Modest Expectations – American Pharoah

The Federal election must be held by May. The Opposition parties should emphasise the need for a national anti-corruption commission, and it has a whole repast of corrupt actions to remind the electorate of what the Morrison Government has been doing. It seems a no-brainer.

Ideally money allocated, and therefore for every grant, should be able to provide evidence how closely “expected” matched “actual” outcome. There are a few outstanding rorters, but there is no need to use such a pejorative term; just detail what Morrison’s government has done in simple terms to tell the story to the electorate – of shameless conduct by this gaggle of mostly unattractive men.

In 1966, the Holt Government achieved a huge electoral win. Seats that had never been held by the Liberal Party fell to them and the most notorious of the elected was a 22-year old travel officer named Andrew Jones. He was a complete idiot and a harbinger of some of the current young members (and would-be members) of the Government. Yet, through his brashness, he actually touched on the truth of the matter, however clumsily. He made the fatal mistake of saying that half the members of Parliament were drunk at any one time and was made to apologise to the Parliament as a whole. His language of the religious jingoistic zealot then would be at peace with some of Morrison’s tribe, if not completely reflecting the happy clapper routine.

His arrival and demise reflected a time when Australia was convulsed by the Vietnam War and selective conscription. The streets were alive with protests and, when coupled with anti-South African sentiment over apartheid, one may have thought the people were consigning the conservative government – which Federally had been in power since 1949 – to electoral defeat.

I can remember watching the election results with a mate called John Douglas and, as the electoral landslide eventuated during the night, we got progressively drunk. As young doctors, we were witnessing electoral carnage. Nevertheless this was an election buoyed by protest from those who ultimately lost.

My mind turns to the current collection of protestors who are a grab-bag of the authoritarian dispossessed. My thesis is that in a democracy this type of perceived extremist behaviour makes the bulk of the population uneasy. When the Prime Minister seems to be lukewarm in his condemnation, then the uneasiness may well be translated into electoral defeat.

In countries where the implementation of democracy is fragile and electoral defeat imminent, the government often just simply cancels the election, or puts if off while it destroys the opposition in the manner that this band of extremist would like to occur. The most apposite example was Nazi Germany in recent times, but it is a frequent playbook throughout the World, used on every Continent – even in Australia when Queensland was ruled by Bjelke-Petersen.

The criminality of him and his cronies was revealed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and yet there were people in his Government who were considered clean. His successor Mike Ahern certainly was, but corruption is never far away in Queensland.

In Australia and particularly in the above-mentioned State there would be a great number of the politicians who would not be concerned if the inconvenience of democracy was brushed aside.  There is always the “unexpected expected” intervention, the obvious one being takeover by the armed forces, which has never occurred in Australia. Notwithstanding, in the thirties with Jack Lang in full flight, it was a close thing. Monash himself was an important figure in preventing such military intervention. However, the threat is always there; unexpected in the timing; expected in its ultimate execution.

The fate of this government is tied to whether most of the population wants people pushing makeshift gallows through the street, when we Australians as a nation have long since abandoned capital punishment. I think threatening to lynch the Premier of Victoria is a criminal offence, and yet there are those on the conservative side of politics who either sit on their hands or condone it.

The world has just survived the most egregious assault in democracy by the action of Trump in his illegitimate claim to have won the 2020 US election. People point to the fact that he garnered 70 million votes. He still lost. The fate of democracy hangs on its survival in America. Churchill’s greatest contribution to democracy was to show that it still worked in Europe; his landslide defeat in 1945 at the polls and his acceptance that, at his finest hour, the people voted “Out”. Two finest hours!

America, despite its impressive beginnings, has always had those who defile democracy, but probably not with the force that Trump exerted in his bid to destroy American democracy. I doubt where Trump would win if he stood again. Nevertheless, after his January 6 antics, he has galvanised his “lumpenproletariat” where, to my way of thinking, his toxic effect is overwhelming.

I wished that my generation had asked their parents which side they would have fought for in the Spanish Civil War – the Roman Catholic Church on one side with The Nazis and the Italian fascists; on the other side the Russians, communists and anarchists – and sandwiched in between, those who wanted Spain to shed its royal family and just become a democracy. The question is simple. I still wonder what my father and mother would have said. But I never asked them; perhaps they would been on the fence, perhaps not.

For me, born in the year Franco was triumphant, Homage to Catalonia has been one of the books which has coloured my political views. Now I read a lesser book, called Guernica, which centres around that cold-blooded massacre. Picasso’s representation of Guernica, which I first saw in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, just demonstrates how little we have travelled, to combat those would extinguish any shred of democracy.

In the end that is the reason that Morrison should be removed – and take the “Duttonbird” with him.

Abiden with the cardinal cuckoos

Marjorie Taylor Greene is unvaccinated, Lindsay Graham doesn’t think kids are entitled to a Kindergarten education, and America’s schools are being indoctrinated by the scary and totally real forces of critical race theory.

So that is one shade of America. Most people here would not know of these Republican cardinal red cuckoos.

I was very critical of Biden, sniping at him for more than a year in the run up to his election. My major beef was about his role in disgracefully discrediting Anita Hall which enabled one the worst Supreme Court judges in my lifetime, Clarence Thomas, to be confirmed. It is a stain that cannot be erased, but the people who remember the stain are fewer and fewer; and remembrance of this will be brushed away.

Biden has achieved a tipping point, and the problem is a substantial minority of Americans are blindly resisting. In his opposition a number of rich men, who have to make a decision – either resist change and the country goes down the Trump toilet. The others may go with the flow.

First Biden turned off the Afghanistan tap for the arms industry. He did it rapidly in accord with the Machiavellian dictum which says that if it is potentially painful and hence unpopular, act decisively and quickly – an acute transitory pain is far better than having a chronic pain over months or years to achieve the same outcome, even if the chronic pain become so dull one can forget the underlying cause of the pain which festers away.

The interstate highway system and all the accompanying infrastructure was the legacy of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower improved the road system as an adjunct to American defence. Johnson followed with his Great Society measures. Even then Johnson and then all his successors’ expenditure on infrastructure has been subordinated to expenditure on armaments for little if any results apart from disfigured and disabled countries and generations of chronic disfigured and disabled men and women who served in these conflicts.

The Americans and their Allies were cannon fodder in the destruction of so many countries in search of some mindless goal – or in the case of Iraq, loot in the form of black gold.  Useless conflict fomented by a coterie of self-pitying, inhumane and in the long term unsuccessful Americans, their role model being that distinguished conniving ghastly warmonger, Henry Kissinger. He is the person who once said – the illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a bit longer.

In other words, infrastructural regeneration has been subordinated to visions of Imperial America.

Biden has seemingly learnt from these foibles and may now be doing what he or his predecessors should have done years ago. Few people get the number of chances he has had. The most engaging quality he has displayed is a steely resolve to get on with his agenda, and not disappear down a trail of rhetorical flourish as Obama did when faced with a similar challenge.

We’ll watch with interest this infrastructure program which has the ability to reinvigorate America and drive out the dark side of Mr Hayek as interpreted particularly by Donald Trump.

The Louisville Slugger

Frankfort is one of the lesser-known places to visit in Kentucky. It is where the capital is, a straightlaced township of tidy wide streets surrounding the traditional wedding cake Capitol with a white cupola on top.

We drive around the quiet streets, because it’s a Saturday afternoon on the road to Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky which sprawls across the Ohio River into Indiana. We had friends living there at the time. Sally was working at Churchill Downs where, on the composite sand, fibre and rubber racetrack once a year the hooves of the best three year old thoroughbreds imprint themselves for one and a quarter miles in a bid to win the Kentucky Derby.

We were not there during the May bedlam which surrounds the Derby. We just had a quiet look around the course and then toured into the countryside – blue grass covered lush gently undulating studs. Kentucky is the “Blue Grass State. “Blue grass music” is a staple diet, but there is always the sentimentality of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”.  The blue grass is so green it almost has a blue tinge; it may look good in a Kentucky meadow but it is shallow rooted and thus does not survive heat well.

Blue grass music is linked to Kentucky as it emerged from the Appalachian people. Hillbillies they are called and live in this range of mountains, which carves its way through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The alternate tinkling and then frenzy of the banjo, the fiddle, the bass and the guitar are nevertheless a long way from Louisville.

Sluggers

Louisville gave its name to the Louisville Lip – Muhammed Ali, but also to the Louisville Slugger. We were not given an effigy of yon fighter, but we were given two miniature Louisville Sluggers – the time-honoured baseball bat made from ash.

Nevertheless, the most memorable highlight for the ubriaco was being introduced to Maker’s Mark. It was well before it became a favourite brand of bourbon whiskey here in Australia, and my friends used to buy it, not by the bottle but by the jug, and were very liberal in the hospitality. Bourbon whiskey is only made in Kentucky, and Jack Daniels, for instance, calls itself sour mash because it is made in Tennessee.

We all went to the Makers Mark distillery in Loreto, about an hour’s drive from Louisville. Bourbon is corn derived I was so impressed that I decided to buy a bottle before we crossed the State line but learnt another fact about the bourbon and mint julep state. Some of the counties are dry, and I would have to try and buy a bottle in a dry county. So, empty-handed, I learnt another lesson in the tragedy of life as I left the shop. Never judge a Bourbon by its county.

Pre-COVID-19 Estonia – a Flag of Blue, Black and White

Korstnapühkija

We arrived by ferry from Helsinki and booked into the Savoy Hotel. Yesterday the hotel was the centre of attention when the Baltic “sweepdom” had gathered in front of the Hotel.  Apparently, the happy stout little chimney sweep statue out the front of the hotel draws the Estonian chimney sweeps annually to rub his buttons and nose. These have been so polished they stand out on this metal statue.

This Savoy Hotel is a Tallinn landmark and classifies itself as “boutique” but to the naked eye it looks more “Le Magasin” to me. It is that large.

Today although it is June, in Tallinn as in the rest of Estonia the weather is very cold. The wind chill factor has driven the temperature close to freezing. Despite this we make a short walk up the city hill. There are many streets leading from the square where our hotel is located. They are all quaint and bitterly cold. The cross streets give a terrace effect and the market stalls on the flat terrace provide only limited shelter against the cold. We soon abandon this foray.

Initially I had suggested that my companion find the oldest pharmacy in Europe a little further up the hill. I had been there some years before and for somebody interested in the evolution of therapeutic drugs, it was worth seeing. My vague gestures and the wind whipping at the map, so it is hard to hold flat let alone read, makes her abandon the search after 20 fruitless minutes. I have been frozen sitting on the granite wall. It is not really a voyage of discovery. We retreated to the warmth of the hotel bar.

The food has become more varied from the pig and potato fare that I remembered my last time in Estonia. This has been replaced by the dainty MEKK –Moodne Eesti Köögikunst cuisine at the Savoy. The salad is all miniature leaves interspersed with edible flowers – chew on a violet or viola or pansy – but the seafood, whether it be pike or perch or herring or salmon or other packed into a terrine, is very palatable and there is copious rye bread.

In the bar to drink she has a brandy and dry and I have a martini – vodka rather than gin. After all we are in Estonia. The Savoy bar is very long and we are perched on the end where the faux-granite resembles the prow of a boat. We settle in to wait the cold snap out. It does not improve, and the flowers in their boxes outside shiver.

The next day the weather does improve marginally – the sunlight struggling to prove that June has arrived.  We pay a visit to Saint Nicholas Church Museum.  Tallinn was carpet bombed by the Russians in May 1944, and the church – a beautiful reminder of mediaeval Hanseatic wealth – was destroyed in that raid. It has taken 30 years for it to be rebuilt into a semblance of its former self.

A tourist site can be so crowded that it becomes a forest of people concealing what you want to see – and I hate being moved on. It is understandable. You can’t stand in front a piece of art the whole day, pondering if it is limiting the number of people passing through, who may want to ape your stance. The other problem of course is that, as with airports, art galleries are long distance events, especially if the exhibits overwhelm that ability for the mind to process and after a time the mind gives up and they end up in a blur.

Now in this museum, the cabinet high altar which was constructed in the fifteenth century is a splendid masterpiece by Herman Rode.  It opens up to display the panels of brightly painted figures. He was a painter of that distinctive late mediaeval representation of the human form. The background depicts his native Lubeck in Northern Germany. The altar is a complexity as it opens in two stages; the first the painted narrative, the second a wooden hagiography where multiple wooden figures peer expressionless from their cell. One of the figures, St Barbara, the patron saint of the dying, is depicted holding what appears to be the mediaeval equivalent of an intercontinental missile. It is actually a tower, but it has an uncanny resemblance to a missile. As well as the patron saint of the dying, she is also coincidentally the patron saint of explosive manufacturers. True!

Herman Rode was a contemporary with Bernt Notke, the painter whose version of the Danse Macabre hangs in a dark alcove of this museum.  The photographs of this painting are always taken in a blaze of arc lights. In the natural gloom we need to be close to the canvas in order to identify the conga line of people and skeletons, with the skeleton wearing a turban up front playing what may have been a torupill – the Estonian bagpipe. It is confronting, because of the representation of the pope, the emperor, the fashion plate lady, the merchant prince all connected via grimacing skeletons and in between there is the cardinal in his wide brimmed scarlet hat, depicted as if he had been interrupted on his way to lunch. The painting fragment ends with a capering skeleton. Bit spooky, she said and in the shadows of the building the tableau seems to invite us to join the conga line. We escape through a narrow corridor lined with mops, buckets and bottles of cleaners through an open doorway, that is conveniently close to the exit.  All the massive doors of the museum are firmly locked.  Ours is the unconventional exit.

Out into the sunlight and gradually the weather has improved so that next day we are able to have lunch out in the open at the Olde Hansa restaurant. The waitresses are all attired in Brueghelesque brown working clothes – brown belted dresses and white or coloured linen bonnets. Sitting on the solid wooden benches one associates with wenches as we chew on the dried elk, I had flashbacks of the country’s Hanseatic past.

Like the Welsh, the Estonians are great singers, and they have a penchant for folk dances. Brooms are used as props, which may be hardly “PC”, but there is a simple refreshing optimism among the Estonians which you cannot help embracing. In our own country we tend to avoid these faux-mediaeval places, which dot the landscape as a means of indulging in nostalgia for a mythical past. In Tallinn Old Town the indulgence seems to be less fanciful – just a glance back to the past, if a more congenial one.

Saatse Boot

Estonia lives with Russia in an uneasy relationship. It is rare for this country ever to be functional as an independent State, and yet in the East there is an Estonian gravel road between two villages which crosses the border into a Russian territory protrusion called the Saatse Boot. This anomaly survives the separation of Estonia from Russia in 1991, and while theoretically this sliver of land should have been handed over in 2005, nothing has happened despite the agreement to do so being signed years ago.

Thankfully we could enter Latvia without having to go through Russia. There was a diversion to the seaside town of Parnu for lunch at MUM, a restaurant where she had duck and I had the Estonian version of schnitzel. Baltic Sea beaches are impressive. The beach at Parnu is no exception. It is long, pristine yet this day absolutely frigid, few people were wandering along it because early June was not yet summer. It was still “icumin-in”.

The Economist Produces an A-Serbic Volley Below

For more than 15 years, the “big three” of men’s tennis—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—have had a stranglehold of the game. They have won 60 of the past 73 grand-slams, the sport’s most important tournaments, winning 20 each. All three have enjoyed periods as the undisputed champion. But in recent years, as injuries and age have ravaged Messrs Nadal and Federer, Mr Djokovic has surged ahead. In 2021, he was imperious, winning the first three grand-slams and securing the year-end number one ranking for a record seventh time. But while other elite players must find the dominance of the big three daunting, recent results offer them hope.

In September Daniil Medvedev won his first major tournament by beating Mr Djokovic in the final of the US Open, denying the Serb a historic “calendar grand-slam” (winning all four slams in a year). Then on November 20th Alexander Zverev beat Mr Djokovic in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals, the prestigious season-ending finale (and went on to defeat Mr Medvedev in the final one day later). Are these victories a harbinger of better times for them and others on the tour?

According to Elo, system which rates players by their performance and the quality of opponents they face, Mr Djokovic’s rating at the end of 2021 was 2,178 points, his lowest in a decade and just 19 points higher than the second-ranked Mr Medvedev. Last year the gap between the pair was 128 points.

These three players have been so dominant but now, with injuries and age, Federer and Nadal are close to retirement, and no longer in the elite. However, one never knows on the clay surface of Raymond Garros with Nadal.

The problem is Djokovic and his infuriatingly ambivalent view on COVID-19 vaccination. I have no knowledge of whether he has ever been inoculated, (there was a suggestion that he caught the disease whilst in Serbia at a tournament he organised) given that in parts of Eastern Europe, many of the diseases which mass vaccination programs have almost wiped out in Western society, persist. For instance, has Djokovic had a rabies shot – an exotic disease to us but not in Eastern Europe?

However, this background is superfluous because his truculence fuels the anti-vaxxers, and while he may be one of the biggest drawcards because of the number of tournaments he has won rather than his social graces, then the money people behind world tennis are liable to genuflect. However, as he slips in his rankings this current pandering in the name of box office receipts will fade. He probably is an over-rated commodity anyway.

I would hope that the short-term gain in World-Tennis being infected by the “brat-pack” with the McEnroe and Connors of the world has been abandoned.  Djokovic is more than a brat, because the others did not potentially challenge the health status of our Nation.

Mouse Whisper

Laconic me this week. Just one question.

If output is directly related to input, does that mean that income is directly related to outcome?

Modest expectations – The Physical Basis of Personality

Friday, April 13, 2029, will be a showtime for asteroid Apophis, for the general public and astronomers alike. Apophis will come so close that it’ll be visible to the unaided eye alone; something that almost never happens with asteroids. It will appear first in the Southern skies and seem to streak across the Pacific Ocean and America before orbiting off to outer space. During this time the Earth’s motion will cause the asteroid to shake if not stir.

Apophis

Apophis is 320 metres across and if it struck the Earth it would have a circumferential destructive effect of several hundred kilometres from where it hit.  Instead, it is predicted to miss by the predicted 13,000 kilometres.

The asteroid first attracted community attention in 2004 when its orbit, in relation that of Earth, became a matter of controversy. It should be noted that Easter day in 2029 falls on April 1.

Endangered Elements

The idea that there are endangered elements that could face a severe shortage in 100 years does not warrant the interest of other “endangered species”. There are nine listed as “endangered”, which sounds quaint when the world is failing because of the atmospheric pollution due to other elements – notably the products of the ubiquitous carbon and nitrogen.

In any event, the “endangered” nine are arsenic, gallium, germanium, gold, hafnium, helium, indium, tellurium and zinc.

Indium was an elusive element and it was not separated from other metals until 1863. It was named indium because examination of it spectroscopically showed a very prominent indigo spectral line.

In May 2007, the New Scientist reported that a material chemist at the University of Augsberg in Germany reported that the world would run out of indium within ten years. The price was over $1000 per kg at the time.

Fourteen years on, and the world has not run out of indium. Most of the indium is stored in China. Its price does not appear on most stock markets as only about 800 tonnes is produced each year. A particular platform underwritten by the Chinese government tried to corner the market, by stockpiling tons of the stuff – and then despite an artificially created shortage found that the price which had soared to its highest level in 2005, fell which is not what it was supposed to do.

Indium is alloyed with tin and oxygen to form the transparent, conductive oxide that coats the screens of TVs, mobiles and laptops. The element is also used in infrared lasers that transmit data down optical fibres that enable the Internet. In combination with gallium, it is used to make the LEDs that backlight screens and are increasingly used for domestic lighting.

Indium (atomic no 49) has the unusual property when molten of clinging to (wetting) clean glass and other surfaces; this makes it valuable for producing hermetic seals between glass, metals, quartz, ceramics and marble. Its use has given it an aura of indispensability, but as with the 1972 MIT thesis adopted by the Club of Rome that the world would soon run out of crucial resources, this did not eventuate. The world is now more concerned not with quantity but with the quality of the output. Indium as the elemental metal is toxic if ingested; left in the ground it remains locked up, even if it is becoming an “endangered species”.

Predictions of it becoming an extinct species have been revised upwards and the new prediction is now 2025. However, indium is being recycled and even other elements such as silver which are more plentiful have been substituted in manufacturing. Thus, all the world can breathe a collective sigh (at least among the cognoscenti). Indium may remain endangered but is not a metallic dodo.

I should hasten to add that does not imply that the endangered elements will disappear from the Earth completely. It means that there will come a point when the supply of these elements will be limited or when it is no longer economically viable to extract or use these elements. At such a juncture, we will have to seek alternatives, as has occurred with indium.

Arsenic always gets a bad press. A beloved poison of the mystery writers, yet once used as a medication for syphilis, it is also a contaminant of waterways because it is used in the production of gold. I find it somewhat surprising that arsenic which has been used as a pesticide, especially in treating wood in particular – rather than rats – is endangered. Arsenic is very toxic, yet I find it difficult to believe it is considered an endangered element, given how many rivers and wells are contaminated around the world – just ask those living in rural Bangladesh and Taiwan.

Arsenic is often used as a doping agent for solid-state devices such as transistors. Doping is the intentional introduction of impurities into an intrinsic semiconductor for the purpose of modifying its electrical, optical and structural properties. It seems to me the new alchemy, but it seems also that there is a degree of elemental interchangeability. It is not the inflexibility of turning lead into gold.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog on another endangered element, hafnium. Australia has some of the biggest deposits of this rare element, which is found as the junior partner in zirconium ore. Purification is very costly and, by its nature, potentially detrimental to the environment. As I have written, hafnium is used in the manufacture of nuclear reactor rods, and a pilot project employing hafnium was set up over a decade ago at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Where is this all going? It’s elementary, dear Watson. But only if the world lasts another century in its current form with so just many cowboys and indiums.

Remembering Latvia

I have previously written about touring the Baltic countries, and at this time when there is disturbance in the region again, Latvia has a special significance. It has more Russian-speaking inhabitants than the other two Baltic countries. Hence, it is regarded with some caution by the other two – the object of the sidelong glance.

The whole area again has attracted attention because of the current confrontation on a Byelorussian border and Poland in particular, but also Lithuania.

Latvia sits on the sidelines. Prior to COVID-19 we travelled to the Baltic countries. Below is a snapshot of Latvia, pre-COVID-19.

We arrived in Latvia and headed for the capital, Riga. One of the most noticeable aspects of this whole drive is the fact that the border changes everything. Estonia does not blend with Latvia nor does Lithuania blend with Latvia; nor Estonia with Lithuania. It is as though there is a cultural crevasse between the three countries. The Estonians relate to the Finns; the Lithuanians to the Poles. And the Latvians? They sit between the two with, as I have noted above, a significant proportion of the population Russian-speaking.

The hotel where we stay in Riga lies at the confluence of roads and away from the city.

In the park across from the hotel are tearooms. My companion looks over the variety of teas. Exotic teas? No, she will have coffee. I order a cute bowl of “rabbit food” – everything including the beans are in miniature in an appropriately small bowl. What a healthy lunch for a dwarf. As we walked away, I am reminded of the true meaning of “famished”.

There are several areas of Riga where these old wooden houses also survive. The wooden house is a characteristic feature of Latvia and I wonder how they survived the wars. They would be so easy to torch, but there are streets of wooden houses, with various degrees of decoration –mostly in brown, but blue is a favourite alternative colour – sky blue to steely blue to presumably match the changing climate.

