Modest Expectations – Indium

Before the age of blogs I used to listen to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America, in which he would take a current situation and tie it into past lessons learnt, and in such a way that each letter was a beautifully crafted piece of writing with a beginning and an ending – a complete expression of his view, with a moral woven into it. An Englishman, he had gone to America before War II and became a US citizen in 1941. He not only had this gift as a writer but also as a TV and documentary producer and presenter. His insight into the American way of life was his core expertise, and he wrote it. His voice, with its perfect diction and ghostly tone with a slight tremolo, was particularly engaging, because of his distillation of intimacy. He may have been broadcasting to the world, but as you listened you felt he was speaking directly to you.

Alistair Cooke

I would have liked his life as an intellectual commentator but writing a “Blog from America” for 58 years … I wonder. As for emulating his TV career – no.  I would have been hopeless. The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd makes me throw up, so phobic I am of the TV studio.

Forty years plus ago I went to the Kimberley and wrote several short stories centred on the places I visited. The story reprinted below entitled “The Island” recounted most closely my experience, while stretching reality into a yarn. It was the first time I felt the unspoken force of this country, without being privileged to have Aboriginal heritage. I have divided this story into several parts, and the first part introduces the Wandjina.

As background to the story, I searched throughout the various places I visited in the Kimberley looking for a bark Wandjina. Apart from a few images in books, I knew very little until I saw images of Wandjina on rock walls.

I managed to find one small bark Wandjina for sale in Kununurra, which I gave to my elder son. Since then, my wife and I have acquired several Wandjina painted by the Karedada sisters – Lily and Rosie (the Karedadas were the family with the responsibility at that time for painting Wandjina); a small bark painting by Waigan and one where the provenance was unknown as it was created in the mid-1960s when such bark representations of the Wandjina were new. Most of these bark images came from the Aboriginal people living at Kalumburu, a settlement on Mission Bay about 230 kilometres north of the Gibb River Road turnoff in Western Australia. Here the Spanish Benedictines had established a mission in the early part of the twentieth century. One of my teachers had said that during WWII, when he was in the Australian navy, he had been stranded there. The priests only spoke Spanish and he not; therefore, they communicated in Latin. No mention in any of his anecdotes of contact with the Indigenous people; such were the times.

Anyway, here is the first part of the story; the eyes are those of my hero, Bill:

In the Northwest of Western Australia in the winter of 1979, the sun starts to set before 5 o’clock. In fact, in that season, it sets at the same time every year. It’s a big country, Western Australia. Bigger than Texas. And the clocks are set to Perth time, even when one is far from the comfort of having a second martini and enjoying the broad sweep of the Swan River. The clocks of suburbia determine that the sun sets prematurely in the north country where the gulfs in the dreamtime were torn out of the coastline and waterfalls run horizontal.

Sixty kilometres up one of these gulfs lies the Port. The expanse of water it overlooks is called the Gut. It vaguely resembles a flaccid stomach.

In the pale purple twilight, the hills brood over this tiny town with its shacks distinct from the new fibro-cement houses on the other side of the hill.

Bill surveyed the car in the fast falling light. Parked on the rise outside the police compound, it had two flat tyres.

The lady from Avis had said that he could have the car if he could get to the Port and pick it up. It was the only hire car available. She said it would be very recognisable because it was iridescent purple — just a medium-sized sedan.

However, as he surveyed the car, he could see it had no protection — none of that ugly but highly effective steel tubing, the so-called roo bars, nor chicken wire to protect against stray rocks through the windscreen.

And there were the two flat tyres.

The Port began to twinkle with ship and house lights. The timber shop fronts threw pools of yellow light onto the street.

But back to Bill. The highly qualified Bill.

Bill, the centre of his own rather inconsiderable space, was a medical practitioner in his early thirties. His family was “old money”. He had mixed his profession with research. His days were spent closeted in a laboratory, occasionally venturing into the antiseptic stretch of the ward to teach a few students and to pronounce on the inmates’ futures, for a price. Bill had reached a steady kind of existence, punctuated by dinner parties, the game of squash, the odd casual affair, and cultivated displays of intellect at conferences, seminars and workshops.

Holidays were spent in expensive resorts. That is to say, generally. This year, Bill had decided to come north and have an adventure of sorts. Bill was accustomed to pre-booked travel, accommodation with deferential staff and a car readily available, with a driver if necessary.

When he had flown into the Town on the Dam, he expected the same, even though his arrangements had been made in a hurry. “No way!” she had said. Cars were at a premium. You can try other hire car outfits, but you’ll get the same answer. She had paused. There was one option. “The only car is up the Port, and if you can get up there, it’s yours.” She paused again and then went on. “It’s got two flat tyres you’ll have to get fixed.”

No wonder it was stuck there, he thought. Didn’t know whether he could do it — make the Port. But when he got back to the motel, he noticed a group preparing to leave. He recognised one as a prominent ear nose and throat specialist from Perth. The specialist was heading a team charged with doing good. He wondered where they were going. He asked. They were going to the Port. He was offered a lift, and straight away accepted.

These guys knew the north — they had spent the latter part of their professional lives coming back and forth at least twice a year to treat the local Aboriginal people and the whites alike. Ear infections were rife among the Aboriginal kids — needed grommets in many cases.

They were good blokes, with a sense of enjoyment of the Land. They had an easy familiarity with the sweeping majesty of the country, where the Cloud spirit was still in control and white people only visited. She had bestowed her grace on the black people, which reflected from the deep pools in their eyes. Look into their eyes and see the arcane. It was Aboriginal country. They walked free in the country without compass. They defined their ownership and boundaries. Bill listened to this explanation. Maybe it was a white man’s interpretation.

Bill had sat next to the specialist surgeon who was leading the team, and who had provided his view of what he called “the blackfella”. It was all so unfamiliar to Bill. He had hopped from town to town, seeing the sights, seeing the Aboriginal people roaming the streets, but he had no experience of communicating with them.

Their driver was identified as a Ngarinyin man who knew the country. They called him Stanley. He was a broad chested man with an equally broad smile. He wanted to know whether Bill wanted to see some rock paintings on the way. The leading specialist thought it a good idea, that it would give Bill an experience — probably “teach you something.”

“Sure” said Bill.

The sun was pleasant. It was June. The company was convivial. Even when they stopped and walked, it was exhilarating. There had first been a track which could be negotiated for some way with the four-wheel drive, but in the end it was easier to walk through the deep sands of the dry creek beds. This was Stanley’s country. The guide shaded his eyes and indicated the rock face.

The brown cliffs where the paintings were, he’d explained as they’d walked, were thankfully not well known and the track, although not particularly difficult to walk, was sufficiently far from the main road to deter any casual defiler. There was always some idiot wanting to scratch his name on the wall — any wall. Weaving in among the woollybutt eucalypts, the track moved up and then downwards. As they walked, the day was imperceptibly vanishing. The shadows were lengthening as they picked their way along the rock face where the figures were displayed.

There were large fish — here a snake — there a hand, an impression in red ochre dust. Tasselled dancing figures. He was told they were called Bradshaw figures, and there were doubts about their authenticity. They were not Aboriginal figures, unlike the wandjina. He had never seen them before. The wandjina were cloud spirits — images with eyes and speckled brows. Their heads were surrounded by radiating lines, which completed an aura. This wandjina was a wellspring of sacred images for the Aboriginal people, unlike the Bradshaw figures.

Some of the paintings were high on the cliff walls; some under overhanging ledges. The gallery ran for hundreds of metres around the cliff until it reached the point where a waterfall flowed in the wet season. The artists had stopped here; the mural was complete. The rock pigeons, their fusty brown feathers giving a sense of an age past, were coming in to roost as the day began to wane.

“Better get going. Still got a way to go.”

The voice broke the stillness, as they had said little, as if in church. The others had seen it before; they had pointed out features in quiet, clipped tones. Bill had nodded and absorbed as much as he could. He wondered at how irrelevant had been his experience in Downtown Perth on a Sunday afternoon, sipping the art gallery ambience. He had really not particularly liked Aboriginal art — bark painting. There was not much of it that he could remember anyway.

But here, in a brief moment, he had got some sense of the art, some context for it — a fleeting insight only; not the meaning that Stanley possessed. (to be continued).

Door County

Door County is a spit of land separating Lake Michigan and Green Bay in northern Wisconsin. Green Bay, the city, lies at the gateway to the peninsula, and has been settled since the seventeenth century when it was a base for fur traders. It is now known for paper manufacture, of being the toilet paper capital of the world – and the home of the NFL Green Bay Packers, so called because a meat packing company gave them $500 for uniforms when they were founded.

Anyway, we bypassed the city of Green Bay, which gets its name from the periodic algae infestation of the Bay. Yet Door County, once you clear the environs of Green Bay, is one the memorable places we have visited.

Memory of that time was bought on this week by the news of a three generation Ukrainian heritage family that has been mass producing candles in the Ukrainian colours (sale proceeds going to the Ukrainian cause) which, unsurprisingly once this was published on national television, elicited a strong demand for the candles across America.

It was Halloween when we visited Door County; pumpkins were everywhere, and the normal crop of witches, faux cobwebs and skeletons and things that are supposed to go bump in the night was very much in evidence.

We stayed in the traditional white clapboard Ephraim Inn, overlooking Lake Michigan. When we went to dinner, we had an unexpected shock. I asked for the wine list and was informed that Ephraim was “dry”. If we wanted a drink with our meals we would have to go down the road to Fish Creek. Fortunately, Fish Creek was well served by restaurants and the Coho salmon fished from the Lake was so good it enticed us to order it two nights in a row.

Since our visit, I believe that Ephraim has lifted the 163 year old ban on alcohol sales which was imposed in 1853 within this Moravian community, where its church with its delicate steeple still stands on a green knoll overlooking Ephraim.

Honeycrisp apples

It was the end of the apple picking season, and there was an abundance of places from which to buy apples. The Gala apple was a familiar variety, but there were at least 20 other varieties and we chose the Honeycrisp, a hybrid noted for its juiciness and crunchiness. But there were many more completely unfamiliar to our Australian palate such as Ginger Gold and Courtland.

We drove the length of the peninsula through the small seaside towns, beside orchards, around windy cliff roads. To me, village America always has its gentle attraction – so different from the dusty flood plain called Australia. As for Door County, even though it seemed to be an endless excuse for Bing Crosby or Doris Day songs, we said we would be back, but we have said that about many places – plans that the Virus has impaired if not totally destroyed.

Anyway, we must get a candle making kit.

Need to Ramp Up

In The Monthly two months ago, Russell Marks wrote a very prescient article about South Australia opening its borders at the time the Omicron virus hit and now has followed the B.a.2 variant.

Simply stated, the Premier, Stephen Marshall, opened the SA borders prematurely – at a time when the Omicron variant first appeared on the scene. The SA Chief Health Officer hurriedly changed her mind when she saw the rapid increase in the number of cases, and recommended the borders be closed again. The Premier did not take her advice. He deferred to the select audience of the Rupert Murdoch and Peter Costello media and its impatience with public health measures.

It was the people of South Australia who could see what damage the Virus was wreaking. This was particularly reflected in the disruption to the health services, and the so-called ramping.  In other words, there was the number of ambulances lying idle unable to discharge the patient into the hospital’s emergency department.

I have reviewed extensively two major ambulance services in Australia and have a fair idea of the problems, which extend far wider than the problems that a pandemic introduces. The pandemic has only emphasised these problems.

Against that background of a State under public health stress, the Premier said that he would prefer funding a basketball stadium and a convention centre which only compounds the politico-pathological requirement to build monuments. Once it was hospitals and universities, now it is modern day colosseums where the pork barrel stops.

Despite the media in his favour, Marshall was soundly defeated; and yet elements of the media still say it doesn’t necessarily translate into a Federal electoral defeat for Morrison, despite him being invisible during the campaign. The sight of John Howard being rolled out in the last days showed how far the Liberals were tapping the bottom of desperation. One question – never to be answered – would a Morrison intervention counterpointed by Dutton and Frydenberg, a modern magi, have helped? The locals thought not, but presumably when they do turn up during the Federal election the public will be able to have a direct say in how much it likes the frankincense.

What will be more interesting is how the new Premier will approach the Virus.

I am confused by what the current approach to the Virus is. It seems that the Governments have given up – the public health response is exhausted. Who are the public health champions? The public health talking heads have subsided with the media’s apparent loss of interest. One of public health’s weaknesses is how ineffectual the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine has been and yet two decades ago it led the Australian campaign against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific until the French stopped their tests.

I would have thought that there would be a clear approach. On the one hand there are no restrictions, until a person gets the Virus and then you go into isolation until you test negative. Politicians are scared solid by lockdowns, and the core of preventative measures – social distancing, hand sanitiser and masks – are increasingly a matter of choice.

Vaccination has proved effective up to a point, but now there are no penalties for not being vaccinated, and the relentless anti-vaccination advocates leave a confused community. If this new variant is as contagious as measles, then without due precautions that will mean the whole community will contract it and for a substantial part of the community, the experience will not be a mild one.

The difference with measles is that once infected, once immunised, measles will not recur. No such guarantee exists for the Virus, even if the experts decide it is less virulent.

In public policy terms, I have been advocating dedicated quarantine centres. But once that line of defence is breached, then the next lines of defence are dedicated infectious diseases hospitals with an equally dedicated transport service for those who need hospitalisation. 

Hardly the Little Match Girl 

They buried Kimberley Kitching this week. A Senator from Victoria, she had been parachuted into the Senate under controversial circumstance in 2016 by Bill Shorten when he was ALP leader. She died prematurely at the age of 52, and from then, she became a cause célèbre – a woman harassed to death by unfeeling female colleagues.

