Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bushwalking again

I hope you might understand how much this means to us: for the first time since very early 2011, Ms T attempted a bushwalk.

For the first time in nearly two years, I had the delight of holding her hand over steps and rocks, talking about the flowers and birds we saw, and stopping to admire yabbies in the creek. The kind of stuff that makes bushwalking worthwhile.

Until she fell ill, we were pretty keen bushwalkers. Not “extreme sports” types – we’re too old. She’d come to bushwalking in her early 40s (one of the reasons we love and now operate Bunjaree Cottages is its proximity to bushwalks), and because it made her feel good, we continued. We’re not campers, we’re wimpy day-walkers who used to pick out walks in the 15-20 km range as our favourites.

She could be pigheaded. Once, on the Southern Highlands, she rolled her ankle on a tree-root, came down on both knees, and left pretty deep cuts. We treated them with antiseptic and gauze, and revised down to a 5km walk.

The GP later noted, “if you’d gone to hospital, this wouldn’t have scarred.”

Ms T: “Who wants to sit around in a hospital waiting room instead of walking?”

For me, it was a revelation; for our marriage, a delight. Our sons loved it as well, which (since they were 7 and 9 when we started) was a bonus. There’s nothing like bushwalking for a host of things, including getting a couple of too-loud boys somewhere where their voices no longer upset you!

And they loved it – in one case, so much that he’s made nature his study at university.

And there were benefits for a total sook like me. Since Ms T never – even if we walked 24 km in a day – developed “powerful” ankles or a good sense of balance, steps, rocks, or unstable inclines meant I got to hand-hold her through it. I loved that aspect of bushwalks.

Ms T: "I didn't actually need help on that bit."

Me: "I know. I just like to touch you when we walk."

And then she fell ill, and everything changed. The immune system, for those that might doubt it, really can kill people. Ms T’s normal weight – about 55 kg – has dipped as low as 31 kg. Apart from four months in hospital in two years, there have been three months in a wheelchair, and a lot more of the time when her health was, at best, feeble.

So, no bushwalking.

Yesterday, we made our first small attempt to walk together again. We were very, very conservative: we chose the Darwin Nature Walk at Wentworth Falls, going in the reverse direction (starting at the end of the walk, near the falls) to keep us near the park and let her decide “that’s far enough”.

We covered about 4 km out-and-back, which stunned us both – and we learned that even a gentle-ish 50-meter climb with steps is hard on her surgical scar. We were so slow on the inclines that we attracted a bit of comment from more agile walkers (mostly cheerful and solicitous, so that’s okay).

And here’s just a couple of photos – excuse the camera-phone quality.

This is a grevillea servicea, otherwise known as the pink spider-flower. They were in profusion on the Darwin walk.

And this boring patch of land is actually very important. For much of the Darwin walk, there is hanging bog to the west of the boardwalk, just like this:

That’s what feeds the creek and keeps it flowing year-round. Without this “useless” land (as a developer would see it), creeks only flow after rain. The bog absorbs water, filters it, and releases it steadily into the creek. That creek eventually ends up in the Warragamba catchment – as do many other creeks and rivers, fed from bogs like this one.

Cartoonist versus climate science - the book promotion

It’s that time of year where copy-stretched editors get lax with their briefs, so it’s probably no surprise that The Age would let one of its cartoonists, John Spooner, loose on the climate science debate, here:

The article is a book promotion – but that little detail is held until the end of the article. I’ll start at the start, in which Mr Spooner outrageously equates climate science to the Mayan apocalypse:

“WELL, so much for the 2012 apocalypse. If the ancient Mayans ever knew anything about the future, they made a serious miscalculation. The same fate has befallen the international climate change emergency brigade.”

See how clever that was? How funny? Climate science – which is based on measurement and observation – is the same as the faked-up media “Mayan apocalypse” scare story? We’re still here, so both the Mayans and the scientists are wrong.

In Mr Spooner’s logic, the science was proved wrong not by scientists, but by the failure of a political process. In other words, politics determines the validity of science.

He then indulges in a bit of name-calling (which is OK if you’re calling climate scientists names; anyone calling a climate sceptic names is indulging in group-think), before moving on to this:

“Anyone familiar with the judicial process knows the gravest issues of liberty and fortune are often determined by a jury selected from the public. Expert witnesses can give evidence in support of either side at a trial. The judge must rule on questions of admissibility, but in the end it is the jury that decides which scientific evidence is to be believed.”

In other words, because courts accept the decisions of the inexpert, the whole world is bound to accept inexpert opinion on science.

Then there’s this:

“In the climate debate, the only "judge" is the scientific method - a testable hypothesis followed by factual or experimental challenge.”

Wrong, Mr Spooner. You don’t understand the scientific method.

Science doesn’t start with a hypothesis – that’s a misapprehension pushed by journalists who don’t understand science. It starts with an observation. For example, quantum physics came to us, courtesy of Max Planck, because of the observations of energy radiating from black bodies. Hypothesis follows observation (as it indeed does in climate science). A hypothesis can be considered sound if it can be used to predict the behavior of a system.

“For example, everybody agrees that the warming trend paused 16 years ago, despite a corresponding 10 per cent increase in atmospheric CO2.”

No, everybody does not agree this. There is noise in atmospheric observations, but most of the extra heat is taken up by the ocean; there is no “pause” in global warming. Here’s a decent debunk, over at Discovery.

“The reason why scientific consensus emerged in this debate is because political activists want to get things moving”, Spooner writes.

In other words, the entire IPCC process – including the review and editing of IPCC reports – is captive to activists. This is pure conspiracy theory.

The whole thing boils down to a book promo:

“I still feel that the voices of highly qualified sceptics are not heard enough. In an effort to redress this imbalance, an unusual book on the sceptics' view will be published in 2013.”

Enough said.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Seeking comment: is a “birds up close” experience a good idea?

This is on the personal blog rather than the Bunjaree Website, because I’m merely testing an idea.

I have tested this with my brother-in-law, a birder and bird photographer of 40 years’ experience, and I’d like feedback on it before I try it in earnest.

