earth system simulators (ESS), are so big they can only run on supercomputers.

The first UK-based simulator showed, for example, that as warming of the atmosphere dries the Amazon, vegetation dies off and carbon is released from the trees into the atmosphere.

How will the southern hemisphere cope if ocean currents, shown here, are disrupted? Scientists say we don't have enough good data to tell (Image: NOAA)Love says the Amazon has global effects on climate that are akin to 'getting hit between the eyes with a mallet', which is why climate scientists in the northern hemisphere have included it in their models.

But, he says, the Amazon is the only area in the southern hemisphere that the current models have detailed information on.The impact on climate of vegetation changes in Australia have not been modelled in detail, he says.

'Unless the vegetation change in Australia will change the climate in the UK then they are not interested,' says Love.This means current simulators are of limited use in modelling what happens at a regional level in Australia.

What about warm currents?
The scientists hope their new model will also shed more light on thermohaline circulation, which helps to deliver warm water from the south to parts of the northern hemisphere.

Current models warn that if this system collapses, due to an injection of cold water from the melting Greenland ice sheet, this could plunge places like Western Europe into a mini ice-age, like the one in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.

But, says Love, we don't know what impact such a collapse would have on the Pacific Ocean because current models lack good data on circulation in the Southern Ocean that connects the Pacific and Atlantic.

The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology promise a southern hemisphere model in 2 years time. Maybe by then we will have a government that takes these things seriously.

17 November 2005

happy happy! joy joy!

Harriet has another claim to fame
KERRY O'BRIEN: Imagine being born in 1830 and still being around to celebrate your birthday. Next week, the Australia Zoo on Queensland's Sunshine Coast will celebrate the 175th birthday of the world's oldest known living animal, a Galapagos tortoise named Harriet that weighs almost 150 kilograms. But Harriet has an extra claim to fame. According to folklore, Charles Darwin adopted her as a personal pet during the historic voyage of HMS Beagle and studied her while working on his theory of evolution. Peter McCutcheon reports.

ROBIN STEWART, AUTHOR, 'DARWIN'S TORTOISE': She's an amazing creature. You've got to see her to get this incredible sort of presence from her.

PETER McCUTCHEON: This giant Galapagos tortoise known as Harriet, has been on the move for nearly 175 years. But being recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's oldest living animal, isn't Harriet's only claim to fame. Many believe this reptile was once the personal pet of the man who pioneered the theory of evolution.

ROBIN STEWART: I believe that Harriet was Darwin's tortoise and that the story is true.

KELSEY MOSTYN, CURATOR, AUSTRALIA ZOO: She's certainly in the right age bracket to fit the story of meeting Darwin, definitely.

PETER McCUTCHEON: But not everyone is convinced. NOEL HALL, HISTORIAN: Personally, I never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

PETER McCUTCHEON: What is known for sure is that British naturalist Charles Darwin took several young Galapagos tortoises with him back to London in 1835 after his famous voyage on the Beagle. Also on that voyage was a young naval officer, John Clements Wickham, who later took up a post as police magistrate in what is now the city of Brisbane. So the story goes, Darwin gave the tortoises to Wickham.

Before anyone tries to revoke my citizenship for celebrating Harriet's birthday, instead of something else, I actually cried when Aloisi's goal hit the net. And jumped up and down a lot. But then, Harriet was born before there was a World Cup.

16 November 2005

things to make your toes curl

Grand Canyon West
The Hualapai Tribe is sharing their private land with visitors from around the world, so guests can join them in experiencing its uniqueness and untouched beauty. As owners and protectors of one million acres of land throughout the Grand Canyon's western rim, the Hualapai's main goal is to keep a balance between form, function and nature, while protecting the tribe's culture and values, which are deeply engraved in the canyon walls.

The Skywalk will be the featured attraction once it opens to the public in January 2006. Visitors will be able to walk around the first-ever cantilever shaped glass bridge that will be suspended more than 4,000 feet above the Colorado River and extend over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Located adjacent to The Skywalk visitor's center at Eagle Point, The Skywalk Café will feature outdoor patio seating on the edge of the canyon. The visitor's center will also offer private indoor meeting facilities.

'The Hualapai Tribe is looking to protect and care for its future generations,' said Sheri Yellowhawk, CEO of Grand Canyon Resort Corp. 'The Skywalk will be an attraction unlike any other in the world, but to get a true experience of the Hualapai legacy, visitors must encounter the entire destination.'

The floor will be glass. No doubt George Bush will want one of his own as soon as possible.

6 November 2005

Man of Steel or drama queen?

Sooner or later the government will run out of new ideas for laws against terrorism. The latest will in due course be endorsed by the opposition leader, but only if there's an amendment empowering the shooting on sight of all persons thought to be showing anything other than a small target. At the rate the government is inventing dire threats and direr laws I expect to read about the opposition leader endorsing summary execution for MPs suspended from parliament by about next Thursday. As is customary, the opposition will insist on not seeing the laws before agreeing to pass them. Clearly, these laws have no purpose except testing the opposition's ticker to see if they'll ever actually oppose any restriction of liberty.

