Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

The Orange Toddler she calls him. She, our American friend, agrees that the vaccine should be tested, but the chosen vaccine should first be provided to the Great Leader. He has spruiked it – he must be made invincible. To mark the occasion in the Oval Office he must be surrounded by adoring people wearing white coats, but definitely without masks, unless made by his beloved daughter. There will be commemorative syringes for all.

That will give the American people confidence; he to bare his arm for America; the test as no other test has been seen by anybody; and then to cap it off, perhaps a couple of days, maybe a week later, who knows – the flock of white coats will be reassembled while COVID-19 is directly injected into the OT. Then he will turn, give the syringe with the Presidential seal to an adoring fan, saying that there has not been anybody ever, perhaps with the exception of Jesus Christ himself, who has done so much for America, to make it great.

No, you’re dreaming. That won’t happen because he says he has a deformity of his body, which precludes injection – too much Ancient Orange.

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

How predictable, the sanctimonious Hunt, the Minister for Health egged on by the Prime Minister, trying to blame Premier Andrews for the ills of Victoria, including the failed nursing home system. Nevertheless, a small history lesson is probably useful to dispel some of  the information about Daniel Andrews.

The problem with Victoria is that for years now it has not had a Department of Health but a “Department of Social Reform”, reflecting a social service bias at the expense of public health. Health is hospitals – full stop. That was the conventional wisdom.

The Heads of the Department have traditionally not been medically qualified. The structure of the Health Department was separated into Health, Hospitals and Mental Health, then unified for a time under a doctor, Gad Trevaks, when he chaired the then Health Commission.

That was the last time, and the real source of the decline in public health was due to Premier Kennett and his agent John Paterson, who effectively destroyed any remnant of public health considerations in the State. At the same time regulations have been loosened and, as one insider has said, food regulation and the lack of public health surveillance of food safety will be another problem that Premier Andrews will have to confront at some time.

Thus public health was in a woeful state even before the minions in the Victorian Treasury insisted on so-called “efficiency gains”, which is just a way of reducing public funding.

Then there was the case of a former chief health officer who was largely invisible during the time of his appointment and nobody seemed to care. Raina McIntyre, an outspoken epidemiologist, has commented wryly: “… such a minimalist system can get by during the good times but will be exposed in the pandemic”.

As Andrews has emphasised, this is an area where political point scoring is pernicious. It is more laughable than pernicious to hear the NSW Premier saying that she has a public health department, which “was second to none”, when the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, who is responsible for public health, was lucky to keep her job after the Ruby Princess and Newmarch House debacles.

After all, she has been in the job for 12 years, and was an inheritor, as were her public health colleagues, of the work done by Dr Sue Morey when she was Chief Health Officer. Dr Morey not only supervised the introduction of the contact tracing system but also enabled the public health medical officers to be recognised as medical specialists. As a result, in relationship to Victoria the public health doctors in NSW are far better remunerated. Many of those NSW public health doctors were trained by Dr Morey, who had gained formal public health training, resulting in a Master of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1980. She set in place the public health system that is now being described as the Australian “gold standard”; it did not appear overnight. It is after all only a tool and it demands competence in its usage.

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

To me the Macquarie Marshes have always been one of the important bellwethers as to the health of the Murray Darling region. I have read much about them, but until this week had never visited. The marshes are located on the Macquarie River and lie some two hundred kilometres north-west of Dubbo, between Warren and Carinda.

To put them into context, the Marshes are an extensive wetland system covering more than 150,000 hectares, and the nature reserve covers 18,500 hectares of it. It is recognised as a Wetland of International Importance (but not by the NSW government). Most of the Marshes are in fact on private land.

The Marshes are arbitrarily subdivided into the northern and southern segment. There is more water in the latter. Importantly at present there is water in the marshes and there is abundant bird life. Black and white magpie geese swoop low as coots, ducks and a swan glide across one of the many lakes. The signs of the Marshes having periodically dried up are evident in the dead reeds where fires have wrought irreparable damage when there was no water. Across the water cormorants perch on the dead trunk, silent witnesses to the dying marshes.

Yet another sign of the degradation of the Marshes is the yellow rape mustard weed growing wild throughout the marsh areas that still are more or less dry.

The ultimate sustainability of these Marshes, even now after heavy rains have returned water there, is dictated by the cotton industry. The huge broad acres of black soil being prepared for planting near Warren attest to the nature of the enemy.

Originally it was the building of the Burrendong and Windamere Dams in the 1960s and 1880s respectively, which had diverted the wetland water to irrigation, and in so doing challenged the future of the Marshes.

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

We stop where the water is running across the track – 100 metres wide and from the flood post at a level of about 0.4 metres. A large 4WD lurching into a hole and then struggling out only to sink again in the running water before blundering through set the tone for the crossing. We did not attempt to cross, but had lunch at the edge of the stream. Another 4WD stopped on the other side had released a bunch of kids who set out their beach towels on the track and took advantage of a swimming opportunity.

A couple of ATVs containing a number of boisterous teenagers went by, charging into the water. They knew where to go, they clung to the right side next to the fence line. There were no holes on that side – no problems – across and gone with all round waves to those of us left behind. “Local kids”, the weathered face who appeared at the car window said.

He was a seasoned farmer who had stopped with his family, and came across to see who “these foreigners” were. He ran shorthorn Hereford cattle on a property north of Carinda – a place where he said the best cotton in the world could be grown. He was on an afternoon drive with his daughter who had brought visitors from Norway to see the Marshes.

