Friday, 30 April 2010

Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama says in his weekly email "magazine" that he wants to attend a memorial ceremony for the victims of Minamata disease, to take place on 1 May. The release reveals that he remains uncertain whether he will be allowed to attend tomorrow's ceremony.

The 370-word release announces the government of Japan will "start accepting applications for compensation from Minamata disease victims from May 1" as a result of a "court" decision of 15 March where "settlement conditions and other arrangements for an ongoing trial with the patients' group" were presented.

A 19 March Japan Times story notes that:

The government will accept a court-brokered settlement in a damages suit filed by unrecognized sufferers of Minamata disease...

The same article notes that there are 2126 plaintiffs in the case. The defendants are the government, Kumamoto Prefecture and chemical maker Chisso Corporation, the company that allowed mercury to leak into the Yatsushiro Sea, off Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu.

The plaintiffs, "unrecognised victims" of the mercury poisoning, will be given money, according to a 5 April editorial in the Japan Times.

Each unrecognized victim will receive a lump-sump payment of ¥2.1 million and a monthly medical allowance of ¥12,900 to ¥17,700. The association of plaintiffs will also receive ¥2.95 billion.

The opinion piece implies that the criteria used in the past to assess whether a person is a sufferer of Minamata disease, were too "strict". And it also implies that the current government's criteria are still to strict, and

One of the things the central government must do is align its criteria with those adopted by the top court.

Hatoyama's email release says that "the Cabinet decided on a policy for relief measures based on the special measures law related to the relief of Minamata disease victims and resolution of the Minamata disease problem in the April 16 meeting".

In a 17 April story by the Japan Times, the number of sufferers are "expected to total more than 35,000".

But the editorial also notes that:

The latest agreement in principle excludes people born after November 1969. The geographical areas covered by the agreement are also limited.

Further, the 19 April story says that:

The disorder was also confirmed in Niigata Prefecture in 1965, linked to contaminated wastewater from a plant owned by Showa Denko K.K.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Review: Microchip, Jeffrey Zygmont (2003)

Fairchild Semiconductor is an apt name for a company that spawned - along with Dallas, Texas-based Texas Instruments - an industry, a legend, and also gave a name to a whole entire region of California.

Established on the ocean-and-bay-facing penninsula south of San Francisco, Fairchild's children - including giant Intel (a portmanteau word combining 'integrated' and 'electronics') - spread out across what would come to be known as Silicon Valley.

Fuelled by a search for viability through profits, a slew of small semiconductor companies emerged, beginning in the late-1940s and 1950s. They cannibalised each other for ideas and personnel. They experimented with novel manufacturing processes as they attempted to expand the capabilities of monolithic silicon, and apply it to an increasing number of industries and products.

Zygmont's focus is on discrete stories, such as Phoenix, Arizona-based Motorola's bid for a massive, new mobile telephone contract launched by the government. There's also an account of the work Motorola undertook as it competed for the huge automotive-control market.

Faster, cheaper, better. These watchwords motivated thousands of engineers, many with higher degrees, to push the boundaries of an emerging technology. The ability to concentrate hundreds (then thousands, then millions) of transistors on a single piece of rock would engross the nation as new products from their labs launched on the national stage.

For An Wang, who first made a buck in portable calculators, the idea of word processing was a big risk. The eccentric doctor mentored it and its inventor - Harold Koplow - through its first, gestational stages until it was released.

The irony is that Koplow's unsuccess in the company had seen him practically sidelined out of it, before he decided to write a user manual for a computer-based device for secretaries. The document morphed into a functional specification for the world's first commercial word processor.

Zygmont emphasises the free-market credentials of the silicon transformation of American industry. Without the freedom to move quickly, change direction according to the environment, and attract capital from many places, the project would not have succeeded, he says.

The book is fast-paced, and includes potted biographies of many of the main players in the project. It takes in developments starting in the late 1940s through to the mid-1980s, when automotive silicon began to be widespread.

A little breathless at times, the book is nevertheless a solid work of industry journalism and therefore is recommended.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The collapse of Transocean Ltd's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Caribbean Sea a few days ago should be a wake-up call to governments, including in Australia.