I would've thought a Man of Steel would have better things to do than stampede the country into abolishing traditional liberties that have endured for some hundreds of years. Australia faced considerably more serious threats during the Second World War. No-one then proposed the nation would fall unless it passed a Reichstagsbrandverordnung forthwith. It's instructive to recall the text of that decree:

1. Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom (habeas corpus), freedom of opinion, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

Fortunately for the significant danger of falling into a Howard=Hitler argument, there is no bll of rights for Howard to suspend. Austraia's case is worse.

As Justice Nicholls writes

In considering this proposed legislation, it is important to remember that in Australia there is no effective human rights framework surrounding the new anti-terrorism legislation. Unlike other western democracies, we have no Bill of Rights and therefore no check upon extreme legislation of this type other than what can be found in the Constitution.

Similarly, unlike European countries including the UK, we are not party to any binding international instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights and its five protocols, which enable European citizens to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if domestic legislation or law is thought to be in breach of that Convention.

Additionally, the UK has passed human rights legislation of its own as have Canada, in the form of a constitutional Charter and New Zealand. The US has its own 18th century Bill of Rights, which nevertheless continues to provide real protection against governmental excesses.

There are differing models to be found of this type of legislation but the better models enable the court to read down legislation so as to be compatible with human rights requirements, or if this cannot be done, strike down the legislation.

Given a choice between a bill of rights and the sterling defence of Australian freedom by an opposition noted only for simultaneously being strident and supine, I think I'd take a bill of rights any day.

27 October 2005

What do bears and Republicans do n the woods?

A breathless New York Times tells us that the White House is testing talking points to smear the special prosecutor if the grand jury indicts Rove and Libby. No doubt the subtle plan is to leak the prosecutor's wife to the media. In other news, the NYT also reports the astounding fact that bears sometimes shit in the woods.

24 October 2005

decline and fish of the Roman empire

I'll have the fish, thanks
US restaurant menu prices back 150 years, for instance, chart sometimes inexplicable swings in tastes and prices of seafood including swordfish, lobster, abalone, oysters, halibut, haddock and sole.

'Back in the 1860s no one wanted to eat lobster,' says Professor Glenn Jones, a researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, who leads the menu project. Giant lobsters weighing 9 kilograms were common in New England.

Considered a trash food in colonial times, a lobster meal cost about US$5 in the 1880s before surging to about US$25 in the 1920s, roughly matching 2005 levels, after it became a delicacy and stocks suffered.

Food was so scarce for the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1620s that they lamented they sometimes had to feed the spiny crustacean to guests. Servants in colonial times negotiated contracts to limit lobster meals to two a week.

And the size and number of huge vats used by the ancient Romans to make a popular fish soup indicate that they were overfishing many Mediterranean species 2000 years ago, even though human populations were a fraction of 21st century levels.

'The Romans ate fish in vast quantities,' Holm says. 'Overfishing in medieval Europe was a very real problem in the days of William the Conqueror and Leonardo da Vinci.

'The impacts of early fisheries on pristine stocks can be quite severe,' he says.

Concentrations of small fish bones found in some Medieval rubbish dumps by the North Sea indicate that the big fish had already been caught and stocks were suffering.

Is it really rocket science that over-fishing causes depletion?

21 October 2005

Catalyst on ID theory

Catalyst did a reasonable job on Intelligent Design last night. I say reasonable because they got caught up in the antiphonal debate theory where you doing good journalism if you let both sides have a say, even if one side is actually badly wrong.

There's a poll crying out for you to go and vote. Brendan Nelson's support for the teaching of ID theory in science classes raises a lot of questions. Why do Australian conservatives pick up the latest silliness from the US right as if it were (ahem) Gospel truth? How does a medical practitioner reconcile his knowledge of life science with endorsing ID theory as scientific? And was the world really designed by an intelligent Flying Spaghetti Monster?

20 October 2005

game, set, match

Bush whacked Rove on CIA leak
An angry President Bush rebuked chief political guru Karl Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair, sources told the Daily News.

'He made his displeasure known to Karl,' a presidential counselor told The News. 'He made his life miserable about this.'

Bush has nevertheless remained doggedly loyal to Rove, who friends and even political adversaries acknowledge is the architect of the President's rise from baseball owner to leader of the free world. As special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald nears a decision, perhaps as early as today, on whether to issue indictments in his two-year probe, Bush has already circled the wagons around Rove, whose departure would be a grievous blow to an already shell-shocked White House staff and a President in deep political trouble.

Asked if he believed indictments were forthcoming, a key Bush official said he did not know, then added: 'I'm very concerned it could go very, very badly.'

George W. Bush 30 September 2003
QUESTION: Yesterday we were told that Karl Rove had no role in it. . .


QUESTION: Have you talked to Karl and do you have confidence in him . . .

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, I know of nobody -- I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action.

It's an extremely good thing that Bush did not have oral sex with Rove at the same time, because of course lying about sex with an aide is an impeachable offence. Fortunately, it appears that Bush only lied about knowing Rove had disclosed the identity of a CIA WMD specialist.

I think updating blog items is evil, but on the other hand, via Steve Gilliard...