However, the problem is that Warren always took the bulk of the water, and thus Carinda – 140kms further north – hardly received enough water to sow a crop – maybe once in ten years, despite its capacity to produce premium cotton.

His attitude is a microcosm of the problem of Murray Darling River planning. Nobody agrees. It is a free for all, with each person, each municipality, having no consideration for the people of the catchment as a whole. Why should they? Their role model – their various governments seem hell bent on fracturing the Federation. Why not add compromising the nation’s water to a deteriorating concern for country?

The Pub in the Scrub

It is but a speck on the map between Condobolin and Tullamore. Here there is a typical two-storied, corrugated iron roofed country hotel, with a bright orange tiled façade. It luxuriates in the soubriquet of The Pub in the Scrub. Its name, which also is the name of this hamlet, is Fifield. The hamlet is empty, apart from a murder of crows having a convention in the main street and a ute parked against the kerb in front of the pub.

Near the geographic centre of NSW, Fifield is surrounded by blazing yellow broad acres of canola. It was once the site for alluvial exploration for platinum and there is a sign nearby pointing to a place called Platina.

Fifield’s car graveyards

However, Fifield is a graveyard for car bodies. They are everywhere. There is an old barn, unusually with a chimney but now ramshackle, despite the incongruous new solar panels on the roof. Acres of car bodies behind the building are spread on the other side of the main road, the whole extent of which is hidden by trees. The fact there was a newish bright yellow Ford in front of the barn seems to confirm that the building was occupied.

The oval was covered in cape weed; there was once a tennis court, now overgrown, but with its net still in place and the rusted gate still visible. A disused wooden church on the corner with a handwritten sign which says “St Dymphna”, who can identified as the Lily of Ireland, the patron saint of mental illness.

However, on the road as you enter town there is a bright black and yellow sign exhorting the passing motorist not to dump rubbish – or else. Unless of course, it’s your car.

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

When I used to walk close to my old home among the trees which dotted the sloping land that had been preserved around the Melbourne Cricket Ground, I would come across a canoe tree where, before whitefella settlement, the Wurrundjeri people had carved a canoe from the bark.

Canoe trees were probably more common than have been found, but civilisation has a way of destroying heritage. Maybe many trees so used for canoes, shields, coolamons and other artefacts just did not survive. After all, before the whitefella came with his tree-felling prowess, there would have been open forest where the city now stands. Not surprisingly the river red gum with its stout trunk was a favourite source of bark. Bark was plentiful. Bark was the only resource they had for their canoes as there is no evidence that the dugout canoe of their Northern Australian brothers ever percolated south.

Yet the bark canoe was obviously important given the number of rivers and watercourses that flowed around and through the land which whitefellas labelled Melbourne. It is surprising so many of the trees survived so close to the centre of Melbourne

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

This reflection on tree carving was at the forefront of my mind when we visited the grave of Yuranigh. His grave lies a few kilometres east of Molong, a central west NSW town just off the highway to Orange.

The directions are well marked, the track is stony clay, there is a gate and a cattle grid, and then a short drive where old gnarled yellow box gums hold sway over a weed infested paddock. This is where Yuranigh is buried. Little is known about this Wiradjeri man except that he accompanied Thomas Mitchell to the Gulf of Carpentaria on one of Mitchell’s explorations.

Mitchell thought so much of this man that when Yuranigh died when still a young man, Mitchell paid for his grave and a marble headstone commemorating Yuranigh. It is apparently recognised as the one site in Australia where European and Aboriginal burial traditions coincide.

Around the area where Yuranigh is buried are carved trees, sinuous dendroglyphs etched into the heart of the trees – complex cuts given the tools that would have been used. The most prominent one of these is a stump protected from the weather, an extraordinary example of Wiradjeri art. It had lain for years on the ground, before being raised and now supported in a concrete base

There is another tree close by where the artwork can be viewed through a slit in the tree – the carving lying within the tree. There are four trees that define the corners of the gravesite, but some have defiantly repaired themselves and in so doing smothered the artwork.

We were alone at the site. Despite the complexity of what we were witnessing – an intertwined image where we could see original Wiradjeri work in all its complexity but only guessing as to meaning not only of the carving but also its placement in relation to Yuranigh’s burial place, I realise I know so very little.

Yuranigh grave site

Yes, I understand Mitchell’s tribute. That’s how we whitefellas celebrate dying in a world of grey – the compromise between white and black in our monuments and headstones. But the trees are not confected – they are real. In blackfella eyes Yuranigh obviously was a great Aboriginal man; the carvings denote respect. Otherwise who would take such care? “Sorry business” is such an important part of Aboriginal life.

John is not the Name

When I go to a bank or any other place where the interaction is usually with a younger generation, far younger than my “silent generation”, I find being addressed by my Christian name jarring to say the least. I quickly correct them on most occasions.

After all we have a surname for a reason, whether derived by being the “son of “, colour (white, black, brown), profession (fletcher, butcher, smith), location (London, Birmingham, Kent).

I come from a generation when every male at least addressed each other by “surname”. However, within the family and friends circle, we were called by our Christian names.

I find calling elderly people by their first name, as if they are children, unsettling. I would object to a stray carer that I have never seen before, calling me by first name. Using “John” jars just because they have seen that on some of my documentation, because those who know me call me “Jack”. Address me by my surname please.

Having thus aggressively put my point of view, my cousin told me a salutary story about his uncle. His uncle Jack went to get a job on the wharves.

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

“Look, feller, on these wharves we deal in surnames. What’s your surname?”

“Honey.”

“Well, Jack, it is …!” came the immediate reply.

