Sunday, 19 October 2014

Current Abusements and Amusements

Political Abusement

Yes, "abusement" is a correct term. Yes, it is somewhat awkward but in this case I think it's a sounds more fitting than the  simpler "abuse". The event I'm referring to is that of our finance minister, Mattias Cormann, referring to Bill Shorten as an "economic girlie man". Now Cormann, who might sound like he's a South African migrant, actually came to us twenty years ago from eastern Belgium, where he grew up speaking German. (One might ask why he is was chosen to be Finance Minister when he has a background in Law, but that is another topic.) Assured of a seat due to his preselection for the third position on the Senate ballot in Western Australia, Cormann has (dis?)graced our parliament since 2007, thirteen years after his arrival in the country.

Maybe it's his teutonic background, maybe as a boy he worshipped another migrant who went on to become a politician. Whatever the case, Cormann was clearly channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger when he used the phrase "economic girlie man" ...

While referencing Schwarzenegger is one thing, trying to deny the language he used is not sexist is just plain silly on Cormann's part. Yet another federal Liberal politician who has no clue about the sexist connotations of what he's saying. Of course that's what you'd expect: Tony Abbott as leader could only see fit to fill one of nineteen cabinet seats with a woman. For those of you who don't believe that could actually be true, here's the evidence:

Abbott's cabinet (photo from the Sydney Morning Herald)
I guess Cormann's law degree from an eastern Belgian university makes him more eminently suitable as Australia's Finance minister than any federal female government member; after all, Cormann does take a piss standing up.

There's another twist to all of this that is somewhat amusing and makes one wonder if Cormann wasn't actually channeling himself being channeled. Here's a skit that aired about a month ago on Shaun Micallef's Mad As Hell which was a lovely little send up of Cormann, via his fictional advisor Darius Horsham.

Abuse of Process

At the same time that this little farce emerged, it was revealed that serious abuse of the 457 Visa Scheme has been taking place. A small snapshot of information on the government's "Department of Immigration and Border Protection" website gives a clear indication of the main purpose of the visa: it's designed to allow employers to sponsor workers from outside of the country to fill jobs that cannot otherwise be filled by Australian citizens or permanent residents:

However, a leaked report has revealed that the system is seriously flawed. There are 200 000 people in Australia on 457 visas. A report looked at a small proportion (about 1% of those visas) and  found concerns about 40% of the 1 800 people examined. Myriad issues have emerged. For example, many of the migrant workers are either not in the jobs for which they were hired or are getting paid substantially less than the statutory minimum of $53 900. Perhaps the most flagrant abuse of the system is at the other end of the scale: the CEO of Billabong is on a 457 Visa and is getting paid one million dollars per year. If that isn't a case of abuse of process I'd like to know what is.

From a personal point of view, what is most galling is the conclusion that up to 3600 people here on 457 visas are working as teachers. At the same time, half of all teaching graduates - about 8000 people - had not found permanent employment four months after completing their education training last year. Remember, the 457 visa is meant to be used by employers only when they could not find an Australian national or permanent resident to fill a vacancy.

The government's anti-union agenda in all this must be pretty clear for all to see. This cartoon from the Sydney Morning Herald shows the way the government is headed with the 457 Visa program and their plans to get young Australians off the dole and into jobs ...

Hockey and Abbott set the employment agenda
When I started looking at this 457 stuff I decided to google "457 visa", as one does these days when one wants to get started on some research in the comfort of one's own lounge room. As you'd expect, at the top of the list were some links to government pages, some stuff from the media and, of course, a Wikipedia article. Then I wondered what would happen if I googled "457 jobs Australia". Incredible! There are all these pages where you can - apparently - start the process of targeting specific jobs. There's even this listing on Gumtree where is advertising on behalf of her clients for two chefs to come and work in Mulgrave, a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne. I find it hard to believe that they couldn't find two chefs to fit the vacancies from somewhere in Victoria let alone the rest of the country.