Patrick Fitzgerald Bio
Fitzgerald is certainly an interesting investigator for this case. A little background:
The full damage caused by the leak isn't yet knowable (at least without the clearance). But Valerie Wilson's CIA front, Brewster-Jennings, was reportedly tasked with tracking the smuggling of explosive materials in the Middle East, so that crap like the 1993 WTC attack, the embassy bombings in Africa, and 9-11 wouldn't be even worse next time. (That's the operation apparently shit-canned by this White House for their own political gain. So you can see why the CIA lifers pushed the case for criminal investigation, and why people are throwing the word 'treason' around so much.) The 1993 WTC attack was prosecuted by... Patrick Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was then assigned to prosecute, yes, the Al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. Fitzgerald was building a case against Osama Bin Laden five years before 9-11.

This job, one concludes, involved a certain appreciation for intelligence people studying the illicit movement of explosives by terrorists.

If there's a single prosecutor in America who fully understands what the Plame case is about -- a reckless compromise of national security for political interest -- it's this guy. If there's a prosecutor in this country who groks the background and context of the specific operations destroyed by this crime, it's this guy. And if there's a single prosecutor capable of pursuing a conspiracy case no matter where it reaches, it sure seems like it's this guy.

Given a choice between being chased by Patrick Fitzgerald and a pack of hungry zombies... I'm guessing the zombies would look pretty good right about now.

Then read The Blog | James Moore: The Most Important Criminal Case in American History
Patrick Fitzgerald has before him the most important criminal case in American history. Watergate, by comparison, was a random burglary in an age of innocence. The investigator's prosecutorial authority in this present case is not constrained by any regulation. If he finds a thread connecting the leak to something greater, Fitzgerald has the legal power to follow it to the web in search of the spider. It seems unlikely, then, that he would simply go after the leakers and the people who sought to cover up the leak when it was merely a secondary consequence of the much greater crime of forging evidence to foment war. Fitzgerald did not earn his reputation as an Irish alligator by going after the little guy. Presumably, he is trying to find evidence that Karl Rove launched a covert operation to create the forged documents and then conspired to out Valerie Plame when he learned the fraud was being uncovered by Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. As much as this sounds like the plot of a John le Carre novel, it also comports with the profile of the Karl Rove I have known, watched, traveled with and written about for the past 25 years.

The ball's in play. I doubt this one is going back over the net.

19 October 2005

rigging the vote I

Georgia's Voter Identification Law Barred
A federal judge Tuesday blocked Georgia from enforcing a new state law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy said the law amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax because the state is not doing enough to make ID cards available to those who cannot afford them.

The requirement "is most likely to prevent Georgia's elderly, poor and African-American voters from voting," Murphy wrote. "For those citizens, the character and magnitude of their injury - the loss of their right to vote - is undeniably demoralizing and extreme."

So far, the law has been used only for local elections. The injunction could prevent its use during municipal elections Nov. 8.

Voter and civil rights groups sued over the new law, which eliminates the use of other forms of voter identification, such as Social Security cards, birth certificates or utility bills. Supporters, including Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, argued that the measure would help prevent fraud.

Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto
Recommendation 25
The Committee recommends that, at the next Federal Election, those wishing to cast a provisional vote should produce photographic identification.

Voters unable to do so at the polling booth on election day would be permitted to vote, but their ballots would not be included in the count unless they provide the necessary documentation to the DRO by close of business on the Friday following election day. Where it was impracticable for an elector to attend a DRO’s office, a photocopy of the identification, either faxed or mailed to the DRO, would be acceptable. Those who do not possess photographic identification should present one of the other forms of identification acceptable to the AEC for enrolment.

Recommendation 29
The Committee does not support the introduction of proof of identity requirements for general voters on polling day at the next election.

Instead, the Committee recommends that the AEC report to the JSCEM on the operation of proof of identity arrangements internationally, and on how such systems might operate on polling day in Australia.

Recommendation 30
The Committee recommends that, at the next Federal Election, the AEC encourage voters to voluntarily present photographic identification in the form of a driver’s licence to assist in marking off the electoral roll.

This is just an extra obstacle that will fall disproportionately on the poor, the elderly, and the marginalised - people unlikely to vote for the Coalition. The committee produces no evidence to show that fraud has effected voting.

The sad truth is that the JSCEM report is really not much more than a Coalition attempt to introduce US Republican party techniques for suppressing the vote. Australia has the fairest enrolment and voting system in the world. It follows, as simple logic, that the Coalition now wants to import the worst features of the US electoral system, features that, without exception, favour the Coalition.

The report contains a number of other recommendations that attack the right to vote. I'll deal with them over the next few days.

Australia is the only remaining democracy without a bill of rights. The right to vote is entirely in the gift of the federal parliament. There is no way for an Australian court to protect the people in the way the US court has done.

17 October 2005

depressive economics

Future failings
This finding was recently replicated, in some respects, suggesting there is something to it. However, there remains a major reason for scepticism. If genes are so important when combined with adverse environments, why are there huge fluctuations in the prevalence of most emotional problems, like depression and violence? Since it takes millennia for genetic change to occur in a population, genes could not be the cause of these variations. In Britain, violence against the person has increased 45-fold since 1950. Equally, there can be dramatic drops in the amount of violence that can have nothing to do with genes: rates of homicide in America have almost halved since 1993.