As reported in some quarters, it was as though Senator Kitching was the “little match girl”, judging by the ferocious story being constructed around her demise.  She was married to Andrew Landeryou, once joint owner of a palatial home “Wardlow” in Parkville; friend of Chloe Shorten since school days and embroiled in the Health Services Union known for its shenanigans while she was general manager.

The Little Match Girl, Norman Rockwell

Unlike the “little match girl”, Kitching came from a privileged Brisbane private school background. Her father was a university professor, and she benefited from a time in France to becomes fluent in French. She seemed to be a very quick-witted woman. Nevertheless, like many ambitious people she carved out a career never far from controversy.

In 2000, she married Andrew Landeryou, a scion of the inner ALP circle which his dad inhabited. He too has had his moments, from the time of his presidency of the Melbourne University Student Union (formerly, in my time, the Student Representative Council), where he apparently tried to commercialise aspects of that student body. It is strange that when I was President of the same body there were moves, ultimately squashed, to have the Council purchase property at Venus Bay, then an undeveloped collection of sand dunes. I remember looking at it and saying thanks, but no thanks. SRCs were not structured to be land developers. In any event, in his case it did not end well for young Landeryou.

Later he popped up in 2005, with a venture financed by Solomon Lew in part – and when it failed he decamped to Costa Rica leaving Kimberley, portrayed as the victim wife trying to deal with the remains. The suggestion was that Kimberley had been deserted, but whether that was so, they had been swiftly re-united even though Landeryou was bankrupted.

From December 2012, Kitching was employed by the Health Services Union and she was never far away from the controversy which surrounded the criminal behaviour of the local secretary of the union, the recently convicted Kathy Jackson, and the other national officers of the Union, also convicted. Whatever her role was, she obviously was close to some sordid shenanigans and her name was mentioned often in despatches.

For instance, in 2016, the Senate voted 35-21 to note that she, although its newest member, was found to have provided untruthful evidence to the Fair Work Commission. The Greens joined the Coalition in backing the motion, which also received support from three One Nation senators and Victorian senator Derryn Hinch. Quite an introduction!

The conservative Tasmanian Senator Abetz noted in a media release at the time, The fact that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed Kitching so strongly in the face of findings against her from a body that Bill Shorten oversaw for two years, for conduct undertaken while he was the Minister responsible, that she was “untruthful and unreliable” in evidence speaks volumes about his personal and Labor’s standards for public office.”

Ironically, Kitching worked with him in the Senate to introduce a Magnitsky law that allows the government to seize assets from people who have abused human rights around the world.

This was no poor little waif as the media and a few of her mates are trying to portray now. She dined with persons who had clearly shown themselves to be enemies of the ALP, and thus one of the problems for a networker as aggressive as she apparently was, with all “the form” behind her, was whether she could be trusted.

To be able to do what Kitching, herself apparently conservative (in very much as I remember some of the Democratic Labor Party members were), was trying to do, is a particular art form, if one tries to balance on the barbed wire division of an adversarial political system.

Her colleagues who voted against the condemnation of her in 2016 were worried by her free-wheeling approach, whether right or wrong. She was not bullied; she was ostracised – however, the use of “bullying” is more emotive. Ostracism is a favourite ploy in politics.

She dies, and the conservative side of politics well known for their Salem approach to female opponents were on the job. The real target seems to be Penny Wong, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has been a courteous brick wall. She made one exasperated comment which has been turned into a causal relationship with Kitching’s death despite occurring three years ago and eliciting an apology from her.

Morrison wants to run an election based on sabotage and camouflage and if Senator Wong can be discredited so much the better, especially given her appearance and name – nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

I suppose last Sunday’s ABC Insiders Program took the proverbial cake. I generally accept bias as part of politics, but this… Australia may be going to Hell in a handcart, but there they were, all over the Kitching case – at least Samantha Maiden and Spears Interruptus were.

Greg Sheridan played the avuncular role, his views laced within his long time association with Santamaria and the National Civic Council – a fading reminder of the strife within the Labor party, particularly in Victoria, generated by Santamaria and certain elements around Archbishop Mannix so many moons ago, but still apparently latent.

Mark Kenny, knowing he was in a setup, just let it flow apart from a few comments drowned out by the Interruptus.  Australia is entering a time of a new form of Government – Murdocracy – a neologism to describe rule by the media.

Now, to the next phase – Albanese portrayed as the weak leader in the grip of three women – each of whom portrayed as having a doubtful allegiance to Australia. Yes, Murdocracy indeed.

As a postscript, I was interested in the association of sudden cardiac death and thyroid disease. Obviously I have had no access to Kitching’s clinical notes but it is worthy to note that in a 2016 cohort study in The Netherlands, an association was sought between thyroid disease and sudden cardiac death. This was an extensive population cohort and it was shown that raised levels of free thyroxine were associated with an increased incidence of sudden cardiac death, even when the patient was “apparently” euthyroid (in other words in the normal range).

It is well known that the thyroid hormone derived from the thyroid gland in the neck is a major component in the regulation of metabolism. For example, in thyrotoxicosis tachycardia is often present, as in hypothyroidism bradycardia is evident. However, The Netherlands’ paper could not establish any causal relationship for the phenomenon of sudden cardiac death, which incidentally also occurs in the autoimmune Hashimoto’s Disease. There was no mention of “bullying” or “ostracism” in this analysis

Mouse Whisper

In response to the article on banana boats last week our Swedish correspondent has informed us there is a job available in Stockholm for a banana ripener. The incumbent has recently retired after 33 years during which he has assisted the ripening of 55,000 bananas per year. Sounds a succulent job. I may apply. The Swedish text books with a tipple of Aquavit beckon.

Modest Expectations – Harry & Izzys

Old Geelong Grammarians?

What on earth prompted the Prime Minister to label Richard Marles the Manchurian Candidate. He doesn’t look a bit like Laurence Harvey. But then again, the trailer to the film says that if you come into the film five minutes late you won’t know what it is about. Sounds familiar.

Look, we all know that Richard Marles did go to Geelong Grammar School, and he is the member for Corio. A Cambridge blue scion amid the dark blue singlet brigade of Corio, but known to have actually eaten Beijing duck in Beijing. That must have been the clue which triggered off Marco Morrison, with his rendition of Frank Sinatra.

Now you must know something, Prime Minister, who is this assassin you alluded to because, as you know, the Manchurian candidate was programmed to kill, and the trigger was the queen of diamonds. Are you sure that you are not the target, and who plays the part of the wicked Angela Lansbury as Eleanor, or moreover Janet Leigh then fresh from her Psycho scream?

In a way, the film ended up with there being no Trumps, but you’ll have to see the film to understand exactly what I mean.

Remember the advice above. Don’t be late. Watch the 1962 film before you, caro Scott, utter the words again – if ever.

Pity that Albanese hadn’t seen it either.

The Mammoth in the Room

Mammoth – looking for a room

I read Crikey. The problem is that it has become an exposé for the incompetent and corrupt.   One gets the aroma and taste of a foetid Australia. After all, it is an unpleasant business sifting through the garbage to find something worth recycling. I do not know what keeps Stephen Mayne cheerful, given that he would need a gas mask for most issues he crawls through, the Murdoch detritus in particular.

I have already written about John Elliott, and Rundle got it mostly right. The preservation of bluestone warehouses as an Elliot legacy may not read as well as the “Jam Factory” effect, when one sees what happened to those former bluestone warehouses transitioning to “gentlemen’s clubs” at the Yarra end of King Street.

I was not going to go on record about Andrew Peacock, because he was never a serious figure in Australian policy development. Except to say that if he had become Prime Minister, he could have been very good. Andrew was intellectually lazy, but superficially affable with the ability to recruit very good staff. Vanity and a need to be loved always needs therapy, but until Andrew and I spectacularly fell out because of my diatribe directed at him, we had a cordial relationship; however, it was always very ambivalent, even at the best of times.

But contrary to Guy Rundle’s commentary in Crikey, they are not the only remnants of that era. There is still Lloyd Williams to carry the flag for, among other matters, the building and commissioning of the Crown Casino in Melbourne, before an expletive-laden Kerry Packer stepped in to bale out the project.

It was early times but even then the customers were allegedly urinating on the Crown Casino floor rather than give up their spot at the poker machines; and for which persons were sacked for not using “alternative facts” to deny that it happened.  Nevertheless, there seems to be an axiom in Australian public life that success in horse racing will forgive any transgressions, and the more so in the number of Melbourne Cups your horses win, the higher one rises in the hagiography stakes. Williams has won seven.

And finally, there is Rupert Murdoch, another alumnus of Geelong Grammar School. Rupert seems to have never spiritually left Melbourne, because even in old age he has the trophy – the trophy that avenged the treatment the “Melbourne establishment” meted out to his father, and originally only left Rupert with a small Adelaide paper as the legacy. The “Herald” may be no more; the “Sporting Globe” may be no more; but son, we will still have the “Herald Sun”.

The mists of time may have meant some lessening of his attachment, but when you say that the old generation has evaporated, I believe it cannot be underestimated how much effect Rupert’s eventual passing will have on Melbourne. None of his children have any reason to venerate Melbourne.

As part of that generation who is disappearing, I grew up in a Melbourne with three morning newspapers and one evening newspaper, which appeared in multiple editions.

I may live to see a time when there may be no Melbourne newspaper, but who knows how many years Murdoch will remain relevant; his last words will not be Rosebud like Citizen Kane, aka William Randolph Hearst, but maybe Langwarrin.

Cruden Farm, Langwarrin

The Slivers of War or Putin’s Lebensraum

His alliance of autocrats would also have a psychological cost inside Russia. It would demonstrate Mr Putin’s dependence on the siloviki, the security bosses who see in Ukraine’s democracy and deepening ties with the West a threat to their own ability to control and loot Russia. It would be a further sign to the liberal capitalists and technocrats who are the other pillar of the Russian state that they had lost. More of the best and brightest would leave; others would give up. Stagnation and resentment would build into opposition likely to be met with heightened brutality.  The Economist

A conventional view. Here we have a little ageing Russian secret police agent invading Ukraine to destabilise the world order to satisfy some tortuous agenda. He has had some previous so-called victories in predominantly Russian areas of Ukraine such as Crimea (now plunged into poverty) and along the Ukrainian border in some of the poorer areas where Putin’s war can be cynically described as slum clearances.

Kiev

Putin may weave and feint, but this is not the Hitler bloodless annexation of the Sudetenland. The Ukrainians are not prepared to embrace their Russian cousins. As he proposes to go deeper into the country, Putin will encounter – while presumably destroying – increasing signs of affluence, towns and cities increasingly becoming costly rubble until he reaches the peak of his ruinous agenda to destroy Kiev, the spiritual capital of everything he professes to hold dear.  Icons smashed among the rubble of centuries old tradition. All to satisfy a smirking crypto-maniac full of venom. What have the Russians to gain?  Germany found that out in the ruins of 1945 as another maniac met his fate.

So, assume Putin’s troops blast their way to the Polish border into increasing hostile territory, their casualties rising.  While the invasion is happening, NATO would be freed from the accusation of aggressor, apart from the bleats emanating from the Russian hackery, but now freed, able to respond. Troops begin pouring over the Belarussian border from Lithuania. The Russian exclave, Kaliningrad is an easy target for missile attack; the new Polish corridor destination.

The ripples of War.

Then what?

But before answering that question, consider this comment in the NYT this week:

The die was cast. The clock has been ticking since then, with Mr. Putin taking enough military action in Georgia and Ukraine to freeze the countries in strategic limbo, as he awaited his moment to avenge the perceived humiliation of Russia by the West after the Cold War’s end 

This refers to the aftermath of a NATO summit held in Bucharest in 2008 when it was breezily stated that Georgia and the Ukraine would eventually become part of NATO.

Putin was not amused as he showed us on February 21 this year. Russian troops moved into the disputed area of Eastern Ukraine. This was accompanied by the Russian recognition of the Lugansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, population about 2 million. The recognition of another Sliver Republic. Putin has done it before – for instance, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova.

Putin has found out that there are initial protests but then these tiny slivers are forgotten, but then they become buffer zones. He seems now to have done it again in Ukraine, and created a buffer zone in a part of  Ukraine  that NATO are not going to give up their comfortable existence to contest.

OK, there are sanctions, which seem not to be particularly effective, as Germany would remain very dependent on Russian natural gas; others less so, even though NATO is recommending its member countries introduce sanctions on Russia. Germany has refused to sign the agreement to start the flow.

One difference is that while both Moldova and Georgia have small populations, the Ukraine is 55 million against Russia’s 150 million. By his antics, Putin’s chances of quietly re-installing his puppet as Head of the Ukrainian Government are gone especially as there are strong incentives for Ukraine  to move to a Western-type democracy.

On the other hand, Belarus is inevitably going to be absorbed into this sliver approach. President Lukashenko grew up to run piggeries and he has learnt nothing. To him, Belarus is just a larger piggery , a mixed metaphor for the rust bucket industries of the lost Soviet Union, as are these new sliver companion tin pots in Eastern Ukraine which also retain  rust bucket remnants of the old Soviet order.

Soviet nuclear expertise … Chernobyl

It is a wonder that Putin has not taken over Chernobyl as one of his Slivers. It shows what one can do with Soviet nuclear “expertise”, and already as an unexpected  consequence provides a buffer between Belarus and the Ukraine.

Of course, there may be another reason for all this. Putin may have just flipped his switch and spends most evenings scheming with Peter and Catherine. “Great, aren’t both of you? Now where is Poltrava exactly?” 