On a slightly more cheerful note, it looks like cracks are starting to widen in the the government's glossed-up image of a united front. If you live in Australia you've probably heard about the brouhaha that Bronwyn Bishop, the Speaker of House of Reps, created recently by banning burqas in the public gallery. (If not, you can read about it here.) Tony Abbott, said he thought it was probably unnecessary and that he asked Bishop to reconsider. Well, Bishop has now effectively called Abbott a liar. At least we're making news around the world for something other than our government's hostile stance on renewable energy which has led to the abandonment of plans to build more solar power plants. I enjoyed Leigh Dayton's take on Abbott's recent statement about coal being "good for humanity"...


You're probably wondering why I'm so preoccupied with all this stuff (at least enough to blog about it). Well, I can't do much of the stuff I would otherwise be doing just at the moment as I've had a tiny bit of surgery to remove a growth on my little toe, along with the toenail underneath ...

Under wraps
It has now been five days and I'm starting to go a bit stir crazy, so I had to do something! Actually, the toe is just about healed up, but it will still be a while before I can pull on my climbing shoes. But there are always lots of other amusement at hand. Some of the things scattered around my foot that you might have noticed include:
  • a copy of Dee Brown's masterpiece Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (now with our friend Margot)
  • A Maria Callas CD (borrowed from Austra)
  • and my ubiquitous crossword book (I've got a subscription curtesy of Di)
We have also taken in a few films from the Italian Film Festival currently showing at our wonderful State Cinema. Bellissimo! And yesterday we went for a drive to Richmond to see the ducks ...

... and a swan or two ...

... and have a bit of a stroll to see how my toe felt. Afterwards we treated ourselves to lunch at Frogmore Creek.  I thought it was absolutely fabulous. Di enjoyed the food too, but would have liked there to be a bit more texture. Here's a photo of the second course, an open pumpkin ravioli ...

The day after tomorrow we plan to take the camper, which is hanging out on top of the shed ...

... waiting for us to get our act together.

We plan to head up the east coast and will probably drop into Freycinet National Park, where I took this photo ...

Early morning light on the Hazards
Wish good weather for us, will you?

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sucked In!

When I was in the middle of my teaching career and the phrase "sucked in" came into vogue I found it quite distasteful. As a consequence I have rarely used it, but on this occasion I find it rather appropriate. After our recent trip to France, and seeing stuff in the media of late about the so-called "e-cigarette" phenomenon, I've become a bit preoccupied with the topic. 

Although Dianne and I have developed a real love affair with France since our retirement, the one thing that bugs us about the place is the smoking. It's fine when we're running about in the mountains, but once we get back into "civilisation" there seems to be an awful lot of people puffing away. According to this article, more people were smoking in France in 2012 than five years earlier when bans on smoking in workplaces, schools, hospitals and stations were enacted. In France in 2012, about 30% of the adult population smoked regularly. In contrast, according to this article from the Health Department here in Australia the figure is now well under half that. 

In Australia it's not legal to smoke in any outdoor areas where food is served. By contrast, everywhere we wanted to eat outside in France we had to put up with passive smoking from fellow diners.

Marketing and Popular Culture

How could smoking have ever become such a powerful and widespread addiction throughout humanity? Well, maybe we can blame it on Freud. Or, more accurately, we should probably blame his nephew Edward L Bernays who applied psychoanalytic principles to advertising. Bernays was intrigued by Freud's notion that irrational forces drive human behaviour and launched a marketing campaign to convince women to take up smoking back on the brink of the Great Depression of the 1930's. 

Was this image influential in reeling in early smokers?