'Bit of both', nature-nurture exponents would argue that it just goes to show that dodgy genes only get expressed if environments activate them. But that could not explain such huge changes. Far more probable is that genetic vulnerability explains none of a 45-fold change in such a short period - that an awful lot of people with no genetic susceptibility are made, rather than born, violent or non-violent, depending on their society.

Even if it emerges that genes are always involved to some degree, one of the most striking implications of such studies is that emotionally benign environments are crucial: if you want the minimum of depression or violence, they make an overwhelming case for having a minimum of poor people and abusive parents, rather than societies making tiny minorities super-rich.

One wonders how socially benign Australia is these days between the mountain of personal debt and the impending industrial law changes. One also wonders how the Bush administration train wreck is going to rebound on the Man of Steel's drive to make us all feel relaxed and comfortable.

tear gassing Rove

Protest at Rove Prison ends with tear gas Somehow I misread this as a story about US politics...

13 October 2005

Neolithic noodles

Slurping first: China invented noodles
A decades-long wrangle as to which culture gave birth to the noodle has finally been settled - the winner is China.

Italians, through the explorer Marco Polo, and Arabs had been the other claimants to a culinary staple that has been around for at least 2,000 years.

But a team of archaeologists, reporting in the British journal Nature, say there is now incontrovertible proof that China was faster to the pasta.

They discovered 4,000-year-old long, boiled strands of noodles protected by an upside-down bowl, embedded in a fine, brownish-yellow clay on a terrace of the Yellow River at Lajia, north-western China.

The site, on a flood plain whose sediments are three metres thick, has been under careful excavation since 1999.

The age of the find comes from carbon dating of the sediments in its lay.

The Neolithic noodles show no trace of the durum wheat, bread wheat or barley that usually make up today's pasta.

Instead, they are made from millet, one of the first grass plants to be farmed in the semi-arid plateau of north-western China.

I don't actually think this is incontrovertible proof at all. Noodles do not have to get invented only once and all this proves is the antiquity of noodles in East Asia. It tells us nothing about the great question of whther noodles were diffused or infused in other regions.

12 October 2005

Beware the jabbervarch culicivora, my son

African Spider Craves Human Blood, Scientists Find
Although many spiders have relatively poor eyesight - those that use webs to trap prey have no need for acute vision, Nelson says - jumping spiders are an exception.

'Salticids are predators that actively search for prey and mates and typically do not build webs,' she said. 'They have evolved eyes that support high-acuity vision suited to their active lifestyle.'

Spiders don't have the skin-piercing mouth parts needed to feed directly on human blood, but the mosquito-munching jumping spider appears to have got around this. The strategy has other advantages as well, Nelson points out.

'Blood-feeding is a dangerous activity,' she said. 'Animals that are bitten have a swatting response, and often the insect is killed.'

By eating mosquitoes, the spider avoids the risk of being squashed by an unwilling blood donor.

The study team suspects a blood meal is also biologically important to E. culicivora.

They say spiders expend a lot of energy breaking solid food down into liquid by injecting their prey with digestive enzymes.

'Perhaps blood is a ready-made, nutrient-rich liquid meal,' Nelson said.

I plan a moral triumph by posting this without a single joke about the resemblance between E culicivora and the contemporary conservative. And they're probably not either slithy or brilling.

11 October 2005

Merkeling through

Germany is to have a new Chancellor. Angela Merkel, will head a black/red grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. In return for the chancellorship, the Social Democrats get 8 ministries (including foreign affairs) and the vice-chancellorship. It will be an interesting test for consensus politics. Apparently, the second of two jokes in the campaign has been asking 'Wer wird Kanzlerin?' or 'Who is the (female) chancellor going to be?'

Merkel will be the first Bundeskanzlerin in Germany's history. It's not clear if the present chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, will be vice-chcancellor or even a member of the new government.

8 October 2005

Vanstone not to blame Howard

This headline surprised me a lot.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman, fresh from having completed a scathing report on the wrongful deportation of Vivian Alvarez, has revealed that he's now investigating the case of someone who was detained by the Immigration Department for more than three years. The Ombudsman, Professor John McMillan, says yesterday's was the most damning report he'd ever prepared.

Vanstone has, after all, blamed almost everyone else.

7 October 2005

sometimes a citizen says it all

Hear Joe Frost, 20, speaking during the ceremony of remembrance at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Newcastle, last night:

For a lot of us here tonight, these have been the toughest days of our lives.

This kind of thing always happens to someone else. I've heard many people say that over the last few days and I've said it myself. But the reality is that bomb hit us that night, and it's hit our whole community, and so tonight we come here and as we said in the homily, we come with questions. Now one question on my mind is: why did this happen?

And apparently it's about religion. Apparently these wild, radical, whoever they are have decided that what we were doing was offensive to them. But we were eating dinner on the beach with our friends and families. Who does that offend? Who doesn't eat dinner with their family and friends? It's the most common thing in the world.

And now the cowards who planned and who advocate and champion this horrific act say that they are heroes and that the people who did it are heroes. But what's heroic about murdering the innocent and leaving families ruined?