The idea is a birding weekend at Bunjaree Cottages – not for experienced birders, but for those that would like to see some of the most difficult-to-spot birds of the Australian bush close-up.

The weekend would be led by Dr Graham Cam, who has an intimate knowledge of Australia’s bird species and their ecology, and is also a noted bird photographer.

The activities would take place on the grounds of Bunjaree Cottages, and in other nearby Blue Mountains locations. We’re still working out some of the details, so feedback would be welcome.

1.     Netting

“Mist nets”, which catch birds harmlessly, have to be laid before the birds are active. Getting up before sunrise to help set the nets is optional, but certainly part of the experience!

2.     Checking the nets

This is where the fun and education happens. The party will tour the nets, getting close-ups of bird species that don't often sit still - and are murder to photograph. The birds then get sexed and banded – and if any of them have been previously banded, their bands will be recorded to be reported to the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme overseen by the Department of the Environment.

Graham will be on hand to talk about all the birds found in the nets. It will be, as far as possible (remembering that the birds’ well-being is paramount), a real “bird in the hand” experience.

3.     Breakfast

You’ll be getting hungry by now, so it’s back to your cottage for breakfast.

So far, so good. The next question is this: after breakfast, which is better:

A.   Organised bird-spotting / photography
B.    Leave guests to themselves for the rest of the day

Under option A, we would select a destination that doesn’t need a 4x4 to reach, arrange a meet-up time, and spend a few hours on a photography / bird-spotting bushwalk. Under option B, guests spend the rest of their Saturday taking in the other delights of the Blue Mountains.
Anyone interested in an idea like this – let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, December 21, 2012

“Not a racist”

I have mentioned before, I think, that my father – born in the 1920s – was a creature of his time, who tried as long as he could to change. His views were set hard, but I had the good fortune that he didn’t teach them to me.

In the 1980s, Japanese tourists in Katoomba might ask him for directions to Echo Point, politely and with hand-clasped bows. It would make him weep: "I might have killed their grandfather!" (He was on board ship in the pre-atomic-bomb bombardments of Tokyo).

And: he understood symbols.

He was a civil engineer, and if you look at Australia Square, shop in Bankstown Square or Carlingford Court or Penrith Plaza, his fingerprints remain.

He also served in the Royal Navy in World War Two – as a good Aussie, but Australia didn’t have enough ships, so some of our Navy volunteers were placed on English ships.

Enough. This is a story about racism, not World War Two.

When Oxford Square – corner Riley and Oxford Streets – opened, Stanley Chirgwin conceived an idea that was odd at the time. He somehow conducted a census of workers on the site, and worked out their nationality.

For the opening, he decided that every country represented on the site should see its flag flying (and the hardest to obtain was the Dutch flag, amusing since the building was in the hands of Civil & Civic, then owned by a Dutchman, Dick Dusseldorp, “Duss” in our household).

Asian flags weren’t excluded – even though my father “fought the Japanese”. His idea, in spite of an old-style Aussie racism that died hard, was inclusive. Every flag had its place.

Oh, and by the way, the Hurstville he grew up in had its fair share of Chinese market gardeners in the 1920s and 1930s, because that was the Sydney of the time.

So: when the @WeAreAustralia Twitter account makes this complaint:

“I do live in Hurstville and I think it's turning into a bit of an Asian ghetto.”

… I call bullshit and racism.

Let’s see.

My first Asian work colleague crossed my path in about 1982, and dammit, he’s good management material in a telecommunications carrier and I’m a hack! (Well done, Nguyen!)

In the subsequent 30 years, Asia has been part of my Australia.

And what have I learned in those 30 years, apart from food?

We’re all people. Really. Superficial distinctions don’t matter a damn. Asians visiting Australia as far back as the 1970s were willing to forget World War II and ask Australians for directions.

Anyone who thinks there’s a meaningful distinction that needs a lament is a sad individual.

And as for Hurstville? It wasn’t pure merino in the 1920s: why should it be now?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Government wants to mine your data, for your own good of course

If I remember my Nietzsche correctly, which I might not, one paraphrase of an aphorism runs “’for your own good’ is an expression of the will to power”.

That’s apposite in the flood of “for your good” stories that surround the world of so-called “big data”. Including this one:  from Peter Martin, writing for Fairfax.

There’s a good reason that Peter Martin is no Ross Gittins: Martin is so easily blinded by the light, as he has been in this profile piece. In the name of “your own good”, Kim Carr – whose ministerial duties have been whittled down (presumably because nobody wants anyone like him to be the smartest person in the room), has discovered A Cause: Big Data in the Service of Citizens.

For a start, I’m wary of powerful people with catch-phrasey causes. I do sling personal money at causes from time to time, even if people who know me may consider the Rural Fire Service and SES to be merely self-interest. But when someone with a position of power gets fired up, I worry, because they downplay downsides.

Identifying the downsides is one of the handful of roles that journalists can still rightly claim: “Here’s someone with A Plan: what’s wrong with it?” is one of the most legitimate questions any journalist can ask.

Peter Martin fails.

The gist of the Fairfax story is that Big Data will let governments do a better job of identifying those who need help, before they ask for it.

I can’t argue with the idea that people need help. Without the Australian health system, my wife would now be dead AND I would be bankrupt. An American friend of mine, watching our progress through a serious, severe and chronic immune-system disorder that needs ongoing chemo and has required three surgeons this year (one involving replacing about 40 cm of artery), tells me we long ago passed the million-dollar-patient mark, were we in America.

But mining their interactions with government?

A thousand times no.

Prove to me that Senator Carr has only the purest motives; prove to me that no Australian government in my lifetime could ever have motives other than Senator Carr’s; demonstrate that his ideas will save lives or families; I will still say no.

It’s not only the Philip K Dick “pre-crime” associations that the idea brings. It’s a simple matter of corruption.

There is no way on earth that the Senator, the government, or all the functionaries employed to protect the data, can guarantee it against misuse. Anybody needs only to see the information on a screen, and they have a lever to use against an individual.

Some of them will.

And there’s no way to guarantee that the future of Commonwealth data mining will be benign – because agencies like the Tax Office are helplessly in love with Number 5’s statement: “More data! I need more data!”