"There will be shoreline impacts from this, eventually. There's no way that we will pick up all the oil that's been released," said a representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Continued use of liquid fuel derived from naturally-occurring hydrocarbons is evidently unsustainable. The frequency of such accidents tells us that, despite the safety claims of producers, there is no guarantee wildlife will not be damaged by exploration and drilling.

And there are viable alternatives already. In Germany, wind-generated power has been so successful that generators have been forced to pay consumers to use their electricity. If the price of electricity from wind turbines can drop so low, what are governments waiting for?

Especially, what is Australia's Labor government waiting for? Their decision of recent days to delay renewed effort to pass a carbon trading scheme until 2013 is comprehensible only if we believe that there are people in the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism who are advising the government to delay.

By 2013 the game will have changed radically. Three years is a long time in politics, especially with an issue as volatile as carbon trading. By that time the ideas in currency within the community will have shifted, and it will be a completely different type of law that will be preoccupying the government, and us.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Americans worried about 'socialised' media being at the beck and call of government - who would pay for it were it expanded in that country - should take heart from Kevin Rudd's tardy apology to the parents of Matthew Fuller, Kevin and Christine, which was announced today in The Australian.

Today, mind. Because the timing is everything. It was just last night that the government-funded ABC aired a 4 Corners program (which goes to air weekly) on the universally-deplored government insulation scheme. In it, Kevin and Christine Fuller tearily berated the prime minister for failing to apologise for the death of their 26-year-old son.

Anyone who questions whether a government-backed broadcaster can be impartial - and fearless - should think again. Scenes from the program include one where Mr Rudd arrived at a school function only to be faced by the ABC's Wendy Carlisle with outstretched hand. He shook it then briskly ducked around the dogged Carlisle as she deftly shot him a prickly question on the ditched insulation scheme, which led to the deaths of four untrained tradespeople.

The Australian has no great affection for the ABC. The newspaper is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who distrusts the national broadcaster's plans to establish a 24-hour news channel in direct competition with Sky News, which Mr Murdoch partly owns.

But the paper reserves a greater quantity of distrust for the Australian Labor Party, which Mr Rudd heads in government.

Pic credit: Brisbane Times.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Lee Berger's discovery of Australopithecus sediba at Malapa cave some 45km north-west of Johannesberg, South Africa, is extraordinary. It opens up fresh vistas for speculators and scientists. It could rewrite the history books. But it has received almost no airplay. The newspapers have been silent.

Peter McAllister, a science writer, points to a possible reason for journalists' silence. Berger had been featured on the ABC's Media Watch program, and painted in a negative light.

I remember the program, but not all the details, so McAllister's charge has perhaps less powder than he would normally anticipate. Nevertheless, it is possible to link such mainstream put-downs - that relate to Berger's spruiking of a new pygmy hominid on the islands of Palau - to the silence that has greeted his most recent, disruptive announcement.

There is no doubt that the news is of signal importance, and the circumstances surrounding the discovery are colourful and therefore newsworthy.

Berger's Australopithecus sediba was discovered by his nine-year-old son, Matthew. The boy stumbled upon fragments of skeleton, including a rare collar bone, that had earlier been cast aside by miners searching for lime deposits.

The hominid had long arms - suitable for climbing trees and as long as those of an Ourang-outan - as well as long, strong legs suitable for walking upright. It is thus a transitional creature. Its feet and ankles are to receive close scrutiny.

'Sediba' means 'spring' in the Tutu language. There are currently two examples of the hominid: a young adolescent male and a mature female. Berger says that the site will most probably yield additional examples, so we should reasonably expect further announcements in the near- to mid-term.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Nineteen photos taken at the Cotton Tree ANZAC Day Memorial service.

Early birds secured seats from which to watch the service.

Fly-over of WWI and WWII aeroplanes added drama to the service for people watching the skies from the park by the river.

School children and mothers with babies in prams joined uniformed servicemen and -women in observing the forms of service.

Decorated servicemen and -women from different wars watched from the sidelines as the commemorative wreaths were laid in front of the cenotaph.

Someone brought along a collection of vehicles used in earlier conflicts. Here, a uniformed Digger chats on his mobile as he leans on a jeep.

Participants help an old Digger with a walking frame move to the cenotaph to lay a wreath for the dead.

A wide sample of local Sunshine Coast residents attended the commemorative service this morning.