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

It is about 40 years since we were in Mudgee. We came to the inaugural Mudgee Wine Festival. It was a spur of the moment decision. I asked her. She said yes. Now years later, the trip was not so romantic; you know, she said as we were driving there, “We came here in 1980. Have you been to Mudgee since?” I had travelled widely around this part of NSW and for a time I often visited Dubbo, spent time at Bathurst, found some delightful antiques at Molong and had been to Glen Davis on more than one occasion – but Mudgee?

Forty years ago, Mudgee wines were dismissed with the label “Mudgee Mud.” Give something a bad name and I doubt whether even after exposure of the wine at the Festival was sufficient for me to ever buy some. It was still very indifferent wine.

Ulan coal mine

The dinner was an uproarious affair, as one of the guys who was a geologist had mapped the coal deposits around Ulan and was making or had made a financial bonanza out of his assiduous tracking of the coal deposits around those areas. At the time of the dinner he had secured the lease over the tail of the deposit. Forty years ago, coal as they said was king, and who had heard of climate change effects!

At the end of the night, we blokes had all got along so well, and there was so much bonhomie, that everybody was shickered. Out in the car park all the blokes got into the driver’s seats and the wives, who were by and large sober, were consigned to the passenger seats. There was one exception – the young lady whom I eventually was to marry years later – insisted on driving. Just as well.

The next morning I awoke, nursing a damaged head. We had stayed down the road at Kandos, famous for its limestone quarrying. Mudgee had been booked out. As we were leaving the motel owner noted that I was a doctor.

“Oh”, she cooed, “ We would love to have a young white doctor here in Kandos.”

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

On the menu at the Italian restaurant in Griffith, it was stated that one could dine “al fresco”. Sounds authentic – just as the names of any the pastas or “il cotoletta Milanese” were authentic italiano.

The term al fresco is unknown in Italy. If you want to dine outside (fuori) or in the open (all’aperto”), you will be directed to that leafy courtyard.

Thus, il cameriere will scratch il sua testa if you say “al fresco”. He may misunderstand and instead bring you acqua fresca – cold water.

all’aperto!

Modest Expectations – It’s Time

Two weeks ago, it was horror stories coming from Victoria about people being locked up in tower public housing blocks, and I expressed a concern as to whether locking people up in tower blocks should not be accompanied by a warning about the risk of fires and how this would be managed if the buildings were to go into lockdown. In fact a number of residents were evacuated to hotel quarantine.

It seems that threat has abated in the public mind in the face of the rising horror stories of the private nursing homes and the circumstances whereby the residents are caught up in the rising tide of community transmission.

This involved families, staff and “persons unknown” unwittingly spreading the virus to a group of our elderly population incarcerated in a system where financial profit is paramount and the operational arrangements seem far from being able to combat a pandemic. However the problem, while systemic, is not only rampant in certain postcodes and not in others but also completely contained within the private sector.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, tries to be measured, never raising his voice and refusing to apportion blame to any sector of the population when it is probably plain to himself when reviewing the data that certain sections of the population are more susceptible to “amoral familism”, which I have mention previously. That one of the biggest outbreaks is in an aged care facility linked to the Greek Orthodox community has not elicited as yet any finger pointing in the community is testimony to his control of the situation.

The problem with “amoral familism”, which is not limited to a Greek village upbringing, is that it promotes the mindless protection of the family unit above all – the State can go hang. It is the product of an upbringing where the education levels are low and unfortunately the society in which many of the people have grown up is male-dominated and authoritarian, and often where sanctions are not enforced by the gentle remonstrations of the reasonable man, as Andrews is. Ignorance of English does not help.

Therefore, when it seems nobody is watching this group, even when COVID-19 positive, it is unsurprising if these people do not heed warnings. If I were isolated in a foreign village with no knowledge of the language, could or would I heed any warning?

Hence not having the language would be an excuse if the individual were an isolate. However, it would be rare for this to occur. Spokespersons for particular communities bob up all the time. Instead of ensuring that these potential “purveyors of death” are quarantined, these spokespersons seem just to offer a variety of excuses; they did not understand, they did know that what they were doing was criminal and the excuses flow on and on.

Andrews has a difficult job, because if he names the miscreants then he runs the problem of stigmatising whole communities for the sins of the few. Andrews also knows that these “hotspots” are in his electoral bailiwick, but given that many of the Labor parliamentarians in these electorates have migrant backgrounds, you would think that the Premier should not have to bear the full load. Some of the political actions are somewhat like those gossamer Green parliamentarians posturing in front of the locked-down housing towers, full of sound and fury, as is common with Greens, signifying nothing.

So it is easier to implement rules that disadvantage the Victorian community, moving to the second-highest category of restrictions – Stage 4. Unlike America, most Victorians know more about the Virus than they did in March when it first came to notice and are thus better able to run relatively normal lives, while appreciating the need for social distancing, hand washing and now masks. Most people have shown that they are prepared to work within increasing limits – as shown by the imposition of masks, which has been almost universally accepted.

The percentage of self-serving exhibitionists and just plain “wackos” seem to be mercifully small, but having identified themselves they could form a nucleus of inmates of the quarantine facilities that I have advocated should be constructed where those who are invited in serve a true “quarantine” period – that is, 40 days and nights. They would be joined by those deliberately flouting the government directives. After all, each of those COVID-19 positive individuals roaming the streets in a wilful manner is a “potential murderer”. Harsh words, but think about the logic. Who actually killed grandpa and grandma in the nursing home?

The other problem with Victoria is that it has always lagged behind NSW in its investment in public health, particularly in contact tracing. Victoria has been known to have under-resourced public health training for years.