And it’s always with the excuse “for your own good” – as it is in the Peter Martin article.

Nietzsche was mad, possibly syphilitic, and certainly contributed to a world view that is odious in the modern world. He was crap as a physician of the psyche, but very good as a diagnostician.

“For your own good” is merely a way to exercise power. It's the price, to descend into the scatological, for which your arse is sold. Ask yourself: is the lube worth the pain?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remember Smith’s Weekly? (I don’t): the lesson for “player journalism”

While I endorse much of what Drag0nista says in this blog post, I disagree with one piece of her argument: that the player journalist looks like a recent development.

Somewhere in this book-burdened household, in which nearly two dozen shelves groan and the books that don’t fit sit on stacks on floors or tables, there is a book called “Remember Smith’s Weekly?” It’s a chronicle of the rise and fall of a patriotic tabloid of mid-20th century Australia.

Among other things, it’s a rag that helped establish the Packer dynasty. But that’s not germane to this argument.

The chronicler in “Remember Smith’s Weekly” recounted its role as a player tabloid in a much more racist pre-war Australia, campaigning against Jews. I recall a cartoon whose captions read:

“May I remove my bicycle before we burn the shop, father?”

“No, son! We must be honest!”

…which was a typical racist “Jews as insurance fraudsters”

The historian telling the tale, one G Blackie of whom I know little, considered the anti-Jew campaigning of Smith’s Weekly to be important in its downfall: its attitudes were hateful during the lead-up to World War II, and during the War.

But it retained some shred of integrity: when the horror of the Holocaust emerged, Smith’s Weekly retracted.

That retraction put the magazine on the skids, and in 1950, it closed.

Pre-war, Smith’s – like many organs today – was a player. Its favoured venue was the immigration debate, its obsession “keep out Jews”. And its lessons are drear.

If you admit error, you alienate readers, and die.

What does this tell us about today’s “player journalists”? – the ones who believe their commentary agendas are right in spite of any evidence that they’re wrong?

Their bosses have learned Smith’s lesson. Never stop, never pull back, never retreat a step. If you do, the readers that believed you last week will hate you, and leave.

The problem for publishing, an activity distinct from journalism, is this: when you’re constantly acting like a complete idiot in public, your responses to a reader exodus are limited.

Look back at Smith’s: one part of its readership started drifting away when they resented its attitudes; the rest drifted away when it admitted to undeniable facts.

And now look at the vice that Fairfax and News have devised for themselves: on the one hand, readers departing because they resent the denial of facts; on the other, the inevitable loss of readers when facts will no longer be denied.

It’s a vice unique to the “player”. If you merely write facts, you won’t be burned this way. It’s when you decide that you no longer want the world of reality-based constructs, but want to – as a journalist – create your own reality, that the bill arrives, and you find that you can’t pay it.

Remember Smith’s Weekly?

The only way a journalist can RISK becoming a "player" is to know that ALL his/her facts are right. Because the player-proved-wrong is merely a dupe of others.

Monday, December 10, 2012

An outsider’s view of Nelson Mandela: a life to celebrate

I have no right to write about Mandela, surely.

Surely not. I’m not South African, black or white. I never met him. I have no experience of apartheid except through the media. All I have is a view from a distance, and experience of death.

When Nelson Mandela dies, celebrate him. He will die boasting a successful life that would be hard to match, and a successful death of similar stature.

When I was a kid, he was an activist; when I was a teenager, he was becoming a symbol; as a young adult, some of the things I learned about politics came from his imprisonment. Then he was released, then presidented, and then retired to honour, and loved the world over.

And he has lived to 94, and is still honoured in spite of the messes that still beset South Africa. They don’t taint Mandela: his name is so much a byword for his honour, integrity, stubbornness and will.

And in spite of that will – which must certainly mark Mandela as one of the hardest men the world has seen, both will and character intact in spite of the attacks directed against him – he remains without anyone that matters to try and deny him the honour, blacken his character, scandalize his repute in anything that matters.

And he reached the age of 94. And although probably not at home, with any good fortune, he will die relatively peacefully – not shot nor beaten to death like his fellows in the same struggle, whose ghosts must surely visit him with the guilt of the survivor from time to time – but merely old.

Old, loved, honoured and successful.

If you believed in a heaven, there is nought to weep about: Mandela will surely be there. If not, why weep? He fought, survived, achieved, and lived to a very great age.

He doesn’t need our tears. He doesn't need us. 

We need his life to be celebrated and remembered. We might want tears, but they won't make a difference.

Applaud Mandela's life. Remember him, and look around you: somewhere in the world, today’s activists throw up those who, in another half-century, will be held in the same regard. Find them, and support them, and remember that Mandela would tell you that he, and they, are human after all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Good news at last (and thank you for keeping me sane)

Ms T has, as you may know, suffers from an immune disorder requiring lots of heavy cytotoxins (as well as surgery back in February that left a seppuku-scar, a couple of tumours, now gone, that frightened the daylights out of us, and other stuff).

And a great many people have said so many wonderful things to me about my previous posts, that it would be unfair to keep good news to myself. You may not know this, but it is a jack under the flat tyre of depression to know that other people understand.

So. We’ve had a little string of bits of nice news, and in my appreciation of your previous kind words, here they are.

“That’s not a cancer” – a worrying lesion gets a specialist’s cold-shoulder.

“The celiac bypass is perfect” – the surgeon following an ultrasound examining the 30cm of leg-vein that’s shunting from the aorta to the celiac artery, supplying Ms T’s liver and stomach (it may have been better if he hadn’t said to himself “damn I’m good” while looking at the pictures).

“Liver scores are good, and your kidneys are picking up” – today, at the renal specialist.

In fact, the renal said, the current round of mustard gas – sorry, cyclophosphamide – seems to be doing what it’s supposed to be doing: making the patient as sick as a dog, slaughtering the immune system, leaving the patent subject to random infections, leaving the patient defenceless against tumours that normal people wouldn’t ever know had been there because they’re dealt with and so on.

And keeping her alive.

The blood vessels remain open; the arteries that remain to her remain open (the carotid isn’t coming back, but there’s collaterals built around the blockage, thank heavens!).