But having been broken open, our hearts have been exposed, and the support and the strength that has been shown by the group who were together in Bali, while we were in Bali, was amazing.

We all leaned on each other and we all stayed positive. We even managed to make a few jokes. I managed to be the brunt of most of them because when the bomb went off it blew off my pants and I spent the night walking around in my undies.

(laughter from congregation)

Since coming home we tried to see each other every day, and as JK said, we're a family now.

But we've been bolstered by community support. I know for my family we got home on Monday and we found that our fridge was so stocked with groceries that there were some people who'd gone out and bought eskies so that there was more room to put the food in, and we had a bakery on the end of our table. And I was so grateful and proud to be a Novocastrian.

These are our darkest hours, the worst days of so many of our lives. This sad and sickening act has torn us open. But we'll stand together and we'll make it through.

audio here

ID book shows sneaky design

Book thrown at proponents of Intelligent Design
The early versions of the book were displayed to the court by expert witness for the plaintiffs and creationist historian Barbara Forrest of the Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. She suggested that they were strong proof that ID is indeed creationism by another name.

Forrest compared early drafts of Of Pandas and People to a later 1987 copy, and showed how in several instances the word 'creationism' had been replaced by 'intelligent design', and 'creationist' simply replaced by 'intelligent design proponent'.

"Forrest's testimony showed that ID is not a scientific theory, but a Trojan horse for creationism," said Eric Rothshild of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Leaving aside the important question of whether the big-I Intelligent Designer is the Judeo-Christian or Pastafarian deity, or indeed Kang and Kodos, isn't there something against fibbing in the Old Testament?

4 October 2005

We hold these domain names to be self-evident...

Rally for less U.S.-centric Internet gains momentum
The politicization of Internet control has intensified as the European Union made clear at the latest meeting on the one hand of its backing of the ITU and the United Nations, as it argued that other governments and international agencies must work together with ICANN when it comes to assigning domain names.

In part given the fact that the head of the ITU is a Japanese national, the Japanese government too has made clear its support for the U.N.-led initiative, thereby siding its support for the EU proposal. Given that Japan is the world's second-largest Internet user following the United States and the EU and Japan combined make up a significant part of global Web use, their joint opposition to continued U.S. dominance could well be the single-biggest source of friction at the upcoming Tunis conference. At the same time, while there are 13 principal routing servers that ICANN is connected to worldwide, only three are based in Japan and Europe, while the remaining 10 are located across the United States alone.

The Japanese media has pointed out that the existing domain-naming system has reached its limit, especially as many point out the need to come up with new names such as .asia to meet the ever-changing needs of Internet users worldwide without having to resort to the United States as the final arbiter of whether or not such names are appropriate.

In addition, the financial daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun pointed out that a U.S.-led Internet naming system inevitably becomes focused on the English language, whereas much of the growth seen in the World Wide Web these days comes from non-English-speaking developing countries. Certainly, objection to the dominance of the English language on the Web, particularly in assigning domain names, is a common complaint from both developing and industrialized countries alike where English is not the native tongue.

For its part, the United States has made clear its opposition to changing ICANN's role in naming domains as it continues to argue that now is not the time to change the system as it could lead to confusion while arguing that the United Nations would simply not be able to handle the responsibility.

Meanwhile, the ITU's Utsumi stressed the need to reach a consensus at the upcoming conference, stating that 'if we wish to build a just and equitable information society, this summit cannot be allowed to fail.'

Australia's going to find itself in a cleft stick between a rock and a hard place. !. The Howard government has always argued they should control the .au domain. 2. Their foreign policy has consisted of a string of quick emails to the White House asking for instructions. Logically they should support internationalising the Internet, and that is what various Asian governments will expect us to do. On the other hand that may not be what the White House email says. The weird bit is the confusion between the top level domain, .com and the like, and the country level domain .us. You'd expect US companies to want to badge themselves by using the .us subdomain instead of the generic top level domain. It just hasn't happened.

2 October 2005

Bali hit again

One Australian killed in Bali blasts
At least one Australian is among 19 people killed in explosions in the popular Indonesian resort island of Bali, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said.

Up to four explosions rocked tourist areas of Kuta and Jimbaran Beach, wounding 51 people, including three Australians.

One hospital official said at least 35 wounded foreigners were taken to the main hospital on Bali.

Mr Downer says he is finding it hard to get detailed information.

'There are reports that there could be between 30 and 40 injured and some reports are suggesting that there are nine or so dead but these numbers are very early and they could change significantly,' he said.

'We know from experience the numbers unfortunately could turn out to be a good deal higher than that.'

Daniel Martin, a tourist in Bali, says there was chaos after the blast in Kuta Square.

'There was thick smoke for a few minutes afterwards but there didn't seem to be any fire,' he said.

'People were clambering onto the roof of the restaurant. It's about a three storey building so people were climbing out and screaming and jumping down to the street.

'It was pretty harrowing stuff.'

Phonelines between Bali and other parts of the country were overloaded, as people struggled to contact friends and relatives in the area.

Peter Holden of Gosford on the central coast of New South Wales says he received an SMS message from his daughter Donna, who lives in Bali, telling him about the explosions.

Mr Holden says his daughter has reported several fatalities.