The House of Blackheads, Riga

Latvia is the home of amber, and from the selection in a shop inside the wonderfully named House of Blackheads, I purchased a couple of pieces of yellow amber. Amber has always attracted me from the time I was a small boy on first seeing an insect caught in the fossilised pine resin.  I remember my mother had a necklace of red amber; amber is always so warm and my mother showed me that after rubbing amber with fur, the amber could attract tiny scraps of paper. It was magic to a small boy. Later I would learn that stroking amber with cloth provided for human curiosity the earliest demonstration of an electrical charge.

One interesting impression of the Baltic countries is even as their existence is threatened by Russian invasion, the whole feeling is one of a fantastical past – a surrogate home for the Pre-Raphaelite movement, where Arthurian Knights would be invited for a guest appearance at some Baltic Armageddon in a joust with a company of Blackheads.

Everywhere there seems to be evidence of mediaeval valour, varlets and knaves, clattering armour, and unmerciful treatment of the vanquished. The House of Blackheads, with its huge façade, draws on all sorts of architecture. It has its curlicues and statues on a bright terracotta coloured façade; and to honour the Blackhead name – an effigy of Saint Maurice, the black saint revered by this coterie of Knights, stands on one side of the front doorway.

The building has been razed several times, the last after the Russians destroyed what the Nazis had missed. The rebuilding program is a tribute to Latvian doggedness. Yet Latvia remains vulnerable to invasion, even though its border with Russia is not as long as the Estonian-Russian border, the latter has a better defence being mostly swamp and marshes. Even so the Estonians are threatening to build a 110 kilometres long fence.

Riga Cathedral

However, Russian influence remains in Latvia. Yet the Riga Cathedral epitomised the strong Lutheran influence and the informality of a kindergarten being located in its precincts.

One morning we journeyed to Jurmala, a seaside resort near Riga, recommended not to be missed.

Our guide pays the toll to reach this littoral enclave. Here is the Russian embassy, a quietly luxurious residence set back from the road. My companion jumps out of the car to photograph it. Our guide looks concerned. But she is back without any fusillade of bullets. It is only the camera that winks at us.

During the Russian occupation, Jurmala was a popular resort with senior officials from the Kremlin. Even now our guide says much of the property in Jurmala is owned by Russian oligarchs.

Our guide, who has an uncanny resemblance to Radar in M.A.S.H., steers us into a wooded area known as the Ragakapa nature park. Here in this reclaimed dune area, we peer through the wire fence at a fishing village which has been created complete with long boats.  The exhibit is closed –and that was that. Jurmala was yet to wake up from its winter hibernation. It is a summer resort on the Baltic with a beach, 33 kilometres long –and there are sanatoria, spas, buckets and spades.

Radar is a multi-faceted personality. He talks with the high-pitched voice of his TV twin. He tells he does this job part-time. He is Jewish and he spends his time researching the genealogy of Latvian families, Jews in particular. It keeps him busy particular at the times of the year when there are no tourists. He also claims other ancestors – a very defined group with a long history but now in serious decline.

They are the pure Livonians who are a small group now, but he like many Latvians is proud to claim Livonian heritage, given their long history as Teutonic knights. Its language is akin to Estonian and is classified as “dormant” since the last fluent speaker died two years ago. The Livonians suffered badly under the Russian occupation. Their land is where the Germans made their last stand in Latvia at the end of World War II. Retribution followed.

The Baltic States have been the stage for almost continuous conflict. Yet what cannot be denied is the beauty of the Jurmala setting with its beach, its dunes, its forested environment. And there is something both romantic and nostalgic about places where there are wooden houses.

Yet there, in all this quaintness back in the capital, there is Restorans 3. This restaurant is in Old Riga, itself a convolution of narrow cobbled streets where negotiating them is only for the expert – but eventually the taxi driver finds his way around the tangle of one-way streets and drops us off at this restaurant with its wide picture windows and a kitchen open for customers to see the virtuoso preparation.

We sit by the window. There is only one other customer, a nattily dressed Chinese man, who seems only to be drinking coffee, and soon leaves. For a time we are the only diners as we face the formidable gustatory menu. She avoids the tongue and the ox heart items. She hates tongue; and ox heart is a meat too far. While ostensibly there were five or seven on the tasting menu, by the time we have worked our way through the meal, there were three other courses –including a sorbet intermission.

As with all Baltic countries, Latvians love beer. However, there is a Riga drink – balzam. It is a black liqueur. Having been required on a few occasions when as a post-graduate research scholar to take iodine after inadvertently labelling myself with radioactive iodine, I taste the balzam. I am transported back to my heady iodine days.  It tastes just as bitter and unpalatable as iodine.

End of story: my first and last drink of balzam. Extreme bitterness is not that quaint.  Radar is back next morning; time to move on to Lithuania.

A Road past Gundagai

I first drove to Sydney at Christmas 1957. My mother had died the previous year and my father had a one-off job as a ship’s doctor on the SS Lakemba going to America. I had recently got my driver’s licence, and thus with nothing to keep me in Melbourne, I decided to go and see my cousins in Sydney. I took the old man’s Peugeot and my dog, the wonderfully frisky blue roan pedigreed springer spaniel called Smokey and a few other essentials. We made good time stopping off only for petrol and Smokey to have a No 2. He was a well-disciplined dog, nonetheless, and once was enough, he assured me.

We left early and made very good time out of Melbourne. The problem was once you got to Goulburn it was still a four-hour drive over the Razorback to Sydney no matter how many chances you took. The Hume Highway then was two lanes, and as a result of it being the busiest country road in Australia, it was where there were numerous horrendous accidents inciting lurid newspaper coverage.

Since then, I have travelled back and forth innumerable times.

I was reminded of an incident much later, when I was driving along the highway, which was still largely two-way, with still a number of difficult sections to negotiate on the way to Sydney. It was 1968 or 1969, my wife alongside me in the front and our two young children were in the back of the car.  There were no seat belts then.

On a rise some 20 kms from Gundagai, there had been an accident.  A car had left the road and struck a tree. There were several people clustered around something. When we got out of the car, we saw that there was a young woman lying on the verge. She was deeply unconscious, with terminal Cheyne Stoke breathing, and moreover there was brain visible through the fractured skull. She was near death, but there was also a child, restless and crying out, obviously cerebrally irritated. An ambulance had come and taken away somebody who one of the onlookers said to us appeared dead. The other two had been left, God knows why!

There was nothing much one could do for the woman, but the child was another matter.  There was a guy who volunteered his station wagon, and so we lifted the child into the back, and my wife who was also a doctor climbed in to look after the child. We left the dying woman. There was nothing we could do for her, but we hoped that at some stage another ambulance would turn up. Out on the highway, we had no means of communication then.

The old wooden railway bridge from the 19th century in Gundagai

So, there we were. I was in the car with the boys; my wife in the back of a Good Samaritan’s station wagon with the unconscious child. It was raining but I took a robust approach in speeding towards Gundagai. Then we came to the long wooden bridge across the Murrumbidgee River and flood plain. For some reason there was a long line of cars queuing to cross the bridge. I took a chance and with horn blaring dashed down the wrong side. For some reason there were no cars daring to cross, but right near the end of the bridge my car skidded on the slippery wooden surface. It is a situation where the sub-cerebral instincts kick in, and for some miraculous reason I did not fly off the bridge. It is a long way down to the Murrumbidgee River flood plain.

Anyway, we arrived at the hospital. Gundagai, at that time, had a strong procedural base, and our appearance caused the general practitioners at the hospital preparing for their operating theatre list to pause.

The child was bought in, and we handed his care over to the Gundagai practice. To them it seemed all in the day’s work – no fuss – just a slight annoyance of having their routine upset – we were waved away.  As for me, irresponsible, driving as I did with two unrestrained children. It was a sign of the times; I do not sweat when I remember the incident.

In any event, that was the last we heard of it, apart from me telephoning the hospital next day and being told that the child was still there, and there were no concerns. For a while I scanned the papers for a coroner’s report. There was nothing, or I missed it.

Twenty-five years later, when I was reviewing the NSW Ambulance Service, the transition from ambulance driver to allied health care professional had begun. Change is a slow process, especially in inward-looking uniformed services.

I was reminded of that escapade this week when I saw images of this 800 metre long wooden Prince Alfred bridge being dismantled, its boarded heritage clattering to the ground with a promise to retain the section which actually crossed the river. The extensive flood plain now has not only a sweeping four lane highway bypassing the town, but also, for some reason, a large dead gum tree poking above the road parapet, painted in a garish blue. Why?

By the way, I picked up my first speeding fine on my way back from Sydney in early 1958. Five pounds for fanging through Albury. The police motor cyclist caught me after I had entered Victoria. Those were the days. I did not protest, Smokey said I deserved it.

The Use of the Car as a Weapon

Iowa is one of three states, along with Oklahoma and Florida, to enact laws this year giving drivers some degree of legal immunity if they use their vehicles to hurt protesters, part of a wave of “hit and kill” bills introduced in 13 other states by Republican legislators since 2017 (as shown in the figure below). Most of those proposals came after one of the most sustained periods of demonstrations in US history following George Floyd’s murder, and the effort to crack down on protesters has sent a chilling message to activists, who believe it will encourage violence against them. – Boston Globe.

Yet another example of the reversion of America to the glorification of violence – the staple diet of American fantasy.

Marching along streets and roads has been a characteristic of protests in particular of African-Americans but not exclusively.

In the year after the George Floyd incident, The Boston Globe found across America 139 cases of cars being deliberately rammed into people. Only 65 of these have been taken to court, with only four convicted of a felony. One hundred people have been injured and four killed.   Not a huge number, some would say; but wait a minute, deliberately using the car as a weapon!

Yet the legislators in essentially very Republican states run the line of driver being surrounded by violent rioters and in trying to get away, some of the pedestrians may be hit by the car, where the driver at risk feels his or her life in danger. The thesis plays the white audience which spawned a person like James Field who, well before the George Floyd murder, in 2017 ploughed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville, South Carolina, only stopping when he struck a white Camry, which was pushed in turn into a maroon minivan.

As was described, this young man had driven nine hours from his home south of Toledo in Ohio to be there to kill – this person was described by one of the victims, as she lay half under the car with a smashed leg, as having lifeless eyes. Fields was later convicted and given two life sentences. Would legislation to protect the driver have made any difference to the outcome for the victims? I doubt it.

Yet despite this crime, these States are endeavouring to twist the narrative to the protesters not the driver being the villains. As such, it would be somewhat ironic if such a law protected protesters at a far right rally with its pronounced anti-vaccination bias, such as those who surrounded vehicles on the Bolte Bridge in Melbourne and deliberately caused damage to them.

The problem with this legislation is perspective and from any perspective this legislation is wrong-headed.

Mouse whisper

As recounted in Harper’s Magazine February 2005

A story headlined “Syria seeks our help to woo U.S.” in Saturday’s Weekend Australian misquoted National Party senator Sandy Macdonald. The quote stated, “Syria is a country that has been a bastard state for nearly forty years,” but should have read, “Syria is a country that has been a Baathist state for nearly forty years.”

The Australian regrets any embarrassment caused by the error.

I doubt there would be any apology forthcoming now – defence in truth.

Palmyra, Syria … then

 

Modest Expectations – Ib puas peb caug yim

The most mispronounced word in the English language – geneAlogy. No, no, no, not geneology.

Greek γενεᾱλογία to Latin geneālogia to Old French genealogie to eventual English geneAlogy. Just repeating what I have read from a reliable geneAlogical etymological source.

The Land of the Hmong

When I was what in those days was the American acronym BMC, in the audience which often clustered around was a cheerful young Asian guy, who introduced himself as Mechai. Thus was my introduction to Mechai Viravaidya. Little did I know that he would parlay his name into fame through a nationwide contraceptive program with his name “Mechai” becoming the Thai word for “condom”.

Mechai, with a Mechai T-shirt

I never knew Mechai very well, although he was at the University of Melbourne and a resident of Trinity College. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School, as were a number of the Thai upper class and were laughingly known as the “Thai mafia”. In any event, he was younger than I, did commerce, and although our paths had crossed having mutual acquaintances, there was a particular time later when we were involved in developing a project which unfortunately never eventuated.

Working with him did give me some insight into how this remarkable man worked. I remember from the time undertaking political science where mention was made of how integrated and influential the Thai bureaucracy was with the royal family. I never completely worked out Mechai’s connection to the family, apart from the fact that his wife was on the staff of the late King Bhumibol. I feared any further prying would have crossed the etiquette line, but I was told he was close to the dowager queen, who died during one of my visits. The Thais are very cognisant of protocol and correctness. The link is only important in emphasising how connected royalty is to privilege.

Mechai parlayed this privilege in establishing a public health revolution to slow population growth in Thailand through contraception; his innovation was to link condoms to cabbages because it had been determined that the vegetable sellers would provide the most efficient means of distributing the free condoms, particularly in those rural areas of the country where there were no doctors.

Enough has been written about Mechai and how his contribution has been well recognised throughout the world. I fortunately have stayed in his apartment above his signature restaurant in Bangkok – Cabbages & Condoms. At one stage when my career had converged around public health and quality assurance in health care, it was proposed that a conference for each would be held in Thailand.

At that stage, the contraception program was reaching its maturity, and Mechai was looking around for a new challenge. At the time we renewed the contact, he was thinking about involving himself in a national AIDS program, a severe public health problem at that time in Thailand. An international conference focussing on the two intertwined issues of quality and public health improvement seemed a good option and, as part of finding a venue outside the capital, we went up to Chiang Rai, a city in the North of Thailand.

Mechai had an interest in what was essentially a hill settlement, where international schools had been or were proposed to be established. The Dowager Queen had been very interested, and from what Mechai said at that time, he was very interested in the Timbertop arrangement which Geelong Grammar School had established.  It could be said that a period at school in the Victorian mountains was a means of toughening the inherent noblesse oblige in its pupils. At that time in the mid-90s, I believe that there may been some interest in Geelong Grammar School being involved in a Thai extension of the concept.

What struck me was the variety of people living in Chiang Rai, and each of these hill tribes, as they were called generically to me, was identified by their clothing. Like so many whistle-stop tours, impressions are left, which fade with time. I cannot remember whether we ate any distinctively cooked “hill” food, except for some recollection of purple rice.

Hmong traditional textiles

I acquired some Hmong textiles, which are my reminder of that visit. The Hmong, originally from southern China, had spread through the Indochinese countries, and in the wake of the Vietnam war where many of them assisted the American forces, they had become a race of refugees. Sounds familiar for minorities who attempt to better their lot with the invader. Indeed, the Hmong community in America, especially in California and Minnesota, is big enough to be noticed, whereas in Australia it is barely 1,500.

In the end, the conference was held elsewhere; a consultancy with Dr Don Grimes, which was to have been carried out alongside such a conference, fizzled out with a change of Government.

Nevertheless, I have one memorable moment which I shall always remember. We travelled as far as the ferry would take us up the Chao Phraya River from the Oriental Hotel. We noted, not far from the wharf where we disembarked, a formidable structure which turned out to be the Bang Kwang Central Prison – the so-called Bangkok Hilton. We decided to have lunch near there in a café overlooking the river, but the menu was in Thai. So we looked over the shoulder of the next couple, pointed at what they were eating. A magic gustatory experience. It was fish, but the underlying whirlwind emanating from the food was garlic and chilli. That is an everlasting image of Thailand – an exotic location where your mouth is set on fire with a Scoville reading off the scale.

It was, in the end, a pity about the proposed venture with Mechai which came to nothing. But as they say, you win some – as Mechai had done before in spades with his contraception campaign and other public health ventures – and, in lower case, in whispered tones, you lose some.

The Virginian

Now that the dust has settled in Virginia, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the lessons we are taking from the McAuliffe loss and our roadmap moving forward.

In short, it exposed a major weakness in the Democratic establishment’s strategy – a weakness we at the Lincoln Project will be able to help solve.

Youngkin and family

What the establishment failed to do – and what time and time again has come back and bitten them – was define their opponent early. For months, Democrats let Glenn Youngkin skate by in his fleece vest and by the time everyone woke up and hit alarm bells, it was too late. Meanwhile, Republicans threw the kitchen sink at Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats and it worked.

There is a reason we tried to do everything we could to paint him as Glenn Trumpkin. There were hundreds of thousands of anti-Trump voters that needed to hear that message. Ultimately, we were swimming against the tide too late – and swimming alone.

Yes, there were other issues at stake in Virginia. Yes, the historical momentum was against Democrats from the beginning. If you look at exit polls (and take them with a grain of salt) Biden’s approval rating in a State he won by 10 was tanking. Education was the issue the most voters said mattered to them when making up their minds.

But how did we get that far – that Democrats were losing white women, suburban voters, and people caring about education? They got dragged into a battlefield the Republicans defined, which meant they had an uphill fight from the beginning.

Our opponents are more sophisticated and more well-funded than Democrats realize. Democrats can’t just turn on the small dollar money cannon and hope it helps them make up ground. They must get more proactive because the other side already is.

What we are up against is a well-coordinated message machine with built in channels to spread their disinformation and propaganda. If you turned on a TV or went online in Virginia anytime after Labor Day it was all education, education, education. Critical Race Theory freakouts. Virginia’s school board dramas made national news. Even the non-propaganda media fell into this trap. And it was all done by the Fox News-centred right-wing message machine, for which Democrats currently have no answer.

What they did was define a single issue to allow voters to look under the umbrella. Then they used the voters who came in to develop sophisticated models that they then used to target well beyond their usual base. See, most campaigns stay in their lane and talk to their people with the same tested taglines and codified language that have worked for years. They know that investing in ads to persuade people to switch sides in this polarized environment is akin to setting money on fire.  Remember, they’re not most people. This risk they took – hanging the campaign on an ambiguous non-issue that would go on to be developed in the imaginations of voters – and reaching out well beyond their base, and even running suppression campaigns against the Democratic base – that’s how you play hardball. And that’s how you win. 

What does this mean for us moving forward?

We know that our strategy works and that there is a lane that only we occupy. Until Democrats are willing to take the gloves off and define their opponents with a coordinated message that voters actually remember, we’re going to have to do it.

Because someone has to. It is why right now we are actively working against Abbott (Texas) and DeSantis (Florida) and will be launching similar campaigns to make sure the authoritarians can’t just put their sheep’s clothing on again and blend in with the pack. Voters will believe it if we are not careful.

The Lincoln Project is a group of former Republicans with a particular obsession about Trump. The Trumpians are continually running smear campaigns against the major Lincolnians. If you have a cohort of journalists working for the media who need an exclusive story, especially when it is spiced up, then they are readily available recipients.  Reasoned beliefs are incidental and superfluous, unless they can be translated into money. Thus the media are composed of ideologues, many with a tincture of the authoritarian fascist; the plain concrete-foot-in-the -door mercenaries and a sprinkle of those who are genuinely interested in policy matters, increasingly confined in the far off galaxy of Blogs.

Would-be mercenaries should remember that from the time of the Thirty Years’ War the Elector of Hesse, archetype of the mercenary industry, made large amounts of money from hiring out his subjects as infantry for the highest bidder, clothing them in a form of sackcloth to save money – the material now known as hessian. For the successful mercenary, the payment was potage and loot. The Elector also, unlike the modern media moguls, had no problem with retrenchment.

Having said that, losing the Virginia governorship when the party of the President has just assumed office has occurred on eight consecutive occasions. The doomsayers were harking back to 2009, the year that Obama assumed the Presidency, to highlight that loss in Virginia. Yet those same people failed to say that the Democrats also lost the governorship of New Jersey in 2009, which has not happened on this occasion, even though the winning margin was only about one percentage point.

The fallout seems to have galvanised the Democratic-controlled Congress to break their internal impasse and pass legislation designed to establish Biden’s version of the New Deal. The Republican knee jerk is to dart from policies which are based on a mixture of passive aggression and threatened violence to actively cower and starve the electorate of government support.

Yet both in the Senate and now the House, sufficient Republicans have had the gumption to vote in favour and thus enable passage of the Infrastructure Bill.  Thus, what was significant in the end in the House last Friday wasn’t the progressive Democrats but the 13 Republican key votes. The final vote count was 228 to 206, meaning if no Republicans had voted for the bill, it wouldn’t have passed.

Sistine Chapel

There are some Republicans who still believe in bipartisan behaviour. If you stop countries being democratically governable, then you revert to a feudalism where the Bezos, the Branson and the Zuckerberg can indulge in the modern day equivalent of rape and pillage of the environment. Maybe starving the peasants was a necessary prerequisite in the private underwriting of the cost of the Sistine Chapel, but not the passage of much-needed infrastructure measures. In this modern world it is the proportionate intervention of government into infrastructure renewal to enable the Sistine Chapel metaphor not to collapse.

As the Washington Post has concluded, the “Biden failure” narrative now appears alarmist and indeed downright wrong. Yet such conclusions are often premature, as the above analysis seems to suggest.

Hence, I suspect the importance of the continuing pressure from the Lincoln Project and its allies in blunting any return of Trump.  But as my Italian friend would say, chissá.

The Search for the Tassili Frescoes

Tassili fresco

I have recently been reading this book describing an expedition funded by French sources in 1956. Its leader, Henri Lhote, wrote the book – the title of this blog – of this arduous exploration of the Central Saharan plateau of Tassili-n-Ajjer. The expedition was in search of the frescoes, predominantly painted in that fragment of time from prehistoric to well into the period where the tribes of the Sahara co-existed alongside the Egyptian pharaohs. In fact some of the frescoes have images of Pharaonic boats and female figures that look decidedly Egyptian.

The wall paintings are reminiscent of the cave art discovered in Europe, and of the same period. I suppose that my interest was kindled by that extraordinary elegy on the Neanderthals titled “Kindred”.

These paintings are extensive, and the French expedition spent months mapping and tracing the rock art onto paper. The way these frescoes had been created was to minimise the damage from the elements, especially as the Sahara, in the era when these frescoes were painted, was lush and verdant. The varied wildlife depicted in the frescoes co-existed with the people there, the forerunners of the Tuareg, who now are the only residents left in this desert with its waterholes and some of the oldest trees in the world – the Sahara cypress. The wood is so hard that the prehistoric inhabitants did not have the tools to cut them down – the technology to completely deforest was not available to our prehistoric ancestors.

Tassili fresco

What caught my attention was the period when much of the wall art was of cattle – the so-called Bovidian period. Let me quote Henri Lhote explaining his interpretation of the desiccation of the Sahara:

Herdsman have ever been the great destroyers of vegetation and if we admit (as the evidence of the Tassili paintings suggests) that thousands of oxen wandered about in the Sahara for thousands of years, we may well assume their destructive action to have been so great that it contributed largely to the desiccation of the whole region. It would, of course, be absurd to regard cattle as solely responsible, climatic changes being the prime cause, but they played no small part.”

When I read this, I thought of the Joycean solution of reducing methane levels and hence improving the climate change agenda by shooting all the cattle. It was a little drastic, but these days there are no cattle roaming the Central Sahara, a few goats maybe – but not cattle. Yet cattle live on in these magnificent frescoes.

The discussion about reducing methane levels is about reducing the emissions of methane, predominantly from cattle. Methane is one of the main culprits and animal emissions are in the range of five per cent of all emissions. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide – the consequence of cattle herding provides an interesting parallel between civilisations thousands of years apart. The Sahara then was the harbinger of what is happening now across Africa in terms of desertification; but more in its pernicious effect on the climate.