May I introduce Q fever

Some years ago, when I was working in North-East Victoria, a transport driver responsible for collecting the waste water from an abattoir in the Ovens Valley presented with a flu-like illness. It took a substantial time for him to be diagnosed with Q fever.

Sir Macfarlane Burnet

The challenge presented by Q fever is to recognise it, caused as it is by a rickettsia-like organism called Coxiella burneti, named for the Australian scientist, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, who discovered it.

Q Fever is contracted through the inhalation of air or dust from contaminated animals and their environments. Therefore, hazard prevention circulates around respiratory equipment and reducing stirring up sediments in the yards. Sound familiar?

There has been much deliberation over the mandatory vaccination of the population against COVID-19, a cost of which is largely taken up by the Federal government. In contrast to COVID, there are no state or federal subsidies for the Q fever immunisation program due to the low prevalence rate for Australia’s population. In Queensland around 300 people are diagnosed every year. In fact, the symptoms of COVID-19 and Q fever are similar, with high fever and general malaise, including the flu-like illness.

The cost of the vaccination ranges from $150 to $450. It’s not a large outlay but with seasonal staff and low industry retention rates, it adds up. Currently there is no legislation that mandates workers to be vaccinated against Q Fever. However, a business owner is required to manage risks to workers under most workplace health and safety legislation.

If unvaccinated staff are allowed to work with farm animals, appropriate management strategies need to be implemented and provided to employees, for instance PPE, masks, changing from a high pressure hosing system to a low pressure, dust controls in yards, hand washing.

In short, employers are responsible for immunising their staff, otherwise appropriate risk mitigation and prevention strategies need to be implemented. As for this transport driver, whose diagnosis was initially missed, and who developed the chronic form of the  disease; he became much more difficult to treat.

At various times, there have been questions about the long term efficacy of the vaccine. But it has been accepted by the industry as being better than nothing and augmented those industries with high health and welfare standards.

Q fever is a disease of the workers, but Australia has not experienced the same scream of the lumpenproletariat shouting “Freedom forever”, their ugly face sprouting from the social media. The worker in question had not been vaccinated against Q fever; and now was destined to a long period of chronic disease and disability.

Australia has yet to reap the full legacy of “Long COVID”; but let me reiterate, as a legatee of a chronic disease with a recent relapse, I would not wish it on anybody.  I cannot be vaccinated against my disease, and thus will never have freedom from it – think about it if you are one of those unvaccinated  COVID-19 idiots wrapped in your yellow rags, while you rail against vaccination. You at least can gain protection from the disease. For the unfortunate it may become chronic, when sometimes you may wish for the freedom of dying as preferable. You can be assured that will be “forever”.

Ground hog days in New Hampshire

On the way up

Most skiers were pacing between 42 and 50 minutes per lap, but at 6 a.m. Monday, I walked lap 44 with a 34-year-old from Ohio named Brody Leven who identified himself as a “professional human-powered skier” and had been hitting 39 minutes a lap like clockwork, always at the front of the pack.

“I seek out testing myself. I live for this,” he said, reading off the vertical gain from his watch, now showing 46,771 feet. “I’m competing against them, but I’m competing against myself. And I have no intention of stopping.”

This describes what one of the 100 skiers were doing near Jackson New Hampshire on Mount Black, with “The Last Man (sic) Standing” being the ultimate laurel. This event occurred over a few days recently, when these blokes apparently had nothing to do but indulge in an endurance event of uncertain length. It just depends when the last person is skiing the ultimate run down the Mountain.

Brody Leven happened to be the eventual winner. Sixty-five times he skied up the 1.25 miles to where the vintage chair lift was the marker for the turn for descent. The time allowed was one hour and Brody did it in about forty minutes. Thus, he had twenty minutes to recuperate.

He thanked the journalist for accompanying him because he had stopped on a previous run to help a bloke who was bending over a car only to find out that the man was talking to a rock and a tree. This tendency towards hallucinations makes night time skiing treacherous, but it doesn’t deter these enthusiasts. The Olympic Games may be held contemporaneously in China, but there is other madness abroad.

I thought it must be very lonely on that last ski run when you are on your own and that tree and rock you are trying to avoid is actually a bloke bending over his car.

How long before this practice hits Australia?

Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital has agreed to pay $14.6 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging it fraudulently billed government insurers for surgeries performed by trainees without proper oversight because supervising surgeons were working in another operating room.

The settlement marks the third time since 2019 that the renowned Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital agreed to pay millions of dollars to resolve a claim stemming from the controversial practice known as concurrent surgery, or double-booking, in which surgeons juggle two operations simultaneously. The three out-of-court settlements total $32.7 million. 

Beyond contempt, as reported by The Boston Globe. Dodgy practices like this have been rumoured to occur in the bottom feeding area of the health industry, but at the Mass General!

What Bird is That?

February is the best time to be on the west coast of Tasmania. In fact, it has been much drier than normal. This has not deterred the New Holland Honey Eaters from feeding off the kangaroo paws, which thrive under the north facing windows. At the side of the house, the leatherwood tree is in full bloom, and smelling the delicate white flowers provides a honeyed fragrance. This is the time of the year when the bee boxes are everywhere, and near Mount Arrowsmith there is a particularly dense stand of these trees. The jar of leatherwood honey on the kitchen bench is testimony to this intense period of apian activity.

Red browed finch

Then my wife came in one morning and said she had seen a bird she did not immediately recognise. We are not bird watchers; I for one do not have the patience. Anyway, a bird that is a visitor to our bush lined property is intriguing. The bird she had seen was small but had a distinctive red tail. After some research, we agreed it was a red browed finch. Being a female, it lacked the red brow, but otherwise the bird picture seemed to confirm that she was that finch.

A hairy wren’s nest

On further reading, it so happens that this bird is found where fairy wrens live. The underbrush on our property is very conducive to being a wren habitat and they share the title to the property. I was having my hair cut outdoors by my wife and the silver strands were going everywhere in the breeze. Our mate said: “Don’t worry about sweeping the hair up. The wrens will come along and line their nests with it.” I was glad to be of service.

Mouse Whisper

Our household always reads the Washington Post’s Voracious Eating. (We have the special rodent edition of Nibble Voraciously). Good word “voraciously”!  There is a variety of recipes, many of which have a Central American heritage, and they frequently embody recipes unusual here in Australia.

The commentary attached to each recipe is often entertaining. The following from one distinguished cook may cause the fire brigade bosses to splutter over their lemonade: “The pan is going to get very hot, and when you add liquid to a ripping hot pan, it’s going to sputter. Fear not! If you’re not regularly setting off your fire alarm at home, you’re not really cooking, (Though, you may want to have a splatter screen handy!)

Modest Expectation – Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring

General Frewen

Ever since the mournful face of General Frewen first appeared in the media as the face of the person in charge of the logistics, rolling out the various weapons to curb the spread of the virus, I have had my doubts. He always seems to announce that there is plenty of something or other or announces it’s here or it’s imminent; and then there is an inevitable disconnect, some of which is salvageable at some point.

However, the impression is that of a man in khaki sitting on a pile of chaos.

The Prime Minister has found a new catchphase of “pushing through” to cover the lack of direction. Like so many of Morrison’s catchphrases, it lacks any objective meaning. The Prime Minister compares his nebulous phrase with “lockdown”. I know what Lockdown means, and I know what selective lockdown means. But “pushing through”?  I ask you. How is that measured?

For me, I have tolerated Frewen until, when asked about the lack of organisation of the children’s inoculations, he replied well, go and out and source a doctor or pharmacist.

I thought of the General in a conventional warfare situation telling his troops after the invasion has started to go and find a gunsmith or boomerang carver to source their weapons.

Now, the kids are going back to school, and they could be faced with an essay question.

“General Frewen is incompetent and should be replaced. Discuss.”

The Greater Novak

The Greater Serbian ideology epitomises the nexus between religion, mythology and political thought. The establishment of Messianic ideology (Third Rome ideology), disseminated from Imperial Russia all over the Orthodox world, found fruitful ground in Serbia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This ideology has been attributed to the rise of fanaticism and hostility toward others.

Serbia injected itself into WW1 when a member of one of its secret societies, The Black Hand, Gavrilo Princip by name, an 18 year old student, assassinated the Grand Duke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. This is generally regarded as one of the incidents which lit the flame of WWI. From Belgrade’s perspective, this War was the Third Balkan War. The First Balkan war in 1912 against the Ottoman Empire saw Serbia gain control of Kosovo, while the Second in 1913 saw Serbia defeat Bulgaria. These victories fed the aggressive aspects of a deep-rooted Greater Serbian ideology. The intertwined Orthodox church sense of superiority shared between the two major Slavic powers in Russia and Serbia emboldened the Serbians to take on the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Despite the collapse of the Russian Imperium, the Serbians came out the winners at the Conference at Versailles, with a Serbian king presiding over the new country of Yugoslavia, having also acquired both Croatia and Slovenia, plus, the predominantly Muslim Bosnia. This lasted until Germany invaded the Balkans in 1941.

Therefore, this new nation, sandwiched between the ruins of two empires in which they had been on the winning side, fulfilled the Serbian nationalist aims – at least to some degree.

In a demonstration of the underlying animosities in the World of the Racquet, at a time when Djokovic was probably acquiring his first racquet, the Croatian tennis player, Goran Ivanisevic had criticised Serbian-born Monica Seles, the top-seeded woman. Her “crime” was not disassociating herself from Yugoslavia and he said if they each won the Wimbledon titles, he would not dance with Seles at the traditional ball which follows. This was in 1992 at a time when the Serbs and Croatians were warring in the Balkans, in an ill-conceived venture by the Serbs, under Slobodan Milošević, to restore the Greater Serbian mystique, which Tito had destroyed by the end of WW11. The irony was that Seles was an ethnic Hungarian by accident born in Serbia.

Order of St Sava

Djokovic is the archetypical Serbian authoritarian nationalist with the beautiful Serbian wife, two kids – and even at 34, the parents, not him, are there for Novak, directing the media storm in Serbia. His parents were actually born in Kosovo, and he has donated US$100,000 to the Gracanica Orthodox monastery there, for which he has been awarded the Order of St Sava.

Kosovo is only 1.5% Serb, and the rest are mainly Albanian, and hence the religious divide which drives into the position that Kosovo should be part of Serbia. A bit like Australia where the Serbs number about 20,000 across Australia, but then they can cause commotion more than any other.

His tennis mastery and his standing in his own country is such that when he feels that his exalted status is violated, then it is a situation which not surprisingly has generated this response, especially as his courtiers in Tennis Australia had obviously reassured him that they had fixed up a deal.

The problem is that Serbian nationalism knows no bounds, it travels from generation to generation, through its Orthodox church reinforcing this view, and worse still it is the Orthodox Christmas when this Christ simulacrum has been imprisoned in a “Carlton mangy”.

Djokovic is a poster boy of the anti-vaxxers, which is one of the many faces of the wild conspiracy theorists, intent in turning the world into raging paranoia, where the legacy of mediaeval myths borne of ignorance are translated into a modern day framework. Djokovic fits into this milieu as Trump does in his, completely selfish. All Djokovic wants is to win more Grand Slams than anyone else, and Melbourne has been his favourite surface. Nothing else matters, but because of his stance on vaccination he finds that us Australians find his attitude offensive. Thus, he sought to confuse by not declaring his status until forced.

But then let me get a piece of this conspiracy belief.  Do not underestimate the existence of underground anti-vaxxers everywhere, including within Tennis Australia wishing to collaborate. Why do we have the panels of anonymous doctors delivering a secret judgement on Djokovic? As Margaret Thatcher would say: “Tell me their names.” Their qualifications? Doctors? Of Music?

Unanimous decision, was it? The questions are endless if you want to pursue a conspiracy. Why not invoke the Masons or any other secret society like the Melbourne Club? Once the community starts being secretive over something that, if revealed, only shows a level of poor judgement if nothing else where does it end? But wait a minute, two panels are supposed to be independent. So that cancels out bias?

Anyway, the level of paranoia is stoked in the community over a selfish, self-absorbed man who has a clear agenda, to win more Grands Slam tournaments than anyone else and it is in Melbourne, on a court surface where he reigns supreme.  Does anyone seriously consider that this is not a ploy to guarantee him entrance to Australia over the new two years or so; and in addition to remain the poster boy of the anti-vaxxers and their tribe of “the mad and the bad”?

What’s a few days building up the myth of martyrdom in that Carlton cesspit, where maggots and cockroaches reign supreme and asylum seekers approach a decade of imprisonment.

It seems he has achieved a Pyrrhic victory on a pile of “alternate facts” he supplied. The “porkies” seem to be growing into a full-blown sty.

Would you want to be at Rod Laver Arena with the stands stacked with the Greater Serbia brandishing the icon of the Christ figure, Novak when Mr Nadal is on the court? He may as well be a Croatian. Welcome to the Balkans on the Yarra with or without the Serbian Tennis Christ. I ask you!

But yesterday the Washington Post’s sober assessment may stick.

It’s too bad Australia didn’t stick to its rules and Victoria didn’t follow suit, given the success both realized from being sticklers to safeguards for much of the past two years. Those regulations should extend to everyone, athletes and those around them included.

Some Holiday reading. An Excerpt from my forthcoming novel – “The Scars of 56”

Eventually, a few days before Christmas, we set sail for Japan.

One bright sunlit day before Christmas, I was leaning on the rail watching the sea wash beneath the ship. My father had come up from his morning sick parade and found me. He said that I could probably make out the islands of Quemoy and Matsu on the horizon. I struggled to believe that those smudges on the horizon were islands and not clouds, and nobody had binoculars for us to confirm. I looked keenly towards where my father was pointing.