'There have been at least two bombs gone off in Jimbaran in restaurants and those kind of restaurants are restaurants populated by tourists in the main,' Mr Holden said.

'And then a more recent report just a moment ago that there's also reports of another bomb in Kuta Square. That's a pretty busy tourist area,' he said.

The blasts come almost exactly three years since two nightclubs were bombed in Bali's famous Kuta Beach in October 2002, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Deadly blasts rip through Bali again
Explosions rocked�the Indonesian tourist island of Bali last night, leaving at least 23 people dead and dozens wounded.

Witnesses said they saw body parts, including a severed head and a leg, and hospitals filled with injured.

Many foreigners were�among those killed. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, said at least one Australian
was confirmed dead.

The blasts at Jimbaran beach and a bustling outdoor shopping centre in downtown Kuta "were clearly the work of terrorists'',
Police Major General Ansyaad Mbai, a top Indonesian anti-terrorism official, told the Associated Press.

Komang, a receptionist at the Graha Asih Hospital, close to Jimbaran Bay, said there were at least eight people in the morgue and that doctors were treating at least 13 wounded. "It's a horrible scene,'' she said. "Some people have had their heads blown off.''

The bombs went off almost simultaneously at�about 7.30pm local time (9.30pm Sydney time).

The blasts hit two restaurants that were packed with foreign and Indonesian diners.

Wayan Kresna said he witnessed the first bomb at a seafood restaurant on Jimbaran beach. He counted at least two dead and said many others were taken to hospital.

Australian agencies to consider Bali response
This attack comes almost three years to the day after terrorists killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in a similar attack on two Kuta bars.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has condemned the blasts as a criminal act.

Anyone who has relatives or friends in Bali is advised to try to contact them directly before calling the DFAT hotline on 1800 002 214.

Here we go again. Reported fatalities have risen from nil to 23 over the last hour.

1 October 2005

NZ final election result

NZ Electoral Commission

  • Labour Party 41.10%, 31 electorate MPs, 19 list MPs, total MPs 50 (+1 since original count)
  • National Party 39.10%, 31 electorate MPs, 17 list MPs, 48 total MPs (-1 since original count)
  • New Zealand First Party 5.72%, 0 electorate MPs, 7 list MPs, total MPs 7
  • Green Party 5.30%, 0 electorate MPs, 6 list MPs, total MPs 6
  • Mâori Party 2.12%, 4 electorate MPs, 0 list MPs, total MPs 4
  • United Future New Zealand 2.67%, 1 electorate MPs, 2 list MPs, total MPs 3
  • ACT New Zealand 1.51%, 1 electorate MPs, 1 list MPs, total MPs 2
  • Jim Anderton's Progressive 1.16%, 1 electorate MPs, 0 list MPs, total MPs 1

Despite claims that the special and overseas vote favour the Nationals, the only change since the original count is to transfer one list seat from National to Labour and to reduce the house frm 122 to 121. Both results favour Labour.

Don Brash, the National opposition leader, has now conceded the election and Helen Clark is finalising negotiations to form the next government, putting her on course to become New Zealand's first Labour prime minister to serve a third term.

29 September 2005

somebody tell the president!

Scientists perfect sandcastle recipe
A lesson learned by centuries of beachcombers has been distilled to a physicist's formula: to make the perfect sandcastle, use eight parts sand to one part water.

The physicists' study, released before publication in the journal Nature Physics, is entitled, rather grandly, 'Maximum angle of stability of a wet granular pile'.

While it deals with sandcastles, it could also help determine the stability of retaining walls and the material they hold back, one of its authors said.

This study and those that follow on this subject might have implications for those preparing for or recovering from a watery disaster like a hurricane, physicist Arshad Kudrolli said.

'Our study is the first step, in some sense, in trying to understand what's the most stable angle that one can build, say, a retaining wall,' he said. 'And if it fails, where would the material end up? How much part of the land will give way?'

Inspired by childhood memories of the seaside, the study's authors worked on a simple model of what makes for the most stable construction involving liquid and particles.

In the case of a sandcastle, builders need to use roughly one-eighth the water to the amount of sand, though Mr Kudrolli said there is a range of possibilities that would work.

Quicksand myth exposed
Quicksand is not the bottomless pit portrayed in Hollywood films that sucks in unsuspecting victims and swallows them whole. It is true the more people struggle, the deeper they sink into the soupy mixture.But its buoyancy makes it impossible to be completely submerged, scientists report today in the journal Nature. 'Everybody thinks, thanks to Hollywood, that you can drown in quicksand. Basically if you do a simple buoyancy calculation, the Archimedes force, it is immediately evident that you can't drown completely,' says Professor Daniel Bonn, a physicist at the University of Amsterdam.Quicksand consists of salt, water, sand and clay. It is the water content that makes quicksand, which is found near estuaries, beaches and rivers, so dangerous.