Toss another beetroot on the barbie …

Maybe, as a tribute to a Joycean Cenacolo, when our descendants – if any – are shuffling through the remains of our civilisation they will stumble upon the outcome of the Joycean fiat – images of mammoth Australian barbecues, Southern State cook-outs. Argentinian parilladas, Brazilian churrascos, South African braai.  Frescoes of coal or methane fired braziers on walls, and now food which could be cooked under the rays of the sun. But who came to eat?

Methane, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is released from a number of sources and its capture presents a particular problem because here one cannot point at coal as the major reason. In the agricultural sector there is research activity in Australia, less extreme than the Joycean solution directed towards methane reduction – and for that matter other pollutant gases inter alia hydrogen sulphide and the nitrogen gaseous by-products.

Here there is experimentation in mixing the grasses, so the roots of this “feedlot” are diverse in their length, and hence their ability to retain carbon.  There is literature about composting waste by minimising the amount of bacterial and fungal anaerobic activity, but like carbon capture, who of us can generalise the ultimate worldwide solution from a few pilot programs of variable effectiveness? I have disregarded the Joycean solution on the rounds that his aim is always faulty and the National Party would never be vegans.

A neo-Bovidian age beckons, I’m afraid.

Two Smiths

We live on a busy inner Sydney street, which is poorly cambered. The local Council also believes in the authenticity of potholes to preserve the roads in the pre-WWI condition when there also was a coal mine just behind our house, about a hundred years ago.

If you drive along our street at night, the front gate is clearly visible directly in the headlights. You will drive straight through the wall unless you turn as the street turns sharply right up the hill, or else career at the last moment along the wall of the house down the lane.

Only on one occasion over 30 years of living in such a potential target has a car come through the wall. The wall is over two metres high and brick. Thus, when the car came through the wall, it made a terrible mess, including the car.

The car managed to reverse and left a Volkswagen badge as a signature. The police were informed, but it was the mother with her son in tow who turned up several days later to apologise and offer to pay. No charges were laid. We all moved on in true Morrison tradition. The replaced wall is better; there is a tree in front of the wall now, and there is a front garden behind the wall, as well as a buffer of illegally parked vehicles often lining the kerb.

I was reminded of this when the politician Smith ploughed into a fence in Hawthorn at a corner of a street with which I am very familiar.

The remnants

On this occasion Entitlement Smith not only took out a wall, but also another car, but not the house wall fortunately, which separated his car from striking a child asleep in the room behind this second wall. An imperilled child.  A man with a bucolic face and dead eyes staggers away into the arms of a breathalyser and strikes the jackpot. I have a problem with dead eyes because they often provide an accurate window into the person’s soul or lack of same.

Across the continent, a child is found. Cleo Smith had been missing for 18 days. Alive, and able to answer: “My name is Cleo” – in a very firm four-year old voice.

As with most people when I heard that Cleo had been found, I had this overwhelming sense of relief and elation. For the parents the nightmare was over. For the child, I hoped that the nightmare had not been embedded into her psyche by the random counsellors and psychologists who feel obliged to make public commentary on how such a child should feel in these circumstances. So many children go missing, and a tragic number of these either are never found or are found dead. It is a terrible denominator.

In this case, the child had been the subject of a wide-ranging search; and the desperation was showing in the news that the police force was delving into every rubbish bin they could find. The two media reports seemed so disconnected, because there was no hint of her whereabouts.

Then in the night police were shown breaking down the door of a house in the Aboriginal section of Carnarvon. I have been to Carnarvon a few times.

It is unique in being a substantial settlement in the desert on the sea, and where the Gascoyne River runs underground. Carnarvon has a major indigenous population. With its banana plantations, it has a degree of colour; and to me it is not a bad town.

After my initial reaction, when images emerged in the media, I wondered at how well cared for she looked. Then it came out that she had been found alone playing with toys, and later it was revealed that in this house there was a room stuffed with dolls.

The alleged perpetrator was an Aboriginal man found some distance away. Since that time little about the man has emerged, but from that which has emerged he seems to be a sad lonely person. No, that is no excuse for “child-stealing”. However, the case seemed strange enough for the police to use this wording as the most appropriate course of action.

But then there was an underlying problem, with a one million dollar reward on offer. The pictures of the search were beginning to fade as the media became bored, and the reward was meant to be a stimulus.

Then the discovery, and all changed.  The spectacle became one of everybody claiming credit with even the WA Premier flying to Carnarvon for a photo-opportunity with stuffed toy props.

From being a wonderful tableau, it degenerated into a public relations exercise even to the extent of this man, shackled and in bare feet, being escorted to a plane by four riot police officers, to be placed in maximum security. Presumably to protect from those who allegedly bashed him in custody.

Yes, I’m a long way away, but a child has been returned to her parents, and the spotlights should be turned off. Enough is enough.

What if there had been the spectacle of a barefooted dishevelled Mr Entitlement Smith being marched off to a maximum security prison, bail refused? We can only speculate on how his colleagues would have reacted if the car had gone through the child’s bedroom wall, with him revving his car in a drunken state trying to reverse out of his mess into another mess without ever knowing the difference – without ever knowing there was a child in the room.

In the case of Cleo Smith, I hope the three parents are not subject to the normal reaction from the media trying to spin the story out into a “60 second special” – “by getting the story behind the story” as the lugubrious voiceover will say, or some such.

The pet jaguar

I also hope when all the vengeance and anger die down, Mr Kelly is cut the same sort of slack which has been afforded the current member for Kew, who is still loose in the community, even without a pet Jaguar.

Mouse Whisper

On looking into Niki Savva’s brain – as trephined by Golden Beauty called Orietta. I was attracted by her question and answer session; a common method we use in our Cheddar press when we interview a celebrity like Michael to get the latest on his relationship with Mistress Min.

But when journalists start interviewing other journalists you know the end of the world is nigh –a comment from a SMH sauce that spoke to me only on the condition of “an old enemy”.

Watch out for the barrelling pork!

Modest Expectations – Gay Crusader

I have always given an association with the number of the blog, which this week is the 137th in a row. Apart from my first one, each blog has a label associated. The words “Gay Crusader” would evoke a great number of associations in the modern day.

Gay Crusader

I thought I was being suitably obscure. Not true, if you Google “Gay Crusader”, there is the answer at the top of the pile. Gay Crusader was a horse, and a very good one at galloping one mile, four furlongs and six yards. Unfortunately, there are no rods, no poles nor perches; no links nor chains, not to mention the lack of leagues and fathoms – nor, for that matter, inches in this meticulous description of aristocratic length.

O Hail Caesar

I have been accused of being too easy on the Premier of Victoria, but this latest manoeuvre to usurp the power of the Chief Health Officer is fraught with all the dangers of a politician assuming control over an area in which he does not have the expertise.

The Australian public, particularly in Victoria, has become sick of lockdown. It is difficult when one cannot see the enemy. Just as Victoria thought it was free of COVID-19 it was imported from NSW, due to the attitude of the then Premier, disregarding her Chief Medical Officer’s advice.

The Chief Health Officer is appointed for his skill in providing the Government of the day with public health advice. Up to the time of COVID it has been a very dozy job in Victoria – a recent Chief Health Officer was virtually invisible during his tenure. However, the Chief Health Officer has delegated powers for a reason, and in the event of a serious public health matter such as a pandemic, it is important to designate single point responsibility for the execution of legislative orders, but with a clear outcome for such execution.

A place for the Oracles

Clearly Chief Health Officers are no Delphic oracles, but they portray their expertise in both their attitude and behaviour – running the gamut between the laissez-faire and the interventionist.  Some are more risk averse than others. Yet their powers are circumscribed and, unlike the Premier, they don’t have powers outside health to proscribe under the guise of a health emergency.

Premier Andrews’ current intention to usurp these Chief Health Officer powers is a vast overreach, and in this instance was prompted by his disagreement with the Chief Health Officer’s eliminationist strategy, or should I say demand for an unconditional surrender by the Virus, rather than an uneasy armistice.

The past two years have catapulted previously obscure Chief Health Officers into media stardom, with the unfortunate consequence of having to compete with the associated epi-babble. Yet if last year there had not been Chief Health Officers with that power, would it have taken the politicians a longer time to declare an emergency?

Memories are short. Remember, Premier Andrews at the start of the pandemic without experience or indeed knowledge  was very hesitant in cancelling the Grand Prix in 2020 – and also the Prime Minister was inclined to go to the football rather than take the incipient crisis seriously.

Politicians hesitate. This legislation in Victoria throws the normal sop of having an advisory committee. In most of my experience these committees attract people with the gift of the gab – and the ability to obfuscate and confuse the politician who has, prima facie, not that much knowledge, apart from knowing their constituency and not liking unpopularity.

There is a flagrant example in NSW of this political interference, brushing aside public health guidelines designed to protect the community because they interfere with those popular pirouette steps – harks back to March 2020. The impulsive decision to retain popularity – forget about the Government’s public health rule. You know the one which reads:

Until you receive a negative result from your day 7 test you must not go to any:

  • high-risk settings, such as childcare, aged care, disability care, healthcare, schools, education and correctional facilities
  • large gatherings (e.g. concerts, football matches)
  • hospitality venues, except to pick up take-away food or beverages.

This does not include accessing medical care, or aged or disability care services.

How inconvenient for the impatient unthinking incoming Australian. You drop your guard, how inconvenient that the West Hoxton, sorry West Epping party, just can’t be missed.

Premier Andrews, as an example for your Brother Premier, I implore you to leave well alone – but you won’t because although you generally have reasonable judgement, you have been a control freak, with the thinness of your dermis still being a matter of conjecture. The solution is definitely not to set up a tangle of bureaucracy as proposed because that will just introduce more uncertainty, especially when there are other variants in the offing.

Maine Stream

The Supreme Court has rejected an emergency appeal from health care workers in Maine to block a vaccine mandate that went into effect Friday.

Three conservative justices noted their dissents. The state is not offering a religious exemption to hospital and nursing home workers who risk losing their jobs if they are not vaccinated.

Only New York and Rhode Island also have vaccine mandates for health care workers that lack religious exemptions. Both are the subject of court fights. On Friday, a federal appeals court panel upheld New York state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, rejecting arguments by lawyers for doctors, nurses and other professionals that it did not adequately protect those with religious objections.

As is typical in emergency appeals, the Supreme Court did not explain its action. But Justice Neil Gorsuch joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said in a dissent for himself and two fellow conservatives, that he would have agreed to the health care workers’ request.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted in a short statement agreeing with the court’s decision not to intervene that the justices were being asked to “grant extraordinary relief” in a case that is the first of its kind. She was joined by a fellow conservative, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said she was gratified that the mandate was upheld, saying it’s imperative for hospitals to “take every precaution to protect their workers and patients against this deadly virus.”

“This rule protects health care workers, their patients, and the stability of our health care system in the face of this dangerous virus,” she said in a statement. “Just as vaccination defeated smallpox and vaccination defeated polio, vaccination is the way to defeat COVID-19.”

Maine’s requirement was put in place by the governor. A federal judge in Maine declined to stop the mandate, concluding that the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed. The Oct. 13 decision prompted a flurry of appeals that landed, for a second time, in the Supreme Court.

Dozens of health care workers have opted to quit, and a hospital in Maine’s second-largest city already curtailed some admissions because of an “acute shortage” of nurses.

But most health workers have complied, and Maine residents in general have been supportive of the vaccine. The Maine Hospital Association and other health care groups support the requirement.

We have holidayed in Maine, the Pine Tree State, on more than one occasion. We nearly bought a house in Maine in that brief window when the Australian dollar approximated the US dollar in value.

Bordering Canada, it’s only US State border is with Massachusetts, of which it was once part. It has been a traditionally conservative Yankee State, where slavery was outlawed in 1783. Yet this State has a serious ambivalence.

In 1820, the year Maine became a State of the Union on the anti-slavery slate, the U.S. passed an act that made participation in the slave trade an act of piracy. Yet, dozens of Maine vessels engaged in the slave trade illegally during this period. Thousands of enslaved people were transported and traded, leading to huge profits for slave traders – some of whom were Maine sea captains who are remembered as leading citizens of the day. Much of the millions of dollars from the slave trade funded the growth of New England’s economy.

Amistad, slave ship

Thus, Maine has tucked away this heritage; and now in the forefront of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, it is increasingly leaning towards becoming a permanent “blue” State.  Yet it still has a very prominent Republican Senator, Susan Collins, who has been one of the incumbents since 1996. The other Senator is a Democratic-leaning Independent. In line with the population, the State is only entitled to two representatives in the US Congress – both Democratic.

For a population of just over one million people the Capital, Augusta, is home to 154 members of its house of representatives and 31 state senators, both houses dominated by the Democrats and with a Democratic Governor. That is the profile of a State that has mandated all health workers, without exception, be vaccinated against COVID-19 – and the Supreme Court of the USA, not known for its liberalism, has upheld the decision.

So, what are you waiting for Australia?  Mandate!

By the way the Maine politicians get bugger all remuneration, probably all up less annually than a Darryl Maguire consultancy demand.

Be quiet. Eyjafjallajökull is capturing carbon.

I was browsing through an old New Scientist and I came upon a mention of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which erupted in 2010 in Iceland. It is a forgotten fact that the emission then from the volcano of between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes a day was less than the grounded airlines would have emitted if they had been able to fly. That was 2010.

I went to Iceland three years later. Driving around this volcano, it was very quiet and the sky was cloudless and very blue. The planes were back flying.

Iceland is a geothermal hotspot, with many volcanoes. A boundary between two tectonic plate runs through the country, and it is strange knowing that the shifting of the plates beneath your feet is the fault line ready to quake.

The gap between Iceland’s tectonic plates …

Iceland is thus unusual. It belies its name. None of the country is within the Arctic Circle. From the airport to Reykjavik, there is a plain of basalt – it is a bare landscape. Yet in this plain is the famous tourist attraction, the geothermal pool known as the Blue Lagoon, a heated oasis full of tourists. I stand on a bare spot on the South Coast and look out to the North Sea; I had been told there was not a skerrick of land between where I was standing and the Antarctic Continent. There are many of these instances – “nowhere else”…

The Hotel Ranga is about an hour’s drive from Reykjavik and, as proved, it was an ideal place to see the Aurora Borealis, although it would have been preferable to have a room on the north side of the hotel to view the phenomenon, as I found out.  In many ways, Iceland is very important as viewing the Aurora here is very convenient. One does not have to struggle through the snow to see it. Here at this isolated Hotel, it is just a matter of stepping outside.

Then one afternoon going down the road to the nearby village of Hella, drifting on whim around 2.00 pm into an empty café about to close, the owner hospitably cooked me a magnificent cod pie while I waited. That seemed to be the Icelander way. The land was full of more friendly surprises.

What has happened in relation to climate change in Iceland has been reflected by the unique geology of this country where the uptake of carbon capture and storage has been adapted to its predominant basalt rock structure.

As a result, Iceland has several high-temperature geologic zones, where the underground temperature reaches 250c within 1km depth, and in its so-called “low-temperature” zones, the temperature reaches up to 150c at the same depth. Permeability, the porous nature of such rock, also plays a role in how fast mineralisation of CO2 can happen here. Basalt is such porous rock and assists this faster reaction; elsewhere in this favourable rock formation the mineralisation of CO2 may take thousands of years.

In Iceland, the dissolved gas is injected into the rock formations at a depth of about 500m, where the CO2 can rapidly turn into minerals.  In Iceland it takes about two years for 95% of the CO2 to be mineralised. The process can take more or less time at other sites, depending on a few factors. One is the depth at which the carbon is injected, and another is the temperature of the rock formation – the rate of the mineralisation process is generally faster at higher temperatures. Bedrock still must contain sufficient amounts of calcium, magnesium and iron. These metals are necessary because they react with  CO2 to form carbonate minerals needed to permanently store the CO2.

This year, the Orca plant, 40 kilometres south-east of Rejkavik, designed to capture carbon capture, is now online and is said to extract annually 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equal to the emissions of 790 cars. Not much. Thus, it is still essentially an experimental facility.

Despite all the potential advantages of Iceland, this is a salutary piece of advice as our Australian government still waves this technology around as a solution to climate change.

As I have pointed out previously, carbon capture overall is a dud. The extent of its usage in Iceland only says that it has the geology can make minor difference, which may at most offset the carbon dioxide emitted by Iceland’s heavy industry, in particular its aluminium smelting.

Just a few of the 85 …

The lesson here is very clear. When the annual amount of carbon dioxide to be removed needs to be 33 billion tonnes for an effective technology, this facility in one of the most advantageous positions on the planet removes in a year about 3,600 metric tonnes, probably the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as emitted by all the limousines of those attending the Glasgow conference. After all, the US President is reported to have had a cavalcade of 85 cars because of COVID-19 restrictions. It seems a matter of what you lose on the…oh, I forget the rest of that aphorism. It must be the nitrous oxide fumes affecting me.

You want a Sharkies jumper, Manny?

Australia has a major embarrassment. You let a dolt in a baseball cap run the country, and then watch aghast at what happens next.

In Rome, the Prime Minister, with his private photographer in tow, interrupts a private discussion President Macron is having with someone else. Macron is civil; he does not take off his mask, but his eyes say it all. An uncivil person appealing to a redneck constituency – unapologetically. Boy, were we impressed?

Then there was Morrison’s speech – the normal meaningless aggressive diatribe in an empty auditorium.  Donald Trump would have applauded. Nobody in Glasgow was listening.

The image of him sitting at the G20 table in Rome, sniggering with the Brazilian President Bolsonaro, has not yet made it to our local media. Macron is in the distance. Trying to muscle in on the photo-opportunity next to Boris Johnson, Morrison actually ends up next to Angela Merkel, who turns away from him as soon as the photoshoot is over. On this occasion, he did not move forward as Macron walked past, neither acknowledging one another. So much for meeting and greeting each other.

Macron has then made the last devastating remark, namely that Morrison lied. If he lied to the French President, who else?

She’ll be right mate!

In any event, the stoush continued along the kerbsides of the Gorbals, with the Baseball Cap saying he would not have his country sledged. I was bewildered, as President Macron had very carefully separated the country from The Baseball Cap – very pointed in his accusation. No sledging of Australia by Mannie, only a pointed reference to you, mate. Julie Bishop, on your selective leak of private government correspondence, has commented: “I’m concerned that the rest of the world will look at Australia and say: Nah. Can Australia be trusted on contracts not to leak private messages?”

What can we expect next? I think he is coming home, concentrating on his political loom trying to spin a jacket of credibility to replace the shreds and tatters of his current international reputation. Meanwhile Glasgow proceeds. Photo-opportunities with the remnant military force still overseas.

Meanwhile, Biden and Macron are getting together, Biden incidentally throwing Morrison under the 2CV while promising Macron that Kamala Harris will visit Paris soon. Back here in Oz, it is increasingly apparent that the nuclear submarine program is just the heading of a media release and will it ever happen?

Advances in technology, as you still glibly spout, Prime Minister, will ensure that it will never happen. Any US body of significance visiting Australia in the wake of this dustup?  I’d doubt it; maybe the odd silver-haired chap in braid sent to keep Dutton and Abetz and the other sabre-rattlers happy.

But back to the Road to Glasgow; Macron seems more interested in Africa where its Francophone countries are increasingly under threat from al-Quaeda type insurgencies – the fundamentalist Islamist force. Biden wants to assist. This seems to be the immediate battleground, not the South Pacific as we were led to believe when AUKUS was at its most raucous. The French will bide their time until after the Australian election.

China and America are now in conversation, and the likelihood of an imminent invasion of Taiwan is increasingly unlikely. The Chinese have done their sums on the cost of invading Taiwan. Nevertheless, keep the cauldron boiling, it keeps the normal suspects here in Australia suitably frothing.

The Taiwanese are adept in providing all expenses paid trips to foreigners who they think may be able to push the Taiwanese barrow at the least cost, and who can still rattle a cage in Australia. I have experienced such extravagant hospitality when the Taiwanese mistakenly thought me able to rattle a cage or two – in my case a birdcage.

As for Biden discussing anything substantial with Morrison, fat chance. Biden seems more concerned with Recep Erdogan and him threatening to buy Russian, rather than  American fighters for Turkey.

Mentioning Turkey reminds one of the Boris, the one of Turkish heritage. He still seems willing to talk to Morrison, but if Morrison clumsily helps wreck the Glasgow meeting, another “dear friend” bites the dust. Did you see the Prince of Wales turn to glass as Morrison talked.

So, there we are with Morrison in Glasgow, the pipe band leader for India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and our old ally China – all coal fellows well met.

The problem is that inevitably, at some stage, the gaseous products of coal will overwhelm the planet, using the Morrison approach. What does it matter if we return to an age where the world was indeed warmer than it has ever been?

Maybe in 2022, it may change … but unfortunately Albanese is such a weak reed – the stuff of Arthur Calwell Revisited. His vision is that of a student politician; it’s all about factional deals. No, it is not, Mr Albanese, given the perilous position of this planet, a factional deal is a puff of dust.

But by 2025, the election after this when I have well gone, let us have a leader by then to navigate Australia out of this climate mess.

Perhaps an insight provided by Rebecca Sykes in her recent book Kindred -Neanderthal – Life, Love and Death will increase the sense of urgency:

What’s happening is unprecedented. Over the next millennium – roughly 30 generations – we are heading into a world hotter and more dangerous than any previous hominin survived. The Eemian 120,000 years ago was on average just a degree or two warmer than today, yet along with hippos in the Thames, sea levels were 5 to 7m (15 to 22ft) higher. Coasts where picturesque cottages and teeming cities now stand were swamped. And that’s with far lower CO2 levels than we’ve already reached.

In the absence of immediate, drastic action, the most up-to-date climate models put us on track for a terrifying future. Polar ice caps are at genuine risk of disappearing, and if so, oceans would rise by 20m (65ft) or more. In the past year the Great Barrier Reef has withered, the Arctic, Amazon and Australia have all been ablaze, and heat records have been breaking like waves, one after the other.

I could not have said it better.

Roaming in the Romantics

I enjoyed Latin at school and obtained second class honours in my Matriculation year. For a few years I attended the University of Sydney’s Latin Summer School, and one year my eldest granddaughter joined me for this one week of concentrated experience.

It kindled my interest in the living languages which owed their syntax to Latin. I learnt French at school, at the time when foreign languages were either French or German. Then I went to France in 1980, travelling around and realising how little French was left in my cranial library.  So, on my return I started French at the Alliance Française. The facilities were superb but undertaking learning French at the end of a working day was too much for me to persist beyond a couple of years. The one word which sticks in my memory driving through the South of France was “vignoble”. It had such an obvious meaning, but I did not immediately get it and was teased unmercifully.

In the past decade we discovered Ravenna and thought how it would be a good idea to learn some Italian.  We embarked on learning Italian, and gradually moved through the grades. I’m glad there are no examinations; and in addition, my accent is foul. Nevertheless, the comprehension has improved and with learning languages on a long-term basis, then you can absorb some of the culture. Funnily, I once lived for many years in Italian cultural Melbourne, but it didn’t encourage me to learn Italian.

However, before going to Romania a few years ago, I tried to acquaint myself with Romanian and while I did acquire a smattering of the language, it vanished very quickly after I returned to Australia. It is reputed to have much in common with Italian. You mean “grazie mille” and “mulțumesc foarte mult”. Thank you very much! Such a similar language!

Mulțumesc mult pentru amintiri

Then we determined, or rather she wanted to go up the Amazon, and so we joined a class of Portuguese for the Traveller which, like so many of those crammed courses, is totally useless, especially if you don’t have an ear for languages. Yet I have persisted through a Portuguese teacher and now a Brazilian, and my love of the language and the diverse culture not only between the two countries, but within, has soared.