“It is strange how a couple of specks off the Chinese coast held by Chiang Kai-shek’s mob could cause so much trouble.” The Chief had materialised from the bridge. “Am I wrong or are those the islands?” The Chief nodded in response to my father’s query. “Aren’t we a bit close?” “No, we’re in the shipping lane.”

The last word was drowned out by the sound of two United States Air Force fighters passing just above mast height. They were past the ship before we could properly focus. These pieces of silver machinery with the star insignia had become specks in the distance, leaving behind a shard of noise. I thought it pretty exciting. They were Starfighters and they banked sharply and climbed upwards, then flattened out before turning, and then they were back on a strafing run again.

The Chief, having recovered from the initial surprise, had reached into his pocket in a studied way to produce his pipe and tobacco pouch. It was his reaction to what he saw as evidence of American bravado. By this time, the deck had filled with a few more passengers wondering what on earth was happening.

For a boy who had been brought up on comic book air force heroics and images of war where people scattered in the face of strafing, my father’s studied expression was designed to calm. He also affected more interest in packing his pipe than being impressed by this show of “Yank airpower”. His was the face of the British Dominion – a powerful image in an increasingly powerless environment. His growl of “Yank airpower” more cattle dog than bulldog.

He bit on his pipe stem with a face of disapproval.

Most of those on deck instinctively went for cover leaving my father, the Chief and me still against the ship railing, disinterested spectators in this show of American muscularity. This time we could see the outline of the masked pilots’ faces as they came low, parallel at mast height and then swerved away and were gone. I found myself waving; Gay just looked upwards.

“Useful training exercise. Getting their hours up. Terrorising the shipping. It is always good to know how defenceless guinea pigs really are,” murmured the Chief as those on deck broke into excited chatter.

“How exciting!” said Gay’s mother, which was about the sum of the passengers’ comments. Of course, it provoked a discussion at the dinner table that evening. Despite an unwritten protocol about not discussing religion or politics at the table, my father for once joined in the discussion.

It was impossible to ignore the buzzing of the ship by the American planes. However, somebody said that they were probably worried that we might be heading for a Chinese port, and just wanted to see who we were. This prompted talk of the future of China. Since nobody seemed to know much, the discussion about the exiled Chinese government on Formosa and, among the older of the gathering, the Chiang Kai-sheks, resurfaced. They were their type of Chinese, Madame Chiang being Western-educated, the ones that made them feel comfortable.

Weren’t they in the same category as all the other world leaders who had seen us through the war? Good people. But hang on, said one, Stalin had been a dreadful creature; and yet for a time he was spoken about as “Uncle Joe”. The Chief looked up and said wryly that was what the Americans called him when they wanted their people to think of him as benign and kind, like the Americans’ Uncle Sam. He tapped his pipe on the ashtray and went back to the bridge.

The conversation continued. The general consensus was that the Chiang-led government was still the upholder of Western democracy and thus worthy to be considered the legitimate Chinese government. The Communists were still usurpers, (really how could you abide them!) but nobody around the table really knew much about this Mao Tse Tung, although his Foreign Minister (or was it Prime Minister?) seemed to be a bit more personable.

“Chou-en-lai, that’s his name, isn’t it?” When asked, the voice that had said “he seemed personable enough” conceded that the judgement was made on seeing him smile on a newsreel. And one of the other passengers who obviously did not care much for “the chinks” said so. That seemed to stifle any further discussion.

As quickly as the topic had been raised, the discussion vanished into the cloud of cigar smoke. Nobody could think of anything more useful to say.

The status of the bridge games replaced the American plane incident. This was a conversation about something more familiar, and the passengers became rapidly engrossed in the finer details. At this stage my father excused himself. He did not like card games.

He looked around for someone with whom he could share a whisky. He would involve me when it meant saying how well I was doing at school – or had been doing at school. He had taken to announcing that there could be only one career for me and that was in medicine, or he might soften my potential fate by conceding I could at least have a career that involved the technological advances that he saw sweeping the world. My mentions of an interest in law and history were dismissed as a passing phase of youth.

Sailing on S.S. Taiping

My father’s conversation reflected his fascination not only with China but also with Japan, Russia and the United States. However, he brushed away any interest in the culture. Not for him any chinoiserie artefacts or fine arts. Just as Hong Kong represented cheap suits and shirts, the prospect of Japan was cheap cameras, watches, Super-8 cameras and any other gadget that took his fancy. On the previous voyage he had purchased a kimono for my mother. She took one look at it and put it away in the back of the cupboard where it stayed. As for Russia, he was always talking about going across Russia by train – he wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway.

At a time when there were still US currency restrictions in Australia, he managed to subscribe to the Saturday Evening Post and my mother had received the Ladies’ Home Journal from the United States. The subscription to the Saturday Evening Post reflected the high regard that he had for Benjamin Franklin, whose bust constantly appeared in the journal and whose Pennsylvania Gazette was said to be its direct ancestor.

But here we had been treated to an American show of force in the way the American planes had appeared without warning; so different from the hokey images of Norman Rockwell’s cover illustrations for the Post.

The Summer of 42 

A musica da minha vida, a mais linda. Como e bom amar e ser amado.

I have written in a previous blog about the opening scenes in my favourite films, on the grounds that when I watch them they evoke situations in which I wish I had been “a player”. In the tapestry woven by each of the films, for instance I would have like to have been identified in the Tapestry as a 20 year old aspiring Truman Capote standing on the corner when Holly got out of the yellow taxi. As I look back, do I remember in real life my Holly Golightly? Well yes, I do.

But this is about the most memorable ending to another film, and for me, the young bloke, Herman Raucher, sitting for a moment on this seemingly unending New England beach among the tufts of littoral vegetation – amid the daub of daisies. Summer is just about spent.  The film was The Summer of 42. The background was Nantucket Island.

Nantucket Island

He had just seen the envelope with his name she had posted on the door of her summer rental. The beautiful cheerful young woman who was in her twenties and he a kid of perhaps sixteen or seventeen. She had dropped her guard the previous evening and they had made love. Why, is never clear – but he had continually watched and hung around her over the languid course of that summer. He had watched her farewell her soldier boyfriend, and thus alone she had drifted. Then there was the sexual encounter. When you dissect the film frame by frame it does not make sense. And yet in considering the entirety of the film, there was an inevitability of the autobiographical.

That morning after, he sits down on the porch seat and reads it.

Dear Hermie, I must go home now. I’m sure you’ll understand. There’s much I have to do. I won’t try and explain what happened last night, because I know that in time, you’ll find a proper way in which to remember it. What I will do is remember you. And I pray that you be spared all senseless tragedies. I wish you good things, Hermie. Only good things. Always, Dorothy.

The scene then switches to the boy on the beach, the boy walking away from the beach, narrating as he goes as the adult, counterpointing his awakening experience with Dorothy with the prosaic happenings to his friends.

I was never to see her again. Nor was I ever to learn what became of her. We were different then. Kids were different. It took us longer to understand the things we felt. Life is made up of small comings and goings. And for everything we take with us, there is something that we leave behind. In the Summer of ’42, we raided the Coast Guard station four times, we saw five movies, and had nine days of rain. Benji broke his watch, Oscy gave up the harmonica, and in a very special way, I lost Hermie. Forever…”  

As I sit in my study, gazing out over the wrought iron balcony across the frangipani in flower to the Parramatta River 65 years later, I remember my version – my experience of the older woman and the younger man. There are none of the accompanying lush sounds of Michel Le Grand. Just the fragrance of the flowers. But my experience, although at one point close, never crossed the line – strange as that may seem today.

Yet the end of that film, which I first saw not long after its release in 1971, has lived with me. I never saw the heroine other than through my eyes, but they were those of an experienced man in his early thirties, not of the youth of 1956.

The film provided a prop for my thoughts to stray, still with the young New Zealand woman on the ship, and the first words of Herman’s epilogue, which were so very true.

I never did see Gay again, but as I have written in my book, her parents did communicate with my father a couple of times in friendly terms. Yet I never did. I was not to go to New Zealand where she lived, until the end of 1984. Then I did not try and make contact. It was too long past.

In the 1950s, she may as well have lived on the moon so distant was New Zealand and as we did not play much rugby union in Victoria, and certainly not at an international level, maybe the moon was too close.

And moreover, she was a Roman Catholic and if my mother had still been alive, association with “a Papist” would have been very much a no-no. That fact had come as a surprise to me and I make no mention of this in my book. The assumption was that all New Zealanders were either Anglicans, or more likely Presbyterians. Nothing like growing up in a culture of stereotypes.

But even as some years on, I still remember the summer of 56, even with the scar tissue.

The Wrong Smoking Ceremony

I felt both angry and sad when I read about the fire on the portico of Old Parliament House. It was supposed to be a smoking ceremony. For God’s sake, what was this meant to be, apart from one of the meaningless acts on the fringe of Aboriginal culture. Like the didgeridoo, clap sticks, smearing ochre on one’s body, the welcome to country, it seems that Aboriginal culture has become a reflex rather than an appreciation of the diversity of the various tribes from one group to another as we whitefellas do when we invoke heritage.

One could argue the tent embassy outside Old Parliament House has outlived its time. I was there, sitting around the campfire with Charlie Perkins in 1973, outside Parliament House. Charlie was not short on being able to handle the media. Ever since he had been involved in the Freedom Rides in the 1960s in country NSW, Charles had been very much the face of Aboriginal activism. He was brilliant in his use of symbolism, and the simple campfire outside Parliament House emphasised very much the traditional myth of Australian egalitarianism – mateship.

There was an aboriginal Liberal Party Senator at time, Neville Bonner, a Queenslander whose preselection was protected from the ravages of the National party by Eric Robinson, a person whose contribution as a true liberal to the Coalition was cut short by his premature death. The problem with Neville was that he was a nice bloke, as they say he “had his heart in the right place. He was not very intelligent, and although he presented a “small-liberal” face he was isolated from the young Aboriginal activists. His criticism of the “Embassy” did not help his standing. Unfairly but still deadly, he was a tagged as “a coconut”, black on the outside; white on the inside. He is quoted later in life saying that he felt very lonely in Canberra.

I was asked to make contact with Charlie Perkins, which I did, and we got on very well. A young Liberal staffer sitting around the campfire of the nascent embassy with Charlie moved one National Party Senator to ask rhetorically, “Who was that Communist staffer of the Leader of the Opposition sitting out there with Perkins?”

And there was another reason for a campfire. It’s bloody cold in the Canberra winter.

Over the years, I have wondered what has been the point of maintaining what resembles an outstation, without there being a consolidation of it as a permanent symbol. After all, Canberra is full of monuments – while not one there to celebrate those years of the rise of the Urban Aboriginal Power. Sometimes, when in Canberra I would go over, and find it empty. Reminded me of a bedroom when I was in student in College.

Smoking ceremony gone wrong was one reason for there being the fire at the Parliament House entrance. My dilemma is that these so-called smoking ceremonies appear not to be recorded historically. I have looked through a number of early accounts of observations of Aboriginal life and cannot find any mention. Nevertheless, when I asked a friend about it, he said it is a modern invention, adapted from other indigenous cultures which would have been unknown to the ancestors of Australian Aborigines. He has promised a contribution to the blog to recall its origin at La Perouse, nearly 30 years ago.

Anyway, the vision of the doors of Old Parliament House going up in flames did not give any indication of the Aboriginal expertise in the cold burn; and it was the fire brigade which extinguished the flames.

The tent embassy crowd tried to distance themselves from any involvement. But what the Aboriginal community should do is to set out the appropriate traditional way the smoking ceremony should be used and not debased.

What does Prince Rupert think?

Morrison saying people who test positive by rapid test should contact their own GP is not meaningful for many twentysomethings. Like telling them to contact their regular blacksmith.

Prince Rupert has commented(sic): Well, with respect to madam twitterata, my serfs used to go to the blacksmith with medical problems, even when rats were miasmic.

The farrier at work

Well, in my bygone times, when general practitioners were thin on the ground in the country village, the farrier may have looked after the horses’ limbs but it was actually the blacksmith who set the fractured bones of the peasants when they were trampled by the farriers’ work.

Mouse Whisper

The Government, early in the New Year, sent rapid antigen tests to the Aboriginal Medical Services.  Unfortunately, they were closed for Christmas. That bloody virus has no respect for anything, not even General Frewen.

Modest Expectation – Corinth & Carthage

We are introducing a new section of aphorisms called “what would Prince Rupert of the Strine have said?”

“Again, I admire Morrison because he has shown himself to be a man intent on currying flavours from the electorate – even if they seem to be a trifle pelagic judging by his stylish ‘barramundi and I’ tweet.”

Decamping

Well, we are taking our own advice. We are decamping to the West Coast of Tasmania in Mid-January until the end of February. It is time to get out of the Pirouette miasma and head for the temperate rain forest in which the town of Strahan, the largest fishing port on the West Coast, will be our base. We are among the privileged few who can flee the pandemic, and although we must travel by car to Melbourne to catch the ferry, we can do that while being in control of our social environment, at least on the basis we can assure our hygiene and maintain social distancing. I have had the three shots; but my wife must wait until probably February for her booster, but the eligibility times keep bouncing around.

Mask up for all your parties

Not that we live in a suburb where the COVID virus is raging; or being of the age when nightclubbing or pub parties will enhance our recreational COVID embrace.

A few years ago, I had a dose of influenza which nearly killed me, a year when I neglected to have an influenza shot. Remember those days when we were jammed on planes and one could hear the congested coughing in the row in front you. We lampooned the few Asians who wore masks in the street; and hand sanitiser was a hot towel in business class, and a mingy alcohol soaked so-called “towelette” in “cattle class”.