Actually, we should probably take a big step back in time, as far as the 16th - indeed the 15th century. Sir Walter Raleigh is widely blamed for introducing tobacco to Britain. Even the BBC mentions him in this context, although it does acknowledge that the Spanish had already brought tobacco to Europe, with Christopher Columbus the main culprit. However, it seems that a Frenchman, Jean Nicot - for whom nicotine is named - was one of the main figures in popularising its use in Europe in the  mid sixteenth century. This brief history of tobacco is full of interesting information, including the fact that the tobacco industry was a major factor in stimulating the demand for slave labour in North America. So, while countless millions across the world can be described as slaves to smoking through their addiction to nicotine, the tobacco industry can also be blamed for the scourge of slavery in America. And, although it took some 400 years for western governments to really crack on to the connection between smoking and lung cancer, concerns were being raised in the early 1600's by no lesser a figure than King James the 1st. 

Of course, marketing played a big part in the addiction of so many to such an appalling habit. Here's an image of Ronald Reagan - before he became the 40th president of the USA - promoting cigarettes ...

They almost look like cartons of shortbread cookies ...
No doubt this advertisement made the Christmas shopping easy for a lot of folks that year!

Of course for the sake of women's equality, female movie stars got a guernsey as well ...

Barbara Stanwick shares her smoking preference

Perhaps the most famous - and subsequently infamous - of all smoking advertisements were those made to sell Marlboro cigarettes. Most of the advertising projected images of the rugged, independent, outdoor man, they must have sucked in lots of young boys especially. Here's an example ...

You too can be a cowboy if you smoke Marlboro
The more you look into the history of cigarette advertising the more appalling it is. From portraying health professionals promoting smoking ...

Because it's good for your gums or teeth or ... what exactly?
... to using images of babies ...  

Do it for me, Mum!

 .. there was no depths that big tobacco wouldn't plumb to make money at the expense of the public and one can only pity the appalling blitz that was carried out on my parents' generation, even to the extent of supplying free or very cheap cigarettes at one stage if you were in the military forces.

Eventually of course, things started to turn against this foul trade, and advertising played its part in this respect too. The Heart Association made this spaghetti western animated antismoking cartoon in the late 1960's ...

Move the time-line slider along a little way and we've got this wonderful short anti-smoking ad from no less than John Cleese ...

A postscript to this anti smoking-lobby ramble: this morning (21st October) I found this lovely little article on The Mercury's website. It's about Rik Goddard, an ABC radio announcer who has given up smoking after three decades of hard core sucking and has found a new lease on life. Worth a read.

How Vapid Can One Be?

I've always been kind of out of the loop as far as popular culture goes. In terms of smoking, I never really got it - although I did try briefly in my mid teens to join the smokers. Luckily, I never took to it or, maybe more accurately, it never took hold of me. In fact I've often found it rather ironic that so many people think they're rebelling against some dominant paradigm by smoking when they're merely being manipulated by mega-multinational companies.

I've just recently I've become aware of the "e-cigarette" phenomenon. Probably at least a couple of years after everybody else. (I find the term "e-cigarette" a bit of a laugh in itself. Yet another marketing gimmick, designed to make the habit look modern and sophisticated by linking to modern electronic technology with all its associated "e" terms.) It almost seems like some underground cult thing that's taking hold. There's countless threads on the internet about it, including this one purporting to protect the so-called rights of ex-smokers. And of course, it has spawned a whole lot of vapid terms, including vaping, which is carried out by vapers. There's even an e-cig glossary for those who want to "successfully switch to vaping".

Naturally, this phenomenon is all just about big tobacco fighting back for the market share that has been slipping from its grasp. Not content with hooking huge numbers of addicts in the developing world (they've got east Asia by the short and curlies; in Africa they sell cigarettes to children for a few cents per stick), they are now investing in the e-cigarette trade, targeting all those countries where their market share is dropping. Basically, this is just all about making money by getting people addicted to nicotine and they do it by trying to make it look trendy, sophisticated and sexy. Here are a couple of examples of the sorts of images they use ...

Are the lips real or are they stuck on?
Wow! So cool and so ... healthy? Maybe not ...
Of course you've got to have breadth in any advertising campaign if you're going to maximise your catch. So naturally in the USA, the land of the free and home of the brave, there's bound to be advertising aimed at the notion of freedom. 
You can be free to stand your ground and shoot your neighbour and have an e-cigarette while you're about it ...