In many ways, Portuguese resembles French more than Spanish; but that is a contentious proposition. French monks were indeed the first people to write down the Portuguese language and linguists argue that the common tortuous grammar, especially the irregular verbs, have French “tendencies”. Secondly, extensive French immigration during the first decades of XII century most of the western coastal region around nowadays Torres Vedras, Caldas da Rainha and Alcobaça were colonised by French from Burgundy. And as an afterthought, the two languages share the cedilla (ç).

Needless to say, Brazilian Portuguese is different.

May I say, even though I have driven through the Swiss canton of Grisons on the way to Liechtenstein, I never heard the least known member of the Romantic language, Romansch, spoken. Although it is one of the national languages of Switzerland (which is a story in itself) and a remnant of the time the Romans occupied the territory, I suspect it has survived due to the isolation of the community in the Alps.  For someone who lives in Sydney, the repeated references to Engadine in the Romansch exchanges was disconcerting. Engadine is a suburb of Sydney, but also Engadine is a long high Alpine valley region in the eastern Swiss Alps.  Romansh is vaguely akin to Italian and French but its speakers sound German. Guttural and Romantic are strange bedfellows. As one said, it sounds like Italian with a German accent.

There you are – rambling through a field of mild obsession which unfortunately my Topo has picked up in his whispering below.

Laura

Sometimes you read something trivial; prosaic, but it strikes a chord.

However, let’s begin by writing that some years ago, I bought a book second-hand. It had come from the collection of David Raksin. It was a name I was not familiar with, but anybody who shared my taste in books at least was worth investigating.

He wrote the tune “Laura”, his most memorable work, which was the theme woven into the film of the same name, a film noir in the traditions then of Hollywood. It starred Gene Tierney as Laura. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman at least on the celluloid. The film still is worth watching, and the theme has endured, recorded by a large number of artists. It always reminds me of waiting for someone to come – but who never did. Some might characterise it as “haunting”. During his life, it was the second most recorded work after “Stardust”.

Charlie “Bird” Parker, one of the great saxophonists, recorded “Laura” and this comment below was attached to his “Bird” version of the tune. As they say in the cliches of our time, the comment has resonated with me.

I met a Laura once, way back in 1964. I met her at a party, we were teenagers but grown up in the way kids were back in Philly of the 1960’s. She was so perfect. Beautiful, smart, engaging, and she liked me. I fell madly in love with her, right there and then. We danced and she fit into my entire spirit. And then the party was over and we all had to connect with our various rides. She chose to ride with me and my friends and we drove her home. She sat next to me, both of us breathless. And standing on the porch was her father, who looked like he would kill me – or any other boy!!! I wasn’t able to get her telephone number and I never saw her again. All these years later, I can still feel her… 

I know how he felt. Our universe then was full of fumbling uncertainty. In my case, her father was a civil educated man. Her name was not Laura, but I persisted.

Mouse Whisper

It’s pretty much clearly Romantic – here it’s in black and white

NIGER

Noir               nero              negro           preto            negru           nair  

ALBUS

Blanc             bianco           blanco           branco          alb                  alv

Modest Expectations – Vile Bodies

If you are writing a sermon, it is good to have a text, in this case from The Gospel of The Boston Globe.

At a time when climate change and those who fight it demand that coal be treated like tobacco, as a danger everywhere it is burned, Australia is increasingly seen as the guy at the end of the bar selling cheap cigarettes and promising to bring more tomorrow.

Along with koalas, kangaroos, and beaches, the country — the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels — is becoming known for refusing to clean up its act.

With just days to go before a major UN climate conference in Scotland, Australia is one of the last holdouts among developed nations in committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, and it has refused to strengthen its 2030 target or make plans for transitioning away from its deep commitment.

Coal-o-phile Dundee

The country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, only recently agreed to attend the climate summit after criticism from Queen Elizabeth II and a crowdfunded billboard in Times Square that mocked his reluctance to address climate change, calling him “Coal-o-phile Dundee.”

Australia’s inertia points to a pressing challenge for the world: how to get places that profit from a dangerous product to transition before it becomes too late. With the threat of even more damaging storms and fires looming if temperatures keep rising, a combine-and-conquer approach is required — fossil fuel users and producers both need to kick the habit.

The kings of carbon are not in a rush. A UN report recently released found that coal, oil, and gas production will keep growing at least until 2040, reaching levels more than double what is needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.

Australia is a major contributor to the problem. In energy terms, the continent is essentially a bigger version of West Virginia: Coal is still king, natural gas is celebrated, and the conservative government has a lot in common with Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who has blocked President Biden’s sweeping plan to shift the country toward renewable energy.

In May, the International Energy Agency released a detailed overview of what it would take to cut carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 and keep the average global temperature from increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — the threshold beyond which the Earth faces irreversible damage.

Near the top of the list: end investment in new sources of fossil fuels.

Australia’s response? Yeah, nah.

The federal government still revels in Australia’s role as the world’s largest coal exporter. A report from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources last month used a medal icon in denoting the country’s status as the world’s coal leader, expected to ship out 439 million tons this year, up from 400 million tons last year.

In the last month alone, three new coal mining projects have been approved. In New South Wales, a production hub for the thermal coal burned in power plants — some of the biggest contributors to global emissions — proposals for 20 new coal mines are under review. And that does not include a giant project in the state of Queensland, where the Indian industrial giant Adani is trying to build the largest coal mine in the world.

Nor does it include Australia’s expansion of natural gas. The government plans to open at least five new gas fields, including the giant Beetaloo Basin project in the Northern Territory, which has been granted subsidies of around $170 million. The tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry last year alone were worth more than what Australia spends on its army — and the federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, said this month that the government should spend even more to protect coal and gas.

Critics argue that it is all the product of a warped political and media culture that has spent decades doing the industry’s bidding while deceiving the public, exaggerating coal employment, and understating the need to reverse course. Federal elections are often won or lost in the coal areas of Queensland, and with another contest due next year, the coalition government’s junior partner, the National Party, which represents regional areas, is playing a familiar hand.

“For at least 10 years, they’ve been telling people that climate change is rubbish, that it doesn’t exist, that we can continue digging up and burning coal forever and a day,” said Zali Steggall, an independent member of Parliament who unseated a former prime minister, Tony Abbott, in 2019 with a campaign focused on climate. “They have a difficult job now in turning around to those communities and saying we were wrong or misleading you and we need to do this.”

Until the devastating bush fires of two years ago, Australians might not have blinked at their government’s continued support for fossil fuels. The country is responsible for less than 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

But the Australian public has become increasingly concerned. Polls show that a strong majority of Australians want climate action even if the costs are significant and want the government to stop approving new coal mines.

There is some momentum at the local level. Several states, including New South Wales, have committed to net-zero by 2050 and more immediate emission reductions that go beyond the 26%-28% cut that Australia promised with the Paris climate agreement.

Thanks also to changes in farming practices and solar panels on people’s homes, Australia’s emissions are now projected to fall by around 34% by the end of this decade compared to 2005 levels. But that decline is still weak by international standards, with the United States promising cuts of 50%-52% by 2030, Britain agreeing to a 78% decline by 2035, and Japan pledging a reduction of 46% by 2030.

I remember the first weeks of Whitlam’s reign. I also remember the treachery and traducery of McMahon’s last year where the Government refused to confront the obvious reforms needed. And with the decay, the government leaked continually rather than made a splash, with McMahon himself the master of the watering can.

When Whitlam won the 1972 election, there was no leisurely transfer of power. He brushed the inept McMahon aside and, with Lance Barnard, with the blessing of the then Governor General Paul Hasluck, set up a temporary duumvirate.

This enabled Whitlam to immediately abolish conscription, end Australian military participation in South Vietnam and release Vietnam draft resisters from prison. He recognised Communist China and warned the United States against renewed bombing in North Vietnam.

Whitlam had a degree of courage, which I have found in only one other major politician in my experience.

I only hope that when the next Government comes to power, the person who becomes the Prime Minister acknowledges the matters relating to climate, as so clearly set out above, and sets about a clear remedy.

It should be possible through those who have paid the Porter legal bills to identify the biggest polluters in this country, not only in terms of climate change but also of the social fabric of the nation …

… and stop this disgraceful persecution of people, who are universally of colour as the modern version of non-white is now called, by releasing them from the various concentration camps, if you want to be brutally frank, imprisoning these persecuted refugees who have come by sea.

And finally, let us judge those who would loot the Treasury, and release their names. Strip away the black tape of redaction and coverup.

The overriding lesson for Australia at this very difficult time for the future of not only ourselves but also the planet – those determining the nation’s policy are just not up to the challenge. Brown nosing is no substitute for policy.

An Eloquent Statement on leaving Kinross Wolaroi School, Orange

… I believe that each and every one of us in the graduating class of 2020 has something special to offer to our friends, our family and to our community so long as we persevere. After 13 years of schooling, we will finally enter into the wider world and go our separate ways. They say that smooth seas do not make skilful sailors. This year has been anything but smooth sailing and I know that wherever we end up, we will all be well equipped to face and overcome the challenges that life throws at us. I hope that you find happiness wherever you may go in life and I wish you all the best for the future. – Edward Taylor Year 12.

In explanation, I was looking for something else and came across the magazine of this hybrid Presbyterian/Methodist co-educational boarding school located in Orange New South Wales. I don’t know whether I had ever heard of the school, but casually reading it, I came upon the valedictory address given by this young man. I wished I had been able to articulate my future at his age as well he did at the end of a difficult year. He will need all that resilience while the present clowns of climate change control his generation’s destiny and will be headstones by the time this young man will fulfill his own expectations.

George Repin

George died a week ago at 3.30pm. He was 93, and thus he had a life well lived. He was a Russian émigré from Shanghai, whose family started Repin’s coffee inns in Sydney in 1930. These were very successful, and the name Repin became a household name for a place to have a cup of tea as well as coffee. During the Depression, hard-up businessmen used the coffee shops to run their ailing businesses. American servicemen during WWII, unused to tea, found access to coffee through Repin’s – a boon. Repin’s in the fifties were the places the Push literati frequented in the afternoon to discuss how many angels were on certain pinheads.

George Repin’s father died suddenly in 1949 and George, recently graduated doctor, was midway through his residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He abandoned his medical career for the moment and took control of the family business.

Despite being a household name in Sydney, the name Repin meant nothing to me because I was born in Melbourne, and there was a large social gulf between the two cities. I cannot remember any Sydneysider who holidayed in Melbourne. We had family in Sydney, but although we were frequent visitors, my father loving Manly and my mother having a close friend who lived in Point Piper, I can never remember Repin being mentioned. It would have been easier if I had known this when I moved to Sydney in 1979.

After the family coffee business closed in 1966, George joined the AMA and after a period became Secretary General, just in time for the negotiations to commence on the shape of the health care system following the report of the Nimmo Inquiry in 1969. The Ludecke Inquiry was where George became blooded in dealing with the Federal Government. Then the Whitlam government came to power in 1972, with its stated intent of introducing a universal health scheme.

George was an avowed opponent of governmental control of medical practice. He was also very skilled in preserving the interests of doctors, including medical incomes, while ensuring that he never confused the Federal government’s constitutional power to provide a range of health patient benefits – but not doctor’s fees. The word  “fee for medical benefit” was the mantra one used when discussing medical benefits and beware the glittering eye if you strayed into saying that the Commonwealth government had the power to set doctors’ fees.

It was not riveting stuff, but the meticulous way that George controlled such syntax meant the AMA countered the Commonwealth Health Department from implying it determined doctors’ fees. Yet I believe it was a deliberate ploy to imply, falsely, that if doctors did not charge a fee equivalent to the patient benefit, they were flouting the law.

Doctors could charge what they considered to be fair and reasonable. Incomes and prices were the responsibility of the States and I was closely associated with the referendum that Whitlam initiated late in 1973 where the intent of a “yes” vote was to transfer these State powers over incomes and prices to the Commonwealth. The referendum was soundly defeated, but it meant I was well acquainted with this division in Commonwealth powers.

The disciplined Repin approach meant that, for a long period until the destructive Shepherd influence, the power of the AMA over medical incomes was due to this one man, paradoxically through the way he handled the periodic government-initiated reviews of the patient fees for medical benefits.

As such he had a major stabilising influence on the profession at a time when there was a diffusion of medical specialties into subspecialist groups. Much of this could be attributed to the adherence to the relativities which had been built into the medical benefits system but owed somewhat to the way the various existing specialties in 1970 valued themselves. This resulted in distortions of the actual value, but it was the genius of Repin that maintained acceptance of relativities – in one word some of the profession were more knowledgeable and skilled than others in the initial phase. This self-valuation created distortions.  Yet George always maintained that a doctor could do anything, given circumstances, and somehow he was able to assure the relativities in the fees for medical benefit – no mean feat.

His resilience was tested by a severe bout of Guillain-Barre syndrome, but in true Repin style he overcame this disease, which almost paralysed him for a time, and went back to full-time work..

For most of the time during the Repin stewardship, government accepted the AMA as the sole legitimate representative of the profession. George had to juggle  differences, such as between the NSW Branch, which was essentially an employer’s organisation, and the Victorian branch with very much an industrial approach negotiating terms and conditions with the Victorian State in a number of landmark cases.

For five years from 1979 I was his Deputy at the Australian Medical Association. We were two very different individuals; he did not support my appointment, but just after I commenced, George went overseas and on return he seemed satisfied with the way I handled the preparation of the AMA submission to government, where I had the opportunity to work with one of the most highly respected and able Sydney lawyers of the time, Bob Stephens.

This gave me an early insight into how organised and meticulous George Repin was. Despite his distaste for government control, his strength in negotiation and ability to coalesce the profession around the importance of medical benefits (whether Medibank or Medicare) paradoxically ensured that his legacy was woven into both schemes. In turn, this has assured the ongoing system Australia has today, despite it having become somewhat tattered over the past decades.

Not long after I started, in early 1980, he agreed that I should take the lead secretariat role in the preparation of the AMA submission to the Jamison Inquiry (the Commission of Inquiry into the Efficiency and Administration of Hospitals). This enabled me to travel around the AMA branches and receive an early valuable lesson on how organised medicine worked around Australia. The AMA agreed to the appointment of Robert Wilson, an excellent economist and cost accountant, to assist me.

The submission was highly regarded by the bulk of the AMA grandees and more importantly for myself was that I achieved an independence within the organisation, which forged the basis of our ongoing relationship.

My relationship with George was totally professional. I do not remember having any social interaction with him. I was never invited to his home; I never even had a social drink in his office or elsewhere. He only told me one thing about his boyhood. It has stuck with me. On one occasion when at Scot’s College, after being bullied, he hid behind a fence and threw rocks at his tormentors. I bet he was accurate, but I didn’t quiz him.

Always combative though our relationship was, he imposed a way of handling circumstances which proved very valuable. I wish I had had him as a tutor as a young man as he would have imposed an intellectual discipline, foreign to my instincts but I suspect very Russian. Our politics were so far apart, but only rarely did they disturb our relationship, and as someone commented if we happened to be on the one side, which occasionally happened, nobody could stop us.

At the outset I said I would work there for at least five years, as the superannuation arrangements were second best only to Qantas then. In five years and one month after beginning the job, I left to set up a consultancy business. I remember George firmly shaking my hand as his last gesture. George was to work for another three years before relinquishing the post. Having negotiated the move, understandably he himself did not want to move to Canberra.

The one thing I did wonder about was why, after 1984, the periodic reviews between the Government and the AMA were abandoned with his say-so; that was George’s source of power and authority. It may be that, after supporting their abandonment, he missed them. Maybe he just got tired of Bruce Shepherd.

As for me, I had experienced one of the most productive five year periods of my life; George taught me a lot; yet I never asked his advice.  After I left the AMA I never talked more than a dozen words to him.

It was a pity because reading his regular column in the “Pittwater News” only after his death, I realised what an underlying affinity I had for George. As with everything he did, he did not waste a word.

When I heard he was terminally ill, I sent a short message thanking him. I hope he read it. I meant what I wrote.

Monterey

The challenge came. What about canneries? You’ve spent enough time in northern Victoria to know all about them. Mentioning canneries reminded me of what has been one of my favourite places to visit in the world. Previously, in one of my earlier blogs, I had mentioned the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers as my favourite place in Australia.

After my blog, last week, on tanneries and stannaries, she had said “What about canneries and for that matter granaries!” Monterey, an easy choice!

Lying south of San Francisco, Monterey was written about by John Steinbeck. The canneries that line the waterfront are now stylish reminders of an era long gone when the run of sardines was such down the Pacific coast that catching and canning sardines became the sustenance living of many, especially during the Depression. But like so many profitable fishing industries, it died when the fish were no more – overfished in an era where the notion of conservation did not exist.

Cannery Row

We amble down Cannery Row, made famous by Steinbeck. It retains some of the old atmosphere, if not the smells of what it was. Monterey has its own “rialto”, structures bridging the road now announcing that this is Monterey Canning Row, but yet prosaically this “rialto” was only a place for offices rather than being vibrant walkways above the street.

This was one of Steinbeck’s haunts and he was very friendly with Ed Ricketts, the pioneering marine biologist whose work, particularly on tidal flows, established his reputation. Ricketts was not unlike Steinbeck in appearance, politics and living a full life, whatever that means. He was killed on the edge of Cannery Row in 1948 when hit by a train. He was only 50.

The cannery façade thus still exists, punctuated by hotels and stores selling memorabilia, but what is the most memorable at the end of the Row is the three-storied Hewlett Packard Aquarium, with the three-storied kelp forest as the first sight of this structure.

The one area where the child in me emerged was the interactive pond where one could handle the various sea creatures, the starfish and the gooey sea anemones. I don’t remember any sea urchins, but given their spikes and the care taken to ensure kids like me still had a hand after removing my arm from the water, there probably weren’t any; yet it was a tactile experience so important in tuning the senses.

Sea otters

Staying at the Monterey Plaza Hotel enabled us to see the sea otters, frolicking in the sea in the lee of the hotel, with its deck acting as a viewing platform. The sea otter’s fur, unlike that of the seals is not waterproof. Therefore, the otters have to eat a large amount of fish and shellfish daily. One’s sleep can be disturbed by the sound of those animals cracking open the shellfish as they float on their backs in the sea. One of the reasons for them becoming an endangered series was that their voracious appetites provided competition for the fishermen – and the otter pelts could also command a good price.

Like many of the places I have visited, I suspect Monterey has become one of those tourist destinations, and therefore I probably will never go back, if only to retain memories of a less tourist-infested age.

The Age of Confusion

The advent of vaccination has shown a course of action where there have been both positive and negative aspects, but moreover it has provided a window on what works and what does not.

One of the prime movers in vaccination, when the national levels of vaccination had started lagging in the mid 1990s, was Michael Wooldridge when he became the Federal Minister of Health in 1996. One of the most vocal advocates of the campaign was the late Gay Davidson, whose daughter, Kiri, had died of a complication of measles. Gay was both an influential Canberra journalist and a mother who had first hand experience of the horrific decline of her daughter from a beautiful vibrant child to a helpless vegetative state because of this rare late complication of measles.

The message was clear. Vaccinate! Now another campaign.  What has been encouraging, after a very hesitant start, is how vaccination against COVID-19 has progressed. The problem is that the early ambivalence, aided by the social media, allowed all the misinformation to gather momentum.  Fortunately, the momentum for universal vaccination that may have been slower at the outset has at last been far greater recently. The rare complications from the vaccine administration, which fuelled the initial hesitancy seem now to have been mostly cast aside as witness the successful introduction of vaccination in school children above the age of 11.

The other complication of the early hesitancy was the failure of the Commonwealth government to effectively lead the response, because it had not ordered enough of the mRNA vaccines , banking on both the Queensland version and the licensed AZ vaccine to do the job. The Queensland vaccine was a flop, and those academics who promoted it so vigorously should have been more roundly condemned than they were for their flagrant self-publicity. As for the AZ vaccine, once the production line was sorted it has been effective, if less popular than Pfizer and now Moderna.

What has been done in NSW and Victoria emphasises the desire of people to get out of prison – to be paroled – except each Premier has a huge number on parole, including a substantial number who should continue to be locked up because of their flagrant disregard of the rules. Separating this unvaccinated group for re-incarceration would be a challenge, and currently the appetite for any such action is not strong.

It is time to change reporting the number vaccinated to a more correct number by incorporating the 12 years plus age group. Presumably this is not being done because of the lesser level of vaccination of this age group. This number has been increasing rapidly and will soon not be different from the adult population.

This will be further complicated by the extension of vaccination to children aged five to 11. The White House announced (and since confirmed by the FDA) that they will soon be able to get a COVID-19 shot from paediatricians, the local pharmacy and potentially even from their schools. The detailed plans for the expected authorisation of the Pfizer shot for these younger children are expected shortly, after lengthy studies to test vaccine safety. The recommended dose will be about one-third of the adult dose. It will be interesting to see whether the TGA delays approval in Australia until just before the school year starts next year.

United States regulators have also signed off on extending COVID-19 boosters to Americans who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines and anyone eligible for an extra dose can now receive a brand different from the one they received initially.

From our point of view, there is a need to assure the same level of vaccination in every State (and that includes Western Australia); and the challenge of assuring the first double dose vaccination, monitoring the teenage vaccination, introduction into children and assuring an ordered booster regime needs to be answered – as does the need to factor in additional variants, such as the emerging new Delta AY.4.2 variant identified in the UK and USA. It would be useful to obtain details of the vaccination program – the assumption being we have enough vaccines and identification of recipients nationally is assured, and I mean assured, not waved away into some contract deal among mates.

May I suggest somebody think of Jeroen Weimar for the task, even if he doesn’t bob up in a general’s uniform (but look out for the coffee cups).

Congratulations, Minister Hunt, you seem to be adopting aphorisms from The Prince, in particular when the news is good: release it unto the multitude in small amounts deliberately and progressively. Apparently this ploy helps maintain the applause.

Mouse Whisper

I was talking the other day to my one of bandicoot cousins, Bullum, and the topic turned to this Virus, the one we are hopping to avoid.  I thought it was a good test of the efficacy for each of the Commonwealth funded Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) to see how well they vaccinated their particular mob. Bandicoot Bullum said he was a bit nonplussed by those who seemed to speak for the various AMS complaining about the Government not vaccinating their mob.

He thought that it would be one of the key jobs for each AMS to get to as close to 100 per cent vaccination as possible, and only complain if they were not supplied with enough vaccine. He thought there was no shortage of supply; yet doses have been reported as going to waste. But maybe the bush telegraph would tell him something else.

He seemed to have a good point. This is now a time when the strength of the AMS can be tested, rather just being at the mercy of our brother rhetorical advocates.

Modest Expectations – West of Liverpool

I have just watched Dr Paul Kelly, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, again on television this week. As we stagger out of this two year spotlight on this bloody virus, Australia will eventually realise how much it owes to this guy, whose calmness among the brouhaha of scientific advice has always known where the horizon is. I hope he can pass on this undoubted skill in his stewardship of public health. 

Nowhere to Hide in Unalloyed Comfort

Tannery

I was reading a text about pollution of a river in Brazil, the Rio Tiete, which runs through São Paulo, and is very polluted in places. One of the words even my young language teacher was unfamiliar with was “curtumes” – the word for tanneries.

I thought how familiar would the average young punter be with the word tannery. There would be some who might believe a tannery is where you go to lie on a tanning bed and stimulate the growth of your malignant melanomas.