An ex-serviceman approaches the cenotaph to lay a wreath for the dead.

When watchers stand to pay respects you can see how warm the morning is!

Getting together to remember the fallen is a good opportunity to relax. After all, it's Sunday!

Pigeons from the Signals Corps are released toward the end of the ceremony. They take to the skies in formation and disappear behind the high-rise buildings flanking The Esplanade.

School students lay a wreath to remember the dead as a thirsty young boy looks on.

Currently-serving soldiers are happy to pose for the cameras after the ceremony.

Everyone wants to take a photo of the soldiers!

It's cool to have your photo taken with the soldiers!

Retired commandos and their supporters gather for photos after the ceremony.

An elderly man lays his own wreath for the dead at the cenotaph after the ceremony has finished.

That old Digger with his wheelie-walker sure gets around!

Holders for commemorative wreaths stand almost empty after it's all over and people are starting to head home.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Does this photo of a man with a gun actually just show Thai Army soldier in civilian clothes? Redshirt protests two weeks ago culminated in bloodshed. As well as registered journalists, citizen journos were out on the streets of Bangkok shooting the action.

In one pair of videos shot by Tony Joh, an expat living in Bangkok, we see the at-first peaceful protest that took place on the night of 11 April.

People mill about the dark streets as soothing music being broadcast by the army saturates the already-humid air of Bangkok. Then, suddenly, two shots ring out. The crowd mobilises quickly. Caught up in the excitement, Joh catches himself on camera. He is sweating heavily from anxiety and his voice betrays his emotional stress.

In the first link above, scroll down to the videos after the short heading 'And now on to the heavy videos'. They're quite long and completely unedited, but worthwhile for those interested in the feel of a night-time shoot-out.

The question remains. Who started the shooting?

The Economist (April 17-23) has a story on the protests (pp 25-26). In it, we learn that there's a word used in Bangkok for soldiers who are sympathetic to the Redshirts - alongside whom many soldiers grew up in the poor Thai countryside. They call them 'watermelons': green on the outside but red within.

Ground commanders were apparently the targets of the rogue gunmen, suggesting an inside job. Redshirt leaders have boasted of leaks from allies inside military headquarters.

Pic credit: Al Jazeera.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Macro for Micro is four young Canadian people cycling across the southern edge of Australia to raise money for a microfinance NGO, Opportunity International. They started in Sydney on 2 March and have been cycling for 43 days. Current position is Ceduna, a town about half way across South Australia.

Their progress and bios can be seen on the website. To date, they have raised over US$26,000 and are now aiming for a round fifty.

Opportunity International was founded by two businessmen - an American, Al Whittaker, and an Australian, David Bussau - in the 1979. Its network includes source organisations on three continents and it loans money to almost three million people in 25 developing countries.

Microfinance is an innovative method of helping poor people raise themselves out of poverty. Small amounts of money can be deployed in individual cases and invested in a business. Opportunity International also provides business training. Like the Grameen Bank - established in Bangladesh in 1977 by scholar Dr Muhammad Yunus - the overwhelming majority of loans are repaid - 97 per cent in the case of Opportunity International.

Pic credit: Macro for Micro.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Review: Inside the Red Mansion, Oliver August (2007)

The story of Lai Changxing's downfall? It's more. The story of his life? No, it's more than that, too. A survey of government-business relations in China? Yup, that's more like it. So: endemic corruption is fuelled by bad laws that allow government officials to trade in what they really possess - influence - for money and favours.

But this is no mere catechysm of the failure of governance in Communist China. Oliver August, the author, is a journalist. In his wallet there's a dog-eared, laminated photo showing him shaking hands with Jiang Zemin. It pops out frequently in China, in our case when he's talking to the madam of a brothel in Xiamen, Fujian Province.

August, a Times of London correspondent based in Beijing, spends a lot of time in Xiamen, a booming southern city built upon the foundations of the old colonial outspost of Amoy. He decides early on in his sojourn to chronicle the exploits of Lai Changxing, a successful businessman who has been proscribed by Beijing as a criminal.