And, according to a University of California at San Francisco study released in March of this year,  big tobacco seems to be making inroads in the USA with its advertising, successfully recruiting a whole new cohort of teenage tobacco addicts via the back door of e-cigarettes.

In the United Kingdom (I refuse to call such a piddly, self-satisfied little place "Great Britain") it looks like big tobacco has friends in high places. The Poms are bringing in new laws which purport to put restrictions on e-cigarette advertising - but will allow images of people smoking e-cigarettes on television. A bit of doublespeak in the land that gave us George Orwell.

Thankfully, in Australia we seem to be moving the other way. The Cancer Council holds grave concerns that the trend towards e-cigarettes will once again make cigarette use appear glamorous to young people and people in high places seem to be listening. Under new legislation in Queensland, e-cigarettes are to be treated the same as tobacco products. Western Australia has gone a step further banning all e-cigarettes, even those that don't contain nicotine. The problems are seen as twofold: it's not possible to distinguish between e-cigarettes that only give a burst of bubblegum or banana flavour as opposed to a nicotine hit; and there is a danger of normalising children once again to the idea of smoking. It's just applying the same logic that has seen the elimination of cigarette-shaped candies in the lolly shops. 

More Grist For The Mill?

I could go on to talk about people sucking down so-called energy drinks but don't think I'll bother. Suffice it to say that Red Bull has been successfully sued for false advertising. As it turns out, a hit of Red Bull does no more for you than a cup of coffee. Rather than facing a lengthy, costly and publicity-damaging lawsuit it has caved in and promised $10 to anyone in the U.S. who claims to have bought a can of its bogus product with the expectation that it would give a boost in performance/attention/stamina/whatever. As far as I am concerned, the only good thing about Red Bull is their sponsorship of extreme athletes pushing the boundaries. I'll leave you with this wonderful clip of Danny Macaskill doing great things on his bike and, one would imagine, indirectly, good things for tourism on the Isle of Sky at the same time ...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Definition of Duplicity and More on Climate Change

Who is Greg Hunt?

This is the guy ...

Greg Hunt Speaks (

Anyone outside Australia probably hasn't heard of him. Most people in Australia probably don't know who he is either. In fact Greg Hunt was probably higher profile when he was part of the Federal Opposition than he is now. It was easy to slag off as an opposition spokesman on the environment. Now, as Minister for the Environment (with the current government's stance on the environment and climate change, that would make him a junior minister) he has become almost invisible. What can now be revealed is that he is the definition of duplicity. If this wasn't previously patently obvious to all and sundry, it certainly should be now.

It has emerged that Greg Hunt was given a thorough briefing on climate change,its affects on weather patterns and the increased likelihood of severe bushfires by senior personnel at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology three weeks before he gave an interview citing Wikipedia on the topic. His responses in the interview were deliberately formulated to suggest that he had no information that points to an increased likelihood of bushfires or an increase in severity of bushfires due to climate change. But if you read the article, that is clearly not. It is also clear that Greg Hunt has deliberately misled the interviewer and the audience. And that to me is the definition of duplicity. When he was in opposition, we knew he was wasn't interested in listening to experts about climate; now we know he will deliberately ignore facts that are presented to him in his capacity as our government leader responsible for dealing with environmental issues.

A Subtle  Hint the Climate is Changing

For anyone living in southeast Australia who has their eyes open, it is clear that the climate is changing. We can see that now in many ways. The change in the bushfire season and the intensity of fires is one, but there are other, more subtle changes that have occurred over time.

A place we've visited many times for over three decades is Risdon Brook Dam. It's not especially scenic or especially interesting but it is a very pleasant place to recreate. We probably first went there with the kids when we were doing a bit of orienteering. It was fun exploring the bush and finding hidden controls with them. The 4.25 kilometre dirt track that loops around the dam undulates nicely so we started going there to run (that was back in the days before "joint issues" were not even in our lexicon, let alone being part of everyday life). We've also used it as a base for mountain biking and hiking to nearby landmarks. 