How many young people would know what a tannery is?

Tanning animal hides was undertaken as far back as Neanderthal man, and  involves turning animal hides, particularly deer, into leather. Neanderthal man learnt to soften the hides by recognising the efficacy of animal fat, particularly bear, as well as bone marrow and brain. Thus, tanning has always been a messy business. Surplus skin was boiled together with other animal parts into glue.  A totally unpleasant process perpetuated for eons.

However, in the city of my youth, if there was a distinctive unpleasant smell, generally there would be an abattoir around. Tanning hides also involves the use of arsenic, formaldehyde and other pollutants that used to be dumped in a nearby river.

The importance of leather was never more emphasised to me than in the following anecdote. I  remember some years ago a vegan said the only animal product for which he, the vegan, had not found an adequate substitute was shoe leather. However, today it seems mushroom mycelia, banana and pineapple leaves, paper and cork are apparently now favoured as plasticised replacements. The petrochemical industry seems to have pushed the tannery aside.

As a result of all the pressures, there are few tanneries left in this country and the export market for hides has fallen away over the past decade. China, as it does with most polluting industries, leads in tanning, but the biggest exporter of leather is Italy.  It was the link through the leather trade (China to Italy) that facilitated COVID-19’s invasion of Europe via Chinese leather workers who had been brought in to work on the production of shoes and other leather accessories in Northern Italy – and the rest is history.

The tannery is a declining industry; but the stannary represents an even more distant industry. My ancestors came from one of three stannary towns in Devon – Ashburton. This place name is my great-grandparent’s headstone. Tin was first mined in Mesopotamia and there is much speculation as to the origin of tin mining.  The history books assure us the Ascent of Humankind passed from stone to bronze age, which means that tin was a very early metal discovered and used, alloyed with copper to form bronze.

An extensive examination of tin mining in Cornwall and Devon, published in 1908, summed up the plight of the stannary: The smelters are still at the present day the purchasers of the ore of the stannaries, and the antiquated and in some respects apparently unjust business relations between smelter and tinner are responsible for a share of the depression which has rested for a number of years on the tin mines of Cornwall.

The stannary, even in primitive form, was where tin was smelted and thus had played an important part of our early ancestors’ existence. Here, for many centuries, Devon and Cornwall were extremely important revenue producing vehicles, and it is not by chance that the Prince of Wales holds the purse strings of the Duchy of Cornwall. The towns, both in Devon and Cornwall, where the most important centres of tin mining were located; they were called Stannary Towns, a quaint appellation that still exists today. We are reminded of them by the increasing number of minor celebrities who ramble around Britain in TV docos – the remains of tin mining in these two counties always scores a mention.

The Duchy Palace which housed Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament

As for stannary, well it apparently comes from a Cornish word “steyn”, corrupted from the Latin word “stannum”. It should be noted that although we have one of the largest underground tin mines in the world on the West Coast of Tasmania, there are no stannaries, or re-named as tin smelters, in Australia. Our stannic concentrates have to be shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia – and, wait for it, China – to be refined. China has the largest tin deposits in the world, in an industry which, a decade or so ago, was nearly destroyed by the formation of an unsustainable cartel.

So, what’s in a name – tannery or stannary? Progress?

The Premier Pirouette

Pirouettes may be executed singly or as multiple rotations; the latter is commonly performed in the adagio part of a grand pas de deux.

There are many variations of pirouettes.

Watching the flourish of the new NSW Premier with the curious name is to watch an anarchist without the black flag. Unlike that anarchic atavar Tolstoy, he may not yet believe that following the teachings of Jesus and practising non-violence would lead to the collapse of the state and the capitalist economy, but perhaps he would subscribe to the first part.

Now an anarchic mind at work.  I applaud his decision to abandon hotel quarantine.

Hotel quarantine was a stratagem to tide the hotel industry over during the pandemic, but it has lasted longer than expected and the longer the hotel quarantine has been used, the more its frailty has emerged. Only the decision to limit to a dribble the number of people coming to Australia has masked the inadequacy of hotel quarantine.

I applaud his decision to abandon sign language at media conferences. This American import is a means of communication for less than 20,000. For many viewers, it is irritating pantomime, and there is the particularly objectionable sight at Queensland Government press conference where this hulking figure overpowers the conference with his flamboyant gesturing. Just read the subtitles.

I believe that the NSW Premier’s decision to open the borders is consistent with this anarchic progress; but we shall see. The border closure has been peppered with such phrases as “fortress” and “freedom” and “hermit” and the jargon of follow-the-leader journalism”, all words within the anarchist’s lexicon.

As one anarchist has written, freedom is a slippery character. Individual freedoms are tempered by exercising the freedom of one’s will over that of others. Here anarchy of individual freedom runs up against the authoritarian view of imposing their definition of freedom on others. Here the Pirouette, while mouthing the desire to ensure that no one can use institutional structures to deny individual freedoms, exercises absolute authority.

Pirouette or Whirling Dervish

He has pirouetted away from the public health physicians as his soothsayers. He perceives their academic, often contradictory discourse  is increasingly bamboozling the healthy illiterate. The Chief Health Officer now may read the daily COVID figures as though she were reading the Landline weather report, without any media one day and then let loose with her own media conference on another day.

It was interesting to see the Governor-elect of Queensland, in response to the NSW announcement of opening of international borders, shrilly shroud-waving for perhaps the last time. Everybody in Queensland will get the Virus was her dire prediction. For the Queensland Premier, everybody will get vaccinated; something the departing Chief Health Officer has left in her “To Do” basket.

The danger in all this pirouetting is that the importance of public health maybe downgraded. Fortunately, if the media loses interest in providing all and sundry with a microphone, Australia will settle down.

The importance of therapeutic agents has meant that Australia is creating a backup drug stockpile – the efficacy of their actions presumably titrated against the actual need (rather than that of the pharmaceutical companies needing to flog these cures), cost and ease of administration.

The therapeutic agents are no replacement for vaccination. The danger of this approach is exemplified by a well-to-do architect, unvaccinated as is the Texan way, who contracted a severe form of the Virus and was treated by a cocktail of these drugs and survived. He had been very sick and was now, at the time of interview, recovered and considering whether he should be vaccinated. Still ambivalent, despite the severity of his disease.

The problem, as pointed out to him, was that these drugs may assist your recovery from one infection, but they do not prevent you from succumbing to the Virus again. Even having recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still the ideal choice since it provides a significant boost to antibody levels and hence a more consistent immunity.

Fortunately, we do not have any of our leaders beholden to Trump, and so vaccination hesitancy is not a component of our recovery. Nevertheless, the introduction of drugs which do work should assist in pushing aside the quackery as exemplified by advocacy of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and zinc.

The ongoing problem is the requirement for suitable quarantine facilities although this raises the whole question of the number of quarantine places needed, especially if home quarantine is found wanting. The facilities in Victoria and Queensland are being constructed. They will be built in order to reduce the claustrophobia of the current hotel quarantine. At the same time, access to open air should be much better than the artificiality and variability of  air conditioned environments.

These facilities provide a reserve power for each State where quarantine is still required. After all, the troubling yet not unexpected appearance of a variant on the Delta variant reinforces the need for such facilities now and into the future.

Five rapid antigen tests (two saliva and three nasal) have been approved by the TGA for use from 1 November (although with no information yet about how they may be used). Rapid antigen tests are already being used in a variety of settings, including aged care facilities, for film and TV production and at the Howard Springs quarantine facility when it was run by the Commonwealth government.  Responsible use of these testing kits (meaning you don’t hide positive tests) will assist in quarantine and the ability to travel in accord with the rules being imposed by the various State jurisdictions. That’s the theory anyway.

Such an approach works when there is a sense of responsibility and not the selfishness and ignorance, particularly rampant among that cohort of young men with a high level of these two qualities. Youth is bullet proof until death occurs, and then there is the spectacle of tears and flowers and roadside crosses – until the bulletproof vest of youth corrodes with age. Then it is government’s responsibility to pick up the pieces.

Until the sense of community responsibility evens out, then the community must have quarantine facilities to provide a place to curb this restlessness and self-indulgence. I wonder whether anybody in the youthful NSW government has thought this requirement through.

There are other problems, the first is how to deal with waning immunity. This is the next frontier. Fortunately, the question of the appropriate time for a booster after double dose vaccination, is being addressed and appears to have been agreed as six months.

In the long term, any time less than a year for a booster will become tiresome.  The whole inconvenience of being vaccinated in the first place may have been overcome for now. Regular vaccination should become part of assuring the public health of the community. The addition of boosters should continue the same mixture of incentives, including fear, which have shown to be successful in the current rate of vaccination in Australia, although maintaining the 80-90 per cent vaccination rate beyond this year will be a significant challenge – hence, the current discussion about retaining mandated vaccination.

Similarly, there is consideration of immunisation for children from five years to 12 years; what is the plan if the Pfizer application is approved by the FDA in America? Does the Therapeutic Goods Administration then provide approval without delay, followed by the blessing of ATAGI? In other words, there are strands of policy coursing through the veins of the Commonwealth Health Department, without any obvious connection to the various State’s programs on vaccination rates, as though that is the end point rather than an important interim stage.

The main problem with pirouetting, it does not necessarily mean progress, however extravagant, graceful and flamboyant.  And once the pirouetting stops then what is next for the unresolved challenges broached above.

It did not take long for the pirouette to resume. At the end of the week, I have been confounded and am now agog – the proposal for funding towards the manufacture of mRNA vaccines in NSW.  Just out of the Ether?

Building Links in Northern Ireland is better without Bunkers

Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. – Robert Emmet from the Dock 1803.

To me, it will always be Derry. I remember walking the ramparts of Derry, being watched by security cameras. It was one of those drizzly grey days – the ramparts are grey and the view over Derry is grey, except for the wall murals, the futurist slashes of colour, the stark black and white merging in the greyness of Bloody Sunday.  This is the tapestry of the Troubles. I was here well after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had brought an uneasy truce to Northern Ireland.

Derry mural

Walking round, overlooking the Bogside, here was I, an Irish Nationalist sympathiser who had never had the courage of my convictions to ever voice them. Like myself, Robert Emmet was not a Roman Catholic but passionate about the Irish being a free nation, even with all its gross imperfections. At various stages, I have thought about obtaining Irish citizenship, because my grandfather was born in Ireland, which made me eligible. In the end, although I have sung the Irish national anthem many times, you can only owe allegiance to one country, and that – for better or for worse – is Australia.

My first encounter with The Troubles was in the eighties when I travelled across the border from Donegal into Fermanagh to the border town of Belleek, famous for its porcelain. Crossing the border I passed by these sentry boxes manned by British troops. I showed my passport and was asked what I was doing. “Tourist” can be difficult to sustain as an excuse, given that I was driving an uncommon route for tourists and, as I learnt later, this was a road used by the IRA to travel between the two countries.

Belleek porcelain is not to my taste. Wandering around the factory was interesting.  It was only later when I drove down the deserted road after leaving Belleek, with Lough Erne below, that I started to feel distinctly uneasy. Even though the clouds were low, the view was superb.  Despite the niggling anxiety, I stopped to take photos, and every time I did so, I had this feeling of being watched. Yet, looking around, there was nothing to see.

Even then, the roads in Northern Ireland were far better than on the other side of the border. It is strange that I noticed this, but I needed to pass through Enniskillen. I remembered I filled up the petrol tank here. As I recall, it was the time between the first and second Enniskillen bomb attacks. On each occasion many were killed, both soldiers and civilians. Needless to say, I did not take in the sights of Enniskillen.

I suppose looking back, I was glad to find refuge over the border back in the Republic in Co Cavan, where I stopped to buy Cavan crystal glasses and a crystal bear. I had traversed Co Fermanagh and nothing had happened, but then most of the time nothing does happen. Nevertheless, there is always the apprehension that something may happen, even when you are sympathetic, as I have been, even siding with the Republican cause. Yet irrespective of my sympathies if it had been the IRA operatives who stopped me on the road, demanding to know my business – they would have, in all probability, enacted their version of Jedburgh justice – shoot me first, try me later.

But then there was a still small voice, which said, “pull yourself together, don’t be so dramatic, boyo, you’re not on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.”

Donald Trump’s Bizarre Obsession

In 2016, presidential candidate Trump challenged a critic, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London: “Let’s do an IQ test,” as if intelligence testing were a board game, or an arm wrestling match.

Lately, Trump has been tossing around his crazy epithet “low IQ,” as in “very low-IQ individual Robert De Niro” or “low-IQ Mika Brzezinski.” I wonder if anyone other than De Niro’s mother has ever fretted about her son’s being “mentally” challenged. He’s a great actor; does he need great board scores too?

Trump is not the first politician to ply these waters. In 1987, then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed out at a questioner, saying, “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Biden then proceeded to make Trumpian, i.e. false, claims about finishing in the top half of his law school class.

I suppose most people want to be thought of as intelligent, and we know Trump is manically insecure about almost everything. Anyone who has to boast that he is “really smart” and “a very stable genius” calls attention to his intellectual vulnerability.

Why? There’s no evidence that Trump is an idiot; indeed, quite the contrary. He’s obviously lazy, preferring the intellectual slurry of television to the written word. He may have suffered the expected mental erosion of a 72-year-old (Sic)*, but he’s not slow.

*Trump was born in 1946 and thus is 75.

This above extract from The Boston Globe was somewhat ruminative; it is as though one of the senior staff at The Boston Globe had a space to fill and wrote this piece, while at the same time reminding us of Biden’s mental frailty (a situation which has always troubled me).

The analysis of Trump reminds us of the fact that mental deterioration afflicts everybody to some degree, and whether IQ is a valid measurement or not when you age; it is still there to check some level of functioning. As such it may give some solace to Trump if he wanted to demonstrate his mental prowess.

Trump is such a narcissistic personality that I doubt that he would submit himself to an IQ test.  Even if he did and the test did not validate his boast, then he would say that those administering the test had falsified the results or stolen his brain or anything that came into the confabulating gap in his 75 year old cerebrum.

I did an online IQ test, finishing the 20 questions well within the allotted time. My score was 108.  So, I am just average Giacomo, but I do have visual perception in the top one per cent. That’s great because I can perceive the light at the end of the tunnel as that hooded chap with a sickle waving a lantern. The problem is that I am not smart enough to calculate the length of the tunnel.

Mouse Whisper

A Liverpool merchant called John Bellingham shot dead the UK Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the halls of the Houses of Parliament on 11 May 1812.  Bellingham was summarily executed a week later at Newgate Prison.

As written, after Perceval’s death, the Parliament made generous provisions for his widow and children and approved the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey.

Thereafter his ministry was soon forgotten, his policies reversed; there was no hand wringing by Parliamentarians and consequent acts of government to enhance security to further alienate their constituents by the erection of portcullises and attendance by armed guards. He was, after all, the Prime Minister when there was not a hungry security industry to feed and community fear to be cynically provoked.

As for us rodents, Mouseilini was the last of ours to be drowned in a vat of warfarin – or rather in a rat sack.

Modest Expectations – Calling the Cayman Islands

There are certain misuses of words, some of which make me shudder. I once wrote an essay abut the misuse of “disinterest”, frequently used wrongly to express “uninterest”, rather than used in its true meaning of being unbiassed. “Uninterest” admittedly is an ugly word.  “Disinterest” has bounced around in the English lexicon, at various stages indeed meaning lack of interest and, given the way the word is now being used, we are destined for another period of change in the meaning of disinterest back to a lack of interest. The transition of such a change in meaning may only generate uninterest if any disinterested observer can be bothered.

My word of the moment is “visitation”. I was reminded of the dubious use of the word by Dom, the new NSW Premier. From behind his glittering glasses, he announced that he would be making visitations. Now you and I are mere mortals and thus make visits. “Visitations” are somewhat different. I have never made a visitation. Why?

A visitation: The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary

“Visitation” was first defined in about 1300 (sic), “a visit by an ecclesiastical representative to examine the condition of a parish or abbey” It was derived from Anglo-French visitacioun, based on the Latin visitatio. The supernatural sense of “a sight, apparition, a coming of God to a mortal” arises the middle of the 14th century.

On second thoughts, given his proclivities, maybe it did mean “visitation”. The ghosts (or spirits) must conform to social distancing even though they’ve all been wearing masks for years.

Avoca Hotel

Now who would have thought it?

Avoca Hotel has been included in a pilot scheme on “opening up” Victoria for the fully vaccinated in the wake of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

My association with the pub started when I was rung up by my cousin and informed that Uncle Frank had died. It was the summer of ‘72. Frank, one of my mother’s seven brothers, had died and the funeral service would be at Redbank in Central Victoria. Would I like to join him and go to the funeral?

Redbank Cemetery

The service and burial would be at Redbank, near Avoca near the graveyard. Avoca was the main township in the then Pyrenees Shire, which was the only local government area in Victoria to have a mountain range to itself. That was not quite true because this line of hills was only a spur of the Great Dividing Range.

Frank lived in Avoca and on his small property in the township he kept a flock of sheep.  Since he needed to feed them, he used the Long Paddock which, in this context, was all the roadside vegetation across the Shire and beyond. As a consequence it was affectionately known – through gritted teeth – as Egan’s Paddock. So, we went first to Avoca to pay our respects to his widow, who was too frail to attend the service.

After his funeral, everybody stood around, every now and again peering into the grave, as if they wanted to make sure there was nobody knocking to get out. My cousin’s black humour; not mine. Someone said that it was good to see how many people had turned up for Frank’s funeral, because there wouldn’t be a funeral for 60 miles around that Frank would not have attended.

I remember his youngest brother, Charlie, turned up, with braces over his collarless shirt, looking as if he had just come from shearing sheep on the family property. Charlie said he had problems with his eyes. I did not connect that with why he hadn’t donned normal funeral clobber.

The yarning would have gone on endlessly if the fire bell hadn’t sounded. There was smoke over the hill, and anyway we close relatives wanted to get down to the Avoca pub for a drink. I had never met Uncle Frank, but his son-in-law, known as “Webbie” still touched me for a tenner so he could buy a slab of beer.

When I reflect on that, we were drinking at the pub, so why the extra booze?

There was a great deal of merriment remembering the Frankish eccentricities. Uncle Gordon, who was the eldest brother, a great bloke and a WW1 digger, distinguished himself by drinking one too many and slipping off the bar stool. Fortunately he was caught by us before he hit the floor.

That was my memory of the Avoca pub – the wake for Frank; and of course I never saw my tenner again.

Since that time the area has become well-known for its wines. I remember the first vintages including the brilliant Warrenmang red, with the peppermint taste.

As for the Avoca pub, it has gone a bit upmarket since that summer day so long ago when we buried Frank Egan and drank to his memory.

The Two-Edged Chief Health Officer Role

Continuing on a theme that I have maintained, but undoubtedly one that is difficult to put in place now that two States have been exhausted by the lockdowns – namely selected segregation … quarantine is another word for segregation; imprisonment is another.

It is noteworthy that of all the States, Queensland is building a custom-made quarantine facility at Toowoomba. Queensland has survived by imposing a series of mini-lockdowns, yet neither NSW nor Victoria has dedicated quarantine facilities. Victoria is ostensibly building one, but it has not got much media attention. Of course, NSW has done nothing.

The problem is that politicians are consumed by the short term, and their advisers only reinforce the views of their political masters. Increasingly health policy should be concerned with the preventative aspects of the burden of disease but as I have mentioned many times before, health language is a barrier for most, as is fluency in any language the older one gets. This virus pandemic is not the only public health problem – if not pandemic – that the community will be confronted with in the future.

One of the keystones of inhibiting the spread of disease is to enhance social distancing, and somebody ought to tell the world if there is a better way than segregation. Segregation demands disciplined structuring; hence adequate funding and staffing.

Like many services, where prevention is geared to an anticipated emergency such as police, ambulance and fire brigade, there is potentially substantial downtime. When I reviewed ambulance services some years ago, there was substantial (and, at that time, unproductive) downtime.  As a side but important issue, it is the duty of those responsible for downtime from attending emergencies to assure useful engagement of staff.

However, when downtime is translated as being in an hour long queue to discharge a patient for admission to hospital, that is only as profitable as the use of ambulance officers working as supernumerary carers can be construed. Deficiencies in the hospital admission process being covered up by using the ambulance as a ward on wheels is not the most profitable use of the ambulance service.

Staff in new dedicated quarantine facilities will face the same problem of integration into a wider public health service. Once there were infectious diseases hospitals, but with the rise of economic rationalist vandalism in the eighties and nineties, infectious disease hospitals were one casualty, even despite there being a concurrent AIDS pandemic.   Now the need for dedicated facilities indicates the rebirth of a public health service where care becomes an integral part of the health care system, rather than being reflected as a Greek chorus of epidemiologists where the patient is a scrap of data.

Unfortunately in Australia, for everybody with the merest public health experience and even – or especially – those without any formal training, commentary has become a free-for-all. It is just another of the consequences of the news cycle. People have shifted their position, and as the public health bureaucracy has been sucked into advocacy and prophecy, then it is not surprising that politicians have become irritated.

There is resentment in political circles towards the power accorded to chief health officers – not all, but where the chief health officers have garnered too much attention, albeit becoming cult figures. Generally, they have stuck around for too long – in the spotlight. As a model for balancing the science and the spotlight, Dr Paul Kelly appears to have demonstrated an appropriate mixture, where he chooses his appearance adroitly and leaves the less important public utterances to others. He makes sure that he is conservative in the true sense – of having to be convinced that the course advocated is well-founded to make the change. He stays away from daily pontification.

The Americans consider public health to be a uniformed service; and it is not uncommon to see the US Surgeon-General kitted out thus.

If I were Premier, having made a statement interpreting health policy and the opening up of the State, and a journalist then asked me, as occurred the other day: “What does Dr Chant think…”, I know what I would do. Not immediately, but don’t look now Dr Chant.

Queensland has sent its Chief Health Officer to be Governor, where she can be important without being important. It should be recognised inter alia that a whole Queensland strawberry crop was trashed in 2018 at the cost of $160m, where Dr Young’s advice played a prominent role. As one commentator noted recently on this situation, where needles were found in in strawberries at three sites: “However, in a way, it’s actually kind of quaint to be reminded that a public health scare with three reported instances led to a major national response while the largest COVID outbreak and death toll in the country is followed with talk of how soon we can get the pubs back open.”

There is talk of the Chief Health Officer’s power being curtailed in Victoria, being downgraded; and as for Dr Chant, I would be sure that a promotion awaits her – or her being absorbed as a consultant somewhere.

If the senior positions are downgraded the problem I see is that public health may suffer. Politicians very quickly forget the lessons of the past because in this world the uncertainty of the word “pandemic” has yet to be incorporated into personal ambition and the uncontrollable search for post-political recognition. Another dangerous pandemic.

Nevertheless, whether the power of the senior health officials is downgraded or not, the need for dedicated quarantine facilities or some other effective means of segregating the ill or potentially ill should not be allowed to slip off the policy agenda into a limbo of uninterest.

A Randomised Controlled Trial of One

Voltaran Osteo-Gel is the alias for diclofenac diethylamine – to be rubbed on affected joints 12 hourly. It is one of those potions that bobs up on the television screen where there she is, one moment limping in pain, then next soothingly rubbing the gel on her knee and then nossa running the City to Surf or part thereof. No longer the grimace, now wreathed in smiles with the obligatory male handbag running alongside her, a trail of blue and saffron gossamer dust in her wake.