Now, two years on, the politicians have given up, except in Western Australia, although I don’t know whether McGowan has charted a course out of his isolation – but then, he doesn’t have to do so. A change in the Federal Government would give him more say. One obvious way out of this mess is selective segregation – banning crowds from those venues where the virus is most likely to appear; and developing a code of behaviour which acknowledges the sedition provisions of the Crimes Act.

The major reason for maintaining a strong public health response is that Australia has not controlled the virus; and though the new vaccines are adaptable, the current state of play is a booster shot at a time after the initial vaccination. This is currently available after the second inoculation at three or four months. There is evidence from Israel which suggests that the effect of the booster is more short term than expected and a fourth injection is being made available there to a limited cohort.

Having such a situation may be adaptable to the disciplined Israeli society, but not elsewhere where the level of coverage in some countries is still very low through choice, hesitancy or simply lack of vaccines. This situation is one where Australia needs to have a clear-eyed view, and perhaps once we get the Federal election out of the way, then a serious attempt to confront the Virus will occur.

Currently it’s a mess; especially with children’s vaccinations anticipated to have begun this week. I do not buy the Omicron variant being less lethal as an excuse to take our collective foot off the accelerator; there are ominous signs emanating from Brazil, where corona and influenza are conspiring together for a new round of buggery.

First, as I have written before, we need a policy on the unvaccinated; some of the anti-vaccination protests are clearly seditious, and therefore there is a need for a public discussion. Remarkably, after almost two years, a clear and understandable public health response is still not embedded in policy, nor is the action of protestors whose actions threaten the health of the public.  The powers are there in the Crimes Act, but this will be an election with the politicians spooked by this group of insane conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, while the community dislikes government-enforced lockdowns, voluntary quarantining is occurring, as instanced by our desire to escape to Tasmania, having effectively home-quarantined for most of the past five weeks in Sydney. The smaller crowds at the various festivities with which the community is infested at this time of the year also demonstrate that many people are voting with their feet and those feet are staying at home. The problem for this neoliberal collection of politicians where government responsibility is totally abrogated is that there is now total chaos.

Secondly, this Virus mutates and it seems that the Omicron version is less virulent but more transmissible than the Delta. It also seems to have an unacceptably high level of morbidity.  The lesson should still not be to reassure ourselves of the “good aspects”, but rather to develop a policy which accepts that while vaccination is in a state of flux, the Virus is liable to mutate; and who knows whether the next strain will be more deadly and kill all the children or the elderly in a day or so. Therefore, Australia needs an adaptive strategy, where “catch-up” – apparently the Federal Government’s preferred option – is not a viable option.

While we may have to live with the Virus, I prefer not to be enslaved. The problem with the politicians is they have no concept of living with the Virus, apart from getting it off the front page.

Leaving on Jet Airplane

From The Washington Post this week:

The decision by federal health officials to cut in half the number of days for people to quarantine if infected with covid-19 says less about our understanding of how the coronavirus spreads than the influence of airline lobbyists.

Air carriers clamoured for the changes as they cancelled thousands of flights over the holidays amid a staffing shortage caused by crews who needed to self-isolate for 10 days after testing positive. The guidance issued on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which suggests five days of quarantine instead of 10 — shows a new willingness to avert crippling disruptions across society during the busiest travel period in years.

Delta approaching New York

It’s all the more remarkable because airlines have for months successfully thwarted a push by public health experts to require passengers to show proof of vaccination when they fly. This is maybe the most important lever that President Biden could pull — and has so far refused to pull — that might increase the country’s vaccination rate so that hospitals won’t routinely be overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients.

The same authority that allows Biden to require passengers to wear masks on domestic flights, which he has extended to March 18 2022, also allows him to require vaccinations. He told ABC News last Wednesday that he has considered doing so but has been told by staff that it’s not necessary. “Even with omicron,” Biden said. “That’s the recommendation I got so far from the team.”

This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Public health experts inside and outside government have favoured requiring vaccinations to fly since the summer. In September, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said that a vaccine mandate for flying might be unnecessary because the administration’s mandates for employers to require vaccination would be a more effective way to achieve the same result. But that rule has been put on hold pending Supreme Court review.

Biden should stop pretending his resistance to a vax-to-fly rule is about public health — and not politics. The truth is that requiring vaccines to fly, even with a testing opt-out, would provoke a backlash. Those who are vaccinated would be only minimally inconvenienced, if at all. But there would be horror stories about sympathetic-seeming holdouts who couldn’t, for example, fly across the country to see their dying parent because they won’t get the jab. Fox News would have a field day.

And that is true even though only about 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. It’s understandable that airlines don’t want to get squeezed into the middle seat between the feds and unvaccinated customers, but the stakes are too high for the president to capitulate to CEOs.

Lest we forget: The 10 major passenger airlines have received $50 billion from federal government bailouts during the pandemic, including $13 billion in the stimulus package Biden himself signed in March.

The companies and their trade associations say checking vaccine cards would be onerous and logistically difficult and cause delays. But if small restaurants have figured out how to do it, big airlines — which already do so for international travellers — certainly can as well. TSA agents could glance at vaccine cards as they check IDs and boarding passes. Airports can set up stations right by security for unvaccinated passengers to get inoculated.

So much of life in Covid America turns on facts people don’t want to talk about. To wit: What the CDC’s new guidance doesn’t tell people who get infected is that they should take another coronavirus test after five days of isolation before returning to social settings. The unfortunate reason this wasn’t included is because there are not enough tests available. That is another consequence of the Biden administration’s tendency to hope for the best and plan for the best — rather than preparing for the foreseeable contingencies caused by the delta and omicron variants.

Biden sounded determined in his address to the nation last week to avoid using the word “mandate” as he discussed his efforts to increase vaccination. He prefers gentler words that have softer connotations, such as “requirements.” The other term Biden has stopped regularly using is “wartime footing,” which was a staple of his speeches early in the year.

It’s an unfortunate reflection of his desire to move on and not have his tenure defined by the pandemic. But the virus isn’t done with us.

An average of more than 1,400  Americans continue to die every day from Covid. Preventable as most of these deaths would have been with vaccines, as many Americans have died from covid during Biden’s presidency as Donald Trump’s.

That’s why we still need a wartime footing. And more vaccinations. And more tests. World War II took four years and required a draft to conscript enough troops to win. We’re two years into another global war. To prevail, we need to compel all Americans to join the war effort.

I have reproduced this article from The Washington Post which attests to the gutlessness that Biden showed three decades ago when he assisted the confirmation of the unspeakable Clarence Thomas, in the face of Anita Hall’s accusations of sexual predation. I had hoped that he would do better after a promising start, but he has unfortunately retreated to his default position.

It also suggests that it is not only the Republicans that bow to big business, and that is the concern I have with Anthony Albanese. Has he any anti-pandemic strategy where the options are laid out in order to to cover all contingencies, their likelihood and the resources needed to effect each option? Who is your Essington Lewis, Mr Albanese?

By the way, what a pathetic spectacle he cast in promoting a fast train from Sydney to Newcastle so as not to miss the night NRL game. Mate, we have a War on at present, and we ain’t winning – and you want a high speed night train for the football? Did you actually say: “You’ll be able to jump on the train at 6.30pm and be at Sydney Olympic Park for the start of the Knights game”?

Thus, if the Prime Minister is a Sharkie; does this proposal of yours make you a kNightie?

Brain Drain

Back in the mists of June 1998, Peter Doherty bemoaned the brain drain from Australia of “our best and brightest” researchers overseas. He instanced one Vladimir Brusic, who at the time was moving from Melbourne to Singapore. For almost a decade he had been senior programmer at WEHI. Brusic, a Serbian by birth, had been involved in the application of computer power to complex medical problems, the field of bioinformatics. His alleged genius was being able to distil huge amounts of data into a usable amount for laboratories, thus saving hours and hours of “tedious experiments”. Maybe. Anyway, that was the theory.

So, what did happen to Dr Brusic? Has he been lost to Australia?  In fact he has caromed around in the past 20 plus years and is currently the Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in Computer Science at the Ningbo campus of the University of Nottingham. The Ningbo campus is near Shanghai.

Dr Vladimir Brusic

After his stint in Singapore, which lasted seven years, he moved back to be Professor of Bioinformatics and Data Management at the University of Queensland. Then he was off again to the Dana-Farber Institute in Boston where he stayed for eight years as the Director of Informatics (concurrently also having a professorial post at Boston University) and then back to the Gold Coast Campus of Griffith University for three years, before taking up his Chinese appointment.

I am not sure what he has achieved by the peripatetic existence. It is one of the paradoxes of these gurus in information that when they communicate it is so arcane that only their own coterie know what they are really saying to one another.

I noted a paper he co-authored on vaccines, where he seemed to be concentrating on informing the world about the intricacies of the old vaccine technology. Only he can tell us in simple terms whether his work is adaptable to the new vaccines, or whether anybody is interested.

However, the point should be made, but not over generalised that 20 plus years ago, Doherty was regretful of his loss to Australia. Well, he did come back to Australia twice, confounding the Doherty forecast. And perhaps, it would be instructive to see his rating by students at Boston University, when you review this lamentation in 1998 and Australia’s deprivation with Dr Brusic being in Shanghai at an English University, which incidentally seems not to rank very highly, even in the Chinese rankings.

Liz, don’t worry, Nick Coatsworth, the Seer from Garran, says it will be all over this year

A year ago around Christmas, Liz Mover began to feel some hope. The ICU nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital had received her first dose of COVID vaccine. Soon, she thought, everyone will be vaccinated and this terrible pandemic will end.

Liz Mover, ICU nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital

But in the medical intensive care unit where Mover works treating the hospital’s sickest patients, 15 of the 18 beds were occupied last week by people critically ill with COVID. Almost all of them were unvaccinated.

As the pandemic stretches on and cases climb again, a depleted battalion of health care workers is battling yet another big surge of COVID. Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, hospitalisations have approached last winter’s levels. And for many health care workers on the front lines still fighting COVID, hope has evaporated.

The problem with people like Nick Coatsworth, even if you strip them from their political aspirations and, for me personally in relation to Coatsworth a sense of disappointment in his emergent arrogance, is that once you embark on an ideological pathway, there is no turning. Evidence is an inconvenience.

The experience of Ms Mover, the attending nurse in the Blake 7 Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), can be found in the midst of the tasks she has become accustomed to in her 15 years at Massachusetts General Hospital.

She highlights a problem that the Virus is presenting. It has not gone away, and while people like Coatsworth and the media editorialists cling to the notion that it will go away and anyway this Omicron variant is not that serious, the problem is that it is neither – it is not going away and for those who contract the disease it can be very serious.

The problem is that it is indeed serious since its very insidious nature is compromising the whole health system.

An airliner crashes and all are killed. A terrible tragedy, but not an ongoing health care problem as is a pandemic which kills everyone in short order.

But that does not often happen; even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing had a horrible aftermath for those who survived.

Then I well remember the AIDS epidemic, but the annual numbers never exceeded 2,500 and hospitalisation generally came in the form of end-of-life hospice care.

AIDS infection was described as a pandemic when it appeared in the 1980s (and curiously, again in the media at the end of 2020 when talking about its 40th anniversary). However, despite all the horrendous warnings as epitomised by the “Grim Reaper” advertisement, it has been very selective.

Influenza has been the disease where the parallels between the current pandemic and that the post-war WWI so-called Spanish flu are mostly made. The difference is that now the health system has developed technology in the health care system where there are high expectations, and where the politicians take for granted the high level of skill and care – but the coping is not endless and it has its limits. Irrespective of who you are, you must have a break – the cute use of “furlough” has become the signature.

In conventional war, if you were in the front line, the expectation of the politicians was that a large number would be permanently furloughed – that is, killed. Nevertheless, there was recognition that survivors needed to be given a break from the frontline, especially if you were inconveniently wounded. Even so, there were inevitable long term mental health problems among these survivors.

Thus, Liz Mover’s experience should merit a response because this pandemic, like those of influenza, will have a long tail. After all, while the pandemic of 1918 has been well aired, there were three influenza pandemics in the twentieth century – adding 1957 and 1968. I spent time in the infectious diseases hospital with the 1957 variant in my last year at school. Not pleasant.

At the very least, government should continue to stress improved hygiene both in relation to: (a) the personal – hand washing and mask wearing; and (b) the social – maintaining appropriate distance and, if the Government does not ban them, avoiding locations where the Virus is liable to lurk in numbers. We all have personal space which should be respected – I hate mine being invaded at the best of times. The community should respect this – even when traditions require one to slobber over one another whether male or female; or embrace one another just because our cave dweller ancestors did so.

Come to think of it. Have you seen the Prime Minister or the Pirouette visit a hospital recently? The problem is that to enhance the photo-opportunity of showing Morrison on the front line (with Pirouette a fuzzy background image), the security detail must make way for him, as occurred at the scene of the Devonport tragedy. The security detail may have to clear the staff away as he searches for a patient’s hand to clasp. Prime Minister, it may be a photo-opportunity of your love and compassion, but you need not bring your wife and leave a bunch of flowers at the entrance of the hospital ICU unit.

Backroads

I went to Boulia a number of times 20 years ago when I was spending a considerable amount of time working at Mount Isa. Putting Boulia into context, it is about three hundred kilometres south of Mount Isa. This is virtually the same distance as Mildura to Broken Hill. There is one intermediate settlement at Dajarra where there is also a hospital. Today, I understand the road has been paved between Mount Isa and Birdsville, but in my days in this Channel country it was not.

My memory of this time was jogged by the Boulia Shire sign, which appears in the opening credits of the ABC’s Backroads program. Not that I watch this very popular program much. I, like the ABC presenters, have visited many of the places they have gone to see, and they have their own perspective.