This important research has significant rhetorical, domestic and foreign policy implications. George Bush, despite charges that he's all hat and no cattle, loves Western metaphors, like getting Osama bin Laden dead or alive (give or take a delay longer than separates Pearl Harbour and VJ Day). He also loves saving money on flood protection. Now if you can't drown in a quagmire... And if you can build a levee bank that's 8 parts sand...

one ape to rule them

Peter Jackson is obsessed with King Kong. He's also obsessed with making sure we get to know all about the making of his ape movie. Do we have to wait for the documentary on the special features DVD? Nope, just sign up to his RSS feed at Kong Is King.

27 September 2005

Katie Kouric just doesn't cut it

The Australian Electoral Commission has just posted its report on the 2004 general election. The Parliament's joinst standing committee on electoral matters is conducting its own review, as it does after every election.

Behind the Scenes - Election Night
National Tally Room Preparations
The NTR for the 2004 federal election was located at Exhibition Park in Canberra. It took about two weeks to build, three days to dismantle and many months of detailed planning to organise.

Transforming the empty hall into the central point on election night was a massive logistical exercise. The AEC had access to the building from 27 September when the work began on:

  • laying the temporary floor
  • building the 35 metre x 7 metre tally board
  • allocating space to the media, parties and television networks
  • organising the electricity supply, air conditioning, telecommunication lines and computer cabling.

Elaborate security arrangements were in place during the building of the tally room and on election night. To ensure the smooth running of the NTR the AEC also conducted a rehearsal on the Thursday before election day to test the computer system and to provide training for the casual staff employed on the National Tally Board and in divisional offices throughout Australia.

The NTR cost approximately $650 000 to organise. This included the hire of venue, communication and computing facilities, equipment hire, casual staff wages and security. The television networks met the costs of constructing their own sets.

National Tally Room Logistics
The NTR included:

  • 700 members of the media
  • four major and two minor purpose-built television studios
  • 100 political party workers and Members of Parliament
  • 160 international and other official guests
  • 150 AEC and other NTR workers
  • 2 400 members of the public (a maximum of about 300 at any one time).

On the technical side there were:

  • 84 terminals, four printers and 7 separate data feeds
  • six kilometres of telephone cables
  • 8.5 kilometres of computer cabling
  • two mobile telephone repeater stations
  • in excess of 300 mobile and 150 static telephones
  • up to 650 amps of electrical load (enough to power a small town).

The US does not have a more perfect electoral system, despite their more perfect union. Having a public tally where nation-wide results get collated and posted would make a big difference. For that matter, having a single election management body that (subject to judicial review) administers elections transparently, impartially, and professionally would be a good thing too.

Arthur C Clarke on the space elevator

The Times Online guest contributors Opinion
Today's communications satellites demonstrate how an object can remain poised over a fixed spot on the Equator by matching its speed to the turning Earth, 22,300 miles (35,780 km) below. Now imagine a cable linking the satellite to the ground. Payloads could be hoisted up it by purely mechanical means, reaching orbit without any use of rocket power. The cost of launching payloads into orbit could be reduced to a tiny fraction of today's costs.

The space elevator was the central theme in my 1978 science-fiction novel The Fountains of Paradise (soon to be a Hollywood movie). When I wrote it, I considered it little more than a fascinating thought experiment. At that time, the only material from which it could be built – diamond – was not readily available in sufficient megaton quantities. This situation has now changed, with the discovery of the third form of carbon, C60, and its relatives, the Buckminsterfullerenes. If these can be mass-produced, building a space elevator would be a completely viable engineering proposition.

What makes the space elevator such an attractive idea is its cost-effectiveness. A ticket to orbit now costs tens of millions of dollars (as the millionaire space tourists have paid). But the actual energy required, if you purchased it from your friendly local utility, would add only about a hundred dollars to your electricity bill. And a round trip would cost only about one tenth of that, as most of the energy could be recovered on the way back.

Once built, the space elevator could be used to lift payloads, passengers, prefabricated components of spacecraft, as well as rocket fuel up to Earth orbit. In this way, more than 90 per cent of the energy needed for exploration of the solar system could be provided by Earth-based energy sources.
Looking even farther ahead, one could see the virtual elimination of the rocket except for minor orbit adjustments. By extending the elevator, it would act as a giant sling, and payloads could be shot off to anywhere in the solar system by releasing them at the correct moment. Of course, rockets would still be responsible for the journey back to Earth – at least until elevator/slings were constructed on the other planets. If this ever happens, the most expensive component of travel around the solar system would be for life support – and inflight movies.

As its most enthusiastic promoter, I am often asked when I think the first space elevator might be built. My answer has always been: about 50 years after everyone has stopped laughing. Maybe I should now revise it to 25 years.

Clarke (who predicted the communications satellite many years before the first one was launched) also speaks about the 1911-12 Antarctic expedition and the more than 40 years it took to return there and stay. I could think of much better things to do wth the NASA budget than another Apollo Program and a human-crewed Mars expedition. Building a space elevator is one of them.

why the PR-is-evil snowclone lives on

Via Make My Vote Count

MMP: saner and safer, but don't you miss the blood?
Yes, the spectacle of the two major parties slugging it out brought to mind the old system. And yet, curiously enough, the result looks like precisely the kind of outcome MMP encourages a shifting balance of power around the notional centre, where all must take into account the position of the other, not dismiss them as irrelevant. To paraphrase another commentator, this is the opposite of Geoffrey Palmer's famous 'unbridled power'.