In our early visits to the dam we'd regularly see Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos foraging amongst the pine trees and feasting on cones.  These quirky birds are probably our favourites and it was always such a delight to come across them squawking and skiting as we wound away around the dam. I'll indulge myself with a video to share with you ...

We only saw black cockatoos, no white cockatoos. then slowly, almost imperceptibly, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos started to appear. "So what?", you might well ask. Well, the so what is that they just weren't a common sight around southern Tasmania, certainly not in any bush environment. We'd regularly see white cockatoos in northern Tasmania. In fact, the defining moment of arriving in northern Tasmania along the Midland Highway was driving through the paddocks just north of Epping Forest and being greeted, invariably, by flocks of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

Once the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos - which, unlike our favourites, tend to flock in large numbers - started frequenting Risdon Brook Dam, the numbers of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos diminished. The Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo is an aggressive bird that tends to drive out competitors. The notable thing about their presence in this particular place is that they generally frequent agricultural areas, where they like to forage on the ground for grubs and the like. We do still see the Yellow-tail out there, just not with the same regularity. So, that is one little example of how things have changed over time here in southern Tasmania. Scientifically significant? Who knows.

Past Climate Change Events vs the Here and Now

I've just been looking at this great article from NASA that touches on the fact that there have been seven major climate change events over the past 650 000 years, as reflected through cycles of glacial advancement and retreat. he last of these cycles finished 7000 years ago, since which time human civilisation has emerged and developed. Most of these variations in climate can be attributed to minute variations in the Earth's orbit, which alters the amount of solar radiation that the Earth receives. Some short term changes in climate are thought to be due to factors such as volcanic eruptions. It seems that a major change of climate 65 000 000 years ago caused the extinction of dinosaurs, but scientists have no definite answer as to what caused it. Their two camps are split between whether it was a massive asteroid that hit the earth or a massive period of volcanism. Whatever, it must have been massive! 

Nobody suggests that any previous change in climate has been the result of human activity. That all changed when we started building machines and factories in the mid 19th century, factories that have been pumping carbon into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The following graphic from that article shows the last 400 000 years, with levels of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide coinciding with Ice Ages and also a shocking spike at the end ...

Levels of Atmospheric Carbon (from )
The blip at the end can only be attributed to industrial activity. One thing that is undisputed even by climate change deniers is that atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat, so it's hard to see how human activity couldn't have at least had some influence on the raising of the average temperature around the globe, both on land and in the sea. 

Little of this would be news to most of you. What might come as a surprise though is that scientists who understand climate change assert that many change events have happened quite quickly, over a period of between a few years and a decade. No doubt such rapid change comes as something of a shock - maybe not as bad as being hit by a tsunami, but maybe not that far off it.

The End of the Medieval Warm Period

You are probably wondering what has led to my current preoccupation with climate change. I'll tell you. Before we went off hiking and climbing in France I started reading a fantastic book called The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century. It's by William Rosen author of Justinian's Flea and The Most Powerful Idea in the World. All three books deal with important phases in western civilisation. This is the cover of the Third Horseman:

Doesn't it intrigue though! I've been working my way through the book and I must say it's a wonderful read. While it is incredibly wide-ranging, the essence of the book is that it deals with the complex array of factors that led to the Great Famine that killed one in eight people across Europe. What is clear so far is that climate change - and it was very sudden (it started raining on the 15th of May and didn't stop anywhere in Europe until August) - played a significant part in that famine. There's so much going on in The Third Horseman that it's small bites at a time, but it's a book that's inspired me. The point, though, is that climate change didn't just creep up on Europe in the early 14th century it hit with a BANG! The same thing could happen here, but people like Greg Hunt make their living by denying there is any sort of problem.

I thought it might be good to finish this little ramble on a light-hearted note. Here's something that I think you'll enjoy - unless you are in the climate change deniers camp ...