I have osteoarthritis badly, and also polymyalgia rheumatica – and as such I am a randomised controlled trial of one – it doesn’t work for me this way. For years I have been in pain, sometimes agonising, and I assure the punters topical gels don’t work for my big joints.

However, small joints, particularly finger joints are a different matter. I have found when I get arthritic pain in these small joints, application of Voltaran works. The reason I have written this piece now is that I developed acute pain in my right little finger the other day, the hand with which I use the mouse.  So, I started to apply the Voltaran and the finger has improved, at least the pain has lessened and the functionality has improved.

I found a review of the efficacy of these gels in the BMJ which in part concluded:

… after excluding industry-funded/sponsored trials, only diclofenac patch was statistically superior to placebo for pain relief and none of the topical NSAIDs was better than placebo for functional improvement. This suggests that the efficacy of topical NSAIDs may be inflated by industry involvement. However, the limited number of remaining non-industry-funded/sponsored trials (only 12 trials for pain relief and 11 trials for functional improvement) may be too small to detect the difference, as these trials were small (ranging from 31 to 179 participants, median size 100). Further non-industry-funded/sponsored trials for topical NSAIDs are still needed, as this is a group of drugs with greater contextual effect than their oral counterparts and it is more difficult to blind participants in trials and hence very easy to inflate their treatment benefits over placebo.

Concentrating on my little finger, what objective evidence have I got for this gel helping. It may be just a self-limiting acute arthritis, part of the joys of having a chronic autoimmune disease. I have not had any trauma, because although I struck my hand on the balustrade which caused an ugly bruise on the back of my hand, my adjacent finger is not bruised.

My other fingers are fine, although at the outset of my encounter with PMR, I did develop a swollen middle finger on the same hand, which improved with application of the gel.

I suppose it could be gout, but no family history, and none of the drugs that I am taking predisposes to gout – well, not in the fine print paper that comes in the drug package.

This conceals a far bigger problem –

Namely the privileged place pharmacists have in our society. Having been for a time closely associated with the pharmacists for part of my professional life, I consider they are a very much the curate’s egg.

Pharmacists are, in the main, shopkeepers. Yet as result of a concerted effort to strengthen an academic basis for pharmacy from just a cohort of those working in hospitals and who believed that pharmacy had moved from apothecary status, learning in a university environment replaced the apprentice structure of the profession.

My year of medicine was the last year where we were taught materia medica – the fancy name for compounding pills, potions, unguenta and tonics. I always remember “extract of male fern” as the quaint talisman for this ancient art of sorcery. The next year, materia medica was replaced by “pharmacology”. This change encapsulated the change in the teaching of pharmacy students towards a firm evidential basis.

Yet while this expanded the academic profile of pharmacy, the cornerstone of pharmacy remained the shopfront. Pharmacists have been a protected species; I remember when Ipana toothpaste was only sold by pharmacists. Yet in those days pharmacies still sold cigarettes.

The advent of modern pharmacology, heralded by the development of antibiotics – a major influence – changed the whole face of therapy. Not that certain plant-derived substances, like digitalis, did not work; many of the other medicaments in the pharmacy operated on their placebo effect. This still holds true in so much of the goods being peddled these days, often with outrageous and erroneous claims. The vitamin industry is one such area where the legitimate role of these substances has been subverted into some magical beneficence, to say nothing of serious profits. What I find particularly objectionable is the advertisements depicting whole families, their shopping carts laden with an array of placebo, gaily trotting off to a world of drug habituation and advertisements promoting “chewy vitamins” for children, as if pill popping – or gummy chewing – should be a normal part of growing up.

The pernicious influence extends to the growth of addictive drugs, as witness the use of OxyContin and other similar drugs, another disgrace shared across the whole of the health professions. I believe the excesses of some of the community pharmacies should be trimmed, especially among the warehouse chains where professional ethics can seem very threadbare. Any claims about these arrays of so-called natural remedies should be evidence-based and not some exercise of necromancy, dressed up as beautiful young women.

The Pharmacy Guild has lobbied hard and successfully for the maintenance of their position in the community. The periodic Pharmacy Agreements between the Federal Government and the Guild in relation to reimbursement under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) have always been generous.

At the same time, community pharmacies have continued to sell all these peripheral placebos, as well as cosmetics, toys, sweets – in fact almost anything that can vaguely be associated with perceived wellbeing. Inevitably this has led to the growth of the pharmacy warehouse; and I wonder why the advertisements peddled by some of these outlets have not been curtailed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). But then organised pharmacy has strong buying power – particularly of political parties where the industry has been and remains a significant donor.

The community pharmacy, despite its lobbying power and probably over-privileged and over-subsidised place in the community, should not be underestimated as being perceived as the true community health centre for much of the community. The fact that there have been those in the Liberal Party who see them as outpost of the Party because of the innate business conservatism of many of the pharmacists should not be used to deny its important role in community health.

Another conservative force, the medical profession, is always paranoid when they perceive pharmacists creeping onto what the profession considers its territory. I always took a lead from my father who, even more than 60 years ago, had the pharmacy next door where he could pop in and get advice, where “out the back” he could discuss the appropriate course of action for patients with complex or difficult conditions. As my father and the pharmacist, Jim Beovich, demonstrated over many years, it was such a rich symbiotic relationship.

The community pharmacy’s involvement with the national vaccination program has been a success. Hence the apparent success of this public health intervention should be written up as evidence of what succeeds and what does not, so it can be incorporated into a policy framework which is not lost. So much corporate memory has been lost, as I can well attest, with the unnecessary need to re-invent the process because of the lack of corporate memory, a common and disastrous fault of modern bureaucracy.

Individual pharmacists are influential in their community. The community pays a price for the Pharmacy Guild’s easy access to that. What is important is to ensure that the methodology for setting prices being paid for prescription pharmaceuticals is transparent and not obfuscated so the community pays more than is reasonable.  Influence through lobbying for political gain is always an essential part of the curate’s egg’s yolk, no matter the standing of the profession, even at a time of beatification of the profession, which inevitably will occur with the success of the vaccination program. Just because the Gorgon, Big Pharma is standing behind you with an outrageous price schedule is no excuse for just passing it in without protest to us punters.

The musical instrument called “hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica”

I could not resist heading a piece with the longest name for any musical instrument currently being played somewhere in the world.

Playing the Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica

I am no muso. I remember someone mentioned that I could have made a bass if I had not been totally tone deaf. I tried playing the recorder as we all did; and even moved to the clarinet. Mercifully, this was a very small affliction on Australian ears.

Knowledge of this headline word had come from my being apprised of the town of Castelfidardo in Le Marche, one of the lesser known regions of Italy south of Emilio-Romagna on the Adriatic Coast.  Castelfildardo is a town where piano accordions are made and have been made since the beginning of the 19th century, whether in mahogany or maple. They also have dabbled in the manufacture of “armonice” of which the above longest word for a musical instrument – the glass harmonica – is a subset.

Now this is apparently the only reliable place in the world to get this instrument repaired, and it takes three months. Added to this the creatori di fisarmoniche are a dying breed because it is an Italian trait to take your skill to your grave without telling anybody. It does have an effect!

Years ago, I can remember the accordion was a common instrument and, in my youth, Lou Toppano was both its virtuoso and its public face within Australia with his TV appearances. Piano accordions were associated with various ethnic groups. Toppano tried to project the sophisticated sleekness of the Latin amante.  But the invariable characteristic was the smile, the smile when you had this lump of wood and metal weighing between 5 and 14 kilograms on your chest – and you were expected to play it! The accordion fell out of favour with rock n roll; it is said that the bass electric guitar was the instrument that often replaced the accordion in the band.

Somebody who I hold dear admitted she played it when she was young but said that if I wanted to shame her, I would not further identify her. Such a reaction shows how the accordion player has become somewhat of a caricature.

Thus, I was intrigued by an article in the Boston Globe by a young professional accordionist. By and large optimistic in tone, she nevertheless commented on how difficult it was to maintain the accordion in working condition, but she had been lucky to find a repairer in New Jersey.

She indicated in her article how specialised was repair of accordions, which would probably be a disincentive for those who found their grandparents’ accordion as a dusty relic. It is one of the most difficult instruments to play.

But if you think that playing the instrument is difficult, don’t step on it or throw it against the wall or fall over and be pinned by it. Here is an annotated repair requirement, according to the author of the article, with that unsurprising name of Madonna.

A job for Castelfidardo …

First is the know-how; second is spare parts such as keys, reed valves (usually leather strips), and metal rods; and third is tools, though most of these can’t be found at your average hardware store. Tools like a set of bellows to test reeds without having to put the whole instrument back together again; a setup to melt wax at a low enough temperature to set reeds without burning them; maintenance and tuning tools that look like what a dentist might use to scrape plaque off someone’s teeth; even a tray that indexes bass buttons (so there is no confusion of removal order). 

So, there you are – a trip through the Accordion Keys; intriguing when you realise that there had been the demise of an instrument that you never really missed – except that when the strolling accordion player, with the risus sardonicus, is headed for your restaurant table, you knew it was time for a toilet break.

Blue on Blue

Giuliano Cecchinelli is busy these days, as is everyone at Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans in Barre, Vt., one of about 20 manufacturers of headstones and other memorials in and near this city of 9,000, which styles itself the “granite center of the world.” 

The pandemic’s staggering death toll, now approaching 700,000 nationwide, is only part of the reason for the rising demand. It’s also driven by baby boomers who are looking ahead, ordering monuments, and deciding how they and their families will be commemorated after death, Gherardi said

The Boston Globe often has these little vignettes. What is it with the Italians and cemeteries? When I read this, I remember the bluestone quarry which, like all bluestone quarries, is memorable for just that – the blueness, especially when the first of these quarries that I ever saw was in Vermont, a closed quarry, the stone left there in all its sombre yet striking solitude, water slowly filling it up.

When I decided that my late parents should have some recognition and a High Celtic Cross was beyond my means and a tad over-the-top anyway – apart from which, I found those traditional grey monumental slabs so cold and depressing – I decided that I would place a bluestone rock as the headstone.

After all, if Victoria ever decided to have a State rock, it would surely be bluestone. My school was a bluestone pile, but it was only one of many buildings built in the latter part of the 19th century.  Other buildings used it for the foundations and for the many cobbled streets, lanes and alleyways were laid out in bluestone. This rock allows for water drainage and prevents the growth of weeds.

So, we went out to one of Italian stone masons whose sites dot the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne. The headstone we chose was a lump of bluestone rock, neither sculpted nor moulded in any way. Just a simple recognition of this stone which forms much of olivine basalt rock which covers the ancient volcanic Victorian plains, one of the biggest in the World. The prevalence of bluestone gives Victoria that image of a conservative sobriety with architecture distinguished by its blue-black stone buildings.

From the beginning of Melbourne, bluestone quarries were opened throughout what is now Melbourne suburbia. Most of these had closed well before I was born. Out of curiosity I eventually went to see one remaining bluestone quarry near Tylden in Central Victoria, I was impressed by the majestic slabs of blue rock, I suppose because it was so much a part of my life for 12 years from first grade.  Recent pictures are disappointing because the quarry no longer has that air of a familiar majesty, but now resembles just any open cut mine.

Nevertheless, what’s in a name? Victorian bluestone is completely different geologically from that of Vermont or indeed that of Eastern USA, which is basically a residue of glaciers namely schist, but not the basalt from an ancient volcanic origin. My eye being attracted to the article of Giuliano Cecchinelli only goes to show what a little vignette can do.

I’m still learning; and that is the real vignette.

Mouse Whisper

O trava-linguas

Eu

Não Quero

O Queijo

No meu Queixo                  … Que, zero?

 

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

When this blog was commenced 133 weeks ago, it was a different world. I didn’t expect that I would create a rod for my back by labelling each blog with a numerical connection to the name of the blog without being repetitive. When I started the blog, it was just by way of a scrapbook of ideas, and I was lucky to have a number of guest writers. They provided some leavening given that writing on a weekly basis is a serious business. One person caught in the middle of a pandemic with an irregular shuttered existence has a challenge to report usefully when the country’s leadership has been so uneven and where the principle of uncertainty has played into disturbance of the collective mind where the enemy is never “a tangible there” but “an intangible everywhere”.

I remember reading Erving Goffman on “Asylum” and “Stigma” when I was a young man. These books elaborated the concept of total institutions and the relationship between the inmates and those in supervisory positions of the inmates.

Goffman’s “total institutions” concept can be traced back to the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656 by Louis XIV. Once an arsenal, a rest home for war veterans, and several hospitals, the Hôpital Général served as a house of confinement for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, prisoners and the insane – those who sought assistance and those who were sent there by royal or judicial decree. In the space of several months, one out of every hundred inhabitants of Paris would find themselves confined in these institutions indiscriminately.

Australia is in various stages of lockdown; a euphemistic way of describing imprisonment–lite.

Goffman set out his rules for the game. How relevant are they to our current society after such a period of intermittent lockdowns?

Goffman’s inmate is subject to three rule sets. The first are “house rules”, which should be “relatively” explicit both prescriptively and proscriptively.

In exchange, secondly there are clearly defined rewards and privileges for obedience. Bound up with this system is the nature of release. The third element is the nature of punishment, when the rules are broken.

Does Goffman give any clue as to how the inmate should respond? No, he does not. His analysis of various responses to lockdown is well catalogued whether monastery or mental hospital. The concept of a prolonged imprisonment was not seen as the consequence when the Virus first appeared early last year. Then a selection of politicians from both sides of politics participated in light-hearted advertisements to encourage hand washing. It was as though it was similar to the mood at the outbreak of WW1 when the early prediction was of the conflict being over by Christmas 1914.

With imprisonment, the length of sentence is known; in the asylum, this is less certain, when translated to a whole community locked down.

In the early phase of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists and the anarchists, the libertarian-authoritarians and anti-vaxxers were yet to form their confederacy.  Rather it was the doomsayers. After initial hesitation, a strong advocacy time for improved hygiene, social distancing leading on to community isolation and, belatedly, masks  and hope improved the compliance of the community.

Unfortunately, Trump and the mad assortment of the above consolidated the COVID nonsense. It should not be forgotten that this activity was unconsciously aided and abetted by elements of the research community scrabbling for funding and prepared to participate in studies, on, for instance, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The race for a useful vaccine commenced. Over the previous 20 years, there had been much preliminary research on vaccines into these viruses, which was translated into an accelerated pathway for developing an effective vaccine. The nature of the coronavirus, with its chameleon quality, presented a problem, but the value of the previous work became clear with the mRNA vaccines demonstrating efficacy and able to have an accelerated introduction this year.

Last year showed the impressive use of the lockdown – but turning much of Australia into a prison until the Virus was apparently conquered. Unfortunately, the Virus changed into a more virulent form.

The Federal Government refused to develop dedicated quarantine facilities and if it were not from some robust medical advice, a nascent mixture of the above toxic creatures some of which already existed within the Parliament  exhibited the same Trumpian irresponsibility which plunged the World into the pandemic crisis.

The successful suppression of the Virus lulled Australia into a period of self-satisfaction, not recognising that armistice is necessarily unconditional surrender.

The problem has been that, despite enhanced vaccination, the second wave lockdown in NSW has not been as effective once the Delta variant got into the community. The delay in Berejiklian’s response let the Virus loose. It reached Victoria before any lockdown measures were in place. Even the swift lockdown there was insufficient, and the lack of compliance in Victoria has been poor in traditional working class areas, when the Federal government failed to restore sufficient income support to offset not being able to go to work.

“House rules” had not been explicitly stated to the effect that, if the virus appeared again, you, the community would be imprisoned again even when you had been granted both the privileges of vaccination and some income support. The first round had generated sufficient anger, assuaged by Job Keeper and Job Seeker; a second lockdown term in both NSW and Victoria (and the ACT) was not brief, there was little income support and the severity of the lockdown varied according to the particular whim of the government.

However, this lockdown has been resisted by a group of “ex-prisoners” who have set up an urban guerrilla operation designed not only to burn down “the prison” but also to institute a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution. The State has no way of collecting these guerrillas who have become carriers of the virus, the frontline shock troops for the Virus, except by reacting to the rioters. The more strident they become the more the resentment builds up in the rest of the community, made worse because of no improvement. At the same time, the Murdoch media has inflamed the situation by encouraging this resentment without advocating a solution.

Is there one?

In the post WWII community, democracies have paradoxically increased the number incarcerated. Now, what about the vaccine refuseniks and those infected. Prisons are acceptable for the first, but what of the second? Bespoke quarantine arrangements – infectious diseases sanitoria – all linked to a healthy outcome, may be acceptable. But for God’s sake, do not use the words “lock hospitals” or “concentration camps”.

However, all such facilities must have a degree of humanity; but all imply selective isolation.  Our society will have to develop a system of temporary standardised isolation facilities, where those infected are well treated but there is suitable surveillance. Otherwise, as has been shown, this, and future viruses, will spread like wildfire, vaccination or not such facilities need to be integrated into the health system.

Opening up the community becomes a meaningless term while a significant group in the community remains defiant, refusing vaccination, and in fact enhancing the pandemic, replete with the images once invoked by Erving Goffman.  

A small endeavour 

This is the story about how the pandemic has disrupted a small program in Malawi – but first, the background.

Mustapha drove us in the Toyota Land Cruiser from Majete, in the south of Malawi, to Pumulani on Lake Malawi.  It took seven hours, during which time we left the wildlife reserve for a front row seat of rural Malawi and then, contrasting that view, with that of the commercial hub of Blantyre with its profusion of modern buildings, cars and men in suits and ties. Blantyre is the toilet break stopover. Even the posh hotel does not have sufficient toilet paper and the spare toilet paper had been left in the truck. To paraphrase the saying about chooks: “don’t count your rolls until they are attached”.

Mustapha is a Sunni Moslem. He prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and his food is halal. He is a ranger at the wildlife reserve and lives three hours away in a village where he goes home for four days a month. Home is a two-room brick house with separate cooking and washing facilities. In the language of the Chichewa people, he is bambo; his wife mai and they have two ana – one is four years; the other, a ten month old baby. Both are boys.

Most of the rangers are Christian; his village is mixed, like his workplace.  This is reflected in the countryside through which we pass, where church and mosque co-exist in the one village. The Muslim influence spread from the north under Arab influence and there are concentrations of Muslims along the Lake. However, Malawians are predominantly Christian.

The camp we have left lies on the Shire River, which we cross twice more on our trip across Malawi. The riverbank is lined by elephant grass but behind this natural stockade are cultivated rows of corn and squares of green vegetable garden – maize, beans, tomato plants, sweet potatoes and onions are common crops – the abundance of these vegetables is evident in the markets of the various townships we pass through.

Outside Blantyre, rural Malawi is people walking – women and children, water containers or packages on their heads; children in brightly coloured uniforms straggling home from school.  Rural Malawi is also oxcarts being driven and bicycles, mostly ridden by men. Bicycles are loaded down with charcoal or straw-coloured thatching grass or wooden staves. Bags of charcoals standing like sentinels abut the road, ready for sale. Stooks of thatching grass also line the roadside for sale.

Police roadblocks are everywhere, but only once are we asked where we are going.

As we go further north and towards the central Malawi plain the country becomes drier. Baobab trees appear in profusion. Flashes of yellow, red and pink signify the profusion of bougainvillea. It vaguely resembles the Australian Kimberley with the rocky outcrops, the red earth and vegetation dominated by acacia interspersed by villages with signature mango trees. Here lies the difference between this part of Malawi and the Kimberley.

The Kimberley is sparsely populated, unlike Malawi where the villages tumble against one another so that walking between villages is feasible. So much of the traffic is pedestrian, despite two large buses destined for Lilongwe passing us at a breakneck speed. There are minibuses and mitolos clustered in the larger townships overloading themselves with people and goods. We pass a bicycle, one of many, a youth hunched over the handlebars. The message on his violet T-shirt is memorable: “Jesus is my hero.”

Surprisingly at no stage have we seen evidence of the major cash crop of Malawi, tobacco. Hereby hangs another dilemma that Malawi faces. Malawi is recognised as the source of superior tobacco. Yet increasingly in the Western world tobacco is a pariah crop. World opinion is closing in on tobacco usage because of its undeniable link with cancer and a host of other diseases.  It is a matter which cannot be swept as cigarette ash under the carpet of government inertia worldwide.

We reach our destination after seven hours. Lake Malawi extends for 500 kilometres and we’re at the southern end. It looks like a giant sea and it is little wonder that the early Australian explorers, aware of what was happening in Africa, searched for an inland sea. In parts the Lake is 400 m deep and 52 km wide. The Shire River is the only river that flows out of Lake Malawi, joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The Lake extends north to the Tanzanian border; and a small part lies within the Mozambican border. This is the Southern end of the Great Rift Valley, where the tectonic plates are inching apart. The Great Rift Valley runs from Mozambique, through the Lake, to Tanzania, where it splits into two.

The Eastern flank runs through Kenya and the West through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, before joining again in Ethiopia, running into and along the Red Sea, turning northward to end in the far reaches of Syria. I cannot help thinking that the Great Rift Valley is a metaphor for Africa – a tectonic plate moving its 48 component countries apart. Perhaps the metaphor is too cute and exaggerated, but it is surprising nobody seems to have traversed these jagged faults to find, in documentary terms, the “Real Africa” to see how long the rift really is. Michael Palin has crisscrossed the world; Stephen Fry has landed glancing blows in encompassing the 50 states of America; and David Attenborough has “terrorised” the fauna in his “pan-world”exploration of why and who and what we are.

Life is tranquil – so different from the above intrepid world travellers. The only excitement is the female baboon bounding towards me across the patio and seizing my morning tea biscuits. One into the mouth; and knowing that she has the advantage of surprise, seizing a second. The plate clatters onto the tiles and breaks into pieces. She has gone, chased by the staff.

I sit as a speck on the edge of this enormous freshwater pond. We are eating fish – the chambo – a white-fleshed, elegant tasting fish – drawn from the lake. We sailed around in a dhow and watched the fish eagles circling and the silent men in their canoes, each searching for fish. We sailed past a pod of hippopotami lounging just off the shoreline. A ribbon of villages lines the beach. They could be on a desert island. Except that when the dhow heads back to shore there is this rocky escarpment so reminiscent of north-west Australia.

But there is another facet of the camp where we are staying. They are acting as protection for a dozen albino children living in the nearby villages – the eldest being 18. Albinos are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, slaughtered, and dismembered for their body parts. The superstition in several East African countries that possession of albino remains will provide luck is a grotesque reflection on our human condition; and in the last two years before we went 18 children had been reported killed in Malawi. The real number? Who knows! Family members have been known to be complicit in such barbarity.

We rightly worry about rhinoceros being killed for a lump of inert keratin; we should also express our abhorrence of this human trade for what – a person with a congenital lack of melanin pigment.

There are practical requirements for albinos living in this part of Africa, beside expressing outrage – sunscreen, UV protective clothing, sun hats, sunglasses – and there is a need for eye testing facilities.

The camp where we stayed had set up a project to support albino children in three local villages; this involved their staff and also donations from guests from time to time.  Easy to just hand over some notes and move on, however we decided to become involved in the longer term by providing bulk supplies of sunscreen and sun protective gear that was not easy to obtain in Malawi and other East African countries. However, that plan struck a snag early on – the cost of getting a large amount of sunscreen from Australia to Malawi was prohibitive – $40 to post just one litre and more than three months on the road! A different solution was needed and no assistance was forthcoming from courier companies.