The renal specialist was the most surprised, which surprised us. After agreeing with my general opinion of surgeons (“So smug I could punch him.” “Oh, everybody wants to punch surgeons, that’s how they are.”) she said to my wife, “Actually, I’m surprised at how well you’re doing. I thought you’d be on dialysis by now. If you survived.”

She did. And there’s my Christmas, along with taking care of Bunjaree Cottages for our guests (if you want to head to the Blue Mountains, we’re here and there are still vacancies for the long school holiday!) and writing when there are people to write for, and doing GIS when it’s there, and wondering at life when there’s a moment to spare.

And here, as I said, is my thank you for the dear, kind, gentle and loving souls who have helped keep me sane this year. We – me and Ms T – both know what such things mean in the hard days and sleepless nights, and our appreciation is hard to adequately express. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The plea of a deadbeat dad: how does my son enter work?

I haven’t often felt this inadequate as a parent.

No, strike that.

I have always felt inadequate as a parent. I was inadequate when Ms T was not-coping with post-natal depression and our eldest son was perfectly capable of crying for seven hours at a stretch, unless she was cradling him and dancing to early 1990s thrash-punk (he still likes The Pixies’ “Dolittle”, thank heavens). I was manifestly inadequate when he was being bullied in Year 4, to a point that was close to call-the-police. I tried to be adequate through his teens.

Now he’s nearly an adult, we get on brilliantly, and I’m insanely proud of things like his university results – where the hell does a son of mine get the seriousness to land regular “distinction” results, including in one did-it-on-spec unit that’s in the doctoral stream and he doesn’t yet have his BSc?

(This is especially poignant for me, the university drop-out because I ran out of cash in 1990.)

For someone who thought “why didn’t I know you?” when I carried my father’s coffin, that feels good. Snd I’m also gob-smacked at how he’s learned to care far and beyond his years: knowing how sick his mother is, he doesn’t maunder or rage, he simply says “yes” to whatever burden her illness brings to him. Cheerfully.

But: I have NO idea, none whatever, about how to tell him to get a start in the job market.

You see: when I started out, it wasn’t so hard. For office types, there were regular start-by-examination in any number of industries. My start was in the insurance business, as an 18-year-old clerk; I then moved to telecommunications – as a trainee with paid training – on the basis of another enter-by-exam job offering.

And I moved around a few jobs and suffered a few interviews, and then found my first niche, as a journalist specialising in technology. That was in 1987.

Since then, I have hardly ever needed to go through the indignity of job-seeking and interviews. I have been head-hunted, I have travelled with the furniture in acquisitions, and I have coat-tailed (“You do the bid, I’ll do the work and take my cut” – a wonderful way to outsource the interview thing!). But I have hardly ever actually applied for a job.

Which, as you might guess, makes me utterly useless to advise my son about how to get work in the long university break.

So: my son is intelligent, can present a decent facsimile of someone who likes the customer even if he doesn’t, can work hard, talks intelligently, likes old ladies and toddlers, and detests the very idea of making his start with McDonald’s. What should I suggest to him?

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Google’s tutorial: how to lose a defamation case

How shall I put this? Bluntly, I think, is best.

It shits me to tears when the commentariat sees fit to drip venom on the result of a court case without reading the damn judgement. Even more tears, when it’s clearly a comment from someone who doesn’t understand the court case or even the legal system under which it was fought, but still sees fit to drip venom, etc.

And it shits me to tears when it’s clearly a knocked-off-in-a-hurry bit of cheap American clickbait with no reference to what happens in another country.

Enter ReadWriteWeb, with this brick-thick intervention into Google’s Australian defamation loss.

"Court rules - wrongly - that Google is a publisher". Even even the bloody headline is wrong. 

Google is a publisher, and proud of it when it wishes to be. When it decides to let journalists into the inner sanctums of Google Maps, it is insanely pleased with itself at its job of correcting maps that governments think are authoritative. In other words, if a Google Map is more accurate than the “real” map, it’s because Google collected “ground truth” data, reconciled the discrepancies between that and its own maps, and publishes its own maps.

It also relentlessly (if, anyhow, you happen to be a recipient of notices) publishes its own Official Google blog posts, and creates its own direct mail campaigns (had one in the letterbox this week). Any claim that Google isn’t a publisher is disingenuous. And because some people between the Pacific and Atlantic have trouble with words like that: really, Google is a publisher, whatever statements it makes to mislead idiots.

But it’s the complete and utter failure to actually read the judgement that makes me want to pick up a broadsword and kill a thousand men in a mead hall.

Here’s a few salient points about the case. From the judgement, which Jon Mitchell didn't bother with because of the long words.

  1. Google treated the original request – “remove defamatory material” – as too trivial to bother with. Its response was the equivalent of “here’s a phone, call someone who gives a shit”.
  2. Google treated the court as too trivial to bother with. It had the opportunity to call witnesses with knowledge of what happened, and didn’t.
  3. Google treated Australian defamation law as too trivial to bother with. It decided that its defence would rest on decisions made in England – which, in case it hasn’t noticed, is actually a different country. Its legal mind was about 25 years out of date, since we stopped sending appeals to the Privy Council in 1986. Australian courts can consider judgements in other jurisdictions – as they do, including those from America – but English decisions are no longer binding here. Idiots.
Now, instead of a frankly dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers off-toss by a remote twerp, here are the three facts which, it seems from reading the judgement, actually matter:

  1. Google was asked to amend the search results so as not to present a defamatory imputation.
  2. Google admitted in court that it could have done so.
  3. Yahoo had already lost a case on the same facts.
In other words, Google just couldn’t be arsed. Its decision was “don’t bother and don’t spend more on the fight than a settlement would cost”.

The judge frequently makes it clear that Google could have done better, and had it done so, the jury may have been free to find in favour of the search engine giant.

In other words, through the combination of arrogance and can’t-be-bothered, Google has supported a precedent that ReadWriteWeb detests. Take your complaint to Mountain View, fools, and stop giving us patronising piss-in-the-pocket advice from the other side of the Pacific.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Patronising MSM journalists hasten their own demise

Well, Sydney is baking and I’m grumpy and I have a pet detestation that fastens on journalists either waving the arse of their ignorance in the reader’s face, or treating the readers themselves like idiots in their desire to patronise.