The search for clues takes August into a hundred fascinating situations, which he tells us about. There's Lili's brothel-cum-stage-show-palace. There's the all-night golf course where caddies are hired to spy on opponents as well as to pass over clubs. There's the Red Mansion itself, Lai's 'pleasure dome' for entertaining the beneficiaries of his largesse.

And August is indefatigable. His inquiries serve to turn over the stone of silence that perennially caps Chinese affairs. Beneath the solid cover, we can see a people striving to negotiate the confusing and - frankly - rudimentary web of Chinese laws, pushing the boundaries in their quest for wealth and status.

August also pushes the boundaries, sometimes to humourous effect. The book opens with an encounter with officialdom in the form of nosy police in a hotel lobby. It ends with another unwelcome visit from state functionaries, who press him for information about his activities. In the end, he bluffs his way out of these encounters.

As for Lai, the journalist's prey, the story ends decisively, but I won't spoil it for curious readers. The search for the truth about Lai is not just about working out if he's guilty of what the state says he is. It's about understanding the state itself. August helps us to do this in this brilliant, very-readable book.

Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Fire risk standard compliant cigarettes burn poorly and make the cigarette taste bad but use of a retardant mechanism (the "lowered permeability bands" that thicken the paper toward the middle of the cigarette) has been legislated for the past 18 months, although mandated for use only now. As a result, the cigarette smoker has a choice between putting up with the bad taste, switching to rollies, or giving the stick the flick completely.

I called Philip Morris to complain of the taste and the customer service rep told me others had also been calling the company. When I suggested collecting all the complaints and passing them to the government, she fobbed me off by pointing me to my local member's complaint's box. Philip Morris is not going to get involved in customers' "personal" issues.

She told me a lot of stuff that I'd already learned by visiting my tobacconist. Clearly, the company has advised staff to resist customer requests for action on their behalf.

The Trade Practices (Consumer Product Safety Standard) (Reduced Fire Risk Cigarettes) Regulations 2008 incorporate Australian Standard 4830—2007 that prevents cigarettes from burning if left unattended. To bolster its move, the NSW Minister for Emergency Services, Steve Whelan, put out a press release a month ago to notify people of the change. It was not reported in the press, as far as I know.

The move is in response to the "4500" fires in Australia caused by cigarettes every year. Between 2000 and 2005 apparently 77 people were killed by cigarettes.

It seems a no-brainer.

But smokers need to be aware that this law was passed in silence and introduced in obscurity. I only noticed it because of the disgusting taste my cigarette produces. My loss, right?

Pic credit: Breitbart TV.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

I wish I had taken my camera out with me to the shopping centre today to photograph the intense activity at the mid-plaza coffee stand. Normally at a coffee stand or cafe there are two baristas on the job: one on the machine and one on the milk. But here I saw three people working furiously to keep up with demand for fresh take-away coffee.

After paying for my large flat-white, I moved around to the take-out section to wait. And wait I did. A full ten minutes later I took possession. It was bitter but at least it was hot.

While waiting, I had plenty to keep me occupied watching the team at work.

The enormous, multi-tap machine was constantly producing rivers of expresso under the control of a tall man in his 40s. Close beside him stood a young woman with a black, beaded hairband who had the milk job. She used both hands: one to hold a jug of hot milk under the steam nozzle and the other to pass a freshly-frothed jug to the third person in the team.

This part was the most interesting. Here, a middle-aged woman had the task of completing coffees, calling out the name of the customer, and handing the concoctions over to his or her waiting hands. Unlike the woman next to her, this woman had a red, fabric hairband with polka dots on it.

It was a cute accessory. Her job involved making things look pretty, too. Cappuccinos of different kinds made her make different patterns with sprinkling chocolate. Some were in a star pattern while others were cross-hatched. Babycinos were made by dumping four spoonsful of white froth on top of a splash of espresso.

At her station the counter was covered with chocolate, testimony to her incessant industry as chief sprinkler and designer of cappuccino magic.

My flat-white? She probably sighed with relief when it came my turn. Flat-whites have no chocolate on them. Just the way I like it.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Another schizophrenia sufferer has been killed after heavy-handed restraint by private security guards. Twenty-seven-year-old Lyji Vaggs, an Aboriginal man, died at Townsville Hospital after mental health orderlies "forcibly restrained" him by sitting on him.

This is not the only case of use of excessive force by private security guards faced with dealing with a psychotic man.