Bit too much giggling for me. I also grew up with the radio serial “Blue Hills”, the unending bush saga which sustained a huge audience among country people when it ran for nearly 6,000 episodes.

The formula of an unpretentious conservative country serial that both mirrored and confirmed people’s prejudices and, with a dollop of smugness, lasted not unsurprisingly for a long time.

As a microcosm of this smugness on a local level, Backroads goes a long way as the child of “Blue Hills”, never challenging, but in general reinforcing the stereotypes. The only difference in Backroads is there is mostly an Aboriginal segment, a situation very much downplayed in the long running serial.  I remember when miscegenation was dealt with in a number of “Blue Hills” episodes, and everybody in the serial was relieved to know that there would be no “throwback” in the child to be born.

But setting my basic distaste for Backroads aside (although there are a few good episodes since I have started watching it to see how it corresponds with my own bush experience of the place) this is my memory of Boulia.

This is a tribute to the late Jude Sticher.

When we met her, she was in charge of the health services in this tiny settlement on the Diamantina Developmental Road.  Because here we were in the Channel Country. She and her husband, Peter, came to Boulia on the last day of October 1995.

Boulia has a mixed Aboriginal and whitefella population.  Staying at the pub and mixing with the locals, we were confronted with one of the biggest steaks you can ever eat,

But then Boulia had space.  The streets were wide enough to turn a camel train around, and one of Boulia’s main attractions is the camel races in July.

Then there are Min Min lights, which allegedly appear as oval lights in the bush. Driving along the roads, they apparently dance along the horizon. Nothing like unexplained lights in the sky to bring out the juices.

Jude Sticher was a very matter of fact real person. She was a light in that community. She had trained at St Vincent’s Hospital Lismore, in northern NSW and did the triple certificate – general, midwifery, child health. Then she undertook some nursing, married Peter, had a daughter and bought a caravan park in Sarina, south of Mackay. They still had property at Sarina, and so they continued to connect with the sea, but they did not feel displaced; at least, not when I met them.

Reflecting on her being in Boulia, Jude said she nearly tossed it in during the first three months. The cultural and professional isolation had to be overcome. She persisted. There is a term “Boulia blow-throughs”. In three years, she ticked off two police officers, three school principals – and, as an afterthought, four electricians.

Her husband Peter had been a police officer in the police rescue and a Senior Constable for 15 years. In Boulia he was the ambulance driver and the “security detail” when Jude had to go on a night call. There had been a plane in the backyard, for when they went south. In the garage had been the fire engine, the motorbike (recently sold) and the four-wheel drive ambulance. The outback toy shop!

The hospital was very basic, but it served as both hospital and a clinic. One of the reasons that Jude stayed was because the community had learnt not to give her “a hard time”. This community came to know her tolerance levels.

Out of hours demands from those who had simply drunk too much were discouraged, and her “security detail” could be of assistance in reinforcing any definition of unacceptable behaviour from potential patients.

There was good cooperation with Jude’s counterparts at Dajarra, enabling people to have time off; this link was essential for stopping burn-out. There was less contact with the nurse down the road at Bedourie, as there were different employers and there appeared to be less stability in the staff. Bedourie was part of the Frontier Services, John Flynn’s original outfit, but still then with centres inter alia at Bedourie and Birdsville.

Jude was able to deal with emergencies and had the skills to stabilise patients; no different from those of any primary care practitioner working in a town. The RFDS service was there for advice and for evacuating those that needed it. It had worked over a period. Jude was the nurse practitioner with a spouse who has adapted.

Donohue’s Emporium 1920

That time has passed; if the Backroads visited Boulia, would Jude Sticher receive a mention? Or the Donohue’s emporium, which had opened in Boulia in 1920, but shut down there some years later.  I had bought a checked purple shirt there. That shirt lasted longer than the Boulia store.

One of my fondest memories was some years after I first went to Boulia, when one of my closest friends and his wife “rocked up” to the clinic. Jude Sticher answered their knock in the door, looking quizzical and asked what they wanted. My friends then mentioned my name, and Jude’s attitude relaxed. “Come on in. Any friend of Jack Best is a friend of ours”, she said.

I have not been back to Boulia for years, but now that the road is paved the whole way to Birdsville I may well do so. One of the positives about the Queensland Government is that they maintain their developmental roads in Western Queensland.  From Birdsville the road veers east to Beetoota and Windorah.  If you want to venture over the border into South Australia, their desert tracks are a bit of challenge.

Corroboree tree

I hope that the corroboree tree, the last known of the Pitta Pitta people, still exists behind the health centre. As for lasting memorabilia, I do have one of their conical head dresses of woven grass around which are wrapped coils of human hair and topped with emu feathers; the men used to wear them in their ceremonies. Boulia was an important place for such gatherings; for me it still remains an important nidus along the travelled bush roads of my Country.

And I hope they still remember Jude Sticher in Boulia.

Mouse Whisper

Sometime a twitter is so opaque for a simple mouse. Who, for Heaven’s sake, was this twitterata talking about? It led to an exchange.

Very happy our current POTUS didn’t party with Epstein and Maxwell, didn’t fly in Epstein’s plane, didn’t go to Epstein’s Island, didn’t have Maxwell at his daughter’s wedding, and didn’t appoint scumbag US attorney, who gave Epstein a sweetheart deal, to his damn Cabinet.

Hey, who was the Cabinet Member?

Name of Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

Who was this POTUS? I’ll give you a clue. In 2002 in the New York magazine article this future POTUS was quoted as saying that Epstein “was a ‘terrific guy’ who enjoyed women ‘on the younger side’.”

Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

 

Modest Expectations – Gross

All vaccines approved in the United States and European Union still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal. But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world.

The other shots — including those from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and vaccines manufactured in China and Russia — do little to nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, early research shows. And because most countries have built their inoculation programs around these vaccines, the gap could have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic.

A global surge of infections in a world where billions of people remain unvaccinated not only threatens the health of vulnerable individuals but also increases the opportunity for the emergence of yet more variants. The disparity in the ability of countries to weather the pandemic will almost certainly deepen. And the news about limited vaccine efficacy against Omicron infection could depress demand for vaccination throughout the developing world, where many people are already hesitant or preoccupied with other health problems. 

Most evidence so far is based on laboratory experiments, which do not capture the full range of the body’s immune response, and not from tracking the effect on real-world populations. The results are striking, however.

The Pfizer and Moderna shots use the new mRNA technology, which has consistently offered the best protection against infection with every variant. All the other vaccines are based on older methods of triggering an immune response.

The Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac — which make up almost half of all shots delivered globally —  offer almost zero protection from Omicron infection (as shown by Hong Kong results. China seems to be responding but with the normal response that the Chinese can do no wrong – as of Dec. 10, 120 million people in China have had a third vaccine dose, far short of the 1.16 billion who have had two, according to State media.)

The great majority of people in China have received these shots, which are also widely used in low-and middle-income countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

A preliminary effectiveness study in Britain found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine showed no ability to stop Omicron infection six months after vaccination. Ninety per cent of vaccinated people in India received this shot, under the brand name Covishield; it has also been widely used across much of sub-Saharan Africa, where Covax, the global Covid vaccine program, has distributed 67 million doses of it to 44 countries.

Researchers predict that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which is also being used in Africa and Latin America, will show similarly dismal rates of protection against Omicron.

Demand for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been surging in Africa, because its single-shot delivery regimen makes it easy to deliver in low-resource settings. But it too has shown a negligible ability to block Omicron infection

This excerpt from the New York Times this week says it all – at least for me. I have become sick and tired of politicians with little scientific knowledge and without any understanding of science – let alone public health – pontificating, when they are way out of their depth. The default position for ignorance is “personal responsibility”.

In other words, stay strong, stand up, shut your eyes tight and the good fairy will wash all the nasty virus way. Here is where our Opus Dei indoctrinated at last comes together into a rapturous relationship with a Pentecostal creationist. As a result, the mob is permitted to rule – that ragtag group of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and downright seditionists.

The problem is the definition of “personal responsibility” – the mob does not shriek “personal responsibility” but rather “freedom” as their catchcry.

The NYT article is clear. Without the booster, AZ vaccine is useless in the face of omicron – the Moderna booster seems to be stronger than Pfizer. However, the difference between the efficacy of the various mRNA vaccines is somewhat academic against this rise of a new variant, as it does sounding time to ditch the old technology upon which AZ and the other vaccines are based.

The problem is that there should be any argument about when to give the booster, when one realises that perhaps six million plus of those vaccinated in Australia have had the AZ vaccine. If omicron is spreading as rapidly as has been foreshadowed overseas, then Australia is facing the same situation as it did when the vaccination rates were low or non-existent. It is estimated that about seven per cent of the population have had a booster; might I include Morrison?

It is useless to point at any one piece of data and claim that Australia is not vulnerable, especially when the governments are doing everything wrong in stopping the spread. Remember when the volume of testing was used as the talisman of success; now the same statistic is being demonised. Have any of the politicians thought, from their privileged position riding in a government car at our expense, how buggered the health workforce is, with an even more contagious invasion of the Virus?

The root problem of Australia’s plight is that a basically unintelligent Prime Minister, who is hooked on the media release, in effect shirked his quarantine responsibility from the onset, and allowed each State to set their own rules. Morrison’s instincts are to wedge, divide and in this case he has been very successful. It was only the efforts of some of the public health doctors that have kept Australia from succumbing to a Boris-blathering shamble.

No mandates, Prime Minister. Well let us extend your now more confident stance – for instance, no need to wear seat belts, no need to have any rules in relation to car maintenance, no traffic lights, no pedestrian crossings, no speed limits, no need to bother about which side of the road you drive on, no limits on alcohol consumption while driving. They are just matters for personal responsibility!

As the you say, Prime Minister, it is a matter of personal responsibility. No mandates – let’s roll back the years of public health skills and experience. Why not in road safety as well – and, for that matter, in child entertainment facilities?

His recent comparison of the pandemic with sunburn is risible. For one thing sunburn, when I last read about it, is not infectious. If you burn yourself in the sun, it is one’s responsibility – alone.

As you say, “brothers and sisters do whatever you like – but do it responsibly – like my mate Boris!”

But you will excuse me if I repeat what Leo Amery said, pointing at Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons: “In the name of God, go”. It was 7th May 1940. The evacuation from Dunkirk was less than three weeks later. By that time there was a new Prime Minister.

The Narcissist in the Pork Barrel with a mark of the Ear

Jair Bolsonaro

I have wondered what life would be like living under Jair Bolsonaro, one of the most active facilitators of COVID-19 spread, indicative of deeply narcissistic personality coupled with a profound suspicion of anyone more intelligent than himself. From afar it looked like a nightmare, where the leader of the nation was so convinced of his own thinking that it excluded any contrary view. Translated is that the “Bolsonaros” do not come to terms with loss of power and will do anything to maintain that power.

On the other hand, the conventional political wisdom is consistent with Mayhew’s analysis: both constituents and members of US Congress excoriate earmarks (a.k.a. Pork Barrel) as pork only when they are in someone else’s district.  If that is true, anti-pork campaigns might result in a variation on Richard Fenno’s familiar paradox: we hate Congress for being so wasteful but love our own representatives for meeting our district’s needs so effectively.  If that is the case, then the politicians receive electoral benefits from the earmarks, a.k.a. pork barrel, for which they claim public credit.

Mayhew and Levinger argued that the size of individuals’ networks affects the amount of time individuals interact with each member of their network, because humans have limited time and resources. Individuals in larger networks, such as urban centres, are in contact with more individuals than individuals in smaller networks. Consequently, they may devote less time to each interaction or forgo interactions that are less important. The pork barrel process acts as a lubricant for such constituents.

Yet Andrew Leigh, an Australian politician, the ALP member for Fenner in Melbourne, has studied the effect of pork barrelling on electorate behaviour. He found that the sporting rorts affair did not materially affect voting behaviour.

However, in reconciling the American sociologists with Leigh, I wonder whether he has looked at the recent allocation of Federal government funding to the outer Sydney electorate of Lindsay, centred on Penrith. What is clear is that while there are some large grants, there are many small grants there, each attracting an inner glow in a small cohort of people until the number of grants accumulates a degree of rosiness abut the government handing out freely the money of us “mug taxpayers” as its largesse.

When does the grant have to be small enough to just constitute a bribe, because that is what most of these grants are? Obviously small grants have a multiplier effect far in excess of large grants given to big companies. The large grants to “the big end of town” are often reflective of the same level of corruption, these grants often resulting in grateful kickbacks to the particular political party to sustain electoral viability.

Thus, it is a different order of magnitude and, may I suggest, serves the same  purpose as the local PNG politician shelling out ten kina notes. Where is the difference between the politicians in Papua New Guinea and those in Australia? After all, the PNG politician could easily write a brief justification for “the horticultural developmental project to grow betel nut … or whatever”. But they don’t bother – just hand out cash in exchange for your vote. No humbug there. Bribery is bribery.

But then I don’t think of Melanesians as narcissists.

Out of Africa

Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

Christmas comes in various places. For a number of years, Christmas for us was always a different place in the world. Once we were in Taiohae in the Marquesas, where Christmas dinner was a pig cooked in an umu, Christmas in London in a suite at the Savoy, gazing down the twinkling Thames; yet another in Santa Fe with the farolitos and luminaria guiding us through snow-strewn streets, with a temperature well below zero, to attend a Navaho Mass.

Most of them are associated with an anecdote, but the strangest Christmas morning occurred in Kenya. As part of a search for Africa, we first went to Africa in the late 80s. It was a time when South Africa was still out of bounds and Australian flights terminated in Harare. Then we travelled round East Africa with our last port of call which I mentioned in a recent blog being the Seychelles, before a flight to Singapore; thence back to Australia.