There’s this special tone of voice, “I-know-something-you-don’t” (imagine it singsong “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!”), that journalists use when they think they’re educating their audience but are really just patronising the living daylight out of us.

Here’s a piece about battery technology research from the SMH. It’s lame in that kind of lameness that you get when the journalist fears any real science will turn off readers.

And especially lame is this:

“Batteries keep the lights on at night, and are perhaps the most surprising component of the otherwise high-tech array. Nestled among the coconut palms and shiny solar panels are bungalows containing 1344 giant lead-acid batteries weighing a combined 257 tonnes.”


“Tokelau's energy set-up may seem anachronistic…”

As some of you know, my wife and I operate a solar-powered set of holiday cottages, Bunjaree Cottages in Wentworth Falls. We don’t have 1,344 batteries – a more modest 36 is our kit, and there are humans out there who will contrive ways to suck them down from 54 V at 5pm to blackout at 6am (no mean feat: my family in December 2011, during a rain spell, managed three days without losing power).

So okay, I am familiar with lead-acid batteries and not in the least surprised, but neither should the Herald’s “carbon economy editor” (the invention of useless titles is one way once-were-warrior newspapers rage against the dying of the light), nor the Herald’s readers.

If you open the bonnet of your car – an anachronistic activity I know, but bear with me – you’ll find it packed with “anachronistic” hundred-year-old technology. The internal combustion engine, for a start; not to mention the lead-acid battery in a corner to give you a start in the morning. Kick the tyres and you’re kicking something from the 19th century, with enhancements, wrapped around improvements on wheels that even Pharoes had.

Now, I’ll grant that some of the story passes muster – although telling us that someone invented the vanadium redox battery, but not caring to describe it screams “out of depth reporter” to me (the science is easy to find on Google; essentially, it uses vanadium in two different solutions to store the charge).

I have found over decades behind the alphabet piano that mostly, you don’t need to patronise the reader – and in the world of the Internet, it’s an advantage not to. If the story is good, readers will find it, share it, pass it around – and you’ll get the hits. Is it better to seek out idiots, or to assume that it’s just as good to have the same number of informed, knowledgeable readers in front of the story?

I suspect a mindset is at fault: even as its readers flee, the old world of the newsroom believes itself party to privilege. It can’t shake the habits of “knowing something you don’t”, the keeper of the curtain who, for a suitable fee, will draw it back and give the audience a peek.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AusSMC: goodbye. You're not there to censor science

I have just asked the Australian Science Media Centre to no longer consider me a member.

Here’s why.

First let me set down my scientific credentials: I have none. I am a journalist with a strong interest in science, and – I hope – a functioning sniff-test on what I will and won’t write about. Their job was to educate me, but it seems I have to turn tables.

My only credential is that The Register (, for whom I write (, gets millions of hits in any given week (sometimes on a good day), and my science stories do well enough that nobody tells me to lay off science stories.

The Australian Science Media Centre has seen fit to upend a very public bucket ( on two Southern Cross University scientists for “media coverage by press release without a peer reviewed scientific paper to back it up?” asking “whether releasing preliminary data to the media is ever warranted”.

Let’s start with the hypocrisy. For the AusSMC to set “peer review” as the benchmark for “talk to the press” blithely ignores its own patron, the Baroness Greenfield, who just as blithely ignores peer review (for example when it comes to her theories about social media and brain development.

Also, there’s this exceptionally silly statement.

“The scientific process goes something like this: a researcher constructs a hypothesis, runs experiments to test their hypothesis, gathers data, interprets the results and then puts the lot through peer review”.

Bollocks. Nonsense. That’s how the scientific publication process goes. Science is messy. I’d suppose the most exciting words that an elder professor can hear from a PhD candidate are:

“That’s odd…”

And I have an example, here ( Speaking at the Australian Institute of Physics recently, CUDOS’ Dr Ben Egglestone was more frank about the researcher’s puzzlement. Actually, the first thought was that a bit of apparatus (presumably expensive) was broken.

The observation came first; after which came the hypothesis; after which the experimental test. After which, the paper.

Back to the CSG issue.

The first public discussion of the work by Dr Damien Maher and Dr Isaac Santos was not, as far as I can see, this press release ( as asserted by AusSMC, but rather this ( - PDF) submission to a Department of Climate Change’s inquiry.

I see nothing remotely improper about a scientist contributing to a government inquiry, even pre-peer-review.

It seems the press release was issued after the Sydney Morning Herald noticed the submission and put together this story: in other words, the press release was probably intended as a media summary after every man and his dog started calling up the University.

Which brings us to the question “whether releasing preliminary data to the media is ever warranted”?

To be polite, don’t be silly: is the world now to start censoring its scientists solely on the basis of whether a journal has accepted a particular item of research for publication? Sure, it’s good business for the big journals, but as a journalist, I acknowledge no obligation whatever to protect their business model.

In the specific instance of the SCU submission to the government inquiry: the document repeatedly makes clear that it is presenting preliminary results. The researchers say that their measurements are incomplete – they “provide evidence for significant but unquantified” emissions, and call for “baseline studies” before new projects are commenced.

Ahh, someone or other complains, but they didn’t release the raw data, so nobody else can test it! No: because the raw data is off with a publication undergoing peer review. It’s stuck in the “process” that the AusSMC is promoting.

More broadly, suggesting an extension of peer review from its proper(ish) role – ensuring that the science is sufficiently rigorous to justify publication in a specific journal – into a pre-publication self-censorship is an awful idea.

First, keep in mind that “peer review” isn’t magic. It means “this result is robust enough to warrant publication” – after which the real business of “replicate it or rip it to shreds” begins. The journals do not replicate an experiment before they publish: that is the job of other scientists, after they’ve got their hands on the data.

Apply a “pre peer review” gag? So that no scientist can ever answer the question “what are your current research interests?” So that all science journalism is forever beholden to the embargoes and fanatical media management of the large publishers? So that journalists can see nothing, read nothing and know nothing except by the grace of the journals – while laying out $20k in annual subscriptions?