In 2003, 36-year-old Koksal Akbaba died from "restraint related positional asphyxia" after Westfield security guards at the shopping centre in the western-Sydney suburb of Mt Druitt chased him down and tackled him, then restrained him.

In the Townsville case, Vaggs "was handcuffed [by police, who had been summoned] and injected with anti-psychotic drugs, at which point he stopped breathing".

Vaggs had gone to the Townsville Hospital because he was frantic with fear due to the voices he was hearing. Staff told him to go home and take his medicine. There were no beds available for the distressed man.

Pic credit: Conclave.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Bats are out right now in SE Queensland because they are "taking advantage of the flowering melaleucas and bloodwoods before they fly north", says my local paper. In winter they fly north due to the cold.

But right now they are out and about at night, feeding.

So it should have been no surprise that I frightened a couple of the harmless mammals while walking home last night. It was just down the end of my street, near the river. As I walked past a dark tree there was a violent rustle before a triangular shape shot out of the foliage, taking flight. This happened twice in quick succession.

It shocked me but things are usually so quiet around here that I wasn't afraid. In fact, it was delightful to be reminded that I live in a rural area where wild animals routinely forage for feed at all hours. Birds wake me up in the morning and tell me when the sun is about to rise, if I'm up exceptionally early.

This doesn't happen much of late as the colder weather means I sleep soundly. Cold makes me tired. And so, right now, I'm off to bed.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Mum enjoyed being in Sydney, that much was clear. She flew down on Sunday to see an apartment and every time I spoke with her on the phone she sounded happy and engaged. Big switch from how she often sounded when at home, up here in Queensland. Must be the activity. The busyness. The bustle and hum.

Feeling like you're doing something useful can make a big difference in an old person's life, I found.

She took a good friend down with her as a travelling companion. After all, mum's 80 this year and quite frail. Her luggage on the trip included a wheeled walking frame. She always uses it - in fact she's got two. The one she took down to Sydney has three wheels. She selected that one because it is lighter-weight than the four-wheeled one. Easier to get in and out of cabs with.

They took a room in a big block of units in Darling Harbour. When mum slept in the afternoons her friend walked around to see the sights and get a feel for the place. She told me she hadn't been to Sydney for 40 years. She also went shopping at the nearby Coles supermarket and, as they had taken an apartment with a kitchen, they were able to cook breakfast for themselves in the mornings.

Mum remarked on how busy Sydney is compared to the small regional town we live in. "I couldn't believe all the people," she said. "It's fantastic!" She last saw Sydney in 1999.

I had insisted they take a room at Darling Harbour as it would be close to where mum needed to go in the mornings. Her appointments were in Pyrmont. It's also handy if you want to go into the city for any reason - you can just walk across Pyrmont Bridge to Market Street.

They didn't make it that far, tho. They were too busy looking around Chinatown and Darling Harbour with its immense crowds (compared to what she's used to) of people of all shapes and sizes. All in all it was a good trip and she says she's quite keen to go back. I'll be in Sydney in late July so maybe she'll come down with me then.

Jetstar caters to the infirm. You can easily get wheelchair service. They put you in the device at the check-in counter and there's a special gantry that lifts the chair - and you - to the level of the aeroplane's door. And, being mum, she made sure to check in early, so got seats in front rows.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Sustainable seafood, anyone? At the fish market or in the supermarket it's practically impossible to know if what you're thinking to buy is ethically sourced. On cans, labelling is usually scanty. On ice, you don't have a clue - and chances are the person serving you doesn't know either.

Now, United States residents (barring those living in Alaska and Hawaii) can order sustainable seafood online and have it delivered to their homes. Mark Bittman at the NY Times writes that Martin Reed of I Love Blue Sea is only "buying and selling seafood he has verified as sustainable". How does he know?

I had two questions. One: How do you know what you’re buying? His answer: “We use all third party standards, like those of Greenpeace (nothing from the “red list”) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (no “avoid” fish) ” If he knows that “pirating” (as illegal fishing is called) is big with a certain species, he won’t sell it at all. (Thus, no yellowfin.) And he is insisting that suppliers sell him only fish that can be traced — individually — through bills of lading and bar codes.