That advance goes back to the work of Dr Sue Morey who, under the Head of the NSW Department of Health the late Bernie Amos, set up a comprehensive program in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Many of the current senior cohort of the NSW public heath physicians, as does the State of NSW, benefited from the program Morey established and owes her a very great debt.

The inability to find out the source of all the cases occurring in Melbourne also relies on people telling the truth and not incriminating themselves for whatever reason. Having said that, the present inquiry presumably is expected to reveal the chain of infection from case zero.

Those three young women flaunting and flouting through three States, refusing to co-operate, destroying their mobile phones and probably denying they are Nigerian are just extreme examples.

However, as with criminal activity the more the rest of the community is law-abiding, the more time there is for policing the extreme cases. As with vaccination, there is a reliance on having a high proportion of the community vaccinated – the vaccinated group provide a buffer for the unvaccinated.

There is also another “wee” problem that may be overlooked when the pandemic is distracting attention. The Ministerial retinue has returned from America. Like those who have flouted the pandemic in Melbourne, the government has not offered any advice on their whereabouts. However, the “cat may be out of the bag” when a so-called “consular officer” returning from overseas turned up in Maroochydore and then Toowoomba yesterday with a dose of COVID-19. Coincidence?

Apparently, “not actually a Consular officer” quibbled DFAT, but he was still carrying a diplomatic passport or the equivalent. The arrogance of holders of red and green passports knows no bounds, but at least the Queensland Premier has called this exemption out; however there is no mention of the whereabouts of the two Ministers. Again, there are exemptions for the few.

Clive Palmer – The Rose of Bulgaria or a Dangerous Furbo? 

I think that this son of Bulgaria, alleged owner of property in Sofia, and expert in its national sport of Split Squat has been wrongly characterised. Here in the damask fields of the Rose Valley of northern Bulgaria they talk of nothing else – but Clive.

He is up to all his Bulgarian tricks again. He has a case before the High Court challenging the Western Australian Government’s right to the close its borders.

His arguments are based around section 102 of the Australian Constitution, which states:

On the imposition of uniform duties of customs, trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free. But notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, goods imported before the imposition of uniform duties of customs into any State, or into any Colony which, whilst the goods remain therein, becomes a State, shall, on thence passing into another State within two years after the imposition of such duties, be liable to any duty chargeable on the importation of such goods into the Commonwealth, less any duty paid in respect of the goods on their importation.

Most of the words in this section relate to the immediate transitional arrangement following the enactment of the Constitution in 1901 but the key clause has centred on what States can or cannot do about imposing barriers between themselves. Legal arguments have waged about what it all means and many lawyers have had their waistcoats filigreed in gold as a result.

The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, probably as a proper lawyer had the normal reflex. Since there is a challenge to the Constitution, therefore the Australian Government must take an interest. This is such a fundamental issue. Does State border closure present a challenge to the Federation if unilateral action is taken by a State to close the borders? Does Clive Palmer provide a challenge to the Australian Constitution?

The Federal Government was emboldened by the initial encouragement of the Prime Minister to keep supporting the Palmer initiative. There, in the background, would be the normal cheer group that thinks supporting Clive’s challenge a “jolly jape”. These are parliamentarians gathered together under the standard of a skunk-like animal with adolescent behavior rituals and bearing aloft an icon of Christopher Pyne. They can’t help irritating the Australian community from their seats of privileged opulence.

The Prime Minister has had second thoughts, hopefully not only because of the backlash in Western Australia to the Palmer challenge. It should be remembered that Palmer was born in Victoria and spent most of his formative years on the Gold Coast, where he made his first fortune in real estate. So he is not a genuine Western Australian – “he just ain’t one of them”.

If Clive wants to stir up the Sandgropers over this issue of secession, of which border closure is a subsection, then they might just take it out on the Liberal party at the next Federal election. Hence, Morrison backing away may have been because he realised that Palmer was trying to “tar baby” him.

One obvious solution is to form a pro-tem barrier away from the accepted geographical boundary. Cross-border regional arrangements are everywhere. To me, working in the Victorian border town of Cobram on the Murray River, meant that I had to cross to the NSW river town of Barooga more than once a day.

One has only to live in a border area to know that indiscriminately shutting borders is group punishment, unnecessarily unfair and at times unwittingly dangerous.

These are communities of interest, which have grown up over a century or more, where the border is just irrelevant to normal social and economic intercourse.

Therefore when this Virus is eventually contained there is work to be done in this area of “communities of interest”, so that if borders have to be closed then there is a fully developed plan that minimises the disruption and can be put into immediate effect. As has been said on more than one occasion, cross-border arrangements have diverse benefits and opportunities for managing a shared resource.

In any event should the adopted son of Bulgaria win his case in the High Court, I am sure that Western Australia could move its lockdown zone един метър inside its actual border with South Australia and Northern Territory. Clive, with your solid knowledge of Bulgarian, you would know what that means.

After all, Clive you are not the only gander in the “Gooserie”.

Hafnium (Hf)

I was browsing through an old New Scientist and came across a world map, which indicated that among a series of metals, Australia had over 50 per cent of the world’s hafnium.

According to the map legend, it was estimated that Australia had the biggest deposit of hafnium in the World. Hafnium does not occur independently in nature.

Even though predicted by Mendeleev it was not discovered until 1923 by two chemists Dirk Coster, a Dane, and George Charles de Hevesy, a Hungarian. The Dane prevailed. Hafn was the mediaeval name for Copenhagen. The Hungarian just shared the glory of having isolated this last natural occurring element.