Should Cornell University pull Arxiv because a journalist might download a document that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed?

To think that the Australian Science Media Centre wants to filter “science” through the lens of the “science publisher’s” world view is a depressing thought indeed.

Goodbye. I don’t wish the AusSMC bad luck, because – to paraphrase Archie Goodwin – even with good luck, it won’t get much of an epitaph.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Childcare and feminism

Usually, you’ll hear this kind of thing from shits saying “why should you get help that I didn’t get?” Bear with me. It won’t be that way.
Because of the people I follow, I saw a lot of observations recently on Twitter that child-care is the feminist issue that’s on the don’t touch list; that the people who have “feminism” in mind are happier dealing the clue-by-four to radio shock-jocks whose opinions won’t change si why waste the time? (courtesy Helen Razer); that motherhood isn’t sexy enough for the feminist agenda (Asher Wolf).
Yes to all of you. You’re fighting the hardest fight that remains to feminism.
I have no direct stake and therefore, I guess, no right to comment. I’m not a woman. I’m a father whose sons are now old enough to do without me. If I died tomorrow, they’d get by somehow, not least because Ms T has taught them to cook – properly. That is: they can get by without pre-preps for the sauce. They can eat cheap. They’ll live.
Ms T, however, would not get by without me. Does that at least qualify me for “observer” status? I bloody hope, so or I am in the cross-hairs for the best flaming I’ve had in years…
Because I’m trying to be sensitive to others in this post, it’s hard to have the words flow. So if I wander, forgive me.
I identify the child care issue as the hardest fight, not only as a father, but as someone whose contacts reach back to 1896, when my late grandmother was born. I’ll just stick with my father’s lifetime: his mother, Doris, suffered septicaemia when her youngest son was born. This was during the Depression, at a time when government support for the merely unemployed was as hostile and hateful as today’s bipartisan contest to rain horrors on the heads of boat-borne refugees.
She never truly recovered: my dim memories of her are as someone who wore heavy coats and felt hats in a Sydney summer, and once seated as a visitor, barely moved. People came to her.
When my father joined the navy in WW2, he was directed to the ship’s laundry as a volunteer, because he’d wrangled the copper since age ten.
When I was seven, my mother suffered an affliction which much later I identified as Menier’s Syndrome, and was so ill that she needed to convalesce. I was too young – strike that, I know what I was, too much of a trouble-making pain in the arse! – to remain in Sydney with dad and my siblings. He had an over-the-odds too-many-hours job that precluded him from travelling to school every other week.
So I went to Springwood with my mother, to be cared for by my grandmother while my mother lay in a bed that spun if she closed her eyes. There were penalties and compensations in that six-months. The school I temporarily attended liked me just about as much as I liked it; my grandmother was a very severe product of the 19th century; but she had a short-wave radio! She also let me use any amount of cubed sugar in tea, and talked in a way that I liked hearing, in spite of the 70-odd years between us.
It would be easy, from my point of view, to say “So, there’s no support for child-care? Get over it, there never was any.”
I won’t.
My uncle – the only survivor today of Dad’s family – told me at a recent funeral how his elder siblings gave up fun and opportunity to help bring him up (dad didn’t resent his part in that; he resented bad medicine and the Depression).
And I recall a 1960s in which the only way to keep a family together – one that nearly failed anyhow for other reasons – was to divide it for a time. Because sickness didn't warrant support.
And me? I’m here. My sons are beyond compare, but they’re no the topic of this post. Nor are my experiences – and Ms T’s – of parent-hood. We got by somehow, in spite of short funds, a psycho school principal, and so on.
I merely wish to say two things: the first is that I wholeheartedly support the idea that child-care is a vital feminist issue. I have no particular right to say so, but I’ve never claimed the right to express my opinions, only the ability to do so and try to stop me.
The second: keep in mind that “care” is, also and maybe foremost, the right of the child. The insane ideological inputs from the right – that the child’s right to care is linked with getting women to be “real women” – can be disregarded, unless you want to subscribe to the equally-insane notion that “real women don’t get sick”.
Get the argument right – in a modern PR-driven construction that I utterly detest, “get the framing right” (may all savvy pundits die horribly, preferably at my hand) – and both the mothers and the children benefit.
Back to my introduction: “I never got help, why should you?
Because we never buy our own salvation. If you wan to save the world, do so, but understand that it will be saved for others, not for you.
Life is tragic, that way: you are noble when you buy a better life for those that can’t do it for themselves, either because they’re powerless today, or because they don’t know they need what you’ll win for them.
Do it for yourself, and it’s just greed.
Since I’m not in the mood to dwell on religion, I’ll call instead on Lord of The Rings: Frodo didn’t rescue Frodo. Just everybody else. 
That’s why I support those who battle on the behalf of others: the new mother who finds the mere energy to become an activist on behalf of better child care will not benefit herself. It will take too long: the best she can hope for is that some other mother has a better time of it.
All mothers deserve enough support that their sons might feel that way. All children deserve their mothers – without the stresses that lack of support introduce. If feminists  – not mere publicity-seekers – choose this as a battle-ground, I can’t ride their horses, but I can carry spears.

To those trying to change things for the better: My bet is that you have my mother and both my grandmothers, my aunt and probably my father - all dead, alas - applauding you.

Friday, November 23, 2012

NBN Co’s alleged lack of telecomms on the board

Malcolm Turnbull’s latest talking point is, to quote his Tweet, that: “there is a woeful lack of telecom expertise on the NBN Co”. Ahhh, you may think, at last, a nut with meat in it, the Achilles’ heel of the government’s oversight of the project, the weak link. And so on.

So what does the NBN Co board look like? I looked here  to check off relevant experience. Everybody on the board spans multiple industries, so this is a very inadequate summary. In essence I have picked out the “most relevant” experience for each board member.

Board Members – eight
Finance / law / corporate – three
Civil engineering infrastructure / management – three
Telecommunications – two

Well, telecommunications isn’t exactly absent, is it? Mike Quigley’s been there all his life, and Siobhan McKenna was in telecommunications advisory at McKinsey, which must count for something.