As for price, Bittman's own purchase (US$50 worth of fish) cost US$50 to ship. Reed says that the cost of shipping becomes negligible for bigger orders. And the seafood, according to the company's website, is "delivered to your doorstep in all eco-friendly packaging".

The website also claims that they're usually less expensive per pound than the supermarket.

A good point that Bittman draws out is that the selection of fish may be superior to what is locally available. But the main inducement for shoppers is that the website gives you the assurance of ethical sourcing - so you don't have to worry whether what you're about to buy is damaging the environment.

In related news, the movie that trumpets a seafood apocalypse - End of the Line - is about to be released in Australia. Keep an eye on local movie guides for details.

Monday, 12 April 2010

It's not every day that you discover a blog that encapsulates several cherished notions. ChinaGeeks does this. Established by Charles Custer, an English teacher from the United States living in Harbin, a north-China province, ChinaGeeks has been around since early 2009.

Custer also makes hip-hop records but, perhaps more importantly, he did East Asian Studies with a focus on China while at university. The idea from the blog came from his plan to sell T-shirts with Chinese characters on them, but Custer

stopped caring about it fairly quickly when I realized that the blog part of the site, originally intended as sort of a sidenote, was a lot more fun than the main part. In fact, it’s a lot more fun than my actual job. So I started posting a bit more frequently and a bit more seriously.

ChinaGeeks now has a number of regular contributors. Custer is no longer producing all the content himself. He seems relieved by this development as it was sometimes a bit of a chore to make stuff work at a high frequency of posting. Clearly, he cares about quality.

But of perhaps more interesting is that the blog has started to publish in Chinese. Custer admits to having reservations about how tolerant the administration will be, as ChinaGeeks regularly publishes on politics as well as culture. He writes: "having a Chinese-language site is probably going to bring down the banhammer sooner or later".

The way to handle this, he thinks, is to invest in a virtual private network (VPN). I'll be watching ChinaGeeks to see how the enterprise fares as its audience broadens. It'll be interesting to see how the project goes. Their desire to enhance cross-cultural communication is laudable.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

I'm wondering if corporate social responsibility is just a load of garbage. Do some companies treat their employees better than others? Do some companies really give something back to society? Are some companies really trying to help to improve our environmental performance?

I wonder. So far, I've found very few stories about CSR in the mainstream press. Lots of stories about mergers, profits, and targets met or missed. But little notice is really given to the "triple bottom line" despite the fact that, as Christine Arena writes in The Christian Science Monitor:

Nearly one out of every nine dollars of professionally managed assets in the United States – valued at an estimated $2.71 trillion – has been invested in companies that perform well in CSR rankings.

Looking at the financial news, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is not true. Perhaps these rankings - in Sydney the St James Ethics Centre runs one annually, and it comes out soon - are something that are only seen by institutional equity buyers. Perhaps it's one of those 'niche' things.

Companies don't really care if anyone else sees what they're doing to improve the world, or not.

According to Arena, CSR ranking lists should be taken with a grain of salt. The article is interesting, and warrants a quick read. In short, there are problems with the lists. For one, we don't get told who is making the claims. Secondly, there appears to be an element of favouritism, or conflict of interest.

There is, in any case, a worrying lack of confidence in the value of ranking lists that judge corporations on their CSR efforts. This should be of concern. But it never hits the newsstands. It's like a bag of garbage: wrapped up and invisible to the eye.

Journalists whould be the ones getting their hands dirty, but they're not. There seems to be a consensus among the financial journos that CSR is a nice thing to have, but it's nowhere near as important as profit postings or sales coups, things which are routinely reported in their papers.

It's disappointing. For someone who is just interested in CSR, and wants to know more, the internet is disappointingly scanty on details. It looks like I'll have to go further, and buy a book on CSR. There are some out there, but which one to purchase? Looks like I'm in for some expense and some homework.

Pic credit:

Saturday, 10 April 2010

"All media's going to go onto the iPad," says Rupert Murdoch, interviewed while attending the Abu Dhabi 2010 Media Summit in March. "If you see a newspaper photograph - I don't think it's possible at the moment but in time it'll happen - you just want to touch it and it'll become a video. And particularly with advertising. You see an advertisement and you're interested, you touch it and it becomes a 30-second commercial."