For a number of years one of us had been going to Africa each year so instead of sending supplies, I took packages with me – with more than 50 kgs of sunscreen and 50 pairs of sunglasses.  This was still cheaper for me to take it and pay for a return flight from Johannesburg to Malawi (including a night in Lilongwe) than to freight the stuff from Australia! I would give it to a contact in Malawi who delivered it to the camp from where it was then distributed. Customs in Malawi were bemused by the exercise, seemingly concerned I was planning to set up shop there and long discussions were usually involved with the customs officers about the exercise.

However, COVID put paid to those plans. By the time I can get another large supply to Malawi it will likely be three to four years since the last delivery without outside assistance, just one of the many impacts of COVID on African people. The health devastation wrought by COVID upon African countries and the lack of vaccines for all but a small percentage of the population makes me so sad, given for someone like myself who loves southern Africa and its people.  For the many local people who have relied on tourism for their livelihoods, the sudden and extended cessation of travel to African countries has left many struggling to survive.

Affluent western countries may now be opening up for travel but the acute shortage of COVID vaccines across Africa means day to day living as well as tourism will not return to anything like normal for years.

Armenians in Ireland

I was intrigued when seeing the Armenian Cross, the so-call khachkar, which are still being constructed in that country. I thought how much these khachkars resembled the Celtic cross, particularly the high crosses. Apparently there were Armenian monks in Ireland in around the 8th century, refugees from Islam. The two High Crosses, one at Durrow in Co Offaly and the other at Muiredach in Co Lough are suggestive of the traditional Armenian khachkars.

Ruins of Rahan Church

The one at Durrow is close to the village of Rahan, where there was a monastery dating from the 5th century. The first monastery was established in the 5th century BCE and then extended 100 years later by St Carthage. The site consists of two churches and the ruin of a mediaeval tower house, and therefore existed four centuries before the Armenians are said to have come.

The Armenians may have been housed in the monastery. The Armenian churches have pointed domes to mimic the cone of Mt Ararat, and high vaulting with the height of the church matching the length of the church. There is enough remaining of the Rahan church to strongly hint at the association. The stonework and pitched roof line resemble that of contemporary 9th century surviving Armenian architecture. The other association which may have relevance is that it is known Charlemagne used Armenians as his architects.

However, so much is lost in speculation as the dots joining them have been pulverised in the passage of unrecorded time.

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

What is going on in Australian politics in terms of corruption is as old as the First Fleet. Gary Sturgess, while Director-General of the Premier’s Office, was once the genius behind Nick Greiner who, as Premier, introduced the Bill creating the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) when Premier in 1988 (sic):

In recent years, in New South Wales we have seen: a Minister of the Crown gaoled for bribery; an inquiry into a second, and indeed a third, former Minister for alleged corruption; the former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate gaoled for perverting the course of justice; a former Commissioner of Police in the courts on a criminal charge; the former Deputy Commissioner of Police charged with bribery; a series of investigations and court cases involving judicial figures including a High Court Judge; and a disturbing number of dismissals, retirements and convictions of senior police officers for offences involving corrupt conduct… No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in New South Wales.

The charge sheet Greiner listed was long.  Later, Greiner was himself a casualty, when supporting one of his Ministers. These actions were referred to the newly-formed ICAC and he resigned when the four independent parliamentarians would not support him.  He was replaced by John Fahey.

What sticks in the craw is the outrage that this Government body, which has done its homework obviously painstakingly and interviewed the former Premier, should be pilloried. The former Premier knows that the game is up, because if ICAC had got it wrong, well somebody as well-versed as her would have invoked the “force field” with anecdotes of the poor little migrant, who has triumphed against the odds.

The concealment of the Deal, which the politicians want to shovel under the carpet, using privacy as the cleaning agent, was not helped by the ambivalent response from Mark Dreyfus. He, the Shadow Federal Attorney-General on one hand indicated that an incoming Labor government would introduce a meaningful ICAC. Yet on the other hand he had the qualification suggesting that there should be more secrecy to enshroud the preliminary investigation, aka “wriggle room”, which suggests that there are a number of sidelong glances towards certain colleagues, given the Labor Party itself is not “squeaky clean”.

Yet recently I received in the mail one of those unsolicited letters sent to his “million closest friends” from Albanese. The letter announced in bold that “An Albanese Labor Government will establish a powerful transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.” There was no detail, but it seemed more robust than the utterance of Dreyfus. One favourable Dreyfus action was that unlike some of his other Labor colleagues, he did not fall for the trap of effusively praising a disgraced departing Premier.

I suspect Berejiklian has no other life apart from politics; she was coddled by the media, unlike Julia Gillard. It should be remembered that Niki Savva conducted a relentless war against Gillard in the media, with that deadly efficiency women have when they want to bring down another woman. Berejiklian had none of that criticism; she “ascended” to the top unlike the messy way Gillard did.

The requirement for a National ICAC will be advanced if the next election produces a raft of intelligent independents not bound to the mindless obedience that the factional system of both parties imposes. The need for robust debate should be freed from those politicians, often influential, who have been compromised, as has been clearly shown by this Federal Government’s record of thinly-veiled corruption.

Has somebody lost the lock on the Pandora’s Box?

Pandora with her box

It seems that there is a virus of resignation sweeping the NSW Parliament. The one thing I admired in John Barilaro’s resignation was his refusal to criticise ICAC, because the reasons for his resignation are still unclear.

His comment was most unlike that of his Federal National leader, Barnaby Joyce who has likened ICAC to the Spanish Inquisition. I am surprised that Barnaby believes ICAC is thus run by Dominicans obsessed with Jewish and Muslim apostasy.  The Spanish connection on the other hand seems to have formed an important part of Mr Perrottet’s life through his membership of Opus Dei, which was the brainchild of Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest with close links to Franco’s rule. Therefore, if one believes Joyce, Dominic Perrottet with his Spanish connection should be a strong supporter of ICAC.

And you think I’m being ironic!

As well, for those interested in what happens to seats vacated by NSW Premiers requiring a by-election, the Liberals should remember when they picked up Premier Wran’s seat of Bass Hill in 1986. Narrow victory it may have been, but there was a 22 per cent swing. Yet the Labor Party does not seem to have the appetite for such a course in relation to Gladys’ seat; but nevertheless the Liberal Party should call a by-election as soon as possible to stymie any independent candidature.

Now NSW is faced with a trifecta of by-elections, and the more politicians protest about an organisation dedicated to rooting out corruption, the more they lose whatever shred of trust remains within the community,

Yet Jesuit-trained Barnaby can’t shut up. His antics remind me of that old joke (and here I am indebted to The Guardian) about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian gospel and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.

The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.

Really, you don’t say, Barnaby was taught by the Jesuits. Perhaps he only heard the words, “light” and “fuse” – and made the wrong connection.

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, if you enjoy the spookier things in life. There are more than a few scary tales on our October roster, including Edith Wharton’s own selection of her best ghost stories, a new paperback of the Edward Gorey-illustrated edition of the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, and another selection of supernatural stories from our friends at Notting Hill Editions. Below you’ll find some fun, spine-tingling readings, as well as a peek inside the latest title in the New York Review Comics series and a little bit of the story behind the cover of Mr. Beethoven, Paul Griffiths’s inventive novel about the eponymous composer.

If you are a local or visiting New York City this weekend, consider coming by the NYRB booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be at booth 12 for Children’s Day on Saturday, October 2, and at booth 405 and 406 for the Main Day on Sunday, October 3. We will be selling books and, on the Main Day, giving copies of The New York Review of Books away. We would love to see you there. 

— An email received from the New York Review of Books.

Sorry.  Hope to see you next year; but thanks for the invitation. Saturday and Sunday were a bit cloudy, otherwise the weather in this past week has been a bit variable – rain and all, but New York is New York, Virus or Not!

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

If the reply is no, you, the investigative journalist should then approach his brother who is Dean of Warrane College and ask what is its policy in relation to the wearing of the cilice.

I would be mortified if any of you, the fourth estate, dared to ask, but may do so; but Morrison is not a valid reply.

Mouse Whisper

It is acceptable for the political leader to stand before his or her constituency to make a sweeping gesture and say “I have a vision for the country…”

Often it would be more truthful if the same political leader would rather have said, “I have a hallucination for the country…”

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…

Modest Expectation – Hiroshi Mikitani

I was sitting at the table writing. It was about midnight. No, the candle was not guttering in the fireplace, nor were the shadows sending their long indigo fingers across the room towards me.

And then there was this almighty crash against the window. Looking around the cause was not immediately obvious; however, there she was, crouched on the top of the bars on the window outside just below the curved head jamb – this tiny ringtail possum. She was peering in. This jill has been a frequent nocturnal visitor and generally likes to perch on the balcony rail, but tonight she had been attracted by the light. There are no food scraps left out nor is there a grease trap. However, there is large clump of bamboo below the balcony, and thus there must be a feast of insects in the bamboo, including cockroaches. Cockroaches infest the suburb where we live, and if this adopted Jill as she is called, can contain them, well Jill you can crash into the window any time, as long as you don’t bring a Passel, and break the pane.

Anyway, we now know when she arrives…

Just like John Elliot 

The late John Elliot and I were contemporaries at the University of Melbourne, but he did commerce and played billiards; I did medicine and played politics. I can’t remember him; he was younger than I was.

Our paths crossed in the seventies; sometimes amicably; sometimes less so as he went on his merry way building his Empire and meddling in politics.

One encounter sticks in my mind. It was about 1980, and he had been a guest speaker at an Australian Institute of Political Science Summer School.

We happened to be walking back from one of the sessions, or maybe after his speech.

He turned to me suddenly and said, “You know, Jack, the difference between you and me? I’m a success and you’re not. “

What could I say? At that point of time, these two specks trudging through the Universe, he was probably right then. Not sure that was necessarily so later, until he butted his last fag, and trudged further on from me up to that Jam Factory in the sky.

It’s a funny thing. He was lucky not to be gaoled. Yet, I really didn’t mind Elliot. A friend of mine thought of him as charismatic despite his fondness for ordering culo di maiale with his Fosters. Increasingly transmogrified into a latter-day Mr Punch, he was a creature of our time, not of this time.

Known for Potatoes and not Necessarily those in the Ground

Idaho is one of many states where GOP lawmakers have responded to early-pandemic restrictions with moves to limit public health powers, arguing that the measures paved the way for alarming incursions on people’s rights. A state law passed this March gave county leaders veto power over some orders from health boards — like the mask mandate that drew fury and demonstrations in Ada County last year. 

Former Ada County commissioner Diana Lachiondo (D) said she was used to “working quietly in the background” as a member of the region’s Central District Health Board. They monitored West Nile virus and made sure toxic algae blooms didn’t grow in lakes. Then, she said, the pandemic made public health explosively political.

Opponents of mask mandates showed up outside her home with air horns and audio clips from the movie “Scarface,” in which actor Al Pacino famously says, “say hello to my little friend”, as he uses a grenade launcher and fires a barrage from an assault rifle. At least one person was armed – from The Washington Post. 

In explanation, Ada County is located in the southwestern part of the U.S. state of Idaho. As of the 2010 United States Census, the county had a population of 392,365,  making it the state’s most populous county, with 23.3% of the state’s 2010 population. In this county, its seat and largest city is Boise, which is also the State capital. -Wikipedia

When I was undertaking the Rural Stocktake for the Commonwealth Department of Health, I visited WWAMI which were medical schools, organised under the rubric of “rural”. The University of Washington, including the main medical school, is highly rated. To get that statement into some perspective, the University of Washington is ranked 16th in the world and third among U.S. public universities according to 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities.

At that time this University ran the Medical School for Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, in addition to Washington, hence the acronym. Given these states have sparse populations there was an avowed intention for them to concentrate on rural health. The problem, as I found out later, is that educating well-trained doctors in rural areas just makes them attractive to city hospitals looking to recruit skilled young health professionals. This hardly solves the dearth of these professionals in rural areas.

Sandpoint, Idaho

However during my visit, which started out in the very urban coastal Seattle, I ended up seeing some parts of Idaho. It is a state which gets very little attention unless one skis or enjoys the “amenities-rich” areas of the northern part of Idaho extending up to the Canadian border. The town I visited, which exhibited this “amenities rich” profile, was Sandpoint.

The doctors here were well served by students from the University whom they taught. It was a great environment for those wanting a conventional conservative community framed by ski slopes and mountain trails. Nevertheless, it was prosperous and undeniably rural with a population of just under 9,000 and intensely conservative.

There is a division between the northern part where the picturesque forested area is; what one expects of the Pacific North-West.  The southern portion, essentially altiplano and much drier, is where the capital Boise is located. The transition from north to south seemed to be Coeur d’Alene, a large undistinguished town, where I visited an Indian community medical service. I use an ordinary general practice as a yardstick for effectiveness. I grew up in an era of busy general practices and even though I never practised as a general practitioner, I did many locums, including for my father. Later I was associated with many rural general practices in establishing rural intern training. There were very few indigenous medical services which measured up to that yardstick, and a casual view of that one at Coeur d’Alene then would have needed a longer visit, given I visited when there seemed not to be many patients.

The amount of money allocated between Washington and Idaho was starkly demonstrated when I visited the two WWAMI campuses. It was clear that Washington State puts far more resources into education than does Idaho. Buildings, staff, programs – adjoining but so different.  They are in Pullman in Washington and Moscow in Idaho- only the border separates these two campuses.

Boise at that time was a small city, like so many of the state capitals. Unlike Sandpoint, which is at a forested 639m, Boise is on the altiplano at 832 m. So different in rainfall. At that time over 20 years ago, the guys I had lunch with were already talking about Boise becoming the new Silicon Valley; but it took almost the intervening time till now for the concept to stir into reality.  Nevertheless, from a business point of view, Idaho is on the move. On the basis of cumulative GDP and domestic migration plus non-farm employment growth, Idaho ranks 8th in the nation, and yet it lags badly in social expenditure, including that spent on public health.

This has been brought into relief by the COVID-19 crisis. Here is a State still rooted emotionally in a conservative agricultural and mining past of rugged individualism, yet paradoxically dependent on neighbouring Washington State to soak up those that it cannot treat because of the lack of health facilities.

I visited Spokane from where a member of the WWAMI faculty, who accompanied me around Idaho, was based. Spokane is a city of 230,000 in Eastern Washington, only 29 km from the Idaho border and 55 kms from Coeur d’Alene.

Spokane county itself is 53 per cent fully vaccinated (overall 63% Washington State) and across the border the corresponding Idaho county is 39 per cent fully vaccinated (overall 45% Idaho).

The current death rate from COVID-19 in Spokane County is far higher than anywhere else in Washington, being 5 a day based on a 7-day average. Spokane is bearing much of the Idaho caseload. In other words, Washington, where outdoor masking is mandatory, is having to treat the consequences of a State that discourages vaccination, masking, social distancing.  The problem is the area incorporating both States is uniform geographically and unsurprisingly attracted the same people with whom each hence shares much of the cultural heritage and attitudes. The only difference is how each State is coping with the Virus.

The Palouse

Individualism and pig-headedness are cut from the same cloth. As we drove back from Boise, we crossed the fertile Palouse, wheatlands where the differentiation between the two States was lost. I always thought that education with dispersal of the health knowledge capital into such areas would produce a more rational view of health. Yet Idaho still ranks 37th and Washington 14th in public health measures; but does that apply where the WWAMI campuses intersect at Pullman and Moscow?

In terms of its economic development Idaho is said to be a progressive state. But COVID-19 has questioned its worth, given the macabre report that so great have been the Idaho COVID-19 related deaths lately that the funeral homes are running out of space, being forced to hire mobile morgue facilities and admitting that cremations are running two weeks behind schedule. As the deaths are among the unvaccinated, someone opined darkly that no further government action in this State – where the Lieutenant Governor, Janice K. McGeachin wants to ban mask wearing – may be needed.

Yes, reinforcing the report at the head of this piece, Idaho is the State where some joker threatened to kill the doctor if he did not treat his father with ivermectin for his COVID-19. Is it really the Gem State?

And by the way, it does say something about border closures.

Plat de jour – Tehan-boned stake

While France’s military is dwarfed by that of the United States or China, it remains one of the world’s strongest and is backed by a world-class domestic military industry.

With 5,000-7,000 soldiers in the Pacific region, 20-40 military aircraft, and seven naval ships, France is the only European nation with genuine military strength in the region. The French air force has also carried out exercises deploying Rafale fighters from France, halfway across the world, to the Pacific as a show of strength.

France also has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, giving it a measure of hard power around the world. But for the great power that France once was, it is sometimes just not enough.

“The decline of France is a theme that emerges often, especially during electoral periods, and is popular among the right and far right. It’s the idea that France used to be extremely powerful and influential, and that the France of today is insignificant and contemptible. It’s obviously a narrative that can be questioned for a number of reasons.”

This is a very sober analysis. Having been against the intrusion by the French into the South Pacific with their nuclear testing program in the 1990’s, I worked to try and improve the co-operation throughout the South Pacific between the public health services. This cooperation was also forthcoming in relation to the nuclear testing.

Understandably, at that time there was complete silence shown by the Francophone area. Nevertheless, the problem went away, with the French buckling and ceasing nuclear testing. Language differences remain one of the difficulties, but even at that time the South Pacific Commission, as it was then called, was based in New Caledonia and the recently-appointed Director General at that time was an Australian. This situation is currently ironically the same, with another Australian now heading up the now South Pacific Community – another time of crisis.

When I headed the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Physicians (AFPHM) as President for three years, I made a point of visiting New Zealand at least twice a year, and with the assistance of the then Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs from 1993 to 1996 was developing a strategy for public health in the South Pacific. My last act, despite my prominent anti-nuclear testing stance, was a meeting in New Caledonia of the then Commission. It was supposed to herald further co-operation.

Unfortunately, two things changed, the Labor Party was voted out. Bilney lost his seat – and the interest from the incoming Government was zilch -and it was also near the end of my fixed term in office. My successor showed no interest in pursuing the matter. He had achieved his standing by being an expert on the anatomy of the rat brain – says it all really.

French nuclear testing, Bikini Atoll

The French could have been interested and it is important if you want to meaningly communicate with the French to speak the language and know more about them, apart from their cuisine. In the original makeup of the South Pacific Commission, both Great Britain and the Netherlands were members, but they relinquished their seats with the loss of colonies (the Brits did a “Melba” but that was short-lived). However, the French have held onto New Caledonia, the Wallis & Futuna Islands and French Polynesia, and maintained a strong presence. They reluctantly agreed to the creation of Vanuatu in 1980 out of that strange condominium arrangement with Great Britain then called New Hebrides.

There are 26 members of the community incorporating Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. So, although its title is “South Pacific Community,” the Micronesian nation members are in the Northern Pacific.

And when Pitcairn Island is incorporated, then the members are guardians over great amounts of the Pacific Ocean.

Thus, the recent clumsiness of Australia has yet to be worked through. I wonder if Morrison even knows we have Our Man in Noumea. Yet I’m sure Morrison would be having regular conversations with His Man in the OECD. At least Corman speaks French fluently – I do not know about the new Australian Ambassador to the OECD, Brendan Pearson, or whether he speaks fluent French.

Morrison has managed to tie himself up in a number of showboats, because of his desire to hold a megaphone. One of the latest, the QUAD– where the quid pro quad is not immediately evident – hope it won’t end up in a Quad wrangle. Now, it’s AUKUS (if you introduced Canada, it would be CAUKUS and Russia, it would RAUKUS). I also thought Mirage was only a fighter airplane; not a nuclear submarine fleet.

Now the South Pacific Community is one of the only landlines with a French connection left to Morrison. Here there is a common interest, protection of the Pacific Ocean in all aspects for all the nations within the South Pacific Community. Who knows how valuable they will be in the future?

Before WW11 the Japanese had sampans all over the South Pacific, doing a bit of pillaging, fishing and gathering intelligence. The Chinese now have what are euphemistically called “fishing boats” roaming all over the Pacific, doing much the same but in a more sophisticated way. As with Afghanistan and Iraq, we are being dragged away from our base. It is not the South China Sea where our interests lie. There is great deal of ocean for the Community to patrol, let alone the waters of China. At least the French have naval bases in New Caledonia and Tahiti if justification for their interest in the Pacific was needed.

Then, with all this breathless collection of acronyms that Morrison has brought back in his Gladstone bag, why snub New Zealand? After all, New Zealand more than Australia shares a heritage with Polynesia and the South Pacific. Wait a minute, there is another alliance where New Zealand does have a monocle in common with us – Five Eyes. Is that a true sharing arrangement?

Five Eyes

But then the cold sixth eye – that of Dawn comes. Australia wakes in a sea of acronyms triumphant, but for what purpose?

At dawn, China remains our major export market (42%) followed by Japan (13%) then the South Koreans (7%), USA (5.5%) and UK and Singapore (4% each) India and New Zealand (3% each). France ranks 22nd; not Asterix but not that much, predominantly coal.

Now didn’t Paul Keating question the Australian policy of cutting off our noses…

So which of our alliances incorporates China? Or do we have a Backdoor Alliance somewhere, maybe CAOZ?

I would get confused if I did not know Morrison was a marketing man, and the author of “Where the Bloody Hell are You?” Perhaps you can answer that, Prime Minister. You know you never ask a question without knowing the answer.

The Fragrance of France

I still cannot let go of our crass behaviour in regard to French sensitivity, even though I personally am very ambivalent about the French. That ambivalence is encased in some of my poetry, but I do love my memories.

Vanilla flower

Coming out of that reverie, I have to say I have journeyed across French Polynesia, as well as visiting, with a dose of malaria, one of the French Indian Ocean Département, Réunion, where grows much of the vanilla, ylang-ylang and vetiver, and also has produced a French Prime Minister, Raymond Barre. There is a French naval base there and last year France and India held sea exercises around the Mascarene Islands.

Turning to the South Pacific Ocean, before Bali became the Australian tourist destination de choix, New Caledonia and Tahiti were popular with Australians. This was not because of a love of the Melanesian and Polynesian populations necessarily, but it was a taste of French life in the South Pacific. The lure of Club Med was everywhere. That is the problem. The island population are the backdrop, only incorporated as far as women in shimmying in grass skirts and smiling faces proffering coconut or some other tropical delicacy, or booze.

The myth of the South Pacific was embodied in a popular musical “South Pacific”, based on the American, JM Mitchener’s novel, Bali Ha’i. The French colonies escaped the barbarity of the War in the South Pacific, it was nevertheless very important to the Americans. Australia was in French Polynesia in the espionage business there when there had been a battle for control between Vichy and Gaullist forces and particularly before the Americans arrived in 1942 and took over control.

During WWII, the American presence in the French Pacific was significant. Noumea was the main US base with 22,000 troops, but it had air bases at Efate and Espiritu Santo in the then New Hebrides where there were 4,300 stationed.  There were 2,600 on Wallis Island, and 4,000 at a refuelling base at Bora Bora and the Raiatea meteorological station in French Polynesia. An uninhabited French possession, Clipperton, served as a meteorological and radio base.

It has been said that the American interlude enhanced the way the French handled these areas post-war as distinct from Vietnam or North Africa. The French were poor colonists in terms of their treatment of the indigenous people, and if one discounts Corsica, the only other remaining overseas territories are in the Caribbean and, uneasily, French Guiana. The French hate giving up their overseas possessions as witnessed by the difficulty in the achievement of Vanuatu’s independence, which only occurred because of the unique condominium relationship with Great Britain; this is worthy of a standalone blog.

When I first visited New Caledonia and sought to buy an artefact which typified the culture, the shopkeeper laughed and said the genuine old stuff had all been taken by the Americans during the War – and then in Noumea, the indigenous people were backdrops to colonial French life.