It’s hardly surprising that the finance-law-corporate experience (people like Malcolm, if you will) dominates: it probably does in most companies. Considering the considerable dollars NBN Co has to handle, that’s sensible.

And the other three board members? They’ve spent time around civil engineering and infrastructure, one way or another.

That’s very sensible.

The NBN is primarily a civil engineering project. It’s about pits and pipes, ducts and digging, lugging and logistics. The cables are comparatively trivial: they’re just what gets installed into those pits and pipes. The cables themselves are worth much less than the cost of the civil works. Even the equipment attaching to the ends of those cables is far less, in terms of the overall cost of the NBN, than the price of the civil works.

It won’t always be that way, of course: today, NBN Co is a construction company; at some point in the future, network operations will dominate. None of the board members are appointed forever, though: there’s time enough to cycle one kind of expertise out of the NBN Co board, and cycle in another kind.

But for now, this large and very expensive construction project is headed by a board which mostly comes from the worlds of “big business” and “big civil”.

Sounds about right to me.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The glory of children: Go and wash the dishes, jerks!

I was going to try and talk about a corporate scammer of very good name that plays the Internet invoice scam.

WTF. If idiots actually believe they’ve signed on with a high-profile accommodation booking site, I can’t help them.

Instead, I’ll talk about the strange intersect between shit activities and family life.

I once gave up on a discussion about the washing up, when someone told me they regarded it as slavery – as something his children would never have to suffer. QED the dishwashing machine.

I own a dishwasher now, my fifth. Only one has ever been any damn good at the job – an ancient Vulcan that had to be ditched when spare parts became unavailable. Apart from that, each one has been, from the cheap to the “it costs HOW much?” have disappointed.

When our sons were young – younger than ten – Ms T and I stopped trying to find a dishwasher that pleased us, that didn’t demand a half-hour of pre-rinse and frequent “be nice to an appliance” routines, and reverted to hand-washing. There remains an unused machine of decent brand, taking up space because we can’t figure out how to remodel the kitchen.

Then she fell ill.

Sometime in the last two years, between me trying to earn an income between a chair in the corner of a hospital room, a home office that’s usually on the dining table, and wielding a mop-and-bucket in a Blue Mountains eco-tourism resort – and Ms T splitting her time between hospital, the kitchen because she loves to put meals on our table, the best chair in front of the TV when there’s cricket, and so on – where was I?

Oh yeah.

The boys took over the washing up.

I was at the Royal Prince Alfred, anytime I wasn’t fixing breakfast, preparing dinner (under Ms T’s instructions), working in the seat in the corner, or picking them up from schools.

Evenings, my two sons had to themselves, and they – not I – decided to assume the burden of washing up for themselves.

And that’s the way they kept it.

It’s a matter of pride for them: Ms T cooks meals (which when life is good I will set against any meal); I earn money; they help us keep things going.

And they’re proud of it. If we remind them that something wasn’t cleaned properly, it’s personal.

There are other things they do, without hope or expectation or reward, beyond their devotion to their mother.

And before anybody decides to create some kind of “ideal” out of them: I can assure you that in a great many situations, they would rate as “pain in the arse of the whole world”. They need a cattle-prod to actually undertake school or university work. They don’t understand the difference between “conversational emphasis” and “too fucking loud”. They spend too much time on games, much as I once spent too much time trying to perfect my skills as a drummer in the late 1970s.

And they are gifts, wonders, treasures that would blush if the ever notice how highly I regard them. If they don’t see this, they won’t blush. If they do? Fine by me. They deserve my admiration, and they have it.

Now, you loudmouth, game-obsessed, unscholarly lazy jerks: go and wash the dishes! :-)

We consider you two boys the unvarnished gold of our lives. You can live the shit-life of chemotherapy without cringing, will volunteer for things worse than mere dish-washing without flinching, will live the life of chronic illness without it even denting your savoir-faire. You are stronger than I could have been.

Please, in the outside world, can I account this as success as a father? Can Ms T and I believe we were good parents?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Generic drugs: good for the PBS

Since someone on Twitter has no idea about “chemo day”, and sees fit to tell me I don’t know, let me tell you what it’s like.

Today, Ms T didn’t get her usual chair in “siberia” – that part of the chemo suite reserved for people both on cytotoxins and with superbug-risk. Someone else was there first, so she had the chair next door.

He was an old gentleman who’d arrived, been given morphine, been sent off to get an MRI before his chemo (this sounds bad to me), returned, and waited. Then, before his chemo, he was visited by another doctor, given a butterfly for morphia, recommended for admission and assigned a bed, and sent off again for another MRI because they “wanted more information”. This sounds really bad to me.

On the other side was a teenager who nearly broke my heart: the beautiful-but-hairless that mostly I’d only seen in fundraiser ads (and in our adventures at RPA, we’ve met many cancered-and/or-transplant teenagers).

And there were the carers. On one side, a sixtyish woman fussing over her husband; on the other, a fortyish woman fussing over her daughter. In the middle, us: me arriving late, because I’d had other things to do today, Ms T waiting after some hours because the chemo suite is busy.

We were, remember, in a corner: sibera. The rest of the suite has maybe thirty chairs.

We got through with the small pleasantries that make tolerable being around so much grief. Everybody here is dying, and the carers are all cheerful. “Oh, I can’t stand to see the needle going in.” “I fainted once, so I must be worse than you.” From the teenager’s seat: “Pussies! I have to get the needle IN me, and my bags are bigger than yours!” (She was right. She had a line-up that looked like three liters).

Every single drug these three were receiving was an unbranded generic. There were two cyclophosphamide patients, one on something I didn’t recognise but didn’t come with a “big name” above the chemical name.

We all smiled and chatted. All of us thanked the nurses, whose job I wouldn’t take at two hundred thousand a year, who were invariably happy and gentle and solicitous. We chatted en-passant, wheeled our respective patients’ assemblies towards the toilets as required, tried not to invade each others’ privacy (funny thing: cram people in desperate circumstances into a tight space, and we’re all sensitive to each others’ privacy), and tried to smile.