Time magazine in the current issue has an editorial ('Ushering in a new era') describing their efforts to accommodate the iPad as well as five pages of features on the new device.

"We're proud of TIME in the iPad and of the special features that will be in it, such as extra pictures, videos and a NewsFeed featuring the latest stories from," writes managing editor Richard Stengel.

The interactive capability of the tablet computer - a device designed purely for media consumption, as writer Lev Grossman says in the same issue - has clearly not gone unnoticed by management. They are keen to deliver game-changing content that will secure a competitive advantage for their mastheads. After all, if Rupert Murdoch has the same vision as the editors of Time, there can be no secret as to how competition in the media, in future, will play out.

But nobody has mentioned where all this new video content will be coming from. Traditional news hacks may be well-versed in print style guides but how will they compete with the new graduates emerging from the dual-degree (media/IT) courses now being established. Of course, it's happening first in the US, but once the penny drops for the boffins, everyone will be offering similar courses of study.

And what about that video? How to secure a future for yourself if you haven't ever taken up a camera and run the raw footage through PC-based editing software? It's all very well to have a strong command of English, but the grammar of the moving image differs from that of the printed page.

I foresee strong demand for journalists who can make video, edit it, and publish it. Clearly, this will favour younger individuals entering the scene. Those who cannot grasp the new media may find themselves marginalised.

Friday, 9 April 2010

The ABC's screening of the BBC's Human Journey, a documentary series chronicling the emergence of humans out of Africa 70,000 years ago, represents, for me, a milestone in documentary TV. I must be in the market for a cardigan and slippers but, then again, a lot of people will find something unique in this astonishingly interesting series of programs.

Most importantly, the DNA record shows that all ethnicities living outside Africa today stem from a single group of adventurers who crossed the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf all those millennia ago.

Some ethnic groups dispute this as it contradicts local creation myths.

But the chemical record cannot be denied. It's tremendously important to know this, as it signals a community of such incredible diversity that underscores the vast stretches of time that has passed since the African exodus. And it tells us that we have a lot in common.

What I'd like to see now, as a committed cardigan-and-slipper, armchair scientist, is the DNA heritage chart published - somewhere. This chart shows which strains of humanity arrived outside Africa, and when. It stands as a powerful testament to modern science and a reminder of our common heritage.

Not only DNA, but stones and bones, as well, are used in the program to puzzle out an itinerary. Plus massive amounts of climate science. Where did all this research come from? How do we know, for example, that the Bering Sea was once a land mass?

For those who, like me, are curious about our origins, Human Journey is a fantastic way to spend a few hours of an evening. Now, where's my pipe?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Extraordinary developments in Tasmania where the Greens have shown their power by backing the incumbent Labor government, ensuring that Labor was asked to form a government. Labor leader David Bartlett must now front the Parliament to demonstrate that he has the confidence of the majority of members in it.

News of the about-face by Greens leader Nick McKim emerged at midday yesterday.

Tonight's TV featured footage of Bartlett announcing the developments in front of a stone representation of the royal crest, complete with the Queen's motto.

Tasmania's Governor, Peter Underwood has been busy, clearly. He called the leaders of both the Liberal and Labor parties to Government House to discuss the emerging situation. McKim reportedly was not called in, but it was his change of plan that sparked the flurry of constitutional activity.

Yesterday, the ABC's Antony Green enlarged the debate by calling for a renegotiation of the constitutional machinery that could allow an appointed governor to select an unelected government.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Review: The Routes of Man, Ted Conover (2010)

If you have ever wondered about how AIDS emerged from Africa, this is the book to buy. Conover went to Kenya twice - once in 1993 and again in 2007 - to chronicle an event that has had immense significance to the world. He takes as his point of focus roads, and how they "are changing the world", as the subtitle of this book states.

But he's not just interested in the route taken by AIDS within the bodies of superstitious truck drivers in this poverty-stricken corner of the globe. Conover's book begins with an in-depth survey of how mahogany is sourced so that it can be used to adorn some of the world's most expensive real estate. To do this, as in Kenya, Conover rides aboard a dilapidated truck. This time it's over the Andes of Peru into the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, where the rare wood is taken illegally from areas of forest the government of the country has declared protected.