If First Past the Post lingers anywhere it is in the mindsets of certain journalists and politicians. Elections are still reported as though they are rugby tests, and there is an almost tangible desire for a close result to mean instability or potential chaos.

Perhaps this is due partly to the journalistic instinct for avoiding boredom. Where Helen Clark plainly revels in the Scandinavian torpor of policy negotiation and strategic alliance building, we hacks would prefer it all to descend into bitching and scratching because it makes better headlines and obviates the need for anything more than superficial analysis.

Attempts now to blame MMP for delivering a supposedly unjust outcome, as Richard Prebble has argued, can perhaps be attributed partly to the Right's lingering distaste for a system that by design precludes absolute minority rule and 'reform' by decree. As Prebble also observed, Brash fought a good First Past the Post campaign. It's just that history has moved on.

The other snowclone well past its meltdown date is the alleged considerate conservatism of Barnaby Joyce. The senator from St George seems to spend an awful lot of time waving his sword at the dragon but somehow always whips it back in the scabbard just before it's time to vote.

24 September 2005

Rita floods NOLA

Water pours into Ninth Ward
Hurricane Rita-driven winds pushed floodwaters from the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and Chalmette as water topped a section of the levee that was under repair, Secretary of Transportation and Development Johnny Bradberry said Friday.

Bradberry said the flooding was waist-deep near the levee.

He said there have not been any reports of flooding in other parts of the area, such near the 17th Street Canal or the London Avenue Canal, two troublespots during Hurricane Katrina.

This is really, really bad because it looks as if the floodwall system itself may be flawed.

Experts Say Faulty Levees Caused Much of Flooding
Louisiana's top hurricane experts have rejected the official explanations for the floodwall collapses that inundated much of New Orleans, concluding that Hurricane Katrina's storm surges were much smaller than authorities have suggested and that the city's flood- protection system should have kept most of the city dry.The Army Corps of Engineers has said that Katrina was just too massive for a system that was not intended to protect the city from a storm greater than a Category 3 hurricane, and that the floodwall failures near Lake Pontchartrain were caused by extraordinary surges that overtopped the walls.
Workers repair a section of the levee at the 17th Street Canal, which breached and caused flooding.

But with the help of complex computer models and stark visual evidence, scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center have concluded that Katrina's surges did not come close to overtopping those barriers. That would make faulty design, inadequate construction or some combination of the two the likely cause of the breaching of the floodwalls along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals -- and the flooding of most of New Orleans.

Meanwhile back at the fort the White House was insisting they'd be much more focused on Rita, not they weren't focused on Katrina, but...

White House Briefing: Reporters Wonder About President's New 'Focus' on Hurricanes
Q So the lessons learned from Katrina will be applied in the case of Rita?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of Katrina, that was a storm that was unprecedented in size and scope and devastation. It is something that we want to make sure all the lessons possible are learned, and we want to make sure that we know exactly what worked and what didn't work. And that's why we are working closely with Congress as they move forward on their investigation. That's why the President has tasked his Homeland Security Council to make sure that there is a comprehensive review of the preparedness and response relating to Katrina, so we're doing that.

Now, in terms of Rita, I just talked about the steps that we're taking. And we're going to make sure that we are doing everything we can to have the strongest possible coordination with state and local governments as we prepared and respond to Hurricane Rita.

Q Well, Scott, continuing with what Steve said, how is what you're doing for Rita different from what you did from Katrina?

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure. A couple of things -- one, the President is focused on making sure we have the strongest possible coordination with state and local governments in the path of Hurricane Rita. We hope Rita is not devastating, but we must be prepared for the worst. Coordination at all levels needs to be seamless, or as seamless as possible, and that's what we're working to do.

Homeland Security and FEMA officials are working closely with state and local governments so that resources can be targeted where they are most needed. They are redoubling efforts to make sure we have a full understanding of what the needs are so that we can make sure that those needs are met. And I went through several steps that were already taken to address these issues.

Q So that's -- you think that that's going to be an improvement over what was done in Katrina?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, in terms of Katrina, we're still focused on the immediate needs of the people in the region and working to make sure that they are getting back up on their feet, that we're moving forward on the recovery, that we're moving forward on the rebuilding to help people rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities. We are determined to learn the lessons of Katrina, and that's why we have been assessing what's been working and what hasn't been working and taking steps to address those issues. That's why we're also working closely with Congress, and the President is committed to making sure that there's a thorough investigation so that we can learn those lessons.

Q Well, can you distinguish what you're doing differently?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I just talked to you about where the President's focus is and what we are doing. We want to make sure that we're --

Q And these are things you didn't do in Katrina?

MR. McCLELLAN: We want to make sure that we are better prepared and better positioned to respond to Hurricane Rita and that's what we're doing. That's why I outlined the several steps that we are taking. And that's why I just told you that the President is focused on making sure that we have the strongest possible coordination with state and local officials, and that we have --

Q Which you didn't have before, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- as seamless as possible coordination with state and local officials.

Q In other words, better than the last time?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just answered that question, Bill.

Q No, not really.

And someone forgot to evacuate the poor. And someone forgot a million people in cars need quite a lot of petrol.