Little did we know that this was to herald many trips to the African continent over the next three decades. However, at that Christmas we had gone to stay at Little Governors camp in the Masai Mara, a national park about 2,000 metres above sea level. We were there at a time of the “short rains” in December, and it was very wet underfoot. The streams filled with hippopotami were overflowing, and in the camp it was hard to keep dry. Even when they are characterised as “short”, they are significant downpours, and one such was on Christmas morning. We soon found after all the exchanges of Seasons’ Greetings that we had been invited to visit a Masai village that morning.

During our stay, the local Masai guarded our camp, tall silent men with spears, ostensibly there to protect visitors when the elephants walk through the camp, really to stop idiot visitors wandering out into the path of the elephants – you don’t stop elephants. As we found out on a later African visit, when we were awakened by our tent being vigorously shaken by a young bull elephant wanting to tuck into the leaves on the tree which served as a strut for our tent. No Masai warriors there.

The Masai are very tall and have a spiritual belief about ownership of cattle being a responsibility which has been given to them, although I was never clear how far that mandate extends. Their villages consist of a cluster of circular huts with a shallow thatched roof. The walls are mudbrick, discoloured a brown from cow dung in the mud. Cow dung seems to constitute an unescapable factor of Masai life, as we got out of the vehicle into a slurry of dung, which threatened to engulf our boots. This was not high heel country where you could be a dashing figure in safari suit with cravat and bush hat. I mention that because the regal Masai away from the reality of existence has, in the pages of a Vogue spread, become the model of the noble savage.

In this case we, the visitors, were treated with dancing; the men with the two-dimensional jumping up and down brandishing spears; the women dancing to accentuate the beadwork which festooned their throats and wrists in the main. Some singing, although I cannot remember whether the women actually ululated that morning. Anyway, we were not burdened by holly and ivy encrusted carols.

The shuka is the caftan-like robe the Masai all wear. It is essentially a rough cotton. In fact, as one source puts it, the word “traditional” must be taken with a grain of salt. Before the colonisation of Africa, the Masai wore leather garments. They only began to replace calf hides and sheep skin with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.

Maasi warriors

But how and why they chose shuka cloth is still unclear today. There are a few schools of thought. One of them is traced back through centuries — fabrics were used as a means of payment during the slave trade and landed in East Africa, while black, blue, and red natural dyes were obtained from Madagascar. There are records of red-and-blue checked “guinea cloth” becoming very popular in West Africa during the 18th century. Some of the cloth resembles tartan, and the incursion of Scottish missionaries into the Masai lands is said to be the culprit.

Whatever the source, it was all very colourful; and the Masai are not shy in coming forward flogging their beads inter alia. Thus, we come back with an assortment of beaded geegaws; and I wondered why we hadn’t bought any axes and mirrors.

Did not see this visit reported in the Australian Media

Indonesia is our closest Asian neighbour. It is a cultural rendang – so many ingredients, yet the Australian perspective is of Bali as an offshore resort where Australians just carry on their lifestyle – but more clearly. The Australian personality easily accommodates the beachcomber, surfer or not. I have a son who, in his younger years, would go surfing around Indonesia, mostly off Sumatra.

Yet Indonesia the country may as well be in a different galaxy, so little the normal Australian knows about it. For some reason the rapidly irrelevant Great Britain gets extensive media coverage, yet Indonesia, only when there is a disaster. It may be attributed to the fact that we neither share common language, culture nor, as is increasingly important, common sporting activities. Indonesians see us as an educational destination, but otherwise as reported, the average Indonesian shows little interest in Australia (except when rent-a-crowd is assembled outside the Australian Embassy when we are perceived to have insulted somebody or something sacred).

Yet looking at the content of the recent Blinken visit, I would have thought it would have aroused interest in Australia, especially since our government has been a strident supporter of the USA. His visit to Indonesia came days after that of a senior diplomat from Russia. Yet the Blinken visit is designed to begin winning back American support which lay fallow under Trump, while the Chinese pressed ahead. One chink in the aid program from China has been the use of the relatively ineffective Chinese vaccines, where the availability of a booster will be all important for those already vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.

At least when the Blinken entourage inevitably became infected with COVID and aborted its visit, the West Australian reported it.  Will that be the harbinger of things to come – half-built relationship eroded by the virus of libertarian hogwash and conspiracy theory?

Unless a significant cohort of Indonesians or, more importantly their children, are welcomed to Australia to embed the culture and the ability to communicate effectively, with correspondents who have their roots in Australia, then Indonesia will still continue to be Bali – offset by the burning threat of terrorism.

But Indonesia and, for that matter, the other Malay countries are so much more.

As I write, my eyes are fixed on the lively presenters on ABC breakfast television, Fauziah Ibrahim and Iskander Razak, obviously of Malay heritage with the name suggesting a Muslim upbringing. Yet where do they come from?  Singapore, probably the country closest to a European way of doing things.

Food fad

I wonder whether they are conversant with the Malay language, including Bahasa. I still remember baik baik saja from a tentative period when learning Bahasa and eating nasi goreng was quite a fad. Then the ABC actually ran programs teaching the language; not having it sequestered in SBS where the aim is a self-conscious “multi-culturalism”, not necessarily enhancing multi-cultural communication.

But as reported…

Downplaying direct confrontation between the United States and China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pledged to strengthen relations with Indo-Pacific nations through billions of dollars in US investment and aid and, in doing so, counter Beijing’s regional pull.

That soft-power pitch was delivered at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, the country’s capital, and continued with a series of agreements on maritime cooperation and education and Peace Corps exchanges. The university was also the site of a speech nearly 60 years ago by Robert F. Kennedy, who spoke then of open relations among states, so long as one did not threaten the rights of others.

Secretary of State, Antony Blinken

Blinken called it remarkable that the broader goal had changed so little for a region that now accounts for 60 percent of the global economy and is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The Indo-Pacific covers countries primarily in the Indian Ocean region, including India, Australia, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“We all have a stake in ensuring that the world’s most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all,” he said. “This is good for people across the region, and it’s good for Americans, because history shows that when this vast region is free and open, America is more secure and more prosperous.”

But China, the regional heavyweight, overshadows US trade in nearly every country in the Indo-Pacific. In Southeast Asia alone, two-way trade with China reached $685 billion in 2020, more than double that of the region’s trade with the United States.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is aimed at building infrastructure like ports, railway lines, and roads around the world, has continued to make inroads in Southeast Asia even during the pandemic. This month, Laos completed its first high-speed railway, a $6 billion project backed by China. A few weeks before that, Vietnam opened its first metro line in Hanoi, also thanks to China. And in Indonesia, China has spent billions of dollars to build high-speed rail lines, power plants, dams, and highways.

“The Achilles’ heel of US policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the US in trade and infrastructure investment,” said Jonathan Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden has avoided directly pressuring other nations to choose between partnering with either the United States or China on a host of issues. Still, Stromseth said, parallel efforts by China and the United States to outdo each other risks “that a bipolar divide is hardening for the long term, with potentially serious consequences for regional stability and development.”

China has stepped up its military operations in the Indo-Pacific, with warplanes flying over parts of Taiwan and staking claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea. These actions, among others, have put the Pentagon on alert.

Blinken said bluntly, “We don’t want conflict in the Indo-Pacific.” Yet he also described “much concern” in the region over Beijing’s actions, which he said has distorted open markets with state-subsidized products, limited trade by its adversaries and engaged in illegal fishing.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change,” Blinken said. “We do too.”

Blinken’s main message was that the United States is a better bet as a partner than China.

He said the United States had donated 300 million coronavirus vaccines — one-third of its worldwide contribution — to the Indo-Pacific and would continue to invest billions of dollars in its public health systems.

The vaccines, which Blinken said were given “with no strings attached,” may prove to be the United States’ main leverage in Southeast Asia, as hundreds of millions of doses sent by Chinese companies have been found to be largely ineffective against the delta variant.

On climate, Blinken noted a $500 million commitment to help finance a solar manufacturing facility in India as among efforts to help the region stave off environmental crises without disrupting economies. He pledged to pursue agreements to bolster data privacy and secure technology used in economic transactions, “because if we don’t shape them, others will.”

And he said the Biden administration would work to ease snarls in the global goods supply chain in a region that buys nearly one-third of all US exports.

Across Southeast Asia, private investments by the United States amounted to $328.5 billion in 2020, outpacing China.

“The region has told us loud and clear that it wants us to do more,” Blinken said. “We’ll meet that call.”

Blinken’s visit to Indonesia, the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was viewed as overdue: Neither Vice President Kamala Harris nor Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stopped here in recent travels to the region. In a fresh reminder of the nation’s strategic value, Blinken arrived only a few hours after Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council; their planes were parked next to each other at Jakarta’s airport.

Blinken’s speech was well received by some within Indonesia. Tom Lembong, who was Indonesia’s trade minister from 2015 to 2016, said it “hit the bull’s-eye on what policy makers across ASEAN want, which is concrete and practical solutions, and less of the soaring rhetoric that has dominated American official engagement with Southeast Asia over the last two decades.”

“I would argue that at this time, the Biden administration is succeeding in Southeast Asia — they’re regaining lost ground and making up for lost time,” Lembong said in an e-mail.

Many countries in Southeast Asia remain wary of being drawn into a Cold-War standoff between the United States and China. In November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore indicated that he was uncomfortable with Biden’s calls to persuade leaders from democracies to present a more unified front against China.

“We all want to work together with the US,” Lee said in a November interview with Bloomberg News. But, he added, “I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.”

The region is split between countries that are friendlier with China, like Cambodia and Laos, and others that are more hard-line, such as Vietnam. In previous years, the bloc of Southeast Asian states has been torn about how to address the dispute in the South China Sea, with some nations not wanting to offend Beijing.

“The sin of China is undermining and breaking up ASEAN,” said Kasit Piromya, who was Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. “China has the money, they are rich and have their projects and initiatives. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be their doormat. I think we are terrified of China, but this is not based on reality.

Finally, from us all here with Blinken, Wynken and Nod, Selamat Hari Natal.”

Mouse Whisper

A sidelight of “Holiday Inn”, the 1942 version of a White Christmas. For snow, it used chrysotile asbestos. As Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas”, the asbestos was falling all around … “like the one I used to know.”

Modest Expectations – Make Haste to Chiswick, Young Whyman

It is the winter of 1942. The streets of Melbourne are full of people in strange garb marching up and down the streets. Why, because the Japanese invasion is a hoax, they yell.  They want their freedoms back.  The so-called picture of Australian soldiers standing in the sun in Singapore was a film set, jigged to appear that they were Australian whereas if you looked closely, they all had native Indian faces. Signs such as “Hang John Curtin” dotted the crowd as well as “Curtains for Curtin”, “Freedom from Rationing”. “Free” is associated with anything, I want.

“When do I want it?” The howl goes up. “Now.” The roaring response. Bugger the community or the Commonweal. The Eureka flag is limp.

A procession in front of Parliament House. Meanwhile Western Australia has declared neutrality. Then out of the winter sun comes a squadron of Zeros, that lay waste the protesters in the street. At least 40 members of the crowd were dead, strafed in the first run.

Fanciful. To make a point – or reinforce a point. Defence is a Commonwealth power. Once the Commonweal has been defined, then Defence is a Commonwealth responsibility. Before Federation, the States raised their own militia. For instance, the NSW Volunteer Contingent was raised to fight in the Sudan with the British Forces. Shortlived, the contingent of 700 men constituting infantry, artillery and ambulance went there and back with barely a scratch, although there are always casualties from exotic diseases.

What is instructive was how confused was the treatment of Boer War veterans and also of sailors who experienced the Boxer Rebellion when they fought overseas during the transition of Australia, the sovereign States, to Australia, the Federation.

The main impact of the Boxer Rebellion on the nascent Australia is the presence of Chinese “souvenirs in the drawing rooms of NSW, Victoria and South Australia”. (Britain accepted 200 men from the Victorian Navy, 262 from the New South Wales Navy and the South Australian gunboat Protector with its complement of 96 officers and men.).

Defence is a no brainer. No Commonwealth would countenance each of the States having its own army. But this was a time when responsibility was confused; it was a time before 1914 when a far-off conflict offered an opportunity for a “boy’s own” adventure.

So why now has this Federal Government shoved the responsibility for Quarantine to the States when it is a clear Commonwealth power enshrined as much as Defence in the Australian Constitution. I have mentioned this matter before. It is the only original exclusive Commonwealth head of power directly related to health. As a result of Morrison’s decision (or should it more accurately be described as indecision) there are mixed messages, when the message should be simple.

Counter the pandemic as a whole-of-nation responsibility. What has happened over the period before the pandemic has been the advance in the sophistication of vaccine development against a suite of “chameleon” viruses for the previous 20 years when they had made tentative raids, only to peter out.

The problem is that the policy option of “masterly inactivity” or else the less flattering “wishing the problem will just go away” creates a vacuum. “Living with the Virus” is a more ambiguous definition of doing nothing. This shift in responsibility when it is done in such a manner is a recipe for chaos.

Hence, we have had all the jurisdictions reacting differently and often, especially in the early phase, commenting with a degree of hubris. “I have fewer cases than you … my system is better than yours” sentiment. Added to this then we had the witch’s cauldron of “experts” brewing up their own cures and policy potions.

At least much of this debate was directed to improving the response. This mixture of ideas and theories has unfortunately allowed the growth of treasonous comments in the name of “freedom”. The person who cries “freedom” while carrying a Trump Flag can be seen to be akin to that mythical 1942 scenario of denial and conspiracy, where the villain at the heart of the conspiracy is the government not the invader.