Apparently, one of the major problems is that hafnium is tightly linked to zirconium in a ratio of 1:50, and exists in a group of three naturally occurring elements with titanium the lightest and hafnium the heaviest with an atomic number of 72. Lying between is zirconium. However, as far as can be obtained, the amount of hafnium produced is small, and until recently it was a considered a waste product, removed in the purification of zirconium. Zircons are renown as jewellery substitutes for diamonds, but zirconium has a multitude of uses, and put simply it is everywhere – its industrial use is in hardening alloys and ceramics. It is also anti-corrosive.

Recently, Hafnium has been found to have a number of amazing properties and it can be used in almost any industries where the word “advanced” is the prefix.

The special properties of Hafnium oxide have recently permitted further miniaturisation of microprocessors, enhancing processing speed while eradicating overheating problems.

Resistant to corrosion, the metal its oxide forms extreme temperatures. Consequently, hafnium is used in plasma cutting tips for welding, and is essential to the advancement of the aerospace industry. 

Added to this, hafnium carbide is one of the highest temperature resistant and hardest materials with melting point of 3,900 degrees Centigrade which potentially suitable in a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) for faster spacecraft propulsion.

So writes the hafnium enthusiast linked to the company proposing to mine a deposit south of Dubbo when extolling the element’s virtues.

Despite its global market being about 70 tonnes annually, this enthusiast predicts the demand will double by 2025, and Australia could produce 200 tonnes a year. So far I am following the trail to Hafnium.

This is a small amount given that the Dubbo mine is proposed to be an open cut operation that will extract 19.5Mt of ore a year from a 32m-deep open cut mine.

The extracted ore is crushed and further reduced in size by grinding circuit. Sulphuric acid will be used to convert the material into sulphated ore, will be leached in water and sent for solvent extraction and precipitation, and onwards the final product.

Extraction of these elements and the associated pollution is increasingly being factored into political considerations when the mining spruikers are abroad. However, there are further chemical processes to separate the hafnium from zirconium.

The technological description states it is “a liquid–liquid extractive separation between hafnium and zirconium from thiocyanic acid medium using the mixtures of diisobutyl ketone (DIBK) and di (2-ethylhexyl) phosphoric acid (P204) as the extractant was developed.”

A metallurgist could answer the question of how much this extraction method damages the environment. 

It is almost as an afterthought, that process residues are treated before dumping them into storage facilities. The disposal of residue when there is a potentially such a big hole in the Dubbo landscape is far from a throwaway line.

Water will be taken from the Macquarie River, but the amount proposed is nowhere stated. In the description of the extraction of ore no amount of water is mentioned and the description hurries onto the marvels of the proposed mine.

OPAL’s lightwater pool

There is another problem with zirconium mining – the deposits often exist with radioactive elements – thorium and uranium. Small problem with an open cut mine only a few kilometres from a regional city! I find it interesting that there has been an experimental extraction plant at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) since 2009. Hafnium is used in control rods in the nuclear reactor core.

Currently, China produces 75% of the world’s zirconium supply and hence hafnium. “China’s stranglehold on the supply chain of this material essential for advanced technology weakens the economic and political security of other nations”.

Metallurgy is one of the professions that, from the outside, smells of alchemy – there is a magical aspect to the extraction of these uncommon elements and their increasing relevance with advancing technology demanding these metallic elements with their special qualities. Then it is promoted to an essential component of our lives. Lithium has been one such metal.

However, the “green lobby” faces the whole “strategic development” lobby, where self sufficiency is increasingly important, and moving rare elements around the political game board are important chips in being able to game, with more strategic element chips than other nations. At present, China seems to have the greatest variety of these chips in the greatest quantity.

Australia has quantity in two particular chips – iron ore and coal. But that is a different game board. Given the amount of these being mined, then the impact on climate change is a constant.

However, too often the question from the local politicians when confronted with the prospect of a mine in their electorate is concern about how many jobs will be created. The Dubbo project bosses does not explicitly answer that question.

As far as one can gauge prices, the price of hafnium is in the region of USD6million a tonne; whereas zirconium is priced at USD10,000 a tonne.

To get a comparison, Australia produces 900 million tons of iron ore at about USD110 a tonne.

What progress has been made on the Dubbo mine project? In February 2020: Alkane noted that Export Finance Agency’s (EFA’s) financial support would be subject to finalisation of due diligence, acceptable financing structure and eligibility and credit requirements. As Australia’s export credit agency, EFA is mandated to support businesses, which are seeking to develop new export market. 

I have been one of those converted to the climate change lobby and I am particularly worried about the wasteful use of water in what, apart from Antarctica, is the driest continent.

I read about hafnium; the notion of there being the greatest percentage of the world’s supply in Australia has intrigued me. I have searched to find out what is its proper place in the Australian economy. Political leaders are often confronted with such decisions when they have little intrinsic knowledge of the subject.

The giraffes are watching …

However, if I were in a position to make a decision, I would be immediately worried by the massive water requirement and the fact that there would be an open cut mine where radioactive minerals are being mined close to a major regional city, the Western Plains Zoo and the Dubbo Observatory. However the dilemma is, as with all mineral extraction, how can the metal be purified with the least pollution. Unfortunately, when in doubt the large powers with a monopoly of the chips kick the game board over – and everybody loses.

Paraphrasing Einstein, who never said a truer word when he said the fourth world war will be fought with rocks, some of which may contain hafnium.