In another corner of the world, the government has decided not to pay full-price for one cancer drug that’s now available as a generic. In essence the policy is this: “since the drug is available for $X, we will pay $X. If big pharma wants to supply at that price, fine. If not, we will buy it as a generic and pay $X.”

Whaddaya know? Within nanoseconds, the entire Big Pharma machine is in swing.

I know how the machine works. I once worked for the publisher of Australian Doctor, and not only did I get a close-up day-to-day of the machine, I had an internal training session on its practises.

The “desperate patient” is the poster-child of any pharmaceutical campaign, whether it’s for Viagra, the creation of a brand-new (medicable) psych complaint, or “protect this cancer treatment”.

The last one is the best. Who’s going to argue with a cancer patient’s needs?

Me. Someone inside the system. Someone who’s seen it at work. Someone who knows how it works, both as a journalist and carer.

The entire pharmaceutical campaign over the funding of one – just one – drug is based on a simple premise: most people don’t know.

The big thing they don’t know is this: most of the drugs you get in a hospital are generic. From the paracetamol up. Want an anti-emetic? It’ll be generic. Need morphia? Ditto. Artificial morphioid? Yep, generic. Cancer drug?

That’s the sensitive issue, but: most of the drugs used to fight cancers are out of patent, dispensed as generics. Not one person receiving those drugs wants them. They just need them – and don’t care about the brand name.

Some of those drugs are used for other things, like locking down the immune system. Cyclophosphamide, my wife’s drug of choice, came out of the 1950s: anyone arguing that the government must fund its branded versions, Cytoxan, Endoxan, Neosar, etcetera, merely to demonstrate its “commitment” to the health system?


When the premium for the brand could be spent somewhere else?


Should “paracetamol 500 mg” be replaced with a branded product at six times the price, in hospitals, merely as an icon of our “commitment to excellence” or some such shit?


Should the pharmacist insist that Ms T be dispensed with “Immuran” instead of Azathioprine, just so the government can pay more on the PBS to get the brand instead of the chemical compound?


There is no good argument for demanding that the government pay a brand-premium, when “brand” exists only as an emotional consumer artefact to get people to pay premiums that they don’t have to pay.

The idea that “extra spending” should happen as a symbol of “commitment” is childish and simplistic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Open government spatial data: do it but don’t do it badly

I’m in favour of open government spatial data, I really am, but for the love of all things holy, why is it done so badly?

I don’t mean “badly” as in “you just have to know X and it will be fine”. I mean “badly” as in “Australia’s governments are embracing open data with unusable agglomerations that look like they were Web sites designed in 1993”.

The idea, it seems, is to start by creating portals that provide single-point-of-access to data that used to be held in different agencies – or still are held in those agencies. So what do you end up with? Generally, an unnavigable shambles that takes ages to navigate, and when you get somewhere, it was barely worth it.

Let’s get specific for a moment. Here’s one of the ACT Government’s datasets:

This is “Geographic data for the ACT, including ACT Legislative Assembly electorate boundaries, and boundaries for the Territory, districts and suburbs. There is also data for water feaures and Gazetted Feature Names.”

Well, as you can see, the display is less-than-useful. Too much of the screen real estate is devoted to everything but the map. And what does this page actually do? It takes a few already-available data sets, serves them out of (I think) an Arcgis server, and overlays it on a Google Map.

All of this is pretty, but to someone who does GIS, it’s useless. I’d still have to download the shapes to do anything with them. Now, take a look at the bit I circled in the screen-shot.

To add a dataset layer, you need to know the dataset name – which means you need to be already familiar with the metadata. If you wanted – who knows why – to add bus-stops to this not-useful display, you need to know exactly what the bus-stop dataset is called.

Once you zoom in, the profound uselessness of the display becomes apparent:


Yes, the download becomes convenient. And thankfully, it’s at least organised well: the individual layers aren’t blended into one set of vectors, as I’ve known some of the idiots of online mapping to do.

And there’s this, from the bus-stop data table:

OK, it’s a simple parse error in the data import – but since it hasn’t been noticed, and recurs in other data sets, it suggests two things: (1) nobody ran a simple database query to see if their data import worked right, and (2) there aren’t that many users.

It’s not just the ACT, and it’s probably unfair of me to single the ACT out, but I’m not going to unpick the whole country. The ACT is at worst typical and better than some. Queensland has some dataset directory entries which, after you’ve clicked through a few navigation screens, turn out to be empty.

The thing is this: if you’re not going to make a very good directory, then merely doing an Open Government something because it’s the flavour of the month is a waste of money.

If I want electoral boundaries, Google will find them for me; ditto whatever street-level data exists. Topographic data in Australia is easy to find, thanks to Geosciences Australia, as is a lot of other spatial data.

And there’s the challenge, really: governments publishing the data sets aren’t spending their money wisely if their spiffy portals deliver results slower than Google searches. And map tools that do nothing but offer a passive display of one layer over another layer over another layer – are doing nothing but delivering up license fees to vendors.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Stop obsessing about Stratfor

Y’know what?

I don’t care whether someone had a meeting with Stratfor.

Let’s see. Stratfor’s own internal security was lame. Which suggests that, along with people like a CIA boss or Sony, Stratfor’s security was a pile of steaming dung. No surprises there: the number of “savvy” people with a slippery grasp of computer security seems astonishingly high.

But here’s the other thing: Stratfor’s intelligence was lame. It was second-rate stuff, cribbings from the local media with the kind of commentary that you get when most of the grunt-work comes from that optimistic slave-labour that Americans excuse under the word “intern”.

In another era, the work that Stratfor did would have been carried out by junior embassy staff as their first-year familiarisation: crib the local newspapers for relevant stories, write summaries, get them approved, and send them back home under the boss’s signature.

It's Reader's Digest stuff, literally: a news digest of local stories of interest to the diplomats.

Apart from a gossamer overlay of “analysis” from Stratfor, that’s what the outfit provided, because budget-counting idiots cut back on staff and outsourced the job at a higher price.

So if I get the stunning revelation that the current foreign minister met with Stratfor, I don’t think “international conspiracy”. I think “why is Bob Carr wasting his time with a bunch of losers who would provide more value behind the checkout counter at McDonalds?”