Fortunately, I have been acquainted, through the diaries of a young man who worked on the island of Eromanga in the 30s, of the New Hebrides, then  jointly administered by the French and British. His diaries provided a tantalising insight.

In Vanuatu where I stayed with my friend on his island off Efate in the lagoon, there was more contact with the local indigenous people.

While staying there, we did fly to Tanna. Standing on the edge of an active volcano Yasur on that island was one of those experiences that is hard to forget – no railings, just the hot lava spurting out and upwards  – the trade winds blowing the sulphurous smoke away.

Yet the Americans left a quasi-spiritual legacy in the John Frum movement, but this nation in all its diversity exemplifies the challenge the whole of Melanesia presents, whether being colonised by France, Great Britain and in the past Germany and The Netherlands – and not forgetting now Indonesia.

French Polynesia is where I did have direct contact with the local people when in the Marquesas far out on the edge of French Polynesia. Perhaps of all the places I have ever visited in the South Pacific, this is where I became more immersed and able to observe the interaction between the French colonists and the Islanders. It is said that the Marquesans are the closest to the New Zealand Maoris in both their customs and language.

At the time we visited, very little English was spoken, but we got by. However, French Polynesia is spread over a large area of the Pacific Ocean, and therefore strategically it remans important; but even more so now at a time where there are social disturbances whether due to climate change or from disease. Even given French aloofness, it is important not to gratuitously insult the French.

So where does that leave us in relation to the South Pacific Community. Great Britain left in 2004, and the direct American interest is through American Samoa (if one discounts the nations north of the Equator). Apart from the all-pervasive influence of USA, what is the relevance of the albatross called AUKUS?  Especially as I repeat the following from one of my blogs written in May last year by a person far smarter than most, certainly Morrison, i.e. if manned submarines are really needed, Australia should buy nuclear, reducing the number to six and buy them completely constructed and fitted out in France.

I was not aware of any major investment by India in the South Pacific, and Japan certainly was a pest before WWII especially with continuing harassment over the Australian mandate over New Guinea. More recently, trade between Japan and the South Pacific nations is uneven. The largest exporter to Japan from the region is Papua New Guinea, mainly liquefied natural gas (LNG) while other countries export a variety of primary products. More than 95% of exports to Japan from these countries are based largely on mining and fishing-based products. Not particularly useful in terms of either COVID-19 or climate change.

As for India, it has a great facility for getting involved in all sorts of relationships and talking a great deal; but as far as can be discerned, its contribution to the South Pacific in tangible terms has been minimal, and only the ethnicity of Fiji provides any Indian footprint. So much for the QUAD being relevant.

China is a different matter. I could not say this better. While China is by no means the dominant donor in the Pacific, the way in which it delivers its aid — large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans — makes these projects stand out. Chinese lending has also been used as a vehicle to get Chinese state-owned enterprises into the region. These companies are now competing in commercial activity across the board. According to China’s own investment statistics, Chinese construction activity in the region was $958 million as of 2017, almost six times greater than its foreign aid activities.

For instance, China owns Tonga (unless it can reschedule the debt) and it is only recently that Samoa has ditched the proposal for China to build a port. Vanuatu continues to flirt with the Dragon.

But the Chinese own neither French Melanesia nor Polynesia. Not yet anyway; and Australia with its heightened sense of Sinophobia snubs the French. Incroyable!

Willow is not Necessarily Shallow

This push for ridding the language of gender differentiation has reached another closing of the fork, in this case that of between batsman and batswoman. The resultant of closing this fork is “batter”.

“Batter” is a word of violence. “The batter battered the bowling.” or

“Bumper battered, the batter succumbed.”

“Batter” is also that mixture of flour and liquid. There are three types – “drop batter” as in he was “the first drop batter”; “pour batter’ obvious but get your spelling right, and “coated batter” which you find on a village pitch in Yorkshire on a mid-summer day.

There you go, for the sake of gender anonymity, “Going out to open the innings is a violent mixture of flour and water.”

My solution is to call them Willow.  The bats are willow. Calling the bat handlers “willow” is environmentally conscious. Notwithstanding “Out for a duck, the weeping willow trudged back to the pavilion”, the name is more euphonious, and instead of “bumpers”, we could have “wind in the willows.”

However, as you go out to the crease, would you prefer to be called, “the batter coming to the wicked” or “these willow have the wood on these bowlers”.

Some blogs ago, I also questioned…

Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health care provider, said Tuesday that it will not administer Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug to patients, dealing another setback to the Cambridge company and its expensive treatment.

The network, which includes the flagships Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is the latest major US health care system to opt against offering monthly infusions of the drug, called Aduhelm, over concerns about its safety and effectiveness. – from The Boston Globe

Mouse whisper

The matter has been raised by the cartoonists already. However, my New Zealand friend Kioreann has a taken this idea for protestors to a far more serious level. The police should be armed with specially designed dart rifles where they fire syringes full of vaccine into each of the protesters. These rifles would fire very penetrative darts since the hides of these protesters are particularly thick.

As compensation, these protesters will be able to collect their “Freedom from COVID-19” certificates as they are driven away in those comfortable vans and the protest date when they will receive their second dart.

Modest Expectations – Dominican Republic

“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

Strike me lucky, Blue, did you hear that? They are at it again – the Coalition of the Willing has now changed its name to a self-preened great Aukus. Yes, I know the Great Auk has joined the Dodo, but the word here is Aukus. Remember the name! And no cracks about Noah’s Aukus.

The great AUK – now extinct

I’ve a friend who has been associated with the Senior Service since he was 19 years old. I asked him a simple question – why does Australia need submarines? He thought it was a good question, and he answered in conventional terms, that he thought Xi had the same expansionist propensity that the Japanese military had before the Second World War. I said to him it sounded like a version of the yellow peril coming from the North.

My friend made the observation that the French contract was rubbish, and the Adelaide shipyards were just not up to the requirements. From my point of view, having heard from a variety of sources, Master Pyne will have a lot to answer for this in relation to his involvement, apart from any fiduciary gain, just to shore up a few South Australian Parliamentary seats for the Liberal Party! Any objective assessment would have concluded how poor were the underlying assumptions, an impression reinforced by knowing of the recent involvement of Jane Halton as a consultant.

Yet five years ago Australia had entered into a contract – ill-formed, ill-thought through – but did the Australian Government confront the French with its concerns? Probably not. If so, why now go behind the back of the French government?

Nevertheless, the cackhanded way in which Morrison has responded to being hoodwinked into the nuclear submarine imbroglio is par for the course. That was compounded by the gratuitous insult by an American President, who knows of Morrison’s failed bet on Trump. Biden seems unable to bring himself to utter his name.

Despised by Biden. Morrison has also pissed off the French (and probably the EU as well) and the Chinese. The rest of Asia is looking askance, especially when they also see Boris, the dishevelled spectre of the playing fields of Eton College, in the mix. The question may rightly be asked – why are the British meddling in the Pacific since they do not even have any British Overseas Territory tax havens in the Pacific to defend?

Nevertheless, Morrison is following in the traditions of the recent past Australian Prime Ministers where, despite the trumpet blast about the number of members of the Coalition of the Willing (apart from a Danish contingent of about 50 troops), only Australia and Great Britain made any sizeable military contribution to America’s ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan.

The French refused to join, although it had previously committed 17,000 troops to the Gulf War in 1991.  And who can forget Menzies’ embarrassing involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 where, by Jove, those “gyppos” needed to be taught a thing or two. At that time the French joined the British in tickling Menzies’ vanity.

According to my source, the Americans will probably flog Australia the Virginia class nuclear submarine.  At what cost? A lot is the best estimate, and just re-emphasises the non-answer to my initial question, when Australia has a small navy, minuscular compared to both China and the USA.

This Virginia class submarine, with a crew of about 135 sailors, can carry up to 24 torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The boat’s top underwater speed is about 25 knots (46km) per hour. The submarine has an advantage, namely the reactor plant will not require refuelling during the ship’s lifetime. But the question remains of what will the life time look like if it takes 20 years to build this fleet. It does not make sense.

Just look at the logistics. From laying down plans to final commissioning seems to take about six to seven years; but General Dynamics already has a backlog, with the boondoggle being a tasty supplement to maintain the money flow to the American armaments industry in, say, 20 years’ time. Needless to say, these submarines will be built in the USA, not Australia. There are just so many subsidiary suppliers of equipment to make Australian involvement in the manufacture impossible.

There are a few other queries, especially as the life of a submariner is not one which is immensely popular with the younger generation. Long periods of time next to a nuclear reactor underwater is not the most enticing job prospect, given the amount of time needed to ensure that the person recruited has the ability to remain sane in a closed underwater environment. So how is this to be answered?

The alternative is to invest in smaller unmanned submarines, more suitable for our shallow coastal waters. These are being built by Boeing and, according to my source, may be the future. They are cheaper; and nobody cries over the sinking of an unmanned drone.

The observations from my friend seem very sound, especially as he is concerned with our defence; not some vain manoeuvre to spend a great amount of funding on a project where the competition is already set between the two heavyweights. The Chinese are investing in more and more nuclear submarines.

Deployment of nuclear submarines confronting the Chinese in the South China sea should be left to the Americans – and the Japanese. In the undersea domain, the increase in Japan’s submarine force is highly regarded throughout Asia, and even America’s anti-submarine warfare operators struggle to track Japan’s modern fleet of super-quiet non-nuclear submarines. Note the comment about the stealthiness. This was a major criticism of the French submarines ordered by Australia, which apparently are so noisy one can hear La Marseillaise anywhere if the enemy wishes to tune in.

Even Taiwan is building new submarines. Paradoxically, there are some suggestions, one of which is that the Americans are seeking to reduce their nuclear submarine fleet. This may give some clue as to the US interest; and hence sloughing a few off to Australia – obviously at the right price whether for outright sale or some form of lend-lease – to shorten the period from 20 years to a much more “acceptable” timeframe. These alternatives may have more currency now the possibility of such has been denied by a former US Secretary for the Navy.

Sometime in the future there may be six nuclear submarines under an Australian ensign; an expenditure which could have been spent on a more mobile unmanned underwater navy, able to have quick deployment around the vulnerable coast of north-west Australia demonstrated so clearly when the Japanese attacked there, as well as Darwin in 1942. I wonder still whether this “sometime in the future” scenario will ever eventuate, but I certainly won’t be around to see it.

I do not weep for the French. In the 1990s, when President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine within The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, I coordinated with Saatchi a protest against the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Mururoa Atoll. This protest involved colleagues from New Zealand and other South Pacific constituencies. I also well remember the callous bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by the French in Auckland Harbour in 1985. It should be noted that the French last withdrew its ambassador from Canberra in 1995, after Australia had withdrawn our ambassador from France two months earlier.

Given all this, I am sure that Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will be unhappy about Australia gratuitously poking around underwater in the archipelago, knowing that there are already a number of nuclear submarines close by, if not in disputed territorial waters.

The other diplomatic problem for Australia is that the last thing the South Pacific nations will want is a nuclear reactor with a boxing kangaroo motif berthed in their harbours, which reinforces that point about the unattractiveness of the submariner’s life.

But then, will this whole extravaganza ever occur?

To boost or not to boost 

An advisory panel, independent of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), has voted to recommend administering Pfizer vaccine booster doses to people over 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19. The shots would be given at least six months after the original two shots.

The panel had earlier voted against a broader proposal from Pfizer to make booster shots available for people 16 and older. However, the FDA is not bound to accept the recommendation.

What is important is that Israel and USA have evidence for the efficacy of boosters, and it seems that six months is an indicative time for a booster dose of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The need for a booster for AZ vaccine is less clear. What is known is that the AZ vaccine is a “slow burner”, and immunity levels build over time, especially when the dosing period is stretched. Currently the gap between first and second doses is between eight and 12 weeks which gives an optimal immune response.

For the third booster dose, it may be preferable to give a different brand of vaccine than the one used for the first two shots. This is specifically mentioned for the AZ vaccine. This would be positive news for those Australians over 65, who have been denied access to the Pfizer vaccine for their initial inoculation.

Booster shots are subject to speculation as to efficacy, but both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are lined up seeking FDA approval. There is a suggestion that the Moderna booster requirement may be half the initial inoculation shot and, given the arrival of Moderna vaccine into this country, such information is relevant.

What is important is for the Government to develop a national approach to boosters, assuming that Australia will follow the FDA decisions, and moreover Israeli experience. In other words, let us not get caught up in the no man’s land of indecision; the Government failed comprehensively in relation to vaccines – they cannot afford to fail again.

The debate still centres on the level of vaccination and applauding the great response of Australians to be vaccinated once the vaccine hesitancy was  overcome. I for one, was in that cohort, and masked my hesitancy by taking the advice to space the influenza and COVID-19 vaccines. As I wrote in an April blog:

The other one, given the problems with the rollout, if I was able to secure a first dose, how long shall I have to wait for the second dose, and then more importantly, for the booster? It does not seem clear to me, whether (or more optimistically, when that will occur). That is why the J&J vaccine appeals to me more because it is single dose; but will it ever be registered in Australia? Questions, questions everywhere, but only opinions to imbibe. That is my reaction as an elderly consumer eligible for the injection. I am confused, and so will hold back. In the Australian climate it seems the best option is to wait and see.

I hope that same indecision does not dog mixed vaccine boosters, but at least if Pfizer is approved for boosters it can be used potentially across all of those over the age of 65 years. In retrospect, my comment in relation to the J&J vaccine seems have been a good bet. Although there were production difficulties, it is said that the second injection provides near to 100 per cent protection.

In any event, the matter of boosters should not be let slip in the way other matters have been mismanaged, because if boosters prove successful, then a six-monthly cycle hopefully can be converted to a minimum one year with further tweaking of the vaccine. This would then cement the booster added into the influenza vaccination cycle, with the possibility of a combined flu-COVID vaccine. This is in the future, but the matter of boosters must be part of the conversation now.

There is one distraction, if it can be called that. Why should Australia be applying for boosters when the undeveloped world is largely unvaccinated? Australia cannot take responsibility for the world. Yet if Australia accepts public health responsibility for our neighbours, the level should be clearly defined; and once it is clearly defined then these nations should be incorporated so their level of access is the same as ours.Yet at the same time those nations should accept the same level of responsibility as us.  Every society has got its “whack jobs”, every society has its level of ignorance, but public health responsibility is universal just as taboos are universal. It is all about the acceptable mix of persuasion and coercion.

Sweden Calling

I read the article by James Baillieu in Crikey extolling the virtues of the Swedish approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.  After reading it, I am sorry to miss articles on the benefits of the “English moat usage in repelling the Virus” or the “Cumulative benefit of monocle use when taking ivermectin.”

But I joke, my Lord, when such an authoritative source as yourself waxes lyrical on Sweden and its approach to the Virus. I appreciate you attribute your expertise on Sweden to your genetic pool.

My Swedish friend, a distinguished doctor from the Karolinska, who unhappily has not had been afforded the wisdom of working for seven years for McKinseys, which has been so much on show in its advice to that other McKinsey genius, Master of the Hunt, Greg.

I took the liberty, my lord, of forwarding your Epistle to The Nation of Crikey to my Swedish friend.

My friend, having read the Epistle has replied (sic):

Outcome measures obviously differ vastly whether you are a potential pub client locked (at home) or a frail elderly  person with the sword of Damocles sharpened above you. 

Australia is to be congratulated having saved so far ca 50,000 lives (compared to similar countries including Sweden)

It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1% death rate is negligible. The figure is also off by a factor of 10 in developed countries.  I strongly disagree.  

However there are other costs, lives not lived, children not schooled, economic problems to evaluate also before a total score can be tallied. 

To me it seems that Australia 

  1. Was lucky to be able to close borders
  2. Enforce lockdowns that saved many lives
  3.  School closures may not have been evidenced (i.e not been objectively assessed).
  4. Lockdowns only work for short times during which extensive vaccination must occur lest the disease take hold again savagely which is now occurring (in Sweden). 

We are now in Sweden following Denmark in repealing nearly all Covid restrictions, hoping fervently that our vaccination rate is ultimately sufficient.

(Consider) that there are groups in society both more exposed and sadly neither accepting vaccination nor being reached by the information, which is also as clear as it was more than a year ago when the typical Covid patient(in Sweden) was an immigrant taxi driver.  

Subsequently, he informed me that the architect of the Swedish approach, Tegnall is showing signs of stress. Baillieu labels Tegnall as independent; no he’s not – he is a civil servant. Baillieu maybe means “maverick”. Perhaps if Tegnall resigns, “maverick” becomes “martyr” in Baillieu language.

Baillieu trumpets zero deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden. On 17 September alone, there were 22 new reported deaths and 1,009 new reported cases; then on 22 September, 19 deaths. What a callous statement by Baillieu saying “Sweden’s COVID death toll of 0.14% of the population was nearly all people who had a short time to live.” 14,000 people about to die on his say-so. As my friend wrote: It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1%(sic) death rate is negligible.

While its economy may be showing signs of recovery, Swedish sources still say there is significant uncertainty. It’s possible that restrictions to curb the spread of infection will tighten again in autumn if cases rise, and this would impact economic growth.

Over the course of next year, employment growth is predicted to slow down further as GDP increases more slowly, but the number of employed people will still increase. Many businesses are looking for skilled workers again. A total of 190,000 people in Sweden have now been without a job for over a year. It seems a sober assessment of the current Swedish situation complementing my friend’s comments. Not a small hit, as Baillieu asserts.

Demonstrators on the steps of the Shrine, Melbourne

I don’t like what is occurring with the Virus unsuppressed in both Melbourne and Sydney, but when an over-privileged graduate of the Melbourne Establishment has a childish tantrum disguised as an objective assessment then I too, a product of the same environment, feel deeply ashamed.

What nonsense his final words: “Restore our rights and freedoms. Stop harming our children and instead protect them.”

I hope he was not wandering along the Westgate Freeway protesting this lack of Freedoms with all the irresponsible.

My great grandfather did not lose his money in the Depression of the 1890s in which the Baillieu family was a prominent player; the consequences of the Depression still affect Melbourne to this day. My great grandfather did not have much time for the Baillieus either.

John Shelby Spong

Spong sounds as if came from the world of Spike Milligan.

Bishop John Spong

Yet John Shelby Spong was a very, very serious influence. Some may say that Spong flaunted once-controversial views, but now many have become mainstream.  At times I wonder why I retain my Anglicanism, until I am reminded of Spong. I have been fortunate in knowing some great Anglican priests, but it is hard to live in the Sydney diocese which has all but abandoned people like Spong in its literal Bible interpretation and acquired intolerance of anybody not in its own image – seemingly not that of the Trinity anyway.

Yet one statement in the obituary prompted me to seek further information, and that was the statement about Judas Iscariot. He is so vilified, and yet in an excellent article on the iconography by Dr Felicity Harley relating to Judas, the early church was much more forgiving of Judas and his suicide. The reader is explicitly told that he had remorse; and there is no condemnation of Judas in his choice to take his own life in the way that he does. Rather, in recording the suicide Matthew allows guilt to pass from Judas to the Jewish leaders who ignore Judas’s confession and his atoning gesture and are thereby rendered guilty.

Later he was further vilified for that act in addition to his betrayal of Christ, and by the time of the medieval church the Hanged Judas had been consigned to the darkest parts the Inferno.

It is testimony to Spong that even in death, his obituary has made me think, in any areas I thought very much cut and dried.

I am indebted to this lightly edited obituary from The Washington Post, which I doubt will get much currency in Australia.

Long one of the most liberal voices among the nation’s Episcopalians, Bishop Spong has died at the age of 90.

In 1989, while he was bishop in Newark, N.J., he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Robert Williams.

Though the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian priest, had been ordained a decade earlier, Bishop Spong drew national attention by sending letters inviting all the church’s bishops — many of whom opposed his actions — to attend the ordination of Williams that December.

“Christian moral standards have changed quite dramatically,” Bishop Spong told The New York Times before the ordination. “We had slavery in a Christian nation. We had oppressed women. I think that our world is more Christ-like when it’s open to all of God’s children.”

And he added: “We believe that the Church needs to be honest. We have gay priests in every diocese.”

The author of more than two dozen books, Bishop Spong questioned some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines while over the years he had often taught and lectured at Harvard Divinity School.

“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, said; “What he truly came to understand is doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing so.”

“In so many ways,” she added, “he was ahead of the church.”

Nine months after Bishop Spong ordained Williams, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to pass a resolution affirming that it is “inappropriate” to ordain a practicing homosexual.

“The way the church treats its gay and lesbian members,” Bishop Spong said afterward, “strains the very fabric of my life by tearing it between my loyalty to Jesus Christ, who made a habit of embracing the outcast, and my loyalty to a church that historically has rejected Blacks, women and gays.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 16, 1931, John Shelby Spong was raised in fundamentalist churches amid those whose values were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

When he was young, he was taught that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men, and whites were superior to people of color.

His father, a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when John was 12, told him he should always say “sir” and “ma’am” to his elders, so long as they were not Black.

Bishop Spong later said the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons.

In 1998, for example, he criticized LGBTQ opponents as “uninformed religious people who buttress their attitude with appeals to a literal understanding of the Bible. This same mentality has marked every debate about every new insight that has arisen in the Western world over the last 600 years. It is a tired, threadbare argument that has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”

He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1952 and received a master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988. In 1990, he married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark archdiocese who went on to edit his work.  He was survived by his wife, five children and six grandchildren. He had a sister, who also has outlived him.

Before he became a bishop in New Jersey, he served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped, he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building.

As the civil rights movement progressed, Bishop Spong found himself preaching to Black and white congregations alike, and said he worked to shed what he called the “residual racism” of his upbringing.

“I happen to believe that God’s image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect … And the Black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.

He later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in the mid-1970s, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop, has recently called Bishop Spong “a prophet”, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question.”

“I stand on his shoulders,” Robinson added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct — he did it because he believed it was the Gospel.”

After publishing “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity,” Spong spoke with the Globe in 1994 about parts of Christianity he was challenging.

Neither Judas Iscariot nor a betrayal by one of the 12 apostles was mentioned in early parts of the New Testament, he said.

“Judas was a creation of the Christian Church, which sought to shift blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews,” he said.

In his 2005 book “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love,” Bishop Spong wrote:

“I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it.”

He did not say Amen. Others may.

There’s a Tree in the House

I was looking at an old repeat of Grand Designs in Australia where the owners erected a huge tree trunk as a centrepiece of their house in the tropical bush south of Darwin. It was a huge endeavour.

Trees, in the house …

By chance, at the same time, we received a short message from a renter of our property in Tasmania, which read in part; “Thank you so much for a wonderful stay in your holiday house. Our young boys absolutely loved the trees in the house.”

I had watched this installation of the tree trunk in the Northern Territory house, and yet did not immediately associate with the three massive blackwood trunks which support our house together with the trunk of a King Billy pine, which was the only old wood.

The blackwood poles were green at the time of construction and this is shown by some splitting in the poles , but the house is nearly 30 years old and seemingly that is now stabilised. The simple observation of children entering the property for the first time, full of wonderment at something we just take for granted; for them the house may be a fugue of interwoven wood. But from ageing eyes like mine, you only see what you don’t see.

Mouse Whisper

In Italy, May 1 is known is “Festa dei Lavatori”. It is a day of little work, also known in Italian as “la toiletta”. In southern England on the same day, there is a little known ceremony heralding the harvest of the first honeycomb. It is known as “Bee Day”.