All Souls

All Souls, Oxford

I suppose being invited to dinner by Max Beloff with the academic Fellows at All Souls was an honour. Great Britain that year was sunny, and when that occurs the summer is always beautiful. Off to Oxford the three of us went one evening to have dinner.

Max Beloff was an eminent modern historian who, at that stage of his life, was tramping from one side of the political spectrum to the other. The young socialist Beloff, now in middle-age having marked time as a Liberal, was moving determinedly to the right at the time, when he invited us to dinner.

Beloff had been a Fellow since 1957, ensconced as he was in this group “at the pinnacle of British academic hierarchy”. He had attained this position much earlier than when he had pursued this neo-liberal journey, in the process setting up a private university and then later absorbing imperial honours that were piled on him by Thatcher.

When we arrived we were ushered into a reception room where pre-dinner drinks were served; I had the obligatory dry sherry as the clever repartee started. The problem with clever repartee is that it is essentially hierarchial; if the young man (it was not until 1979 that women were admitted as Fellows of All Souls) wanted to announce his presence in such exchanges, it seems dressing flamboyantly helps. The “look at me” mien serves as an entrée card.

I was well versed in the social rules of these establishments, having been an undergraduate in a residential College, which replicated much of its social mores from those of Oxford. Therefore, I shut up and only replied when spoken to by some Fellow who had not the slightest interest in whom I was.

However, the call to dinner came and there is nothing like a College refectory – long high table, paneled walls, high-backed mahogany chairs. Beloff welcomed us – the Boss thanked him. It was all so polite, but it was an experience – probably once in a lifetime. Although for them not; just three Australians to be humoured in exchange for a meal.

I was seated next to Michael Howard, the military historian and we chatted about his topic. My contribution when the Franco-Prussian War was mentioned was that I had inherited a full set of skeletal bones from my father. It was widely thought that many of the skeletons used by aspiring doctors pre-war had come from soldiers who had died in that War. They were highly prized for the muscle markings, which were very distinct on these bones. However, apart from that I cannot remember the other Fellows beside and across the table. The talk was just that – inconsequential chatter as the Fellows on either side of the table carefully updated themselves on one another, given that there was a young foreigner in their midst.

Dinner was traditional English fare, which was better than the College roast to which I been subject every night more than a decade earlier.

Once dinner was finished it was off to another room for fruit, nuts, digestive biscuits and the central cheese. The obligatory Stilton round had pride of place, and the port was passed. Then it was off to the terrace for coffee and brandy.

The night was absolutely still and balmy, the sky a curious lavender grey. Across the terrace was the impressive Codrington Library building, built in the early 18th century on the back of slavery and a sugar cane fortune amassed by a Christopher Codrington.

It highlights the problem of applying 21st century values to the funding of a building like that. The Christopher Wren sundial installed over the entrance is a spectacular reminder of the versatility of the man, and Wren himself was a Fellow.

Oh, so different from the environment of the All Souls College of Christopher Wren, outwardly becoming more sensitive to its survival after the radicalism of 1968 which threatened its existence, when it was sneered at as “a weekend home for port-drinking members of the London Establishment, grown fat on the rent of farms it owned since the Middle Ages”.

Had we had dinner in an Anachronism?

Then it was back to London. I still remember the golden glow drenching the car, and my thoughts drifted to the recently-released Joe Losey film “The Go-between” and I, projecting myself as the young man in search of a romantic interlude in the same rural saffron softness of the film.

I have often visited Oxford since, but never again had a brandy with the 42 Fellows outside on the terrace.

But then again I would have preferred to meet Julie Christie. 

Mouse whisper

A scrap of paper plastered against my mousehole. That is the problem about my mausmeister. He is always cutting out what he considers wise sayings and leaving them on sticky pieces of paper. When I scraped the piece off my “hole way”, it read:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand or more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Very sage advice; but I was thinking of putting in a new entrance to my mousehaus to make a closer access to the pantry. I’ll have to think about it now.

Modest expectations – The Forty-Niners

They come in their work clothes and their steel-capped boots, climbing on board the QantasLink plane at Devonport; or disembarking at the same airport. They are the FIFO miners who work on the ore rich West Coast of Tasmania. They have living quarters on the edge of Zeehan and in Rosebery while they are on work down the mine, since 50 per cent of the miners choose not to live permanently on site. Interestingly one per cent of Tasmanian miners are listed as working in the East Pilbara in Western Australia.

Paradoxically, the Mt Lyell mine at Queenstown, the largest settlement on the West Coast, has been closed down for nearly five years. Its Indian parent company in the same period closed its copper smelter in India, but claims there is no connection between the two decisions. However, Queenstown exists as the local government centre amid denuded hills, a settlement desperately clinging to its existence. The beautiful King River, polluted for over 70 years by the mine tailings from Mount Lyell, is said will take 200 years to restore, but at least a start has been made to cover the riverside that was yellow with sulphur with sedge and other littoral plants. Over the last 20 years you can see that change.

King River gorge and Abt Railway track

It’s a bit sad to see that the old anti-climate change warrior from Tasmania, Eric Abetz remains solidly behind the coal lobby given how little coal mining contributes to the Tasmanian economy – less than 100 jobs. Eric moreover was outed for spending $3,000 on a trip to go to an Australian Mines and Metals Association conference in 2018 in Melbourne. He is reported as saying his travel was appropriate “given the undisputed importance of the sector to Tasmanians. Tasmania’s Mt Lyell mine has been the sole continuous AMMA member”, Abetz said. As the report noted as a postscript, as Eric should have known, “it was no mean feat, considering the mine had been mothballed four years before the gala dinner.”