In another chapter, Conover hitches a ride with a "self-drive" expedition in China on a site-seeing trip along that country's mostly new highways. We are introduced to the successful Chinese businessman at play.

In 'A war you can commute to', Conover braves the checkpoints of separated Palestine. He subjects himself to these crossing multiple times as he describes the hardships faced by Palestinians living within a virtual prison.

And near the end of the book Conover takes us to Africa's most-populous country - Nigeria - where we come face-to-face with the notorious 'area boys' - homeless youths - who make Lagos' highways their home. In this poor country, roads are a source of income. This takes the form of salvaging dropped items - how the area boys earn a living - and police graft.

Conover is a sympathetic and broad-minded witness to situations that many would find intolerable. He strives to see both sides and his writing is enriched as he attempts to give as complete a picture of the scenario as possible. Already, before writing this book, a well-known story-teller, here Conover excels as he spends weeks, months and years trying to solve riddles that most people would acknowledge in passing, but never put a foot forward trying to answer.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 2 April 2010

I got a fine for using a mobile phone while driving yesterday. While the experience will set me back just over $250, there are some interesting elements to it that deserve telling here.

It happened as I was driving down King Street, Newtown, in the afternoon. The street was, at that time of day, packed with traffic groaning ponderously away from the broad avenue of City Road into the narrow defile of a King Street that was packed with people on a Thursday night.

I had glanced down at my lap briefly just where City Road leaves Sydney University behind. At that point, there is an intersection just past the university's Army building. By glancing down at the phone and dialling mum's number, I had caused the traffic to back up. Ahead of me was a large space that, at the speed we were travelling, should have been full.

Mum's number didn't answer and I left no message on the answering machine. Just past the first approaches in the north end of King Street, a clump of police caught my attention. Suddenly, a female officer was pointing a baton at me, signalling me to pull in. I turned into the side street where a male officer came to the window.

He told me that I had been pulled over because I had used a mobile device while driving. He asked who I had been calling. I mumbled a bit then said, "My mother."

He asked to see my (Queensland) license. He took it and made notes on a pad, then went around to the back of the car to get the registration details. He asked if I had a NSW drivers license and I answered "No". He asked if the car was a rental and I said "Yes". Then he told me that an infringement notice would be delivered to the address on my license and that I could contest the charge in court if I chose.

The fine would be $253. This is quite harsh, and there's no knowing if the spotter cops at the end of City Road had taken a photograph of me using the mobile phone. If they hadn't, it was their word against mine, and I had a passenger in the car with me.

Of course, I won't contest the charge. That would be a waste of time and energy. Much easier to pay up and avoid using a mobile while driving. Small price to pay for road safety? I'm a very safe driver so I don't worry about myself. It's all those other maniacs on four wheels who give the the heebie-geebies.

Pic credit: Third International Conference on Early Warning.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Strange thing, actually, that I saw two young women with severe scarring on their bodies yesterday. In both cases, there was no attempt to cover the disfigurement. Both young women were attractive and wore revealing clothes. Both bore the scars of some severe physical trauma.

One sighting in a single day would not warrant a mention. But I saw one young woman in the same line while waiting to pass through security before boarding my flight yesterday. Then, five hours later, a young woman wearing a short dress moved into my line of sight as I waited for a friend at Darling Harbour, in Sydney.

The first young woman had an apricot-sized scar on the back of her left bicep. I later observed another scar, about eight inches long. It was horizontal along her ribs, and was visible as she wore a singlet and no bra. Both scars were dark pink and served as evidence of some unexpected - no doubt - physical violence. Nobody would want such an attack on their person.

The young woman at Darling Harbour seemed quite unconcerned about the deep scar on the back of her left thigh. The short dress she wore left it completely uncovered. It bit into her leg savagely, and seemed to have been made by a sharp implement. Maybe she'd been in a car crash.

Scars are reminders of mishap or negligence. I hope that I will not be forced to decide whether to show, or hide, a scar.

Of course, many scars are psychological, not physical. And people who bear these types of scars are reluctant to display them. If the figures for mental illness in Australia are true - one in five of us will have a mental illness in our lifetimes - then there are no doubt millions walking around with scars they can never reveal, unlike the two young women I saw yesterday. There is too much fear in society about mental illness to risk disclosure.