It stands to reason that when a country identifies a common enemy it is essential to have a common plan – not one with a series of different defences dependent on a local district whim. Just imagine a World War 11 cabinet with the current prime Minister, not John Curtin at his head. Here the prime policy would be to ensure that the ostrich feathers in the plumed hat would be of the finest quality rather than directed towards the conflict. Public relations put ahead of anything, concentrated on making the feathered leader look good; and using fashioning of the wedges of discontent to ensure that each wedge would divide any national response by childishly praising political allies for just that reason. Meanwhile the enemy advances.

The problem is that in any declared war situation, there is a limit to dissension.  Between pacifism and sedition? Is there a line drawn between them?

For me, protests are legitimate to a point. Now is a procession in 2019 decrying coal mining wandering through Queensland coal country similar to the recent procession wandering through Ballarat carrying the Eureka flags of rebellious gold miners of the 19th century?

In the first, the invective is coming from the bystanders; in the second, the invective is coming from within the procession. One can always discern the level of legitimacy by interpreting the legitimacy of the contents of the message of the banners being carried. The banners of the latter – those where the invective is coming from within – have been clearly of the latter variety.

Therefore, clearly there are insurrectionists loose in the country aping their counterparts in USA. The politicians are wary; they are not sure that they have convinced the population of the serious situation because, as with any aggression, the majority of the population wants freedom from the invader not the government. Hence the level of vaccination.

Only comparatively recently has government understood this. The initial picture was clouded by the quality of our original weapons. The problem with the early response to the Virus was the Federal government’s shirking of its responsibility allowed a serious public health matter to be reduced to party politics. With politicisation came a false legitimacy for all protests in the name of freedom, however defined, even though the invading force showed that it can manacle the state by closing borders and instilling fear and anxiety in the population. Western Australia has put itself in that situation, where there is only one way out.

However, despite all that, Australia has achieved a remarkable degree of vaccination; the population is now armed against the invader. This situation can be attributed to the fact that the strategic and tactical arms are now being led by a highly competent Chief Health Officer. One of the weakest links in the public health armoury has been given a vice-regal chariot to play round in, and the other State public health grandees have been suitably boxed.

Isolation is a solution to the acute situation where there is a new virus, but not when the situation becomes chronic and all the strategies have been rolled out. Therefore, there should be isolation facilities to match the requirement as best as possible. With almost two years of data, the preferred option for isolation yielding the most effective outcome should be clear, and not be reliant on the superficial excuse for a report that Jane Halton wrote. There is a need for a report that examines objectively how the various quarantine facilities have worked and also examines the effectiveness of shorter isolation periods and how that approach would be best managed.

The problem with the plan to open a community and the actual opening has dissonance, more related to community restlessness than a public health response, and the understandable but nevertheless important distinction between an acute and a chronic situation, especially when the various arms of government disagree, as continues to be the case in Australia.

As one voice has put it bluntly: “If we don’t develop systems to immunise the whole world in three months, instead of three years, we are not going to be successful against these kinds of pandemic threats.  Viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalised global immunity more readily, we will always be faced with chasing our tail.”

More so if we tolerate sedition cloaked as freedom and continue to allow public health to be considered as some form of Fabian discourse covered with the sauces of alienation, angst and racist scapegoating.

I hate the word “summit”. Nevertheless, there is room to have collective reflection to determine what happens when omicron is followed by omega; and at the same time have a fringe festival run by somebody seriously zany such as members of the comedic diaspora mingling with those of the conspiracy “comedians” – a dangerous strategy but one where the truly comedic are mingled with the accidental form where the sinister meets the dextrous.

I have a feeling that if these fringe elements attract the vote of those unvaccinated, then perhaps after the elections the politicians will be emboldened to start assembling the charge sheets of these characters, and carefully read what constitutes “sedition” rather than some ephemeral apologia in the name of “free speech”. The scenario depicted in the preface could have occurred if Australia at that time had been submerged in public relations releases.

Things to Watch Over

The other day, the conversation turned to what are the places where you can sit and look out at the image in front of yourself, and never tire of it. I am one of those people, where sitting in an art gallery and contemplating one picture for a long time is not my “go”. Most museums just overwhelm anybody with their volume even though the eclectic nature of the contents often means that one can concentrate on a particular item or items.

This is different. It is the item that you want to sit and gaze at for as long as it takes to absorb the whole visual spectacle – it is where these works of humankind reached ex terra ad caelum.

The problem with many of the items is that the crowd is always moving past the object, or you do not have the time to linger. This was the dilemma of my first encounter with the Amber Room. This has been reconstructed in the Summer Palace outside St Petersburg. It was lost when the Germans removed it during the 872-day siege of the then Leningrad from 1942. However, the Summer Palace was outside the Siege perimeter and thus was captured. The Amber Room, as with many other artefacts, was looted by the kleptomaniac Nazis and transported away, and in the case of the Amber Room, never found.

The Amber Room

The Amber Room is a series of panels crafted from six tonnes of amber mounted on gold-leaf walls and adorned with mosaics and mirrors. It was a paean to the material’s beauty and status, originally a gift from Prussia to Russia in 1701. To the Russians’ credit, after World War 11 Leningrad, now returned to its former name of St Petersburg to commemorate Peter the Great’s contribution of turning a swampland into one of the most magnificent cities in the world, largely rebuilt the Summer Palace as it was.

Included in the reconstruction was the Amber Room. The reconstruction based on original images is a sight where the orange spectral range explodes into so many subsets of a solar flare. This is not surprising since Phaëton, the son of the Sun-God Helios, was permitted by his father to drive the Sun chariot. But he lost control, apparently sabotaged by Zeus, and plunged to earth. The short story, as I am not going to recount Ovid’s eye-witness account, as part of their particular “sorry business”, Phaëton’s sisters turned into poplar trees to forever weep golden tears of amber.

Amber is warm to the touch; amber has the property of being magnetised, which was demonstrated to me as a child. Amber is a biological residue of pine resin, resin which stopped flowing and entrapping the feasting insect for all time. The most valuable amber is that which tends to the red edge of the spectrum – the russet colours of autumn as distinct from the yellow of the caged canary. However, when the tableau of mirrors of gilded walls, and amber, amber everywhere, there is time to wonder – and then despite everything, you are moved on in a shuffling queue, despite attempts to linger.

My other visual feast is a place which has not changed for sixteen centuries. St Petersburg, despite a far shorter history, is full of multiple treasures, many of which have been restored by the Russian Government after World War 11. On the other hand, Ravenna, in central Italy, was the centre of the Western Roman Empire for most of the fifth and sixth centuries after Rome was sacked, when the emperor moved from Rome. The lines of succession were confused by the appearance of the Goths invading Spain (Visigoths) and Italy (Ostrogoths). Despite their thrashing the Roman army, it seems that they absorbed the trappings of Rome.

In Ravenna the Ostrogoths under Theodoric established their seat of government in the name of the Roman Empire. It was a somewhat confused line of succession especially as Theodoric was an Arian, a heretical branch of the mainstream Christianity, whose interpretation of a unitary God was at odds with both Orthodox and Western Christendom’s interpretation of the Trinity.

One of the many treasures of Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the wife of the Emperor Honorius, who preceded the advent of the Goths. She was never buried there, but for a visitor from the 21st century sitting and gazing at the wonderful decoration of this burial chamber, I wondered why not. Such an explosion of starlight with seemingly the creator’s intention of merging terra and caelum, this burial chamber belies its small size. No superlative thought can adequately describe the sight when one is ushered through the narrow doorway into one of the four transepts centred under the Mausoleum’s dome.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

On the ceiling, the night sky is Ravenna blue, a colour unique in the same way the glass in Chartres Cathedral windows is known as Chartres Blue. Here in the Mausoleum, there is a shallow dome depicting a sky in this vivid blue mosaic with white and golden stars. A golden cross is placed at dome’s centre, signalling human redemption, through the Sacrifice on the Cross. The symbols of the four evangelists hover around the cross. This artist was no Arian.

I was supposed to move on after 10 minutes. I stayed for over an hour.

The images of day and night are so intensified in each of these places – one in amber; the another in glass mosaics. No wonder that lyrical genius, Cole Porter, was supposed to have written his song “Night and Day” after visiting the Mausoleum. What would he have written if he had also seen the Amber Room?

Omicron – What is in a Letter?

An appreciation of a recent Boston Globe wit which distils down why we have a WHO.

Perhaps that is bit harsh, but the naming rights for the Virus as it shifts its calling card through the bodies of humankind have raised a few wry smiles, even chuckles elsewhere. This I thought was the best ramble through the alphabetical jungle that I’ve read.

It’s probably safe to assume that classicists are as upset as the general population about the emergence of this latest threat.

But they, at least, can distract themselves with pronunciation debates. “I am not a technical ancient linguist,” the British celebrity historian Mary Beard tweeted: “But I do find it a bit odd that the BBC news is saying omicron with the stress on the first syllable.” Later in the Twitter thread, she revealed that she prefers the stress on the middle syllable — the “mic” part.

“I made a joke early on that we didn’t want to get to ‘Theta’,” One classicist professor joked.

Theta — the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet — is short for Thanatos, in Greek mythology the personification of death. “I might have tweeted about it,” the professor allowed.

Then he started riffing about upcoming alphabet-related naming challenges.

The next letter up, he noted, is Pi. “Do we want to go after geometry?” he asked, quickly moving on to the letter Rho, which would be tricky because “some people will want to trill it,” and as for Sigma, it takes so many written forms that it, too, could be a challenge.

“There’s madness all the way down,” he said cheerfully.

For people not following the lesser dramas of the World Health Organization,(WHO) it might come as a surprise to learn that the decision to identify the variants with Greek letters was not a simple administrative matter, but in fact decided upon after “wide consultation” and a review of “many potential naming systems,” according to a May 2021 announcement.

“WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

WHO turned to the Greek alphabet to make the names easy to say and remember, and to get away from geographic stigma and discrimination.

But of course, nothing is simple. Considering that the most recent named variant before Omicron was Mu, the letter Nu should have been next, followed by Xi, and then Omicron.

But there was no Nu because it sounds like “new,” naming experts feared we’d end up in some crazy “Who’s On First? Type” situation:

“What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

“That’s what I’m asking — what’s the new one called?”

“Nu.”

Using the letter Xi would probably have landed the WHO squarely in the fraught situation it was trying to avoid by using Greek letters in the first place. Not only is it a common last name, it’s the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.

So Omicron it was. But Omicron feels sketchy. How come no one had ever heard of it before? Maybe it’s one of those Clinton-Kamala Harris-Nancy Pelosi-Anthony Fauci-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Lame Stream Media hoaxes.

The meme machine has been cranking overtime, likening Omicron to an evil Transformer villain (sample Tweet: “He will do whatever is necessary to further the Decepticon’s conquest of the Universe, even if it costs him personal harm.”)

The name sounds like a drug in heavy advertisement rotation on cable news: “Ask your doctor about Omicron (warning: Omicron may cause death and despair).” Or maybe a minor cryptocurrency (oh, wait, it is one, and of course its value briefly soared).

From an educational perspective, Omicron is giving people a skewed idea of the Greek alphabet. As far as many people know, Omicron comes right after the last variant to get a lot of attention, which was Delta.

“Someone said this is the worst way to teach the public the Greek alphabet,” said David Goldstein, an associate professor of linguistics, Indo-European studies, and classics at UCLA.

But at the rate things are going, this isn’t even a problem we’ll have for that much longer. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and we’ve already blown our way to number 15.

In June, the journal Nature urged WHO to get ahead of the name game and “consider alphabets from other languages” to have at the ready. “The WHO system’s authors will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution,” the journal intoned.

But alphabets are finite and this pandemic is endless. We need an ever-replenishing source of monikers. Disgraced public officials, maybe?

Swedish Winter

Accompanying a photo which came the other day from Sweden was the following message:

Black ice such as this is a “fairly rare” occurrence. Necessary conditions include the Greenland blockage, high pressure, rapid drop in temperature and no wind. The result is magic ice as though looking through glass and which provides extremely smooth skating. Our local mare is very reliable in providing solid ice but often not as smooth as this. Hopefully the incoming snowstorm will bypass us so that we can skate for some weeks to come (on the same magic ice).

Now here in Australia in winter we curse black ice, because it cannot be seen on a bitumen tarmac, especially in the early morning, when driving on it. A real hazard, unless you are skating on the local lake

But in Sweden, black ice is a boon as my Swedish correspondent has told me. The “Greenland blockage” was an unfamiliar term to a non-weather person such as myself. Apparently, it is the result of a high-pressure zone over Greenland, often referred to as a “blocking” pattern because it slows the flow of weather systems circulating around the Northern Hemisphere. When present, weather extremes can affect the same areas for extended periods.

Scientists evaluate the presence of a Greenland block and its intensity and duration through an index known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). A negative NAO is often an indicator of a Greenland block. A positive NAO signals low pressure over Greenland and generally less extreme weather over the Northern Hemisphere continents. So, there it is, Greenland blocked – despite what was said above it seems it has enabled a Swedish upside.

The only question “mare” – not a female horse; not Swedish for lake; or not a Latin “sea”. May be just a “mere” mistake.  I am thus not sure.

Mouse Whisper

This item is taken from a 15 year old issue of New Scientist. Apparently a letter arrived from a bank addressed to this woman, which she described as a self-contained communication with no further information required.

Except…on the back of the sheet was written: “This page is left blank deliberately.”

Subtle but self-falsifying proposition? Anything really changed?

Modest Expectations – California Chrome

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 – 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.