But then Eric comes from Hobart and I wonder how often he has visited the West Coast – if ever. There is much mining – zinc, iron ore, gold, tin – but no longer from Mount Lyell. There are mines near Zeehan, Rosebery, Tullah and up on the Savage and Henty Rivers. However, if you live in Hobart, the Tasmanian West Coast may as well be on the moon.

I have been going regularly to the West Coast for more than 20 years and yet those towns look the same as they were then, except for the increase in hostel-like accommodation for the FIFO. In other words, these towns have not boomed in population as Queenstown did after the discovery of copper and silver in the late nineteenth century. The need to transport the ore resulted in Strahan on the Macquarie Harbor becoming the conduit port (again the population reached 2,000 then) and the revolutionary Abt railway was the means to transport the ore over the mountains and through the rain forest along the King River from Mount Lyell.

Strahan is now a tourist resort and the Abt Railway, which was closed in 1963, has been rebuilt as a tourist attraction. Strahan also still functions as a fishing port – crayfish and abalone – and in the harbour, salmon farming. There are the leatherwoods, the flowers of which provide the nectar for the distinctive honey found here. Even with the mining, there is still this extraordinary temperate rainforest of myrtle, native beech, sassafras, blackwood and the remnant clumps of pine unique to Tasmania – huon, king billy and celery top pine.

Because the changes in the mining industry from the stereotype beloved by those who never go to a mining town, it is difficult to imagine a settlement to have a life once mined out. But people like Abetz would throw money at Mount Lyell in the mistaken belief that it would result in more jobs, irrespective of the return. In most part the company would probably just pocket the subsidy.

As I said, there is still a healthy mining industry – the whole of the West Coast is a mineralised area, and taking just one mining industry, that of zinc mining at Rosebery (population 713) and Zeehan (population 708), it yields about a third of Australia’s output in zinc; and Australia produces about 30 per cent of the world’s zinc. Unlike coal, zinc is unlikely to be replaced because of its recognized use not only in sunscreen but more importantly in galvanizing iron and in the development of electric batteries for cars.

However even with such important mining activity, the resident population of these two mining towns on a rough calculation is equal to the number of FIFO. It should be added that 30 per cent of the zinc is recycled and here, in employment terms, the Swiss-owned smelter near Hobart at Risdon has played an integral role. The problem with mining in Tasmania is that the West Coast is the last area of untouched temperate rain forest in Australia, brought into stark relief – literally – by the bushfires along the east coast from Queensland to the Victorian border. So mining is a case of treading carefully, having learnt from Mount Lyell as an example of what not to do to the environment.

Wind turbines being placed at Granville Harbour are providing 200 jobs during construction, but for maintenance only 10. That, together with the FIFO, means that in the end it is not the technology nor the resources which provide the essence of life anywhere.

Tourism brings 300,000 to the North-West and West – people are the life blood, especially as the Macquarie Harbour boat trip and the reconstructed Abt Railway are the prime attractions, with Strahan the prime place to stay.

Oh, by the way, dear Eric, you should witness the huge wind turbines being moved down the Murchison Highway, round the corner through Zeehan and on up the road to eventually reach Granville Harbour. Wind and rain are the West Coast’s resources to be exploited, and soon the mighty wind resource of the Forties gales will be added to the Tasmanian power grid.

However, given how irrelevant coal is to the economy of Tasmania, I presume your time as a “coal war warrior” will soon be over, your task completed, but as you drive your Tonka tip truck off into a smoked filled sunset, remember your West Coast and its wonderful diversity.

The Martini

I enjoy a gin martini. My wife makes a very good martini and this blog was prompted by an article on the (alleged) best martini maker in the world opining on how to make the best martini. However the Best Martini was somewhat different from that of the expert.

First of all keep the gin in the freezer. This ensures that you’ll know if the gin has been watered down, because if it partially freezes you know there is dilution. Also if you keep the gin in the freezer, it makes the question of shaken or stirred irrelevant.

Next, “vermouth” the glass with green Noilly Prat; here there is no disagreement with yon expert, but it is a question of the amount. The Best formula calls for one in eight and then the gin from the freezer is poured into a chilled martini glass. And again in agreement, the lemon twist is the best addition to this opulent drink, but if you want to fiddle then if you must use three olives on a gold stick. Gold is important as it gives the olives a certain je ne sais pas quoi dire.

However, the problem is the cost of such a drink and the level of sobriety after two if you forsake the ice. There is no dilution if you pour straight from the freezer.

Which reminds me of that hoary old joke beloved by Latin teachers: Cassius Brutus clanks into the Vinum Bar in Rome and asks for a Martinus. The bartender responds: “surely you mean a martini?” to which Cassius Brutus said: “if I wanted two I would have ordered so”.

The best martini apart the uxorious one described above I ever had was a cucumber infused martini in New York. It was not the faintly cucumberish Hendricks, but a more full flavoured version. The nearest I could find was the Gordon’s cucumber infused gin in the green bottle, but I think I must have bought the last bottles in Australia. You garnish with a partially peeled piece of cucumber.

Have not seen any sign of the Gordon’s Green; only its seeming replacement of pink gin…only in Raffles in Singapore please, as I slightly shudder. 

Bernie Sanders Heartland

A 78 year old who has had a heart attack, who now won’t release his medical notes – bad sign, Bernie. In the information vacuum, the obvious first thought is that he has irreversibly damaged cardiac muscle and therefore a heart at risk.