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Of Walruses, Climate Change and Wine-growing in Tasmania

It must be tough being a walrus. Have you heard about the 35 000 of them that have gathered together on a beach in Alaska? If you haven't, here's a Youtube video to bring you into the picture:

It's all over the internet but I haven't seen anything on the local TV news about the phenomenon. This Wall Street Journal video has very informative coverage with great images.

This is yet another concrete, indisputable example of climate change. We've heard about polar bears struggling to find sea ice to rest on because of climate change, now it's the walruses.

I wonder how this is going to affect the overall population of walruses ...

... in the meantime, let's talk of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax!

Or, if you'd like to read Lewis Carroll's great classic while listening, here's another video ...

I guess Lewis Carroll wasn't thinking of climate change when he wrote this! Yesterday, I was chatting with Phil from across the road about the winter that's just been. Normally he will get out for a ski at least a few times each winter. We used to have wonderful cross-country skiing in Tasmania, even as close by as Mount Field National Park. Phil said he tried to go  one day when it looked promising but there just was no base.

Unfortunately, these days about the best you can consistently expect for a winter's day at Mount Field these days would be these sort of conditions, good for hiking but not for skiing ...

It's been about twenty years since we've had consistently good conditions for skiing in Tasmania. Di and I took up skiing on the back of the great snow year we had in 1990, after being up at Mount Field  one day hiking. We had plugged our way out to Clem's Tarn, shown in the following image from Google Earth ...

Clem's Tarn is about where the red oval is

 It was a long and laborious exercise through all the snow.  We were just settling in to camp when a bunch of skiers came swooping down past us from the summit of Mt Field West. The conditions were perfect and they were having a ball. That's what gave us the bug.

(While we're talking about Mt Field, I thought I'd sneak in a photo of Di against a backdrop of Fagus, endemic to Tasmania and our only native deciduous shrub or tree.)

Di with Fagus
That year and the next we had a lot of great times, including using the same snow cave for three successive weekends with our friends Adrian and Mary. Dianne and I had a long weekend up at the Walls of Jerusalem National Park (Tasmania's best-kept secret stellar hiking destination) in that second winter when we were still finding our feet on the skis. Conditions were marvellous. Here are a few photos to illustrate ...

Chaining up on the Fish River Road
Leaving the car park
Crossing Lake Salome
Inside the Walls of Jerusalem
(You can see more of these photos at our SmugMug site. And, if the Walls of Jerusalem sounds appealing, you might like to browse these photos taken during a bushwalking trip in January, 2007.)

A final note about climate change in Tasmania: it's said that climate change has been good for our burgeoning wine industry. With things getting too hot for comfort in the vineyards of the big island to the north, investors in viticulture are looking south to our more temperate climate. We've been making some very good cool climate wines here in the deep south for a while now but things are starting to really shine. Clear evidence of that emerged in 2011 when a Tasmanian Shiraz - of all things! - won the most prestigious prize for red wine in Australia.

Like I said, we've been making excellent cool-climate wine for a while now, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. One of the great summer getaways for North Islanders wanting to escape the heat is to come to Tasmania and tour around the various wine districts. You never know, if you come down this way we might bump into one another sampling wine!

Addendum: Monday @ 11:43 a.m.

Just came in from a couple of hours weeding and watering in the garden. Couldn't help but notice how dry the soil is, so I thought I'd check rainfall data for Hobart over the past four months. Sure enough, it well down on average, especially for the month that just passed. We only had 19.4 mm in September, when the average is 53.2. Even more telling perhaps is the evaporation figure of exactly 100.0 mm for the month. No wonder the ground is so dry ~ and rock hard along with it! The forecast for today is for a 95% chance of rain developing this afternoon. We can expect somewhere between one and three millimetres, which isn't really enough to soften the ground up, but is at least something.

And now for a thing of beauty, totally unrelated to any of the stuff above: it's about a man, his bike and a wild island - all informed by a beautiful Celtic soundtrack. If you've read this far I'm sure you will enjoy this wonderful footage of Danny Macaskill on the Isle of Skye ...