Then we have a President who mysteriously disappeared into and out of the Walter Reed Hospital. Nobody knows what incantations were said while he was in the hospital. However, Trump’s cupboard is probably the most comprehensive collection of skeletons known to man or woman such that another one as the grim reaper would feel at home.

These old crocks are the marvels of modern American medicine – particularly cardiac care where investigative procedures, stenting and improvement in medication are first rate. American health care (as distinct from the system in which it exists) at its best is probably as good as you would get in the world, if you can afford it and go to wise doctors.

You see modern medicine has enabled an obese, insomniac narcissist with a poor diet and the other who looks madly stressed as if he going to blow a fuse every time he speaks, to be President of the USA.

Just as Nixon thrashed McGovern in the 1972 election, if they survive until November, Trump should win the battle, even though Sanders may appear to be a better bloke.

The other man Joe Biden is just a broad grin, which hides a mediocrity clearly demonstrated by his propensity for plagiarism. His major advantage is he seems physically fit, but old age is not a fair hand in the card game of life.

They said how poor Bloomberg was in the recent debate and how politically incorrect he had been in the past. He does not have the populist orator skills that the others have, with their confected outrage. He is old but he wears his age well without panda eyes or comb overs.

His responses where he was allowed to answer were sensible given that the moderators were appalling. He brings a sense of surety, that on the major policies he will see them through. Like many quiet men he carries a big stick, and Trump just will be no match for him, the longer the campaign goes. He knows how to deal with serial grifters like Trump, and if he secured the nomination he will drive Trump mad with his quiet probing, and as he may say if he was as vulgar to Trump – the fact is that, Trump ol’ boy, I have a bigger one than you have – war chest I mean.

But Bloomberg also is no spring chicken, although he has the gravitas that even in four years he may be able to resurrect America from its policy shambles. It is all very well to have a world economy built on gambling , even if there are fancy names for it, such as stock markets, hedge funds plus all those indices, which may as well be on a bookmaker’s chart. Of course, Bloomberg has built his empire as the steward of these goings-on.

If the Democrats come to their senses, and if Bloomberg is selected, then Pete Buttigieg should be considered for his Vice-President running mate, to test whether an openly gay married man will be acceptable to the majority of Americans. Buttigieg is smart and personable, but not this time, brother.

They who read the blog may say I’m a “typical male who has ignored the two women”. Simply put, America needs a different woman prototype to appeal to the whole electorate. Warren, with her artificial outrage would gain votes, but she suffers from a lack of sense of humour and her candidature is now on life support. The problem with the plethora of women who thought of doing a “Hilary” and have progressively dropped out is that their presence has obscured how impressive Governor Klobuchar is, but she too is in danger of disappearing.

To me on the stump if Trump and Sanders are the 2020 presidential combatants they are equally repellent, but then I do not have a vote, only an opinion. That doesn’t get you anywhere; but the prospect of candidates dying on the campaign trail is too macabre – and frankly, just a bit too close to reality. Moreover, it is not the time for old men.

They will not be around to be cheered or booed at the end of 2050 if the world is still belching the same level of pollution and progressively destroying the world that we have known, but will not live to see. The same can be said for all those old men, as well as Elizabeth Warren.

The Price of Never Being Wrong

The problem with epidemics is they thrive on ignorant national leaders, who have no idea of public health, suppressing inconvenient information. This increasing government secrecy is coupled with the modern version of the courtier castrati, people without ideas but with perfumed phrases whispering into the ear of national leaders who have lost the ability to apologise.

I once wrote a small monograph entitled “The Dilemma of the Public Health Physician” in which I attempted, as I said, “to help public health physicians to work through the situation which confronts many professionals when they are in possession of information which others perceive as ‘sensitive’ or valuable in any respect.

I went on to argue that all public health information should be freely available. The problem is that many public health physicians exist for the collection of data and not for the best way to make it available to the community. But communication skills have never been emphasised as they should be, because even over 20 years ago I wrote; “there is an increasing tendency for the political walls to be daubed with the graffiti of misinformation”.

This current epidemic will test those countries, especially China and Russia, whose leaders’ powers lie in secrecy and misinformation, to become more open. This epidemic will not be the last, given that the world with rising temperatures throughout, is increasingly becoming an incubator for exotic diseases.

Added to this viruses jumping from one species to another, mutating, being always ahead of the game … so no more pangolin penis eating in the restaurants of Asia, please. I assure you it doesn’t help virility only the possibility of a new virus – that is if the pangolin revenge is not already been enacted across the world.

On reflection am I just succumbing to daubing those political walls? Well, that is the point – public health expertise is being allowed not only to languish but to be ignored as an inconvenience. But as many politicians have found out in the past, “wishing an inconvenience would go away” is not a solution.

Having said that it seems we are fortunate in Australia not only to have the calming influence of Brendan Murphy, but also his unheralded deputy Paul Kelly who, unlike his boss, is a public health physician. Their influence on the government where there is a high level of ignorance is, and will continue to be, important. After all, as I wrote they have an imminent dilemma, which I have previously canvassed, which is when is Australia going to lift the ban on unrestricted entry into this country?

That is why the public health physician is as important as members of the police in enforcement of the basic requirements of public health, even down to all Australians washing hands as a matter of course.

Mouse whisper

I am sorry but I cannot let this recent comment by Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister, go by without applauding:

“We Finns have our sauna. And traditionally, it is where we make decisions. So now we have five women in charge, we can all go into the sauna together and make the decisions there.”

“Ei vain miehet vapauttavat kuumaa ilmaa”, says my old Finnish great-grand father mouse Aarvo.

That is the last comment he will ever make. They will be after him with birch branches.

Mickey Finn